The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

The Triumph Over Will: Why Educators Need to Get it Right About Who Wrote Shakespeare

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. We celebrate it on April 23. Best present you can give the man is to acknowledge his authorship of his magnificent body of work.

The Autumning Empire

Imagine that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing class. Perhaps it’s not the only course you’re taking, but for you it’s by far the most important. So you throw yourself into your work with passion. Every day you hit the page, and soon, you begin to stretch the limits of your ability and imagination. Characters leap out from nowhere. Your facility with language skyrockets, and your work as an artist matures. Even your classmates and instructor begin to take note of the scope and depth of your writing. And at the end of the year you are rewarded, because the incredible risks taken have paid off with an enduring and meaningful body of work.

But now pretend that after the class is over (perhaps a year or two has passed), you are abruptly called into your professor’s office. There, he accuses you point blank of plagiarizing every single word. “This…

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Justin Bieber

 

200px-Anne_FrankJustin Bieber belongs to a class of celebrity that my friend Rob calls, “low hanging fruit.” If it’s an easy target that ye seek, then Justin Bieber is your man. Tacky, stupid, superficial, and marginally talented at best, Bieber makes old school embarrassments like The Backstreet Boys look like the presidents on Mt. Rushmore. Recently, the tween idol made his bull’s eye even bigger when he graced the Anne Frank House not merely with his presence, but his signature in the museum’s guest book.  Anne Frank’s indomitable spirit, which has transcended the horrors of death and even the Holocaust, so moved Mr. Bieber, that he was  compelled to write:

 Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

Congratulations, John Lennon: history officially forgives you for saying “we’re more popular than Jesus.” And thanks to Justin, we can now truly comprehend the horror of the Holocaust, and realize, finally, what might have been. If only. By imprisoning Anne in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the Nazis ended not only her life, but the possibility that she might realize the fullest height of human potential by becoming a Bieber disciple.

Whatever. Like I said: low hanging fruit. Bieber is a huge and easy target, and probably not worth the time. Then again, my middle school students who have heard at least one of Justin’s songs far outnumber those who’ve read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Perhaps this fruit tree needs a little more shaking.

The advent of the Justin Bieber and Anne Frank (isn’t it weird saying those names in the same sentence?) event reminded me of an equally bizarre moment on NPR’s Fresh Air on December 17, 2012. Three days after twenty-six people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Terry Gross began the program by saying:

Today is our first broadcast since learning about the shootings in Newtown. Our thoughts are with everyone in that community. 

 My guest today is Barbara Streisand.

StreisandOops. Oh well, what are you gonna do? Bump Streisand? Besides, how could anybody have predicted this tragedy when the interview was taped? What, are we not supposed to have fun any more? By allowing these tragedies to reduce our appetites for entertainment and leisure, we’re playing right into the hands of the murderers.

Terry Gross is a thoughtful and intelligent public figure, whereas Justin Bieber…isn’t. But like it or not, both of them missed the big picture by putting the spectacle of entertainment on equal footing with humanity’s insatiable appetite for death and cruelty.

For some reason, this Fresh Air moment haunted me when I learned of the Boston Marathon bombing. Yet another national tragedy left me outraged, but not in the way I expected. Let’s go back to the wording of that Fresh Air intro. “Our thoughts are with everyone in that community.” Months later it came back to me on the Monday of the Boston bombing as I, like everyone else, rushed to social media to find out what was happening and, more importantly, give voice to my outrage and grief. Here’s a small sample of what the America had to say:

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston.

Everyone at “Anderson Live” extends their thoughts and prayers to all affected by today’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon.

Thoughts & prayers for sisters & brothers in Boston.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all involved in the Boston bombings.

I read and heard that phrase more times than I could count: thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. I played it over and over like a skip on a vinyl LP. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Finally, I experienced the unthinkable: anger, not at the bomber, but at the grievers.

I’m not talking about the victims or their grieving loved ones. I mean people like me: long distance bystanders, members of the shocked public, numbed into impotence and horror. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Is that all we have to offer? Thoughts and prayers? Don’t get me wrong: I do my fair share of thinking and praying. (Although, to be honest, I do a lot more of the former than the latter.)

But all of these thoughts and prayers make me wonder: why are they reserved only for the victims of atrocities from which we are removed? Why is the American public not compelled to think or pray for victims of bombings that we pay for with our own tax dollars?  The United States bombed and killed five people and injured seven more in a drone strike to South Waziristan on Wednesday, just two days after the Boston bombing. Did you read about it in the paper? Did you hear about it on the news? Did Anderson Cooper send his thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers to the victims of those bombing attacks?

I suppose we can justify those bombings as the “war on terror.” Perhaps we can comfort ourselves by the fact that our tax dollars are killing people that President Obama and the CIA have labeled as “enemies” – even though none of the dead or injured received a trial proving their guilt. After all, how many thoughts and prayers can one person muster? I gotta save my compassion for the next tragedy – I’m sorry, tragedy on American soil that’s carried out by someone not wearing a uniform so I can hop on Facebook or Twitter and send out my thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers when I’m shocked by humanity’s barbarous cruelty.

Give a man a uniform (or a remote control bomber) and suddenly “insanity” and “senseless killings” are transformed into “foreign policy” and “collateral damage.” I know it’s a tough pill to swallow, but those killed by American drones (estimates range from 1,998 to 3,316) in the past nine years are just as dead as the victims in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Boston. The only justification for withholding compassion for victims on foreign soil is to adopt our government’s rationale for the bombings: these people are our enemies, and therefore deserve to be killed. Huh. I wonder if that’s the rationale that the bomber or bombers used when planning those killings in Boston.

Thoughts and prayers and other useless gestures: they are the last refuge of an impotent public obsessed with tragedies beyond our control. Those paid for by our tax dollars are taken care of by government secrecy and (for the most part) a compliant media. Soviet era Eastern block countries suppressed embarrassing news altogether; in America, we just shove it onto page 7.

What does all of this have to do with Justin Bieber and Anne Frank? Only this: it’s all part of the same collective cognitive dissonance.  21st century Americans have no sense of our own place in the now that makes up our unfolding history. Justin Bieber trumps Anne Frank. Barbara Streisand trumps Sandy Hook. Thoughts and prayers trump meaningful reflection and action to end the violence that we pay for.

This blog has a modest readership at best, but if for some reason you are a survivor or a bereaved loved one of Boston, Sandy Hook, Aurora, or any of the like tragedies springing from our country like hydra heads, I’d like to say this: I am sorry, so incredibly sorry for your losses. I wish that I could bring your loved ones or your good health back. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you or yours did to deserve this, and I can only imagine what courage you must be summoning at this very moment. And even though we’ve never met, I pledge my thoughts, prayers, and actions to make our world a place where violence is not welcome. The perpetrators and enablers of private and public massacre are united by a common belief: that all life is equal, but some lives are more equal than others.

