Thursday, April 23, 2015

Jeremy Renner, Action Dad

As the helplessly smitten father of two little girls (with a third on the way), I have a soft spot for stories about manly dads who freely confess to being wrapped around their daughter’s little finger. So I was touched when Fox News reported that tough guy action star Jeremy Renner recently gushed about his two-year-old Ava Berlin in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres that will air Wednesday.
Ava is the daughter of Renner, 44, and Canadian model Sonni Pacheco, who married in early 2014 almost a year after Ava’s birth. Renner was grateful that he married late in life, after some career success, so he could afford to concentrate on family. Fatherhood “really kind of changed my perspective on a lot of things,” he told DeGeneres. “It’s kind of screwed my career in a lot of ways, because I don’t really care about it so much because I care about her so much. She’s, like, number one in my life. And now I get to do movies on the side.”
To be clear, his career is still very active but he has a different motivation now. In an interview with Capitol File magazine, Renner said,
The only thing I think about when I’m not with my baby is, “How do I get to my baby?” I need to get to her, and I’m very miserable when I don’t see her. I really love being a father. The only thing that has changed is my perspective on things. I still work, probably even more. It used to be all for myself, so I’m not old and broke. All these things I still do, but I do it now for the future of my baby, and if it gets in the way of her well-being, then I stop.
Balancing his profession and fatherhood is challenging because of the travel demands, but Renner claims to make every effort to stay as present in Ava’s life as possible. “I do a lot of flights back,” he said to DeGeneres. “I did like forty flights back. From London to [L.A.] pretty much every other week. [I] see her sometimes for eight hours and then fly back.”
Fatherhood is “the best thing ever,” Renner said in a Today show segment last October. “Now I know what real love is, what real existence is. Best thing that I've experienced in my life.” As clichéd as that may sound to someone who doesn’t yet have children, as it did to me before I had kids, I can vouch for the truth of it. Fatherhood is a humbling gift that throws you suddenly out of the center of your universe and puts you in orbit around your child instead – as it should be. Good on Renner for recognizing this and embracing it.
Unfortunately, as Hollywood couples often do – and “ordinary” couples too – he and Sonni broke up last December after less than a year of marriage. It’s unclear what went wrong, but a source told E! News that Renner “wanted to make sure Ava had a solid family unit and tried to make it work. It’s really sad because Jeremy loves Ava so much and hates that she will live her life with her parents split up.”
Pacheco asked that the court grant her full physical custody of their daughter. The E! News source said at the time that the custody battle “is going to get ugly. His main priority is the baby and he will fight for full custody if it comes to that. All he cares about is being a dad. He is an amazing father. He is worried she is going to go back to Canada and take the baby.” Apparently he won at least a partial victory; earlier this month it was reported that Renner and Pacheco were awarded joint physical custody of the little girl, so he gets more than just visitation rights.
“Daddy’s my best role to date, I think,” the star of The Hurt Locker and Avengers told Ellen DeGeneres to big applause from her charmed studio audience. But a father actively involved in his little girl’s life isn’t just adorable and admirable – it’s also essential but increasingly rare: one out of three American children now live in homes without the biological father, as compared to 11% in 1960. That is an alarming decline, considering the devastating impact that fatherlessness has on children and ultimately on society.
As Dr. Meg Meeker puts it in Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, a father is the most important man in his daughter’s life. Girls (boys too, but let’s focus on the girls) need their fathers’ guidance, strength, wisdom, and loving presence in their lives. Children are adrift without that, and they often grow to become adults adrift as well.
When an action hero like Jeremy Renner gushes in the media about his daughter and the joys of fatherhood at every opportunity, his joy and commitment set an excellent example, especially for the young male fans who themselves will someday be fathers of little girls. Hopefully his influence will contribute in some small way to the reversal of that slide toward more fatherless kids.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/23/15)

