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Obama’s New Preacher Problem

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Obama’s New Preacher Problem

Barack Obama—and America—has a preacher problem. First, of course, was Reverend Jeremiah Wright, preaching from the pulpit with an almost gleeful hatred that, even if you empathized with the man and recognized the sources of his profound frustration and anger, felt alienating and counterproductive to the post-racial agenda Obama had so eloquently and sensitively put forward. Another preacher, evangelical pastor Rick Warren, is a man who, after inviting Obama to his church earlier this year for a nationally televised Q&A in a supposed effort to find common ground and then ambushing him with “gotcha” culture-war questions, compared abortion to genocide and Obama to a Holocaust denier. “Oh, I do,” was the leader of Saddleback mega-church’s hearty response when asked by The Wall Street Journal if he equates gay marriage with polygamy, incest, and pedophilia.

To hear some pundits’ dismissive reactions to the outrage of Obama supporters in the hours following the announcement that Warren would be giving the inaugural invocation on January 20th, you’d think that the President-elect had invited Teddy Ruxpin to do it. Gay activists are apparently overreacting. They are evidently “looking for a fight” following the passage of Proposition 8 in California last month. In a video supporting the referendum, Warren said: “We should not let two percent of the population determine to change a definition of marriage that has been supported by every single culture and every single religion for 5,000 years. This is not even just a Christian issue, it’s a humanitarian and human issue.” And he was right. Civil rights is a “humanitarian” issue, the term being broadly defined as “having concern for or helping to improve the welfare and happiness of people.”

The ins and outs of gay rights, though, are irrelevant here. What matters is that the next president of the United States just invited a bigot to launch his administration…right? Or maybe it’s the fact that this next president of the United States has done it. Reverend Franklin Graham—who refused to take part in Sudanese peace negotiations in 1994, called Islam “a very evil and a very wicked religion” and condoned the use of WMD to destroy it, and, of course, declared that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality—presided over George W. Bush’s inauguration eight years ago. No shocker there. And had John McCain been elected, he undoubtedly would have been sworn in alongside “agents of intolerance” like John Hagee and Jerry Falwell. Hypocrisy is the name of the game in American politics. But compared to these folks, Warren is something like a cuddly, animatronic teddy bear.

In response to the controversy, Obama reminded us that he has consistently been “a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans,” and that the invitation to Warren was an effort to be inclusive. These are the actions of a man who intends to govern as he campaigned, to lead as he orated. Unlike Bush’s acquisition of the presidency, Obama’s was not simply a power-grab: Rather than spend political capital far greater than Bush ever earned, and rather than exploit the so-called mandate of 53% (essentially a landslide in modern American presidential politics), he is living up to his promise. That is, perhaps, a political move in and of itself, since attaining power means nothing without maintaining it, but inclusiveness is what is going to make Obama a great president, and a stark contrast to Bush.

This issue has magnified something that has irked me about the Democratic Party for a long time. The right never panders to the left, but the left panders to the right almost pathologically. Is it simply proof that the nation is indeed “center-right,” as many conservatives would have us believe? Or is it something deeper and more profound within in the collective psyches of Democrats? An attorney friend of mine was told by her superiors recently that she had a character flaw, that she was “too nice,” and that if she were a man it would be okay. Perhaps the Democratic Party is afflicted with this same intrinsic flaw—one that makes them more gracious, inclusive, and willing to compromise. Yes, Obama is a bigger, and better, person than Bush. And yes, the country desperately needs a change from the divisive, strict partisanship of the last eight years. But in the twilight of those years, it isn’t difficult to see why many Democrats wouldn’t be so willing to extend the same invitation of camaraderie that was denied them since 2001.

If Obama’s objective is inclusiveness, whom exactly is he going out of his way to include—or exclude, for that matter? So eager to heal the rifts and avoid the mistakes of Bush and even Bill Clinton (during the Human Rights Campaign Forum earlier this year, panel member Melissa Etheridge told presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that the gay community had been heartbroken by her husband’s compromise on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and his official endorsement of the Defense of Marriage Act), Obama risks marginalizing his party’s victory by aligning himself with the very people who seek to undo what they stand for.

The argument is, then, that in the interest of complete inclusiveness, perhaps Obama should invite a Klansman or an anti-Semite to his inauguration as well. They are, of course, part of America. But if Warren had made derogatory statements about blacks or Jews, he would be removed post haste and likely drummed out of public life entirely—which, it seems, would be the ultimate punishment for a man who simply glows in the national spotlight. Or if, per chance, Warren expressed actual anger from the pulpit, Obama would have thrown him under the bus months ago. The sad reality is that, in 2008, it’s still okay to openly bash gays with little consequence.

If the past two years have taught us nothing else, it’s that symbolism matters, but it’s ultimately policy that will create real change. There is plenty of time to dialogue with people who have opposing ideologies, but how sad that the very first words spoken at this landmark moment for civil rights, and the first words that will officially usher in the first black president’s tenure, will not come from Reverend Joseph Lowery, who has devoted his life to civil rights and who will preside over the ceremony’s benediction, but from the mouth of a bigot. Warren is supposedly the kinder, gentler face of Christian fundamentalism in the 21st century, but he recites hate speech like a stuffed bear that’s got a cassette tape stuck in its back.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie as actress Sharon Tate, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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