How much difference can I make? I’m not really sure, but I am willing to try.  To be honest, sometimes this blog, and my own forays into social media, give me an inflated sense of my own historical importance. Call it imperial hubris. When it comes to fruit, maybe Justin Bieber’s hanging just a little bit higher than we thought.

But we all hang with him.

David Berkson

April 17, 2013

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Today would have been my mom’s 74th birthday. Back in 2011, I wrote this as something of a tribute to her. Since then I’ve finished the first draft of my novel, but the fear of writing persists, as does mom’s awesome influence. Happy Birthday, Dorothy.

The Autumning Empire

Mom

Four years ago my mother died. She’d had a stroke a month earlier. The doctors asked about an autopsy. They were curious, I suppose, about the overall picture and unanswered questions regarding Mom’s health during those final years. Perhaps I should have been grateful. But honestly, I sure would have appreciated little more of that medical curiosity while she was alive. Maybe an autopsy would have been informative, but I declined the offer. The questions I had (and still have) about Mom wouldn’t even have been asked, let alone answered.

A parent’s death reminds us that our days our numbered. It also highlights our own pieces of unfinished business, which plague us in the form of The List. The List is a catalogue of things that we just haven’t gotten around to doing. But that we will do, really, once we have a little more time. The items on The…

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One Teen’s Fight To Make Gay Marriage A Reality (And How You Can Help Him)

Kenneth PhotoKenneth Sergienko is 17 years old. I met him five and a half years ago when I was the youth minister at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon. Since that time I’ve directed Kenneth in two Shakespeare plays, and invited him to host or co-host innumerable fundraising events at both St. Michael’s and Northwest Academy where he studies acting. So it’s been with a great deal of interest and pride that I’ve watched Kenneth’s social conscience and activism develop over the years. Kenneth knows his stuff, and is frankly better informed and more politically active than most adults I know.

Kenneth supports the legalization of gay marriage, which comes before the United States Supreme Court on March 26 in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry. This case is important enough to Kenneth that he created a petition on the White House website asking it to File an Amicus Brief supporting the freedom to Marry in Hollingsworth v. Perry. As a supporter of gay marriage, I signed the petition myself – something that I’m encouraging you to do right now.

When Kenneth agreed to allow me to post the link to the petition on this blog and write a piece about it, I wanted to get a few words from him about why this particular issue is so crucial. I e-mailed him: “You appear to be concerned about a wide range of political issues. Why is the Hollingsworth v. Perry case so important? What about the case put it on your political radar?” About an hour later, I received this response from Kenneth, which I present to you in its entirety:

David,

In 2008 the California State Supreme Court decided that same-sex marriage could be allowed under the state constitution. After that decision California voters approved Proposition 8 by a 5 point margin. Proposition 8 amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. After voters approved Prop 8 a lawsuit was filed challenging its constitutionality.

This case is important because it has the potential to be the Brown v. Board of Education of the Gay Rights movement. When this case was first decided by the San Francisco District Court the Judge found Prop 8 unconstitutional on a broad basis. He ruled there was a constitutional right for same sex couples to marry. In finding Prop 8 unconstitutional he also found any other state ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

When the Ninth Circuit took this case on appeal they ruled on a narrower level. They found that because the California Supreme Court had granted the right to marry for Gays and Lesbians, California voters could not take away that right without a compelling reason. The Ninth Circuit found Prop 8 unconstitutional, but only with the specific events in California.

This case is so important because it’s an “all or nothing” case. The question presented for argument is broader than one might think with the narrow ruling of the Ninth Circuit. The main question presented to the court is:

“Whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

With this question, the court could issue a broad ruling, finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage under the Fourteenth Amendment. This would nullify all 31 bans on same-sex marriage in the US. The Court could also follow the narrow Ninth Circuit ruling or reverse their decision entirely. If the decision was reversed Prop 8 would stand, and Gays and Lesbians in California and across the country would still be unable to legally wed.

This case is on my radar for a few reasons. The two attorneys arguing the case are David Boies and Ted Olson, the lawyers who argued against each other in the forever infamous Bush v. Gore. Those two coming together to argue a substantive equal protection question is the stuff of a Stephen Spielberg biopic. The reasoning, evidence and law behind their arguments also interest me greatly. It’s one thing to feel that something is right. It’s another thing to be able to cite a mountain of evidence to prove that it’s right. I also have a personal stake in this case.

As a Gay person I have a deep desire to see justice done. For me, for my friends and family and even for the thousands of kids like me living in California awaiting the outcome of this case.

On one level the issues presented in this case transcend law. When the Supreme Court rules in June, to many it could be a landmark victory for Equal Protection and constitutional principles. To many more it could be a defining moral statement. An affirmation that Gays, Lesbians and their relationships are normal, healthy and worthy of acceptance. One some level the court will rule on whether or not Being Gay is OK. That’s not only huge for the adult plaintiffs who wish to marry today, but to the thousands of kids like me who wish to marry in the future.

Kenneth

Well? What are you waiting for? Sign the petition! Circulate it to others via e-mail, Facebook, or any other means at your disposal. Please do it now: a total of 25,000 signatures are needed by February 10. Filing an amicus brief (literally “friend of the court”) in this case would demonstrate that the Obama administration is serious about its support of gay marriage. Anyone familiar with our current Supreme Court knows that its bent is conservative; this case could go either way. An amicus brief from the White House would remind potential swing justices such as Roberts and Kennedy that their votes are being viewed by not only the public, but history itself.

I believe that when he reaches adulthood, Kenneth has the right to marry whomever he chooses. More importantly, he believes it, and is pulling the levers of participatory democracy to make our government recognize that right. Won’t you invest five minutes of your time to help him? It seems to me that more is at stake than gay marriage. When young people put their faith in the system, we owe them our support. It is often said that “our children are our future.” What’s so often ignored is that young people are also our present, and they have to forge their own future from a harsh reality so carelessly tossed in their laps. As our country embarks upon the warm and fuzzy, self congratulatory ritual known as “MLK Day,” I hope you’ll take a moment to honor Dr. King’s legacy of equality for all, and work for the future of Kenneth and millions like him: make a defining moral statement that can change the law, and ultimately transcend it.

David Berkson

January 20, 2013

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Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

Les Critiques Misérables: The Tears, The Book, and The Backlash

Les Miz BackgroundThe Revenge of the Blogosphere

“Last night I went to a showing of Les Misérables,” writes blogger Matt Walsh. “And when I say ‘went to’ I mean ‘hogtied and dragged at gun point by my wife, her sister and her mom’.” Walsh then summarizes Hollywood’s 2012 adaptation of the London/Broadway musical:

You don’t need to buy the soundtrack. I’ll sum up every song in the movie. Here you go: “I’m so lonely, I’m so alone, look at me my life is hard, I’m alone, I’m on my own, there’s this empty chair here, it’s empty because I’m alone, I’m lonely, all this bad stuff has happened to me because of my inexcusably stupid life choices, I’m alone, I feel so alone, on my own, on my own, on my own, did I mention I’m on my oooooowwwwwn?”

