Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Oliver Sacks, Mortality and Gratitude

Last week in the New York Times, bestselling author Oliver Sacks wrote that he has mere months to live. At 81 and in otherwise robust health, Sacks learned that a cancer which he thought had been eradicated when first diagnosed nine years ago is back with a vengeance and now cannot be halted.
The New York Times has called Sacks “a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine.” An accomplished neurologist and professor, he is the author of numerous bestselling books including fascinating collections of case studies of people suffering from neurological disorders. His book Awakenings was adapted into an Oscar-nominated 1990 film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat spawned pop culture offshoots from a chamber opera to plays to movie characters to an indie pop album.
Sacks hasn’t slacked off with advancing age. In the last 15 years alone he has published five books and completed an upcoming autobiography, as well as several other books he claims are nearly completed. He has no intention of letting his death sentence slow him down, either: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” he wrote. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”
That’s an inspirational reminder. It is human nature to ignore the fearsome inevitability of our own death unless something like the diagnosis of a terminal disease forces us to contemplate it. And yet it is this very awareness of our mortality that prompts us to strive to live more fully. As the saying goes, nothing quite focuses one’s attention like the prospect of being hanged in the morning.
Sacks is no exception. He wrote that, since his prognosis,
I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight…
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
It must be a challenge under such circumstances to respond with anything but panic, regret, denial, anger, some other form of resistance, or a combination thereof. Sacks, on the other hand, confesses to some trepidation about dying but says that his “predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”
Sacks has lived a longer and fuller life than many, and he has the added benefit (or perhaps curse) of advance notice of the approximate time remaining to him. Sacks finds this to be cause for gratitude, too. Most of us do not know the hour when our turn will come. We could outlive Sacks or die today. That is, or should be, a sobering uncertainty, and by and large we have no control over the outcome.
But what we can control, and Oliver Sacks serves as an inspiring example, is how we spend each moment given to us. There is no time for anything inessential, as he put it, for any of us, whether or not we have yet received our terminal diagnosis. What we do with however much time we are given is what will enable us to face the end of it without panic, regret, and all those other forms of resistance. How we live is what will enable us to cultivate a sense of gratitude for what Sacks calls the “enormous privilege and adventure” of the gift of life.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/23/15)

