Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Defending Fifty Shades

Like 99.5 percent of American men, I never read Fifty Shades of Grey and never will. Nonetheless, like many other members of the 99.5 percent, Valentine's Day found me sitting in a movie theater watching the film adaptation. The lovely Erika -- peruser of the entire three-book series -- was very happy with my choice of what we would do this February 14th.

When I bought our tickets a couple weeks ago, I did so with no real desire to see the movie. However, thanks to the events of the 48 hours leading up to Saturday, I was very interested by the time we sat down. Those 48 hours were chock full of anti-Fifty Shades scolding by people who: a) never read the book, and b) were too arrogant to entertain any suggestion that their non-reading might mean they didn't know what they were talking about.

*     *     *     *     *

It began on Thursday, when a friend of mine triggered a flood of comments by using her Facebook status to encourage people to boycott the movie. It continued on Friday when I listened to several radio shows while driving home from Atlanta to Tampa.

The first thing that struck me was the bipartisan nature of the anti-Fifty Shades crowd, which churned out loud voices from both sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, my boycott-encouraging friend is one of the biggest liberals I've ever known. On the other, many of the critics I heard on the radio were speaking on Christian stations in Georgia, which means it is likely that they vote Republican every other November.

The second thing that struck me was the uniformity of the criticism. There was talk of Fifty Shades promoting BDSM (i.e., sexual activities that fall under the categories of bondage-and-discipline, domination-and-submission, or sadomasochism). To an even greater degree, there was talk of the movie making BDSM seem normal. Either way, the critics all said pretty much the same thing, and the problem I had was that they had no way of knowing if what they were saying was true; they leveled charges simply because their knees jerked and told them to.

There was also commentary suggesting that if people with daughters were to watch the movie, they would be betraying their daughters and erasing every word of counsel they ever gave them about valuing themselves, protecting themselves, standing up for themselves, etc. Such criticism might be valid if the movie did indeed promote or normalize BDSM -- but like Stephen King once noted, "If is the only word a thousand letters long," and once again I could not remove from my brain the knowledge that the noisiest Fifty Shades critics had neither read the book nor seen the movie.

Once the point-counterpount exchanges got going and the people making counterpoints (also known as "people who actually read the book") started making very strong arguments, I noticed that most of the people on the anti-Fifty Shades side had no reply other than to basically say "it doesn't matter, I still believe that (fill in the blank)."

Then, some people from the anti-Fifty Shades crowd changed the subject by alleging that the writing in the book was terrible. Perhaps those who said this did in fact read it, which would make them a minority within their crowd. However, I'm not even sold on the notion that they read it, because not a one of 'em said what was bad about the writing; they simply stated it was bad, as if their opinions represent the voice of God, then walked off the proverbial stage as if there was no need to back up their claims or to answer logical questions from their audience.

One person managed to defame God knows how many of her personal friends by declaring, in writing, that "I never read the book, but I spent many hours running with women who did. I know more about the series than I care to and it only made me not want to read it more for the mere fact that I watched intelligent women choose to read a book that contradicted everything they believed and said they stood for. Not for one minute do I believe it's about a love story." Um, ok. So these women are intelligent and they actually read it. Perhaps their opinions about it are worth more than the opinions of those who have not. Perhaps they know, rather than "believe," whether it is or is not a love story. Perhaps they, being intelligent, are unlikely to have been hoodwinked into compromising their morality by a supposedly talentless hack hammering out allegedly crappy prose.

With this much foam in the water, I could not wait to watch the movie so I could develop an informed opinion. Yes, the idea of seeing Dakota Johnson in the nude was intriguing, but what I wanted most was to figure out if the squawking members of the anti-Fifty Shades crowd have any idea what they are squawking about. And what I determined was: They do not.

*     *     *     *     *

Granted -- and this is a very big grant -- I don't know what happens in the final two books/movies, so there is a chance that something might be in them which could change my mind. But then again, the anti-Fifty Shades crowd isn't sure what happens in the book/movie they are currently stumping about.

