My original review of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” now soaking audiences in 3-D re-release

TITANIC: DOWN WITH THE SHIP (March 1998)

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BY PETER KURTH

I sat glued to the Academy Awards on Monday for the first time in years, waiting to see if Hollywood would go all the way at the Titanic orgy by endowing this billion-dollar piece of junk with all 14 of the awards for which it was nominated. It isn’t easy seeing Hollywood congratulate itself for three hours straight, whether you’re watching Titanic in the theater or the Oscars on TV. I watched both for this report and I’m heading for the lifeboats.

Actually, I wanted to review Titanic without having seen it, because I think it would make a better story.  There can never have been a movie — or a ship — so over-publicized as this.  The only thing I didn’t know about Titanic before I saw it was that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet end up having sex in the back seat of a car.

That’s right, a car. Just before Titanic hits the iceberg.  That is to say, way into the movie. Way, way into the movie.

Other than that, I knew everything there was to know about this film through osmosis. I knew that Leonardo dies in the end and that Kate doesn’t. I knew that Kate goes on to become a potter and free spirit in the form of Gloria Stuart. I knew that Leonardo teaches Kate how to lob goobers from the side of the ship. I knew that Kate gives someone the finger in a particularly thrilling scene, even though she’s supposed to be an upper-class girl from 1912. I knew that Titanic had been filmed so cleverly you’d never know how scrawny Leonardo is, even though he spends at least a third of the movie soaked in water.

I knew, of course, that the ship finally sinks. I’d already seen it a thousand times on TV, rising on its bow, cracking in half, and flinging a lot of shrieking people from the poop (or whatever). I’m here to tell you there’s no difference between seeing this movie and not seeing it, except that seeing it allows you to quote some of the worst dialogue of “all time,” as everyone keeps saying about this witless potboiler:

“A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets” (Gloria Stuart, as Kate grown up).

“You could just call me a tumbleweed blowin’ in the wind” (Leonardo).

“They’re fascinating. Like in a dream. There’s truth without logic. What’s his name again?” (Kate, gazing at a couple of Picassos she’s hauled on board).

“Swim, Rose! I need you to swim!” (Leonardo to Kate, having survived an aquatic vortex that would have sucked the Statue of Liberty from her pedestal and lapsing into 90’s psychobabble while hundreds die around him).

I could go on, but what’s the point? With regard to history, never mind the laws of the sea, Titanic is the silliest thing since Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter. The only nice thing I can say about it is that Celine Dion’s nasal wailing number doesn’t start till the final credits roll, so you at least have a chance of escaping that disaster.

                                                              Celine Dion? Get us off this ship!

Mind you, I think the Motion Picture Academy was mean not to nominate Leonardo for an Oscar along with everyone else in Titanic. I don’t blame him for not showing up. In earlier times, of course, when Hollywood had style, Leonardo would have been cast as the soda jerk in an Andy Hardy movie or as Doris Day’s little brother in By the Light of the Silvery Moon. But he’s no worse than anyone else in Titanic, and it’s his picture, after all. Ask any teenager.

There’s no point in complaining that Leonardo, as a struggling artist from Wisconsin at the turn of the century, is unconvincing. He’s not there for verisimilitude, any more than director James Cameron’s much-hyped recreation of HMS Titanic bears much resemblance to an actual ship. You’ve never seen such spacious quarters in steerage, and whenever Kate and Leonardo go out on the deck to spit, squabble or flap their arms while balancing on the prow, there’s not another soul in sight. Two thousand people on board and these idiots have the deck to themselves.

To the Academy’s credit, it nixed Titanic in the acting and screenplay categories — the very things that make most movies worth watching — but if we’re giving Oscars to software, it only makes sense. At one point, Oscar-winners from previous years were lined up on bleachers for a grotesque “Family Portrait.” Most of them looked like shut-ins or escapees from the nursing home, and when Cameron, clutching his umpteenth award, cynically called for “a few seconds of silence” to honor the victims of Titanic, he was the only one who wouldn’t shut up. Everyone else had sunk to the briny deep.

Shrink Wrapped

February 11, 2012

“Grief is the agony of an instant, the indulgence of grief the blunder of a life.”

