Sunday, October 26, 2014

Remaske Zellweger: Of Course She Shouldn’t Have Done It

So you've gotten some rest, you say?

All of us are possessed of physical vanity to one degree or another. We’re pleased to think we look good, and bothered if we don’t look as good as we’d like. Such vanity is part of us as social beings: it is not something we could ever eradicate.

Nonetheless vanity is a vice. Follow it where it leads you, and at some point a certain line is crossed, and your desire for beauty, or your conviction that you are beautiful, will bring about its opposite. Something deformed or monstrous will be the result.

This line that is crossed is very hard to define, to be sure. Different people sense it in different places. But wherever one places it, I think it’s clear that in America crossing this particular line has become an everyday occurrence. A vague and queasy feeling of monstrosity pervades the public space.

I don’t usually write about these kinds of things, but the recent discussion of Renee Zellweger’s “new look”, raising up hordes of people criticizing her and others defending her, has given me the perfect opportunity. Because the issue of cosmetic surgery, what used to be called plastic surgery, has bothered me for years. I wouldn’t consider it a major issue, no, but it’s a bothersome one, regularly disgusting me anew with the late capitalist culture around me.

Frankly I’m flat out against cosmetic surgery. I think its prevalence is a cultural illness. And it’s getting worse. If I had the power, I would ban cosmetic surgery except in certain cases (reconstructive surgery, for instance). And I will insist on the following: The world would be a more beautiful place if cosmetic surgeons were put out of business.

Renee Zellweger

Regarding that line I mention, the one that shouldn’t be crossed, I might clarify that I personally find nothing wrong with makeup or coloring ones hair, and nothing wrong with staying firm and fit as opposed to slack and fat. Makeup is best in moderation of course, and I’d prefer if you didn’t color your hair, but if you really must, I still respect you. Yes, some people are too obsessed with maintaining their killer bodies, but still--if you must, I’ll hold myself to snide remarks or a few jabs, which will bounce right off you, fit as you are, whereas your comebacks will likely stick in me, overweight as I am.

So makeup or hair coloration or workouts are not really likely to drag one across the line, or at least not too far.

But cosmetic surgery is something else entirely. It almost always crosses the line. I confess that when I’m talking to someone whose face has obviously had procedures (and yes, it’s pretty obvious when such procedures have been done) I lose a good couple dozen points of respect for the person talking to me. Sorry, that’s just me; and sure, maybe you don’t care to talk to me anyway, but I thought you should know.

Cosmetic surgery almost never makes a person look better--it nearly always makes one look to some degree plastic or strained or, sorry to say it, somehow post-human. So as I’m talking to you across the table or watching you on the screen I can’t help repeatedly thinking: What a dope. Why did he/she do it?

These remarks go for both men and women, by the way, but the sad fact is--women are the main consumers of these deformative procedures. And more and more women, in all the world’s wealthier nations, are making themselves borderline monstrous. And spending big bucks to do so.

It really is sad.

Doubtless my deep feeling of distaste when confronted with all these new plastic faces everywhere comes from my sense of what a face is to begin with. Is my sense of the meaning of the human face maybe somehow eccentric? Judge for yourself.

The way I see it, you do not own your face as something you can change as if it were a sofa or a pair of drapes. Rather, your face is constitutive of who you are as a human being vis-a-vis others. Change your face, and you’ve inevitably undone part of your character.

What’s more, when people can see you’ve changed it, and they can, a little voice inside them will whisper: She’s turning away from her self. She’s trying to efface herself and become a different face.

And the gut feeling that accompanies these whispers? It is a queasy feeling of nature offended: a vague feeling, as I’ve said, of monstrosity.

And what is this “different face” that you suddenly show up wearing? It is no one really. It is not a face that has experienced time, that has lived through the years with loved ones and rivals and joys and pain. Rather it is no one--a kind of new artifact appearing out of nowhere.

I never was one for watching American TV, but in recent years I can hardly stand it--all the plastic pseudo-faces blabbering at each other, all the people turning away from the self and toward some kind of shiny and conformist non-self.

And this is what Renee Zellweger has obviously done. She had a face with character, she acted edgy roles and gave the impression of a woman with a strong sense of self. She didn’t seem like the type to give up on her real self just because of wrinkles or a bit of sagging of the cheeks. But that’s just what she did.

