For those readers who may not have followed the events: Matilda is a historical movie about the love affair of the future Tsar Nicholas II with the ballet dancer Matilda Kschessinka. The film covers the time span from 1890 until 1896 and does not touch Nicholas II’s rule and his death, when, along with his family, he was killed by Bolsheviks in 1918. The whole family was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1981 and by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. Even before reaching Russian cinemas, the film about the last Tsar’s pre-marital affair has stirred heated controversies. Conservative Orthodox believers called the film “blasphemous,” because the pre-release trailer shows the Russian ruler and future saint in sex scenes and emotional turmoil over his romantic love for the ballet dancer and his raison d’etat-marriage with Princess Alexandra of Hesse.
She compares the Matilda controversy to the 2012 Pussy Riot case:
In both cases, the critics bemoan the “insult of religious feelings”. But what is so special about the feelings of Orthodox believers for their rulers? How are we to make sense of this panic over lèse-majesté (“injured majesty,” the insulting of a monarch), over the violation of the dignity of the sovereign, as a form of blasphemy?
From the perspective of Orthodox believers, the Pussy Riot controversy had a tragic political dimension. The event posed the question whether the language of political protest could have a place inside their Church. Many Orthodox believers probably felt that, in principle, it should, but few could support the kind of articulation staged by the rebellious performers. Some, like Diakon Kuraev, tried to find a way around it by arguing that the incidence had taken place in the week of Russian Carnival. The tragic dimension of the controversy and court trial following the group’s performance lay precisely in the alienation of those open-minded Orthodox believers who felt that, at the end of the day, maybe some criticism of close church-state relations was not entirely out of place. Whoever did not feel offended in his or her religious feelings, such was the message at the court trial, was not a true Orthodox believer. (Also for the convicted women and their families the consequences of the performance were tragic, however, my point here is about the Orthodox believers.)
A couple of thoughts from me, an Orthodox Christian.
First, though it apparently doesn’t matter under Russian law, as a moral issue, I see this film and Pussy Riot’s performance as substantially different. The punk band went into a church and invaded an altar to make a political statement. That is sacred space, period. Had they done this on the street, no problem. This is not the same thing as this film, morally speaking. It may be hard to convey fully to Western Christians how sacred Russian Orthodox believers hold their churches, especially their altars. Personally, I would find it inappropriate, but not blasphemous, if an anti-Putin protester held up a sign inside the cathedral. But if you watch the video, these three women acted in a manner that disrespected not Putin (who cares about that?), but the Mother of God and ultimately the sanctity of the Cathedral.
Second, it seems to me that Orthodox critics of the movie have a very weak case. It may or may not be a tasteless film, but a movie that shows a Tsar having a love affair that he actually did have can hardly be considered blasphemous, especially given that Nicholas II was given sainthood for the way he died (executed, along with his family, by the Bolsheviks). The memory of the tsar-saint does not need to be protected from filmmakers, especially if the story they tell is essentially true (that she was his mistress, which she indeed was). To repeat: Nicholas Romanov is not a saint because of the way he lived, but because of the way he died. If you read Robert Massie’s excellent history Nicholas and Alexandra, the execution scene will bring you to tears. I had not realized how bravely the Tsar and his wife and children lived in captivity, awaiting their execution.
Third, the memory of Tsar Nicholas II does not belong to Orthodox believers. He was the Tsar of all Russia. Nor does the historical truth belong only to those who wish to remember it a certain way.
I wish the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution were being marked by a different film, but that’s neither here nor there. Next year is the centennial of the Romanov family’s execution. I hope the Russian film industry tells the story of the royal family’s captivity and death at the hands of those demons. I am reading The Gulag Archipelago now, so you can imagine where my imagination is regarding the evil of Soviet communism.
How low can Donald Trump go? This low:
President Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Declaring the U.S. territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a “disaster before hurricanes,” Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that recovery workers will not stay “forever.”
In a trio of tweets, Trump wrote” “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
Three weeks since Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million people, the vast majority of the island remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine and commerce is slow with many businesses closed.
Trump on Thursday sought to shame the territory for its own plight. He tweeted, “Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.” And he quoted Sharyl Attkisson, a television journalist, as saying, “Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.”
Those people — those American people — are flat on their backs. Hungry, sick, desperate — from a hurricane whose fault was not their own. Even if the financial crisis is of their own making, my God, the Puerto Ricans are living through a humanitarian catastrophe. This is indecent. I don’t care if the mayor of San Juan is a loudmouth. People there are hurting. The American president is supposed to rise above that kind of thing.
Come on, Congress, get into this! Republican members, do you have any heart, any spine? Stand up to this cruelty. We are the richest and most powerful nation in the world. It disgraces us that an American president would talk this way about the suffering.
Even if we allow for the logistical problems in delivering and distributing food and water to everyone on the island, this is an inexcusable failure that needs to be corrected immediately. If a similar number of Americans on the mainland were without food and potable water for this long, it would be treated as a major scandal and it would be the top story in the news every day. Because it is happening in a territory with no political clout, it is not being taken as seriously as it should be. While the president repeatedly congratulates himself on what a great job he imagines he has done, the federal response to the disaster in Puerto Rico has been unacceptably poor. In terms of providing the most basic necessities in the wake of a major disaster, the government is failing millions of its citizens.
Where are Donald Trump’s court Evangelicals on this? If you cannot stand up to your friend the US president when he threatens to stop sending humanitarian aid to American citizens who are hungry, thirsty, sick, and without shelter, then God help you when you come before the King of Kings.
UPDATE: Some readers think that I’m calling out all Evangelicals here. I’m not. By “court Evangelicals,” I’m talking about the small coterie of Evangelical leaders who serve as Trump’s advisers (Falwell Jr., Jeffress, et al.)
I received this e-mail from a Catholic reader this morning:
Did you see what the Pope said yesterday abut the death penalty? He said it should be abolished and was against Gospel values. He said that the deposit of faith can develop, but this would not be a deepening of understanding. This would be saying that what the Church taught previously is wrong! This directly contradicts the ordinary universal magisterium of the Catholic Church which has held that the State does have the right to use the death penalty. The Pope said this was wrong and that the Catechism should be changed. I know that the Pope can have a personal theological opinion that is wrong, but I never thought that I would see a Pope say publicly that what the Church has held definitively is wrong and that THE CATECHISM should be changed!