Erika has not indicated that the subsequent volumes shift the story line beyond where it is already going in this one, nor have the scores of other intelligent, ethical mothers I know who have read the series. What I have been told about subsequent volumes is that the main characters pull each other away from their opposite poles and towards the center, ending as "a normal married couple with a healthy sex life, maybe a slightly larger toy box" (in the words of a personal female friend who is a wife and mom). So my cards are on the table -- you know my level of ignorance and my level of knowledge -- and I am comfortable "putting my name on it" when I publish this post.

And the main thing is this:  Fifty Shades of Grey does not promote or normalize BDSM, nor does it encourage young women to succumb to it. The movie simply doesn't do what most of the critics assume it does.

Anastasia Steele (the lead female character, played by Johnson) makes no secret of her aversion to the brand of sex preferred by the the egomaniacal Christian Grey, and her aversion is often full-blown revulsion.

Steele does as much to throw Grey off of his game as he does to throw her off of hers. She persistently makes it clear that she wants more than the "sex is business and I'm the boss" arrangement that Grey proposes, and she consistently gets him to compromise.

He sleeps in the bed with her after sex, despite having never done that with anyone else. He agrees to go on dates, which he had not done in any previous relationship. These achievements of hers (for extreme lack of a better word) take place before she agrees to spend even one second of her time engaging in BDSM.

At the beginning of the story, Steele is a virgin about to graduate from college and Grey is a prodigal 27-year-old billionaire. Yet it is the awkward Steele, with no business experience, who off-balances Grey by insisting that they discuss his written relationship proposal in a business setting. When the meeting takes place, she gets him to forego activities that he, being a "dominant" in his relationships, is not used to having eliminated from his list of options.

Eventually she agrees to sample a taste of Grey's brand of sex, with the understanding that there is a code word she can use to instruct him to stop, and that he will always honor the instruction immediately. The sex scenes that include whipping do nothing to glamorize, soften, or in any way minimize its nature. The crack of leather on flesh, in tandem with scenes of Steele's feet clinching and face contorting as the leather strikes, makes it clear that she is terrified and that few people would want to engage in such behavior. We see her tears and sense her pain.

At the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, Steele refuses to continue their affair. Given that there are sequels, her refusal must turn out not to be permanent; but the lasting impression is that if Grey wants to get her back, he will have to move farther from his baseline than he has so far.

The portrayal of Anastasia Steele shows that she has insecurities (don't we all?) yet remains true to herself in spite of them.

Conversely, Christian Grey is depicted as powerful, controlling -- and sad. Despite his immense financial success, he is unsatisfied and bitter as he charges through life not realizing (or simply refusing to accept) that human intimacy is the only ticket to happiness.

*     *     *     *     *

My daughter is ten years old and most certainly will not be watching or reading Fifty Shades of Grey any time soon; but seeing as how I'm not a fool, I am glumly aware that there aren't many years remaining before she hears about whip-and-chain fetishes. When Erika and I discuss the topic with her, we will make it clear that any man who wants to bind a woman and make her his "submissive" is almost certainly a slave-driving tormentor if not an outright rapist. We will tell her to steer a thousand miles clear of such men and such relationships.

I am not here to say Fifty Shades is a great story or that you should run out and spend your money on it. The story line is better than I expected, but the movie's dialogue is average and its soundtrack borders on cheesy.

I am here to say that you should not make any judgments about Fifty Shades without taking the time to read or watch it for yourself, because the story line is not what you've been led to believe (assuming you woke up today thinking it is nothing more than pornography or Harlequin trash).

Always remember: In just about every walk of life, those who protest the loudest tend to be the ones who are least informed about whatever it is they're protesting.

Addendum: In fairness to my boycott-encouraging friend, I should mention that a boycott was not the only thing she encouraged. She suggested, as have others, that instead of spending money on the movie you should donate $50 (the approximate amount of tickets and concessions for two) to a shelter for battered women. It goes without saying that such donations are always worthwhile. Local battered women's shelters exist coast to coast, but if you happen to live in the Tampa Bay Area and wish to donate, here is one you might consider.

Note: This post has been edited since it was initially published.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Gipper's Centennial

If he was still alive, Ronald Reagan would be turning 104 today. Below is the post that I published on his 100th birthday.

