Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Divorce and Female Child Abuse

Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand, 1875 by Pierre-August Renoir

The popular belief that nontraditional families function just as well as traditional nuclear families is not only mistaken, but dangerous for children, especially for female children of divorced parents. A 2000 study by Washington and Lee University professor and social scientist Robin Fretwell Wilson presents some disastrous numbers on the results of divorce and the collapse of the nuclear family, dealing principally with their effect on female children: Female children of divorced parents, the study documents, are 50 percent more likely to suffer sexual abuse than children living with both married parents. This horrible statistic is distilled from more than 70 social science studies compiled and reviewed by Fretwell Wilson, and applies to female children living with single mothers, single fathers, and parents of both sexes who are remarried to new spouses.

“Using statistical tools to unravel the effect of multiple variables,” Fretwell Wilson reports, “sociologists have found that the factor most decisive to a girl’s increased sexual vulnerability was living in a household with adult males after her parents’ separation." Female children of divorce living with men (either their biological fathers or a male brought into the home by their mothers) were 7 times more likely to be abused than female children living only with women, a 1998 study showed. She further reports that, “measured in terms of frequency, duration, invasiveness, and force, fathers and father-substitutes subject their victims to abuse of singular destructiveness.”

A most poignant finding of the study concerned the maternal estrangement of daughters. One study showed sexual abuse of female children living without their mothers before age 16 to be 200 percent higher than that of female children living with their mothers.

Fretwell Wilson’s study settles the question of whether single-parent families, and the modern “blended” American family can function with the same efficacy in raising healthy children as the traditional nuclear family. The answer is no: The numbers show that child sexual abuse does not occur randomly across the child population: It occurs more often in single-parent or “reconstituted” families. “Far from a Kodak moment,” Fretwell Wilson writes, “the snapshot that social scientists provide of nontraditional families is one of crisis.” And this crisis affects huge numbers of our children: As of 2001, 60 percent of all marriages entered into were statistically headed for dissolution in divorce, 7.2 million children were living in step families, and half of American children were living with parents who had never married.

As a professor of law, Fretwell Wilson devotes much of her study (read it here in the Cornell Law Review) to how the U.S. courts and child custody system can create opportunities to insulate children from sexual abuse following divorce, in visitation disputes, and in other cases dealing with child custody. The first step, her study emphasizes, is for parents, courts, judges, and social workers to stop assuming that nontraditional families work the same way that nuclear families do, and to learn more about nontraditional families through the study of how they actually behave.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Cook, Baby, Cook

We celebrated Christmas Eve with a hearty selection of finger foods.

The gorgeous greens before preparation for Christmas Day dinner.

The gin-flambéed roast duck surrounded by wild duck fillets wrapped in bacon.
In the space of four months, October 2008-January 2008, our family is experiencing two weddings, two military deployments, the turnover of tenants in the rental property that helps to pay our mortgage, a job change for one of our breadwinners, final exams, and various and sundry “life happens” events, such as the failure of our 23-year-old heating system. So one might expect—in advance and with some certainty—that there will be emotional bumps along the road during the holidays.

What is a mother to do? What have many mothers, in many places, over many centuries done before? My antidote to anticipated holiday blues is (taking a prosodic cue from the GOP presidential convention): “Cook, Baby, Cook.”

Cook, Baby, Cook means gingerbread men, pralines, and sugar cookies before Christmas week begins, and huge spreads for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I only hope that I am blessed, for many years to come, with the health, happiness, and company of the loved ones who gathered to eat it all.

The concept for Christmas Eve was finger food, with the menu including crab puffs, scallops wrapped in bacon, Italian mini-meatballs, brie en croute, spinach dip, salmon mousse, and celery stuffed with blue cheese spread. We began with egg nog and finished with chocolates. Whew!

Christmas Day was more formal. The menu was inspired by my son-in-law’s gift of five wild ducks, which produced a number of boneless four-ounce duck breasts and an equal number of tiny legs. This was a gift of true love from both him and my daughter: They plucked, cleaned, and filleted the ducks themselves. To the wild duck, we added one farm-raised Long Island duck. The cultivated duck provided a good supply of fat to roast the wild meat, which was totally lean. I relied on James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking for the details on roasting the duck and making the sauce, and followed his suggestion of flambĂ©ing it with gin at the table before serving.