Rod, this is going to be big. This means that the Pope has essentially contradicted the infallibility of the ordinary universal magisterium. It means that this Pope is no longer the Pope.
I don’t know enough about the way Catholic theology works to be able to judge this claim. Can any of you with theological training help? Understand, I’m asking a theological question here, not a question about whether or not you believe in the death penalty. (For me, I believe that capital punishment can be licit, but I am generally opposed to its application.) The point the Catholic reader is making does not depend on one’s opinion of the death penalty, but rather on the way Pope Francis is exercising his role as a teacher.
Many non-Catholics don’t understand that the Pope is not free to say whatever he wants to, and those words become binding on Catholics. This is not being a “cafeteria Catholic,” but rather a matter of precise theological authority. The crisis in this instance — if indeed it is a crisis — is not over whether or not Francis said something that upsets conservatives who favor the death penalty. The crisis is about the Pope unilaterally overturning, or attempting to overturn, past authoritative Catholic teaching.
The trad Catholic Steve Skojec makes a theological case for why, in his view, Pope Francis is wrong about the death penalty … but that doesn’t really answer my question. What if Francis comes out tomorrow, in that garrulous way of his, and says that the concept of “just war” is no longer operative in Catholic theology, and the Catechism must be changed to reflect that fact? Would it really be a “fact” in Catholic theology? And if not, what does that tell us about Pope Francis, and his status as pope? Would he really cease to be Pope?
Again: only answer if you have a theologically informed response. I’m not going to post yellers on either side. I’m trying to learn something here, and to understand the ramifications of what the Pope said yesterday.
Brad East has a very fine piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he discusses the lack of obvious relevance of theology to contemporary American life, and posits the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart as someone we all really, really should be paying attention to. Excerpts:
Given this love of culture and the high calling of theology, the hinge of Hart’s criticism, and thus the chief object of his withering disfavor, is those selfsame “senile cultures,” that is, Western modernity and its offspring. Hart sees the progressive secularization of Western culture as a single sustained dehumanization of society — begun in the Church, ironically — and just so one long march toward the receding horizon of nihilism. Indeed, nihilism and secularism, capitalism and individualism, consumerism and voluntarism, scientism and materialism are all of a piece, “a seamless garment” that simultaneously signifies and effects the triumph of the will in all human affairs without exception. As Hart writes:
The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages. […] [A] late capitalist culture, being intrinsically a consumerist economy, of necessitypromotes a voluntarist understanding of individual freedom and a purely negative understanding of social and political liberty. […] It is […] a system inevitably corrosive of as many prohibitions of desire and inhibitions of the will as possible, and therefore of all those customs and institutions — religious, cultural, social — that tend to restrain or even forbid so many acquisitive longings and individual choices. […] The secular world — our world, our age — is one from which as many mediating and subsidiary powers have been purged as possible, precisely to make room for the adventures of the will. […] Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation.
The very same moral, political, and theological vision underlies Hart’s decade-long polemic against the “New Atheists” (making for an unlikely public-facing pair with Marilynne Robinson, a hyperbolic snort to her erudite eye-roll). He does not protest their lack of faith, which he deeply admires in truly formidable unbelievers like Nietzsche. He protests their lack of moral courage, theological ignorance, philosophical crudity, unwarranted arrogance, and mechanistic reductivism. Their books are, after all, “nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.” They are worth responding to inasmuch as their errors should be exposed and the record set straight. Hart’s experience in doing so has not been encouraging, however. In his reply to a New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik, for example, Hart’s conclusion is as harsh as it is despairing of further dialogue:
It does not matter. Nothing is happening here. The conversation has never begun. The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter […] What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends — not with a bang but a whimper.
Given popular understanding of the meaning and cultural power of Christianity in America, it may seem at best counterintuitive and at worse obscene to assert the social and political impotence of religion in the United States. But that is precisely the point. There is both more and less to the Christian faith than its empty public ciphers would suggest. The freak show of power’s religious courtiers being played out before our eyes is a distraction and misleading in the extreme. What force it appears to have is spent: mere thrashing in the death throes of an exhausted, protracted collapse. And politics aside, what remains incontestable is the expulsion of Christian thought from serious public intellectual consideration and the concomitant lack of interest on the part of either those who pull the cultural levers or those who would wreck the machine altogether.
If David Bentley Hart represents anything, it is that there is more to Christianity in public than debauched power politics, more to theology than the caricatures of the unknowing. It is a rich, demanding tradition that hates injustice, loves the truth, privileges the downtrodden, adores the beautiful, and refuses to give even one inch to the atomizing, reductive forces of a technocracy rushing to impose the future on us all. It knows, but what it knows is mystery. It is not what you wish it were, and it will not affirm what you already believe. But then, who would want that? “Our longing for transcendence is inextinguishable in us,” and though our age obscures it, “we are nevertheless still open to the same summons issued in every age to every soul.” Come and see.
Read the whole thing. I recommend Hart’s book The Experience Of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss as the best introduction to his thought for us non-professional theologians. I recall reading it and thinking that if an unbeliever who thought religion was foolish gave himself over to this book, he might not come out of it a believer, but he would surely emerge with his convictions shaken. And for that matter, this is also true of believers. It’s not a Christian book, per se, but a book about theism, one that, in a stroke, makes the reader realize that what he thought he knew about theism is either untrue or radically inadequate to the subject. That is to say, a non-believer may put down this book thinking, “Belief in God makes more sense than I thought,” and a believer may do so thinking, “Belief in God is so much broader and deeper than I realized.”
For those who have led the charge against the forces of faith — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, and numerous other wannabes — this change is a welcome sign that the American people have at long last begun to dispel their atavistic ignorance and reconcile themselves to the scientific account of the universe, which is utterly incompatible with any form of theism.
One of the many virtues of theologian David Bentley Hart’s stunning new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is that it demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency. Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy.
Without meaning to downplay the very real differences among and within the world’s religions, Hart nonetheless maintains that underlying those differences is a commonly shared cluster of claims about God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and various forms of ancient paganism. (He also finds continuities with a number of Buddhist concepts, though he doesn’t press the case.)
The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps). Then they use the findings of science to show that there is no evidence for such an immensely powerful object or thing. And ipso facto, there is no God.
But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.