Thus spake Disraeli, British Prime Minister under Queen Victoria and apparently a prophet of modern ennui. The New York Times ran a story recently about proposed revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, invariably described as “the bible of mental health treatment,” which wants to include grief – good, old, normal bereavement — as a new category of depression in the next edition of the book. This has sneaky implications: The DSM is the go-to reference for psychiatrists and, more critically, health insurers, who follow its recommendations when deciding to cover — or not cover – treatment for what ails ya.

In other words, if your complaint has a name and a diagnostic number in the DSM, someone’s more likely to pay for your pills. Adding a “disorder” like grief to the mix widens the margin for mistaken diagnoses and will benefit Big Pharma more than anyone else. “Current efforts to revise the manual,” says the Times, “are shaping up as the most contentious ever.”

Of course grief – acute sorrow from the death of a loved one – has been medicated forever, usually with alcohol, and in some cases, obviously, it can persist indefinitely and morph into mental illness. But up till now, taken alone, grief has been excluded from the DSM as a marketable ailment. It’s one of a host of conditions, ranging from shyness to schizophrenia, that by their absence make depression apparent in a given case. Other possibilities need to be excluded before they hand out the Prozac.

Currently, the DSM requires that patients exhibit at least five symptoms of major depression before a correct diagnosis can be made – trouble sleeping, feelings of worthlessness, “suicidal ideation,” etc. These must persist for at least two weeks and not be caused by external factors. A depressed grief-stricken person, you’d think, would present symptoms above and beyond, or anyway different from … well, grief.

But no: Under the new rules, if your husband dies suddenly and you’re still weeping about it two weeks later, you can put away the sherry and head to the pharmacy for relief.

In fairness to the industry, a lot of psychiatrists are frowning on this. “There is the potential for considerable false-positive diagnoses and unnecessary treatment of grief-stricken persons,” the Times reports, words that would cheer the heart if the experts weren’t so concerned with externals: “Drugs for depression can have side effects, including low sex drive” (as if that were the best reason for avoiding them!). Americans are already the most medicated people on earth – the pathologizing of “negative emotion” has hit epidemic levels in this country.

Take “attenuated psychosis syndrome” (A.P.S.), my current favorite for inclusion in the revised DSM. This is a label to be stuck on people – mainly young people – “who experience delusional thinking and hallucinations and sometimes say things that do not make sense.” As a predictor of insanity it’s almost useless, however, since “seventy percent to 80 percent of young people who report these strange experiences do not ever qualify for a full-blown diagnosis” of psychosis or schizophrenia, per the Times’ report.

The key word here is attenuated — as in, “We’re stretching all this a bit thin.” It’s like “generalized anxiety disorder” (G.A.D.), a fair description of the human condition and the diagnosis you’re likely to get if you turn up in a therapist’s office for anything from fidgets to a busted romance. The purpose of the label is to pay for the treatment. Ditto with “binge eating disorder” (B.E.D.), “premenstrual dysphoric disorder” (P.D.D.), “intermittent explosive disorder” (I.E.D.) or “pervasive developmental disorder — not otherwise specified” (P.D.D.-N.O.S.) – a label I’m jonesing to get for myself, since it contains the seed of all possible explanations. (“See him? He’s got P.D.D.-N.O.S. Such a waste!”)

“The world has changed,” says Dr. James H. Scully, Jr., chief executive of the American Psychiatric Association, whose job it is to approve final revisions to the DSM. “We’ve got electronic media around the clock, and we’ve made drafts of the proposed changes public online, for one thing. So anybody and everybody can comment on them, at any time, without any editors.”

That sounds right – very democratic. Meantime millions of children are medicated for “attention-deficit disorder” – a twenty-fold increase in prescriptions in just thirty years, says the Times – despite the fact that “no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems,” the very things it’s meant to improve.

Did you know that? Treatment for A.D.D. is basically a band-aid. It seems that amphetamines work equally well – in fact, identically — on children without A.D.D., Ritalin, Adderall and other drugs being designed to improve and make bearable the performance of “boring, repetitive tasks.” Their social utility is paramount, far more important than the subtle needs of any one kid. And the message from the experts is perfectly clear: Snap out of it! There is to be no trouble in any of our lives! Dope ‘em up, move ‘em out!

