Me and You and Everyone We Know

Me and You and Everyone We KnowThe other night, I watched, Me and You and Everyone We Know. And I loved it. But it is not a typical film, so as I went to write about it, I needed some help remembering what I had been thinking. So I went to Wikipedia where I found that the consensus is, “Miranda July’s debut feature is a charmingly offbeat and observant film about people looking for love.” Really?! That was not what I thought at all. But I often find myself in this position. Movie reviewers normally get press kits that tell them what films are about. This is why reviews often mention the same things about films and view them in the same way. I didn’t get the press kit.

Is Me and You and Everyone We Know about love? Well, sure. Every work of art is about love on one level or another. But what it is really all about is the rules that we create so that we can interact. And the film looks at this question in many different and highly creative ways. But ultimately, it paints a picture of life as very lonely because we see almost only the negotiation and not the continuity that it (hopefully) leads to.

The core of the film is found in a single scene. A father and daughter exit a fish store with a gold fish in a bag. But the father forgets the fish and drives off with the fish on top of the car. Christine (Miranda July) and Michael, an old man she is driving, notice it. She wants to alert the driver and Michael says no. If they do, he will stop quickly, throwing the fish on the ground, killing it. Michael says, “The best thing for that fish is if he could just drive steadily forever.” Yes, that would be best. But of course it is impossible. The car must stop. This is the question that the movie poses: do we continue on as we have in a suboptimal situation or do we risk hoping for something better.

Me and You and Everyone We Know is a film filled with incredibly brave characters. The two main characters are Christine and Richard (John Hawkes). Richard has just separated from his longtime wife. He works as a shoe salesman. He meets Christine when she brings in Michael to get a pair of shoes. Michael is unhappy because in the past salesmen took your feet and put them into the shoes. Richard explains that they are no longer able to do this. But he goes through what he can do, like hand Michael a shoehorn if he wants one. But above all, what he can do is touch the foot through the shoe to tell how it fits. These are the rules of engagement. They define the relationship. And Chistine and Richard spend the whole film negotiating those rules for their blossoming relationship.

But it isn’t just them. This issue is brought up again and again. For example, Christine happens to run into the curator at the modern art museum. She tries to give the curator a video sample of her work. The curator gives her a card and tells her to mail it. Christine responds that the address is where they are. The curator responds that it will get lost and it is better if she sends it. Christine replies, “But I’m so close.”

The film also deals with pedophilia, but not in ways that I’ve ever seen. One, that is unintentional, leads to what is probably the high point of the film—a truly magical moment that I won’t spoil by trying to explain. The other deals with the issue of an older man’s attraction to to a pair of flirty teen girls. There is nothing especially creepy about this; in most times and places these girls would be married off to men of his age. But he is very much aware of the law even if he is a bit slippery on our mores. So he sets up clear boundaries. The relationship will go nowhere, even if the girls are still too immature to realize that.

If this all makes the film seem episodic, that is no accident. The film has a strange kind of dramatic momentum, but it isn’t really going anywhere. It shows a number of people interacting. They are negotiating their relationships and they will continue to do so. They are like the goldfish on the roof the car. But they have some amount of control, if they choose to use it. And they do—as I said, they are brave. And the film does provide satisfying, if mostly murky conclusions.


Don’t be surprised if I write about this film again in a year. I know it’s going to be bouncing around in my mind a long time.

American Independence Was Limited

American FlagIt’s Independence Day! Hooray! It’s the day we got independence from England. Well, it’s the day we declared independence from England. Well, it was the day that the document was ratified. It isn’t even clear whether the official document was ready to be signed for another two weeks. And then it seems to have been mostly signed in August. Although there were a number of people who were there to ratify it who never signed it at all. And at that point, it had been almost a year and a half since the war had started. And the declaration really didn’t mean much of anything in the context of the war, although it did give the English Tories a good laugh about the rich white folk calling for liberty while they held millions of Africans in slavery.

So we have another holiday of dubious importance. And we can add to this an even larger dose of American jingoism than we usually get. Despite appearances, I’m not anti-American. I love my country as I love my mother. And that means I don’t pretend that either are anything that they are not. There is a great deal to like about America. But there is a great deal to be embarrassed about. Our bombing campaign, including the two atomic bombs, against Japanese civilians was shameful. I don’t especially blame our support of despots throughout the world, but our rhetoric about liberty makes such behavior shameful. Our recent torture program that our government hasn’t even been willing to admit to is disgusting. It is still “enhanced interrogation” rather than torture. That’s like calling murder “enhanced spiritual processing.” And, of course, I don’t know how anyone can’t refrain from taking down their flags today after seeing the smiling Americans in this picture:

Abu Ghraib

I could go on and on and on. Countries don’t become dominant empires without being evil. The problem the government had with the Abu Ghraib pictures was not that these things were going on. The problem was the American people saw them. It didn’t really matter that the rest of the world saw them; they already knew in a general sense. But as usual, the government made a show of punishing a couple of low level people and sweeping the rest under the carpet. “This isn’t who we are!”

