Monday, November 30, 2009

Jesus Christ, Loan Officer

“(W)e love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!”
-Charlottesville faithful, Billy Gonzales, quoted in Hanna Rosin's fascinating article about the recent popularity of the "prosperity gospel", or, as we used to call it, "Satan worship". (Joke!)

According to Rosin, the "prosperity gospel" is a strain of Pentecostal belief in which believers are thought to come upon wealth because God loves them in particular. "God is the “Owner of All the Silver and Gold,” and with enough faith, any believer can access the inheritance. Money is not the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank-account statements, but a magical substance that comes as a gift from above. Even in these hard times, it is discouraged, in such churches, to fall into despair about the things you cannot afford. “Instead of saying ‘I’m poor,’ say ‘I’m rich,’” Garay’s wife, Hazael, told me one day. “The word of God will manifest itself in reality.”" So, basically, The Secret, with a Christian twist.

Admittedly, stating any opinion about religious belief is going to anger somebody, and this will probably be particularly provocative... Nevertheless, this "prosperity theology" idea (as explained by the Wikipedia elder scholars) is sort of amazing because it's both embraced by a number of Christian churches, and in opposition to nearly everything in the Gospels they claim to read. Christ is not ambiguous- believers are rewarded in the next life; not this one. The accumulation of wealth and material possessions is a vice- the precondition of sin- not a reward from God. I'm not even a Christian and I know this, mostly because I've actually read the Bible. But it would be like a Church teaching that adultery is a blessing because it shows that we have great love. It just doesn't follow from the scriptures.

I've been studying the Christian scriptures quite a bit lately, in addition to the Buddhist and Muslim scriptures and a bit of the Dead Sea scrolls.* It helps with the long winter months and I've decided that maybe the universe really does answer back for some people. But, I have to say that, as ambiguous and poetic as the New Testament is, it's pretty clear, at least to me, that Christ's followers abandoned their material possessions. In fact, it's pretty clear that this is what Christ's followers are supposed to do. This isn't to say that the rich are doomed; just that it's much harder for them to be saved than it is for the poor. The main reason- and this is exactly the same in Buddhism- is that focusing on the finite takes one's focus off of the infinite. The more money and nice things you have, the harder it is to think about what lies beyond death. Again, wealth is not so much a sin as the precondition of sin. But, telling people that they're poor because God doesn't love them as much as the wealthy is not only inaccurate- it's apostasy.

Now, let me say that every religion I know of teaches that we're all sinners, more or less. Another way of putting that is that every one of us, including Atheists, live in different little worlds that are always at odds. Such is life; none of us can keep all of our roles, beliefs, interests, and passions from clashing. And what I think really is unique about the Jewish and Christian gospels is they teach that the salvation of the worst sinners among us is actually more valuable to God. Saul/Paul is the model of salvation. The Prodigal Son achieves more than his upright brother. So, let's not say that the rich are in any worse spiritual shape than anyone else. None of us are perfect. And, as a neophyte, if anyone can find a passage in which Christ says that people become materially wealthy as a sign that God loves them, please post it in the comments, because I'd love to hear it.

As a side note, something I noticed when visiting friends and family over American Thanksgiving, which strikes me as different from Canadians, is the emphasis on American exceptionalism. And there are really two strains of that: one is self-aggrandizing and the other is self-lacerating. An example of the former would be those obnoxious emails older relatives send about how, well, those of us here in the heartland might not be "rock stars", but we love our families and freedom in a way that most people "in today's world" just do not; they should come with a smug alert. I heard plenty of that while in the states.

And, on the other hand, you have Americans who think that their culture is somehow uniquely corrupt. Rosin's article hints at that self-lacerating strain; she talks about people who think the US housing crisis was caused by this unique religious culture. In reality, the regulations for home loans were extremely lax in the US and, as a result, people made some stupid decisions, which human beings are wont to do. It's not that unique really. And, in my experience, Americans are not especially corrupt, wicked, greedy, lazy, or any other invective. It could happen elsewhere and has in the past.

But the "prosperity gospels" seem like an example of the self-aggrandizing strain: a need to be told that you are the best and the brightest and God's favorite kiddo. It always seems weird to me that so many religious people can be so self-righteous, given the fact that you can't possibly read any of their scriptures and not come out aware of your own sin. People will cheerily say things like, "God's got my back, yo!" and I think, "really?" Because, honestly, I'm a pretty good person, and it's still pretty impossible for me to imagine actually coming to the pearly gates and not getting sent down the trap door. How could you read those scriptures and come out thinking: "Hey, you know who's without sin? Me!"? Furthermore, how could you make the assumption that wealth production is God's way of giving you an allowance for being such a swell person? By this measure, Paris Hilton is close to sainthood.

Maybe it's a matter of holding conflicting viewpoints, and maybe it's a matter of living in a confusing world, and maybe they really do understand the Scriptures better than the rest of us. But I just don't understand the need some people have to be patted on the head and told, "Why you're as good as you could ever be! Just look at the size of your bank account!"

[*I realize that sentence probably sounds pretentious, or nerdy, or maybe both. But I have.]


"Here have some pants. Merry Christmas."

Just in time for Christmas comes the true story of a very odd encounter on the DC Metro subway, sent by a reader to the site Brighest Young Things, and then rendered in comic format by artist Evan Keeling and writer Lord Jason. It's a cute idea well executed. Enjoy.


My Grandfather on why Northern Virginia is a mess

When I complain about the gridlocked, illogical mess that is suburban sprawl, which I do quite often here, it should be explained that the ideal is not no-growth, but instead logical, human-scale, development with an eye towards the good of the community instead of simply how much money can be made. There is, however, damage caused by simply opposing all development out of hand; it convinces government officials that you're not serious and they then ignore you.

Recently, we were talking about the mess that is Northern Virginia and how it got to be that way. Interestingly, my grandfather (since deceased) sat on a number of planning commissions back in the 70s before the development boom. As he described one citizen's organization, when he was interviewed in 1986: "We wanted logical, orderly development; we stayed out of the kick-the-builder groups." He said they came up with several plans for reasonable growth in Centreville, most of which were ignored by the anti-growth organizations during the town's "no-growth" phase, and then really couldn't be implemented on the fly during the gung-ho building boom of the 1980s.

My grandfather explained the mess well in 1986: "If they had adopted some of the plans formulated at that time and implemented them, we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we have now. They witheld sewers, water, road construction. You can't hold back the Atlantic Ocean; you know it's coming in. Instead of getting prepared for it, they just let it wash in around them. Now we're sitting in an island with new terms like 'gridlock'. You'd think twenty years ago was before the age of the automobile."


Why are universities strapped for cash?

For some time now, I've been confused about something: why are universities in such dire straits financially when their enrollment is currently through the roof? I think I caught a glimpse of the answer recently.

I was visiting McMaster University, which is close enough for me to regularly make use of their libraries. It is a beautiful campus with lovely architecture. It often resembles an airport during the holidays, however, because it is so overcrowded. Sitting in the quad, I watch surging masses of jeaned and sweatclothed humanity rushing out of doors, cascading down stairways, and forcing themselves into overcrowded academic halls. And it suddenly occurs to me that universities across North America are dealing with the same basic conditions: a huge spike in enrollment because the economy was troubled and more jobs now require degrees. So, they all want to go to college and the colleges are letting them all in.

It might be uncharitable to speculate about if all these young people really belong in universities, and probably impossible to tell before enrollment given the massive grade inflation in high schools. The point is that they're here now. What never made sense to me was how universities could be strapped for cash when they have a surge in enrollment. But it made sense walking around McMaster, a university that's looking to get rid of its programs that don't attract enough "basic income units" (students) to be economically feasible. The fact is that having more students puts a great deal of pressure on the university structure. They have to build more buildings, hire more instructors, pave more parking lots; and all of this costs a great deal of money.