Hart has a way of talking about God that makes the subject seem fresh and alluring. That might come across as trite praise, but it’s not. It is no small thing, in the 21st century, and in a post-Christian culture, to make the discussion of God urgent and illuminating both to theists and atheists alike. If you don’t know Hart’s work, do yourself a favor and give it a try. (But don’t start with his book on theology and aesthetics; it is extremely dense and profound, but inaccessible to most readers.) We may never again be the kind of culture that pays theologians much mind, but in the case of David Bentley Hart, the tragedy would be ours.
Hey, if you live in the Baton Rouge area, come out on Thursday October 12 to eat some gumbo and raise money for Sequitur Classical Academy, BR’s classical Christian school. Ticket and event info here. I am part of one of the gumbo-making teams, so come out and taste our gumbo, and tell all the other teams that their gumbo is TOTALLY INFERIOR! There are lots of teams, so you’ll get to taste lots of different gumbos; this is not a bug, but a feature.
If you can’t make the big feed, then consider giving a tax-deductible donation to Sequitur (see here). It’s not going to be as much fun as eating gumbo, drinking beer, and laughing with a bunch of Louisiana folks, but you’ll still be doing good in the world.
Well, this is something. Last night at the University of Notre Dame, the Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser of Pope Francis, explicitly denounced the Benedict Option, calling it a “Masada complex” that does not comport with the vision of Francis.
Here’s the video of the entire lecture. Start at about the 1:12 part, and watch him criticize the Ben Op:
“The so-called Benedict Option, as Rod Dreher describes the withdrawal of the Church into enclaves, would be an error, just as it would be an error to be nostalgic for bygone times by preparing harsh responses today.”
This is entirely dishonest. The most charitable spin on it is that the man has clearly not read my book. As I clearly explain in the text, I call for a “strategic withdrawal,” which is to say, withdrawing for the sake of strengthening our roots and our witness, so that when we go out into the world, as we must, we will do so as real Christians. Excerpts from The Benedict Option:
What these orthodox Christians are doing now are the seeds of what I call the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace “exile in place” and form a vibrant counterculture. Recognizing the toxins of modern secularism, as well as the fragmentation caused by relativism, Benedict Option Christians look to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities. Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, they recognize that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith, can survive and prosper through the flood.
This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If Israel had been assimilated by the world of the ancient Near East, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.
Over and over in the book I make this distinction: that to be fully and authentically Christian in the world, we must draw sharper lines between ourselves and the world. I am no more arguing for retreating into quietist enclaves than the British high command withdrew its forces from Dunkirk beach for the sake of hiving away in merry old England and waiting the war out. I have made this point in the book, in public lectures, and on this blog, again and again. I am eager to accept criticism of my book — I certainly don’t have the answers — but critics ought to focus on what I’ve actually written than what they imagine I’ve written. But then, Father Spadaro’s understanding of American politics is so crackpot — even Commonweal, a liberal Catholic journal that fully backs Pope Francis, called his infamous essay on the subject “a mishmash of wild and erroneous claims” — that I believe it is beyond his moral and intellectual strength to be honest on matters like this.
Nevertheless, I have a few remarks to make in response.
Earlier in the address (1:05), Spadaro denounces those politicians and others who are exploiting “fear of chaos.” They are “exaggerating disorder” and putting forth “worrying scenarios that bear no relation to reality.”
Let me remind Father Spadaro of a few inconvenient truths that counter his Candide Catholicism.
1. Catholicism — like Christianity in general — is flat on its back in Europe. True, there are inspiring pockets of faith (I just spent some time with a few in Paris). And true, Poland is a beacon of hope in a continent grown cold from militant secularism — but for how long? Still, the overall picture for the Church in Europe is grim. In personal conversations I had in Paris recently with both believers and non-believers, I found no one who thought the future was bright for Europe.
2. All of Europe is in demographic collapse. Take Portugal, for example:
Last year he created a commission dedicated to coming up with proposals to reverse the country’s dwindling birthrate. Led by Professor Joaquim Azevedo from the Catholic University of Portugal, a recent report by the commission warned that failure to reverse the demographic crisis could leave Portugal “unsustainable in terms of economic growth, social security and the welfare state.”
“We are losing our population, as we know. These matters are crystal clear,” said Azevedo. “ It is a reality. Facts are facts and that is what is happening.”
Ad hoc political solutions at a national level are failing. Italy has tried to overcome its bleak demographic outlook with initiatives ranging from pension cuts to a baby bonus, but the statistics are not on their side.
A couple of years ago, I spoke with a political scientist who studied the issue for the EU, which is desperately trying to come up with a way to boost birthrates. He concluded that absent a religious revival, it simply was not going to happen. He said the EU officials were not happy with this. In the central Asian nation of Georgia, which is Orthodox Christian, it now appears that the birthrate among married Georgians went up in response to a campaign by Patriarch Ilia.
3. Europe is being overwhelmed by migration. Which is being encouraged by the Pope and many Catholic bishops, note well. A closely related problem: Europeans are struggling to deal with problems successfully integrating Muslims.
4. In the United States, Catholicism is declining faster than any other church. “And perhaps more troubling for the church, for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church.”
5. In terms of catechesis and Catholic identity, the US Catholic Church is facing a catastrophe. Here are excerpts from a Commonweal story about sociologist Christian Smith’s book concerning Catholic youth:
Here’s the bad news for Commonweal readers, and we may as well get right to it: Just over half the young people raised by parents who describe themselves as “liberal” Catholics stop going to Mass entirely once they become “emerging adults”—a new demographic category that means either prolonged adolescence or delayed adulthood, defined here in Young Catholic America as ages eighteen to twenty-three.
But now, let’s put that sad trend in perspective: The picture isn’t all that much better for the children of “traditional” Catholics. Although only a quarter of those young adults say they’ve stopped going to Mass entirely, only 17 percent say they’re going every week, and in general, their allegiance to church membership and participation seems nearly as faded as the kids of so-called feckless liberals.
The fact is: In this discouraging book, the future looks bad for just about every flavor of Catholic. For those who remember Commonweal’s series on “Raising Catholic Kids” last November, the worry expressed by those dedicated, well-meaning parents seems here to be fully justified. You may hear about pockets of enthusiastically “orthodox” young adults out there somewhere, but as my old mentor in the market-research business used to say, the plural of the word “anecdote” is not “data.” Smith (a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame) and his co-authors have the data, and it tells us that the majority of Catholic “emergers” are, by our historical standards, not what we are used to thinking of as practicing Catholics at all.
That “Raising Catholic Kids” series had this excruciatingly sad account from Sidney Callahan. Excerpt:
In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.