If you hadn’t told me it was her, I wouldn’t recognize the woman in the recent photos as the actress whose moves I’d seen. What’s more, though the woman in the recent photos is (somewhat) beautiful, she has the strained and fake look of nearly everyone who gets such procedures. I do not at all feel like I’d be attracted to talk with this woman.

And no, I don’t think the fact of her making her career in Hollywood, or the pressures of being a major actress, should temper me in my criticism. If anything, her choice to deface herself is worse because as a celebrity she knows she’s a role model for millions who very likely possess even less self-confidence.

Of course some writers who consider themselves feminists have come out with raised daggers against the many others who were shocked and a bit dismayed by Zellweger’s “new look”. I’m sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything feminist in defending a woman who’s undergone such radical cosmetic surgery. If Zellweger wants to be respected as a woman who is more than her mere appearance (her appearance as a commodity, given her career) she shouldn’t have gone and tried to upgrade that appearance, to undo its slight changes over time. Further, the shock of most of Zellweger’s critics can be attributed, I believe, not to any tendency to commodify women, but rather to that deep sense of the meaning of face that I try to get at above. Someone who changes his/her face to that degree, whoever they are, has somehow broken with themselves and rejected their continuity as a person in the community. And most everyone, whether or not they can articulate the fact, senses this deep down. Thus the dismay at what Ms. Zellweger has done.

I suggest a new practice for those bloggers and others who agree with me here. When an actor or singer (or even a person in one’s social circle) changes their face like Zellweger has done, why not acknowledge the new person by giving them a new name? Because in a disturbing way, as a familiar face in society, that person is starting over from scratch. So I will refer to this new woman as Remaske Zellweger.

In these remarks I’ve left out the other valid question of the privilege, as in spare cash, of those who can afford to deface themselves in this way through cosmetic surgery. But this question of the wealth necessary for such changes can of course only further underline the degree to which vanity, unchecked, quickly becomes tied up with vice.

I repeat: Cosmetic surgery should be banned, and if it can’t be banned, it should be taxed to the hilt--and in any case, for those who value what is real and true in this world, cosmetic surgery should be shunned. And since the question may arise: Would I include Botox, or whatever other virus they’re injecting these days, in the ban? By all means. Stiff and rubbery, botoxed faces are clearly a part of this new monstrosity.

The actress Renee Zellweger has defaced herself, and that’s that. Please don’t follow her lead.

[Further reading: Of the handful of pieces I’ve read, Vis Groskop and Mary Elizabeth Williams get it right I think; Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy is just using the incident to blow her rinky-dink feminish horn.]

Eric Mader

Monday, September 15, 2014

What is the Afterlife?

Saturday students: Frances, Shawn, Anthony, Yoyo.

My small Saturday class has impressed me again. I talked with them a bit about different cultures’ ideas of the afterlife--I mentioned Christian and Muslim ideas, Buddhist ideas, including reincarnation, and different ancient pagan ideas--then wrote their assignment on the board:
Do you believe you have a soul that will continue after death, or do you think you only have a physical body? Many people in the world, following different religions, believe there is some kind of afterlife; others believe that when we die we cease to exist. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, for this assignment I want you to imagine that you have died and discovered that in fact there is an afterlife.

It is now three hours after your death. What has been your experience during these three hours? Where are you now? Are you alone? Do you know anything about where you will be in the future?

You have twenty minutes to write.

These are the four versions of the afterlife they gave me.


Detail from Anthony's afterlife.

The Afterlife

I’ve been dead for three hours, my soul left my body and now I’m trying to figure out what to do next.

The last three hours might be the most painful time of my life. I didn’t want to stay beside my body and watch people crying for my death, so I decided to leave the hospital and take a last tour of the city.

Being bodiless is kind of convenient. I didn’t have to walk at all, I don’t have to pay attention to traffic lights, and I could get everywhere I wanted to go by only thinking about it.

I went to places where I had created lots of beautiful memories with friends and family. I thought about things I’d done in my life: what I did right and what I did wrong.

Later I was sitting in a park and an angel appeared. He said I would only have 24 hours to stay in the world, and also I could get into the dreams of people who still wanted to see me again. I could talk to them again and say goodbye for the last time. And then I will be in the heaven, living an afterlife.

So now I’m thinking, with 21 hours left, what is the thing that I should do? (And god damn it, why the hell did the angel only show up 3 hours after my death? He should show up immediately!)

by Shawn (莊崴翔)

The Afterlife

It is now three hours after my death. I can’t see anything that isn’t in darkness. I don’t know where I am. I think I am floating in the sky, higher and higher.