In the United States, public funding to higher education has been declining steadily for the last few decades. California, of course, has had to cut back quite a bit recently. The point is that when you have too many students and the public funding dries up, you're in a pickle. It's worth noting that the state universities in California likely have the same problem-having way too many staff members, secretaries, and admins on their payroll- that all state universities do. State U's tend to be like the DMV- anyone with connections and need of a job can be easily stuffed in there. But, some of the economic problems are unavoidable.

So, I guess the question for the US is whether or not they want to continue having public higher ed at all. There are a lot of glibertarians against public funding for universities, of course. The argument for it is that the experiment has actually been very successful since WWII: American universities have created a pretty impressive amount of social mobility in that country. They are expensive, however, and if the universities are going to come begging to the state treasurers, they're going to need to show that they can tighten their belts, even if it makes them one iota less competitive against some hypothetical university somewhere. Because, as is, the dams are going to burst.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Radiohead - All I Need (Official MTV Video)


Gobble, gobble, goodbye sheep

My sister sent out the following message for Thanksgiving:

As my friend Rahma told me today--" i'yom Gobble gobble bizzef" -- Today gobble gobble alot. "Nicene howlie m'salama". Tomorrow, goodbye sheep.

She lives in Morocco. Eid Al-Adha, indeed, falls tomorrow this year, which means that... well, if today is bad for turkeys, tomorrow will be bad for sheep. The day involves the sacrifice of sheep in obedience to God, as a memory of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Blood Freak (trailer)

For Thanksgiving, here's the trailer to Blood Freak, the greatest anti-drug, pro-Jesus, killer turkey monster in love movie ever made. (Note: this is I think the third Thanksgiving that I've posted something related to Blood Freak here. For that, I am sorry.)



Tuesday, November 24, 2009

28 Oct 2009

28 Oct 2009
Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
Of course, this is nice too.


From Canadians, to their government...

For Canadians only... Here is the opening of a petition going around in support of a full inquiry into the torture allegations brought up repeatedly by Richard Colvin, which so far the Harper government has responded to (rather alarmingly) by essentially slandering Colvin, their former senior diplomat in Afghanistan, and otherwise shrugging off the idea that the Canadian government should have any transparency or accountability whatsoever.

Whereas, on November 18 former senior Canadian diplomat to Afghanistan Richard Colvin testified in front a House of Commons committee stating that most if not all Afghans handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadian forces in Afghanistan were subject to torture; and
Whereas, Colvin wrote as many as 17 memos via the appropriate channels attempting to alert the appropriate authorities reaching as far up as one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's senior security advisers to the likelihood of Canada's complicity in enabling the torture of Afghans via the appropriate channels of communications that have been heretofore ignored; and

Whereas, despite a long and distinguished career of service to his country, the Harper government has responded to Colvin's in a dismissive and cavalier fashion and has explicitly questioned Colvin's credibility instead of addressing his concerns; and
Whereas, the government of Canada has not only failed to address Colvin's concerns, but has also acted in a questionable and potentially obstructionist manner towards a Military Complaints Commission whose purpose was to address those concerns; and...
The rest is here and you can sign it if you live in Canada. I will note that, as an American turned Candian resident, it's long seemed obvious to me that Harper is an arrogant prick who is none-too-fond of democracy as such, and Canadian democracy in particular. Most Canucks I know feel the same way, but in general, don't expect very much of their government and complain that, given the chaotic state of the opposition, nothing can be expected. With all due respect.. bullshit. You should be demanding more from this government, even if they are so incredibly, tragically disfunctional. Here's a way to start demanding some accountability from your government. Nay, our government.


28 Oct 2009

28 Oct 2009
Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
Looking through the first page of pictures, I really like this one. We used to have a hand pump like this in my grandparents' house in Maine and I think our well had one when I was a kid. One thing I remember for sure about the well was that we could never use a lot of water for baths!


Down on the Farm

28 Oct 2009
Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
(From a set of 25 pictures taken at my grandmother's property last month.)


Monday, November 23, 2009

Touch of Evil Opening Shot

Here's a scene that's always amazed me- the opening crane shot from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. As far as tracking shots go, this is one of the best. Enjoy.


Confucius and Same-Sex Marriage

Would Confucius be okay with gay marriage? Sam Crane puzzles over this at The Useless Tree:

"It seems a wildly anachronistic query and, if situated in the historical context of ancient China, might be immediately rejected. But a modern Confucian perspective, one that seeks to distill the core elements of The Analects and apply them universally, could be affirmative."
So what is are the core elements of Confucianism? I haven't read him in about three or four years, but as I remember it, he focuses on how the young man is to fulfill his obligations to close relations, moving outwards from the primary filial relationships. It's sort of how not to be a dick. There was an old saying among Chinese bureaucrats that the ideal life meant being "a Confucian by day and a Taoist by night", and Confucius is still a good guide to social relations.
"If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked: what is the key to Confucius? I would say: the daily care and cultivation of loving family relationships. He emphasizes the respect we owe our parents, but he also tells us to "cherish your children" (2.20). Indeed, we should care for our parents precisely because they cared for us when we were young. The flow of family duty runs forward and backward in time simultaneously: we are bound to both our children and our parents."
What about gay adoptive parents? He points out that Confucius disdains sex, but suggests this doesn't necessarily clash with our contemporary understanding of gay romantic relationships any more than it does with how we understand straight relationships. To me, though, the most important thing is that Confucius, as opposed to many thinkers in the West, doesn't see marriage as primarily a religious institution. The Abrahamic faiths tend to see marriage as part of God's plan for promoting the creation of life. Secular societies see marriage as the affirmation of a romantic relationship that may or may not involve parenthood.

Confucius ties marriage to social obligations, and he's a wee bit patriarchal. But Confucius's entire take on religion seems to be: it's good to perform the rites to keep order, but who really knows if there's anything to it. Confucius lived during a turbulent time and mainly wanted to understand how orderly societies function. If you believe, as I do, that sanctioning familial relationships is probably good for social stability in the long run, then the end result of all marriages is to increase order. In that regard, Confucianism, if not Confucius, would seem to be compatible with gay marriage.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Atomic Dogs

The Kansas School System has come up with a clever way to explain atoms using golden retrievers.


Education and Character Formation

Do academics play a role in shaping the character of their students? Writing in Front Page Republic, Jeffrey Polet makes some suggestions about why it's pretty unlikely that they could in the current university system, and how the system might be reshaped in order to change that. I'm fairly ambivalent about any hope of shaping the character of young adults; I'd be happy if I could convince them to do all the readings and not plagiarize! But I also recognize that many of them come in to university dizzy from the tohu-bohu of the outside culture and with some interest in knowing how they can live an ethically serious life. And some of them will look to you to see how you do it, if you do.

Maybe the key word is "serious". There really is a cultural bias against seriousness of any kind. I suspect that comes from a consumer culture that really doesn't encourage serious reflections on life matters, but instead a sort of endless quest for newer and better trivialities. Teenagers will be glib, of course. And there's some merit in that; it reminds us that not everything needs to be taken seriously. But I notice that a lot of older people are almost defensively glib as well, including some academics. That gets a bit old after a while.

Luckily, for us, our job requires us to be serious and meditative about whatever we cone to consider. By this, I don't mean that academics are supposed to be grim and humorless- at least, I hope not. But we are required to think patiently and seriously about... well, everything, basically. I enjoy this. I'm in no hurry to figure out anything. In case it hasn't come across yet, I'm not keen on the rush of contemporary life at all. I lead a very slow life.

I do think there's a mistake is in looking at character formation in necessarily religious terms (not that Pollet is doing that). Of course, there are plenty of religious universities. But, naturally, most people don't want to send their children to public universities and have them proselytized to. Lots of kids come in with their own beliefs. Not to mention the fact that there are so many religious and non-religious systems that it would be something of a mess if everyone was trying to convert their students to their own beliefs! Let them think what they will about metaphysics. Let's talk about scholarship.

