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)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Robert Downey Jr., Superhero

Robert Downey Jr. won the internet last Thursday, posting on his Facebook page a touching video of his presentation of an Iron Man-style robotic limb to a young Florida boy born with an underdeveloped arm.

The previous weekend, first-grader Alex Pring, whose right arm ends just above his elbow, was ushered by his parents into an Atlanta hotel room where his mom had told him they would meet with Albert Manero and another specialist working on an upgraded robotic arm for the boy. Manero is a University of Central Florida engineering PhD student who started the volunteer group Limbitless Solutions to make free bionic arms for kids through 3-D printing technology (is there nothing 3-D printing can’t do?). Alex had received his first robotic arm last summer, then later had it upgraded to resemble a Transformers arm.

Alex’s mom wanted to get him one of the bionic limbs because of all the teasing and awkward attention he suffered. “Whenever people saw him, they’d say, ‘What’s wrong with your arm?’” she said. “Now it’s, ‘Your arm is amazing, you’re so cool... It helps educate people to maybe think twice before saying something like, ‘Why are you like that’?”

Albert Manero is something of a superhero himself, considering the life-changing work he is giving to the world for free, but Alex was taken aback to be greeted in the hotel room by his hero Iron Man – or at least, Downey Jr. slipping into his Tony Stark persona. The actor’s subsequent short video captured their meeting. 

In the video we see Downey greet Alex and present him with matching cases marked “Stark Industries” (specially made for the event by the Marvel movie prop master). Downey opens them to reveal identical Iron Man arms, one for Downey from the movies and a working robotic arm for Alex. The boy’s barely suppressed smile is heartwarming.

They try on their arms. “This is even cooler than I thought,” says the star. At the end of the video they fist bump with their mechanical limbs. Afterward, Downey reportedly invited Alex to hang out with him in Atlanta this summer while he films the new Captain America movie, an awesome experience that would make Alex the envy of everyone who might once have teased him.

But Downey came away equally impressed: “Had the absolute privilege of presenting a brand spanking new 3D-printed bionic Iron Man arm to Alex, the most dapper 7-year-old I’ve ever met,” the actor commented on his video, referring to Alex’s red bow tie. “Special thanks to Albert Manero, OneNote, and #‎CollectiveProject for their work making artificial limbs like this more affordable for families with kids who want to show the playground how badass they are,” he continued. “Check out to learn more about this incredible project. #‎goodcause

As of this writing, less than 1o hours after the video was posted, it has accumulated nearly 14 million views. It was also posted by Microsoft, which arranged the meeting as part of its Collective Project campaign, celebrating students working to change the world through technology.

While Manero and his team are the real heroes behind Alex’s arm, it is Downey’s fame that drew attention to the project. This is what superheroes are for: not just saving the world from fictional galactic evil on the big screen, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for the movie studios, but serving as real world role models and inspiration for their fans. Not coincidentally, this is also what celebrity should be for. Downey’s simple act of kindness to Alex is the sort of gesture that does more good in the world than Iron Man taking out any number of movie villains.

Downey is an inspiration in other ways, too. He has a notoriously troubled past – years of substance abuse, arrests, prison, rehab, and relapse that derailed his first marriage and nearly derailed his career – but he has also worked hard to rise above those troubles, with the help of his current wife Susan, with whom he is, by all reports, happily married and has two children.

Getting his life and career together is an inspirational tale of redemption, but even more inspiring is Downey’s willingness to use his real-world superpower – celebrity – for good.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/19/15)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dolce & Gabbana under Fire for Defending the Traditional Family

The fashion community and its celebrity devotees see themselves as free-thinking, liberal-minded individuals, but in fact, artistic types tend to cling to politically correct groupthink. So when one of their number goes against the grain on a particular issue, the others often unite in disproportionate outrage.

In a recent interview with the Italian magazine Panorama, designer icons Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana drew protests from the gay community with their declaration that “the only family is the traditional one.” Children born through artificial insemination or egg donors are “children of chemistry, synthetic children,” said Dolce. “Uteruses for rent, semen chosen from a catalog.” Procreation “must be an act of love.”

“The family is not a fad,” Gabbana told the interviewer. “In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging… Life has its natural course, there are things that must not be changed. And one of these is the family.”

This outspoken defense of the traditional family unit sparked swift disapproval. In an article entitled, “Dolce and Gabbana Launch Tirade Against ‘Nontraditional Families’,” the gay news magazine The Advocate condemned the designers for this “salvo against equality… a rant against so-called nontraditional families.” Of course, the interview comments were neither a tirade nor a rant, but labeling them as such, and as a “salvo against equality,” helped pump up the outrage in its readers.