Got that? She is the only member of her family still in the Church.
Christian Smith’s broader work on the religious beliefs and identities of younger Americans — not only Catholics — reveals trends that ought to be extremely worrying to any serious Christian, not least the Roman pontiff. Check out this 2009 interview Smith gave to Christianity Today. Excerpt:
… the center of gravity among emerging adults is definitely MTD. Most emerging adults view religion as training in becoming a good person. And they think they are basically good people. To not be a good person, you have to be a horrible person. Therefore, everything’s fine.
I have done a lot of traveling in the US and abroad doing Benedict Option research and speaking. I repeatedly hear the same message, no matter where I am: young adults today who still identify as Christian know little to nothing about the Christian faith, either in terms of content or in terms of how to practice it in daily life. To the extent they have any faith at all, it usually turns out to be entirely emotional. I often return to a discussion I observed among older (conservative) Catholics and younger (conservative) Catholic academics. The older ones were still operating under the impression that the young ones had basic Catholic formation, however lacking. The younger profs told them that this is completely unrealistic, that the undergraduates they were seeing on their campus in most cases knew nothing.
So: when I hear professional church bureaucrats like Father Spadaro telling the world to relax, everything is just fine, that the concerns of Christians like me “bear no relation to reality,” it makes me furious. It’s an attempt to anesthetize the faithful. It’s a self-serving lie, and it’s a lie that is going to cost a lot of people their souls.
Spadaro said that in Francis’s vision, “the duty of Christianity in Europe is one of service.” OK, fine. I would have thought that the duty was evangelization and formation, but service is certainly part of the Christian’s duties to the world. But as I say in The Benedict Option, “we cannot give the world what we do not have.” And the one thing that many, many Catholics (and other self-identified Christians) in Europe and North America do not have is a living orthodox faith.
“This is the witness – not only with words but also with everyday life – the testimony that every Sunday should go out of our churches in order to enter throughout the whole week into our homes, our offices, our schools, our gathering places and entertainment venues, our hospitals, prisons, and homes for the elderly, into places crowded with immigrants, on the outskirts of the city. We must carry this witness every week: Christ is with us; Jesus is ascended to heaven; He is with us; Christ is alive!”
Amen to that! (Note well: a “Masada complex” Christian would not say that.) But you cannot send people out to feed the world with empty bread baskets. You cannot send soldiers into battle without training and armor. The Benedict Option is not a “Masada complex,” but rather an attempt to take on a more radical strategy of forming serious orthodox Christians — morally, intellectually, and spiritually — precisely so we can go out and give the true faith to the world. Father Spadaro lives in Italy. If he wants to see a real Benedict Option community, he should drive across the peninsula from Rome and visit the Tipi Loschi, in San Benedetto del Tronto. There is no Masada complex among those people — only robust, joyful, orthodox Catholicism. They are not supposed to exist — but they do!
The Father Spadaros of the world are content to manage decline in a spirit of appeasement. They bring to mind this quote a friend sent me from a 1986 essay by the Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski:
Therefore Nietzsche did not become the explicit orthodoxy of our age. The explicit orthodoxy still consists of patching up. We try to assert our modernity but escape from its effects by various intellectual devices, in order to convince ourselves that meaning can be restored or recovered apart from the traditional religious legacy of mankind and in spite of the destruction brought about by modernity. Some versions of liberal pop-theology contribute to this work. So do some varieties of Marxism. Nobody can foresee for how long and to what extent this work of appeasement may prove successful. But the previously mentioned intellectuals’ awakening to the dangers of secularity does not seem to be a promising avenue for getting out of our present predicament, not because such reflections are false, but because we may suspect they are born of an inconsistent, manipulative spirit.
There is something alarmingly desperate in intellectuals who have no religious attachment, faith or loyalty proper and who insist on the irreplaceable educational and moral role of religion in our world and deplore its fragility, to which they themselves eminently bear witness. I do not blame them either for being irreligious or for asserting the crucial value of religious experience; I simply cannot persuade myself that their work might produce changes they believe desirable, because to spread faith, faith is needed and not an intellectual assertion of the social utility of faith. And the modern reflection on the place of the sacred in human life does not want to be manipulative in the sense of Machiavelli or of the seventeenth-century libertines who admitted that while piety was necessary for the simpletons, skeptical incredulity suited the enlightened. Therefore such an approach, however understandable, not only leaves us where we were before but is itself a product of the same modernity it tries to restrict, and it expresses modernity’s melancholic dissatisfaction with itself.
I wrote The Benedict Option for Christians who prefer to see the world as it really is, and not to reconcile themselves to our eclipse or surrender, nor to trust the feckless leadership of our religious institutions to guide us out of the dark wood in which we find ourselves. Father Spadaro and his kind are pied pipers. To have him mischaracterize and denounce my Benedict Option ideas is an honor. It is certainly clarifying.
The problem is not that Christians are not enough in the world. The problem is that the world is too much in them. Catholic leaders that wish to turn the Catholic Church into a Romanized version of Mainline Protestantism are not helping to turn the tide. And they are not the future.
UPDATE: Reader Nate J., spot on:
I find myself having difficulty discussing the breakdown of Christianity in my own part of the world with the older generations. Mostly, I don’t think they intend to be misleading or deliberately obtuse, turning a blind eye to problems they know exist; most are simply oblivious.
They don’t visit Reddit, or use Facebook or Twitter. They don’t get their information from the same places as the millennial generation and do not interact with the world the same way. It’s so hard to get it into their heads how actively hostile the world is to the Christian message.
Compounding the problem is that these older church leaders remain largely unchallenged by any new blood entering, so they retain their positions of leadership by default. It’s a nasty, self-feeding cycle whereby the blind continue to lead the blind. They imagine a time when there was a Christian consensus in the western world. For them, the world just needs to be tweaked a bit and – presto! – we’re back to the way things were. They don’t get that people enter adulthood with their brains almost hardwired in a fundamentally different way.
This is probably most evident in the modern sexual ethic, which is why stuffy, prudish, social conservatives like me tend to get “so worked up about it.” Sex, reproduction, and family formation have become radically disentangled to the point where these three fundamentally related (and interdependent) concepts can be viewed entirely discreetly. Meanwhile, the global neoliberal elite cannot understand the issue correctly either (in some ways, perhaps they are just as oblivious as the typical octogenarian church bishop or elder), thinking that problems of collapsing demographics can be solved by sprinkling a little more economic incentive over it, so steeped in their progressive worldview that they have forgotten that reproduction was never an economic decision to begin with (and, thus, relatively immune to the classic laws of supply and demand and all that).
