It’s one thing to be ever-practical when it comes to conducting our affairs, but this approach may sometimes limit our options, outcomes and effectiveness. By contrast, we could adopt a truly visionary view, one that surpasses these shortcomings but that also may be difficult to fulfill due to a lack of pragmatism. So it’s quite something when we’re able to fuse both qualities, making it possible to work truly inspired wonders. Such is the approach employed by an accomplished statesman, one whose achievements arguably have not received the recognition they deserve, notions addressed in the engaging new documentary, “Meeting Gorbachev” (web site, trailer).
As the 1980s began, almost no one foresaw the significant changes that were to come over the next 10 years. However, as the decade played out, it led to an array of geopolitical shifts that carried on into subsequent years and whose impact has been felt ever since.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Soviet Union, a declining superpower that was being propped up largely by its own propaganda. The woeful state of the country was generally not known outside its borders, but Soviet citizens were all too aware of its shortcomings, experiencing its problems, frustrations and inadequacies on a daily basis. A string of aging and ailing leaders – Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko – did little more than keep the seat warm, unable to meet the needs of a population that was tiring of perpetual shortages, rampant ineptitude and runaway corruption.
However, there was one Soviet political figure who saw the handwriting on the wall, one who knew that sweeping reform was desperately needed, one who brought a visionary pragmatism to the table and sought to see it implemented. This little-known figure seemed to come out of nowhere but quickly rose to prominence on the national and international stages, his name becoming synonymous with change in an evolving USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Meeting Gorbachev” recounts the Soviet leader’s recollections of these events. Director Werner Herzog interviews Gorbachev about his accomplishments – and disappointments – and the impact they’ve had on shaping the world of today. Intercut with these conversations are archive footage of the events themselves, as well as interviews with those who were witnesses to history, including former US Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker, former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh, Solidarity Founder Lech Walęsa and former West German foreign affairs advisor Horst Teltschik. This combination paints an intriguing portrait of the film’s central figure.
From meager beginnings in rural Russia, Gorbachev grew up in the shadow of World War II and the abuses of the Stalinist regime. Life was difficult during those times, conditions that made him acutely aware of the difficulties involved in issues as basic as everyday survival. He drew upon that experience as he moved up through the ranks of the Communist Party, taking a practical approach to his official duties in such areas as agriculture and civil engineering projects.
By the late ʼ70s and early ʼ80s, Gorbachev could see that the Soviet Union was on the brink. The protracted Cold War with the West, a failed occupation of Afghanistan and simmering domestic discontent were placing an increasingly greater strain on the country, all of which could no longer be afforded. Things had to change, and, by the time Gorbachev got his shot at the top slot in 1985, he at last had his opportunity.
In the ensuing years, Gorbachev made a point to reach out to the citizenry to learn what was needed. This led to the formation of his now-famous policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), doctrines that became immensely popular both at home and abroad. It helped him win over many allies and to amass considerable political capital, assets that would prove exceedingly valuable in 1986, when he faced one of his greatest leadership challenges, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. This incident marked a turning point in both Gorbachev’s rule and in the history of the Soviet Union.
Chernobyl helped Gorbachev realize the dangers of nuclear technology, not only when it comes to power plants, but also to weapons of mass destruction. He knew that the world could not continue on the course it was on. An out-of-control arms race, he believed, was too great a risk to the future of civilization if it continued unabated. Thus began Gorbachev’s initiatives to reach out to the West, most notably President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to bring these matters under control.
Not long thereafter, Gorbachev witnessed the rise of democracy movements in the Soviet Union’s satellite states in Eastern Europe, most notably Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. He also watched the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – a mess he inherited from his predecessors – spiral into a quagmire that was being referred to as “Russia’s Vietnam.” Realizing that he could barely manage what was happening at home, he knew that he could ill afford to take on what was happening outside his borders. These insights prompted him to handle these situations differently from his forbears, taking no action against the Eastern Bloc and withdrawing troops from his southern Islamic neighbor. Thus began a chain of events that led to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the fall of the Berlin Wall and even the reunification of Germany.
