Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The U.S. royal family

Many years ago, I read a thin, richly illustrated book called Motel of the Mysteries, about a future archaeologist who unearths the remains of a hotel room from our time. He thinks it is a burial site of the ancient Usa people. Among the artifacts he discovers there are a Sacred Seal (a "do not disturb" sign), a Portable Shrine (credit card), a Great Altar (television set), and a Sacred Urn (toilet).

I believe that when anthropologists of the future look back at our society, they might conclude we live in a monarchy. Sure, we think we've moved past Great Britain's antiquated system. We laugh at them for still having kings, queens, and princesses, even if the positions are only ceremonial. We don't put up with such nonsense as the divine right of kings, the royal family, right? In America, we like to say, anyone can become president.

Uh-huh. Some facts should sober us up. The majority of U.S. presidents have been related to other U.S. presidents, and a large number have been related to British royalty. (See here for the details.) If you think about it, we're presently nearing the end of the reign of King George II.

If Hilary gets elected this fall and goes on to serve two terms, our nation will have experienced nearly 30 consecutive years in which the president was either a Bush or a Clinton. (And then maybe Jeb, and George P. Bush, and later Chelsea and the Bush twins, can continue the cycle.... Scary, isn't it?)

Everyone knows that the U.S. presidents have mostly been White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. We haven't even had much in the way of European ethnicities. Imagine there being presidents of primarily Polish or Swedish or Belgian extraction. Even that seems off most people's radar.

I'm not saying we haven't had minorities. WASPs are a minority!

What is wrong with us? We're supposed to be this diverse, multicultural nation, and the presidency still operates like an old country club. (No wonder they all play golf!)

Now you're saying, "But wait, this year is different. Look who's been running: a woman, a black, a Latino, an Italian-American, and a Mormon!"

Yeah, sure. I'm reminded of the old quip about Barry Goldwater: "I always knew the first Jew on a U.S. presidential ticket would be an Episcopalian." If Obama gets the Democratic nomination, we can say, "I always knew the first black on a U.S. presidential ticket would be a cousin of Dick Cheney."

Monday, January 07, 2008

Bigotry chopping

Earlier, I discussed how the term anti-Semitism is abused. I've noticed that many writers avoid the term when referring to religiously motivated events such as the Crusades, where Jews could escape persecution through conversion, at least in theory. The bigotry underlying these events is called anti-Judaism, as opposed to the racial doctrine of anti-Semitism developed in the nineteenth century (when the latter term was actually coined). Many academic scholars make this distinction, which I find problematic.

One example is Jeremy Cohen in his recent book Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen. Cohen links the historical treatment of Jews at the hands of Christians to evolving interpretations of the Christ-killer myth. For much of the first millennium, the Church followed the view of St. Augustine, who held the Jews responsible for Jesus' death but attributed their sin to ignorance rather than complicit guilt. Under this view, Jews were to be tolerated in the hope they would eventually "see the light." By the time of the Crusades, however, harsher interpretations of Scripture had taken hold in the Christian world.

Cohen discusses the influence of the Christ-killer myth on modern anti-Semitism, including the set of beliefs underlying the Holocaust. But he declines to apply the term anti-Semitism to most of the medieval anti-Jewish bigotry. According to Cohen, "one should guard against simply assuming an uninterrupted continuity between medieval anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism in every conceivable mode of religious expression" (pp. 208-9).

I have two basic objections to the term anti-Judaism. First, it's too neutral-sounding. It lacks the negative connotations which anti-Semitism acquired after the Holocaust. Second, the distinction between religious and racial persecution gets pretty muddy when you look at history. Many of the medieval stereotypes of Jews--hook noses, red hair, horns and body odor--had distinctly racial overtones. (How would conversion get rid of any of those things?) By the time of the Inquisition, converting to Christianity was no longer an escape; indeed, the converts were the ones in the most danger.

Pat Buchanan's response to charges of anti-Semitism illustrates the confusion that can result from identifying anti-Semitism purely with a racial ideology. According to The Nizkor Project, Buchanan told a Christian newspaper in 1992, "I am as aware as any other Christian that our Savior was Jewish, His mother was Jewish, the Apostles were Jewish, the first martyrs were Jewish.... So no true Christian, in my judgment, can be an anti-Semite."

That's a good start. But the medieval Church was also perfectly aware that Jesus and all of the early Christians were Jews. That knowledge did not stop them from persecuting the people who continued practicing the faith that Christianity was supposed to have supplanted. If you define an anti-Semite as "one who thinks all Jews who ever lived are bad," then these persecutors were not anti-Semites. But that distinction is of little consequence to the victims.

Calling this persecution anti-Judaism seems inadequate. In today's society, opposition to a religion is not regarded as inherently bigoted. Religions themselves tend to be "anti" other religions to some extent. Where do we draw the line between bigotry and mere disagreement?