I guess that means he didn’t like it. And unlike the film’s characters, he’s not alone. A student of mine named Annabel, fed up with all the Les Miz hype, shared Walsh’s blog on Facebook with the following herald: “World, I give you someone who hates Les Miz more than I.” The responses to his blog and her share were immediate and enthusiastic: “I’m alone in a world of Les Miz lovers so I’m glad I’ve found someone else.”

Of all the possible targets for backlash, Les Miz is by far the backlashiest. The Sweeping Love Story. The Historical Drama. The Based-On-A-Novel Pedigree of Respectability. The Obvious Bait for the Oscars. The fact that it’s kind of European. There are so many pretty costumes. There are so many pretty actors magnificently endowed (for the most part) with pretty voices.  And above all, the film is ubiquitous; the hype for Les Miz is just about everywhere. Omigod, you have see it. And you have to like it. In fact, you have to love Les Miz, lest the film and its disciples pursue you like Javert right down to the sewer’s bottom as you scramble in vain for escape.

Put David Denby into the mix, and suddenly your backlash has the dubious hue of respectability. Here’s a critic who wasn’t even assigned to review Les Miz; Anthony Lane, The New Yorker’s other film critic, was given the task instead. But Denby’s is a voice that will not be silenced. The blogs of Denby and Walsh have pently in common, only Walsh is a much better writer. To be honest with you, there’s something kind of unsettling about reading Denby’s  There’s Still Hope for People Who Love Les MisIt’s sort of like coming downstairs and finding your uncle, the middle aged college professor, nursing a mean old hangover while he’s paddling around in his bathrobe shouting out at anyone who will listen about everything wrong with the world:

This movie is not just bad…it’s terrible…

 (Hugh) Jackman doesn’t sing, he brays.

The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise.

 I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, in a very large theatre, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some of the numbers, and I couldn’t help wondering what in the world had happened to the taste of my countrymen—the Americans (Americans!) who created and loved almost all the greatest musicals ever made.

Wow. I guess people who love Les Miz must be really stupid, huh? Whereas Walsh’s manifesto is pure  Lester Bangs vitriol, Denby takes it upon himself to educate his ignorant readers of the finer distinctions between high culture and low, fine cinema and poor, good taste and bad. “I want to render a public service,” he begins in an apparent attempt at irony. But by the piece’s end, it is clear that the critic means business:

…our great musicals were something miraculous. They were a blessed artifice devoted to pleasure, to ease and movement, exultation in the human body, jokes and happy times, the giddiness of high hopes.

Gee, Uncle Dave, I guess things were a lot better back in your day. Denby’s public service is recommending a bunch classic American musicals (Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, etc.) as a cure for those of us who were dumb enough to be moved by Les Miz’s transparent sentimentality. Call me crazy, but I’ll bet Denby’s blog didn’t generate a run on Gene Kelly musicals at Netflix.

The Critic’s Curse

Oscar Wilde once warned us: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.” And truth be told, I shouldn’t be so hard on Denby. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of spending more than five minutes with me at a party can probably tell you the moment he wished I was dead. “What do you mean you didn’t like (Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love, Dead Poets Society, Whatever)? Can’t you just sit back and enjoy it? Do you have get all analytical and think about everything? Aren’t movies supposed to be fun? They’re not? Oh Jesus, fine then, have your opinion, but for god’s sake, keep it to yourself, because I like this movie!”

Sorry. And I get it. I really do. The “I have a right to like this” response is especially intense when part of the package is music. Stacy Wolf writes in The Washington Post:

There’s a deep well of nostalgia for “Les Miz,” especially among women who came of age when it was on Broadway or on tour — even though it doesn’t reflect our feminist politics. Music is powerful when it’s connected to childhood; it reminds us of where we were in our lives when we first heard it. “Les Miz” feeds our hunger for familiarity in the present as well. The music is seductive because it’s repetitive, making us feel as if we know the songs, even if it’s our first time watching.

Of all Les Miz’s reviews, Wolf’s is the best. “Les Misérables should have feminists up inJackman & H arms,” she writes. “But I can’t help it: I love Les Miz.” She then proceeds to point out what should have been painfully obvious all along: women barely drive the plot. They live – and often give up – their lives for their men, their children, or both. Their roles are always subordinate, never primary. Rather than act, they merely “emote, propelling others to action.”

Yet unlike David Denby, Wolf never lectures us, or chastises. “Looking at culture through a feminist lens doesn’t mean that you don’t have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see what’s missing or what’s politically troubling.” For all her unflattering commentary, Wolf implicitly understands a little known cultural maxim: the critic who mistakes himself for a missionary is miserably doomed to fail. I’ll try to remember that the next time I go to a party.

Now Is The Time For Your Tears

But when it comes to a mega cultural event like Les Miz, passions prove hard to temper. I understand why Annabel and her posse feel so alone: the vast majority of my students love this piece. And when they talk with me, it seems pretty clear that they want me to love it, too. That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to tell them the truth: I find Les Miz phenomenon extremely troubling. It’s not so much the film itself, but the public’s response, which always begins with a confession that everyone makes after telling you they’ve just seen the movie.

“I cried.”

Almost without fail that is what leads.  I cried. Students, relatives, friends, and colleagues, they all tell me the same story. I cried, I cried, and I cried.

And, for the record: so did I. Lots of sad things happen in this story, so crying seems like a normal, healthy response. At least it was for me. But I’ve also cried during lots of other films like To Kill a Mockingbird and It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet in all the conversations I’ve had with people about both of these movies, I’ve never talked about my tears. I’ve never heard anybody else talk about theirs, either. No, the usual conversations center around what happened in the movie: the story, the performances, or a particularly exciting scene. That’s not to say that these things don’t get discussed with Les Miz, but they’re never the first to be mentioned. The first thing is always: I cried.

What’s going on here? Why is this movie different? Why does Les Misérables make you focus on the intensity of your own emotional response?

The answer is simple: that’s what the film is about. Your emotions. Not emotions in the general or the abstract, but your emotions, yours personally, the ones that you privately feel. Because in this case, it is all about you. The costumes, the sets, and especially the story’s historical context – these are all bait to get you hooked in on the movie’s real subject: You. Me. Us. We – and our capacity to feel, to hurt, to suffer. So don’t feel bad if you’re in the omigodIcried club, because you fundamentally get this film in a way that the likes of Denby never, ever will. Les Miserables understands your sufferings. It suffers with you. It embraces your suffering, and wants you to suffer more, and cry as you suffer together.

hathaway criesWhat is the cause of your suffering? A-a-ah, don’t go there! Shhhh. Les Miz doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t even care why its own characters suffer. Poverty and injustice are certainly part of the plot, but in this film they quickly recede to the background and prove to be little more than a MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for the thing that sets the plot in motion, but is ultimately of little importance). Hurry up and get to Fantine so she can just start singing and cry. Quick, get those strappingly handsome political activists up in arms so we can be inspired by their awesome, youthful commitment to whatever it is that they’re awesomely and youthfuly committed to. And for God’s sake, closeups! Get me closeups! More and more closeups so I can see the pores, the tears, the sweat, and every angsty crease of the sweet and indomitable pain. Let the space between the actor and me evaporate, let all else cease to exist, so there may only be us in our beautiful new bonded struggle. I am Fantine. I am Valjean. I am Éponine. My suffering is her suffering. Her song is my song. Our tears are one.