Collectively, these changes brought about huge alterations in the geopolitical landscape. But, despite the progress they represented, for some, the changes didn’t unfold far or fast enough. Opportunists thus emerged to invoke their own agendas. In August 1991, a coup d’etat attempt was made to oust Gorbachev while he was vacationing with his family, but loyal supporters squelched the challenge to his authority. However, despite his success in this incident, he also faced secession initiatives launched by a number of Soviet republics, most notably the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It wasn’t long before other republics followed suit, a move that led to the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Once out of office, Gorbachev devoted much of his time to the establishment of a foundation, lecturing and serving as a political advisor. However, as he observes in the film, there’s a sadness associated with his later years. He’s disappointed that he was unable to complete the work he started, such as increased democratization, bridging the European Community and the Soviet Union, and continuing his work for nuclear disarmament. He’s also saddened that many of his onetime supporters abandoned him once he was no longer in power. Much of his enthusiasm was further sapped by the loss of his wife, Raisa, the love of his life, to leukemia in 1999.
Given these developments, it might be a stretch to call him “a broken man,” but the now-88-year-old has clearly been wounded by what happened to him after such a promising and auspicious start. Nevertheless, in light of how much Gorbachev accomplished, his opinion still carries weight, and we’d be wise to listen to it. He’s concerned about the current state of relations between Russia and the West, fearing the rise of a new Cold War and a new arms race. He sees this as a classic case of not learning from the past, particularly where nuclear armament is concerned. It would indeed be a tragedy if everything he worked for were to be wiped out by the shortsightedness of current leaders.
When one considers how much meaningful change Gorbachev was able to implement, one can’t help but wonder how he did it. As noted above, Gorbachev is best described as a pragmatic visionary, one who’s able to picture what he wants to achieve but understands the need to reach that goal by practical means, even if he’s initially unaware of exactly what those means are. To accomplish this, he envisions what he would like the outcome to be and then actively draws upon his intuition and intellect to achieve it. That’s quite a powerful combination for successful and meaningful manifestation. Today’s leaders could learn a lot from that approach, regardless of which side of the political spectrum they find themselves, both domestically and internationally.
Despite a slight tendency to shortchange the first-person views of the film’s principal subject (especially where his life outside of politics is concerned), “Meeting Gorbachev” presents a thorough look at the truly remarkable accomplishments of this Soviet statesman. Some might see director Herzog’s latest as a love letter that sometimes gushes a bit much, but it also candidly sets the record straight on Gorbachev’s achievements, presenting little-known insights into historic events from both the protagonist and those who collaborated with him. This genuinely moving and inspired work is definitely worthwhile viewing, especially in light of present-day conditions.
When the fate of the world is at stake, we need to take matters seriously if we hope to survive. This means looking at our circumstances for what they really are and not what we would like them to be, no matter how difficult, daunting and disconcerting the situation may be. By adopting a realistic view, we place ourselves in a position from which we can start to work toward solutions that will help us overcome the challenges at hand. Gorbachev understood this and employed it in his endeavors – and has left us with a shining example to draw upon.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Quest To Protect Personal Freedoms
Advocates for causes may sometimes be surprised where their support comes from. That’s particularly true when such unexpected backing is notably vocal and passionate. So it is for the champions of several high-profile, hot-button initiatives as seen in the snicker-filled new documentary, “Hail Satan?” (web site, trailer).
Those behind such issues as separation of church and state, women’s reproductive rights, and same-sex marriage often face an uphill battle, especially in light of the zealous, well-organized efforts of right-wing religious fundamentalists. The proponents of these measures can use all of the encouragement they can muster. But who would have thought that they would receive such support from a source like The Satanic Temple.
In “Hail Satan?”, viewers are introduced to a nontheistic “religious” minority that’s nothing like how it has traditionally been portrayed. Through the mainstream media, Hollywood movies and other sources, Satanists have been depicted as evil incarnate hell-bent on engaging in all sorts of horrendous, unnatural, unspeakable acts. Yet, as director Penny Lane’s documentary reveals, these characterizations are largely juvenile exaggerations, the product of a well-orchestrated smear campaign to distort who they really are and what they’re seeking to achieve.
Members of the Temple freely acknowledge themselves as followers of “the opposition.” But this is not meant so much to be opposition to God as much as it is meant to be opposition to those who contend to authoritatively and exclusively speak for the Divine. In that vein, that would include those who intolerantly proclaim their religions to be the sole, unquestionable truth that everyone must follow to the exclusion of all other faiths, schools of theological thought that they dismissively regard as nothing more than outright heresy. These are notions primarily put forth by fundamentalist Christians, who look upon other religions with disdain and contempt (and, if they feel that way about mainstream creeds, one can only imagine what they have to say about Satanists).