Fighting Terrorism with Social Justice

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf became the target of much ridicule last week when she inanely suggested that we can combat Islamic terrorism through job creation. But the concept makes perfect sense to an administration that considers the solution to every issue, including “violent extremism,” to be “social justice.”
You will no doubt recall that Harf, while on MSNBC’s Hardball hosted by the befuddled Chris Matthews, claimed that we cannot beat ISIS simply by killing them; we also have “to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups,” citing a “lack of opportunity for jobs” as an example. She suggested that the U.S. should work with other countries to “help improve their governance” and “help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”
In subsequent TV interviews, Ms. Harf doubled down on her original comments and explained that she was speaking about a broader strategy that her critics were too dense to grasp:  “Look, it might be too nuanced an argument for some, like I’ve seen over the past 24 hours some of the commentary out there, but it’s really the smart way that Democrats, Republicans, military commanders, our partners in the Arab world think we need to combat this.”The notion that poverty causes Islamic terrorism has been discredited so often and for so long that I won’t bother elaborating on it again here (but if you insist, here is a recent debunking of that theory atNational Review, and here is one atFrontPage Magazine). On its face, it is a patently ridiculous suggestion. People don’t choose to move to the Middle East and cut throats, enslave women, immolate people in cages, crucify them, and bury children alive because they are struggling to make ends meet or because their job applications aren’t getting them callbacks. They do it because they are fervent believers in a medieval warrior ideology that feeds their bloodlust and justifies it.
As much as progressives like to believe that they’re so much more intellectual than the right, nuance is not the issue. The issue is that Barack Obama’s administration refuses to acknowledge the real root motivation of ISIS and its “affiliates,” as the President calls them: Islamic supremacism. The issue is that our own administration is in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood. The issue is that our own President has facilitated the rise of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East, has facilitated Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, and has alienated our ally Israel while refusing to acknowledge the rising tide of Islamic anti-Semitism in Europe. We have an administration that pretends to be dealing with terrorism by holding a farce of a summit on “countering violent extremism.” (To give you some idea of how ineffective and morally skewed this summit is, our hapless Vice President and sexual harassment poster boy Joe Biden was there warning about groups who potentially could carry out violence “in the name of the Bible” – an outrageous accusation which greatly pleased the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Brotherhood legacy group.)
Harf continued: “If we can help countries work at the root causes of this – what makes these 17-year-old kids pick up an AK-47 instead of trying to start a business?” The answer to her question is “jihad.” What drives “kids” to pick up AK-47s and knives and anything else they can use to butcher infidels is jihad. The answer to Islamic hatred of Jews, America, and the West in general is jihad. ISIS offers a bold vision of itself as the stronger horse in our clash of civilizations, and that is what compels these “kids” to leave home and join the growing number of jihadists challenging the decadent West. But I suppose that isn’t a nuanced enough explanation for Ms. Harf or a State Department that denies that the Islamic State has anything to do with Islam.
In Obama’s remarks at the counter-extremism summit, he acknowledged that poverty alone does not cause a person to become a terrorist, and that there are terrorists from very wealthy backgrounds. And yet he went on to say that “resentment festers” when millions of people who are impoverished “have no hope for the future,” when “corruption inflicts daily humiliation” upon them, “when there are no outlets by which people can express their concerns.” In other words, our own President is suggesting that the Islamic enemies of the West have legitimate “grievances” and if only we address those, the terrorists will turn their swords into plowshares and we can coexist, just like all those Prius bumper stickers urge.
For this administration, all issues can and must be solved through social justice activism. The term “root causes,” which the left raises frequently, is progressive-speak for “grievances.” In the case of Islamic “violent extremism,” that means helping young Muslim males feel less “hopeless” and “resentful” and “humiliated” by improving their economic conditions.
Islamic terrorists don’t have legitimate grievances. What they have is a savage hatred of infidels and the manmade laws of the Western world. But in Obama’s mind, we in the West must look at the blame and inadequacy within ourselves: “If we are going to prevent people from being susceptible to the false promises of extremism,” he stated, “the international community has to offer something better.”
But the United States does offer something better. Israel and Europe and Australia offer something better. The entire Western world offers something vastly better than life under sharia law: freedom, prosperity, modernity, peace. And yet it is our way of life that these “violent extremists” are waging war against. They don’t have a void in their lives that can be filled by the promise of “something better”; they already have something they believe is better – Islam – and they are literally hellbent on imposing that belief system worldwide.
Besides, as former SEAL Rob O’Neill told Fox News, the members of ISIS already have jobs: “They get paid to cut off heads – to crucify children, to sell slaves and to cut off heads and I don’t think that a change in career path is what’s going to stop them.” But that argument isn’t nuanced enough for Ms. Harf.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 2/22/15)

Save Send Delete

Back in November I was contacted by a writer and professor in New Jersey named Danusha V. Goska, a former leftist who had begun posting powerful and personal articles about her political transformation. I interviewed her here, and subsequently she became a contributor to FrontPage Mag. She also happens to be the author of the novel Save Send Delete, which I recently read.

As powerful and as personal as her articles, Save Send Delete chronicles the intellectual love affair-by-email of Mira – a poor, Catholic professor – and Rand, an atheist author and celebrity. The tale is simultaneously a philosophical debate, an exploration of faith, and a passionate romance.

In my interview with Dr. Goska, she had explained that her novel was essentially her own true story, albeit with the names changed to protect the identity of the man who was once the object of her affection:

Several years back I was wrestling with the big, hard questions: Is there a God? Why is there suffering? I saw an atheist on TV and I sent him an email. To my great surprise, he wrote back. We corresponded for a year, debating the existence of God, and we fell in love.