Les Misérables Buy The Book. 

Ok, wait. Isn’t all art manipulative? Aren’t we supposed to identify with a film’s or a book’s protagonists? Sure we are. So perhaps we can say that there’s nothing wrong with this spectacle of mega personal identification. That it’s ok to become lost in a cathartic world of escape that is uniquely and entirely personal. Yes, I think we can say that. Until we read Victor Hugo’s preface to his 1862 novel Les Misérables, and realize that once upon a time all of this was supposed to be about something a little bit bigger:

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells Death of Fantine
amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of
Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.

Unless we all fail to make use of them. Whatever praises the Schonberg/Kretzmer musical adaptation has earned – and its strengths are certainly legit – no one can credibly argue that its current cinematic incarnation shows any real concern with pauperism or hunger, the plight of children or social asphyxia, and certainly not ignorance or poverty. The production budget for Les Miserables was $61 million. And even though it’s currently in fourth place at the box office (Texas Chainsaw 3D is now at the top) Les Miz is well on its way towards doubling its initial investment with a box office take of over $104 million.

That’s an awful lot of money. I mean, sure, it’s a lot less than Avatar (#1 box office earner of all time) or The Avengers (#3) or even Transformers: Dark of the Moon which is – would you believe it – the fifth highest grossing movie in the history of the world, coming in at $1,123.7 million (beating out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2 and The Dark Night Rises). I guess next to those behemoths, $103 million seems like a paltry little art house sum.

HugoStill, a hundred million’s nothing to sneeze at. And besides, the Transformers franchise is nothing but pure fantasy; it has no conscience to betray. Les Misérables is a different matter. Its creator Victor Hugo was an important political activist and infamous provocateur. His 1830 play Hernani was so ahead of its time that during the course of its two-month run fistfights routinely broke out in the theatre. After Napoleon III’s coup d’état, Hugo went into exile on the island of Guernsey for almost 20 years, where he wrote, among other works, Les Misérables. His commitment to social equality was clearly spelled out in his last will and testament, a five-sentence document that reads:

Je donne cinquante mille francs aux pauvres. Je veux être enterré dans leur corbillard. Je refuse l’oraison de toutes les Eglises. Je demande une prière à toutes les âmes. Je crois en Dieu.

Translated into English: “I give 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be carried to the cemetery in their hearse. I refuse the prayers of the churches. I ask for a prayer for all souls. I believe in God.”

Victor Hugo died in 1885, one hundred years before the musical adaptation of his masterwork Les Miserables premiered in London; 2 million people attended his funeral. Were he alive today, against what forms of social asphyxia, ignorance, and poverty might he turn the power of his pen? Perhaps he would write about infant mortality. In the world 6.9 million children under the age of 5 died in 2011. That’s 19,000 children dead per day of  entirely preventable diseases.

Or maybe the creator of prisoner 24601 might turn an eye to the United States, which has the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world. These rates are hardly equitable. Young black men make up a disproportionate number of  our prisoners: in 2008, 37% of America’s black men between the ages of 18-34 were behind bars. What’s more, it is clear that many American prisoners of all races are not guilty of the crimes for which they serve. As of today 301 people have been exonerated through DNA testing; 18 had been awaiting execution on death row. Those exonerations came at great cost; according the Innocence Project,“These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.”

Be honest. Did any of these issues cross your mind when you watched Les Miz? Or were you like me: crying with Hugh Jackman and getting carried away with the music, the spectacle, and the power of your own emotions. Besides, what do you expect from a blockbuster movie? It’s not a documentary; it’s entertainment. And of course it made millions of dollars. That’s what Hollywood movies are supposed to do. I don’t want to pay $10 to see some movie and think about infant mortality or how many people are locked up in American prisons. And it’s not that I don’t care. I do care, really, really I do. But those people, you know, the people who are dying or in prison or whatever, those people aren’t me. Fantine is. And Jean Valjean. And Éponine. I identify with them. And the other people? The ones out there, outside of my darkened world of crying? They’re not really a part of my life. They’re just…well, they’re different. They’re the Unfortunates. The Outsiders. Les Misérables.

Bad criticism seeks to inspire personal shame at our gauche and abominable taste. Great critics like Victor Hugo seek to inspire collective shame so society can get off its ass and make the world better . The tragedy of inequality is in our failure to act against it. Is it absurd to expect Broadway or Hollywood to bring about fundamental social change? Perhaps. After all, the business of show business is business. Or, as Lily Tomlin used to say, they don’t call it “show art.”

Besides, the fault is not with Hollywood. That hundred million dollars is our money. We spent it on Les Miz. And Transformers. And The Hobbit. And hundreds of other forms of escapist fare while children die and the innocent rot in prison. Victor Hugo never intended for Les Misérables (or Les Miz) to distract us from these inequities. His work was to be of use.

Well? There’s no reason why we can’t use it. Interested in working to end world hunger? Donate to UNICEF now. Does it bother you that taxpayer dollars are incarcerating people for crimes they did not commit? Make a contribution to The Innocence Project. These are admittedly small steps, but to my mind they honor Hugo’s legacy far more our drops of sweet cinematic tears. If Les Misérables does nothing else, it shows with stunning clarity and power the urgent need to work for justice and social equity. Because in the end, Jean Valjean’s compassion and generosity know no bounds. Through his relationships with Fantine, Cossette, Marius, and finally even Javert, he learns that the world is a place where we are never truly alone. He  and the rest of us have an obligation to society, and his tireless work on its behalf is transformative, even redemptive. Les Misérables was never meant to distract us from our social ills, but wake us up so we could fight them. If we rise to Hugo’s challenge, then we may still cry. But our tears might now mean something different.

If not? Well then, rest assured that when it comes to Les Miz….

…it’s really still all about you.