On the other hand, university students are at the age in which they have serious questions about right and wrong, and frankly, some of them have no idea which is which. I remember a popular tee shirt among undergrads a few years ago: "It's not a crime if you don't get caught!" And then, others among them will join various political, human rights, environmental, religious, etc. clubs in college because they're really trying to figure out their lives and what matters to them. So, just being an adult who takes seriously those questions- who asserts that they do matter, and that the way we live our lives is nothing to be glib about- probably does have a beneficial effect. That's our role, I think: adults who think seriously about things. And letting them know that you care about them and want them to be serious and honest in their scholarship because you care about their character development is, in my opinion, better policy than absentmindedly giving them those official university handouts about "academic honesty and you". If there's anything we can all agree on in academia, it's that we should fight against the creeping bureaucratic dispassion of academic life!


Art for Today

Carving of Saint Christopher crossing the river. East Netherlandish (Limburg); about 1520. (Oak; h. 56.5 cm)

Almost nothing is known about Saint Christopher, other than the fact that he lived in the third century and was killed during the reign of Emperor Decius. In 1969, the Catholic Church removed his feast day, mostly because everything we know about him is legend. The story goes that Christopher was a Canaanite who wanted to serve the greatest king there was. He saw the king of Canaan cross himself when hearing the devil mentioned, so he sought to serve the devil. The closest he could find was a robber who claimed to be the devil, so Christopher served him until he saw the robber go out of his way to avoid a cross, and then he decided to serve Christ. It's sort of an amusing story. He was lucky that the robber didn't go out of his way to avoid stepping in anything in the road!

Anyway, Christopher found a hermit who suggested that he serve Christ by shepherding travelers across a dangerous river, which he did for some time. One day, he is carrying a small child across the river and, suddenly, the child becomes very heavy and the river swollen, and he barely makes it across. He tells the child that he was afraid because the child seemed to weigh as much as the world. The child replies, "you had on your shoulders not only the whole world, but him who made it. I am Christ, who you serve by this work." The child then vanished.

These stories actually come from the Middle Ages, but remain quite popular today. Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, which is why you'll often see Saint Christopher medals in cars and other vehicles.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Roger Ebert on "a man who hates Indians"

Further to our discussion, here's Roger Ebert on The Searchers:

"In ''The Searchers'' I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide; the comic relief may be an unconscious attempt to soften the message. Many members of the original audience probably missed his purpose; Ethan's racism was invisible to them, because they bought into his view of Indians. Eight years later, in ''Cheyenne Autumn,'' his last film, Ford was more clear. But in the flawed vision of ''The Searchers'' we can see Ford, Wayne and the Western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero."
Ebert points out something I never thought of, which is that The Searchers is one of the first movies to make the racial subtext of the Western part of the text. It's an interesting review.


Movie Notes: The Searchers (1956)

According to the American Film Institute, this is the greatest Western of all time. I've never been especially fond of Westerns, which tend to have a bit too much dust and drawl for my tastes. So, I can't say how John Ford's film The Searchers fits into the pantheon of Western movies. However, I'd imagine it sits pretty highly. Not only is it a filmic poem to the creation of America; it's also clearly a masterpiece and probably the best movie John Wayne ever appeared in. It was also one of Ford's favorites of his own films, and given the relative perfection of the average John Ford movie, that's really saying something.

The film stars Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a veteran of the Confederate Army who returns home to Texas just in time to see his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew killed and their house burned down by a band of Comanches. Vowing to save his abducted nieces, Ethan sets out with a band after the raiding party. His nephew wants to bring back
his sisters alive, but we start to realize that Ethan would rather they were killed now that they have been contaminated by the Comanches. In order to save the girls, he won't just have to overcome the elements and the Indians; he'll also have to overcome his own racism.

I've never really been a John Wayne fan either; he strikes me as more of an enunciator than an actor. But, here, what becomes obvious is that his performances
are really defined by his restrained economy of physical behaviors. He conveys loneliness by holding his arm, he conveys shock and horror by digging in the dirt with a knife; he gets across more with very slight actions than most actors do by chewing the scenery. I think that what I always saw as Wayne's limited range is really a dead-on portrayal of the emotional repression of his characters. The characters barely know how to express themselves and Wayne conveys their stoicism through limited expression.

This style works well for Ford who is a supremely visual filmmaker. It is easy to imagine The Searchers as a silent film. In the same way that Wayne conveys more without dialogue than he does through words, Ford conveys a great amount of setting,
character, and subtext with how he frames his shots and when he deploys them. The first shot of the film, in which the camera passes through the open door of a house to the frontier beyond, is famous and has been referenced in many films. There's also a wonderful close-up of Wayne, in which we know that he is aware that his family members are elsewhere being assaulted simply by his expression and the fact that this is his first close-up something like 25 minutes into the film. My favorite shot, however, is a raid on an Indian village in which the camera is racing alongside the cavalry. It's a thrilling shot and Ford immediately undermines its heroism by showing Wayne kneeling to scalp the native chief.

What to make of Ethan Edwards? He is a hero who fights to restore order to hearth and home; and he's also almost pathologically racist. There's something very honest about the film, though- his racism is almost part of the scenery through most of the movie. It fades into a historical background in which it most likely would have been overlooked. With modern eyes, we can't miss it, and finally it's central to the climax of the film. I think Ford is trying to tell the full story of the old west- the heroism and grit of the frontiersmen, but also the fact that making the country meant taking it from the people who lived there. And the people who did so did generally see the people they took it from as savages. So, it's true to life, but it's also very understated. I don't know how many viewers see the film as being about racism at all, or how many did at the time. It's amazing to me, when I watch older films, how deeply their directors trust the audience to pick up on nuance. Not so today.

And maybe the racism is just one more detail in what amounts to a poem about the creation of the United States. There's so much going on in this film, from grand sweeping landscapes and scenes of violence to very tiny bits of acting. But the hero's racism is a detail that adds a bit of darkness to the story, and causes it to resonate more deeply.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Last Year's Pumpkin

Here's last year's jack'o'lantern, the serial character the Crimson Ghost, perhaps better known as the logo for the band The Misfits, and so the star of many a teenager's tee shirt.


Monday, November 16, 2009

This year's jack'o'lantern at our house.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Movie Notes: Lady Snowblood (1973)

I often have questions when I post a rave review of some movie: should I recommend this movie? What if the readers here watch the movie and don't care for it? Recently, I've been lauding Sam Fuller, and I know that he's a bit of an acquired taste. It's sort of the same with Werner Herzog actually. It's worth exposing yourself to his movies, but admittedly, they're not for everyone.

Having said all that, I think I can unequivocally recommend the 1973 movie Lady Snowblood. I'm pretty sure all of you will like it because it really does kick ass. There are probably some viewers who won't enjoy the film, but I don't want to know about them.

The film is based on a Japanese manga detailing a female assassin- the Lady Snowblood- and her quest to kill a group of bandits that raped her mother and killed her father, mistaking him for a government official during the Meiji period. The mother is locked in a women's prison and gives birth to a daughter, Yuki, concieved with a prison guard. The mother dies during childbirth, swearing that Yuki will live for vengeance. Another prisoner takes the child to be raised by a priest who trains her in the martial arts. When she comes of age, she sets out with a hitlist. You can imagine what happens next.

The titular assassin is played by Meiko Kaji, who also signs the theme song, 'Flower of Carnage', which you might recognize from Kill Bill. The film has a very similar visual style and storyline, and the final swordfight in the snow, in particular, reminds me of Lady Snowblood. It's also very similar to the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films, released in the United States as Shogun Assassin. Apparently, some special effects artist in Japan figured out in the 70s how to pump fake blood out from under actors' clothes because all of these films feature characters spraying geysers of blood from samurai sword wounds. It's both ridiculously gory and pretty awesome.