Anyone is entitled to critique a religion. But religions are made up of people, not just ideas, and there comes a point when abstract criticisms begin to spill over into stereotypes. Cohen provides an example in a quote from Protestant theologian Karl Barth, normally an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism:
Who is this Judas, the man who will maintain his freedom in face of Jesus for the sake of something better, the man for whom Jesus is for sale...? Obviously he does not bear this name for nothing. Within the apostolic group...he obviously represents the Jews..., he merely does that which Israel has always done in relation to Yahweh. He merely does that which has always made Yahweh's rejection of His chosen people inevitable.... Israel always tried to buy off Yahweh with thirty pieces of silver. (p. 259)
Nowadays, many Christians have become great friends of the Jewish people. The challenge facing Jews today is how to combat theologically rooted anti-Jewish ideas without attacking Christianity itself. While I don't agree with Buchanan's cavalier dismissal of Christian anti-Semitism--the past needs to be acknowledged before we can move on--the Christian establishment has taken great strides in healing the wounds between the two religions.

The final chapter of Cohen's book examines several movies about the Passion, including Mel Gibson's controversial film. (Gibson has long identified with Traditionalist Catholics who reject Vatican II, though his own views on the matter aren't clear.) These movies use a variety of strategies to avoid the impression that they're attacking all Jews. Sometimes they downplay the Jewishness of Jesus' opponents, or else overplay the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples. Gibson and his defenders emphasize the theme that "we are all sinners." But a core of hostility toward traditional Judaism lurks in the Gospels, no matter how you spin it.

Film critic Michael Medved is perhaps the most prominent Jew to defend Gibson's film. Around the time of the film's release, he took Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to task for calling the movie anti-Semitic. Medved's reasoning for defending the film--which by his own admission deeply contradicts his beliefs--is interesting:
By what right do Rabbi Boteach and his many outspoken allies in the Jewish community demand that Mel Gibson and his innumerable supporters among Protestant and Catholic clergy should reject their own religious tradition to accept a Jewish version of the death of their savior?.... For reasons that defy rational explanation, Rabbi Boteach insists upon picking an ugly public fight with believing Christians who view their own sacred books in the same way the Rabbi views the Torah - as the inerrant word of God.
In fact, many devout Catholics and Protestants found much fault with Gibson's interpretation of the Passion story. For example, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) organized a committee to review the screenplay prior to the film's release, the committee concluded:
Certainly films can present Jesus' suffering and death in a powerful way. But they must remain faithful to the church's current understanding. "The Passion of the Christ" does not. Gibson, in fact, rejects those teachings as well as modern biblical scholarship and thus stands outside of official Catholicism today.
After the film was released, the USCCB backed down considerably, but they still felt the movie's depiction of the Jewish leadership was overly harsh. The point is that there are many ways for devout Christians to approach the Passion story, and criticizing the way they portray Jews in a particular account is not the same as asking them to give up their traditions. I agree with Medved that we need to be sensitive to the fact that even ideas which offend us may stem from deeply held religious beliefs, no less sincere than our own. But considering how much damage has resulted from the Christ-killer myth throughout history, these concerns should not just be dismissed under the mantle of ecumenicism.

The Nazis based their anti-Semitism on centuries of hatred by Christian oppressors, even if the Nazi leaders were privately anti-Christian, and even if they brought the anti-Jewish ideas to an extreme the medieval Christians never envisioned. Wherever it comes from and whatever term is used to describe it, anti-Jewishness is basically a single phenomenon. That fact should be recognized before we start making fine distinctions, or else we risk not seeing what's in front of us.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The ubiquitous PG-13 rating

Recently, I watched The Golden Compass and later discovered it was rated PG-13. This surprised me, not just because it's a children's movie, but also because it had very little violence in it and no other objectionable content. I had to wrack my brains to figure out how it had gotten so high a rating, and finally I remembered a scene in which a CGI bear rips the jaw off another CGI bear--though it happens so quickly I bet many people won't understand what they just saw. The film is considerably less violent than any of the first three Harry Potter movies, all of which received PG ratings.

Last week, I saw Live Free or Die Hard on DVD, and I had a choice whether to watch the theatrical PG-13 version, or an unrated version with extra content. I opted for the PG-13 version due to my superstitious belief that anything not shown in the theater isn't part of the "real" movie.

Still, just hearing it had a PG-13 was a red flag for me, since the other Die Hard films all have R ratings. Not surprisingly, this is the first Die Hard movie I haven't liked at all. While the film had several other problems, I suspect it's hard to make a good film with the MPAA breathing down your back.

Evidently, they made the film with R level of content, then shaved off just enough material to get a PG-13. These sorts of deals between the studio and the MPAA are basically acts of bargaining rather than the application of consistent standards. The final version is as violent as many R-rated films I have seen, with several moments in which characters get shot and blood spurts from their wounds.

We've reached an absurd situation when The Golden Compass has the same rating as Live Free or Die Hard. Somewhere along the line, after theaters began tightening their standards, studios decided that PG-13 was the most bankable rating, and pretty soon all sorts of movies were being shoved into it, artistic integrity be damned.

I have a couple of suggestions. First, stop allowing filmmakers to bargain down the ratings they receive. Second, get rid of ratings that make no difference to theaters. As far as theaters are concerned, only three categories really matter: movies that anyone may be admitted to see, movies that people under 17 may be admitted to see with a guardian, and movies that people under 17 may not be admitted to see. The G, PG, and PG-13 all fall in the first category. Their only purpose is informative, but that role has practically been rendered obsolete by sites like Screen It!, which provides parents with detailed information about the content in every film. If the MPAA wants the standards enforced, maybe they should leave the job of guidance and recommendation to other sources, which tend to be far better at it, anyway.