Both the secular and Christian church leadership miss the point that cultural issues cannot be solved primarily by political means. The Benedict Option matters precisely because we need to send a new generation of leaders out into the world who understand this – who put at least as much effort into their local communities and churches as they do into their political ambitions.
UPDATE.2.: Reader Heidi:
We went to a Jesuit church away from home this past weekend for Mass. During the service a special prayer was offered for Fr. Martin, the much maligned Jesuit, who is essentially trying to change church doctrine and cloaking it in “dialog” and “understanding”. Specifically it was asked that we pray that he not suffer anymore “persecution” at the hands of the uninformed. This same church had an LGBTQ+ small group that met each week to discuss the running of the parish with a focus on inclusivity, a Lesbian Women’s group and a Gay Men’s group. Also advertised in the Sunday bulletin was a Gay Getaway trip planned for the spring. That the priest would also be going on. This is clearly a…shift. In the same direction that Protestantism flew with alacrity and we can see where that got *them*. So, this criticism of Spadaro’s is no surprise to me. What can we expect from that specific faction? They don’t seem to have a strong enough attachment to retaining the foundational teachings of the religion they are tasked with representing, but, instead, are willing to go where the wind will blow them in order to stay “relevant.” Hundreds of years of thinking about these issues be damned. Your observation that the world is too much in Christianity is exactly correct and now, as a Catholic, I’m watching the Mother Church go the way of the Episcopalians. It may be too soon to wave goodbye but I’m not certain of that…perhaps I should begin my studies of the Ausbund now.
As a college student, I’ve seen where the energy coming out of Christian groups is coming from, and it was kind of shocking to me. Korean-Americans, or students from Korea and China, in what I believe to be an Evangelical church, are the ones who actually go up to people, talk to them about faith and spirituality and are willing to put their principles out in the open. I went to one of their meetings when invited (I am Catholic, but I figured it would be nice to at least meet new people), and what I saw was actually quite similar to what the Benedict Option speaks of.
It was a community of people who talk about their faith, the theological reasons for it (I won’t bore you with the differences of opinion between this group and Catholicism, but the conversations were actually quite enlightening), and how to arm themselves when speaking to skeptics about why their faith was important to them.
I made quite a few friends in that group, but I have to say that I was ashamed in some ways, as this is something that the Catholic student group should be doing themselves. The Catholic group on campus, when I’ve gone to their meetings, talks incessantly about how we can make ourselves more acceptable to the overriding secular culture on campus, but does nothing to build a community of faith.
The idea of MTD for western youth, as you describe, really kind of runs rampant, but it is less an honest belief about the world rather than a defense against the world. Catholic students will default to say things about that in an effort to avoid scrutiny. What they are increasingly finding, however, is that it is not enough anymore. Any talk of issues of sexual ethics or salvation are scary not just to mainstream secularists but to Catholic students as well, and as we saw with those Senate hearings, its not going to get any better.
I don’t know this for sure, but I believe that the environments for Christians in North East Asia has sort of forced them to live in their own communities and build from there; western Christians might find that the day they need to do this will come quicker than they would expect.
The Catholic college students you describe remind me of some of the older Catholics I met in France: desperate to convince the unbelieving world that they’re really good people, and can be trusted and relied on.
UPDATE.3: I changed the title of this blog a bit because in truth, I don’t know if Pope Francis opposes the Benedict Option. I only know that Fr. Spadaro does, and I don’t have confidence that he actually read the book. If I were actually calling on Catholics and other Christians to hide away in compounds and turn their back to the world, then I could say yes, Pope Francis really does oppose the Ben Op. But I don’t say that. It is possible that he would agree with it, or at least some of it, if he knew what it was. Maybe not, but again, I don’t trust Father Spadaro’s judgment, and after all, it was he who opposes the Ben Op to Francis, not Francis.
I’ve been saying for a long time here that the racial essentialism of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates is unavoidably calling up the same thing among white nationalists and other right-wing whites. You cannot have it both ways. The black writer Thomas Chatterton Williams agrees. Excerpt:
Given the genuine severity of the Trump threat, some readers of this essay may wonder, why devote energy to picking over the virtue and solidarity signaling of the left? Quite simply because getting this kind of thinking wrong exacerbates the very inequality it seeks to counteract. In the most memorable sentence in “The First White President,” Mr. Coates declares, “Whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”
I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.
This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.
True, and important to say.
Yet I read Williams’s essay in tandem with this one by Justin Dean Lee in the L.A. Review of Books, concerning Mark Lilla’s book calling on fellow liberals to refuse identity politics. Excerpts:
While there is much to commend in this book — Lilla’s wide-ranging expertise, his good humor and sharp wit, his moral seriousness — it is not without its faults, the greatest of which is Lilla’s failure to press his critique to its logical limits.
Meaning what, exactly? Lee says that Lilla misses that his own politics are built on the same shaky ground of emotivism as those he critiques. Lee:
Lilla’s recognition of the deep affinity between Reaganite economics and left identitarianism is the most profound aspect of The Once and Future Liberal. It is also the element around which his entire project unravels. In all his denunciations of both movements he is curiously shy of naming the irreducible heart of their similarity: nihilism.
Whether the will to power finds expression in economic self-determination or in the assertion of one’s identity over-against an other, it remains a groundless nothing, a sheer, arbitrary exuberance. The will to power sits beneath Lilla’s critique just as it resides within the objects of his scorn. This is made clear by his unwillingness to apply his critique of individualism to his own political commitments.
Lee explains that in his piece, and ends by saying that the renewed civic square Lilla seeks isn’t really possible in our culture:
Even if our institutions were more dependable, or if trust could be ensorcelled, the project of reorienting our political discourse to the promotion of the common good is doomed from the start. What do we hold in common? What is the good? Lilla seems to have learned nothing from the criticisms leveled against his highly selective 2007 study of political theology, The Stillborn God. The common good is emphatically not a product of consensus. To posit a common good is, necessarily, to embrace metaphysical realism, and thus to wade into the deep waters of natural law theory. Without the firm ground of first principles, the “common good” is merely the whim of the majority.
And this is perhaps what most irks Lilla’s critics on the left, even if they’re wary of articulating it: any serious — that is, internally coherent — movement away from identity politics and toward a robust discourse of the common good requires that we reintroduce metaphysics into our politics. This entails granting theology a privileged place in the public square at a time when most of the left and the far right are loath to grant it any place at all.