Things escalated from there. The website LGBT News Italia called for a boycott of D&G. Sir Elton John, who has two children with partner David Furnish, called for one as well on Instagram:

How dare you refer to my beautiful children as “synthetic.” And shame on you for wagging your judgmental little fingers at IVF – a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfil their dream of having children. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions. I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana”

Other celebs jumped on the bandwagon. Ricky Martin accused the pair of “spreading H8.” Courtney Love tweeted that she was “beyond words and emotions” and planned to burn her D&G collection. Glee creator Ryan Murphy, declared of D&G that “Their clothes are as ugly as their hate.”

That’s all just a bit too harsh. Dolce and Gabbana have the right to express their opinion and others have the right to disagree. But dismissing that opinion as “ugly hate” is nothing but a smear tactic to end debate and to demonize one’s opponent (as Gabbana said of Elton’s comment, “this is the real respect for a different opinion????”).

D&G could have chosen their wording more carefully – the phrase “synthetic children,” for example, was bound to inspire offense in parents who are unable to conceive naturally. And raising children – biological or otherwise – is the real act of love, not procreation. But it isn’t as if the designers are anti-gay or ant-IVF activists. They were simply expressing their personal viewpoint in the course of an interview, and things got blown out of proportion from there.

It’s not the first time that the torches-and-pitchforks crowd has targeted D&G. Back in 2006, Gabbana caused a similar stir by announcing to the Daily Mail that “I am opposed to the idea of a child growing up with two gay parents. A child needs a mother and a father.”

This more recent controversy came on the heels of D&G’s presentation of their fall/winter line at Milan Fashion Week, in which they celebrated pregnancy and motherhood. The show was called “Viva la mamma!” and featured runway models – at least one of which was pregnant –with young children, toddlers, and babies, to the accompaniment of the Spice Girls’ ballad “Mama.” The designers’ unabashed respect for motherhood and their joyful inclusion of children was a refreshing change from the usual dour parades of self-absorbed, hipper-than-thou models.

In response to the boycott threats, Dolce tried to make peace: “I am very well aware of the fact that there are other types of families and they are as legitimate as the one I’ve known,” he wrote. In his own statement, Gabbana said that “it was never our intention to judge other people’s choices.”

A boycott likely would be short-lived and have little financial impact on the iconoclastic billionaires. Nonetheless, Dolce and Gabbana aren’t prescribing their beliefs for others; they shouldn’t have to be ostracized or demonized for their right to prefer the traditional family unit like the ones they grew up among in heavily Catholic Italy. Surely they and Elton John can agree on the importance of a two-parent household and that the children’s best interests come first.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/18/15)

Forgiveness for a Fashion Faux Pas

There is arguably no group of people on earth more tone-deaf about their own privilege and wealth than the denizens of the high fashion world. They often can’t comprehend the disconnect of highly-paid models in impossibly expensive designer wear posing in slums, or runway shows featuring homeless chic, or poverty-stricken people in exotic locales serving as props or ambience in photo shoots. The cluelessness is painful to witness.

Enter 32-year-old German princess Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, Vogue’s style editor-at-large. TNT, as she is called, exposed herself as seriously out-of-touch with the commoners last weekend by posting an Instagram pic of a homeless woman surrounded by her bagged possessions, sitting under a dirty blanket on the street before a metal-shuttered storefront – and reading Vogue.

Von Thurn und Taxis, who was in the City of Lights for fashion week, blithely commented on the pic, “Paris is full of surprises. . . and @voguemagazine readers even in unexpected corners!” Needless to say, this failed to amuse some Instagram followers. “I think this comment was made in poor taste. Shame on you,” wrote one. “This photo is cruel,” added another.

Hard to imagine that TNT couldn’t see for herself how insensitive it was, especially once her followers began calling her out on it; nevertheless, her initial response to the criticism was to double down on her ugly snobbishness on Instagram: “OMG calm down. Even the homeless are allowed to have good taste.” Wow., which has been critical of the princess’ “veritable treasure trove of absurdly elitist quotes” on social media, shared the (now-deleted) photo and observed, “The things she writes, both in Vogue and on social media, often straddle the line between entertaining/aspirational and disturbingly out of touch. On Saturday she crossed that line.” Indeed.