The full menu was:

Steamed artichokes with butter sauce
Salad of baby frisee with spiced walnuts and pears
Roast duck, wild and cultivated in Port and orange sauce
Curried rice
Asparagus with lemon
Frozen lemon mousse
Chocolate Christmas trifle

The frozen lemon mousse recipe is also from Beard’s Theory and Practice. It is an absolutely foolproof dessert. Anyone can make it and everyone loves it.

A Pretty New Tea Bag

The new tea bag is actually pyramidal, though this image flattens it to two dimensions.

My daughter is a talented researcher of new products. Over the years, she has discovered, tested, and championed a number of product innovations that are now in use at our house, including Mr. Clean magic erasers for getting scuff marks off of everything in a jiffy, and a ladies razor that really minimizes the risk of cuts and scrapes while shaving legs. She recently introduced me to a new, pyramid-shaped tea bag, manufactured in several lovely flavors by Lipton Tea. The design is so pretty that I think it may catch on, whether or not it enhances the flavor of the tea, as the package claims it does, and even though it costs a few more pennies per cup than the conventional paper tea bags. As a lover of teapots, and just sitting down for a "cuppa" with friends, I can't resist it.

The Garden in Winter

Clippings from the garden
Holly and everygreens brighten the pass-through between our kitchen and dining room.

I am borrowing my headline for this post from the title of the wonderful book The Garden in Winter by British plantswoman Rosemary Verey. I received this book as a gift from my aunt more than a decade ago, and it inspired me and my husband to pay attention to the cycle of seasons when choosing the shrubbery for the three acres we attempt to garden (or keep moderately under control) in northwestern Virginia. We now have several crops of fall and winter berries, including nandinia and miniature crab apple, along with a space we leave to run wild to encourage the annual spread of bittersweet vines. As winter approaches, we are gifted with four varieties of holly and eight or ten varieties of evergreen. One of the great pleasures of the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is my annual ritual of harvesting greens and holly for miniature indoor arrangements. In the past several years, a new winter color, bright chartreuse green, has arrived on the scene in our neighborhood nurseries, in the form of Golden Cypress shrubs. One Golden Cypress, Chamaecyparis pisifera, supplies bright golden thread-like foliage that transforms arrangements. I hope to get one of these planted in 2009.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Get Married, Stay Married

Dutch painter Jan van Eyck's marriage painting of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami
What is the best environment for raising children? A study by Washington and Lee University School of Law Robin Fretwell Wilson answers this question in the good old-fashioned way: Children do best raised in a stable family home with both of their parents, and all the scientific studies show that this is true. Wilson recently discussed her findings at the November 2008 Georgia Supreme Court Summit on Children, Marriage, and Family Law titled For Children's Sake: Get Married, Stay Married.

Her 2006 research review with University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox describes study after study showing poorer outcomes for children raised outside of stable two-parent families. For males, children raised outside of two-parent families are twice as likely to be incarcerated by age 30; a recent study of the entire Swedish population found that children raised outside of the traditional family structure are twice as likely to attempt suicide, engage in substance abuse, and suffer from depression. Studies elsewhere in the West show lower achievement in school, higher rates of teenage pregnancy and promiscuity, lower employability, and much reduced lifetime income. All of this research “controls” for socioeconomic factors, such as race, income, and, education. From the standpoint of social science research design, all of Wilson’s cited studies have been scrubbed, polished, vetted, and reviewed. The conclusion is hard science—or as hard as social science gets. And Wilson has piled it up in a mountain too huge for public officials to ignore.

Wilson notes that it is the family (a married mother and a father collaborating in the rearing of children), not the biology, that is the main factor in creating positive outcomes for children. The children of cohabitating biological parents shown less positive outcomes. Wilson also reviews studies showing that adopted children raised in traditional nuclear families are better off by all measured criteria than children raised in homes with a single biological parent. These findings are crucial to addressing the question of how the states should regulate the placement of children for adoption when biological parents can no longer care for them. Assuming that states should and must employ a “best interests of the child” standard to regulate adoptive placements (which, by law, all states now in fact claim to do), every effort must be made to place adoptive children in homes with two married parents.