‘Scary Lucy’ and the Flight from Beauty

It’s a commonplace today that contemporary art is too often silly, incomprehensible, ugly, or even disgusting. But it isn’t often that a work of art is actually considered terrifying.
Recently the hometown fans of legendary comedienne Lucille Ball were stricken at the unveiling of a rather nightmarish bronze statue in her honor. Rightfully nicknamed “Scary Lucy” in the media, it purports to depict Ms. Ball, who died in 1989, in perhaps her most famous comedy routine: as a commercial pitchwoman for the unpalatable “Vitameatavegamin.”
The statue caused such a backlash among the outraged citizens of Ball’s birthplace of Celoron, New York that its creator actually wrote to The Hollywood Reporter to publicly apologize for what he called “by far my most unsettling sculpture,” and to offer to fix it.
This prompted The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones to address the bigger picture of bad sculpture in a rant with the outstanding title, “The scourge of the bronze zombies: how terrible statues are ruining art.” Jones declared that
it may be time to ban artists from creating statues. They have simply lost the ability to do it. The art that once gave us Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s Burghers of Calais has degenerated into a cynical province of second-rate hacks who are filling up city squares, railway stations and other public spaces all over the world with ugly, stupid and occasionally terrifying parodies of the human form.
Don’t hold back, Mr. Jones. Tell us how you really feel.
In addition to “Scary Lucy,” Jones went on to name two other statues in London as examples of such “crimes against good taste,” including the ghastly A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, which depicts what appears to be the decomposing author bursting out of his coffin; a “gaunt and deathly” bust of Margaret Thatcher in the Falkland Islands; and, curiously, a statue of a raincoated Peter Falk as Detective Columbo in Budapest, of all places. “There’s only one thing to be said in favor of all these dire statues,” Jones concluded. “Simply by looking at their failure, future generations may be inspired to create better.”
What’s with the apparent epidemic of ugly public sculptures? Jones is at a loss to explain it. After all, he wrote, “Modern art supposedly killed off this kind of vulgar realism.” But modern – or more precisely, postmodern – art, with its deconstruction of the beautiful, is precisely what is to blame.
The experience of beauty, as philosopher Roger Scruton puts it in a brilliant little must-read from 2009 called Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, is a reverential one in which art “points us beyond this world, to ‘a kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered.” The yearning for beauty is our aspiration “towards the highest unity with the transcendental,” and the most emotionally and philosophically compelling art fulfills that aspiration.
But postmodern art represents what Scruton calls “a flight from beauty” that no longer points us toward the sacred; indeed, it actively seeks to desecrate the sacred. The result, he says, is the rise of “self-consciously transgressive” works that do not engage us spiritually or emotionally; they leave viewers cold, confused, even repulsed. “The degradation of art has never been more apparent,” Scruton declares in his book – and as the Guardian critic Jones noted, it’s plenty apparent in today’s public sculpture.
What then can be done to reverse the tide of ugly public art? For a start, we can follow the example of the people of Celoron, New York by complaining loudly about bad art and demanding its removal. Maybe this will begin to send a message to artists and their sponsors that we will no longer accept fraudulence or kitsch or contempt for beauty in the public square. Perhaps it will encourage sculptors once again to find value in beauty, and to strive to unite us with the transcendental.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/22/15)

Obama’s Divine Rainbow

Just when you think the left’s passionate idolatry of Barack Obama might be waning a bit after six years in office, along comes a photo posted recently on the White House official Twitter account to remind you of the President’s divinity. The image appears to show the Messiah-in-Chief shooting a rainbow out of his palm, as only God or perhaps an LGBT Spiderman can do.

After clinching the “framework” of a nuclear deal with our enemy the Iranian regime in which the President made doormat Neville Chamberlain look like Winston Churchill, Obama traveled to Kingston, Jamaica recently to speak to impressionable young fans, lecture the leaders of Caribbean countries about fighting global warming global cooling climate change bad weather, and tour a museum dedicated to fellow marijuana enthusiast Bob Marley.

At his departure at the end of the week, a gorgeous rainbow happened to be arcing overhead as Obama climbed the stairway to Air Force One. White House official photographer Paul Souza captured, or manipulated, a shot of the rainbow seemingly emanating from the President’s hand as he waved goodbye at the plane’s door. Souza posted the pic on Twitter with this accompanying affirmation from Obama: “With hard work and hope, change is always within our reach.” But the subtext was, “And as a sign of my power, mortals, behold as I call forth rainbows.”

In Biblical terms, the rainbow is a symbol of God’s postdiluvian promise to humankind that He will never again destroy the earth by water. But apparently Obama’s PR people have decided to rebrand the rainbow now as a symbol of The One’s divinity and of his promise to Jamaica that, like General MacArthur or Jesus, he shall return. He’ll come back someday to bask in more sunny Third World adoration, hit the island’s finest golf courses, and, if he has time, entertain the masses with a spray of shooting stars from his fingertips.

(Speaking of fingertips: another interpretation is that the photo was intended to suggest not that the President himself is godlike, but that God produced the rainbow to touch Obama as a sign of His favor, much like Michelangelo’s God stretches out his finger to bestow the spark of life on Adam in the Renaissance artist’s “Creation of Adam.” Either way, the implication is that Obama is no mere mortal.)

Reactions from the leftist media were predictably awe-struck. The gay online magazine Out declared that “it’s impossible not to read into the [photo] a continuation of President Obama’s increasingly aggressive drive for LGBT rights and equality.” “Now This Is One Hell of a Rainbow Photo,” Mother Jones approved. “White House photographer Pete Souza caught this incredible shot of President Obama departing Jamaica. Beautiful. Massive,” gushed the radical feminist site Jezebel.

The photo is reminiscent of the deifying propaganda we’ve been subjected to ever since Obama’s first election, when he was supernaturally expected to “slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. Remember when schoolchildren across the country were coached to sing his praises like good little totalitarian youth? When the media relentlessly promoted images of his haloed head? When Newsweek entitled a cover story about him “The Second Coming”? And when celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Sting referred to Obama as our Savior?

This new pic from his Jamaican jaunt is in the same vein of those disturbing depictions of Obama as a demigod. It’s worthy of the degree of leader-worship normally reserved for Pharoahic despots. When the boy tyrant Kim Jong Un sees it, his architecturally-shorn head is going to explode from envy.

The photo reeks of such adoration that people heaped mockery upon it on social media. “Holy propaganda, Batman. This would make any third-world dictator proud,” read one response on Twitter. “Gotta reach that 'my little pony' demographic,” smirked another tweet, referring to the Hasbro toy company’s Rainbow Ponies franchise. A third tweet: “Messiah Much there Dear Leader? #Vomit.” Much more hilarious scorn can be found here below the reverential photo on the White House Twitter feed.