I wrote on this same theme 20 years ago, reviewing Dr. Peter Kramer’s landmark Listening to Prozac for “The New York Observer.” Text below.

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LISTENING TO PROZAC (New York Observer, June 1993)

Does anyone remember that old “Twilight Zone” episode where the citizens of some future society are all required to look and sound alike? On reaching adulthood, everyone is given a choice of body type A or B, blond or brunette, amounting in either case to a blandly attractive, surgically perfected, absolute sameness of appearance? The plot revolved around a couple of misfits, who thought they might be happier being drab and maladjusted than flawless and not themselves.  But in the end they changed their minds, or were made to change their minds, and in those virtuous days of the 1960s, when Rod Serling was alive and the psychologists hadn’t done much more than IQ us into corners, loss of individuality was regarded as a tragedy, pure and simple.  We were against it, the way we were against Communism, atheism and fluoride in the water.

But not anymore, or not on the evidence of the books that keep pouring out of the psychotherapy industry.  The harder we’re urged these days to follow our bliss and run with the wolves the more determined are the experts, in their oily little hearts, that we stay on the straight and narrow.  No real eccentricity is permitted in the fix-it-all culture; no quirk of character or twist of sentiment is allowed to exist without reference to “pain,” “abuse” and the duty of our citizens to “grow” at all costs.  Growth for the sake of growth is the primary feature of a cancer cell, but never mind.  You are not OK the way you are, and if you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of Listening to Prozac, Dr. Peter Kramer’s riveting account of the history and future of anti-depressant drugs in America.  If and when your brain manages to absorb the dispiriting message of Dr. Kramer’s book, you might recommend it to your friends.  If, on the other hand, your hair stands up from now till Christmas, take heart:  there’s a pill out there with your name on it.

Before I make it entirely clear how disturbed I am about the imminent triumph of chemistry and psychiatry over self-awareness, depth of feeling, creativity, spirituality, subtlety, humility, discernment, intuition, experience, significance and the dignity  of the human race, I ought to say a few kind words about Dr. Kramer and his book.  I mean them sincerely.  Listening to Prozac is a fascinating, well crafted, sometimes ironic and possibly momentous contribution to our understanding of personality and the future of psychopharmacology (a fancy word for drugging the population when it gets upset).  Dr. Kramer is smart as hell, and he writes awfully well for someone named Dr. Kramer.  I have to admit, too, that I prefer the sound of an M.D.’s voice to the earnest kazooing of the psychobabblers.  Listening to Prozac is filled with “aggressive fathers” and “passive mothers,” and there’s a whole chapter devoted to formes frustes, or “low self-esteem.”  But deep down, I think, Dr. Kramer isn’t sold on the lingo.  He calls it “insulting,” and he’s right:  it is.

It’s also next to meaningless.  Pick a problem (any problem) and call it what you want.  Adult children of alcoholics, outer-directed husbands’ love-addicted wives, frenzied sisters’ younger brothers — all of them, nowadays, suffer from what Dr. Kramer describes as a “chronic condition:  heightened awareness of the needs of others, sensitivity to conflict, residual damage to self-esteem.”  Come at this from another angle and you’ve got “co-dependency.”  Fifteen years ago you had Erroneous Zones and the When-I-Say-No-I-Feel-Guilty crowd.

These rock-ordinary human attributes have been with us since the dawn of time; they are “odd indications for medication,” Dr. Kramer thinks, but I don’t.  I honestly believe we’ve been so badly damaged by a parade of shifting, pseudo-caring labels that the only cure for what ails us would be an anti-depressant, the psychologists showing no sign of pulling up stakes anytime soon and moving on, say, to poetry.  Prozac, as everyone knows, popped out of the labs in the late 1980s, and, following some trendy analysis in the newsmagazines (and on Oprah, Geraldo, “60 Minutes,” and so on), it emerged as the fanciest thing on the therapeutic circuit, the equalizing, all-embracing, all-fulfilling drug of choice for the occasionally-to-somewhat-bothered-by-lifers.