And indeed, that’s true. We are much, much worse. But that’s not to say that many of us do not try to do better. After all, that’s why atrocities like Abu Ghraib and the My Lai Massacre have to be kept from the people. Most people (not just Americans) are decent. Of course, those in power claim they do what they do for the good of the people. This is rarely true. What they do, they do for the good of their rich and powerful friends—and for themselves.

The Declaration of Independence was not a general document. It didn’t apply to women or blacks or poor whites. Most of the rich white men who signed it didn’t want to get rid of aristocracy; they wanted to get rid of English aristocracy. Men like John Adams explicitly wanted an American aristocracy. Because, you know, whoever is rich right now are the people who should be in charge forever.

Native Americans Fighting Terrorism Since 1492

But do you know who the Declaration of Independence really didn’t apply to? The native peoples. Before Europeans came, there were many millions of natives in what is now America. But by 1800, there were only 600,000. And by 1890, there were only 250,000. Not all of that was due to an intentional genocide, but quite a lot of it was. In 2000, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) released a formal appology. It’s quite a document, because it is so not like what I hear from conservatives (and sadly many liberals as well) that wronged minority groups should just, “Get over it!” The BIA noted, “And while the BIA employees of today did not commit these wrongs, we acknowledge that the institution we serve did. We accept this inheritance, this legacy of racism and inhumanity. And by accepting this legacy, we accept also the moral responsibility of putting things right.”

Here is a small bit of that document:

We must first reconcile ourselves to the fact that the works of this agency have at various times profoundly harmed the communities it was meant to serve. From the very beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was an instrument by which the United States enforced its ambition against the Indian nations and Indian people who stood in its path. And so, the first mission of this institution was to execute the removal of the southeastern tribal nations. By threat, deceit, and force, these great tribal nations were made to march 1,000 miles to the west, leaving thousands of their old, their young and their infirm in hasty graves along the Trail of Tears.

As the nation looked to the West for more land, this agency participated in the ethnic cleansing that befell the western tribes. War necessarily begets tragedy; the war for the West was no exception. Yet in these more enlightened times, it must be acknowledged that the deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a scale so ghastly that it cannot be dismissed as merely the inevitable consequence of the clash of competing ways of life. This agency and the good people in it failed in the mission to prevent the devastation. And so great nations of patriot warriors fell. We will never push aside the memory of unnecessary and violent death at places such as Sand Creek, the banks of the Washita River, and Wounded Knee.

Nor did the consequences of war have to include the futile and destructive efforts to annihilate Indian cultures. After the devastation of tribal economies and the deliberate creation of tribal dependence on the services provided by this agency, this agency set out to destroy all things Indian.

This agency forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of who they were. Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually. Even in this era of self-determination, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs is at long last serving as an advocate for Indian people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, the legacy of these misdeeds haunts us. The trauma of shame, fear and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country. Many of our people live lives of unrelenting tragedy as Indian families suffer the ruin of lives by alcoholism, suicides made of shame and despair, and violent death at the hands of one another. So many of the maladies suffered today in Indian country result from the failures of this agency. Poverty, ignorance, and disease have been the product of this agency’s work.

Perhaps surprisingly, this makes me proud. I don’t expect anyone or any country to be perfect. But the first step to improving our behavior is to admit our wrongs. I so wish that we could outlaw the chant, “We’re number one!” For one thing, in many bad ways, we are number one. I would replace that chant with something that many of us would embrace, “We’re trying to be better!” Because all the proclamations of how great we are only arrest us in our efforts to improve.

If freedom is what Independence Day is really all about, then we should see the Declaration of Independence as a deeply flawed beginning of a very long road we have traveled and must continue to travel. We have very far to go.

See Also: Previous Independence Day Articles

2013: Four Independence Days
2012: Happy 4th: American Imperialism
2011: I Felt Like a Gringo

Supreme Court Losing All Credibility

John RobertsIn the long run, John Roberts is going to go down as one of the worst chief justices of the Supreme Court. I don’t say that because I disagree with the rulings of the court. That’s a given, even when the court isn’t so skewed. The problem for Roberts’ legacy is that the Court is getting totally out of control. It no longer seems like a deliberative body and seems more like just another legislature where the Republicans and the Democrats battle it out.

This was especially clear to me yesterday when I read, Supreme Court OKs Another Religious Birth Control Exemption. I’ll give you the details in a moment, but the short version is this: on Monday, the Court said one thing and then on Thursday, they reversed themselves. This is not surprising, of course. As I wrote on Monday, the conservatives on the Court seem to have thrown out the whole idea of consistency. Just as with Bush v Gore before, this week the Court carved out a special exception for one particular belief of a particular kind of Christian. We know that they will not apply this logic generally because it would mean the end of law in the United States.