David Berkson

January 8, 2013

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

 

 

 

19 New Year’s Resolutions from The Autumning Empire

2013 TwoAccording to Business News Daily, as many as 88% of our New Year’s resolutions from last year have already been broken. Why? Unrealistic goals. Successful self-improvement relies upon setting before us that which is attainable. With that in mind, The Autumning Empire presents nineteen New Year’s Resolutions for the year 2013. They’re simple, practical, and above all, obtainable. So come on, 2013! Give us your best shot. We’ve got you licked before you even got started. Wait, you already got started? Well then…

 This Year, I Resolve To

  1. Lose 107 pounds in one month.
  2. Copyright and patent the letter “J”; levy a surcharge upon every person who uses it in writing or in speech.
  3. Try to remember the kind of September when life was young, and oh so mellow.
  4. Before the next hurricane hits, build an arc and fill it with animals – two of every kind.
  5. Write an wildly popular, crowd pleasing musical based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  6. Take the time to actually read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  7. Whoa, now that I’m actually trying to read this book, it looks really hard. Maybe I’ll just make a musical out of Finian’s Rainbow instead.
  8. Wait…Finian’s Rainbow already is a musical? God damn it!
  9. Fashion a magnificent golden toilet seat with studs of rubies, diamonds, and pearl.
  10. Go to the gym religiously for the next four days, then stop for the rest of the year.
  11. Make more scenes at the dinner table. It’s how my folks brought me up; for my kids, it’s the least I can do.
  12. Read political columnists who share my point of view, then post their opinions on Facebook.
  13. Minimize my carbon footprint by making a human sacrifice of all my second cousins once removed. If it’s people who create climate change, then let’s just nip this sucker in the bud.
  14. I cannot fucking believe that Finian’s Rainbow is already a musical. When did they do that?
  15. Make lists. Tons and tons of lists. It’s always worked before. Why shouldn’t it work this year?
  16. Every time I procrastinate, tell myself how important it is to “slow down” and “take care of myself.”
  17. Follow every rule set down in the Book of Leviticus. Especially the parts about stoning my neighbors. Because if it’s there in the Bible, then you can’t go to jail. Right?
  18. Clean out the garage. No, just kidding. No fucking way, man. No. Fucking. Way.
  19. Gain 115 pounds back by the end of March.

Questions? Excellent. Let’s put our noses to that collective grindstone, America. Happy New Year, from The Autumning Empire.

David Berkson

January 1, 2013

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

 

 

Oscar Mania! Your Own Facebook Madlib For The 2013 Academy Awards!

 

oscarsHere at The Autumning Empire we just love The Oscars – and we know we’re not alone! The stars, the styles, the suspense, and the bulimia: all converge upon a magical night in which the hopes and dreams of a chosen few are fulfilled by Oscar’s magic wand, whilst the remaining losers are forced to grind their sparkling teeth into the grimace of good sportsmanship as they choke back the bitter vitriol of humiliating public defeat. So if you’re like us (and we know you are!) you can’t wait for January 10 when this year’s nominees will be announced. And if you’re exactly like us, you’ll want to head right on over to Facebook, Twitter, Bebo, Flickr, MySpace or Friendster the minute those nominees are announced so you can tell the waiting world exactly what you think about them!

But you’d better be ready, and you’d better act fast. When it comes to social media, the buzz of the day is the blink of an eye. That’s why we at The Autumning Empire have provided you with our very own Oscar Madlib Facebook Post! Who knows? You might have something else to do on January 10. Like work.  But with The Autuming Empire’s help, real life’s inconveniences become minor obstacles to be overcome with a flick and a click to your keyboard. So read, copy, and fill in the blanks so that your social media posting can make you…a winner!

My Personal Oscar Facebook Posting

Lincoln

Interjection! I can’t  verb it!  Number between 5 and 29 Oscar nominations! UnknownWay to go name of overrated, uplifting box office behemoth with just enough intellectual stimulation to make educated bourgeois audience members feel like their time was well spent and that everyone knew was going to get nominated! This is definitely established director who takes just enough risks, but not too many ‘s best! Of course, it’ll have adjective  noun from  other overrated box office behemoth ! I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely keeping my body part s verb ending in “ed” !

And hey! Way to go  European person with grey hair  for getting a shot at Best Supporting  trained performing animal you might see in a circus . I’ve been  verb ending in “ing”  gender specific pronoun for years!

Woltz

CroweI have one complaint and one complaint only: why’d they nominate Russell Crowe ? Oh well, I guess if anyone deserves an 
obscure form of medieval punishment , it’s him. One thing’s for sure, come February 24, I’ll be sitting down with my  group of people you secretly detest  and watching the 85th Annual  ceremony program that arbitrarily confers awards upon film using no coherent standards or criteria ! Ok, Oscar! Let the countdown begin!

David Berkson

December 30, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

As The Autumning Empire gets ready to celebrate its 1st birthday, we thought we’d republish our very first blog! Read it, enjoy, and have a very Happy Holiday Season!

The Autumning Empire

 Rankin/Bass’s 1964 TV holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has stood the test of time. Indeed, you’ve probably seen it more than once. Perhaps you approach it with joy, and even deep nostalgia as your number of viewings rise into the double digits. Maybe you’ve shared it with your children, and made it an annual holiday family night. And you might even watch it ironically, chortling over its cheesy songs, primitive production values, and ridiculously dated kitsch.

 But after you’ve turned the television off, finished up the eggnog, and hopped into bed, no visions of sugarplums dance in your head. No, something is wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Like its protagonist, something marks this holiday special as different, aberrant, and even terrifying. So it’s time to stop pretending and face the brutal facts. Some boils disappear of their own accord; Rudolph is one that must be lanced with a sharp…

View original post 1,969 more words

An Open Letter to America’s Gun Rights Advocates

My Dear Fellow Americans,

When it comes to being a gun control advocate, I am a living stereotype. Take every preconceived notion you have of what a blue state left-winger might look like, and you’ll pretty much wind up with me. I’m a vegetarian who lives in Portland, Oregon. Like most vegetarians who live in Portland, I voted for Barak Obama. And like most vegetarians who live in Portland and voted for Barak Obama, I have a predictable set of opinions on a number of well-worn issues. I’m concerned about climate change. I obsessively recycle. I drive a fuel-efficient car, but not on the days when I bicycle to work.  My job should come as no surprise either: I teach English Humanities and Theatre at a private 6-12 school located in downtown Portland. I am pro-choice, pro-taxes, pro-government, pro-union, pro-Obamacare, pro-anything on that list that you’d expect from someone who shares my demographic profile. My political biography reads like a checklist; everything on it will fail to surprise. Even my former job as a Christian youth minister fits into the blue state liberal mold: I served and still attend a  church where many of our clergy are openly gay. In September, our rector was married to her partner by Oregon’s bishop within the very halls of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.

Knowing all of those things about me, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine my response to Friday’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children between the ages of five and ten were shot to death with a semi-automatic rifle. 6 adults were also murdered in the massacre. As a west coast liberal, I did everything that you’d expect. I got angry. I got outraged. I got sad. And I cried. I posted on Facebook. I read what other people posted on Facebook. I asked myself how could this happen? I’m not sure if it was the size of the massacre, the age of the children, or the fact that I’ve lost count of the number of American shootings this year (the last one was less than five miles from my own home in Oregon)…

…but, whatever it was, something made the public response to Friday’s events play out with nauseating predictability. At least that’s how it seemed to me: I no longer felt like my own person, but a background character in a sickening tragedy of which I was both participant and observer. Everything that I said and did, and everything that I heard and saw, played out as if written in a script. Then again, I shouldn’t complain: my nine-year old son is still alive. So are my students. In the shadow of all of our massacres, every child I know has somehow, miraculously been spared.