Please don’t think I’m being flippant when I say that.  Listening to Prozac isn’t concerned with the treatment of insanity or even of mental illness (where drugs to stabilize the mind and emotions obviously play a needed and charitable role).  Dr. Kramer is a practicing psychiatrist who was moved to examine the “moral” and “ethical” implications of Prozac when he observed its transforming effect, not on schizophrenics or the severely disturbed, but on the most insipidly unhappy people:  the discontented, the oversensitive, the sullen and the dull. Traits of character, the doctor says — but your grandmother knew this already — are ingrained in our nervous systems and genetic codes.  Our weaknesses and vulnerabilities have a life of their own, regardless of their “childhood” origin.  At first “psychological,” they become biological, “autonomous,” chemically rooted and malleable; Prozac wipes them out in a “substantial minority” of cases.  It actually “fixes” the personality, rendering the shy outgoing, the angry calm, the lonely and tongue-tied convivial and (by the sound of it) hot to trot.

Deadbeats, on Prozac, are “socially attractive” for the first time in their lives.  Shirkers at work become positively Japanese in their eagerness to produce.  Wallflowers blossom, losers win.  Nobody comes home without a prize except those unlucky few who, for reasons no one has yet figured out, are driven to the brink of suicide by Prozac’s mucking around with their serotonin levels.  (There is already such a thing as a “Prozac Survivor’s Support Group.”)

Try as he might, Dr. Kramer can’t escape the feeling that something doesn’t “sit right” with self-improvement on a chemical basis.  Could it be, he wonders, that “diminishing pain can dull the soul?”  The studies he provides of “successful” cases all concern people whom society rewards in their Prozaced condition:  teenagers who’ve stopped moping, wives who’ve stopped yelling, men who’ve stopped screwing around.  Dr. Kramer wants to know if the world is ready for “cosmetic psychopharmacology” and “the medicalization of personality.”

“What are the implications,” he asks, “of a drug that makes a person better loved, richer, and less constrained — because her personality conforms better to a societal ideal?”  What sort of road are we on when medicine is used, not to cure, but to control, and simultaneously to revise the concept of illness, taking standard traits of human behavior and stripping them down into “symptoms?”  Will we go quiet into that anti-depressant night, allowing “material technology, medications, to define what is health and what is illness?”

Dr. Kramer is too sharp-witted not to realize that we are standing in the shadow of the Brave New World, but in the end, I’m afraid, he’s squarely on the side of the medicators.  Psychotherapy, too, he tells us, was once lambasted “for inducing adaptation to the dominant culture,” and “asking about the virtue of Prozac [is] like asking whether it was a good thing for Freud to have discovered the unconscious.”  There are those, of course, who think it was not.  Dr. Kramer closes his book with a tribute to Woody Allen and his New Age fantasy, Alice, where an edgy Mia Farrow pops downtown to a Chinese doctor and snorts a mixture of mysterious herbs that allows her to dump her insulting husband and put the make on strangers at the zoo.  These aren’t quite the people I’d pick to recommend a vision of the future, on or off drugs, but they keep the shrinks in business, after all.

A word of advice:  if you read the book, you’ll want the dope.  Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

Sitting Shiva: You never can tell!

Today’s New York Times has an important op-ed from Kevin M. Kruse, associate professor of history at Princeton, on the manipulation of the phrase “under God” in American politics by corporate leaders and the religious right. It sent me back to the “Crank Call” archive, where I dug up this column from 2002. Read Kruse’s “For God So Loved the 1 Percent” to see why this issue won’t go away.

“UNDER GOD”

(First published 07.03.02)

Well, score one for our side, however briefly and without a prayer of success — you’ll forgive the expression.

I refer to the “God” business — that is, the “under God” business — and the decision of the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the inclusion of the words “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional, a violation of the separation of church and state.

“A profession that we are a nation `under God’ is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation `under Jesus,’ a nation `under Vishnu,’ a nation `under Zeus,’ or a nation `under no god,'” said Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, speaking for the court: “None of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.”

I’ve known this since I was old enough to crawl, and I mean that literally. The first angry letter my mother sent to a newspaper was in June 1954, when Congress, pandering to fears of Communists, flying saucers and nuclear war, caved in to President Eisenhower and the Knights of Columbus and stuck “under God” into the Pledge, smack between the nation and its indivisibility. I was less than a year old at the time, but I grew up in a house where this perfidy was not forgotten.