He was born one hundred years ago today in TampicoIllinois.

His family relocated several times during his childhood, moving throughout the state and eventually settling in the town of Dixon. His father was a hard-working but alcoholic shoe salesman. His mother, a born optimist and active member of the Disciples of Christ Church, provided the financially-strapped family with moral stability.

He excelled at sports, and at the age of 15 his first job was as a lifeguard on the Rock River. At Eureka College he played football, captained the swim team, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science and economics.

After college he worked in radio, broadcasting Iowa Hawkeyes football games and Chicago Cubs baseball games. At the age of 26, while traveling with the Cubs in California, he took a screen test for Warner Brothers and earned the lead role in the motion picture Love is in the Air. He went on to appear in 52 movies, and, contrary to what revisionists would later say, his performances were well-received by critics at the time.

World War II interrupted his acting career, but afterward he returned to Hollywood not only as an actor but as an important figure in the Screen Actors Guild. He served as its president for seven years, and it was in this role that he honed his leadership skills and learned the art of hard-boiled negotiation. In the 1950’s he became a television fixture as the host of GE Theater.

He married Jane Wyman in 1940 and they had three children -- two biological daughters, one of whom died at just a day old, plus an adopted son. After disagreements about his political ambitions, Wyman filed for divorce in 1947.

Two years later he met the love of his life, Nancy Davis. They married in 1952 and remained so until he died more than a half-century later, and together they had a daughter and son. Many observers consider their marriage to be America’s greatest true love story.

Although he spent time in the often-superficial world of Hollywood, he was a man of substance who thought critically about world affairs and sought to influence public policy. He eventually left the world of show business and emerged as a political titan who changed the course of history.

Because he became known as the ultimate conservative Republican, many people today are surprised to learn that he was a Democrat until the age of 51. He changed parties partly because his views moved rightward as he aged, but mostly because the party of his youth moved leftward and away from America’s founding principles. When asked why he switched, he quipped, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party -- the party left me.” He elaborated more on the issue in his autobiography, writing: “The classic liberal used to be the man who believed the individual was, and should be forever, the master of his destiny. That is now the conservative position. The liberal used to believe in freedom under the law. He now takes the ancient feudal position that power is everything. He believes in a stronger and stronger central government, in the philosophy that control is better than freedom. The conservative now quotes Thomas Paine, a longtime refuge of the liberals: ‘Government is a necessary evil; let us have as little of it as possible.’”

The first time he ran for office, in 1966, he won the governorship of California. Four years later he was easily reelected. After narrowly losing his bid for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, he returned to win the 1980 nomination and defeated Jimmy Carter in the general election, becoming the 40th president of the United States. In 1984, he was reelected in a history-making landslide in which he won 49 of the 50 states.

When he stepped into the Oval Office in January 1981, communism was on the rise, freedom was in decline, and America’s economy was failing. Unemployment was high, and for those who were employed, the purchasing power of their money was evaporating because of double-digit inflation and 20 percent mortgage rates. But rather than be scared by the challenge, he embraced it.

On the economic front he created an environment in which entrepreneurial innovation could flourish. He did this by scaling back regulations that were burdensome and anti-competitive, and by dramatically lowering tax rates in all income brackets so that people would have more money in their pockets to spend as they saw fit. And last but not least, he championed entrepreneurs and the social benefits that derive from their businesses; unlike his political adversaries, he did not vilify business because he understood the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s warning that "you can not help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer."

The results were staggering. Inflation and unemployment were all but eliminated from being national issues, and incomes soared -- in fact, incomes soared so much that the total amount of money taken in by the government skyrocketed, even though the government was taking a much smaller percentage of each person’s income than it was before he was elected. Those who think government must raise taxes to raise revenue should take notice, because its annual revenue was much higher every year he was in office than it was in any year before he took office; and by the time he left office, its revenue was nearly twice what it was before.

