Imagine, Imagine, Imagine

I have just arrived home from the Candle Light Vigil held at Penn State in recognition of the victims of child abuse at the University, and more broadly. I will reflect further on the evening before posting here, but an immediate response to the event that continued to resonate during the walk home was the singing of John Lennon’s Imagine during the ‘service’.
While I have flirted with Imagine over the years, the despairing emptiness of the song was brought home tonight. To be clear, I am not pushing some “you have to have religion or nationalism to have meaning” agenda, but you need to try a lot harder than the insipid and vacuous lyrics of Imagine if you want some substantial meaning. Religion (in the abstract) may be full of paradoxes, knots and apparent contradictions, but at least it is full of something. Lennon’s Imagine is merely careful constructed platitudes in an attempt to mimic depth and gravitas.
The sheer hollowness of the lyrics was driven into my bones like the near freezing wind blowing across the lawn. Apart from the complete detachment from reality, the sentiment promotes empty thinking rather than critical thought. The imaginary of ‘Penn State’ provided the conditions for these abuses to occur and the hubris to attempt to cover them up. The last thing that is needed is imaging. What is needed is mourning, humility, reflection and silence. Not circuses and children’s song about some utopia (literally no-place) where it is always school holiday and ice-cream is served instead of vegetables. 

Tragedy and Anger in Happy Valley

“Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides”
– William Shakespeare, King Lear

“This is one of the saddest weeks in the history of Penn State”
– Rodney Erickson, Interim President of Pennsylvania StateUniversity

I will not recount the details of what has occurred at Penn State over the past 47 years to lead to this point of ‘sadness’.* And I do not think it is an exaggeration to appeal to Shakespeare or the notion of tragedy to make sense of the fall of mighty men, the unravelling of moral pillars and the tearing of identities. This is not just about football or Penn State. If these events are isolated to either, then a narrative that allows us to create distance from the actors will cover the many lessons of this tragic drama.

A danger is to isolate victim and villain, innocence and guilt, and wounded and perpetrator to self-contained individuals. To be clear, the role of victim intensely belongs to the boys who suffered sexual abuse under the care of a senior football administrator. I do not want to reduce or take away from that. But the victimization does not end with them. Rather it emanates in concentric circles. Similarly the perpetration of the crimes can be isolated to an individual. But this also does not end with them. Rather it emanates in concentric circles, which expand to exhaustion and overlap with the expanding circles of victimization. In this area of overlap there is confusion, anger and frustration. Perhaps a lot of the students and wider Penn State community feel positioned between the overlapping waves of the expanding circles of victimization and perpetration – far removed from the either actions but effected by both.

From my observations, a bulk of the student body are experiencing deep confusion over these events, their place in them, who is to blame, and what can be done. Emotions for this institution, community, football and coach run deep. To see these sources of identify and selfhood scrutinized is extremely troubling.

As the seeds sown 47 years ago have revealed their bitter fruit this week, some students and alumni have turned their anger and confusion toward the messenger – the media. Viewing the media as the only participants in this drama standing to gain, students have directed uncontrolled emotion toward them. Culminating in a riot.

In response to the riot, the Penn State Facebook page requested students vacate the downtown area. However, a number of comments to the two messages (on the right), supported the students rioting and suggested the media presence justified, if not required violent action. For example:

Adam: tell the media to vacate. not the students

Nicole: So glad they are making a point of attacking the media, what goes around comes around media!!!

Brian: Should have thought about that before handing the legend over to the mob media. Penn state gets what they asked for tonight.

Tarrie: What a shame that a brilliant career is ending over this. I can’t believe that this honorable man is as deeply involved in this as the media is making out. I’ve been a Penn State fan for as long as I can remember and I”m 52 years old. I think you should protest, protest and protest. Let your voices be heard loud and clear. 

Mardizone: show luv for JOE PA yall…shame on da media!!!!!! shame on PSU!!!!

David: Susan, the media is what caused this. The media is the one who villified Joe Paterno. The media is the reason his career was called to end. The media is the reason his legacy has been entirely destroyed. The media is entirely at fault.

Susan: My son has just been pepper sprayed trying to help a girl that tripped-thanks b of trustees and media.

Kvision: Joe Paterno did not deserve to be fired! All those that are protesting against him are victims of the media and miss information. This is what the media does because they have no morals either. They are about making the buck just like Penn State.

As is clear from these comments there is a lot of anger and confusion. While it is important that certain actions are taken quickly and decisively, it is also important the quick solutions and answers do not satisfy the need for deeper inquiry. Slow thought and careful consideration is crucial in order to learn from errors of the past. Some of us may be victims or perpetrators of these errors, and some of us may be an uncomfortable mixture of both. However, it is important that artificial stories are not grasped for as quick remedy to our discomfort. Time has unfolded what plaited cunning hides, and likewise time should be allowed for somber rumination, sensitive dialogue and ethical consideration.