And so I am free to play my scripted part. Even writing about Friday’s tragedy feels like a cliché, including this blog, which is, at best, read by a modest number of people, most of whom (I’m guessing) share my outraged feelings. What are the odds that this message will reach its intended conservative audience? There is, of course, no way of telling, but my hunch is that those odds are incredibly, depressingly slim.

But when faith is all there is, what else can we do but grab? That is why I am writing this letter not to my fellow lefties, but gun owners, and especially gun rights activists like members of the National Rifle Association – anyone, really, who has a stake in keeping our nation’s gun laws exactly the way that they are.

I am not looking for debate. I am not asking you to give up your guns. I am not asking you to stop supporting or defending the Second Amendment. And I’m most definitely not asking you to embrace a left wing ideology that would rob Americans of the right to shoot, hunt, or defend themselves. I am asking for one thing, and one thing only.

I am asking for your help.

I am asking because I believe that it is wrong for children to be murdered. Especially in large numbers in a place of public learning. More than that: I believe that there is something deeply immoral with a country where this kind of atrocity is even remotely possible. My son could have one of those victims. Or one of my students. Or one of your kids. Or you, or me, or anyone who ventures out into the public space that all Americans share. For all that divides us, we are still human beings: fragile, mortal, and deeply connected to the people who surround and love us.

So believe me when I say that I have no interest whatsoever in changing your mind about gun rights. We’d be wasting each other’s time with a comment-section-shouting match that would just make both of us angry. I don’t know about you, but after this last election, I’m exhausted from the political sissy boy slap fighting. Not just exhausted, but depressed, almost to the point of despair, with this nagging and awful suspicion: that in the echo chamber of what passes for civil discourse in this country it is impossible to change anyone’s mind about anything, anything at all.

So let us agree to disagree. We don’t need to argue about gun rights. But maybe we can discuss safety. Let’s take a moment to pretend. What if you and I were on a boat in the middle of a very deep lake? Imagine that the boat had a leak, and began to fill up with water. What would we do? Call me crazy, but I’m willing to bet that we wouldn’t start to argue about your right to own some of the lake’s water. My guess is that you and I would start working together to get that water out of the boat as quickly as humanly possible so that the two of us didn’t drown. We’d get a bucket and start bailing, and try like hell to patch up that hole with anything we could find – sweatshirts, wine corks, chewing gum, anything – to keep that water out in the name of our own survival. And I’ll bet we’d work even harder if there were children on that boat. Because we’d both have a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to the young, helpless, and vulnerable. Afterwards, there’d be plenty of time for the two of us to be enemies again. Once we’d plugged the hole, and got the little ones safely ashore, you and I could argue ‘til the sun went down about taxes, charter schools, state’s rights, you name it – and believe me, I’d get right in there with you. There is nothing wrong with a good argument, or even a bad one. I like to argue; I enjoy it, and as my wife and I so frequently point out to our son: there’s a time and a place for everything.

But not if we’re starting to sink. And after Friday’s shooting, I think we can agree that America is now a rapidly sinking ship. It’s time to put aside our differences and start to work together.

Now there is a lot that I’m willing to give up. For starters, I’ll give up my dream of a gun free society, which is what I really want. Seriously, if I had it my way, we’d live in a left wing utopia. I would abolish the Second Amendment. I would cut America’s defense budget by more than half. I would outlaw the death penalty, and help our president create a massive stimulus program that focused on mental health and education, because I believe that it’s by underfunding these areas that we create our mass murderers. Trust me, if I had it my way, I would embark upon a program of social engineering that would shock even Paul Ryan.

But guess what? I have to live in this country with other people. People who hold radically different opinions than my own. Some of those people are gun owners like you. Some serve in our military. Some hold deeply held convictions that granting more power to the government is a slap in the face to our constitutional liberties. And because I live with other people, I cannot have all of the things that I want. It’s part of being an adult; there are some things you just have to give up. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

What about you? As a gun owner, and defender of the Second Amendment, what are you willing to give up to help ensure that a tragedy like Friday’s never, ever happens again? And please don’t say it’s impossible, because you know in your heart that it’s not. So much has happened during the span of my life that was once the stuff of dreams. Computers were transformed from science fiction oddities to commonplace household appliances. An African American was elected president of the United States. A man walked on the moon. At the core of the American Dream is the belief that nothing is impossible. Nothing. We would still be British subjects were it not for the temerity of a few determined colonists with an unshakeable belief in the power of radical change.

So to quote from one of my favorite movies The Untouchables (which has more than its share of bloodshed and guns): what are you prepared to do? You want your Second Amendment? Fine. Do you need to own a shotgun? Please, go ahead, be my guest. Shoot all the animals you want. I don’t like it, but I’ve had to sit through enough Thanksgiving dinners to understand that I’m in the minority when it comes to the lives of non-humans. You feel like you need to own a handgun? Let me be honest, that’s a little harder. I agree with Bob Costas: “Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it…”

But it appears that Mr. Costas is not made himself any friends with his reasoning. Fine. Why don’t we argue about that one later? After all, we’re in a sinking boat; now is the time for action. So let’s cut to the chase and talk about semi-automatic weapons. Like the ones that were used in Newtown and Aurora. Can we please agree to legally ban all firearms that were designed for the sole purpose of killing a whole lot of people very, very quickly? Make no mistake, I am talking about legislating an outright ban on semi-automatic weapons. Is it possible to agree upon that? Even if you don’t like it, would you at least give it up as a compromise? An area where we can work together? Think of it as a small stick of gum to stick in a hole so the boat doesn’t sink to the bottom.

I wonder what you felt when you read and heard about the Connecticut shooting. In particular: what was your first response? The one you had before you started talking, or posting, or blogging, or even forming an opinion. Weren’t you horrified? Didn’t you feel incredible anguish, pity, and agony? Did you for a moment (as I did) imagine your own child, or a child you knew, as one of the twenty murdered school children? Didn’t it feel as if the world had been turned upside down, that you were caught up in a never ending nightmare where any tragedy of any kind could happen to any person at any place or any time for no apparent reason? And in that wave of horror did you not, at least for a moment, feel in some sense of responsibility?

I did. I still do. Call it a guilt complex, but I blame myself for what happened in Connecticut. And Clackamas. And Aurora. I blame all of us. If the Nuremberg Trials of Germany and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa teach us nothing else, it is that we are responsible for what happens in the world – and especially the countries in which we live. Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

It is time for us to be grownups. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that the ultimate character of a civilized nation is measured in how it treats its children. This week, we allowed twenty of our own to be murdered at the point of a gun. Have we passed the test of civilization? Or have we failed? If you want to end a nightmare you must start by waking up.

Back in August, I got into an argument with a Facebook friend about the movie theatre shooting in Aurora. He felt that the answer was more guns, not less. He believed that had the employees of the theatre been armed they might have prevented the midnight bloodshed. Perhaps that’s your answer to massacre in Sandy Hook. Maybe you believe that every K-5 teacher needs to be armed and fully loaded. Maybe you’d like every principal in America to have an arsenal of weapons in his or her office. Perhaps you’re in favor of private security firms patrolling the classrooms where kindergarteners play with their toys and draw with their crayons.