The film was produced by The Toho Company, who are best known for their Godzilla movies, but have put out all sorts of media. There was a sequel to Lady Snowblood, which I haven't yet seen, and a sci-fi remake. It is an action-packed and stylish film and I can recommend it without qualifications. Well, unless you are bothered by arterial spray.


Art for Today

Albrecht Dürer- Saint Jerome in his Study, 1514.

Saint Jerome was an early theologian from the late 300s. He is most remembered for a series of insightful and interesting letters, a few attempts at history, and having translated the Bible into Latin: the Vulgate Bible. I do love this print because Dürer is such a great artist; it should be noted though that Saint Jerome did much of his writing in a desert retreat that looked nothing like this study. The lion at the foot of the image comes from a Medieval story that most of you probably know- supposedly, Saint Jerome came to the aid of a lion by pulling a thorn from his paw. Currently, I'm translating (very slowly) some of Saint Jerome's letters from Latin to English. This is my idea of fun.


Death in Canada

I keep reading about the Catholic Church and its recent public stance against gay marriage in the US. Honestly, I have no idea how they feel in Canada because gay marriage has been legal here for the last four and half years and I don't know that I've ever heard the Church speak about it. Actually, I'm not sure that I've ever heard any Canadian church speak about it. There, it's the end of the world; here, not so much.

Right now, the Church here (at least the one down the street from) is concerned about Bill C-384 on euthanasia, and (unlike with same sex marriage) in this case I actually understand their concerns. I certainly also understand why people think the terminally ill should be allowed to die in dignity if they so desire. My problem is that the euthanasia bills tend to be terribly written, and when it comes to the subject of pulling the plug, you really want any guidelines to be very clear. It's not a matter you can half-ass.

In many countries, suicide is illegal. This has always seemed weird to me, especially since it's pretty hard to prosecute. I did know a girl who slashed her wrists and was actually arrested for it; she said the cops had serious trouble because the handcuffs kept sliding off. But this illustrates the simple mindedness of using cops to keep people from killing themselves. My guess is that the law exists mostly because societies believe it would be demoralizing for the state to give its imprimatur to suicide, and they might be right. Still, a law that is so difficult to enforce is a bad law.

This brings us to doctor-assisted suicide. Where I would agree with most euthanasia supporters is in the case of a desperately ill person who asks their doctor to help them to die peacefully and painlessly. In that case, I don't think the state really has any right to enforce the scriptural injunctions against suicide. Let's make that clear right now: I don't have any problem with a doctor carrying out the patient's wishes if they really want to end their suffering.

Where it becomes a bit trickier is when the person has never stated any desire to live or die, and cannot do so because of an accident or illness. There certainly are people who will never be resuscitated- in the case of Terry Shiavo, the brain damage was so severe that there was no hope that she would have ever regained sentient consciousness. In that case, I think I'm not alone in feeling like keeping her alive was cruelty to the point of being a sort of torture.

The problem arises in cases where there's a serious question about the quality of life. Terrie Lincoln is a woman in Rochester who was made a quadriplegic in a car accident at age 19. The doctors initially wanted to pull the plug because they didn't think her life would be worth living, even if she did survive. Anyway, she's alive today and working on a master's degree and, understandably, has a very different take on the experience! What troubles me about euthanasia laws is when we start tying to define in law whose life is worth living without case by case imput. I've known too many disabilities advocates in my time who would argue that only the individual can judge if their own life is worth living, and what worries me is able-bodied people deciding for another that, if they will live in the condition that Christopher Reeve spent his last years in, it's not worth saving them. We just watched a movie called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (really:
Le scaphandre et le papillon ) in which the poor guy could do nothing but blink one eye, and he went on to write a memoir using a method of blinks! So, I don't feel able to judge what level of ability makes life worth living.

A specific problem with the Canadian bill is that it also includes mental illness as well as terminal illnesses. There are serious problems with assisting the mentally ill to commit suicide, not the least of which is that doctors could feasibly "treat" clinical depression this way. Or, what about a person whose mental illness is so severe that their family would rather not take care of them and, after discussing it with them, they seem to accept suicide? Can you really decide if you're not in your right mind? The law sets a vague standard of "lucidity", but how can that be determined, except on a case by case basis?

I'm also worried about unscrupulous relatives who don't think they can afford to support an elderly relative and would really like that relative to think about euthanasia. If you don't think something like that is possible, you've probably never met some of my family. Another concern is that, if euthanasia is made legal, it might be cheaper to do away with palliative care services altogether than continue as we do now. Probably the main reason that I think the Church has a point here is that there are doctors raising the same concerns about the bill, along with disabilities rights advocates.

So, I don't know that I don't agree with them on this bill. I don't agree with the Church on same sex marriage, as long as none of the laws force them to perform the ceremony. Otherwise, I see it as a civil matter. But, here I see the ethical questions and so I see the value of the Church taking part in the political discussion.


"in a way no writer ever has"?

James Fallows gets a little picky (in a good way) with a cover headline in the Washington Post Magazine. I'd have gone with "no other writer has before", although I'm not sure that's ideal either.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movie Notes: White Dog (1981?)

What in the hell was Paramount thinking?

In 1980, they commissioned a film version of Romain Gary's novel about a young woman who brings home a stray dog, only to find that he has been trained to attack black people, and then struggles with the help of trainers to retrain the dog. Samuel Fuller turned in a great movie combining exploitation thriller beats and social commentary, ultimately asking whether the mental illness of racism can really be treated. The film starred Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, and Paul Winfield in powerful performances. But Paramount worried that African-Americans might protest the film and shelved it.

This was in 1982 and Sam Fuller moved to France in frustration. The film was officially shown for the first time ten years later in New York. In her 1992 review, Pauline Kael also wonders what Paramount execs could have been thinking. The idea that blacks wouldn't get the film is more offensive than anything in the movie. I remember that video pirates were bootlegging White Dog in the mid-80s (it was one of the most-bootlegged films of that era in fact), and I mistakenly assumed the movie was, in some way, racially offensive. It really isn't. It's a pretty strong indictment of racism. It's sort of incredible that Paramount didn't trust the public to possess a modicum of intelligence.

Of course, White Dog is not a pleasant movie. To some extent, it plays as a horror film. McNichols accidentally hits a beautiful German shepherd with her car and brings him home to heal him. In the first section of the movie, she and the audience come to care for the dog, and he becomes her cherished pet. And then we discover that he becomes a vicious killer when he sees blacks. His former master trained him to fear and hate blacks by paying someone with black skin to beat the dog as a puppy. Should she have the dog killed or try to retrain him? Can you deprogram racism?

McNichols decides to take him to a group of professional animal trainers, played by Burl Ives, Paul Winfield, and Dick Miller, in hopes of saving her dog. Winfield's character, Keys, has been trying to retrain white dogs, with little success. His last two test subjects snapped and started attacking all humans. Will he be more successful this time? Is racism an indelible scar? Or will the dog simply go crazy?

Clearly, this is an intense and provocative, and maybe even a bit of a strange film. One scene in a church goes way over the top and the good guys definitely make some serious ethical mistakes- as they do in all of Sam Fuller's movies. Sometimes Fuller's style is a bit crude and he pushes the emotions as far as he can. But it definitely does not play as some sort of racist wish fulfillment movie, like Paramount execs feared. I see it more as a parable in which racism turns a member of the family into a savage beast, a Jekyll & Hyde scenario. It's also very disturbing because Fuller suggests that racism is too irrational and deranged to be "cured".

