Saturday, February 07, 2004

Sympathy for the Devil
I am a fan of the Father Brown mysteries. They aren't really that great, as mysteries go, but they deal with matters of religion, ethics, morality, and the deepest, darkest misdeeds of human nature from the point of view of an unassuming, shabby little priest who can see and understand the heart of anyone, no matter how evil he might seem to us.

The little brown man with the three-cornered hat and the umbrella came into my thoughts today as I watched a local Fox Channel newscast. I was flipping channels when my attention was caught by a beautiful young dalmatian staring into the camera. It seems the owner took her to a local Petco and abandoned her there. The owner of the store chased the woman out to the parking lot, but she pulled away in an U-Haul.

The announcer went into paroxysms of denunciation: nobody can understand why anyone would do such a thing, yadda yadda. Cut away to a local employee of the pound (I think), who says he sees neglected animals all the time. Finally, the announcer tells us that the "well cared for" poor dog had a message attached to her collar.

This is what she read of it:

Please help me. My owner lost her job and her house and can't take care of me any longer.

Of course, right after that, the female yahoo continued her diatribe. How could anybody....

That's when I turned the damn thing off and came here to vent.

Where the hell did our ability to sympathize go? When did we became so all-fired-up perfect that we can pound on someone without at least making an effort to see their side? In fact, when did we become so fired-up holy that we can judge another human being?

One of my favorite Father Brown stories tells about a famous philanthropist of whom all manner of stories and even legends were told of the miraculous rapidity with which he could form a sound judgment, especially of human character. When he is killed by some of those he had suppposedly helped, father Brown replies to someone who asks him how could Wynd have misjudged so badly:

'Yes', he said almost fiercely; 'that is how he came to be killed. He was killed for just that. He was killed for being a judge of men.'

They all stared at him, but he went on, almost as if they were not there.

'What is any man that he should be a judge of men?' he demanded. 'These three were the tramps that once stood before him and were dismissed rapidly right and left to one place or another; as if for them there was no cloak of courtesy, no stages of intimacy, no free-will in friendship. And twenty years has not exhausted the indignation born of that unfathomable insult in the moment when he dared to know them at a glance.'

Where do we get off being judges of men? Even--maybe especially--if we are right?

Look, I'm not talking about seeing someone that is doing something wrong and stopping them. I am not talking about being "soft of crime" (and a more idiotic phrase has never been invented!). I am talking about taking the time to understand the why, of placing yourself in someone's shoes, seeing the world from their perspective, from the gut, so that you know yourself capable of committing her crime.

This simply entails accepting that you are as human as they are, as prone to error and imperfection.But it seems that these days it is impossible to admit to anything but horror and revulsion at any act that contravenes our own image of perfection. So we create the monster "other" that we can cast out ritually. Or, in our society's case, televisually.

Undertaking Father Brown's exercise does not mean that you will dissolve into liberal puddles and kiss a murderer. But it might mean that, if instead of seeing the "other", you see "you", you might want to help "yourself".

You know, what that guy Jesus said: Do unto others...?

Monday, February 02, 2004

Cultural Dissonance
Most of the time I feel, if not more, at least as American as Cuban. I prefer jazz to salsa and would much rather watch CSI than Te Amare en Silencio. I prefer sailing in Maine to sailing in the Caribbean, and spend at least one winter week a year in Michigan trudging through snow without a coat.

But there are times when something reminds me that I am, indeed, a stranger in a weird land. Case in point: Janet Jackson's boob.

I don't watch football, so I had no idea that anything had happened until the next day, when I saw a picture of Janet grabbing at her boob and staring at Justin Timberlake like the original Ms. Medusa. So I asked my father and he shrugs and says that Justin had pulled Janet's top off and one of her boobs had bounced out, but the nipple was covered and no big deal.

Those of you who have read about my father before are now asking yourselves: What?! That nice cuban gentleman was NOT bothered at all by this nasty spectacle? Well, no, he wasn't.

You see, in Latin America there is a long tradition of female cabaret performers wearing pretty much nada but strategically placed spangles. There are at least three shows currently on spanish tv, all scheduled around dinner time, which have a full complement of girls in tangas falling out of their bikini tops.

It's a tradition that goes way back. One of the greatest performers was Mexican-American (would you believe born in Spokane, Washington?) Tongolele. People of my generation still remember Puerto Rican Iris Chacon, and honey, if you think J-Lo has an ass and knows how to shake it, you should have seen Iris (I still can't find a picture of her that isn't behind a porno barrier, sorry).

So, like my dad says, no harm, no foul, right?

Not quite.

I'm watching CSI: Miami, and a newsflash comes on. The "authorities" are planning to bring charges against Janet for flashing a boob on national tv. Mind you, in the show I am watching I have just seen damn near full frontals of a man who was tortured, castrated, and finally murdered by slicing his throat open with a chaveta (the curved knife used by cigar makers). A few months ago I played about two minutes of a video game in which points were made by killing naked women tied to pillars: it's a best-seller. But Janet's boob is making all the cultural censors swoon.

What is it with Americans and sexuality? I have seen otherwise sane people froth at the mouth at the idea of a nude beach. The government still pushes abstinence only programs even after study after study have shown that those that combine abstinence and contraceptive information work better. Showing a couple making love gets an automatic r-rating from the movie types. Marriage HAS to be between a man and a woman or the world will come apart at the seams. The eyes of children must be protected from Janet's boob...but all those thousands of obscene commercials where women are basically objects or castrators and men are either predators or fools are...commerce. And we can't interfere with commerce!


UPDATE: Billmon says it better than I can.