I suppose everyone knows by now — don’t they? — that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a card-carrying socialist, Francis Bellamy, and that it first entered the public schools in honor of Christopher Columbus. There’s a topic best avoided! The Pledge had already been altered once, over Bellamy’s protests, before the bingo crowd got their hands on it during the McCarthy years. He never lived to see the further perversion of his work. But on June 14, 1954, President Eisenhower declared:

“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and every rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

This sounds uncannily like our own President George W. Bush, who remarked after the California ruling last week, “America is a nation … that values our relationship with an Almighty.” So elegantly stated! Of course he forgot to add the nouns: Almighty dollar, Almighty oil, Almighty blather, etc.

“The declaration of God in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t violate rights,” Bush insists. “As a matter of fact, it’s a confirmation of the fact that we received our rights from God, as proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence.”

Very nice — that’s “fact” twice in one sentence. But the Declaration of Independence isn’t the U. S. Constitution, which never mentions God at all and moves from there to its first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” This is meant to be a two-way street: In exchange for the right to keep its own laws, no religion may impose itself statutorily on any American citizen. Get it?

No matter: The California ruling has already been suspended and hasn’t got a chance in hell of standing up on review. Congress — including Vermont’s touted “Independent” delegation — has proved 100 percent craven on this issue, blustering about “values” and squawking for a Constitutional re-write.

“Let us not wait for the Supreme Court to act on this,” says Senator John Warner (R.-Virginia).

“This decision is just nuts,” answers majority leader Tom Daschle (D.-South Dakota). They want you to be thinking in slogans and cheap patriotism, the better to keep your eyes off the Almighty corruption in their coffers and halls. On the Pledge itself, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer sounds like Eva Perón.

“This decision will not sit well with the American people,” Fleischer says. “Certainly it does not sit well with the president of the United States.”

In fact, the president of the United States has nothing to do with this decision. It is, properly if forlornly, in judicial hands, where conservative judges will make sure it’s overturned. You’ve got nothing to worry about.

According to polls, 87 percent of Americans interviewed are in favor of keeping “under God” in the Pledge. I expect this has more to do with the way they learned it than anything else. So lousy with cowardice are the press and the pundits on this issue that Sunday’s New York Times saw fit to run a front-page story under the headline, “Court That Ruled on Pledge Often Runs Afoul of Justices.”

“The court that pronounced the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional has a reputation for being wrong,” the Times reports, “and critics say its unwieldy size is to blame.” A bit farther on we learn that “wrong” doesn’t mean “incorrect” in this case — or even, you know, wrong — just that the 9th Circuit often ends up on the losing side of its cases. Way, way down in the story, where most will never go, a California law professor is permitted to explain:

“The opinions written by conservatives on the 9th Circuit are just as likely to be overturned as opinions by liberals. When you’re dealing with hard questions, a reversal rate does not mean the court of appeals was wrong and the Supreme Court was right. It means the Supreme Court got the last word.”

Y’all remember the Supreme Court? They’re the ones that put Junior into office.

“I Don’t.”

January 11, 2012

If only she’d known! Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in BBC1’s “Great Expectations."

With the Republican primaries now in full wallop it’s time to talk about something serious: Marriage. Specifically, its decline. A friend came by the other day in a welter of gloom, discouraged by six weeks of cohabitation and the true personality of his beloved. The details aren’t important. “Into their inmost bower, handed they went” and discovered they had very different notions of togetherness. She likes to cuddle and he wants to read.

“I’m beginning to think that living alone might be easier,” he said.

“Not just easier, better,” I answered. “Better.” I never pause in my promotion of the single life. If not celibate, I am anti-connubial, seriously non-nuptial, and it seems I’m now in the majority. A new report from the Pew Research Institute indicates a “startling” drop in the U.S. marriage rate – down 5 percent in 2010 and more than 20 percent since 1960. Similar studies in Britain reveal that only 48 percent of eligible adults in the UK are currently yoked for life.

“We don’t know why,” says Pew researcher D’Vera Cohn, whose task it was to break this news to unbelievers. “We can’t really say for sure that it’s the recession or bad economic times. There are other kinds of living arrangements that are socially acceptable now, such as living with someone without being married, living on your own, or even living as a single parent. So people may feel they have options that they didn’t used to have.”

Well, yes, they do. And in Cohn’s depiction, at least, the benefits of marriage are distinctly unromantic.