In response to conservative accusations of idolatry, some progressives no doubt will try to claim that Souza’s snapshot was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted commentary on Obama as a beacon of hope. They will brush off criticism of the photo as conservative humorlessness.

But nowhere in Souza’s or in the White House’s comments is there any indication that the picture is intended as anything less than blatant hagiography, designed not only to flatter Obama the Sun King himself, but also to send a thrill up the collective leg of the masses of low-info voters who still cling to his hope and promises despite mounting evidence of his destructive agenda. On Pete Souza’s Instagram page, for example, reverential viewer reactions to his photo ranged from the gag-inducing (“YES HE CAN!”) to the drug-addled (“God...makes no mistakes...Obama came to shine a light on the beautiful”).

The progressive vision is a totalitarian fantasy world of peace (through disarmament and capitulation), equality (through enforced social engineering and the redistribution of wealth), and collective genuflection to big government. And no totalitarian vision is complete without a semi- or fully divine Dear Leader to whom all love is directed and all submission required. It is an ideal that demands the denial of reality, of history, and of human nature, as well as the worship of a false idol – but none of that is an issue for progressives.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 4/22/15)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Kelsey Grammer’s Lesson of Forgiveness

Our common fate, Longfellow once wrote, is that "into each life some rain must fall." But some people have to weather heavier deluges than others, and being a celebrity is no guarantee against that. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Kelsey Grammer of Cheers and Frasier fame spoke recently about a history of more family tragedy than anyone should have to bear, and how forgiveness – for himself and others – has enabled him to cope.
The grandfather who raised him died of cancer when Grammer was 11. Two years later his estranged father was murdered. His two half-brothers died in a scuba-diving accident. Most disturbingly, his sister Karen was 18 years old when she was abducted, raped repeatedly, and brutally murdered in Colorado by thrill killer Freddie Glenn and accomplices in 1975.
When Glenn was finally eligible for parole in 2009, Grammer wrote a powerful letter to the parole board (part of which he struggled to read aloud to Oprah Winfrey in an emotional 2012 interview) describing Glenn as a butcher and a monster, and eulogizing Karen, whose loss had devastated the surviving Grammers. “I was her big brother,” he wrote. “I was supposed to protect her—I could not. I’ve never gotten over it. I was supposed to save her. I could not. It very nearly destroyed me.”
He went on in the letter to describe how Glenn had further victimized not just those he killed but their families as well. Then he concluded with his deeply considered reflections on forgiveness:
I am a man of faith and my faith teaches me that I must forgive. And so I do. I forgive this man for what he has done. Forgiveness allows me to live my life. It allows me to love my children and my wife and enjoy the days I have left with them. But I can never escape the horror of what happened to my sister. I can never accept the notion that he can pay for that nightmare with anything less than his life. We all make choices. He made his.
Glenn’s release was denied.
The Vanity Fair interviewer pointed out that there was no way Kelsey could have been expected to protect his sister, who lived in another state at the time. “It’s not rational,” the actor answered. “But it happens anyway. I know a lot of people who’ve lost their siblings and blame themselves.” At the height of his success, Grammer said, when he wrestled with alcohol and cocaine addiction, “That was the time when I could not forgive myself for my sister’s death.” It was many years before he could begin to rid himself of that burden.
Last year Grammer again successfully opposed another appeal from Glenn, although he was convinced for the first time of the killer’s sincere contrition. “I accept that you actually live with remorse every day of your life, but I live with tragedy every day of mine,” Grammer told him via video during the hearing. “I accept your apology. I forgive you. However, I cannot give your release my endorsement. To give that a blessing would be a betrayal of my sister’s life.”
Grammer does see his own life as obviously blessed in other ways, and he has “learned to soldier on” despite the staggering personal losses. “Every one of us is going to experience some terrible loss,” he concluded in the Vanity Fair interview. “I just got a big dose. For every story you hear that’s tragic, there’s another that’s equally tragic or more so. I think you come to look at it as part of life.”
As all of us who have wrestled with it know, forgiveness is no easy process, especially when the trespasses against us are as traumatic as the murder of a loved one; it is a wrenching evolution that can sometimes feel more painful than the wound we suffered, as the spiritual writer Marianne Williamson says. Forgiving oneself is often the most difficult step of all. Kelsey Grammer is living proof of the demands it places on one’s body and soul to commit to that evolution. But the alternative is a living death.
Now 60, Grammer is happily married to a woman named Kayte Walsh, with whom he has two children (he has six in all). “This lovely young woman,” he says, “lit up my world and changed my heart, which was a bit calloused and hardened against a lot of things. And we are good, and I feel young and alive.” I think he has earned that.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/20/15)