Getting Ready for a Wedding: Ups & Downs

The lovely maids of the wedding party, arrayed like jewels in a bridal tiara.
Into each life some rain must fall. Indeed. And with every plan for a wedding, comes frustration, fatigue, misunderstandings, short tempers, and--it's best if you count on it--unhappiness. If you expect to get from the engagement to the honeymoon without getting stuck in an emotional rut, you will be disappointed. Budgets get bigger, daughters get distraught, bridesmaids get overbooked, fathers fritz, and mothers morph into Momzillas. So plan on it: getting ready for a wedding will bring boatloads of happiness into your life. But along the way, there will be days when you feel downright unhappy.
My advice to brides, mothers, and other participants falls into three categories:
  1. The wedding is the bride's day. With her rests the choice of gown, venue, colors, flowers, music, food, and most other details. In European weddings 500 years ago, even the maidens of the bridal party were chosen as adornments to the bride, a boast of her home village--and received by the best man with a special toast to their beauty, as epitomized by the bride.
  2. The wedding ceremony is a sacrament. This is also the day of the bride and groom, as they as joined by God as one flesh for the remainder of their lives on earth. Do everything to make them happy and keep them securely focused on this mystery (in the case of the bride, pray for her groom and his family, in the case of the groom, pray for his bride and her family).
  3. Learn and follow the rules. There are rules for the bride, for the grooms, for the parents, for the maids, for the groomsman, and even for the guests. The mile-high pile of books on wedding planning lays them out pretty well. If you chose to participate in a wedding, get ready for it by learning the rules. Once you have learned the rules, follow them. They have been tried and tested by millions of brides, grooms, and their families over the centuries, and they work. They were, in fact, designed and modified to minimize wedding ups and downs, and keep everyone happy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Fungus Among Us

From the stump of decaying oak tree, on a northern Virginia wooded mountain.

At the base of the same oak. My field guide indicates these are Orange Jack O'Lanterns.

The gill structure on this 9 inch specimen was particularly beautiful.

There are four or five identifiable species on this rotting branch from a Black Locust tree in our front yard.

I was delighted when my friend and fellow blogger Linda reported that Beatrix Potter was a mycologist. I have been a fungus lover from childhood, and even considered this for college studies. I've always held the firm belief that fairies do sit under mushrooms, and if you can find one of the bright red ones in a forest, you may get the chance to chat with Queen Mab. Several very rainy days in September produced a beautiful crop of specimens in and around our neighborhood.

Getting Ready for a Wedding: Staging & Serving

Our talented day chef brought a talented helper, who spent several hours assembling the antepasto course.

Tick tock. As the weeks passed and our daughter's wedding drew closer, it became more and more apparent that no amount of advance work would prepare us to get through the Big Day without help. One of the wedding books stacked up on my bed table advised that good planning required a mental "walkthrough" of the events of the day, in great detail. When I went through this visualization exercise, I realized that, in fact, we required a small army. To process the food we planned to serve our guests (slicing, cutting, chopping, wrapping, defrosting), we needed three food preparation helpers for the day before the wedding. To handle the crowd of more than 150 on the day of, we needed a day chef, two sous chefs, two bartenders, and five servers. This was on top of the disk jockey, the volunteer parking attendants, a house helper in charge of clearing away rubble, attending to house guests, and locating items for the chef in the kitchen, and the teenagers assigned to watching over the babies and toddlers while their parents joined the celebration.
For those of you considering a do-it-yourself wedding to save money, I can report that the cost of this labor power for the final staging and serving (of drinks, appetizers, dinner, and dessert) cost as much as the food, cake, and wine we purchased. So, when you do your budget projections, make sure to take this into consideration. More on what I learned about wedding budgets is to come.