The Criterion Collection finally released White Dog on DVD last year, so audiences can make up their own minds about it. I think the whole story of its release illustrates a serious cultural problem in North America. When we talk about 'culture' here, especially in the US, what we're talking about are generally things that are mass produced by corporations: music, movies, books, television programs, et cetera. Of course there are some cottage industries that independently release records or whatever, but they usually don't have the same reach or impact. The real advantage that corporations have is that they can broadcast across the globe in a way that amounts to flooding the market. While I was in Paris, I heard the new Madonna single everywhere I went.

The downside to this situation occurred to me while I was standing in line at the convenience store yesterday: Corporations are by their very nature conservative institutions. I don't mean conservative politically; I mean conservative in the sense that they just do not take big chances. When you are spending, say, $20 million to promote a movie or album, you are far less likely to spend that money on something that looks challenging or difficult- something that audiences might not get- when you could spend it to promote something like G.I.Joe that is guaranteed to bring in the crowds.

But, of course, G.I.Joe is not culture. It's a product. When I think of real culture, I think of something that points upward- something that points to something greater than the individual and offers him some sort of transcendence. It doesn't need to be spiritual; it could simply be art that offers us some sort of catharsis. But it requires the audience to come up to its level and connect to something larger and outside of their own experience. White Dog is cathartic in my opinion. But, what you see here is that the corporation (in this case Paramount) simply lacks the balls to release anything approaching art because the public might not be able to rise to the challenge.

And then, when you wonder why America doesn't produce very much of what could be called culture, I think that there actually are lots of American artists who probably do create great works of art, and a handful of corporations that shelve it before it can see the light of day.

Here's a fan-made "trailer" for a movie that never had a trailer or an official release.


Pastel Reticule

(Hope these are the ones you were thinking of.)


Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Notes: Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus)

What was Erasmus's problem with the Catholic Church?

In The Praise of Folly (1509), he mercilessly ridicules the clergy and ecclesiastical scholars for several pages towards the end. I think the translation "folly" is a bit mild actually. I'm not sure how the Greek translates, but the Latin Stultitiae can mean both foolishness and stupidity. Often he is clearly talking about stupidity; in some places, he seems to be talking about madness. In the case of the clergy, Erasmus mocks them for their pedantry and power-hunger. Today, the book is considered one of the catalysts of the Protestant Reformation. And he was criticized at the time for his ridicule, although apparently, the Pope found the book amusing. Nevertheless, Erasmus was a devout Catholic and had recently turned down advancement in the curia, the central governing body of the Catholic Church. He was a theologian and we can be assured that Erasmus died a Catholic. So what gives?

Well, he's not exactly attacking the Church, at least not the historical Church. But, he does criticize ecclesiastic officials for failing to live like Christ. He criticizes the wealth and honors, sovereignty and triumphs, offices, taxes, indulgences, retinues, vast tracts of land, and countless pleasures. And the religious wars- there is a strong pacifism in Erasmus. He says that the tonsure should remind them that a priest is supposed to be free from earthly concerns and focused on heaven, and yet they're all fighting on the battlefield over tithes. There's something funny about it all, which Erasmus dryly mocks; but there's also a sense that the Church has lost its historical mission.

Erasmus also makes fun of pedants; always an easy target. And I think you can see the overlap between 'Renaissance' and 'Reformation' in this text; he ridicules the classical scholars and the ecclesiastical authorities for the same reason: they're going through the motions without feeling for their historical mission. Renaissance humanism really was about people who loved the classical texts being sick of how the pedants were playing increasingly specialized and arcane word games without any sort of feeling intellect; there's probably a parallel there with some of the critiques of "postmodernism" that we've heard in the academy in recent years. And perhaps the Reformers were making the same criticisms of the clergy; without emotion or intelligence the rites become dead and empty rituals.

I definitely don't think Erasmus is going as far as Luther in his criticisms of the Church. What differentiates Erasmus from Luther, at least in my mind, is that Erasmus believes a certain human foolishness has led the Church away from its historical mission, which implies that it could probably pretty easily get its act together. With Luther, you get a feeling that the crisis has reached critical mass. However, it's interesting to me, as a relative outsider, to see how the Catholic Church was formed in one historical moment and came to a crisis point in another moment not so much because it had failed to adapt to new times, but instead had changed too much in the minds of some of the faithful. It's interesting to see a younger generation challenging an older one for having failed to conserve the old traditions.

How do cultural institutions adapt to changing circumstances enough to survive, while still maintaining their historical mission? The Church, by the 1500s, was up to its knees in power and wealth and really all the things Christ rejected. It's easy to ridicule them for hypocrisy, even today. On the other hand, if they had all lived like the desert fathers, would the Church have survived for as long as it has? Cultures are basically the translation of the sacred order into the social order. And yet, the sacred order is unchanging and frozen in the moment of revelation; while the social order changes to meet changing contingencies. How do you maintain the original forms and still change enough to endure?

It's a tough question because I'm part of a cultural institution (the university) that I'd rather not change at all like it is; but which I also realize will cease to exist if it does not adapt to the larger culture. I would much prefer us to return to our historical mission-i.e.: maintaining a chain of authoritative transmission of written culture: not a lot different from the Church really. But, I also realize that living in the world means adapting to the world. When I look at the Church, as it struggles to steward its scripture in a world that has changed and through an institution that has dramatically changed, I wonder if the challenges aren't the same; and if they don't crop up in all hierarchical (and perhaps therefore corrupt) institutions that attempt to meet the world on the world's terms.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

I was a teenaged dumbass

You know, I briefly considered joining the Republican Party; mostly because I hoped to become a part of something much smaller than myself.

Marty Beckerman was some sort of College Republican writer and now he regrets it:

"I wasn't merely the libertarian, live-and-let-live, fun-at-parties kind of conservative whose primary concern is balancing the budget; I was a spiteful, narrow-minded, fire-breathing paranoid lunatic who questioned the patriotism and morality of my liberal fellow citizens. Recognizing the error of my ways has done wonders for my mental health but left me with constant, unremitting remorse; I really want to go back in time and kick my own ass."
It sounds to me like he just went through the sort of phases that kids go through at that age, only with the exceptional bad luck of gaining nationwide exposure during that phase. Many teenagers go through a sanctimonious and superior phase, and it often leads them to extreme stances, whether they're rallying to "destroy maleness", as a graffiti I once saw phrased it, or bitching about all the "welfare deadbeats"- oh, and mom, I need you to wire me some money, by the way! Amusingly enough, my university made the bizarre decision of putting all of the left-wing hippies in one dorm (the one with the recycling) and the business major frat right next door. It was like an archipelago of insufferableness.

Luckily for me, I was raised the old fashioned way, which is to say that my parents frequently told me I was a dumbass. They also taught me something very important: every single belief system you ever encounter will be right about 10-20% of the time, at most. I often joke that my parents taught us never to believe in anything very strongly. But, Claire will tell you, that's sort of true. They also, charmingly enough, warned her in all seriousness before we got married that I am a dumbass. My parents, ladies and gentlemen!

Anyway, I never really went through a phase of espousing any ideology very strongly, but I definitely went through an insufferable phase of thinking that I was a dumbass, but that everything anyone else thought was also pretty stupid. School, work, the Church, romance, family, government, left-wingers, right-wingers... all stupid in my book. Oh yeah, I was a ton of fun to be around!

For me, what helped was listening to angry punk rock until I was in a better mood. I would imagine that the dittohead crapola appealed to Beckerman because he was in college and surrounded by people who believed as fervently in PC college crapola. An easier solution would be to watch South Park and laugh at all that stuff, while remaining open minded to the occasional bits of wisdom that other people can offer. That was the most humbling thing for me to realize: that all those different beliefs really are correct 10-20% of the time.