‘American Pie’ and the Day the Music Died

The Washington Post reported last week that, in order to secure the financial future for his wife and children, aging singer Don McLean sold the original 16-page working manuscript for the lyrics to his chart-topping 1972 song “American Pie” for $1.2 million at auction. Somehow this mundane, practical gesture seems a sad but fitting end for a song that lamented the end of an era of cultural innocence.
“American Pie” was inspired partially by the shocking deaths of young rockers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in a plane crash in 1959. But it was about much more than “the day the music died,” as one line goes; it rambled on with allusions to everyone from Karl Marx to Charles Manson to Jackie Kennedy to The Beatles. “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music,” said McLean in a catalogue for Christie’s auction house. “Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction. It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”
“American Pie is the accessible farewell to the Fifties and Sixties,” wrote Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis, who considered it Bob Dylan Lite. “The chorus is so good that it lets you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted at the same time.”
I was never a fan. I remember the hit playing incessantly on the radio, and despite its catchy chorus, at 8½-minutes it was well over twice the length of the average radio single and felt even longer. McLean’s other big hit, “Vincent,” an achingly touching ballad about the world’s inability to grasp the genius of Vincent Van Gogh during the troubled painter’s lifetime, was much better lyrically and musically.
But I was very young at that time and had no capacity for nostalgia. It would be a few more years before I got my first sense for how easily important moments and people can slip into the past, lost forever, sometimes before you even realize how much they meant to you. At the time, living in the present was all I understood, and the future seemed limitless and bright. But then I got older.
It’s natural – and not entirely wrong – for every generation to reach an age when it waxes nostalgic about the past and complains that the present is “going to hell in a handbasket,” as my parents used to say. But in his mid-20s at the time, McLean was ahead of the curve in recognizing that things were “heading in the wrong direction.” Now 69, he remains lugubrious about the state of the culture: “I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015. There is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of ‘American Pie.’”
That is an overstatement – after all, there are still poetry and romance in the world; you just have to dig through whole strata of cynicism and snark and irony nowadays to find them. But he is correct that our cultural ability to appreciate beauty, romance, and poetry has atrophied, or at least been devalued in what an old friend of mine used to call our Age of Ugliness, and that is a disheartening loss.
In a verse that didn’t make the final cut for the song, McLean falls down on his knees and offers everything he has to give, “if only He would make the music live again.” If only it were that easy; it will take a new generation of artists who value sincerity over oh-so-hip detachment to breathe life back into the culture. McLean has worthy advice to budding songwriters: “Immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song.”
The music may have died once, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be resurrected.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/17/15)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

In the Shadow of a Celebrity Dad

Being the child of a celebrity parent is a curse as well as a blessing. Being born into a life of wealth and glamour comes with obvious perks, and many children of celebrities inevitably become insufferable, spoiled brats, particularly if they aren’t blessed with a talent of their own that distinguishes them from their famous parents. But for those who aren’t content to sponge off the money and accomplishments of their parents forever, finding their own way in the world can be especially frustrating.
Imagine, for example, being the son of Tom Hanks, two-time Oscar-winner and arguably the most well-liked actor inside and outside Hollywood. It may seem that being his son is like winning the birth lottery, but how do you carve out your own identity, your own career, your own success when your dad is such a celebrated household name?
One son, Colin, followed in his father’s footsteps to become a fairly successful actor in his own right. But 24-year-old younger brother Chester Hanks, the young man Gawker labeled “a frat boy rapper” who goes by the alias Chet Haze, seems to be floundering at sea.
After radio show host Howard Stern mocked Chet for his rapping ambitions, Chet called Stern out in a Twitter assault last week that read like a blustery attempt to pump up his rapper cred. Here’s a sample of his profane, threatening rant that reeks of affected street slang:
Let me come up on your show b*tch… Come catch this fade… have me live on the air and we can go pound for pound see who looks like the fool you dried up old c*nt catch this fade…
Do you have any idea how badly I am going to assault you when I see you… it’s a shame you don’t hang in the same circles as my family (not enough bread for that) cuz if you did I woulda already seen u.
Taunting Howard Stern for not being rich enough to hang with the Hanks family is pretty comical, considering that Stern’s estimated $550 million net worth is quite a bit more than Tom Hanks’ estimated $350 million. The failed insult also reveals an arrogance about his dad’s money but what also must be a resentfulness – after all, the wealth he boasts about is not his own.
Chet followed up with an unapologetic description of himself as a “WALKING PR DISASTER” who does not “GIVE A SINGLE F*CK!!!!” And then: “I DONT LIVE MY LIFE BY ANYBODYS RULES BUT MY OWN!!!” Methinks the young man doth protest too much. He sounds as if he very much cares about the opinions of others.
This isn’t Chet’s first defensive Twitter feud (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: is there anything in the world more inconsequential than a Twitter feud?). As noted in a Fishwrapper article called, “Sorry, but Tom Hanks Raised a Mega Douche,” Chet got into it back in late 2013 with former rapper Jensen Karp, who tweeted a barb about Chet’s lack of authenticity: “Your dad was in Castaway.” This prompted an angry (but also poignant) response from Chet: “so cuz my Dads famous, I can't do what I want to do in my life?” In the ensuing back-and-forth, Karp offered Chet some blunt, if condescending, advice:
Chet, your father is Tom Hanks. America’s sweetheart. And you’re talking about smoking kush and banging dime pieces. It’s acting… I am actually not hating, I’m trying to help. No one wants to hear the fake black accent from a kid who knows the Spielbergs.
Eminem and others have already proven that being white is certainly no barrier to rap success, but Chet Haze’s bad boy posturing seems to be more an act of rebellion against the expectations placed on him due to his nice guy dad’s name (hence Chet’s name change, for example). If he proves Stern and Karp wrong by earning real success on that route, then more power to him. But I suspect that Chet is still searching for his own authentic road.
Similarly, another would-be rapper – Deion Sanders, Jr., son of the football legend and sports broadcaster who is worth an estimated $40 million – found himself the target of some media ridicule last week when he tweeted something about his life in “the hood.” His famous father playfully but pointedly responded, “you’re a Huxtable with a million $ trust fund stop the hood stuff! Lololol. Son. #Truth.” Huxtable, of course, was the surname of Bill Cosby’s affluent, educated TV family – an association no self-respecting rapper wants.
At the risk of psychoanalyzing Deion Jr. and Chet Haze from afar, my sense is that posturing as rap stars is just a phase for these two. As difficult as it may be to sympathize with celebrity kids who grew up with every comfort and opportunity, Chet and Deion Jr. strike me as two insecure young men struggling to get out from beneath the shadows of their celebrated, accomplished fathers and find their own identities, their own paths in life. It’s a struggle they unfortunately must carry out in the harsh light of the public eye, and they may have to take a few blows in the media such as they did last week before they are humbled enough to reject everyone else’s expectations, search their own hearts, and find their authentic purpose in life.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/15/15)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Is Variety the Spice of Marriage?