Her novel grew out of that tempestuous intellectual affair between a confirmed atheist and a questing believer. But that intellectual bout is not as black-and-white as that might seem. “Save Send Delete isn’t a left-wing book or a right-wing book,” Dr. Goska told me. “It’s about confronting God and love and trying to dig down as deeply as possible for worthy, livable truth.”

The book opens with Mira emailing an outraged rant to Lord Randolph Court-Wright, a prominent philosopher, after she sees him interviewed by Bill Moyers on TV. She bluntly challenges his intellectual arrogance, calling him “as dogmatic in your atheism as a Monty Python parody of a pope.” To her shock and mortification, the celebrated philosopher responds graciously; Mira even suspects that it must be the work of a grad student reading Rand’s emails. And thus begins their conversation.

Mira is Christian because “Catholicism assured me that I had a place as good as any rich kid’s in the kingdom of Heaven… Inside a Catholic Church, I never doubted my worth. There was no reason.” Burdened at one point in her life with physical challenges, her faith gave Mira meaning to her suffering. “I approached every feature of my suffering: loneliness, pain, paralysis, despair, terror, rage, waste, poverty, as an obstacle on a course I was running for my own spiritual growth in the eyes of God – and nobody else. That choice was what made all the difference.”

Other than the Judeo-Christian tradition, Mira tells Rand, she knows of “no other narrative tradition where common, often peasant, women from two, and three, and four thousand years back, take on individual life and importance that outlasts the renown of kings.” On the other hand, she writes,

I don’t believe in a God who, the moment you cast your lot in with him, or read that bestseller about the power of positive thoughts, makes you happy, pretty, and rich. I do believe that there is a supernatural entity who can make you feel 100% better instantaneously, and his name is Satan.”

As for Buddhism, Mira tells Rand that, “like Merton, I’m grateful to embrace Buddhism’s gifts, like meditation, that don’t contradict my own beliefs.” But ultimately, “we humans are hot-blooded creatures, and Buddhism is as cold as empty space, and it demands that we be, as well, and we cannot.”

On the subject of Islam, Mira tells Rand that she didn’t learn about jihad from a book; she received a blunt education about it from a childhood Muslim friend named Narin, who told Mira calmly as they walked home from school together one sunny day “that when the time for jihad came, she’d kill me if I did not submit”:

The unchanging command that Muslim men must commit jihad and establish universal dominance is unique to Islam. No other world faith mandates the nonnegotiable, continuous and all-pervasive denigration of women and girls that has proven central to Islam… Islam allows no criticism, and, therefore, no growth, no change.

One of the reasons she revels in her correspondence with Rand is that, thanks to the “mind-crippling toxin” of politically correct education, she gets no intellectual stimulation from her functionally illiterate students or even from other professors: “It’s your feeeelings that matter most,” she says, scorning their vapid mindset. “There Are No Wrong Answers. Let’s all sit in a circle and make a communal collage expressing our anger at our enemy – rich, white, heterosexual, Christian, American men.”

In the process of their back-and-forth, Mira quickly finds herself becoming seduced; she confides to a friend that “it’s as if he knows what words I most crave to hear and is speaking them, one after another, in some order designed to move me to the maximum.” But the growing intimacy is not of a simple sexual nature: “He and I are not tearing off our clothing to reveal our nakedness, but, rather, we are revealing something far more intimate – our souls.” In doing so, she finds they are not so much opposites attracting as complementary halves:

He’s a glacier. I’m a blowtorch. His hyperrationality and stunted emotional life provide scaffolding. For once in my life I can lean back. There is finally a methodical, cold and rational yang out there equal and opposite to my arithmetically retarded, ever-exploring yin.

Mira’s world view is a reflection of Dr. Goska’s own, of course; they both categorically reject the deadly relativism of what Goska calls “capital A” Atheists who dismiss all religion as evil. Such relativism “has long been the thinking of mass murderers from the French Terror to the Khmer Rouge,” she stated in the interview.