If that is your answer, if your solution to this crisis of violence is more guns, not less, if you would like to see firearms in our places of learning, if you truly believe that what’s needed to save a sinking boat is just a little more water, then I just have to ask you:

Really?

Is that any way for a child to grow up? Is that the way you grew up? Or your parents? Or your grandparents? If you call yourself a “conservative,” what is it that you wish to conserve? What part of the past do you want to hang on to? What childhood traditions do you find worth preserving? What kind of an educational environment is best for a little boy or girl learning to read, write, solve math problems, and discover wonders of our planet? What can we really do to protect them, not just from becoming victims, but future perpetrators of these horrific, ugly, and inexplicable crimes?

As the father of a third grader, I am willing to do a lot. I have already started (and it’s only a start) by demanding that both my president and legislators take immediate legislative action. What are you prepared to do? After all, I’m just a blue state blogger from Portland, Oregon. I’m pretty much playing by the script. But I wonder what would happen if you wrote a letter or your own blog, or called a press conference, or posted a video on YouTube, and said these words to the world?

I am a gun owner and a conservative. I love, cherish, and support the Second Amendment. I believe that it is my God given right to own and carry firearms. As an American, I treasure this belief, and I will carry it with me to my grave.

And now, I’ve had enough. No belief of mine is more important than the life of an innocent child. I am ready to do everything in my power, exert every effort, and make every sacrifice necessary to be sure that nothing like the Connecticut massacre ever happens again. I will be introspective. I will lay down my arguments. I will work with my enemies. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But now, I’m no longer a child; now, I’’m an adult, and a protector of children. It is time to for me to discern the difference between my needs and “rights” from the time honored prerogatives of my selfish desires.

As a gun rights activist, imagine the power those words, or something like them, might carry coming from your own keyboard or mouth. Trust me: people would listen. And while I’m sure you’d piss off a lot of your friends and neighbors, in exchange you’d receive the freedom of spirit that only comes to those of us who have taken that blinding fall on the long hard Road to Damascus.

Or, for those whom I’ve offended with my liberal quoting of scripture, let me bring you the words of a modern day prophet named Dr. Phil. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” I don’t know about you, but the prospect of being right is becoming a whole lot interesting. And I’m certainly not happy, not after Friday. It’s simply unconscionable for us to be screaming at each other while children are being slaughtered. The time has come for America’s Truth and Reconciliation. Like I said, I am willing to be reasonable; I’ll give up a lot. But it is simply illogical, and ultimately barbaric, to pour water on a ship that’s already sinking.

There is nothing that can bring those twenty kids back to their families and loved ones. Our collective failure to fashion a responsible society has robbed those children of their lives and futures. It’s the kind of failure that cannot be ignored. It demands deep and painful introspection, followed by profound acts of contrition and atonement. What are we prepared to do, to sacrifice in wake of this bloodshed? Our acts in the next few days, weeks, months, and years will shape how future generations judge our civilization. More importantly, our actions can make damn well sure that we don’t murder the lot of them first.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

David Berkson

December 16, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

 

The Real War On Christmas

o'reilly xmas“You Killed Jesus.” Guess what group is being targeted in this spiteful piece of holiday vandalism. Could it be pagan imperialists of the 1st century? The descendants of Pontius Pilate? The ghost of a Roman centurion? Nope. Want to know who killed Jesus? I’ll tell you: it’s the Jews. All of them. Past, present, and future; orthodox, conservative, and reformed; Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, and Sephardic. You name it; they did it. All must bear the shameful stain of this unforgivable act of historical deicide.

Welcome to the Season of Hate. On December 1, Chabad House’s enormous seashell dreidel and menorah were vandalized in Miami Beach, Florida; the aforementioned three-word indictment was scrawled in black paint on this beloved Hanukah display.  That same weekend, near Palm Beach, a swastika was painted at Temple Beth Torah; the accompanying anti-Semitic rhetoric was so offensive that the networks chose not to quote it. Even though Pope Benedict XVI – himself a former member of the Hitler Youth – assured his flock as late as 2011 that Jews in fact are not responsible for the death of his beloved Messiah, there are some medieval customs that just won’t die. Have a Merry Christmas, America, and long live the pogrom.

Now you’d think that with his staunch commitment to “Judeo-Christian culture,” a guy like Bill O’Reilly would be warning us about a “War on Hanukah.” Yet a mere five days after a local Fox affiliate had reported the “You Killed Jesus” story, O’Reilly asked us: “Is there a growing anti-Christian bias in America?” as the intro to one of the network’s innumerable reports on The War on Christmas. Jeanine Pirro and Gretchen Carlson, O’Reilly’s fawning sycophants for the day, all but drooled in their mikes as they answered the affirmative: apparently there are some people who just don’t like Christmas.

Like everything else on Fox, this piece would be funny, except that it isn’t. I think my favorite part is Carlson’s outrage over the City of Santa Monica’s ban on nativity scenes public parks, which she claims (without citation) arises from complaints of “less than one percent” of the population. “I don’t remember any of these complaints growing up!” she wails indignantly, “I don’t remember any of them!”

Gretchen 2

 Yes, Ms. Carlson, it’s true. Even though you are paid by Fox to think and act like a child, as a 46 year old woman, you are no longer a child. The halcyon days of the mid-1970s have fallen like leaves from the tree, a civilization gone with the wind. But like Scarlett O’Hara before her, Gretchen is not going down without a fight, and neither are her offspring:  “What will my children be fighting for?” she cries. “I already have to say, ‘Hey! Way off in the back seat, waaaay off yon in the yonder you can see baby Jesus.'” Those poor children are so religiously oppressed that they are now forced to seek out salvation in the backseat of Gretchen Carlson’s car.

What the former Miss America and Fox don’t mention in their fact free piece is that when it comes to the attack on Christianity, it’s coming from inside the house! In America today religion itself is on the decline. According to the Pew Research Center, one in five American adults claim no religious affiliation at all. While the numbers of atheists and agnostics are on the rise (hey! did I just write a headline for Fox?) they remain statistically insignificant at 2.4% and 3.3%, respectively. It turns out that the largest share of religiously unaffiliated Americans aren’t even comfortable with the term “agnostic”; 13.9% opt for the category of “nothing in particular.” Does that mean that America is becoming more secular? Not necessarily. 68% of the unaffiliated express a belief in God, and 58% describe “a deep connection with the Earth.” At issue, then, is not the concept of a higher power, but with how current religions define it:

With few exceptions…the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

But O’Reilly and his fellow culture warriors can comfort themselves with the fact that 73% of the American population is Christian. That’s pretty good, isn’t it? Not if you look at the trends. That figure represents a 5% drop in a period of just as many years. You want a Fox News headline? Try this: Christianity in America is Shrinking.