You may remember some time back that the Obama administration came up with a birth control compromise for religious-oriented nonprofits. The idea was that the groups would not pay for birth control but the insurance companies would provide it at their cost. The truth of the matter is that there is no cost because generally, birth control pays for itself. Pregnancies and babies are very expensive. Well, in Monday’s decision, the majority praised this compromise. So why is it on Thursday that the very same majority gave Wheaton College a temporary exemption from the contraceptive mandate?

Wheaton College - For Bigotry and Its Kingdom

Here’s how it is supposed to work: if a group felt that they might endanger their seat in heaven by providing birth control to their employees, they needed to file a form saying, “Hell no, we hate hoes!” But Wheaton College didn’t even do that. They just went to court and asked for an exception and they got it. Actually, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said no. And the Supreme Court overruled it. It will undoubtedly be heard as a case next year.

There are two issues here. First, the Court majority is saying that the harm done to individuals until the case is fully resolved (for example, death) is nothing compared to the hurt feelings of institutions like Wheaton College. It also signals that the conservatives are planning to find that the religious exception doesn’t just apply to closely held companies who are absolutely, positively certain that they know exactly what God wants. (Note: one of the things that Wheaton knows God doesn’t want is Catholics, since in 2004 they fired a philosophy professor who converted to Catholicism.)

Hobby LobbySecond, it is now clear that the majority’s argument in Burwell v Hobby Lobby where they praised the administration’s compromise was just to allow them political cover. It was meant to make them seem reasonable. The fact is that at least four of the justices are nothing but ideologues who are determined to put their particular brand of Christianity in a state of quasi-official religion.

Of course, as is typical of the conservative bullies on the court, the order was not signed. So Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan put out a 16-page signed dissent. Sotomayor wrote, “I have deep respect for religious faith, for the important and selfless work performed by religious organizations and for the values of pluralism. But the Court’s grant of an injunction in this case allows Wheaton’s beliefs about the effect of its actions to trump the democratic interest in allowing the Government to enforce the law.” She also noted “those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.”

Indeed they can’t. And that’s why I think Roberts will be vilified in the future. And he’s very clearly aware of what’s going on at the court. That’s why he found in favor of Obamacare in the first place. But when the issue is his Christian faith (He’s actually a Catholic; maybe he should have thought about that when siding with the anti-Catholic bigotry that defines Wheaton College.) he can’t seem to stop himself. It’s like religion disrupts his thinking ability.

I’m generally fairly tolerant of religion. But I’m getting to the point of siding with Christopher Hitchens in the subtitle of God Is Not Great: religion does poison everything.

Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Witch Trials

Nathaniel HawthorneOn this day in 1804, the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born. He was a highly moralistic writer who did not have a very good view of human nature. Stylistically he seems quite modern to me, even falling into the surreal at times. For example, in The Scarlet Letter, we really don’t know if there was an “A” on Dimmesdale’s chest, although I suspect in Hawthorne’s mind, it was an indication of his cynicism: people see what they want to see.

Given his writing, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Hawthorne was the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne. He was one of judges during the Salem witch trials. It’s not like Salem was cut off from the world. There was much comment at the time that the town was out of control. In fact, twelve local ministers wrote, “Presumptions whereupon persons may be Committed, and much more, Convictions whereupon persons may be Condemned as Guilty of Witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable, than barely the Accused Persons being Represented by a Spectre unto the Afflicted.”

But as you may remember, after killing off the final eight, pretty much everyone came to their senses. “Oh my God! What have we done?” I can easily forgive Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. They were just children—and females at that. They must have loved all the attention they got at a time and place when not much was thought of women—much less girls. But the activity of the adults, especially the judges? That’s harder to forgive. And it is quite impossible to forgive John Hathorne. He was the most eager of the “judges”—providing the usual kind of irrefutable claims, “Why you seem to act witchcraft before us by the motion of your body which seems to have influence upon the afflicted.” He was the only judge to never apologize for the twenty who the town murdered (One by pressing!) and the five who died in jail.

Hawthorne was clearly not thrilled to be associated with great-great-granddad. He added the “w” to his last name. (Perhaps he added it because he too was a witch!) Regardless, it is nice to think that something good came out of the witch trials. Because we know one thing that did not come out of them: a change in American mass hysteria. True: we don’t kill witches today. But we freak out about about stuff all the time with far worse consequences. Think: Iraq War or crack cocaine laws.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was certainly one of the best early American writers. None other than Edgar Allan Poe (who didn’t like him), wrote of Hawthorne, “We look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth.” In fairness, however, Poe didn’t much like anyone. And given who we are, who can blame him. Hawthorne would understand that.