Defeat the Freedom of Choice Act

"The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing that I'd do." -- Senator Barack Obama, speaking to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, July 17, 2007

As the nation prepares to welcome up to 4 million visitors to Washington, D.C. for the January 20th inauguration of Barak Obama, let us consider the best way to defeat a piece of legislation that the President-elect repeatedly promised to support--"The Freedom of Choice Act" (FOCA).
FOCA as it is now written would establish the right to abortion as a fundamental right (at the same level as the right to free speech) and wipe away every restriction on abortion nationwide. It would eradicate state and federal abortion laws the majority of Americans support and prevent states from enacting protective measures in the future.
FOCA provides that “[i]t is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.”
Further, FOCA would specifically invalidate any "statute, ordinance, regulation, administrative order, decision, policy, practice, or other action" of any federal, state, or local government or governmental official (or any person acting under government authority) that would "deny or interfere with a woman's right to choose" abortion, or that would "discriminate against the exercise of the right . . . in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services, or information."
Clearly, its reach is very broad. This single piece of legislation would apply to any federal or state law “enacted, adopted, or implemented before, on, or after the date of [its] enactment.”
  • FOCA would compel taxpayer funding of abortions.
  • FOCA would force faith-based hospitals and healthcare facilities to perform abortions.
  • FOCA would force faith-based hospitals and healthcare facilities to perform abortions.

Please read the expert analysis by Americans United for Life (AUL), sign the Fight FOCA petition at: http://www.fightfoca.com/, and consider what else you might do as an American citizen and activist, to discourage the President from supporting the FOCA legislation. For daily news on how the Obama White House is dealing with the abortion issue, visit http://www.onenationundergod.org/ms_president_elect_obama.html, maintained at the One Nation Under God web site. One Nation Under God also tracks the contributions of Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion organizations to candidates for public office, so this is the place to locate information on your congressman and senator.

The Italian

Russian actor Kolya Spiridonov plays an orphan, adopted by an affluent childleses Italian couple and about to be shipped out of Russia, who is determined to find his mother.

Here is a wonderful film from Russian director Andrei Kravchuk that speaks directly to the power of God’s love as it is expressed in the bond between mother and child in the human family, at the same time it reveals the grotesque commercial aspects of the international adoption system, which more often than not treats orphaned children as commodities to be traded among desperate bidders. Kravchuk, a mathematician by training, was inspired to make The Italian after reading the story of an abandoned Russian child who learned how to read so he could search for his mother. His palette could be called drab and grey, were it not for the remarkable splashes of color that burst into its frames: the fly-away red hair of the teenaged orphan-prostitute who teaches the young protagonist his alphabet, the azure blue frames of the rural nursery’s doors, the burnt orange of the slum hovels in the nearby city. Likewise, Kravchuk’s theme could be characterized as dismal: a mafia of dead-ended never-to-be-adopted teenagers runs this orphanage; the dragon lady social worker threatens children with the mental asylum if they do not cooperate in her sleazy deals, and gangs of homeless juvenile thugs roam the streets of the local village. The Italian, however, is a firmly optimistic film, and well worth the viewing.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Getting Ready for a Wedding: The Bridal Tea

Martha Stewart's early 1980s book Hors D'Oeuvres was the inspiration for my daughter's wedding shower, which we did as a high tea. Her book has a gorgeous chapter titled "Tea Party in the Library."
I wanted my daughter's wedding shower to be a delicious and relaxing afternoon for her bridal attendants, her friends, and the several of my old friends who had seen her grow up. We settled on the idea of having high tea, a celebration we had done together as mother and daughter several times in the past, including the Mother and Daughter Tea for her high school. The menu consisted of two courses: a savory course of tea sandwiches, stuffed cherry tomatoes, and quiche (provided by a friend who makes the best), and sweets, the traditional scones with clotted cream, raspberry and apricot thumbprint cookies, and trifle. Four generations of well wishers and family were on hand for the lovely event.

The menu was:
Mimosa punch
Variety of teas
Cucumber sandwiches on white bread
Curried chicken tea sandwiches on pumpernickel bread
Strawberry walnut tea sandwiches on cinnamon raisin bread
Cherry tomatoes stuffed with salmon mousse
Cheese quiche
Tea with lemon, cream, and sanded sugar
Thumbprint cookies with apricot and strawberry jam
Scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam
Mocha chocolate torte
I am happy to share recipes. Please ask.

Getting Ready for a Wedding: Mass Production

We made 150 heart-shaped cookies using sanding sugar and dragees, with a purple and lavendar theme to reflect the wedding colors

One of the first decisions we made about the wedding was to prepare the food ourselves. The task consisted largely of assembling the ingredients and all of the serving dishes and implements: We were completely confident of the recipes, which were all tried and true family favorites.