“Economically speaking, married couples tend to have more income and more wealth,” she explains. “The kind of partnership marriage encourages is one in which you plan for the future, share your assets, build wealth together. There isn’t that evidence yet for people who [just] live together. If people who aren’t married are less able to build wealth, that will affect the overall wealth of the country.”

So if you’re not getting married, I guess, you’re a slacker, a drain on the economy and a threat to GDP. At the least, probably, you aren’t buying in bulk at Costco. There are, of course, “the children” to think of, a mantra guaranteed to stop any debate in America.

“There’s research indicating that children have a higher likelihood of turning out well if they come from a household where their parents are married,” Cohn insists, before backtracking and saying that no, in fact, there isn’t: “Most children turn out well regardless of whether their parents are married or not, so I’m not at all trying to suggest that children will turn out badly if their parents aren’t married.”

What is she trying to suggest?

“There’s a somewhat higher likelihood that these children will face issues,” Cohn concludes, “and some of those may include economic hardship.”

Ah, Americans. Always trying to put a shine on shit. But if the best defense of marriage is more money in the bank we might as well go back to camels and grandmother’s linen. Historically, till the Industrial Revolution, at least, athe institution of marriage rested on the backs of chattel, women and children whose job it was, not to create wealth, but to provide services for the home enterprise, which itself was not expected to turn money but to keep everyone alive. Marriage and its contract were an exchange of labor, in olden times, divorced from profit and, for that matter, romantic love.

Now, all families are owned by banks, subject to market forces and the rules of investment. This is where the gays come in. In a brave essay for Lapham’s Quarterly (December 2011), Justin E. H. Smith argues that the drive to same-sex marriage is, au fond, a triumph of commerce and not a blow for human rights. The modern nuclear family, consisting of Mom, Pop, the kids and no one else, “with only casual or symbolic ties to friends and extended family,” is such a recent invention that some well-behaved homosexuals can hardly be a menace to it.

“In this respect,” Smith writes, “gay marriage is not a reduction to absurdity of an ancient institution, so much as it is an instance of late capitalism’s voracious absorption of everything that might otherwise stand as an obstacle to it. … The rebranding of couples as ‘partners’ is the sad culmination of the modern transformation of couples into work-love units” – i.e., it’s your job to be married, with children, and shopping till you drop. Anyone can do it.

You can read all of Smith’s essay here. And don’t weep for bygone times. By stubbornly remaining single, you’ll be doing your bit for the #Occupy movement.

UPDATE: Look, it’s getting worse! Unhitched In America: Only 1 in 3 Americans Wants to Get Married, in Slate, 3 February 2012

Santorum and Lott: Pigs of a Feather

Found this in my old “Crank Call” files. Seems pertinent now. First published 30 April 2003

How thoughtful of Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania and chair of the Senate Republican Conference, to take my mind off Iraq, Iran, Syria, SARS, North Korea, Donald Rumsfeld, Laci Peterson and that freak in the White House by attacking “homosexuality.”  It’s been a long time since I’ve written a screed in defense of gay sex, an issue of such burning importance to the nation that it’s eclipsed the Dixie Chicks and Charlton Heston’s farewell speech to the National Rifle Association.

For those who don’t know, Mr. Heston, stricken with Alzheimer’s, won a standing ovation at the NRA’s annual convention on Sunday, “shuffling onto the stage before a crowd of 4,000” and “strong enough to raise an 1866 Winchester rifle over his head” while gasping his trademark line, “From my cold, dead hands!”  Which, right now, to speak frankly, I wish were wrapped around Santorum’s neck.

Oh, I know — Santorum has “no problem with homosexuality,” as he told the Associated Press in the interview that caused all the fuss:  “I have a problem with homosexual acts.  As I would with acts of other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships.”

These acts might include golfing, cheating, lying, stealing, bombing Iraq and leaving the toilet seat up, but let’s not pin a straight man down.  “I think this is a legitimate public policy discussion,” Santorum remarks.  “These are not, you know, ridiculous, you know, comments.”

No.  These are, you know, appalling, you know, despicable comments.  Santorum describes the abuse of children by Catholic priests as “a basic homosexual relationship,” and while acknowledging that homosexuality is not in itself, “you know, man on child, man on dog,” he sees no need to temper his words.  “And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home,” he adds, “then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.  You have the right to anything.”