Save Send Delete presents a compelling challenge to that absolutist mentality. It is a passionate, intellectually wide-ranging novel that wrestles with “the big, hard questions” and makes the case, as Dr. Goska put it, “not only for faith, but for civilization.”

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 2/19/15

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sizing Up Sports Illustrated’s First Plus Size Model

The 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is here, and hype is buzzing around its historic inclusion of a so-called “plus size” model. But is that really a positive step forward for women?
SI’s swimsuit edition, a juggernaut which has earned a billion dollars for SI’s parent company Time, Inc., has been around for over 50 years. Its annual appearance sparks controversy. Its detractors rightly ask what itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie yellow polka dot bikinis have to do with the wide world of sports. They complain that, like Victoria’s Secret, SI is promoting an unrealistic body ideal for women. They argue that the titillating cover makes the swimsuit edition barely distinguishable from the Playboyjust a few magazines away at the newsstand.
On the latest one, for example, model Hannah Davis wears little more than a come-hither look; there is so much exposed flesh south of her belly button that the magazine very nearly qualifies as Gynecology Illustrated. It’s fair to say, as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation does, that the photo “normalizes genital display” and “borders obscenity.”
But this year SI seems to be throwing its critics a curve, so to speak, by featuring the first plus size model ever to appear in the swimsuit edition: Australian Robyn Lawley.
The term “plus-size” bears so little relation to reality as to be meaningless, and should be scrapped. In the fashion biz, it refers to models who are size 8 and up—but the average American woman is about a size 14. As Laura Beck puts it at Cosmopolitan: “At size 8, the plus-size models are considerably smaller than the average American women, and if that isn’t indicative of how delusional we are about what the majority of woman’s bodies look like, I don’t know what is.”
The 6’2” Robyn Lawley (a U.S. size 12) is no Kate Moss but she’s hardly overweight. “It’s ludicrous to call me plus size,” she wrote on Facebook. “I just consider myself a model because I’m trying to help women in general accept their bodies,” she has saidelsewhere.
It was a struggle for the Amazonian Lawley not only to be accepted in an industry that treats women her size like lepers, but even to accept her own body. “When I started my career 10 years ago, I had to painfully go to castings and people would look at you and say, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’” After years of extreme dieting, being sent home from casting sessions for not fitting the clothes, and hating her own body, Lawley found a modeling agent who told her, “‘You don’t need to lose any weight. You just need to be you. You’re perfect just as you are.’ You have no idea how happy and amazing that was to hear as a teenage girl. ACCEPTANCE.”
This revelation, and her perseverance, paid off with an extraordinary career and a string of awards and notable “firsts”: first plus-size model to be shot forAustralian Vogue and GQ Australia; first Australian plus-size model on the cover ofAustralia Cosmopolitan; and first plus-size model to appear in a Ralph Lauren campaign, among others.
Nevertheless, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is, as she puts it, “a milestone”—not just for her but for the magazine’s inclusion of her and, in a Swimsuits for All ad, another plus size model. The ad depicts a bikinied Ashley Graham, whose size 16 curves so captivate a passing male admirer that he either trips or hurls himself into a nearby pool.
Thanks in no small part to the much-publicized SI appearances, Lawley, Graham, and other models burdened by the “plus size” label are becoming increasingly visible fashion role models for women who want to be considered sexy but who don’t measure up to the waifish images that usually populate magazines and advertisements.
Yes, the swimsuit issue blatantly panders to Sports Illustrated’s largely male readership, and the cover’s pushing-of-the-sexual-envelope is problematic. But with Lawley and Graham, at least SI appears to be making a concession to the growing calls for size diversity in modeling, and using its rather significant influence to begin to broaden our perspective on the feminine ideal and on what is sexy. It may be the beginning of the end for the limiting label “plus size.” That may not sound like a giant leap for womankind, but it’s a step in the right direction.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/17/15)