The menu we decided on was:
Assorted cheeses with fruit & crackers
Garlic rusk with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes
Miniature chicken kabobs
Baked brie en croute
Pesto dip with cherry tomatoes
Melon wrapped in prosciutto
Mixed nuts
Cheese straws
Main Course
Antipasto selection
Artichoke & caper lasagna with white sauce
Sausage and pepper lasagna with red sauce
Rosemary foccaccio with olive oil dipping sauce
Bread sticks
Home made rolls and butter
White wine
Red wine
Sweets course
Mexican wedding cookies
Iced butter cookies
Truffles & other chocolates
Wedding cake

This was an ambitious project, as we were counting on 150 guests, but there was no way to serve a full meal with some elegant touches within our budget unless we took on the basic cooking ourselves. Over all, it took eight weekends for the preparation of 17 pans of lasagna, 400 cookies, and 600 cheese straws, all of which were safely tucked into the basement freezer, and the freezer of a used refrigerator we purchased and stashed in the garage, by mid-summer. All went extremely well--until the power went out for three days! (But that's another story, involving our friend Corky's generator and round-the-clock trips to the back yard to keep in going.)

All of our frozen foods were well received at the reception. I think it's fair to pronounce our recipes top-notch for advanced preparation and freezing. I would be happy to share any or all.

Plating the food and serving the guests were both separate tasks--requiring just as much preparation as the cooking, and also great adventures.

My Daughter's House

The upstairs hall decorated for Christmas

This vintage dressing table was the wedding gift from the groom to the bride.

A great pecan tree in the back yard showers down nature's bounty.

Its been two months since my daughter was married, and my husband and I finally had the chance to visit the new nest she has been feathering with her husband in a little town about three hours distant from our house. This was a wonderful trip for us: We were warmly welcomed by the newlyweds, enjoyed a home-cooked meal with them and our new in-laws, and were generally treated as honored guests. I am happy and gratified to say that the torch has been passed! My dearest daughter is now a homemaker herself. What more could a mother ask?

Getting Ready for a Wedding (Continued)

A stunning depiction of the Wedding Feast at Cana by the Flemish master Gerard David (1500). Even this lavish representation of Christ's first public miracle, however, pales in comparison to Jesus’s description of the event in Anne Rice's The Road to Cana.

I was so fortunate to be reading Anne Rice’s new book, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, right in the middle of the preparations for my daughter's October 2008 wedding. More than once, it provided me with a much-needed reminder of what weddings are actually all about, and why human beings in all cultures put aside daily chores and cares to sing, dance, eat and drink with brides and grooms and their families. At the altar, the bride and groom face one another and pledge to be united “until death us do part.” They enter the marital embrace, (which in Christian cultures symbolizes the love of Christ for his Church, and in all human cultures has been invested with religious overtones), and become one flesh. The marital embrace is a physical testimony of the love of God for each human being, and each individual act of marital love is a transcendental act, invested with the capability to forever change all of human history with the creation of a new human soul—a child. Our culture spends the time and care on no other celebration that it does on weddings (which can rightly absorb the attention of an entire family for months), and this is as it should be. For all who participate and attend, and above all for the bride and groom, the wedding reminds us that God (whose love made Him a Creator), has poured His love into man and woman to make them co-creators with Him. At every wedding, we celebrate the mystery of the divine creative capacity hidden within each man and woman. Why was Road to Cana such a delight during our wedding planning months? It taught me that God loves weddings! A lovely detail of the plot is that the young Jesus (who tells the story in the first person) instructs his family to use his long-hidden birthday gifts from the Magi to finance the wedding of a local girl abandoned by her father. This girl is no stranger or mere neighbor to him: She is the woman He loves and would have chosen as His wife if the Father’s call had been to marriage rather than Calvary. Rice’s description of the wedding brought tears to my eyes:

Under the high ceilings of the house, the music exploded… Huge tables had been set throughout all the main rooms. Through the open doorways, we saw great tents spanning the soft grass, and carpets spread everywhere, and table at which everyone might gather, either on couches or right on the rugs, whichever they desired. Amid all, the candelabra burned with hundreds upon hundreds of tiny flames… Great platters of food appeared, steam rising from the roasted lamb, the glistening fruit, the hot spiced cakes and honey cakes, the piles of raisons and dates and nuts…. The music and the aromas of the rich platters melded and it seemed for a moment to me that—as I stood in the courtyard, in the very middle of it, staring from one feasting group to another…--I was in a great unbroken universe of pure happiness which no evil could ever approach.

