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Well, here's what I think

I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with "The Reader," that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn't agree or disagree. What I thought was, "The Reader" isn't about the Holocaust. It's about not speaking when you know you should.

That's something I'm guilty of. I hold my tongue all the time, especially in social situations where my opinions might cause unhappiness. Those often involve politics and religion, two subjects that a lot of mothers tell their kids never to discuss at a dinner party--unless, of course, everybody at the table agrees, and then what's the point?


David Kross and Kate Winslet in "The Reader"

The difficulty arises when other people in the group are so full of their convictions that they assume (a) all sane people must agree, or (b) they possess the Truth, and you must learn it for your own good. Since my lifelong occupation has been learning the Truth for myself, I find this insulting. But if someone has entered the circle I am in, I often find it easier to simply avoid engaging them. Sometimes I'll have a kindred spirit, like Chaz, and I will subtly raise my eyebrows or roll my eyes. I restrain myself from pointing an index finger at my head and rotating it in the universal sign for totally cuckoo.


Dinner party: The man at right has just proposed a toast to Charles Darwin (apologies to "Mad Men")

In politics, I am liberal, as everyone I know must know. Sometimes, however, people will use the coy tactic of pretending they don't know: The old, "I'm sorry. Did I offend you?" ploy. These people, usually friends of mine, are gentle, sweet and very nice, except when they drift into a certain tone I interpret as "listening to Rush Limbaugh too much." Then their voices take on undercurrents of anger, resentment and frustration. It is the dittohead voice, and they've learned it off the radio. If you listen to Rush, you quickly realize that it isn't what he says but how he says it. He has an unending capacity for counterfeit astonishment. It has been very effective in long-distance behavioral modification.

That wise man Mark Twain told us: "In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others."

This is true. It is even sometimes true of me. Perhaps of you. However, there are certain areas in which I consider myself an authority, like the movies. I have devoted years to learning about the Theory of Evolution. I think Creationism is superstitious poppycock. I believe the problem with the literal interpretation of the Bible is that anyone can easily discover its support for the opinions they already hold. I believe Conservatism has proven itself disastrous every time it has been implemented in this country. I believe George W. Bush was not only the worst president we have ever had, but the first, as far as I know, guilty of being an accessory to murder and subverting the Constitution.


Rush Limbaugh: Talks like he listens to Rush Limbaugh too much

You see that I could be a problem at certain dinner parties. When I could speak, I was often invited to speaking engagements. Not so much now. The deal usually involved dinner with the Committee. Its members invariably included local luminaries who provided financial support but held grave reservations about the Sorts of People They've Been Inviting to Speak. These members make it a point to attack the points of view they fear you are about to express. For example, "They just don't make good movies anymore," or, "Ronald Reagan was the greatest president we've ever had." As a donor, that is their privilege. They get to scare me and get my autograph for their daughter who is my biggest fan.

When I was young and had a hot head, I would respond. I once actually walked off a stage in Colorado Springs. When I grew older and wiser, I learned to throw everyone at the Committee table off the track with my 20-minute rat-a-tat routine of stolen Rodney Dangerfield material:

What Gene Siskel would do is play instigator. He had two techniques that never failed: (1) "Let's have a contest to see who can tell the most embarrassing story about themselves. We probably ought to start with the chairman" or (2) "Let's make the other tables jealous because we're having a better time. At my signal every 30 seconds, I want everyone here to laugh to laugh uproariously. We'll work around the table so that everyone gets their turn to seem really funny."


Their President George W. Bush

Those tactics worked to throw dittoheads off the scent. Religion is a lot trickier. You're not talking about opinions. You're dealing with something people know. People I know and like can get heated up about how "they" are trying to teach atheism in schools, and making it illegal to repeat the Word of God. And besides, anyone can see how Darwin was wrong, "because my grandfather wasn't a monkey." I find you don't get very far by replying, "He was an orangutan, actually..."

In politics, there is at least a common battlefield. In the struggle against Evolution, the Creationists have created a straw man and are attacking it. Their Theory of Evolution bears little similarity to the actual one, but they have learned it from authorities they have a vested interest in. The pastor can't be wrong. The Bible can't be wrong. Unfair and bizarre representations of Darwin are justified because they are attacking evil.