Obama and the Gospel of Humility

On last Sunday’s Meet the Press, a panel that included host Chuck Todd, New York Times pundit David Brooks, NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, and BBC World News America anchor Katy Kay weighed in on President Obama’s despicable moral equivalence regarding his comments about ISIS and the Christian Crusaders of the Middle Ages.
You will recall that, in response to ISIS’ ghastly immolation of their Jordanian pilot captive, Obama lectured Americans in his speech for the National Prayer Breakfast, speaking at length about national humility and urging us to “get off our high horse.” After all, he pointed out, atrocities were once committed in the name of Christ as well, during the Crusades and the Inquisition. So ISIS’ Islamic barbarity “is not unique to one group or one religion,” he claimed. Dumbfounded Americans expressed outrage and disbelief.
But not David Brooks. “I’m totally pro-Obama on this,” he said. “I think he said the right thing.” Brooks said Obama was preaching “a gospel of humility,” which “people in Washington, pundits, and religious believers” all need to hear. “I happen to be all three of those things. And so we’re told to, we’re told to walk humbly in the path of the Lord. The Lord’s ways are mysterious and so you’re saying we’re prone to zealotry… we’re fallen. And so to underline that, that’s useful in Washington today, that’s useful always.”
Certainly our officials in Washington could do with a hefty dose of humility, but America as a whole? We’re prone to zealotry? In our postmodern, God-is-dead era, 7th century Islamic fundamentalists of today like ISIS have practically redefined the word. In the name of their god and prophet, they slaughter innocents, enslave women and children, and butcher apostates. They will use the Koran to justify any horror, and brutally punish any transgression of sharia, on the road to establish their worldwide caliphate. For Brooks and Obama to caution Americans about zealotry in such a context is so morally blinkered as to be staggering.
To her credit, Andrea Mitchell vehemently disagreed with Brooks: “The week after a pilot is burned alive, in a video shown, you don’t lean over backwards to be philosophical about the sins of the fathers.”
“That’s exactly when you do it,” Brooks argued.
No, it’s not. Mitchell was correct that the proper response to ISIS’ unthinkable cruelty was not to chastise ourselves for centuries-old sins, but to condemn the medieval ISIS for their current ones; not to bow in humility, but to assert our moral superiority. Guilty introspection is not the answer to violent evil.
Mitchell’s position was too black-and-white for Katy Kay, who blathered briefly about the “nuanced debate” we should be having about this topic. Progressives love the word “nuance” in the context of morality because they don’t believe in the polar opposites of good and evil. But that is exactly what ISIS believes in, and they are acting accordingly, with no moral or spiritual qualms about the righteousness of their aims and methods.
“Should the president not have done it?” Todd asked the panel. Only Mitchell felt Obama’s comments were inappropriate, but she also cautioned against inflaming the enemy’s hair-trigger rage: “You don’t use the word ‘Crusades,’ number one, in any context right now. It just, it’s too fraught.”
The word is only “fraught” with meaning because it triggers Islamist vitriol. Since everything and nothing triggers Islamist vitriol, that’s their problem, not ours. “Crusade” is our counterpoint to the word “jihad,” so we should reference it proudly and often.
No, we are at the most moral danger to ourselves when we are caught up in a paralysis of self-flagellating cultural guilt against an evil foe that has zero capacity for introspection or doubt. The evil we face absolutely demands a righteous fervor from us, an unflinching civilizational confidence which cultural Marxists have done their best to beat out of us but which is essential to our greatness. This is exactly the wrong time for the leader of the free world, the President of the greatest country on earth, to stand up at the National Prayer Breakfast and preach a gospel of humility.
After gushing that the Prayer Breakfast speech was “beautiful” and that Obama has given “a whole series of great speeches,” the sycophantic Brooks reiterated that Obama’s call for humility was perfectly timed and appropriate: “We’re at the most moral danger to ourselves when we’re caught up in a righteous fervor against an evil foe, which is what we have.”
I am reminded of a book I reviewed for The New Criterion a year ago entitledHumility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, by David J. Bobb. The director of the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Studies in D.C., Bobb believes that humility has been and is our country’s greatest virtue. He argues that as a nation today, we are afflicted with an arrogance that hinders a revival of our greatness, and that humility must guide us forward.
But while we certainly have an administration that is afflicted with arrogance, it is not a national sickness. Economic turmoil, foreign policy debacles, military downsizing, and vanishing international respect for America have humbled—or more properly, humiliated—us plenty in recent years; what we need now is not to recover our humility but to reclaim a healthy pride in our exceptionalism.
As big a fan as I am of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, what the world needs now is not love, sweet love, but a clear-eyed moral perspective and the righteous strength to act upon it. Black-hearted evil is upon the earth; our nation must summon the moral decisiveness to stand against that evil and eradicate it.
“No God condones terror,” Obama stated in his speech. Wrong. Our enemy believes that their god not only condones it but commands it. And if we don’t quash our spiritual doubt and cultural guilt, and don our own righteous armor, their god will win.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Magazine, 2/16/15)