In this setting, Jesus performs his first public miracle, and makes a gift of water turned to wine to the celebrating couple. The dancing, eating, drinking, and celebrating go on!

So, God loves weddings. When you are fussing over buttons on bustles, finding the perfect petit fours, and just the right bottle of bubbly for the toast, you are actually creating a Feast of Love that brings happiness to many, and above all, the Father of Love.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Getting Ready for a Wedding

The happy couple with a groomsman and maid of honor

We just had a wedding (our daughter's) at our house--literally, under a tent on the side lawn--and I hope to be writing more about this wonderful event in the future. At this point, I don't have time to write as much as I would like, as we are now getting ready for a second wedding (our son's), though the season and the couple's preferences have sited this happy event at an old mansion in West Virginia. But I feel compelled to offer a bit of advice to mothers and brides-to-be, just in case there are readers facing wedding preps who find their ways to this blog. That advice is: There is no such thing as over-planning for a wedding. Trust me: weddings require an attention to detail unsurpassed by any other celebratory event in human history; whether small, medium, large, or grandiose, they require the proverbial cast of thousands (well, literally, hundreds or dozens) of behind-the scenes helpers and heros to carry out, and everything takes more time and costs more money than you are likely to anticipate. Hosting a wedding for 100 people is not the equivalent of giving a buffet dinner for the same crowd. A special note to mothers of brides-to-be: Do not let anyone--be it your dear spouse, a nervous bride, a kindly aunt, a concerned friend--tell you that you are overdoing the lists, research, index cards, and other planning. You will likely become fixated on fabric, flowers, pew ribbons, cake fillings, and ceremony formats: Relax and enjoy the fact that you can think about little else.
Finally, there are hundreds of wedding books and Web sites out there. They do not all agree, even on some of the etiquette fundamentals. I highly recommended starting with two: Weddings by Martha Stewart, the first of her books on weddings, which has lovely essays and gives you lots of ideas of how to go over the top if you have the financial means to do so, and Bride's Book of Etiquette, by the editors of Brides magazine. The second title has a good table of contents, a helpful index, and doesn't omit any of the crucial etiquette topics that you will have to deal with.
Happy wedding planning! It's great fun!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Imaginary Friends

These little girls are dancing on a piece of fabric I stumbled upon recently while surfing the Internet. Miraculously, this happens to be an exact rendering of me and my sister frolicking with our two imaginary friends, Kikki and Debbie. Kikki and Debbie entered our lives around 1951, and stayed with us until into the 1960s. They shared our bedroom, and, when we begged convincingly enough, were allowed to have their own place settings at the table in the downstairs kitchen. If you don't believe they existed, you can ask our younger brother, who banged his spoon on his high chair tray and laughed uproariously every time they visited.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Genghis Khan Again on Film

The young Genghis Kahn on the Mongolian steppe

I recently watched and greatly enjoyed the first in a planned trilogy by Russian movie director Sergei Bodrov on the life of the early 13th century warrior and conqueror Genghis Khan. Bodrov’s movie, simply titled Mongol, is the fourth major modern attempt to capture the life of Genghis Kahn on film—the first being a 1956 The Conqueror starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward, the second, a Hollywood style epic filmed in 1965 with Omar Sharif and Stephen Boyd, and the third the Japanese-language To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (2007), which I am eagerly awaiting from Netflix. Hollywood’s productions were filmed in English; the 1956 version was made in Hollywood, but producers trekked to Yugoslavia with cameras for the Sharif blockbuster.

Mongol is the first production to be filmed in the Mongolian language and principally in Mongolia. It is a cinematographically beautiful film, with captivating costumes, jewelry, and music. Battle scenes are bloody, but unexaggerated. Modern moviegoers have been well-prepared by the film industry for mass slaughter (even in such youngster-oriented films as the Tolkein trilogy), and there is nothing particularly new here. Perhaps the second and third installments will educate viewers on the astounding military capabilities of the Mongol horseman, who could string and repeatedly fire his bow at an enemy advancing to his rear, while keeping his horse at full gallop. Genghis Kahn’s genius as a military commander is an aspect of his life that also waits to be more fully depicted in coming films.