Temple members, by contrast, maintain that we should all be free to follow whatever faith best suits us, be it Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or, in their view, Satanism. They believe their mission is to help preserve that right – for everyone – and to steadfastly challenge anyone who would try to take it away. This belief in religious pluralism, they insist, is essential to a society, such as ours, that claims to revere the formal separation of church and state.
In recent years, however, this principle has come under fire, especially when fundamental Christians have undertaken such initiatives as trying to erect Ten Commandments monuments on the grounds of capitol buildings in states like Oklahoma and Arkansas. Members of The Satanic Temple have countered by contending that, if states allow Christian monuments to be placed on public properties, they must also allow the erection of comparable testaments to other religions on those same grounds. To that end, then, Satanists have sought to have statues of their goat-headed god Baphomet installed alongside whatever Christian monuments might be placed on those properties. After all, in a supposedly secular state, fair is fair, they say.
“Hail Satan?” chronicles these efforts, depicting how these outspoken, left-leaning activists have taken on their sanctimonious counterparts and effectively made them look like ridiculous religious blowhards. Instead of patently malevolent deeds, viewers are shown the cleverly crafted campaigns of this band of comically sinister but basically harmless bogeymen gleefully poking holes in the dogma of the religious right. Like impish frat boys pulling pranks, this amusingly macabre contingent of nonconformists has succeeded in capturing public and media attention, deftly outwitting its opposition at virtually every turn.
According to Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves, efforts like the ones his organization are pursuing are crucial to preserve the sweeping freedoms set down in the U.S. Constitution and to prevent their hijacking by those with their own narrow agendas. Speaking from the Temple’s headquarters in Salem, Massachusetts, where a number of innocent women were wrongly put to death for their views in the witch trials of the 1690s, Greaves and his followers believe these efforts need to start with setting the record straight about America’s innate secular nature and religiously neutral legacy. They’re particularly concerned about dispelling the fallacy that the U.S. is a historically “Christian nation.” Indeed, viewers may well be surprised to learn how the promotion of this widely held myth began as a Cold War propaganda ploy to counter the overblown and supposedly insidious spread of “Godless Communism” throughout the land. And, in that regard, audiences will likely be tickled (or possibly shocked) at discovering how the campaign to get Ten Commandments monuments erected on the nation’s municipal properties actually got its start.
However, separation of church and state is but one of the Satanists’ aims. As the film shows, they have also taken on such other faith-based issues as the hypocrisy of religious institutions, most notably the Roman Catholic Church and its cover-up of the actions of pedophile priests (something one won’t find among the ranks of the leaders of The Satanic Temple, they contend). In addition, they have railed against initiatives to institute prayer in school and at government meetings (unless, of course, Satanic verses can be included as part of those programs as well). They have even sought the establishment of after-school Satanic groups in locales where Christians have actively sought to launch Bible studies.
On a more secular level, Satanists have sought to preserve women’s reproductive protections and to promote gay rights, most notably same-sex marriage. Much of the opposition in these areas also comes from religious organizations, such as the insufferably vocal, supremely homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, which the Temple has unabashedly taken on publicly with devilish glee. The measures implemented by Temple members to counter such protests have been just as satirical, thought-provoking and creative as those used in their other endeavors, all designed to raise awareness about the corruption, hypocrisy and self-serving agendas behind these dubious, reactionary initiatives.
Without a doubt, Satanists have been called “dangerous” for what they do. Yet, if this film is any indication, perhaps the most seditious idea they’re calling for is to think for ourselves. And, if that is indeed a vile, distasteful notion, then perhaps it’s high time for any of us with any common sense to consider moving out of the country. But not if the Satanists have their say; they plan to hold their ground. And, because their ideas seem to speak to a broad number of people, they have become one of the fastest growing religious sects in the country today.
Of course, calling The Satanic Temple a religion may be a bit of a stretch. Most of these ideas are fundamentally social and political in nature, though, for tax purposes, the Temple has had itself legally classified as a religion, something more conventional faiths would probably rail against (even though they often do the same themselves). But this is more proof that Greaves and company can beat the others at their own game and get away with it.
From viewing this film, it would seem that much of what we’ve been taught to believe about Satanists is unfounded, that they’re misunderstood and innocent of what they’ve been accused. The Temple has even taken steps to cultivate this image by issuing guidelines to its various chapters outlining what the faith stands for, an attempt to promote consistency and continuity among its members and leaders in educating the public.