Well!  That’s a lot to swallow, forgiving the expression.  I doubt that “swallowing” sits high on Santorum’s list of traditional heterosexual acts, although I’m sure if my cold, dead hands were to lift the sheets when he and Mrs. S. get together for the Deed, he’d resent the intrusion.  Democrats have called for Santorum to resign his Senate leadership post, and even the Human Rights Campaign, a generally insipid gay rights organization, has said that his stance is “stunning in its insensitivity — putting homosexuality on the same moral plane as incest is repulsive.”

Actually, incest is the only item on Santorum’s list that can be compared to “homosexual acts,” even if the comparison is odious.  Bigamy, polygamy and adultery are all terms defined by their relation to legal or, if you prefer, holy matrimony.  Take away the marriage vow and these entities change their names.  “Bigamy” becomes a second marriage, “polygamy” a third, fourth, or more, and “adultery” — let’s face it — is just an affair.  Outside the law, none of them has anything to do with sexual preference, positions, partners or parts.

Not so with incest, which, while also illegal, is a social taboo, powerfully and permanently proscribed by almost every society and so fraught with genetic and emotional baggage as to pop the diamond from your ring.  It, too, is widely practiced, despite its prohibition, and no matter how many times its perpetrators tie the knot.  For better or worse, the same is true of “man on man,” or “dick on dick,” if I can lapse into vulgarity for the sake of a point.  This is why Santorum can claim “no problem” with homosexuality but only with the “you know” part of it.  This is how we can tell that he’s thought about it, a lot.  The sex itself blows his mind in a way that bigamy, polygamy and adultery never could.

There’s a been a lot of pundit blather comparing Santorum’s “incendiary” comments to those of another revolting bigot, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, whose remarks on racial segregation cost him his post at the start of the year.  Will Santorum, like Lott, resign? Who cares? No mention is made of Lott’s previous piggery, in June 1998, when he compared homosexuality to alcoholism, “sex addiction” and “kleptomania.”  Four months later, the body of Matthew Shepard was found beaten, bludgeoned and tied to a post, left to die by a couple of punks who feared he might unman them with a glance, and who, if the God Santorum says he believes in is really on the job, will be raped in perpetuity in the jail where they belong.

If there’s a hero in this scenario, it’s our own Howard Dean, who, three years ago, signed Vermont’s civil union law like a nervous nellie, virtually in the dark, but who seems to have found his courage on the national stage and says he “can’t wait to engage Republicans on that issue.”  I hope he means it.  Because — oh, irony! — while President Bush and his party keep insisting there will be no “theocratic, fundamentalist” government in the new, remodeled Iraq, we’re well on our way to getting one here.

Hinterlands

December 10, 2011

"But it wasn't a dream. It was a place. And you - and you - and you - and you were there!"

I need a dream analyst. Here’s why:

I dreamed I was on a train to Kansas, coming south from Chicago to visit my mother. She had moved from Vermont to somewhere on the plains, but I couldn’t remember the name of the town. The train stopped suddenly and we were ordered into a diner to sample the pie. It would be a long wait, they said, and the pie was “the Best in the West.” I didn’t eat it. I kept wondering why my mother had moved to Kansas and what town she lived in. I saw a pay phone and tried to call her, but the machine repeated, “12 cents, 12 cents, please,” over and over, and I didn’t have correct change. I pulled out my cell phone but the numbers had been moved around and I couldn’t dial it. Then I saw that the train had left. A waitress came up and said, “We’re sending you to live with a Christian family but you need to take a Biblical name.”

“Peter,” I said. “Isn’t that Biblical? It’s already Biblical.”

“Old Testament only,” said the waitress. “Sorry.”

I awoke, as they say, with a start. In another dream last week I was buying a pack of cigarettes and overpaid by thirty dollars. The woman at the counter said I could have the money back if I asked the Baby Jesus.

Help me, please.