And yet the yuletide continues to thrive. “There’s a ‘War on Christmas’? Somebody tell Thanksgiving!” rails The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “Because this year Black Friday…got moved back to Black Thursday, or as we used to call it Thanksgiving. Christmas is so big now, it’s eating other holidays.” Stewart then launches into one of his glorious litanies, demonstrating the obnoxious ubiquitousness of America’s favorite holiday:

(There are) Mormon Christmas specials, country-western Christmas specials, chipmunk Christmas specials, otter Christmas specials, bear Christmas specials, cat Christmas specials, large headed child Christmas, gay Christmas, Jewish Christmas (in a nod to Neil Diamond), Christmas underwater, Christmas from the future, pre-historic Christmas. That’s right, there’s a Christmas special that celebrates the birth of Jesus…thousands of years before the birth of Jesus.

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-december-3-2012/the-war-on-christmas–friendly-fire-edition

FlinstonesStewart’s last mention of The Flintstones Christmas hearkens back to an earlier joke in the segment. “For Fox News, the war on Christmas has become a rote observance devoid of all its original spiritual meaning.” Ever since Charlie Brown bemoaned the holiday’s commercialization, people have been saying the same of the Christmas itself. And yet we continue to buy. In the face of boycotts and protests, Walmart claimed “busiest ever Black Friday.” The National Retail Federation estimates an overall 4.1% increase from last year in holiday sales, projecting $586 billion in overall revenue. That’s an awful lot of Hanukah candy.

In reality, the war is not on Christmas, or even Christianity, but on the birthday boy himself. I realize that questions such as “What Would Jesus Do?” or “What Would Jesus Think?” may seem all but impossible to answer, but a cursory look at the Gospels gives us a pretty clear picture of His view on material wealth and the lust of acquisition:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10: 17-22)

 And just in case we’re confused about it, Jesus spells it out just a few verses later: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10: 25)

Yeah, but guess what? I’m not rich. I’m middle class.

Well…it turns out that I’m not. According to the website globalrichlist.com, I’m in the top 4.62% of income earners on the planet. The fact that I have a home, running water, a TV set, automobile, several pairs of clothes, healthcare, and an expendable income that allows me to buy Christmas gifts makes me an incredibly wealthy man. (Check out the site to see how rich you are.)

The next time you’re online or out at the mall looking to buy yourself some Brut aftershave or the Angry Birds Star Wars Jenga Death Star Game or the Nikon 1 J1 camera or the iPad mini or the Kindle Fire HD (with its gazillionth chapter of The Game of Thrones series) or the Enzo Anglioni Women’s Vicso Riding Boots or a polyester backyard pink castle princess tent or the John Travolta Olivia Newton-John album, you might want to ask yourself: what does any of this have to do with Jesus?Here’s a guy who spent his entire life working with the deeply impoverished. Jesus healed the sick, and made sure that hungry people had plenty to eat. Luke’s original Christmas story itself is a parable of hope against cruel, unimaginable poverty. Jesus’ origins were so humble that once, when trying to preach, he was berated with the catcall: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” His antagonism to religious displays of wealth was so intense that less than a week before his execution, he disrupted the commerce of the merchants in the temple, Jerusalem’s holiest of holy sites, by turning over the very tables where they sold their precious wares. It is the only time Jesus ever used physical force. I guess he must have been pretty upset.

So Happy Birthday, Jesus! As a way of saying thank you for being the savior of mankind, I’m giving my sister in law $50 gift certificate to Bed Bath and Beyond. What do you think; is that too tacky?

To say that the holidays have become too secular entirely misses the point. Christmas is the holiest of holy days for America’s number one religion: capitalism. Even the left wing social engineers like our president extol the talismanic “power of the free market.” Our belief in capitalism’s virtue is so paradigmatic, so deep and unshakable, that we can not even bring ourselves to ask our government to follow most European countries, and do what Jesus did almost every day of his life: provide free healthcare.

Christians often forget that Jesus himself was a Jew. As for those particular Jews who wanted him dead, they were Roman collaborators, a fact that secular history and the canonical Gospels make abundantly clear to anyone who cares to read them. Crucifixion was a special and unusually grizzly form of public capital punishment. And whatever role “the Jews” may have played, Caiaphas, Annas, and even Herod didn’t have the authority to put a man to death. That task fell to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, second in the region only to Caesar. Jesus was killed by the Romans, and drew his last breath as a Jew.

There’s a curious moment at the end of the Fox segment. Just as O’Reilly and Carlson are about are about to end the piece, Jeanine Pirro, the network’s, um…legal analyst, blurts out a non-sequitur she appears to have been bottling up during the entire analysis. Apparently the First Amendment’s separation clause regarding religion and state applies only to Christians

If you add a menorah, the Supreme Court says that’s ok! 

pirro

It’s an ugly moment, not to mention entirely unsubstantiated, one that O’Reilly and Carlson leave lie when signing off. I’d like to think that their silence signifies an a private disagreement with this slur, but I suspect that it’s something more sinister. Last year, Fox Latin America had to apologize for an online poll asking, “Who Do You Think Is Responsible for the Death of Jesus?” Responders were given a number of choices, one of which was “The Jewish People.” Complaints from the Simon Wiesenthal center helped trigger the poll’s removal.

While there is absolutely no evidence, and virtually no probability, that anyone on The O’Reilly Factor created this defamatory poll, Pirro’s remarks at the end of the program bring us back to the place where we started. Jews get special privileges. They are not persecuted, we Christians are. The Jews get things that We don’t. They are the beneficiaries of a system that is incomprehensibly stacked up against Us. When it comes to the War on Christmas, there is surely an Axis of Evil, and on one of its points is a pernicious special interest group hell bent on persecuting Christians.

The Jews did not crucify Jesus, but the bigotry and hatred  of Florida’s vandals and the folks at Fox News are killing him every day. I don’t know the names of the people who damaged the Hanukah displays. But since Jeanine Pirro trumpets her Christian faith from the hilltop of Fox News Studios, I have, for her and her many followers, this special yuletide greeting:

Repent. Cast off the wickedness of your false idols and craven images. Fall upon your knees and beg forgiveness from your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Renew the vows of your baptism by rejecting Satan and all of his works. Love the Lord your God above all others, and love your neighbors – Christians, Atheists, and even Jews – as yourself. Practice kindness, compassion, and patience. Renounce the path of hatred, and joyfully proclaim the Good News of Christ’s love and redemption throughout the whole of all mankind.

And if not, please do us a favor and shut the fuck up. Stop pretending that you’re being persecuted. You’re part of the dominant culture; enjoy it, for God’s sake! Use the salary that Fox so generously pays you and buy your family Christmas presents – tons of them. And be grateful that you live in a country that gives you the freedom to worship in the religion of your choice. Use this time of Christmas to pay homage to the godheads of Commodity, Profit, and the almighty Power of the Free Market – America’s lords and deities, gods and rulers of The Autumning Empire.

David Berkson

December 11, 2012

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