However, as often happens with religious organizations, there are those within them who invariably go rogue, deviating from the institution’s doctrines and principles, and The Satanic Temple is no exception. The documentary reveals this through the Temple’s official severance of ties with its Detroit chapter, led by overzealous advocate Jex Blackmore. She believed that progress for the Satanist agenda was coming too slowly and began advocating actions, such as violence, to speed up the process. Given this violation of the Temple’s tenets, Greaves cut off relations with this chapter, calling it a regrettable but necessary action to preserve the Temple’s image and prevent the public from getting the wrong impression. In that regard, then, it would seem that even Satanists are not immune to the administrative and philosophical problems that can hamper the missions of religious institutions.
Nevertheless, despite such issues, it would seem the Temple is doing something right to spur its impressive growth. When organizations like this experience such an expansion in a short period of time, they’re usually espousing ideas that have widespread appeal for a large pool of would-be followers. So, in light of the corrupt, hypocritical state of affairs characterizing many segments of contemporary society, as well as the growing number of individuals who are becoming increasingly intolerant of such conditions, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the ideas championed by an institution openly opposed to such circumstances would attract the backing of a number of fiercely loyal, dedicated followers. And, considering the intense passion driving the ideology of The Satanic Temple and the fervor of its members, it’s no wonder that the organization has proliferated as it has.
The Temple’s beliefs have obviously struck a chord with many individuals looking for answers to a litany of social ills that conventional religious and secular institutions either, at best, have been unable to provide or, at worst, have directly caused themselves. Satanism has provided a mechanism through which they can channel their energies, enabling them to push through the limitations that hold them back (and, they would hope, to eradicate the ignorance that binds and blinds the majority of society at large). And, through their inspired attention-grabbing ventures, they seem to be getting some results. Indeed, the opposition has arrived.
This tongue-in-cheek but thought-provoking look at the efforts of committed but misunderstood activists battling duplicitous religious and political institutions with agendas more dangerous than anything their mischievous opponents are proposing gives us all much to ponder. Amidst the many laughs are telling truths that we should all take seriously if we hope to protect the freedoms we have so diligently sought to carve out for ourselves. Anyone who identifies with the maligned outcasts of society will no doubt relate to the Satanists’ message and realize who it is we should really be afraid of. In relating this story, “Hail Satan?” received a well-earned Sundance Film Festival Documentary Grand Jury Prize nomination.
Recent events have shown us that our rights have fallen into an increasingly precarious position, making their protection ever more important. The need for diligence, even with the backing of unlikely supporters, is crucial to preserve them. Indeed, thinking for ourselves shouldn’t be seen as an unnatural state of affairs but as a wholly mainstream concept that we all enthusiastically embrace – no matter who advocates it.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Life of a Sexual Revolutionary
Were it not for sex, none of us would be here. Yet it’s amazing how, until comparatively recently, many of us have been reluctant or embarrassed to openly discuss something so fundamental to our nature and very being. No matter what the reason behind this, the hesitant among us long avoided the subject, almost pretending as if it somehow didn’t exist. But, given the magnitude of what’s involved in sexuality – on so many different fronts – it’s often been to our detriment to evade talking about it. This is why it has been so valuable to have someone come along who has been willing and courageous enough to help lead us out of the erotic darkness, to bring sex above board and out into the open for plainspoken but informed conversation, as seen in the new biographical documentary, “Ask Dr. Ruth” (web site, trailer).
The national discussion about sex took a dramatic leap forward in 1980 with the premiere of Sexually Speaking on New York’s WYNY-FM radio. The public affairs broadcast, which was launched primarily to fulfill the station’s FCC licensing requirements, aired Sundays at midnight, a time slot typically allocated to low-ratings programming like this. But, much to everyone’s surprise, the show became a big hit, thanks primarily to its delightfully charismatic host, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
The charming, diminutive Dr. Ruth had never hosted a radio show before. However, her positive demeanor, practical, no-nonsense advice, and delightful German accent captivated listening audiences. Before long, she was hosting WYNY’s most popular program. And, over the next several years, she became a national media sensation, hosting syndicated radio and TV shows and making appearances on late night talk shows, game shows and other network programs, as well as in made-for-TV movies and commercials. She almost single-handedly made it possible to speak openly, publicly and frankly about sex in the media while simultaneously transforming herself into a cottage industry that proliferated and has persisted to this day.