Recently a woman named Robin Rinaldi published The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost, the tale of her one-year experiment with an open marriage in her mid-40s. The result of that experiment highlights an important truth about marriage, fidelity, and sexual intimacy.

Feeling the passion seeping out of her childless marriage, Rinaldi decided to act on her craving for “seduction and sexual abandon” and sow some wild oats. She presented her husband Scott with an ultimatum about experimenting with other, purely sexual, relationships, and he reluctantly agreed. They lived apart during the weekdays, when Rinaldi saw other people; then she returned home on weekends to resume their marriage as if nothing had happened.

But quite a bit did happen. Rinaldi had twelve lovers and oodles of great sex in that year, but her “quest for passion at any cost” cost her her 18-year relationship with Scott. “After you open up a marriage and experience a whole range of sexual variety and aspects of yourself you’ve never had before,” she admits, “it’s hard to put everything back in the box.” No kidding?

Not that leaving him bothered her. She’s “grateful” she “experienced” her marriage, but she moved on to be with one of the partners she met, someone “from whom I can learn more.” [In my experience, people whose focus in a marriage is primarily their own personal growth never stay married – but that’s a topic for another day.]

Back to marital passion, or the lack thereof. In a recent article called “When the Best Sex Is Extramarital,” New York psychotherapist Lawrence Josephs asked, “What do you do when” – like Robin Rinaldi – “the best sex of your life is outside of marriage but you still want the emotional security of a stable long-term relationship with someone you love and trust?” Josephs says he’s worked “with a few couples over the years who have been able to make an open marriage work, but most people… are too insecure and jealous to do so… When it comes to our spouses, it seems most of us never outgrow being fundamentally childlike in our possessiveness.”

Insecure, jealous, childlike? Josephs seems to be suggesting that spouses who aren’t comfortable with their partners’ extramarital promiscuity simply aren’t mature enough to handle it. The implication is that a married couple who are okay with sleeping around are somehow exhibiting more adult behavior than a couple who demonstrate fidelity. The fact is that the vast majority of people believe marriage should be fundamentally a lifelong physical, emotional, and spiritual commitment to one other person, and they’re less than thrilled with the idea of that person finding intimacy and ecstasy with other partners – not because they’re too immature, but because sharing their partner erodes, if not demolishes, a marriage’s foundation of love, trust, respect, and unity.

Yes, marriages fail too much of the time, but pretty much everyone enters into that union under the assumption that their partner is the one. Commitment and fidelity are often put to the test, but that’s what commitment and fidelity mean: staying the course of your vow despite temptations.

And besides, is marital passion necessarily doomed? In another recent article, “Married Sex Gets Better in the Golden Years,” Jan Hoffman refers to a new study which concludes that, for couples who do hang in there, there is a payoff. While sexual activity among most long-married couples reportedly declines steadily over the years, those married more than 50 years reported an uptick in their sex lives – and the frequency continued to improve.

Samuel Stroope, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of sociology at L.S.U., said that in a long marriage, sexuality suffers from “habituation,” the familiarity that can dull a couple’s desire over time. At the same time, however, long-timers accumulate valuable “relationship capital.” In good marriages, he said, you’re “accumulating experience and knowledge about your intimate partner over time that builds on itself.” That leads to more intimacy, more meaningful sex.

Gerontologist Dr. Karl Pillemer, whose new book 30 Lessons for Loving is drawn from 700 interviews, discovered that older adults “place intimacy as a high priority.” He cites the example of Jennie B., now an 82-year-old widow who married her first and only husband when they were in their mid-20s, and were sexually active through their 47 married years before his death in 2003. Jennie explained,

There’s an intimacy that comes later that is staggeringly wonderful. You can hold hands with this person you love and adore, and somehow it’s just as passionate as having sex at an earlier age. There is such a sense of connection and intimacy that grows out of a long relationship, that touch carries with it the weight of so many memories. And many are sexual.

Indeed what she misses most as a widow, she says, is holding hands. “Sex was certainly an important and joyful and healing part, but I’m not sure that the connection through holding hands, which elicited such peace, was not a deeper intimacy,” she wondered.

