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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Has anyone noticed that there seems to be a conspicuous lack of shame in our society? One could also point out, in the lacking department, the disappearance of honor. And to a great extent, of respect. Yes, and even civility, courtesy, apology and politeness. 

Now I am not pointing a finger at any particular demographic, as in, “In my generation, we always stood up if we were seated, when introduced to an elderly lady,” or “Children shouldn’t talk to their teachers that way.” Members of older generations have traditionally found fault with those coming up after them, for being less ambitious, or mannerly or some such. But I would hope I am not just another cranky, older person. No, I’m referring to something else, something more sinister in our present culture.

Now I am not accusing everyone here. Just saying that these qualities seem to be a lot less evident in today’s world. I guess if you never need to tell the truth, you never have to admit that you lost a tennis match … or an election. 

That loss of good sportsmanship is troubling. I like to see, for example, when the other two participants in a nightly round of “Jeopardy!” turn and applaud the winner at the end of the contest. It makes me feel that we are all together as part of a community when the ball teams each form a line and shake hands with the opposing team members, however competitive the preceding game might have been.

George Santos (R-NY3), the newly elected Congressman from Queens, is a case in point. He is merely a product of our times, if an extreme one. While he now admits to falsifying the resume he campaigned on, he seems to consider his behavior acceptable, exaggerating not lying. During Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, he unabashedly sashayed around the room, sitting in one of the most visible seats, shaking hands with many senators and the president, even taking selfies. He clearly feels no shame about his actions and no sense of consequence. What sort of culture does he come from? The answer is: one in which the lack of all the above attributes rule.

Santos is not the first such example, of course. I am reminded of the historic, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” question asked of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) by soft spoken American lawyer, Joseph Nye Welch, for the Army during the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings. Those hearings searched for Communist activities in the early 1950s on behalf of the Senate. McCarthy lied his way to power, but Welch’s immortal query, in effect, ended his career, as his Republican colleagues no longer accepted his erratic antics, censured and ostracized him.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), before Biden’s speech and noting Santos’s actions, told him he “shouldn’t have been there,” meaning front and center in the House, and had no shame. But so far, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA20) — odd repetition of names — has not publicly challenged or denounced him. 

“He shouldn’t be in Congress,” Romney said, when he was questioned by the press after Biden’s speech about the testy exchange with Santos . “If he had any shame at all, he wouldn’t be there.”

Far from shame, Santos tweeted Romney, “Hey @MittRomney, just a reminder that you will NEVER be PRESIDENT!” Romney, of course, lost his presidential bid in 2012.  

Perhaps in the culture of today, not only does one refrain from acknowledging wrongdoing but rather, when challenged, comes back fighting. How far we have come in our ethics evolution. Sounds a bit like Putin, doesn’t it? 

Cartoon by Kyle Horne: @kylehorneart

Communities are held together by norms of civility and an overriding spirit of goodwill.

Right now those norms are withering away, supplanted by foul behavior and disrespect. In communities throughout this area, there has been an observable decline in civility, a dangerous trend that jeopardizes the community’s long-term prospects.

At Stony Brook University, members of the campus community have expressed growing concerns about the frequency of hostile encounters taking place in nearby communities. Students and staff members have become targets of scorn and prejudice, a phenomenon that should disturb our residents deeply.

In addition, elected officials and business owners are dismayed by the recent spike in vandalism and destruction of public and private property. Perhaps most alarmingly, police have investigated the July 5 burning of a sign at a Ronkonkoma mosque as a possible hate crime.

While destroying property and desecrating houses of worship surely violates several of our laws, these actions also tear at the fabric of our community. After two years of lockdowns and separation, community members now seem more estranged from one another than ever before. 

The immediate consequence of all of this is that our community is less safe and less congenial than it once was. People will be less likely to spend their time and money in our local downtown areas, creating more vacant storefronts. But in the long run, people may soon flee this area in search of that community feeling that they couldn’t find here. 

Since ancient antiquity, scholars have understood that people of a community cannot be held together by laws alone. Laws create a system of rules and keep communities orderly and regulated, but they cannot inspire neighborliness or tolerance. Aristotle contended that “friendship” was the necessary ingredient for a community to thrive.

We must cultivate the bonds of friendship that once existed among our community members. As citizens of this area, we must recognize that each person is entitled to our respect, regardless of religion, race, ethnic background or politics. 

The people of Long Island are fortunate to have a superb public research institution right in their backyard, a place that offers jobs to our residents and a talented pool of students and staff who are eager to change the world for the better. We must welcome them as our own, deserving of our friendship and respect. We want them to stay right here on Long Island, where they can help us build upon and strengthen this community. 