Instead, I think some people search desperately for some body of thought that can offer them the illusion of knowing more about reality than they do.
"Much like our previous chief executive, I should have seen the danger of sealing myself in an echo chamber to prevent contamination from outside viewpoints; I began only hanging out with conservative true believers, only reading conservative books, only getting my news from conservative media outlets. In order to avoid journalistic "left-wing bias," I embraced right-wing bias, foolishly confusing sensationalist entertainment with debate and truth-telling. Outrage became my drug of choice."
Yeah, well, welcome to the Internet. In the last week, I have read blog posts from lefties informing me that, with the new health care, bill Barack Obama has denied women their basic civil rights (all of them!); and blog posts from righties claiming that once the health care bill is enacted, the United States will cease to exist as a representative democracy. Outrageous!

I think the term for this is "doubling down". Actually, in economics, I'm told it's called the "sunk costs fallacy"- you go big because you've invested too much in a losing proposition and you think that will "save" your initial investment. In the case of poor squire Beckerman, he apparently wrote a book about how "the 60s culture" (translation: Satan) led young women to engage in whorish behavior that is destroying the foundation of the American family and its way of life. And some things about socialism.

Salon has an interview with Beckerman from that point, and indeed, he comes across as an obnoxious little shit: both a mixture of not knowing very much about what he's talking about and looking down on everyone else who might actually have something to teach him. A 21-year old, in other words. Unfortunately, Beckerman had media outlets recording him acting this way, either in the hopes of broadcasting the message that young women are whores, or that young men are angry loons. Have you ever met people who work in the mass media? I've met a few and the thing I realized pretty quickly was that they don't like other people very much.

Anwway, now, he's recovered, sort of. Here's a good line:
"It doesn't matter whether you are liberal or conservative, but it's dangerous to always think with exclamation points instead of question marks."
Of course, the article sort of hypes his website, which hypes his mean spirited youthful books; so it's hard to know if this is sincerity or its performance. But, it's hard not to feel some sympathy for the kid. He received two very real curses disguised as blessings:

1. His parents and teachers must really have stressed "self-esteem", because they apparently encouraged him to publish "Kill All the Cheerleaders" and "Generation S.L.U.T", books in which he claimed to speak for his generation, without the slightest indication that he had the wisdom or insight to do so very well, and probably because he really wanted to. I think a lot of parents overestimate the abilities of their children, and the end result is that the kids have to face reality in a much more painful way than having their parents tell them they're dumbasses.

2. From the sound of it, he was a mediocre writer with very little perspective on the outside world repeating empty misogynist talking points- which suited him well to the corporate media environment! Published by MTV Books (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) and interviewed in all of the major media outlets, his complete lack of any sort of larger awareness was perfectly matched to "the context of no context". He wasn't a conservative or a liberal; he was more of an empty cipher looking for attention. Most kids are at that age. But the media is fueled by this steady supply of empty ciphers who voice very strong and angry opinions that they don't really know if they believe. Which leads me to believe that the media moguls are children, essentially.

When people are young, they try on shallow, fleeting, meaningless identities, cling to them fervently for short periods of time, and abandon them at will. This is normal behavior. What worries me is the sense that this culture offers them nothing beyond that.

I wish the kid well.


Today in Design

Oh, crap! While I wasn't looking, Holly's been making all sorts of cool artwork. Here's a "squidly" baby jumper that she designed, which I can't look at without laughing. And here's her site with all sorts of great stuff for sale. I would have posted a picture of my favorite item: the pastel recticule shoe. Unfortunately, that requires tech ability beyond my ken.


Today in (Repurposed) Art

From Kevin Kelly's Lifestream: "In the USSR and Eastern Europe in the 1950s underground night spots would play music pirated from the west. The only media they had were recorders etched into discarded X-ray film."
-More here.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Becoming a Soldier

For Veterans/Remembrance Day, here's something pretty amazing: a photo essay from The Denver Post covering 27 months in the life of a very young kid named Ian Fisher as he graduates from High School, enlists in the Army, goes off to war and comes home, gets married, and somewhere along the line becomes a man. The pictures are beautiful. All I kept thinking, when I read through it was, "There is no way I could have done that when I was that age."


In Flanders Field

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

-Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 - 1918), Canadian.


Monday, November 09, 2009

CBC Archives: Berlin Wall Falls, 1989

CBC News relates the "astonishing news" from East Germany in November, 1989. It's important to remember that absolutely nobody in the West saw this coming when it did. I remember reading articles from that summer about the next decade of the Cold War. Two things strike me today, looking back:

1. Again, it's hard to overstate the remarkable prescience of Mikhail Gorbachev. He accurately responded to the wishes of his people with the perestroika and glasnost reforms in a state in which the wishes of the people generally did not get to the top. What's really amazing, however, is that he read the tea leaves correctly in 1989 and did exactly the right things to navigate a radical revolution without unleashing massive bloodshed. Especially when you compare him to Honecker or Ceauşescu, it's his humility that astounds. His world was ending, and he took steps to ensure that it ended as peacefully as possible.

2. I don't really think the true import of the end of the Soviet Bloc has sunk in even today. There's still a sense that we don't yet get what happened.


Ziggy, Iggy, and the Wall

Thanks to John Lessnau, who points us to this great story on his Lessnau Lounge:

“Iggy Pop and I were a couple of very naughty boys, who went to Berlin to learn how to be good…I remember one morning, after a particularly mischievous night out, we both met up at a coffee bar we used to frequent and discussed the doings of the night before, and Iggy, or Jim, related most extraordinary events.
He said that he’d been to a punk club. It was the anniversary of the building of the Wall, that you must remember, and he went to a punk club that were holding an anniversary party and they built an entirely accurate replica of the Berlin Wall, and at the stroke of midnight, fifty savage, demented punks leapt on this wall and tore it to pieces with their mouths and teeth and fists – smashing it.
But he said that it was the aftermath that was the most affecting, because after all this had happened – they demolished the wall – there were small groups of them, standing around the corners, pitifully crying, tears streaming down their faces. And I thought that was an incredibly moving thing, and a real memory of Berlin – the Berlin that I knew at the time, anyway. This is a song (China Girl) I wrote with Jim at around that time…And I guess this one is also sort of about invasion and exploitation.”
-David Bowie.

"China Girl" first appears on The Idiot, the 1977 Iggy Pop record that Bowie co-produced. Bowie later recorded "China Girl" and made a hit out of it, largely to send some royalties in Iggy's direction; he was struggling for money at the time. The Berlin Wall went up in 1961, so by that point, it had been around long enough to be a teenager.


Gorbachev, when he knew it was the End

"I saw this myself. On October 7, 1989, I was reviewing a parade in East Germany with Honecker and other representatives of the Warsaw Pact countries. Groups from twenty-eight different regions of East Germany were marching by with torches, slogans on banners, shouts and songs. The former prime minister of Poland, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, asked me if I understood German. "Enough to read what's written on the banners. They're talking about perestroika. They're talking about democracy and change. They're saying, 'Gorbachev, stay in our country!'" Then Rakowski remarked, "If it's true that these are representatives of people from twenty-eight regions of the country, it means the end." I said, "I think you're right."
-Mikhail Gorbachev.

This was a really memorable moment, if you've ever seen the tapes. Gorbachev, one of the great leaders of the twentieth century, is standing there with Erich Honecker, one of the lousiest, at what is supposed to be a rally for the East German Communist Party. But the crowd is chanting "Gorby! Gorby! Gorby!" and the message is clear. Honecker looks like a man who just walked in on his wife having sex with the plumber and hasn't quite comprehended it yet. But, indeed, it was the end.


"Victor, what on earth are you doing here?"

From the NYTimes article:
"As midnight approached, I was writing away in my room at the Kempinski Hotel in West Berlin when there came a knock on the door. It was Victor Homola, my translator from East Berlin.

“I’m busy, Victor,” I snapped.

“But, Serge…”

“Not now! Not now…”

Wait! Victor was an East German. He was not allowed to cross into the West! He’d never been to the West! And it was midnight.