*Most major US newspapers have adequate summaries – NY Times, USA Today, FOX News or Centre Daily Times

Tree of Life Revisited

I recently moved from Sydney to State College, Pennsylvania – home of the Nittany Lions, JoePa and student partying (especially when someone gets assassinated). The town is picturesque, with manicured lawns, flowering pears and leafy lindens, squirrels and jackrabbits, and svelte co-eds jogging along the sidewalk at all hours. New to ‘small town America’ the streets, homes and people evoked Hollywood images from Leave it to Beaver, Stand By Me, and on the more depressed edges, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
In my first week here I was fortunate to be able to re-watch Tree of Life at the State Theatre. Located on the main street (College Ave) the State Theatre is an elegant, yet understated theatre built in 1938 that continues to show new release, art house, and classic films. Tickets are $8.50, wine is $7 – next time I think I’ll go dry.
Watching Tree of Life, a very American perspective on the human condition, from the fringe of ‘the heartland’ further added to the satisfaction of revisiting Malick’s enigmatic film. Like the screening at the Sydney Film Festival, some viewers were frustrated enough to leave, while others continually looked at the glow of their smartphones – presumably looking at the time, or perhaps trying to find a review that provides some meat to the skeletal gestures and subtle whispers.
I would not claim to have a certain interpretation of this film or suggest the meaning, but on second viewing a few scenes and themes struck me:
Both physical structures featured (family home(s), church, office space, and city scape) and the occupation of Jack (Sean Penn) as an architecture echoed the act of divine creation. Importantly, the interaction between the natural and created, or environment and world, served to underscore humanities imitation of the divine and desire to control, order and design.
The will to control, both the environment and world is evidenced by Mr O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt) fastidious concern over property boundaries, garden maintenance and the front lawn. These concerns are deeper than mere aesthetics but represent the character of the person and their place in the world among others – the first audible dialogue is Mr O’Brien telling Jack where the boundary between their yard and Spencer’s yard lies.
A specific example of O’Brien’s will to control is in an early scene where Mrs O’Brien is publically grieving with her friends and Mr O’Brien insists that ‘we are alright’ while simultaneous choking the garden hose in order to halt the flow of water.  Whether this is an expression of control over himself, his wife or his world I am unsure. However, the limit or superficiality of O’Brien’s control is highlighted by his inability to revive the boy at the swimming pool. The power over life and death is beyond O’Brien’s grasp.
Love & Death
Immediately following Jack’s first experience of death is his first experience of romantic love or attraction. However, this is soon skewed into something illicit when his object of desire shifts from his young peer to the neighbor’s wife, breaking into her house and stealing her underwear.
Wisdom of Job’s Friends
An obvious point is the parallels the narrative shares with Job. However, without reading too much into each scene, the ‘wisdom’ or comfort offered Mrs O’Brien after her son’s death reflects the cheap sentiment or simple comfort offered to Job. This is particularly pointed when the Priest says, presumably after the funeral, “he is in God’s hands now”, to which Mrs O’Brien responds “he was always in God’s hands”, highlighting the emptiness of the Priest’s words. 
For an insightful discussion on the philosophical influences on Malick and themes in his films, this interview with Robert Sinnerbrink on the Philosopher’s Zone is very good. 

The Celebration of Death and the Cycle of Violence

Bruce would undoubtably be proud of the use of ‘Born in the USA’

In the Introduction to Sayyid Qutb’s Social Justice in Islam, Hamid Algar points to Qutb’s experience of America in the late-1940s and early 50s as influencing his turn from secularism to the Muslim Brethren. According to Hamid Algar, a catalyst for this transition in Qutb’s thinking was the celebratory response of the American’s to the news that a founder of the Muslim Brethren had been assassinated. Algar writes,

Sayyid Qutb had been increasingly well disposed to the Muslim Brethren ever since he witnessed the ecstatic reception given in America to the news of the assassination, on February 12, 1949, of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the organization.                                                    Hamid Algar in Social Justice in Islam, Islamic Publications International, New York, 2000: 3.  

Despite completing a master’s degree in education at the University of Northern Colorado and being initially open to US democracy as an example of political governance, the American character and way of life left him disturbed and disenchanted. This disturbance led Qutb to return to Egypt and join the Muslim Brethren in the struggle against what he regarded as the corrupting and deleterious effects of the West.
Perhaps had there been little more loving of enemies in 1949, or as a compromise, not loving and rejoicing over their demise, then the radicalization of Qutb and the escalation of resentment resulting in the 9/11 attacks may have been averted. But perhaps Jeremiah 13:23 is more apt in this context than Matthew 5:44.