You may believe, as I do, that you know more actual facts that anybody else at the table. But what if "facts" are just one of the devil's tools to defeat faith? What if they're a smokescreen used by atheists, Satanists, liberals, intellectuals and the Elite to lead our young people, astray? Would it help to point out that one can believe in Evolution and God at the same time? No, because such people, like Catholics, Jews, mainstream Protestants, Hindus and Buddhists, have no religion at all if they have not been Born Again.


My President George W. Bush

True believers are not the least bit shy about affirming their beliefs--nor should they be. But I've been sensing that the accumulation of their affirmations have had the effect of making other opinions seem impolite, disruptive, annoying, going out of the way to make a point. Recently, for example, I had the following exchange (via the voice on my computer) during a TV interview.

Reporter: "Do you feel any spiritual events or, you know, supernatural happenings, anything like that, helped your recovery?"

Myself: "No, I can't really say that I do."

I believe this: If we really mean it when we say Thy will be done, then isn't it cheating to pray for a reversal? Que, sera, sera.

The TV reporter told me off-camera: "I'm so glad you said that. It's the same way I think. But they always use the answer to something like that as the close of a piece."

"What are the chances they'll use my answer?"


It's also true that there seems to be an unofficial newspaper policy of mentioning the deceased was a "lifelong member" of a church, synagogue or temple, but never, ever, that the departed was an atheist, agnostic, or simply a non-believer.


I really enjoy our dinner parties. She goes, I stay home.

There is also that ritual evoking of God at prayers before sporting events, political rallies, conventions, banquets, reunions and auto races. How little we think of God if we believe he cares about the outcome of the Super Bowl! What does it mean that the losing team's prayers were not answered?

Harry Golden, the great Southern writer of the 1950s, wrote a famous essay titled The Vertical Negro. He pointed out that segregationists had no problem at all with black people while they were standing: Working on an assembly line, picking cotton, pumping gas, serving tables, carrying luggage, or even singing in a gospel choir. The problems only started when they sat down, at lunch counters, the front seats of buses, school rooms, or election boards.

We have two kinds of prayer in this country, vertical and horizontal. I approve vertical prayer, which originates with the praying person and is directed straight up to heaven. It is private, as all privileged conversations should be. Horizontal prayer, on the other hand, radiates out from the praying person to all those within earshot. It translates as: I'm going through the motions of praying to God, but actually I'm praying for your benefit. I am expressing solidarity with those who believe as I do, and issuing an implied rebuke to those who don't. I am an example of how everyone should believe and behave. I believe that Freedom of Speech covers religious expression. But it also covers dissent. Public prayer tends to discourage any differing opinions.

Which brings me around to "The Reader," where we started, as you may recall. Spoilers will follow. I've read a lot of the reviews of this movie, and I didn't interpret it the way most people did. Maybe that is a fault of the movie, or maybe the enormity of the Holocaust overshadows any possible "off topic" message. Here was my opening paragraph:


Never invite to the same dinner party.(Drawing by Derek Chatwood, whose art is here.)

The film's secret is that the woman is illiterate, and this is a cause of immobilizing shame to her. That's why she refused a job promotion that would have spared her duty as a concentration camp guard. That's why she made the inmates read to her, and why she makes the boy Michael read to her. Some years later, when he sees her in court, she refuses to sign a statement that might win her to a lesser sentence. Michael suddenly understands why: She cannot read or write.

Should he make his knowledge known to the court? It would be the right thing to do. He remains silent. She was kind to him. She transformed him. He thought he loved her. She fled to preserve her secret. Now he has behaved counter to his conscience. As he grew older, he became reclusive, depressed, a man who objectified women. He was warped by guilt. Her silence changed her life, and now his own silence has changed his.


A prayer before the game (photo by Allen Grant for Life magazine; © 1948, Time. Inc.)