Friday, February 13, 2015

An ‘Old-Fashioned’ Valentine Alternative to Fifty Shades

This Valentine’s Day weekend the most-hyped date movie is, of course, Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the wildly popular, widely ridiculed, S&M erotic novel of the same name. But for those couples whose vision of romance doesn’t include bondage fantasies, there is a more traditional romantic movie alternative: Old-Fashioned, whose tagline is “Chivalry Makes a Comeback.”
Fifty Shades, of course, originated as the literarily underwhelming tale of a naïve young woman sucked into the gravitational sphere—and the sexual exploitation—of a wealthy, handsome businessman/control freak. The book was a mega-bestseller despite criticism of its juvenile writing quality and pornographic nature. Now the movie version is stirring controversy and being protested for eroticizing violence against women—not exactly the message most women want promoted on a day that celebrates committed love and romance.
Old-Fashioned offers a counterpoint to that. It was written, directed, and produced by its star Rik Swartzwelder, who plays Clay Walsh, a former carousing frat boy who found religion and now runs an antique shop in a small Midwestern town (the movie was filmed in Swartzwelder’s native Ohio). But now he wears his devoutness as emotional armor, and hides behind what our culture today considers archaic attitudes on love and romance—until a pretty young woman named Amber rents the apartment above his shop. His seriousness about faith, love, and relationships intrigues her, just as her free-spirited spontaneity challenges him to open up. Together, they “attempt the impossible,” as the synopsis says: “an ‘old-fashioned’ and God-honoring courtship in contemporary America.”
One movie trailer for Old-Fashioned cleverly and explicitly contrasts the romance withFifty Shades, pointing out that, instead of a “sexy corporate mogul” and “naïve ingénue,” this film stars a “sincere small businessman” and a “sweet Midwestern girl with a cat.” Instead of Fifty Shades’ “manipulation” and “exploitation,” it substitutes “healing” and “chivalry.” “Love is patient… love is kind,” the trailer concludes, echoing the beautiful Biblical passage. “Love is anything but grey. Love is old-fashioned.”
The movie is plainly targeted at underserved Christian movie audiences in what coastal elites call “flyover country,” the vast stretch of America between L.A. and New York. The baggage that too many low-budget faith-based films bear, however, despite their box office success, is that they suffer from over-earnest acting and heavy-handed messaging. Fortunately, Old-Fashioned may be unabashedly sentimental and religious, but based solely on the trailers, it doesn’t seem burdened by poor performances or writing.
As a low-budget indie venture with no recognizable stars, Old-Fashioned is fated to be crushed at the box office by Fifty Shades, which also has no big stars but benefits from studio backing and the incredible success of the novel. What these two films going head-to-head represents, however, is not simply a David-vs-Goliath box office showdown, but a clash of two very different perspectives on love and romance in contemporary American culture. Fifty Shades of Grey is slick pornography about seduction, domination, and emotional control; Old-Fashioned is a simple but emotionally compelling story of two vulnerable souls striving to overcome the obstacles to love. One aims to titillate the sexually curious, the other to touch hearts.
One manager of a two-screen independent cinema in Iowa Falls plans to offer Old-Fashioned alongside Fifty Shades of Grey in an attempt to strike up “a lively lobby conversation.” What would be even better is if the contrast between the two films on Valentine’s Day sparked a lively national conversation about our culture’s obsessive detachment of sex from the spirituality of love. If Old-Fashioned can reach enough couples looking for a romantic movie alternative to Fifty Shades’ degrading message, then perhaps it will help chivalry make a comeback after all.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/13/15)