In a similar vein, we cannot tolerate the destruction of public or private property. Budgets are tight enough in our county, towns and villages, and taxpayers should not be forced to absorb these preventable costs. Moreover, small businesses are struggling enough amid nationwide economic challenges and the ongoing public health emergency. We should not compound their hardships and expenses either.

Progress requires a reassessment and realignment of our system of values. Let’s rediscover what it means to be civil and respectful to one another. Let’s foster that sense of civic friendliness and community cohesion that existed before. We must learn to respect our neighbors again, for without respect this community will not endure. As Aretha Franklin sang, “Just a little bit, a little respect.”

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Jennifer Hudson pays homage to the Queen of Soul in 'Respect'. Photo from MGM

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Aretha Louise Franklin began her career as a child singing in her father’s Baptist Church. She would go on to be one of the most important and influential vocalists of all time. Beloved as a musician as well as civil rights activist, “the Queen of Soul” would touch millions.

Tony-Award nominated Liesl Tommy makes her featured film debut with Respect, a biopic of Franklin’s early life and rise to fame. Beginning in her Detroit home in 1952 and traveling forward twenty years, Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay is a mostly straightforward look at one of the most iconic figures of the music industry. 

The film begins with ten-year-old Aretha (a marvelous Skye Dakota Turner) being woken by her father, Baptist minister C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), to entertain his guests. The opening sequences show his pride in her vocal prowess and his manipulative nature, themes that will carry through their entire relationship. During one party, a friend of her father’s rapes the preadolescent Franklin. The film is a bit hazy about the rape and the birth of her first two children, sidestepping a murky part of Franklin’s past. (There have been multiple articles written about both the liberties and inaccuracies of Respect.)

Jennifer Hudson and Marlon Wayans in a scene from ‘Respect’. Photo courtesy of MGM

The story continues with her breaking from her father’s supervision and connecting with Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who becomes her manager and husband. Unfortunately, White is abusive, with Franklin trading one controlling man for another. Along the way, she signs with Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), who becomes an impetus in her career shift. 

One senses a list of items that the creators wanted to cover and checked them off as they went, manifesting in a mechanical progression. In addition, the dialogue often states the characters’ thoughts and feelings rather than revealing them in action. As a result, the subtext—the underlying humanity—is often lost as the plot moves forward. 

Tommy and Wilson have managed to make recording fascinating and engaging. The breakthrough recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, runs the gamut from tense to exhilarating. Throughout, the scenes focusing on Franklin’s art and craft shine. Recreation of interviews is cleverly juxtaposed with the “reality” of the moment. But more could have—and should have—been made of her civil rights work.

Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker in a scene from Respect. Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM

Whitaker makes the most of Franklin’s father, but because Wilson has avoided many of the more unsavory aspects of C.L. Franklin (alluded to but unconfirmed), the character never feels fully realized. Marlon Wayans fairs a bit better, finding the edge and danger in White. 

Marc Maron is a joy as Wexler, both caring and quirky. Kimberly Scott shines as the family matriarch. Audra McDonald makes the best of what is little more than a cameo as Franklin’s mother. Tituss Burgess embodies kindness as James Cleveland, a man who arcs through her entire life. Mary J. Blige brings the right blend of imperious ego and genuine no-nonsense to Dinah Washington (though her major scene is an incident most likely connected to Etta James).

At the center of the film is Jennifer Hudson, delivering a knockout performance. Hudson first encountered Franklin when she sang “Share Your Love With Me” in her American Idol audition. Then, following Hudson’s Academy Award win for Dreamgirls, Hudson visited Franklin in New York. According to Hudson, “… one of the first things she said to me was, ‘You’re gonna win another Oscar for playing me, right?’”.

Hudson brings warmth and intelligence to her Franklin, navigating the entire range of innocence and hope to the constant struggle with her inner demons. She allows the pain to swell and recede, some moments turning in and others lashing out. Her growth to stardom and the price that she paid remain in precarious balance. Hudson owns every song, honoring Franklin but bringing her own power to the interpretations. She celebrates the entire range of Franklin’s work, from the church music to early jazz standards to finally those that became her signature songs. Whether taking on the traditional “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” finding the depths in “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” soaring with “Amazing Grace,” or exploding with “Respect,” Hudson delivers in the dozen-plus songs.

There is an odd misstep in the closing of the film. Franklin’s Kennedy Center Honors performance of “Natural Woman” is shown in its entirety, a spectacular reminder of Franklin’s unique, extraordinary presence. Hudson follows this singing “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home,” a new song composed for the film. This pleasant if unspectacular song highlights the exceptional Franklin songbook and comes across as a clumsy attempt for a Best Song Oscar nomination. It seems a step-down and superfluous.