Who committed the greater crime? Michael, obviously, although few audience members might see it that way. He was more mentally capable than she was. She is deeply, paralyzingly ashamed of her illiteracy. It has led her a lifelong neurosis. She worked for the Nazis, as many other Germans did with much less reason, or none at all. What did she go through to keep her secret? What lies did she tell, what intimacies did she betray? Has she never been able to have a relationship with a man without using sex and her greater age to prevent the man from learning of her shame? What kind of a monster was she, that she helped innocent victims to go to their deaths because of a secret that seems trivial to us?

She was responsible for inexcusable evil. Many are. We learn of young mothers who put their babies in dumpsters because they are ashamed of their pregnancy. Young fathers who murder their girlfriends, simply because of the universal human reality of pregnancy. We hear of prison guards who follow orders to torture, orders they know are illegal and immoral. And leaders who issue the orders. We learn of terrorists who die and kill others rather than face the shame of being frightened to. We hear of gang members who kill people unknown to them, not because they want to, but because they have been shamed into "proving" themselves as men. We hear of Wall Street executives who lead their firms into what they know are dangerous and unsound practices, because they would be shamed to be outdone by rival executives. They steal the savings from millions of victims, so they can win a pissing contest.

And what have I done that I am ashamed of? Yes, and certainly more than once. I have been a coward, a liar, a hypocrite, because I have been unwilling to act as I believe. Have you?

Let me tell you about something. When I was at the University of Cape Town in 1965, I lived in a graduate student residence named University House. One of my friends there was a blind man named Herb. We played a lot of chess. We followed the Touch-Move Rule: You touch a piece, you have to move it.


A prayer before the big game (Photo by Allen Grant for Life magazine; © 1948, Time. Inc.)

Herb usually beat me, even though he had to visualize the board. One day I thought I was within two moves of checkmating him. I picked up a piece, saw a fatal oversight, and quietly replaced it.

"You touched a piece," Herb said.

"No I didn't," I said.

"I know you did."

"Well then you're wrong."

More than 40 years have passed since that game, but I have not forgotten it. I can never even think of the University of Cape Town without it coming to mind. My cheating itself was shameful. When I denied it, that was despicable. Herb, I hope someone reads this and tells you about it. You were right. Of course, you always knew you were right, and we both knew that I had lied.

I've done some bad things in my life, but I honestly believe that was the worst. It may seem trivial to you, even laughable. But I know how it has made me feel, and so I know in some way how that illiterate woman felt. You can't measure such things on an objective scale. You can only feel them filling you up. Her illiteracy doesn't excuse her, any more than, on an infinitely smaller scale, my desire to win the game was any excuse. Would you have defied the Nazis? Would I have? There were a lot of people who did. Most people did not. There is an old saying: There, but for the grace of God, go I.

I wrote this in my review of "The Reader":

Is "The Reader" a "Holocaust movie?" No. In terms of its two central characters, it is a movie about lacking the courage to speak when we should. That's something I think we can all identify with.

The trailer actually gives a good sense of the movie's theme:

My father joined a motorcycle club. He's Sonny Barger's old lady.

"The crucial decision in "The Reader" is made by a 24-year-old youth, who has information that might help a woman about to be sentenced to life in prison, but withholds it. He is ashamed to reveal his affair with this woman. By making this decision, he shifts the film's focus from the subject of German guilt about the Holocaust and turns it on the human race in general. The film intends his decision as the key to its meaning, but most viewers may conclude that "The Reader" is only about the crimes of the Nazis and the response to them by postwar German generations."

I believe the movie may be demonstrating a fact of human nature: Most people, most of the time, all over the world, choose to go along. We vote with the tribe. What would we have done during the rise of Hitler? If we had been Jews, we would have fled or been killed. But what if we were one of the rest of the Germans? Can we guess what we would have done, on the basis of how many white Americans, north and south, knew about racial discrimination but didn't risk themselves to oppose it? Philip Roth's great novel The Plot Against America imagines a Nazi takeover here. It is painfully thought-provoking, and probably not unfair. "The Reader" suggests that many people are like Michael and Hanna, and possess secrets that we would do shameful things to conceal.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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