Gary Sinise Turns Gratitude into Service

At Acculturated we like to highlight the good work celebrities do rather than dwell on the usual scandals and misbehavior, and there is arguably no celebrity who currently devotes himself more to good works off-camera than actor Gary Sinise.

Gary is familiar to most fans as the disabled vet Lt. Dan Taylor from Forrest Gump and more recently as Detective Mac Taylor from the crime drama CSI: New York, which ran from 2004 to 2013. In addition to Gump, his movie career includes Of Mice and Men (which he also directed), Apollo 13, The Green Mile, and Truman, not to mention tons of television and voiceover work.

But (if you’ll pardon the corny segue) Gary’s most important role has been in service to America’s military. He has done, and continues to do, more for our servicemen and -women than any celeb since Bob Hope. “Freedom and security are precious gifts that we, as Americans, should never take for granted,” Gary writes on his foundation’s website. “We must do all we can to extend our hand in times of need to those who willingly sacrifice each day to provide that freedom and security. While we can never do enough to show gratitude to our nation's defenders, we can always do a little more.”

Gary has done a lot more. Since 2011, the Gary Sinise Foundation, “committed to ensuring the sacrifices of our brave men and women are never forgotten,” has launched the construction of custom-built, automated “smart homes” for America’s severely wounded heroes. The homes help accommodate the physical challenges faced by those vets and give them some degree of independence. As an emotional example of just what an impact that has had on our wounded warriors, check out this video interview in which a quadriplegic vet tearfully expresses his gratitude to Gary for helping get him and his family into one of the smart homes.

The Foundation’s Relief & Resiliency Outreach program “provides complete support to military and first-responder families recovering from trauma and loss during times of urgent need.” The Foundation hosts its own Invincible Spirit Festivals, day-long celebrations designed to boost the morale and spirits of the patients, their families and the medical staff at military hospitals across the country. Among the Foundation’s other initiatives is its Serving Heroes program, through which it provides hearty meals to our defenders across the nation. 

The average fan isn’t aware that Gary is also a rocking bass player for his own cover band, the Lt. Dan Band (tagline: Honor. Gratitude. Rock & Roll.), which has performed hundreds of shows to service members and their families all around the world for over a dozen years. I’ve seen them live, and they’re not merely hired hacks backing a self-indulgent celebrity. They’re all talented musicians who put on a fun, high-powered show.

He volunteers for the National Veterans Art Museum. He is on the Advisory Council of Hope for the Warriors, a national non-profit dedicated to providing non-medical care to combat-wounded service members and their families, as well as to the families of fallen warriors. He is the National Spokesperson for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. Though he never served in the military himself, Gary was made an honorary U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer for his efforts in helping veterans and was named an honorary Marine. 

In 2004, Gary and Unbroken author Laura Hillenbrand co-founded Operation International Children, which began as a program to enable Americans to send school supplies to Iraqi kids, but which has since expanded its reach to children around the world, including the United States (after hurricane Katrina).

Amid all this service (and those examples are just the standouts), the Oscar-nominated actor’s career still flourishes. After nine seasons as the lead in CSI: New York, it was announced last month that Gary will star in a Criminal Minds spinoff for CBS. He is in talks to be cast in next year’s superhero flick Suicide Squad.

I am honored to know Gary personally, and I can tell you that he is a down-to-earth, kind, church-going family man (married to Moira for over thirty years, with three children) whose quiet humility is extremely refreshing in Hollywood.