Abruptly, I feel a strong light. I am on the ground. I don’t know where it is. Then I see a house, not so far, so I go into it. When I walk in, I see many pictures of animals and insects, and there are some points under them. A man is using a computer near me.

“Where are we?” I say.

“Here you can choose what you want to be in your next life, but not everything. You did many good things in your life, so you have 1000 points, but you can’t choose the animals which are more than 1000 points like pandas.”

I chose human and thought: “I have to do more good things this time and I can be an animal which is better in my next life.”

by Yoyo (王佑淳)

The Afterlife

It is now three hours after my death. My soul is getting away from my body, and I can see that there’s a long tunnel leading toward me, with a shining light. I can’t see the end of the tunnel, and there’s no reason why I’m going straight down.

After a while, I take a train with no color, keep going in the tunnel. The train has many windows, but they seem like DVD players, playing my life, telling all the good or bad things to me. My tears keep bubbling up.

After my life has finished playing, the tunnel has ended too. I can’t control my body, and I can’t move, it feels like a large hand pressing me tightly onto the seat.

Suddenly a “god” appears in front of me. He speaks with a deep, deep voice, and shoots me with his dark, cold eyes, but I don’t have any fear. He tells me that because of my behavior during life I deserve to go to heaven, and he raises up his hands, just like magic, makes a big wave and leads me to heaven. I’m not happy, also not sad. I have no feelings now.

When I get to heaven, a lot of people who have died are welcoming me with their hands. Maybe this is my new home now. We can’t speak to each other, can’t smile, but our feelings strangely go right to each other. We enjoy the sunlight every day, and enjoy our afterlife.

by Frances (蔡詠淇)

The Afterlife

Now I’m in the “empty space”. There is nothing about “afterlife” exactly. After we die, we will come to the empty space and pass through it. Once we pass through, we appear in the “Eyeth”. Also, we forget everything from the “Earth”.

The Eyeth is a planet just like the Earth. People on both planets think there is a universe, but actually there isn’t. Nothing is outside the planets. The Eyeth is a world of magic as the Earth is a world of science. Every other thing is the same on both planets. However, depending on whether the planet is based on magic or science, some things will be opposite. For instance, novels and movies on both planets will be people’s imagination of the other planet.

Every time we come to the Eyeth or the Earth, we will be the same person as last time we came, but the environment will change. Sometimes it will be better, sometimes not. Maybe next time when I go to the Earth, the world will be at 2000 B.C. or 5000 A.D. Nobody knows.

While in the “empty spaces”, we see nothing, just emptiness, there is no other world to describe it. Getting through the empty space, you’ll remember something about yourself on the next world. After that, you’ll be on that planet.

Nobody, wrong, no soul knows why this is happening. Maybe some other more powerful race is controlling it, but no soul can understand.

by Anthony (黃聖翔)

Unfortunately, the very talented smart-ass Ryan (蔡睿敏) was absent this time, which was really too bad, because he often writes fascinating things. Next time, Ryan!

Ryan--getting ready to say something smart-assed.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ISIS' British Faithful

Listen to this London Muslim preacher. I think ISIS is on the verge of overplaying its hand.

And he's got it all wrong ideologically. The battle is not between those who believe in God and those who believe in man, but rather between those who believe their own narrow idea of God should control everyone (the jihadists) and those who believe a society is best when it allows different religions and different secular visions the freedom to co-exist (as long as they don’t harm each other).

Against the jihadists and fundamentalists, we need to stand with pluralism. And we may be having to stand tougher pretty soon. If these folks really want to attack the West directly, I think they will find the West capable of fighting back.

Although I'm usually critical of US bombing campaigns (and was critical of the Iraq war to begin with, which only managed to destabilize Iraq) I'm fully behind any military action of ours that may weaken ISIS. I suspect we're going to be dealing with the loyalists of this new "caliphate" for some time.

And how is London managing to deal with these people? I really do strongly suspect that if ISIS starts launching anything like sustained attacks in Europe, it's going to end badly for the millions of moderate European Muslims caught in the middle.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Leonard Cohen: Staying Power

Cohen back in the day.

I’ve just begun a reread of my tattered copy of Beautiful Losers and notice here online that Leonard Cohen is bringing out a new album for his 80th birthday.