I’m used to dreams where I’m trying to get somewhere and can’t.  Usually it’s Paris, sometimes London or New York, and sometimes a town on the ocean that I seem to know intimately but can’t find my way around. Every time I head north I end up south, like Alice through the looking glass. These are standard anxiety dreams, involving lost passports and airline tickets, broken clocks, missed cabs, no money and suitcases that haven’t been packed. I accept them as part of the general conundrum, a way for the unconscious to work its stuff while the mind is busy snoring. I don’t feel frustrated in my daily life and, awake, I’m not too anxious about anything.

But Kansas? I draw the line at dreaming about Kansas. Even asleep it was a stretch to think that my mother might have moved there, a state she insists was originally settled only because a lot of pioneer women mutinied on the wagon train and refused to go a step further. I did have a great-aunt, Roberta – we called her “Aint Bert” — who lived in Wichita and said it was “God’s country.” She was born in Possum Trot, Texas, so you can see her point. And maybe it’s some atavism that has me dreaming about the Lord of the Hogs, the Corn and the Westboro Baptist Church so near to Christmas in New England.

Or maybe it’s the Republican presidential contest, a field so loaded with hucksters, charlatans and cash-soaked knuckleheads as to pop the corks of even American hypocrisy. You can see that I prefer this theory. I’ve stayed away from “politics” so far on this blog because the Web is already crawling with comment and I still haven’t recovered from eight years of Bush.** But I’ve just watched Rick Perry’s “I’m-not-ashamed-to-be-Christian” commercial and won’t be the last to observe that he looks really queer, in a Log Cabin kind of way. I think all these dudes obsessed with homosexuality should be goosed till they cough up their wallets. I don’t see how same-sex marriage and prayer-free schools amount to “liberal attacks” in a nation that forbids state religion, but they can tell you in Kansas, I’m sure. Which is why I woke up. Thank God.

**If you want to play ”Falling Bush” you can still do it here

 

 

 

Down for the count

November 29, 2011

Thanksgiving’s over, not a minute too soon. A friend in retail pops in to say that she survived Black Friday (and Saturday, and Sunday) at her local Gap-derivative by hiding in closets and shooing customers off the floor when they asked questions: “They can help you at check-out.” “Have you tried customer service?” NPR reports “a promising start” to the gruesome season: “The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 this weekend, up 9.1 percent from $365.34 last year. Total spending reached an estimated $52.4 billion.”

That’s a lot of patriotism. Imagine what could be done with the money if it were raised for something durable, like education or libraries. Roads and bridges? Family planning?

Me, I could never make it in retail. I lack a certain je ne sais quoi — obedience, mainly, and the eagerness required to make customers feel good about buying things they don’t need. I also won’t pretend to look busy when there’s nothing to do — a cardinal sin in the market place. At J. C. Penney’s, years ago – it was my first paying job – they put me on the floor selling shoes. Apart from wearing them all my life I had no training for this. I certainly didn’t know why I had to straighten them every five minutes when they were already lined up like missiles on Moscow. I thought the customer always came first. When weary mothers asked if the cheaper, Penney’s-brand sneakers would last their kids the summer, I told them the truth.

“Oh, no,” I said. I was raised on George Washington and Honest Abe: “You’d do better to buy an expensive pair now, rather than come back in August and pay twice.”

Needless to say, I wasn’t a winning member of the Penney’s team. After a month, they put me in sporting goods selling rifles (!) and then in menswear, where I spent a long evening — my last—measuring suits to be sent to the tailor. Again, no training. I just put the chalk marks where I thought they should go and never went back.

Now The Wall Street Journal warns that we are not to be misled by the jingling tills of Black Friday: “Widespread hype about stores opening on Thanksgiving night merely prodded shoppers to spend sooner, not necessarily buy more overall. Smart-phone coupons and TV and Web advertising have fooled consumers into believing this year’s deals were better than in the past.” Apparently no amount of fooling can get people to remember that all the deals are better in January and that “holiday stress” is optional. This proven willingness to be led by the nose was the spark of the #Occupy movement. Any game can be changed by refusing to play.

Of course it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. On the bright side, Christmas does stem the tide of those endless TV commercials for car insurance, prescription drugs, cell phone service, online dating and toilet paper (“It’s time to get real about what happens in the bathroom!”). Anything that spares us a minute of “Flo” or Cymbalta® has the thanks of a grateful nation.

This just in! Cheerful Stores Drive Away Stressed Christmas Shoppers, Experts Warn