In “Ask Dr. Ruth,” director Ryan White lovingly profiles his munchkin-esque subject, revealing how this unlikely 90-year-old sexual guru rose to prominence and made such a significant mark on the nation’s outlook on a once-taboo subject. He shows how she became a notable figure in the sex therapy arena, as well as one of the most recognizable media personalities of the past 30+ years. But what’s perhaps most interesting is the filmmaker’s depiction of how she got there, a storied journey that took her through many trials, tribulations and escapades far removed from her roots.
Born Karola Ruth Siegel to Orthodox German Jewish parents in 1928, Westheimer grew up in Frankfurt. However, with the rise of the Third Reich and antisemitism over the next decade, her family’s future became increasingly uncertain. In hopes that she would be safe, Westheimer’s parents sent her to Switzerland in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport program, an effort aimed at protecting Jewish children by housing them in orphanages. But, when the young Karola left her homeland, it was the last time she would see her parents, who would eventually become victims of the Holocaust.
When World War II ended, Westheimer emigrated to British-controlled Palestine, where she joined the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization, training as a scout and sniper. She says she never killed anyone but became a sharp shooter who never missed the target. But the violence in the region nearly took a toll on her in 1948, when the explosion of a shell nearly cost her both of her feet.
After nursing herself back to health, Ruth relocated to France in 1950 with her first husband, a med school student. She studied and then taught psychology at the University of Paris, the beginning of a long and impressive educational path. The marriage didn’t last, however, her husband returning to Israel. But Westheimer was not alone for long, marrying her second husband when she became pregnant with her first child, Miriam. The couple emigrated to the US in 1956 for a new beginning, but this marriage did not last, either. Ruth soon found herself a single parent in New York, seeking to make ends meet while earning her master’s in sociology from The New School for Social Research.
After two failed marriages, Ruth finally found the love of her life, Fred Westheimer, whom she married in 1961. The couple became parents of a second child, Joel, in 1964, moving to an apartment in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where she still lives today. While raising her children, Ruth worked toward her doctorate in education, a degree she earned from Columbia University in 1970.
Ruth took a job at Planned Parenthood after graduation, a position that sparked her interest in human sexuality. It served as a springboard to post-doctoral study in the subject, working as a researcher with Helen Singer Kaplan at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. This background thus laid the foundation for what was to come when WYNY community affairs manager Betty Elam approached Westheimer and offered her the opportunity to host Sexually Speaking. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As Westheimer’s new career developed, she became more than just the host of a show about titillating dirty talk. She was a committed sexual educator who spoke candidly about subjects rarely if ever before broached in high-profile public settings. Her advice helped to dispel myths and offer comfort and guidance to those who lived lives outside the sexual mainstream, while giving individuals of all orientations useful and imaginative ideas on how to spice up their bedroom activities. In addition to her media appearances, Ruth became an accomplished and prolific author, producing a variety of books and articles, as well as a university lecturer. She also became a staunchly vocal advocate for research during the early days of the AIDS crisis, addressing the subject head-on and professionally at a time when others downplayed it, disparaged its victims and even made fun of the devastating illness.
Through it all, Ruth truly evolved as a sexual revolutionary, unlikely though it might seem. Her expertise as a therapist, author, educator, and radio and TV host is a testament to this. On her way to this, though, she underwent her share of ordeals, experiences that taught her valuable life lessons and made her the fighter that she has become to champion the causes that are most meaningful to her. And, as a result of that, Westheimer’s efforts subsequently have radically changed the sexual landscape, with implications that could be far more reaching than any of us is consciously aware. Would legalized same-sex marriage, for example, have come about were it not for the changes in attitude that Dr. Ruth helped to foster? Indeed, many of us may owe her far more than we know.
This endearing tribute lovingly portrays the life and adventures of a beloved expert and educator, charming – and moving – viewers at nearly every turn. It’s gratifying to see a film that honors the work of someone who has done so much good for so many. It paints a colorful portrait of a colorful character, one that’s a sure-fire crowd pleaser. “Ask Dr. Ruth” is currently playing in a limited theatrical run and will be available for streaming on Hulu beginning June 1.
If sex is indeed an essential part of our existence, wouldn’t it make sense for us to know as much about it as we can? As a truly creative force in its own right, sex is something through which we can exercise those imagination muscles we’re all equipped with, not only to make the experience more fulfilling and enjoyable, but also to inspire our overall inventiveness and ingenuity, attributes we can employ to enrich our larger existence and not just our erotic capabilities. Thankfully, we have someone like Dr. Ruth to help launch us into such explorations of deeper awareness, understanding and satisfaction on myriad fronts. And I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly good for me.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.