“Victor, what on earth are you doing here?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Serge. The wall is open!”

More here.


David Bowie on the Berlin Wall

20 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down- the biggest historical event of my lifetime anyway. There are tons of articles and speeches and retrospectives to consider today. But, I thought one appropriate cultural artifact (at least for this blog) would be David Bowie's hit song Heroes, which is the story of a couple separated by the Berlin Wall. Bowie had the idea while recording in West Berlin with Brian Eno. The album Heroes is the second in the "Berlin Trilogy", a moniker that is a bit confusing, since Heroes was the only one fully recorded in Berlin. Anyway, this is a great song, and I've always thought that a film about a couple separated for three decades by the Wall could be great.

Note: Corrected to reflect the fact that the Wall did not, in fact, fall in 1979. :)

Note: Also corrected to reflect the fact that a couple would be separated for nearly three decades, and not four by the Berlin Wall (1961-1989). I swear that I am only a numerical illiterate at seven a.m.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Art for Today

Okay, by now, nearly everyone who could has parodied Shepard Fairey's Obama "Hope" poster. But, you have to give Jello Biafra some credit here; for the cover of his new album, "The Audacity of Hype" with his band The Guantanamo School of Medicine, Biafra got Fairey himself to create the parody art, with Biafra as demon/vampire. Also cheers to Fairey for having a sense of humor.

Incidentally, here's the link to a whole gallery of parodies of the Obama poster.


Jonathan Richman - I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar Live

If I'm not mistaken, this was the first appearance that American treasure Jonathan Richman made on network television, back in 1992. It's safe to say that he won the audience over here.


News flash: Catholics in favor of caring for the sick and poor

I was right! I've been telling people for a while that, as far as I know, the Catholic Church would be fine with US health care reform, if abortions weren't covered. People kept telling me that the Church is simply opposed to "public health care", as if that makes any sense; as far as I know, they've been pushing for universal health care for about nine decades now. Anyway, the US Conference of Bishops has announced support for the bill. Or, at least, one part of it. Naturally, the Bishops wanted assurance that funding won't go to abortions, which they feel is now provided by the Stupak-Pitts-Kaptur-Dahlkemper-Lipinski-Smith Amendment (to be sung to the tune of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious").

But what people are going to miss about their statement is this:

"For the Catholic Church, health care is a basic human right and providing health care is an essential ministry. We pick up the pieces of this failing system in our emergency rooms, clinics, parishes and communities. This is why we strongly support Congressional action on health care reform which protects human life and dignity and serves the poor and vulnerable as a moral imperative and an urgent national priority."
And that's what I thought! As Andrew Sullivan notes:
"It's important to note what the theocons will never mention. Catholic teaching very, very strongly backs universal health insurance as a moral imperative."
Right. It wasn't just the hippies saying that. I actually remember this from when I was a kid.

The people in the Politico comments are freaking out about how the Church is now "Socialist". My favorite comment was this one: "Looks like the weekly church donations will be going to pay for additional cost of healthcare and taxes instead, if dems get their way." Maybe it's just me, but I sort of thought some of those donations were already going to "healthcare".

Look, I'm not saying that Catholics should support health care reform. Far from it. My own personal opinion is that the government will likely screw it all up and make things worse. That seems to be the norm. However! There are two things that have irritated the life out of me in watching this endless debate from abroad:

1. I live in a country with universal health care, a democratic government, and a very health economy. So, the conviction of some US conservatives that, if reform passes and like 5% of the working poor start buying their insurance from the government, the country will cease to be free and democratic strikes me as oh, a bit hyperbolic.

2. The near-constant conflation of religion and politics, so that, if you're an American Christian, you can be relied upon to support whatever dumb thing the Republican Party wants and to oppose whatever dumb thing they oppose strikes me as deeply offensive. When Catholics are opposed to tax dollars going to abortion, that makes sense to me. Of course they are.* But, when I hear people saying that Catholics need to oppose "the public option" because of the deep injustice of their tax dollars going to care for the lazy, worthless poor, it strikes me as nonsense.

*By which I mean, okay, we can argue amongst ourselves about the ethics of abortion. But, the fact that the Catholic Church is opposed to abortion shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Librarians against libraries

“Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead,” said Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University. “Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”
-From an article in Inside Higher Education on the "bookless library"

And maybe she's right. But, there's something strange to me about the fact of a dean of libraries informing the rest of us that libraries are dead. If anyone should be trying to keep the things alive, one would think it was those who serve as stewards to textual knowledge; librarians, deans of libraries, and so forth. And yet, whenever I read articles on "the future of libraries", it can be assured that they will interview at least one library professional who will tell us that the very cultural institution that they were given stewardship of is now dead and the rest of us had better get used to it. The general consensus seems to be that libraries used to be places in which books were stored, but now the 'consumers' don't read books, and probably can't read books. So, from now on, libraries are meeting places with internet access. Step with me now into the future!

Can you imagine if, every time there was an article on the future of the Church, there was a Priest quoted who said, "Let's face it; the church as a place is dead. We need to move on." You might think they were nuts. You might really think that they were totally insane, trying to cut off the branch that they sit upon in order to court favor with uninformed public opinion. Father McKay was quoted as saying: "Let's face it, the whole idea of congregating to pray and listen to sermons is so kaput. Let's move on to whatever comes next. Please, don't hit me." How about a teacher who said, "Let's face it- schools are dead. Let's figure out what comes next."

Of course, in the case of Priests, people still want them to maintain the cultural institution that they uphold. Even if that means they seems "outdated" or out of step with what's going now, we look to them to know just what the institution is supposed to be. But, in the case of librarians, they apparently look to us to tell them what we would like a library to be. And, if that means that the people who come to libraries to hang out and fuck off get to have the final say, well then there just happen to be more of them than there are of those of us who go to libraries to read. And, in the end, numbers rule. Fifty million Elvis fans can't be wrong.

And so, you go to the academic library, but you can't use the card catalog because it's online and all of the terminals are being used by members of the Internet-addicted generation who are too busy "Facebooking" to look up titles. Besides, the actual books are now in storage- it takes 24 hours to get them delivered to the library. Putting books in a fucking library would be a waste of space. The lounges, where people once read those outdated books, are now fitted with flatscreens on the walls for the people who feel uncomfortable whenever they're not staring at a glowing digital rectangle. And you can get coffee, but not books, within the library.

No, of course people don't go there to read any more. Yes, the library as a place is dead. Because, as the caretakers of that place, people like you have totally and completely betrayed your sacred duty and made the place worthless for the people who entrusted you with stewardship of the library. And now the people who couldn't care less for reading books get another hangout to stave off the boredom that comes with having no intelligence or imagination whatsoever. Yipee.


Movie Notes: The Big Red One (1980)

Not very long ago, we had a discussion in our department's grad student lounge about what was the best war movie ever made. I put in a vote for The Dirty Dozen, as well as Full Metal Jacket. Platoon was understandably popular, as was Saving Private Ryan. I was surprised though that the winner, at least among our former enlisted men, was The Big Red One, which I'd never seen. Having seen it, I'm still not sure it's the best, but it really is a damned good war movie.

Sam Fuller is enjoying a bit of a revival right now, and he deserves to be more widely respected than he is. I think of Fuller as what Tarantino hopes to be: a director of B movies whose films are far deeper than they appear at first blush. When I discovered Fuller (very recently in fact. I have a French friend who loves his movies. The French have been nuts about him for years), I was blown away by how much is going on in his films. There is a surface level melodrama and several layers beneath that. Once you get past the exploitation trappings, there's a feast to be had. I get what Martin Scorsese meant when he said that, if you don't like Sam Fuller's movies, you don't like movies, or at least, you don't understand them.