Finally the burgeoning bad press spurred the fox-hunting socialite to do some damage control. The following day she seemed to seek forgiveness on Instagram: “I wanted to extend my sincerest apologies for the offense my post has caused. Yours truly, Elisabeth.”

Now, I don’t subscribe to our politically correct cultural expectation that the rich and famous who have been caught shaming themselves automatically owe groveling mea culpae to strangers on the internet. Though their behavior may have been offensive, it wasn’t directed at us and we wouldn’t even know about it if it weren’t for our obsession with the inconsequential daily comings and goings of celebrities that we’ve never met.

But depending on the nature of their “offense,” public figures can serve as positive role models in terms of rectifying their public blunders and displaying qualities like humility, gratitude, and service to others. I have no problem with the fact that Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis enjoys a life of luxury, but sometimes people who are born into that, as she was, take their good fortune for granted and are in serious need of some perspective.

I don’t know what is in TNT’s heart. Perhaps her reputation as “disturbingly out of touch” is undeserved. Perhaps it is deserved, but the pushback she has received about her insensitivity prompted her to do some soul-searching. I am skeptical though; her brief and formal apology strikes me as more of a perfunctory attempt at a PR fix than a sincere request for forgiveness.

It is less important that the princess apologizes for “offending” her Instagram followers than that she acknowledges that her remark was demeaning to the poor, that it was thoughtless at best and mean-spirited at worst, and that it reflected badly on her, her employers at Vogue, and on the industry itself. If she really wanted to display some newfound compassion and set a dramatic example, she could try to locate the homeless woman in the photo and get her some assistance, or in some other way use her position and influence to draw attention to the issues of poverty and homelessness – addressing the problem of abusive sweatshops, for example.

That might be too much to expect, but she would be earning forgiveness and perhaps giving her cohorts in the fashion biz some much-needed perspective in the process.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/16/15)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Spock and the Return to Paradise

In a scene from the 1991 movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a character asks the Vulcan science officer Spock about a painting on the wall of his living quarters. “It’s a depiction from ancient Earth mythology,” he explains, “‘The Expulsion from Paradise.’” Why does he keep it? “As a reminder to me,” Spock replies, “that all things end.”
Recently the life of Leonard Nimoy, the 83-year-old actor behind the pop culture icon Spock, came to an end. Nimoy, who did indeed live long and prosper, was a film director, poet, singer, photographer, and of course, actor; but it is the pointy-eared, Vulcan apotheosis of logic with whom he will forever be associated. Fans who grew up with the original Star Trek television series, as I did, or who came to know him through the show’s movie franchise, all felt the loss of one of the familiar touchstones of our youth.
“The Expulsion from Paradise,” or “Adam et Eve chassés du Paradis,” may hang on a Star Fleet officer’s wall in the distant future, but it currently resides in a museum in Nice. It is a beautiful image by painter Marc Chagall, the prolific French Jew whose work is shot through with joyful mysticism and Biblical imagery. The half-century-old painting is a dreamlike vision of the first man and woman being banished from the Garden of Eden. For Spock, this image of the end of the original paradise serves as amemento mori, a humbling reminder of the transience of all things, including us.
Coming to terms with the inevitability of our own death is, as philosopher Roger Scruton says, the most difficult trial human beings face. The end will come no matter how—or even whether—we choose to face it; our only freedom lies in finding serenity about it beforehand, says Scruton. Spock seems to have dealt with it by cultivating a certain detachment about death, which the Chagall helped him keep foremost in mind.
Whether or not Leonard Nimoy managed a similarly detached calm about his mortality, I don’t know. Like Chagall, Nimoy was powerfully influenced by Judaism (the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute, for example, derives from his Jewish origins). Like Spock, Nimoy’s rational and mystical sides wrestled. Although the title of volume one of his autobiography—I Am Not Spock—mistakenly led people to believe that he resented being associated with the Star Trek character, he actually had a deep identification with Spock, and he attempted to correct the misunderstanding surrounding the first book with volume two entitled, I Am Spock. So the dialogue quoted above may be as much a reflection of Nimoy’s attitude as of Spock’s.
But do all things come to an end, as Spock said? Perhaps it is truer to say that all thingschange. Death is a change, not an end—or as Scruton puts it, death is a return, a “transcendental homecoming” to the paradise to which we long to return.
Leonard Nimoy died at home. I hope that he departed on his transcendental homecoming with the same peace and equanimity with which his character contemplated the Chagall on his wall.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/9/15)