On national defense and foreign affairs, his achievements were even more staggering. Instead of following his predecessor’s path of na├»ve appeasement, he drew a line in the sand and made it clear that America would not allow Soviet-sponsored tyranny to continue its assault against human liberty. He pushed back against the Soviets, first by installing intercontinental ballistic missiles in Western Europe, and then executing a brilliant squeeze play by rapidly building up our military technology and introducing the SDI (a “shoot their missiles down from space” initiative that his critics ridiculed by calling it “Star Wars”). The USSR tried to keep up because it was power-hungry, but could not do so because its top-down communist system was incapable of generating resources and innovations like America’s free-enterprise capitalist system. In the end, because he allowed America’s system to function without its hands tied, the inherent flaws of communism were exposed and the USSR itself -- along with the abusive power it had wielded over smaller nations -- collapsed like the house of cards it was.

Many “realists” thought the Cold War would last in perpetuity, but he, an “idealist,” brought it to an end by design and without firing a shot. And with the disappearance of the USSR and its control over other nations, millions of people throughout the world, especially Eastern Europe, were able to taste freedom for the first time. Today this man is a hero in their country as well as ours.

People who lived in fear of commissars in what was once East Germany, and of the Communist Party’s police state in what was once the Soviet Union, will tell you how in the 1980’s they were emboldened by the knowledge that an American president was finally standing up to their tormentors; how they were inspired by the knowledge that he was genuinely on the side of humanity and would not ignore their plight. They will tell you that without him, their freedom would never have come to be.

In Prague, the capital of a nation once held hostage by the Soviets, celebrations in this man’s honor are planned throughout this year to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his birth. In London, the capital of a nation with whom he reaffirmed a heralded “special relationship,” a statue of him is being unveiled in Grosvenor Square.

Here in America, we should remember that he was a man imbued with humility despite his great accomplishments; that he was “the leader of the free world” but always knew it was about us and not about him; and that he did not gain entree to power because of inherited wealth or family connections, but instead earned his way up from a modest beginning in a small Midwestern town.

He gave speeches like no one else I have ever seen, because he believed what he said and everyone knew it. While Abraham Lincoln was called “Honest Abe” and Andrew Jackson was called “Old Hickory,” this president was called “The Great Communicator.” Everyone who saw him agreed that nickname fit, but, humble to the end, he disavowed it when he said this during his last speech before leaving office: “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”

In that same speech, he summed up his love for America when he said this: “The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’ The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still…After two hundred years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

He departed this earth in 2004, but that will not stop me from pausing today to say, “Thank you, Ronald Wilson Reagan.”

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Pre-Super Bowl Thoughts

Super Bowl XLIX is upon us, offering what is arguably the most compelling Super Bowl match-up in history.

This post will not (other than right now, I suppose) say anything about Deflategate. Nor will it say anything about the Seahawks' league-leading number of PED suspensions over the last half-decade, or about their love of committing penalties. Nor will it mention how irritating it is to see the media whining, small-mindedly and self-importantly, about Marshawn Lynch's introverted personality.

So, on to what really makes this Super Bowl so intriguing:

The RB's
It's fitting that Jerome Bettis was just chosen for the Hall of Fame, because this Super Bowl features two running backs who are throwbacks to the powerful, bulldozing style from days of yore. Anyone tasked with tackling Seattle's Marshawn Lynch or New England's LeGarrette Blount is likely to end up with a bruised sternum and cracked ribs.

Lynch is the best running back currently playing the game and his endurance should be the stuff of legend. Though he is but one person, he somehow manages to wear down entire opposing defenses by the middle of the third quarter.

Meanwhile, Blount is so big he looks like a Sherman tank, and if you think you can avoid getting bowled over by going down and taking him out at the knees, he is likely to leap over you when you go down -- then take off running while you are sprawled on the turf looking like a fool.

The CB's
On the other side of the ball, Seattle's Richard Sherman and New England's Darrelle Revis are the two best cornerbacks in the game, which is saying something when you consider that cornerback is arguably the hardest position to play.

Both of them are able to lock down receivers, no matter which receiver they are going against. And when it looks like they are beaten, they have an uncanny way of suddenly closing the gap or shifting position to prevent a pass from being completed. They are both highly intelligent, having graduated from universities with rigorous academic standards (Sherman from Stanford, Revis from Pitt) and neither of them shies away from taking leadership roles on their respective defenses. Fans should appreciate watching them play.