Respect touches on many of the highs and lows of Aretha Franklin’s rise to fame. Franklin had a complicated life, and while Respect is sincere, Franklin deserved a more complex approach to telling her story. But, in the end, Jennifer Hudson’s star performance shines through.

Rated PG-13, Respect is now playing in local theaters.

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We as a country have experienced a tumultuous and polarizing last few weeks and months. The lead up to the first Tuesday in November and the midterm elections set the American electorate ablaze with strong opinions that saw former elected officials receive rudimentary pipe bombs via the mail.

With that as a backdrop, Veterans Day took place this past weekend, with beautiful, solemn remembrances unfolding at war memorials and firehouses, coupled with more raucous and celebratory parades happening across the North Shore and beyond. The events should have served as reminders that despite our differences, our shared values and appreciation for the sacrifices made by so many that allowed this country to flourish are what will be truly lasting in even the tensest of times.

While we were glad to see photos come through our inboxes and across our social media platforms of these events, we were saddened by an incident that occurred at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai relayed to us by Fred Drewes, a founding member of the Heritage Trust, the nonprofit which stewards the park in partnership with the Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County.

Drewes has dedicated much of his own time to beautifying the park and perpetuating a triannual program called the Parade of Flags, which features the flying of  about 100 flags representing American states and other important entities like the military branches lining an area of the park dubbed the Avenue of America. The park features other patriotic imagery including the Court of America, a sitting area with benches, plaques with quotes from presidents and other famous citizens and a rock garden in the shape of the continental United States.

The rock garden contains symbolic rocks, plants and flowers that are native to the corresponding region in which they lay. Blocks featuring the names of all previous 44 U.S. presidents and the years they held office border the garden. President Donald Trump’s block will be added at the conclusion of his tenure, according to Drewes.

Drewes reported to us that during recent weeks someone tore out former President Barack Obama’s block and discarded it in a nearby shrub. We’re not asking anyone to agree with all — or even any — of the former president’s political ideologies or practices, except for one.

“The forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us,” Obama said in 2011 while speaking in Tucson, Arizona, after a gunman shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona).

On Veterans Day especially, but going forward, we’d like to see Americans make a better effort to live by that axiom.

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

On the way back home from a wedding I presided at in Breckenridge, Colorado, I sat next to a man who was very wise. He was a well-established attorney who split his time between a home in South Florida and one in Lake Tahoe. In his life, he raised four extraordinary children. They all graduated from Ivy League schools across the country and have developed extraordinary career jobs.

However, what he was most proud of was the people they have become. He spoke of each of his three sons and his one daughter as compassionate, sensitive human beings, who possess a profound concern for each other and for their respective communities. He spoke with great pride on the community service projects in which each of his children are involved.

We spoke of the challenges of parenting children today. He spoke of the civil discourse that exists and how disrespectful and demeaning it is. But in spite of all of that he talked about the difference a positive family environment makes in the life of the family. He spoke about his family and the climate of respect and diversity of opinion that was encouraged and respected.

After spending two hours with this man, I realized that he leads by his example — that his children are a powerful reflection of how he and his wife have celebrated their married life these past 34 years. As I reflected on our conversation on my drive home from the airport, I realized that despite our harsh landscape, change and transformation can take place if people have a positive role model to look up to.

So many people have expressed deep frustration regarding the present state of affairs in our nation. There may be a lot of talk, but there is still an awful lot of silence and inaction. If we are concerned about what’s happening in our country, or shall I say what is not happening, then it’s time for us to take action. It’s time to challenge the political machinery that is poorly responding to our social agenda.

Elected officials from both sides of the aisle are failing us miserably. We constantly hear the word “obstructionist” on a daily basis. Honestly, I think our whole system is infected with obstructionism. Those who lead us have lost their way. They are not standing up for what is important to all of us as American citizens. It matters little what your party affiliation might be — we need our leaders to work together to create a health care plan that provides quality health care for all, especially the most vulnerable among us.

We need to overhaul our tax system. It should not benefit the rich but rather justly benefit the working middle class. Our schools are wastelands of human potential. We used to lead the world with educational opportunities. At best, our educational system is mediocre. Our economy is vital to our survival; our president is working diligently on strengthening it. However, in this age of technology we need to create more job training programs that prepare people to make the transition to technology and our digital age.

Finally, we are a nation founded on diversity and difference. We need to work harder at respecting the dignity of every human person — and those who have been elected need to lead in this regard by their example.