Cohen's tenacity is a wonder and gift to us. He has given so much: the ground he’s covered, the class and grace with which he’s covered it, there’s no one who compares.

In early celebration of the singer’s birthday, I’m posting some lines and videos. Not to be missed.


I. Cohen in a 1966 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Brilliant:

II. Performing “Hallelujah” in 2009:

III. Cohen’s poem “French and English” from the 1978 book Death of a Ladies Man:

I think you are fools to speak French
It is a language which invites the mind
to rebel against itself causing inflamed ideas
grotesque postures and a theoretical approach
to common body functions. It ordains the soul
in a tacky priesthood devoted to the salvation
of a failed erection. It is the language
of cancer as it annexes the spirit and
installs a tumor in every honeycomb
Between the rotten teeth of French are incubated
the pettiest notions of destiny and the shabbiest
versions of glory and the dreariest dogma of change
ever to pollute the simplicity of human action
French is a carnival mirror in which the
brachycephalic idiot is affirmed and encouraged
to compose a manifesto on the destruction of the sideshow

I think you are fools to speak English
I know what you are thinking when you speak English
You are thinking piggy English thoughts
you sterilized swine of a language that has no genitals
You are peepee and kaka and nothing else
and therefore the lovers die in all your songs
You can’t fool me you cradle of urine
where Jesus Christ was finally put to sleep
and even the bowels of Satan cannot find
a decent place to stink in your flat rhythms of ambition and disease
English, I know you, you are frightened by saliva
your adventure is the glass bricks of sociology
you are German with a license to kill

I hate you but it is not in English
I love you but it is not in French
I speak to the devil but it is not about your punishment
I speak to the table but it is not about your plan
I kneel between the legs of the moon
in a vehicle of perfect stuttering
and you dare to interview me on the matter
of your loathsome destinies
you poor boobies of the north
who have set out for heaven with your mouths on fire
Surrender now surrender to each other
your loveliest useless aspects
and live with me in this and other voices
like the wind harps you were meant to be
Come and sleep in the mother tongue
and be awakened by a virgin
(O dead-hearted turns of particular speech)
be awakened by a virgin
into a sovereign state of common grace

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Who are the Yazidi?

Iconic image of Yazidi angel Melek Taus.

Sadly we can now add genocide to the crimes committed by the radical Sunni movement ISIS. The news out of northern Iraq over recent weeks is heartbreaking in almost every respect, but for those who value religious pluralism the evidence that ISIS is doing its best to exterminate Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities is especially depressing.

According to most reports, Christian Iraqis are given the choice to convert on the spot to Sunni Islam or die. Either that, or they are killed outright without being given the choice of apostasy. For Yazidis, at least in most reports I have read, no choice is offered. The men are killed and the women and children (those deemed worth using at least) are taken as slaves. Some witnesses who’ve managed to escape speak of groups of Yazidis buried alive; at least one report speaks of a pregnant Yazidi woman having being cut open, her womb and unborn child yanked out of her.

As one Yazidi man put it: “These ISIS fighters cry out ‘God is great’, and then do such things. What kind of human beings are they?”

Indeed. It it were me writing the battle cry for ISIS, it would go: “God is great, but our version of Islam is greater!”

The concept of God, and of how God relates to humanity, has clearly gone haywire in this branch of Sunni Islam. ISIS brings not a return to the Islam of the Prophet Mohammed, but yet another modern utopianism run amok. We can add it to the list: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, Sunni Jihadism.

The crime of genocide against the Yazidi represents a special threat to our human religious inheritance because the Yazidi community is so small. Worldwide there are around 700,000 Yazidis, 93% of which live in the Iraqi province now under ISIS control.

The Yazidi religion is, according to most authorities, a syncretism of elements from Sufism and the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia. The creation story they subscribe to includes a first human named Adam, as with the other western monotheisms, but the importance they give angels, particularly the angel they call Melek Taus, puts them more in line with Zoroastrianism and even with ancient Gnosticism.

According to the Yazidi, God created the world and then put it under the command of seven angels, emanations from the Godhead, chief of which is Melek Taus, literally “the Peacock Angel”. That the Yazidi symbolize their chief angel with a peacock has led some to assert flippantly that the Yazidi “worship peacocks”--an explanation about as subtle as would be the assertion that Christians worship doves because the Holy Spirit is symbolized by that bird. The story of Melek Taus is a fascinating one; and, one would think, may have led the Yazidi to a uniquely nuanced understanding of authority.