A different Mark Lilla, the one who wrote The Stillborn God, celebrates the banishing of faith to the private sphere. For that Lilla, theology is a contamination best kept hermetically sealed from politics, lest some dark “messianism” raise its head. But the Lilla of The Once and Future Liberal looks back wistfully on the role faith once played in energizing civic virtue, his reflections colored, perhaps, by his own youthful dalliance with Evangelicalism. One suspects that Lilla doubts his ideal of citizenship is really capable of instilling a sense of civic duty “[i]n the absence of a motivating charitable faith.” If the failures of French universalism are any indication, such doubts are justified.
Before we go any further here, I want to draw your attention briefly to an older essay. In 1989, Glenn Tinder published a lengthy essay in The Atlantic, on the political meaning of Christianity. Here are some excerpts:
Here we come to the major premise (in the logic of faith, if not invariably in the history of Western political philosophy) of all Christian social and political thinking—the concept of the exalted individual. Arising from agape, this concept more authoritatively than any other shapes not only Christian perceptions of social reality but also Christian delineations of political goals.
… Can love and reason, though, undergird our politics if faith suffers a further decline? That is doubtful. Love and reason are suggestive, but they lack definite political implications. Greeks of the Periclean Age, living at the summit of the most brilliant period of Western civilization, showed little consciousness of the notion that every individual bears an indefeasible and incomparable dignity. Today why should those who assume that God is dead entertain such a notion? This question is particularly compelling in view of a human characteristic very unlike exaltation.
He’s talking about sinfulness. Tinder points out the necessary paradox at the heart of Christian political thinking:
The fallen individual is not someone other than the exalted individual. Every human being is fallen and exalted both. This paradox is familiar to all informed Christians. Yet it is continually forgotten—partly, perhaps, because it so greatly complicates the task of dealing with evil in the world, and no doubt partly because we hate to apply it to ourselves; although glad to recall our exaltation, we are reluctant to remember our fallenness. It is vital to political understanding, however, to do both. If the concept of the exalted individual defines the highest value under God, the concept of the fallen individual defines the situation in which that value must be sought and defended.
The principle that a human being is sacred yet morally degraded is hard for common sense to grasp. It is apparent to most of us that some people are morally degraded. It is ordinarily assumed, however, that other people are morally upright and that these alone possess dignity. From this point of view all is simple and logical. The human race is divided roughly between good people, who possess the infinite worth we attribute to individuals, and bad people, who do not. The basic problem of life is for the good people to gain supremacy over, and perhaps eradicate, the bad people. This view appears in varied forms: in Marxism, where the human race is divided between a world-redeeming class and a class that is exploitative and condemned; in some expressions of American nationalism, where the division—at least, until recently—has been between “the free world” and demonic communism; in Western films, where virtuous heroes kill bandits and lawless Indians.
This common model of life’s meaning is drastically irreligious, because it places reliance on good human beings and not on God. It has no room for the double insight that the evil are not beyond the reach of divine mercy nor the good beyond the need for it. It is thus antithetical to Christianity which maintains that human beings are justified by God alone, and that all are sacred and none are good.
The proposition that none are good does not mean merely that none are perfect. It means that all are persistently and deeply inclined toward evil. All are sinful. In a few sin is so effectively suppressed that it seems to have been destroyed. But this is owing to God’s grace, Christian principles imply, not to human goodness, and those in whom it has happened testify emphatically that this is so. Saints claim little credit for themselves.
Tinder concludes by doubting that liberal democracy can survive the demise of the Christian faith that animates it. He cites Dostoevsky’s view that people have to worship something; it is in our nature. If we don’t worship the God of the Bible, we will make idols of other things, if only our desires. (This, by the way, is what Dante’s Commedia is about; the Inferno is full of idol worshipers of one sort or another.)
Now, what does this all have to do with Justin Dean Lee’s essay about Mark Lilla’s book?
For one, the fundamental fault Lee finds in Lilla’s book can easily be found among many other conservatives (not that Lee would deny that at all). That is, it is easy to find thoughtful essays by civilized, non-radical thinkers on the right who advocate revival of republican virtues, as Lilla does. But they don’t seem to recognize how much their project depends on a shared religious belief — and not just any religious belief, but Christianity: a religion that insists not only on man’s sacred dignity but also on his fallenness. Or, to put it in Lee’s terms, we cannot escape metaphysics if we want to restore our degraded politics.
This is not likely to happen for a number of reasons, but I’ll focus on my own side, religious conservatives. We ought to be a source of political renewal as a consequence of a renewed life in churches and communities. In fact, that is the long-term political goal of The Benedict Option. The Ben Op is not a withdrawal from political engagement, but rather a reorientation of Christian priorities. We are not going to be a source of political or social renewal anytime soon, because we have allowed our own inner lives, and the lives of our church communities, to become deeply compromised by modernity. As a conservative theologian friend told me the other night, the “sociological reality” of the American church today is “a façade of capitalism and emotivism.” He was talking about Evangelicalism, his own tradition, but it is also true of the entire church.
I spoke recently to an Evangelical pastor about what he’s seeing play out in the church. We were generally discussing the claims I make in my book. He said that he’s dealing with this stuff in his congregation. Folks may sense that there’s something really wrong with things in the world today, and also in the church, but they resolutely refuse to do anything about it, other than what they’re already doing, because that makes them comfortable. They can’t even bring themselves to talk about it. They may actually believe what Christianity teaches, but they cannot articulate it to their children. Many of them believe that it’s the church’s responsibility alone to teach and form their children. Many are just as absorbed in popular culture as any non-believer.
Listening to the pastor, I thought of G.K. Chesterton’s line: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” The congregation he’s talking about means well, it seems to me, but they are, in effect, a dead thing, carried down the stream of liquid modernity towards the falls. To be clear, I am not judging their souls; I am judging their sociological state, particularly with regard to being able to pass on a living faith to their children. A congregation that does not regard itself as actively in rebellion against the Empire is going to lay down and die. (I define “the Empire” as the hedonistic, individualistic, relativistic, post-Christian social order.) The days of a comfortable compromise are over. You cannot let the Empire into your soul, and have to fight to expel it.