What is so fascinating to film makers (and viewers like myself, I must admit) about an oriental warrior unequalled in his depredations against military opponents and civilian populations alike? A quick look at the historical sources reveals that Genghis Kahn created the largest contiguous empire in human history, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Adriatic Sea by the time of his death in 1127. He created the Uighin script, the basis of the written Mongolian language, a system of law (the Yassa) affirming the existence of a single Creator, and established religious tolerance throughout his empire. Historian David Morgan notes that, in bringing the Mongols under his leadership, he transformed the society of the western steppe from that of a tribal system to a relatively more advanced feudal system. Bodrov’s film hints that his charisma was based on his elevation of the principle of meritocracy over that of clan/tribe affiliation, and an attitude of fairness toward his men, particularly in matters of discipline and distribution of booty. These tendencies may be considered to be the kernels of truth embedded in his system of rule, and intersection points, however weak, with the western Christian culture that suffered so grievously under the swords of his horsemen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Basis for Equality Among Men

Stained glass window in the Franciscan church of Szombathely, Hungary depicts Kolbe as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner

I struggled all during the presidential campaign to explain to family members and coworkers why I am convinced that the Democratic Party is on the wrong track when it comes to economic progress for America and her citizens.

This remarkable little essay from Saint Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Conventual Franciscan priest who was martyred at Auschwitz, really hit me in the eye at the tail end of this year’s presidential campaign. Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a prisoner with a family in a group of Auschwitz inmates chosen to starve to death after a fellow prisoner disappeared from their barracks; after leading the dying men in prayer and meditation, he was finally killed by the Nazis with an injection of carbolic acid.

This compact and direct refutation of President Elect Barak Obama’s “redistribute the wealth” approach to economics was published as part of The Kolbe Reader: The Writings of Saint Maximilian M. Kolbe (Libertyville, IL: Franciscan Marytown Press, 1987).

When he sees the luxurious residence or the charming country house of a wealthy person, a poor workingman often asks himself: Why is there such inequality in the world?”

How many volumes have been written about equality among men! How much blood has been spilled for this idea! And yet, in spite of it all, we still have the rich and the poor…

Let us imagine that one day all the inhabitants of the work world would assemble to put into effect this sharing of all goods; and that in fact each person, granting that the world is very big, received an exactly equal portion of the wealth existing on earth.

The what? That very evening, one man might say, “Today I worked hard: now I am going to take rest.” Another might state, “I understand this sharing of goods well; so let’s drink and celebrate such an extraordinary happening.” On the other hands, another might say, “Now I am going to get to work with a will so as to reap the greatest benefit I can from what I have received.” And so, starting the next day, the first man would have only the amount given him; the second would have less, and the third would have increased his.

Then what do we do? Start redistributing the wealth all over again?

Even if everybody began to work right away with all his might and at the same time, the results would not be identical for all. There are, in fact, different kinds of work which are unequally productive; nor do workers enjoy the same identical capacities. This leads to a diversity of results achieved, and consequently to differences in people’s profits.

What would have to be imposed so that, once the division of goods was accomplished, people could continue to live on a basis of equality in this sense? All workers would have to perform the same tasks, all possess equal intelligence and ability, have similar professional training, the same degree of health and strength, and especially the same desire to put forth the necessary efforts. All of this is quite utopian.

To continue the argument, even if there were only two persons in the world, they would not succeed in maintaining absolute equality; for in the whole universe there are no two things completely identical in every respect…

In spite of this, the human mind still desires to bring about certain equality among men. Is there any possibility that this can happen? Yes, no doubt. Every man, whoever he is, whatever he possesses and whatever he is capable of doing, owes all this to God the Creator of the universe. Of himself man is nothing. From this point of view all of us are absolutely equal.

Furthermore we all possess free will, which makes us masters of all our actions. This too constitutes the basic equality of all men on earth. But the use made of our free will is not the same in all cases; it depends in fact on each man’s own determination, on the extent to which he makes use of this precious gift; for not all do so in the same degree. It follows that not even after death will perfect equality be achieved; it will not in fact exist, because every man will receive a just reward or punishment according to his deeds, good or evil.