When God created the first human, Adam, he asked the seven angels to bow down before the new creation. One of the seven, Melek Taus, refused.

“How can I bow to another being!” the angel said to God. “I am from your illumination [i.e., a direct emanation from the Godhead] while Adam is made of dust.”

God accepted this argument,and made Melek Taus leader of the other six angels.

The Yazidi, then, conceive of this highest angel as the power that rules directly over the world, their God being more removed, somewhat as in western Deism. What’s more, human good and ill fortune are meted out by Melek Taus according to his wisdom and will, and it is not proper for humans to question their lot. Good and evil are seen as inherent in every human heart, and individuals may choose one or the other. The Yazidi teach that we are to do as Melek Taus did, and choose the true and good.

Of course this is only a very rough sketch, but it gives some idea of the Yazidi belief system, how it is similar to yet different from what is found in the three Abrahamic religions.

Another striking difference is found in the Yazidi belief regarding their ancestral heritage. According to a tale in one of the two collections of Yazidi scripture, they are descended not from Adam and Eve, but from Adam alone. The story is told that a child was born of Adam from his seed stored in a jar, and when this child grew to adulthood he married an houri. The Yazidi are descendants of this “son of Jar” and the houri. It is presumably for this reason that the Yazidi forbid exogamy, i.e., marriage to someone who is not him- or herself a Yazidi. Likewise one cannot convert to Yazidism, as the religion is that of the people born in this lineage from Adam and the houri.

It is the Yazidi’s worship of Melek Taus, and the story of this angel’s refusal to bow to Adam, that has led their Muslim neighbors to characterize them as “worshippers of Satan”. In both the Christian story and in Islam, the angel Lucifer (or, in Islam, Iblis) refused to submit to God through pride, and was cast down from God’s presence--thus our image of Satan as fallen angel. The Yazidi story however is different, as Melek Taus does not refuse through pride, but through respect for the element of God in himself: in other words, through wisdom. In fact the Yazidi consider that the command to bow down to Adam was God’s way of testing the angels, and that Melek Taus is the only one to have passed the test.

Yazidi beliefs are known to outsiders largely through two texts compiled in the early 20th century: the Book of Revelation and the Black Book. These texts, which most scholars agree were not actually written by Yazidis, contain internal contradictions but have been judged to be generally accurate regarding main beliefs and customs.

Since the first appearance of the sect sometime in the Middle Ages, the Yazidi have been persecuted by their Muslim overlords. The current genocide being practiced by ISIS fanatics however poses a special threat to this faith community. Small Yazidi communities exist in Germany, Russia, Georgia, and Armenia, there is a community of several hundred in Lincoln, Nebraska in the US, but the vast majority of Yazidis are now being massacred and enslaved by the barbarians now overrunning northern Iraq.

President Obama’s decision to call for bombing raids in support of the Kurds, Christians and Yazidis against ISIS was overdue. Like many others, I believe our 2003 invasion of Iraq was a grave miscalculation, and that much of the mayhem that has ensued there is a direct result of this initial major blunder. We should not have troops on the ground in Iraq forever, but we should do what we can to beat back the Sunni extremists who are now and always have been our real enemy. The Obama administration shouldn’t have let ISIS get as far as Mosul, much less to within striking reach of the Kurdish capital Erbil.

Eric Mader

FIVE LINKS (and how to help)

1. Check this article at CNN. In the upper left (at least at present) is a link to the full video report from CNN’s Ivan Watson, who accompanied a helicopter supply and rescue operation to Yazidis trapped atop Mt. Sinjar. One of the most striking pieces of video journalism I’ve seen in years.

2. Yazidis in America, thankful for the support they’ve gotten, nonetheless fear their Iraqi community has been left to fall through the cracks of US insistence on a “unified Iraq”. Voice of America reports.

3. Faced with news of what's happening to their family members in Iraq, Yazidis in Nebraska are paralyzed by guilt, reports the LA Times.

4. Son of Yazidi leader calls for British aid.

5. The Catholic organization Caritas: one of the legitimate and reliable ways to help Iraq’s persecuted religious minorities. I would offer more possibilities, but this is the only one I've been able to find that is already up and running in Kurdish territory.

Yazidi man with child in flight from ISIS genocide.

Saturday, August 16, 2014