If the church — I’m talking about all Christians in America — is so compromised that it can only serve as a chaplaincy to late capitalism, then it cannot be the leavening that society needs. In The Benedict Option, I quote Philip Rieff saying that a culture begins to die “when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.” This is where we are in the church today — and by “the church,” I’m not simply talking about the institutional church, but also mothers, fathers, grandparents, all of us. With the Millennial generation, the bottom is dropping out of religious belief — and we cannot blame them for that. Who raised them? Who formed them? At the same time, the vast number those who still profess religious belief are in thrall to the pseudo-Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
My point is that without realizing what we were doing, we American Christians have allowed ourselves to be catechized by the post-Christian culture, such that we are rendered inert, and unable to pass the faith on to our children — who, having been catechized by the post-Christian culture, are unable to receive it.
So, to recap: Justin Dean Lee rightly says we cannot have a politics of the common good without substantive agreement on what the Good is, or how it might be known. Liberalism, in both its classical and progressivist forms, is agnostic on that question, or at most assumes things (“all men are created equal”) that cannot be sustained absent a shared commitment to a metaphysical ideal. Last week in Paris, talking about these things with Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher said that he sees no exit for the French, because they have concluded as a society that there is no realm beyond the material. Most Americans would deny that they believe this, but that’s not the way we live, not even Christians. It is true that we Americans are not as far gone into atheism as the French are, so we still have time to recover. But to recover, you first have to recognize the problem. You first have to recognize that the way you are living as a Christian is not going to survive the prolonged encounter with liquid modernity.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Spencer are both atheists who have found a strong source of belief in their respective races. Spencer, a Nietzschean, has said that Christianity is a religion of the weak. They have drawn the line between good and evil not down the middle of every human heart, as that great Christian prophet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did, but between their race and the Other. There is immense power in that kind of tribalism, and it lies in large part because it denies the fallenness of one’s own people. Where in contemporary American Christianity can we find the resources to resist falling prey to the malign power of racialism, in all its versions?
They are hard to locate because we American Christians have been almost as compromised by radical individualism, emotivism, and the worship of technology as everybody else. How can we witness to the “common good” in the public square when we don’t have a robust idea of it within our own communities of faith? That Evangelical theologian friend I mentioned above told me that so many Christians today see the Bible as only one of many sources of authority in their lives. They cannot rightly order their lives as Christians because whatever they say they believe, the real authority in their lives is the Choosing Self.
This is why American Christianity does not offer effective opposition to the allure of identity politics of the left or the right — and indeed, why it so easily succumbs to the same thing. It is true that we all have multiple identities, but for the Christian, his fidelity to Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Bible (and, for many of us, in the authoritative teachings of the apostolic church), has to be primary. It has to be the identity that gives all the other identities order, meaning, and legitimacy. I am neither proud nor ashamed of my race, but I do not believe in the racialism of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Spencer because it is impossible to reconcile with the Gospel — which, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, directs us to judge not by the color of one’s skin, but by the content of one’s character. Near the heart of the power of identity politics — which Justin Dean Lee rightly identifies as a pseudo-religion — is its power to explain, to absolve and to bind. It explains the tribes suffering by blaming those outside of it. This absolves those who embrace the identitarian ideology of their sins, and releases them from the responsibility to examine their own consciences in light of the transcendent truth. And it binds them in a brotherhood of the sanctified — sanctified not because of anything they have done or accomplished, but simply by their membership in the tribe.
Only a strong Christianity can counter this nihilistic tribal religion. But this we do not have today. I am on record as strongly disapproving of some of the antics of Milo Yiannopoulos, but he and I are on the same page here, in this excerpt from an interview with America magazine, which he says they refused to print:
What does masculinity mean to you?
It means a willingness to expose yourself to enemy fire, whether or not you wear a uniform, in order to defend the good — your family, your church, your country, your civilization. Now the men in uniform are much better men than I, but even I can do a bit to defend those things with the gifts God gave me.
Our Lord, as always, showed the way: He endured the horrors of the Passion to defend and redeem the whole world. I’m with Rod Dreher: Anybody who only preaches a namby-pamby God, and not the highly masculine God of Scripture, is leaving young men vulnerable to the monstrous false gods of race and ideology.
Boys struggling to become men are always potential barbarians, because they hunger for masculinity but aren’t sure where to find it or how to productively express it. Our Lord revealed it to them, but too many in the Church keep masculinity hidden or the subject of shame.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, if you will not have God — not the MTD God, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is also the God of the saints and the martyrs — then you had better prepare to pay homage to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Spencer, Donald Trump, and all the other rising avatars of identity politics.
Harvey Weinstein’s sick world is collapsing in on him. Now Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie have publicly accused him. From the NYT:
When Gwyneth Paltrow was 22 years old, she got a role that would take her from actress to star: The film producer Harvey Weinstein hired her for the lead in the Jane Austen adaptation “Emma.” Before shooting began, he summoned her to his suite at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel for a work meeting that began uneventfully.
It ended with Mr. Weinstein placing his hands on her and suggesting they head to the bedroom for massages, she said.
“I was a kid, I was signed up, I was petrified,” she said in an interview, publicly disclosing that she was sexually harassed by the man who ignited her career and later helped her win an Academy Award.
She refused his advances, she said, and confided in Brad Pitt, her boyfriend at the time. Mr. Pitt confronted Mr. Weinstein, and soon after, the producer warned her not to tell anyone else about his come-on. “I thought he was going to fire me,” she said.
Ronan Farrow, writing in The New Yorker, has much darker stories about Weinstein — and an audio clip from a NYPD sting operation:
Virtually all of the people I spoke with told me that they were frightened of retaliation. “If Harvey were to discover my identity, I’m worried that he could ruin my life,” one former employee told me. Many said that they had seen Weinstein’s associates confront and intimidate those who crossed him, and feared that they would be similarly targeted. Four actresses, including Mira Sorvino and Rosanna Arquette, told me they suspected that, after they rejected Weinstein’s advances or complained about them to company representatives, Weinstein had them removed from projects or dissuaded people from hiring them. Multiple sources said that Weinstein frequently bragged about planting items in media outlets about those who spoke against him; these sources feared that they might be similarly targeted. Several pointed to Gutierrez’s case, in 2015: after she went to the police, negative items discussing her sexual history and impugning her credibility began rapidly appearing in New York gossip pages. (In the taped conversation with Gutierrez, Weinstein asks her to join him for “five minutes,” and warns, “Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes.”)