The Big Red One is rooted in Fuller's own experiences in World War II and focuses specifically on the "fighting first", the first infantry division of the United States Army. Lee Marvin, a WWII vet like Fuller, stars, and the most noteworthy thing about the film is how believable it is. Where Apocalypse Now or Platoon go a bit too far to portray war as hell, and some of the older movies make war seem a bit too heroic and enjoyable, The Big Red One shows heroics as possible, but only within the context of no context; the breakdown of all order that is war. They're heroes, but only in a world that makes no sense.

To get this across, the film occasionally verges on melodrama- there's a scene in which the infantry is fighting in a madhouse that almost goes too far to make its metaphor soar- but never quite goes over the top. I think this is what Tarantino tried to do in Inglourious Basterds and failed; he goes a bit too far into the surreal. Fuller always pulls back from the surreal and horrific and just hints at what he could be showing. It's more effective.

The film ends with the liberation of a concentration camp and Fuller's own footage from the camp at Falkenau can be seen in a documentary on that camp. It's a depressing, despairing ending and the coda afterward gets at the ironical differences between killing and murder that Fuller has wrestled with throughout the film. Fuller isn't just putzing around with academic questions; he won the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart, after all. But, in the end, he can only explain what war is like; not answer its mysteries. It's enough though.


Friday, November 06, 2009

Magpie Readers

Here is a line I like from a somewhat banal column by Ben McIntyre:
The internet has evolved a new species of magpie reader, gathering bright little buttons of knowledge, before hopping on to the next shiny thing.

I like the magpie line. In the rest of the column McIntyre makes the point that too much time on the Internet has made people unable to... something. I don't remember. I wasn't paying attention.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

Today in Art

Can you find Saint Agnes in this Joseph-Désiré Court painting?

It's a bit like a "Where's Waldo?" isn't it?

The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen restored this painting, entitled The Martyrdom of Saint Agnes in the Roman Forum, in the Year 303, under Diocletian, last year and is exhibiting it in their sculpture garden.

The painting is enormous, as you can see in this article.


Maine says no to gay marriage, "Ayuh!" to pot

The gay rights movement was dealt a setback recently as residents of Maine voted not to allow gay couples to be issued marriage licenses in the state. Interestingly though, they also voted to license medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. So, gay couples in Maine: you cannot be married; but you can get stoned in order to stifle your murderous rage at your straight neighbors.

I was surprised by this outcome. Much of my family is located in Maine and they all take a live-and-let-live attitude towards things like this. If gay couples want to settle down and live as married, they don't think it's their business to tell them they can't. Of course, they live in Portland, which voted to allow gay marriage by quite a wide margin. I'm related, by an Uncle, to about half the population of Portland and it's a thriving cosmopolitan city by Maine standards; some of them even pronounce the r's at the end of words ending in r.

The gay rights movement has done a good job of lobbying for these laws; although, maybe not as good as their opponents. I think the first thing they need to do is to make it clear what sort of marriage they want. There are, after all, at least two working definitions of "marriage".

The first thing we call "marriage" is a cultural tradition. In many cases, it's a religious tradition, but not necessarily. By this tradition, the larger community voices its approval about a relationship and welcomes a new family into the community. This definition of marriage, like all cultural traditions, will only change slowly and one mind at a time. It will not be changed by state fiat. And various churches will likely never change how they view marriage. You simply can't legislate thought, and attempts to do so usually amount to cultural imperialism.

On the other hand, with the passing of generations, cultures do change. In fact, the largest change in the definition of marriage (in all of Western history) has already taken place: young people now decide who they want to marry for romantic reasons, instead of their parents telling them who the family wants them to marry. Marriage hasn't been "traditional" in the last few centuries in fact.

And it is a safe bet that, in a year from now, more people who are fine with the idea of a same-sex couple being considered married will be old enough to vote, and more people who can't accept the idea will have died. The people opposed to same-sex marriage are trying to cement their views in the law because they're losing the battle in the culture. People my age generally don't care if gay couples are considered married or not.

The second thing we call "marriage" is a legal definition. This is licensed by the state and, by being licensed by the state, a couple is entitled to a host of legal benefits. This is what the gay rights movement wants to change. At present, only heterosexual couples in Maine can be licensed to wed. There are officials who will perform the ceremony for homosexual couples; however, the state won't issue the license. It is hard to imagine what reason the government has to issue a license to heterosexual couples and not to homosexual couples, aside from specific religious notions about marriage, which the government is not entitled to pass laws to privilege. To that extent, it would seem to be a simple First Amendment issue that should be settled by the courts. Perhaps, someone could make a case that social stability is best served by not issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. In my opinion, letting couples get married is probably more conducive to social stability, regardless of their gender or orientation.

But, if this is a legal issue, it's not clear why the populace should be voting on it in the first place. With these sorts of votes as a precedent, it's fairly easy to imagine a future time of crisis in which the majority "votes" to strip the legal rights of any minority. The protection against that scenario is that the courts are supposed to decide matters like this. Some people have suggested that going through the process of letting everyone and their sister vote on the law will reduce the level of social strife. They point to Roe V. Wade as an example of a law that was passed by the courts, and which has remained controversial ever since. But, there's no reason to believe that two men getting married will forever be as controversial as aborting a fetus. Also, I'm frankly not keen on the idea that the "people" should vote on who they think should have legal protections and who shouldn't. You couldn't get me to vote that anyone couldn't get married; maybe that they couldn't have line dancing at their wedding.

Incidentally, if you'd like to know how laws are made in Maine, here is an online coloring book for children on the subject of How Laws are Made in Maine, apparently illustrated by a sociopath.

Actually, I don't see why people aren't agitating to get the state out of the marriage licensing business altogether. Why should the government decide if I'm married or not? It's an entirely onerous and intrusive bureaucratic process getting the state approve one's marriage- it actually took me three years to prove to the US that I really am married to a Canadian. As for things like hospital visitation rights, they can be tackled one at a time through the courts. But, if the government was put out of the marriage-licensing business altogether, it would solve this problem with, perhaps, a bit less cultural strife. People would, hypothetically, have less reason to think it's their business whether or not two men down the street get married.

Secondly, I understand that many progressives would prefer to settle this issue at the Supreme Court level and be done with it, but if that's not happening, I don't see why people aren't pushing to go the other way. Why not decide the gay marriage question more locally than at the state level? Why should people in Portland, who are fine with gay marriage, have to negotiate with the rural communities in Maine? Why should people in San Francisco have to wait for Orange County to approve of their lifestyle? Why should Manhattanites have to contend with the farmers upstate who are in very different communities with very different values? If we're going to vote over something that should be a judicial matter, why shouldn't every town get to make their own policy about it?

There is already an argument for federalism here. Currently, four states allow for gay marriage. This might not be great, but it means that gay Mainers can move to another state and be married. Or they can come live in Canada! We could use the immigration and they can handle the weather. That's a lot better than waiting until every single state in the union accepts gay marriage. Doing it by town ordinance would be even quicker.

Thirdly, there is a case to be made for separating the cultural and legal versions of marriage altogether and pushing for all the legal rights under a different name. As bizarre as it seems, many people who are opposed to calling gay couples "married" are okay with giving them all of the same legal rights as married people and calling it something else. People do have a sense of justice, after all; but changing the name strikes them as telling them how to think. While marriage-but-not-marriage might sound stupid, it's a workable compromise until people are comfortable with the cultural shift.

I suspect though that the gay rights movement is currently working to change the licensing definition, while hoping to change the cultural definition. What hurts about Maine I would imagine is that the populace has said pretty clearly, "we do not consider your relationships to be valid". That sucks. However, the pragmatic legal issues are more important than the cultural issues; if it takes calling something legally identical to marriage a "civil union", then so be it. Otherwise, I would advise forgetting altogether about the cultural definition and simply go through the courts.