The QB's
In all of history, only 31 people have ever quarterbacked a team to a Super Bowl championship, and two of them will be facing off this evening.

There are two glaring similarities between Russell Wilson and Tom Brady: 1) they were not highly regarded coming out of college, and 2) they reached the pinnacle of success very early in their careers. Wilson was not drafted until the third round, after such non-luminaries as Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler, while Brady, incredibly, was not drafted until the sixth. Nonetheless, they became two of the three youngest quarterbacks ever to win a Super Bowl, with Brady leading New England over St. Louis at the age of 24 and Williams leading Seattle past Denver at the age of 25.

Then there are differences, most notably this: After Brady notched his first championship, people immediately thought of him as a leader who could accomplish great things because of himself -- yet after Williams notched his first, a large number of people still thought of him as a mediocre "game manager" who could not actively win games, but who could nonetheless get his team in the win column by sitting on his hands and letting his teammates do the work. (Those who have that opinion are, by the way, flat-out wrong.)

The Most Underrated Ever?
Wilson is only in his third year in the pros. He has gone up against teams led by Super Bowl winning QB's ten times -- and never lost. In this year's NFC Championship Game, he pulled out a win despite trailing by 12 points with four minutes remaining. His last three passes in that game were picture perfect, and the final one was an audible in overtime that resulted in the winning score.

None of which should be a surprise, because it is exactly the kind of stuff Wilson did in college, even if NFL scouts refused to watch because they didn't like his 5'10" height. This is not bland "game management." It is what we used to call "clutch" and still should call "clutch." If the Seahawks win today, Wilson will be in rarefied air no matter what his detractors think.

The Greatest Ever?
It is extremely rare for a quarterback to earn the title of "great" without the help of at least one receiver who also deserves that title, but Tom Brady has done just that over the course of a career that began 15 seasons ago.

Johnny Unitas had Ray Berry. Terry Bradshaw was doubly blessed because he had John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. Joe Montana was quadruply blessed because he had Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon for the first half of his career, followed by Jerry Rice and John Taylor for the second half. Troy Aikman had Michael Irvin. Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison, then he had Reggie Wayne. Kurt Warner had Issac Bruce and Torry Holt when he was in St. Louis, then he had Larry Fitzgerald when he was in Arizona. Dan Marino had Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. Dan Fouts had Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. Jim Kelly had Andre Reed. From 1983 through 1992, the Washington Redskins won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, only one of whom might possibly be considered great -- but there was one person in their passing attack who was indisputably great and was there for all three championships, and that was Art Monk.

Comparatively speaking, Tom Brady has had no one. Sure, Wes Welker has garnered a lot of talk and he is damn good, but at the end of the day he's a possession receiver who dropped the most important pass ever thrown to him. That leaves Rob Gronkowski, who has shown flashes of tight end brilliance but has spent most of his short career on injured reserve. Nonetheless, Brady has won more post-season games than any QB in history and thrown more post-season touchdowns than any QB in history. Today he will be starting his sixth Super Bowl, which is a record, and a victory would make him only the third QB (along with Montana and Bradshaw) with four Super Bowl championships.

In other words, if the Patriots win today, it will become extremely difficult for anyone to argue against Brady being the best ever. And I say this as someone who has long argued that Joe Montana is far and away the all-time number one.

This one is tough to call. Seattle's biggest defensive weakness is stopping a power running back, and today they will be going up against the bruiser who is LeGarrette Blount. However, New England's biggest defensive weakness is stopping the zone read, and it just so happens that Russell Wilson runs the zone read better than anyone else in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Seattle's secondary is in the conversation for one of the best of all time and is particularly good at taking away the short and medium passing routes across the center of the field. That could spell trouble for New England, whose biggest strength in the passing game happens to be those same short and medium routes -- and whose receivers generally lack the game-breaking speed to get open deep downfield where Seattle is most vulnerable.

So I tend to think the Seahawks will win in a close one, say 24-23, which would not make me mad. But I kind of want the see Brady get that fourth ring. We will see what happens...