Sex is a vital part of our humanity and our relationships. But more meaningful, and more human, is the intimacy that grows through a longstanding monogamous commitment – and sex is only one strand of that powerful bond.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/1/15)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Study Reveals that Nice Guys Are Manipulative Jerks

Recently a new study about so-called “benevolent sexism” stirred up internet indignation with its provocative conclusion that “Being Nice to Women Is a Sign of Sexism,” as one headline put it. “Men who hold doors open and smile may actually be sexist, study claims,” said another headline. “It turns out chivalrous men are actually just benevolently sexist,” read a third. That sound you hear is the collective groan of decent men everywhere giving up.
Jin X. Goh and Judith A. Hall, researchers in the Department of Psychology at Northeastern University, published the study with the dryly academic title, “Nonverbal and Verbal Expressions of Men’s Sexism in Mixed-Gender Interactions.” It is described as “the first to examine how men’s hostile sexist and benevolent sexist beliefs are differentially expressed, nonverbally and verbally, during actual social interactions with women.” The study concluded that “benevolent sexism is expressed differently than hostile sexism” and “was associated with more patience, more smiling… and more usage of positive emotion words.” Simply put, benevolent sexists seem nice but are manipulative jerks.
The concept of “benevolent sexism,” or B.S. as I like to call it, didn’t begin with this study. It’s been around since a similar study nearly 20 years ago. It refers to a deference accorded to women that seems gentlemanly and flattering on the surface, but which feminists perceive as paternalistic and condescending—in other words,chivalry. It’s contrasted with “hostile sexism,” which is just what it sounds like: overtly sexist beliefs, expressions or actions, from considering women inherently incapable of running a business, to stoning them for adultery.
Benevolent sexism, such as holding a door for a woman or helping her change a flat tire, may seem like just the opposite of the hostile sort, but in fact it is merely at the other end of the same spectrum of misogyny; in fact, B.S. is actually considered evenmore oppressive because it supposedly flatters a woman into embracing her inferior position in a gender-unequal society, whereas the hostile sort engenders resistance from women. B.S. is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The recent study calls it “the more covert and hard to resist form of sexism.”
“Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties,” Goh and Hall warn, “the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society.” So the next time a man helps a woman get her heavy luggage off the airport carousel and gets a tight-lipped glare rather than a “thank you,” he’ll know it’s because she has been indoctrinated to believe that his gentlemanly gesture was insidiously oppressive.
At the fashion and style website Refinery29, the study’s implications were labeled, “The Dark Side Of Chivalry.” The writer there expressed a common misunderstanding of chivalry: that it’s reserved for women who “deserve” it:
[It is] not necessarily based in a belief that all women are deserving of politeness and respect; rather, it implies that a “good woman” is. Should a woman step outside of the “pure and warm” profile benevolent sexists assign to her, well, then she’s on her own. For benevolent sexists, chivalry is not for women—it’s only for women who “deserve it,” and who know their place.
This is nonsense. A man about to open a door for a woman doesn’t stop to assess whether she “deserves” such consideration. How would he even be able to determine such a thing? Holding a door is not a subtle power play to keep a woman in her “place,” nor does it stem from the ridiculous assumption that a woman is incapable of opening her own door. Chivalry is a demonstration of respect for a woman, and an implied offer that the man stands ready at her service, if she needs it.
What studies like these accomplish is quite simply to discourage men from acting like gentlemen. Men today feel they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: if they behave like gentlemen, they’re bashed as “insidious” sexists; if they refrain from acting like gentlemen in order to avoid offending women, they’re castigated for, well, not being gentlemen. The net effect of the theory of benevolent sexism is to frustrate and anger men, sow suspicion and resentment in women, and drive an even larger wedge between the two.
To begin chipping away at that wedge, we must begin by asking ourselves if radical feminism’s intentional destruction of traditional roles in America has improved relations between the sexes and made women and men any happier. Unmoored from their natures, confused young men no longer know what it means to be a man, and confused young women think that equality means becoming the worst kinds of men—promiscuous, crude, domineering.
We must also ask what kind of society we want: one in which men are held to a higher, chivalrous standard of behavior, and men and women embrace our complementary differences with mutual respect, or what we have now: a society in which young men and women drift farther and farther apart as bitter, mistrustful antagonists.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/24/15)

To Kill Without a Trace

On July 18, 1994, a van loaded with explosives destroyed the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), murdering 85 innocents and injuring over 300. The government accused Hezbollah, but it was not until 2006 that sufficient legal evidence was gathered to request warrants for the arrest of those allegedly responsible.

On January 19, 2015, the chief investigator of the case, prosecutor Alberto Nisman, was found murdered (though it had been made to look like a suicide). Nisman had been on the verge of delivering warrants for the arrest of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, which would have exposed the Argentine government’s complicity in a coverup.

On Thursday, March 26, at the Luxe Hotel in Los Angeles, the Horowitz Freedom Center and Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors will present Gustavo Perednik, the author of fifteen books, who will be discussing his latest, To Kill Without a Trace, a novelization of the AIMA bombing and subsequent investigation. Based on reported facts and legal documents put at the author’s disposal by Nisman himself, the book recounts the events leading up to the bombing and beyond, exploring the implications both for Argentina and the world.

I recently posed to Mr. Perednik some questions about his book, the bombing, the investigation, and Nisman’s assassination.

Mark Tapson: You’ve written both novels and works of nonfiction. Why did you choose a fictional framework for this story?