Several former employees told me that they were speaking about Weinstein’s alleged behavior now because they hoped to protect women in the future. “This wasn’t a one-off. This wasn’t a period of time,” an executive who worked for Weinstein for many years told me. “This was ongoing predatory behavior towards women—whether they consented or not.”
It’s likely that women have recently felt increasingly emboldened to talk about their experiences because of the way the world has changed regarding issues of sex and power. These disclosures follow in the wake of stories alleging sexual misconduct by public figures, including Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump.
Like all bullies, he folds when he’s faced down and becomes wheedling and sycophantic. His volcanic rage erupts from raw insecurity. I often used to wonder if the physical dissonance between his personal grossness and his artistic sensibility — which was genuine — made him crazy. It’s no accident that Harvey’s preferred routine for sexual entrapment was to strip down and open the door of his hotel suite in an open bathrobe, or nothing at all. A rich, powerful movie mogul could now do what he couldn’t all those years in high school and tell a beautiful, cowering girl: This is who I am. Now that everyone knows the truth, deep down it may be, for him, a relief.
Again, all very, very richly deserved, and good on these women for speaking out. It should tell us something about the power of this man, and the fear of retaliation, that stars of the caliber of Paltrow and Jolie only went public about Harvey Weinstein after the Times broke the story.
Harvey Weinstein is ruined, no question. Justice is in the process of being done. But how many other Harvey Weinsteins are there in Hollywood?
Did you ever hear of former child actor Corey Feldman’s claims that he and his late friend, actor Corey Haim, were passed around like sex toys among powerful Hollywood men? From the Sunday Times of London (reprinted in The Australian):
Corey Feldman was perhaps the biggest child star of the 1980s, a hero in such hits as Gremlins, The Goonies, Stand by Meand The Lost Boys. In 2011 Feldman decided to speak out about the abuse he suffered as a young actor. “The No 1 problem in Hollywood was and is — and always will be — pedophilia,” he said, adding that by the time he was 14 he was “surrounded” by molesters. Feldman met another child actor, Corey Haim, on a film set in the mid-1980s. They became best friends, starring in numerous movies together and sharing their own television show.
Describing their first meeting in his memoir, Feldman wrote: “An adult male had convinced Corey that it was perfectly normal for older men and younger boys in the business to have sexual relations … So they walked off to a secluded area between two trailers … and Haim allowed himself to be sodomised.”
Haim asked Feldman: “So I guess we should play around like that too?” He replied: “No, that’s not what kids do, man.”
In 2012 Feldman told a British tabloid: “When I was 14 and 15, things were happening to me. These older men were leching around like vultures. It was basically me lying there pretending I was asleep and them going about their business.”
Both actors went on to suffer mental health problems, alcoholism and addiction to crack and heroin. In 2010, aged 38, Haim died of pneumonia, having reportedly entered rehab 15 times. Feldman said a “Hollywood mogul” was to blame for his friend’s death, adding: “The people who did this to me are still out there and still working — some of the richest, most powerful people in this business.”
“People look at Corey Feldman and think he’s a drug addict, so why should they listen to him?” says Anne Henry, co-founder of the BizParentz Foundation, an organisation established to protect child actors. “But that plays into the predators’ hands. They don’t want victims to be believed. We estimate that about 75 per cent of the child actors who ‘went off the rails’ suffered earlier abuse. Drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide attempts, wandering through life without a purpose — they can all be symptoms.”
It is almost certainly the case that there are men and women in Hollywood today who are powerful enough to blow the whistle on sexual abusers — abusers of women, children, and even of other men — without having to worry about losing their careers. I hope they will do that. Harvey Weinstein is yesterday’s news now. The story moves on to the men like him who have operated in the same way, and who have gotten away with it. They are now sitting in their office suites in L.A. scared to death, knowing for the first time something of the fear that they made those weaker than them feel.
It’s time to tell the truth about them.
And I hope it spreads to other industries. I have mentioned the powerful Catholic archbishop who treated seminarians and priests like this. I had a number of them calling me back in 2002, telling me their stories, but declining to go on the record. Without them going on the record, or providing me with court documents that could have backed up their claims, I could do nothing under US libel laws.
That dirtbag is still alive. His record is more or less an open secret in the Catholic clerical world, at least in his part of the country. There are a number of people who could out this serial abuser, who is a sick, sick man. Men, you need to find your courage — and your voice.
Look, I think it is a very good thing that film producer Harvey Weinstein is getting his comeuppance for the way he treated women over the course of his career. But this is outrageous:
On the heels of Harvey Weinstein’s ouster from The Weinstein Company, his name is being removed from all of the company’s TV series, on which he had served as an executive producer, sources told Deadline. The same step is expected to be taken on movie releases. Additionally, we hear TWC brass are auditioning ad agencies today that will be tasked with finding a new name for the overall production and distribution company.
We hear TWC has been making calls to TV networks and producers informing them that Harvey Weinstein’s name will be scrubbed from credits going forward. They were prompted by strong reaction from TV executives and creative auspices involved in TWC series who practically demanded the name removal as they wanted to distance their projects from Weinstein following the New York Times‘ devastating Thursday expose detailing decades of sexual harassment behavior. That report has been exacerbated by numerous subsequent accounts by women who have come out in the past couple of days.
Notice that this purge of the historical memory of Harvey Weinstein is being pushed by the leadership of his own company. Former company. Still, it is disgusting, and frightening. Harvey Weinstein was and is a bad man, but as a producer, he also happens to be an extraordinarily gifted maker of films. Weinstein’s work must be judged on its own merits. If we were to start deciding on the merits of artworks based on the personal sins and failings of artists, our museums, theaters, concert halls, libraries, and record collections would empty out.
This is Stalinist. Fine, take away Harvey Weinstein’s power, take away his good name, take all that away. He deserves it. He brought this onto himself. But it is very, very wrong to deny the good work that he did, and to make him professionally a non-person. Artists are very rarely saints, but that does not compromise the worth of the work that they do. Purging his name from the artistic record is an injustice not simply to Harvey Weinstein, but to the truth. We cannot allow ourselves to get into the habit of lying about history for moral reasons. This is corrupt. Yes, this involves standing up for Harvey Weinstein, but more than that, it involves standing up for the truth.
When I was a film critic, many of the best films of any given year came from Miramax, the company Harvey Weinstein co-founded. Again, Harvey is manifestly a wicked man, but he was extraordinarily good at his work, and that should not be forgotten. It doesn’t redeem him morally, but it remains true nonetheless.