“We must become the change that we hope for!” — Mohandas Gandhi

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson

By Kevin Redding

Since the untimely passing of Tom Cutinella in October 2014, the memory of Shoreham’s beloved student-athlete has lived on within the district, from the dedication of the high school’s athletic field in his name to a life-size bust and memorial wall close to it.

But perhaps no remembrance captures the kindhearted spirit of the fallen football player quite like the newly built “buddy bench,” to be installed on the playground at Wading River Elementary School.

“Character is what sets us aside from one another. This ‘buddy bench’ will inspire you all even more to be like Thomas and Kaitlyn … to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.”

—Kelli Cutinella

Adorned with the inscription “Be A Friend Make A Friend” underneath the dedication “In Loving Memory of Thomas Cutinella,” the bench serves to eliminate loneliness and promote friendship among children — when those feeling alone or bullied sit on the bench, other students are encouraged to take a seat next to them and ask if they want to be friends.

It was donated in Cutinella’s honor by Kait’s Angels, a North Fork-based non-profit started just weeks after Mattituck resident Kaitlyn Doorhy, a 20-year-old college student at Sacred Heart University, was struck and killed by a car in August 2014.

So far, the organization has installed more than 10 benches in her memory at every elementary school on the North Fork, including Cutchogue East and Greenport, as well as a senior center in Southold. This is the first one built in someone else’s name.

“This bench defines what Tom stood for,” Kelli Cutinella, Tom’s mother, told students, administrators and parents packed into the elementary school’s gym for the bench’s ribbon-cutting ceremony June 16. Speaking directly to the students, she said, “character is what sets us aside from one another. This ‘buddy bench’ will inspire you all even more to be like Thomas and Kaitlyn … to do the right thing, even when no one is looking … have that character that sets you aside from everyone and always let your peers know they have a friend and are never alone.”

“Their legacy has come together for a special reason and Kaitlin and Thomas will always be remembered here. Even though they’re not here in the flesh, their spirits live on.”

—Darla Doorhy

It was during his years at the elementary school that Cutinella started being recognized as someone special, who took the school’s teachings about trustworthiness, respect and caring to heart.

He was a kind, selfless kid who was quick to help others and make friends with anyone he crossed paths with, no matter who they were.

“[Tom] was a friend to everyone, and I mean everyone,” said Cutinella, who was joined at the event by her husband, Frank, and their children. “He was a natural helper and a best buddy.”

Cutinella’s life was was tragically cut short nearly three years ago following a head-on collision with an opposing player on a football field during a high school game.

Darla Doorhy, Kaitlin’s mother, reached out to Kelli Cutinella around Christmas time to discuss collaborating on the dedication, which took about six months to come to fruition. The bench was purchased by Kait’s Angels from Belson Outdoors in Illinois.

She said Tom and her daughter — who had been a Girl Scout ambassador, National Honor Society member, multi-sport athlete, musician and organizer for countless fundraising efforts — were very similar in their generosity towards others, right down to being registered organ donors.

“Their legacy has come together for a special reason and Kaitlin and Thomas will always be remembered here,” Doorhy said. “Even though they’re not here in the flesh, their spirits live on.”

“The truth is that every one of you has the power to transform the world in the decisions you make. If you see anyone sitting on that bench, that means you go up and ask, ‘Hey, can you come and play with me?’

—Louis Parrinello

Cutinella agreed there’s a special connection between their children, and said she was humbled to be approached by Doorhy and Kait’s Angels.

“Certainly there’s a commonality of the tragedies,” President of Kait’s Angels, William Araneo, said. “Although physically there will always be an empty chair, her presence remains strong … she continues to find ways to bring us together and this is one example of that. And just like Tom, Kaitlin reserved a place in her heart for those who may not have been popular, and persevered to make friends with those who might be developmentally challenged.”

Wading River Elementary School Principal Louis Parrinello called on a few students from each grade, starting with second, to place notes they wrote earlier in the day into a large basket next to the bench.

Scribbled on the notes were ways in which a student could make friends with another; one student wrote, “I can make a friend by playing with them,” while another student’s note said, “I can make a friend by talking to them about what they like.”

A small group of students who knew Cutinella personally were called up to cut the ribbon and be the first to sit on the bench.

“We learn about people in history, like Abraham Lincoln and Betsy Ross … people who have transformed the world,” Parrinello said to the room of students, “but the truth is that every one of you has the power to transform the world in the decisions you make. If you see anyone sitting on that bench, that means you go up and ask, ‘Hey, can you come and play with me?’ It’s about opening up and starting something new.”