Gustavo Perednik:            Sabra is my last novel, coauthored with Marcos Aguinis and published four months ago. I believe that the reason for which it became a bestseller straight away is that   it is written as historical fiction. It tells the real story of the First Aliyah and the Jewish history during World War I, as well as the biography of Absalom Feinberg, “the first Sabra.” Although it is entirely factual, it is told as a novel because in this way it can appeal a broader audience. One can add more suspense and literary creativity in blending the fiction and non-fiction styles.

The same can be said of To Kill Without a Trace. I reveal Alberto Nisman’s investigation and his work, but instead of a dry narrative I can delve into the psychology of the character and include some philosophical insights. I believe it is more compelling and it does not sacrifice even one bit of historical truth.

MT:     How did you come to know and work with Alberto Nisman, and whom do you believe is responsible for his murder?

GP:     About ten years ago I published an article on terrorism and I got an approving email from Nisman with the suggestion that we meet. He was the Prosecutor of the AMIA case. At the beginning I thought someone was kidding me, but he insisted and the following day we met at the Prosecution Unit. He then told me that he knew me because as a teenager he had heard my speeches at the Jewish institution which I had headed in Buenos Aires. The chemistry between us was immediate and we became good friends. I frequently brought to him my students to listen to his explanations about the AMIA case, and after some months I decided to write a book about it. He agreed and we started meeting at cafés or at my home. At the end of 2007 I brought him to Israel for the first time. I organized his scheduled that included lectures, interviews and meetings with Israeli personalities. He became quite well-known in Israel.

He was assassinated by his enemies. Firstly, the Iranian government whose terrorism he exposed in several countries; also by Iran’s allies in Argentina – violent gangs that are active with impunity, close to the government.

MT:     At the risk of giving away spoilers from your book, can you elaborate a bit on what Nisman had discovered about Iran’s responsibility for the bombing and the Argentine government’s nuclear collusion with Iran?

GP:     Firstly, Nisman attained all the evidence to prove that Iran perpetrated the terror attack. He showed that the dates on which the Iranian “diplomats” flew time and again close to the attack, the money transfers to a terror account in the Deutsche Bank, the phone calls before and after the attack – every single piece matched the big puzzle. We must remember that at the beginning a few Argentine policemen had been incriminated in the attack; therefore Nisman’s exposure of Iran came as a turning point.

On a second stage of his investigation, Nisman demonstrated that the State of Iran was not only the perpetrator of the attack on the Argentine Jewish community, but also the head of a world terror network that still has dormant cells in several countries. These cells are not operating precisely thanks to Nisman’s success in exposing Iran.

In the third and last stage of his investigation he focused on how the Argentine government colluded with the terrorists by whitewashing the ayatollahs in exchange for huge business. This stage was the most dangerous, and tragically his enemies prevailed.

MT:     Do I understand correctly that your book was first published in Argentina? What sort of impact did it have there among readers?

GP:     Indeed, it was published in Buenos Aires in 2009. At that time it was quite successful because people started to understand the true nature of the Iranian aggression. But as soon as Nisman was assassinated the book became an instant bestseller; it is considered foretelling since it refers several times to the life threats on Nisman. Even its title became premonitory.

MT:     What are the lessons for us of the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires? Apart from the terrible loss of life, why is it important to us today?

GP:     The main lesson is that terrorism has to be exposed and fought, not appeased. That with the Iranian regime that exports terror to the world, you don’t negotiate. You defeat its methods and its aim to destroy Israel and to impose on the world the worst face of Islam.

MT:     Countless thousands of Argentine citizens took to the streets to protest the murder of Nisman. Does this encourage you to believe that the government will not be able to suppress the truth, that justice will indeed prevail?

GP:     It was heartening to see almost half a million people under heavy rain under the motto “We are Nisman.” However, I don’t think there is any chance that justice will triumph under the current government. At least we see that people are more and more appreciative that Nisman was a true hero, and that we should emulate his passion, perseverance and courage in the struggle against Islamist terrorism.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 3/24/15)

A “Shark” Adrift Finds His Way Again

Shark Tank star Robert Herjavec is arguably one of television’s most likeable personalities. He is the elegant, gentleman investor audiences love, the counterpoint to gleefully greedy co-star Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary—the business shark whom audiences love to hate. But being a good guy and wildly successful (the tech mogul Herjavec is worth an estimated $100 million) are no insulation against personal pain and despair.
I’ve praised Herjavec on Acculturated before. The 51-year-old is no pushover in the shark tank, but he unfailingly exhibits a class, politeness, and respectfulness that are out-of-sync with the melodrama, selfishness, and immaturity that dominate reality TV. But last year he struggled with his own drama behind the scenes: a divorce from his wife of 24 years. “We were great parents and a great team,” he says, “but over time we drifted apart.”
He recently revealed to People magazine that the breakup hit him hard, and also apparently created a painful rift between him and his three high school- and college-age kids as well. “Everyone has their kryptonite,” Herjavec says. “For me, it was my kids. It took me to a place I never thought I would go.”
That place was the balcony of his hotel room last July, shortly after he and his wife filed for separation, where he claims that late one night he considered jumping. “I just wanted to end it,” he told People. Thankfully, he contacted his pastor John McAuley instead. McAuley’s advice was, “Go to work”—not back at the office, but at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a shelter that provides “emergency care and long-term recovery services to hurting and homeless people.”
The pastor knew that when you’re wrestling with emotional pain, busying yourself with real purpose helps to drag you out of the echo chamber of self-pity. And no purpose gives you a less self-centered perspective and gets the healing started quite like committing yourself to serving the less fortunate.
Herjavec spent the next two and a half weeks at the downtown Mission. He served food in the soup kitchen (“Nobody knew who I was. People thought I was a recovering addict.”) and went out at night delivering food and other essentials to “this whole world of people living beneath underpasses and under trees, who aren’t well enough to make it into the shelter.” People reports that he even bought out all of a local Walmart’s inventory of socks and passed them out to the homeless. “I think I’ve donated around 100,000 pairs,” he says.
The “suffering and hopelessness” that Herjavec witnessed among the men and women he met in the shelter quickly dwarfed his own. “What was the purpose of all this pain?” he asked himself. In the end, he concluded that his time at the Mission gave him “the opportunity to reconnect with God and to help others.”
“I always used to think that if you are compassionate, you are weak. You see that on our show. This place saved me,” said Herjavec, who reportedly still volunteers at the Union Gospel Mission when he can and helps support it financially. “I was hollow and broken and these people saved my life. And for that I’ll always be grateful.”
It’s easy, and not always wrong, to view pop culture with a cynical eye. Now that Herjavec seems to be dating again, some aren’t buying his suicidal distress and they see his saintly work at the shelter as a PR move. But cynicism has a way of closing you off to real miracles of transformation in people. So until proven otherwise, I accept that the Shark Tank star’s humble gratitude is sincere, and that service to others helped him rediscover purpose.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/23/15)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Starbucks and the State of Our Disunion