Acculturated hands out a Celebrities Behaving Well Award each year to a deserving star. If we were ever to bestow a Celebrities Behaving Well Lifetime Achievement Award, Gary Sinise would be the clear frontrunner.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/10/15)

Friday, February 6, 2015

In Defense of Beauty Contestants

Televised beauty pageants have reached such a nadir of cultural relevance today that it seems the only time we pay attention to them is when a contestant makes a viral-worthy flub during the question-and-answer portion. Then we have our stereotypes confirmed about beautiful women being brainless, and everyone has a good laugh at their expense. Shame on us.

Few of us remember pageant moments of grace and talent and poise, but who doesn’t remember the painfully incomprehensible answer from poor Caitlin Upton, Miss South Carolina, to why she thinks so many Americans are geography-challenged? Or Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, saying that the answer to gender pay inequity is “to create education better”?

This time it was our very own Miss USA, Nia Sanchez, who found herself at the wrong end of a rather heavy question from boxer and pageant judge Manny Pacquiao during the Miss Universe pageant earlier this week. “If you were given 30 seconds to deliver a message to global terrorists,” he struggled in awkward English, “what would you say?”

Honestly, what would any of us say in such a theoretical scenario? “Stop killing people”? Is lecturing “global terrorists” now one of the duties and obligations of Miss Universe? What was Miss Sanchez expected to do, deliver a concisely-crafted statement on foreign policy and a strategy for defusing international terrorism? All of the policy wonks in our own government can’t even manage that, but Miss USA is expected to have an answer up the sleeve of her sleeveless gown?

So Nia Sanchez did what beauty pageant contestants are expected to do in these tricky circumstances, and that is offer up a generic olive branch to everyone everywhere: “I know as Miss USA I can always spread a message of hope and love and peace, and I would do my very best to spread that message to them and everyone else in the world.”

She ended as first runner-up to Miss Colombia, so it isn’t as if her unsophisticated answer got her booted offstage. But to many Monday morning pageant judges, it felt like a bland cop-out, and so the predictable internet snark began. “Hope, love, and peace will be your message to global terrorists? GOOD ONE MISS USA,” read one tweet. “This is why we’re doomed,” read one headline.

Pageant contestants learned their lesson about taking a stand on the issues back in the very politicized 2009 Miss USA pageant, when Miss California Carrie Prejean was cornered with a gotcha! question from gossip maven Perez Hilton about gay marriage. She dared to answer from her conscience, and outrage ensued over her shocking belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Hilton, having gotten the controversy he was angling for, blogged gleefully about it the next day, calling her a “dumb b**ch” and a “c**t.” He told ABC News, “She lost it because of that question. She was definitely the front-runner before that.”

Pageant winners, by definition, are supposed to be emissaries of good will, representative of their entire state or country – or in the case of this week’s pageant, the whole universe. Politics, by its very nature, is divisive and contentious. It’s a no-win situation, literally, for contestants to answer politicized questions, and they shouldn’t have to.

Beauty pageant contestants, like fashion models, get a bum rap for not swelling the ranks of MENSA, but this is unfair. The handful in both fields that I have known have been educated and cultured, but at that age they don’t have all the answers. No one expects 24-year-old pro football players or insurance salesmen or Hollywood actors or dental technicians or people of any other profession to stand up under lights and cameras and expound intelligently on a pop quiz of random world issues – why expect that of very young women in beauty pageants?

Nia Sanchez is 24 years old. The aforementioned Miss Upton and Miss Powell were 18 and 21 respectively at the time of their humiliating brain freezes, enshrined on the internet for all time. At that age range I wouldn’t have had articulate, soundbite-ready answers to politically-charged questions, either, much less the poise to respond to them spontaneously with a smile as the world watched.

If you think pageants are shallow and sexist, then don’t watch. If you enjoy the gowns and the hair and the beauty, then appreciate them for that. But it’s mean-spirited and uncharitable to hold these ladies up as objects of ridicule for not being political pundits.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/5/15