It’s admirable when successful business leaders like, say, The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick or Virgin’s Richard Branson place as much emphasis on changing the world as on profits. But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz may have come up with a socially responsible idea that is likely to fall flat on both scores. Sure, he has good intentions, but we all know where the road paved with those leads.

Schultz has used the company previously as a platform to address marriage equality and gun control. Now he is launching a new campaign at his coffee chain to defuse the powder keg of racial tensions in America by sparking that “national conversation about race” we’ve been hearing about ever since former Attorney General Eric Holder called us “a nation of cowards” for not talking about it. Schultz hopes that this conversation will begin between his baristas and their customers.

“What if we were to write ‘Race Together’ on every Starbucks cup, and that facilitated a conversation between you and our customers?” he explained in a painfully earnest video message to employees and partners. “And what if our customers as a result of that had a renewed level of understanding and sensitivity about the issue, and they themselves would spread that to their own sphere of influence?”

Worthy intentions aside, there are so many things wrong with the mechanics of this initiative that I don’t know where to begin. Who pops into Starbucks with enough time on his or her hands to chat up a barista about what is possibly the most tangled and emotional topic that we wrestle with as a nation? Doesn’t the barista have work to do, other customers to serve? Likewise, doesn’t the customer have a job to get to or a screenplay to write? Aren’t there people waiting in line who are hurrying to work as well?

Even assuming both parties have nothing better to do, how is the employee expected to engage a customer who asks about the “#RaceTogether” hashtag scrawled on his tiramisu frappuccino? What could any barista say that isn’t the most awkward convo-starter ever between strangers at a place of business? “Well sir, we at Starbucks would like to raise your awareness about your unconscious racism.” “Here’s your venti caramel flan latte, ma’am. That ‘#RaceTogether’ on your cup is a reminder to have more empathy for the Ferguson rioters.”

If the ice does get broken, what do we then discuss? Can we talk about black-on-white crime? About the political agendas of those who have a vested interest in inflaming racial tensions? Or is this national conversation going to be limited to lectures about white privilege and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”? It’s an impossibly sensitive and complex subject to broach with a total stranger in the span of a couple of minutes.

The initiative is not mandatory for employees, or I imagine that there would be mass resignations, but I actually pity the coffee-pourer who nonetheless probably feels pressured to have the special insight or moral authority to hold forth with strangers on race relations. It doesn’t help that, in the-customer-is-always-right America, the barista isn’t on equal footing.

Many responded to this business-stifling idea by promising to “race together” to a competitor’s coffee shop from now on. It prompted such a backlash of ridicule on social media that the company’s senior vice president of communications temporarily deleted his Twitter account. That response isn’t because people want to avoid facing the problem; it’s because Americans don’t need or want their coffee cashiers to enlighten them about race, empathy, and tolerance.

Does this country have a racism problem? Yes and no. America is the most inclusive and diverse country on the planet, and too many people forget that or don’t want to acknowledge it. And yet race relations presently seem worse than at any time since the 1960s. There can’t be any adult in the country who isn’t already painfully aware of this and doesn’t have strong opinions about it. As a writer at Fast Company put it, presenting people with the opportunity doesn't necessarily raise awareness of the matter; “it just raises awareness of Starbucks’s awareness.”

Years ago in an interview with Mike Wallace, actor Morgan Freeman was asked how we could solve racism in America. His answer – “Stop talking about it” – is arguably the most insightful advice that has ever been offered about race in America. Freeman wasn’t suggesting that we sweep racism under the rug, but that we quit picking at our racial resentment and simply move forward treating each other as equals.

That’s easier said than done, and it’s a process that will take a generation or two or three of the hard work of rejecting the race-baiters, putting things in the past, and learning to see ourselves as Americans first. In all fairness to Howard Schultz, honest discussion is never a bad thing – just not when a line of customers is behind you itching for their caffeine fix.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/20/15)