Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Blogging the Bible: Genesis and Exodus

Okay, before I start, I should mention that I am not a scriptural literalist. I see the Bible as a historically significant document written by men. If you see it as a divinely-inspired account of history, every word of which is literally true, some of this might offend you. But, not necessarily.

I do think I'm more accepting of the "illogic" of religion than most people who weren't raised in a faith. I was actually fairly surprised last year when the subject of the Bible came up among the TAs in World Civ. We have these sidewalk preachers who come on campus regularly to warn the students about the secular education they're receiving at Mall University. They're certainly annoying, and one of the other TAs had some reason to be particularly annoyed- a very similar religious fanatic apparently shot and killed his friend's father some years back. The father was a doctor; no points for guessing what field of medicine. Yet, I was somewhat surprised at just how negative their views were about the Bible. Not only did they find the religion offensive; they were both convinced that the scriptures are terribly written, mendacious, and impossible to take seriously if you're an adult.

I'd beg to differ. Not simply because I think the Old and New Testaments contain some truly exquisite poetry and prose, but also because their words are as central to Western literature as Shakespeare. It's nearly impossible to read anything of merit in the Western canon and not find some echo of the language of the scriptures. Indeed, it's hard for me to see how you could profess to teach Western Civ or World Civ without a fairly good understanding of what the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures say.

As for the illogical quality of the scriptures, well, faith is not based in empirical reason. It has to be illogical and contain a fairly healthy element of doubt, or it's not faith. (I think Kierkegaard was key for my understanding of this.) Faith is deeply illogical and even somewhat absurd. So, incidentally, is romantic love. Both are a matter of inner conviction. I believe that Claire and I have a metaphysical force called love between us, although I have no way of scientifically measuring it. I can feel it however. I would imagine that faith is much the same. If it could be proven empirically that there is a God, faith would cease to exist. (Probably a good reason to oppose creationist science incidentally)

When it comes to the Old Testament, it is even harder to take the scriptures literally. Some of these sections are downright bizarre and many of them are cruel and violent- something that comes to mind whenever I hear Jews and Christians talk about the crueler passages of the Koran. I can't imagine living in a society in which young women are stoned to death for lying about their virginity or committing adultery, or in which God speaks through his prophet to warn us about eating owls. Perhaps my favorite passage in the Old Testament is the rule in Deuteronomy that, if two men are fighting, and the wife of one man grabs his genitals to stop the fight (yes, really!), you must cut off her hand and show her no mercy. Please, someone explain the practical application of that rule in today's world!

Of course, very few people actually take these passages literally. There are fundamentalists who will talk about the passages in Leviticus about homosexuality, while ignoring the ones on shellfish. But fundamentalists are akin to the mentally disturbed or schizophrenic, trying to keep a logical system together in their head at the expense of all information from the outside world. They are, thank God, a minority among believers.

Instead, most believers see these scriptures as containing errors, metaphors, hidden truths, and myths. These books are the accounts of a particular tribe in the Near East and were written at least 2,500 years ago. I think it's best to see them as the ways in which that tribe explained itself and the world, and they likely contain a certain amount of mythologizing and self-aggrandizement. Christians, of course, see the New Testament as explaining a new covenant between God and man that supersedes much of what is in the Old Testament/Covenant. Christ also makes sin a purely individual matter; something many Christians seem to forget.

In terms of world history, what's important about the Old Testament is that the tribe is defined by its individual relationship with a single God through direct revelation. This revelation comes in the first books of the Old Testament in much the same way as the gods influence men in the Greek legends: it is direct and unequivocal. We are to understand that Yahweh is speaking directly to the patriarchs and giving them very clear instructions about what to do. He tells Abraham to kill his son, tells Moses to give specific warnings to the Pharaoh and so forth. In later books, God is more distant, but here we're talking about something like schizophrenia. If you want to see that as the way that the universe communicates with visionaries, so be it.

It is inescapable that Yahweh is cruel in these books. I have no words to explain killing the firstborn sons of Egypt for the sins of the Pharaoh, especially given the fact that the scriptures make clear that the defiance of said Pharaoh was the direct result of God "hardening his heart". Moses believes the Pharaoh has the choice to sin or not to sin; we the readers and Yahweh know that he does not. Therefore, his subjects are killed simply because God wants them to be in order to demonstrate His might. This pushes the idea of a vengeful God to the limit.

Therefore, I think the first message the writers wanted to put forth was that the Jews are the chosen people of God, and that membership has its privileges. Secondly, that God is all-powerful. A central message here is that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It is familiar from much of Greek mythology as well. Man is powerless in the face of the eternal. Note that in the first five books, the Pentateuch or Books of Moses, God punishes by killing and rewards by enriching his believers. There is little to no talk of Heaven or Hell, and nothing of an inner voice that knows good and evil. The image of Yahweh seems more akin to a primitive tribe trying to explain what their protector God must be like in the only language they have. This is the only way I can comprehend the vicious God in the Moses books of the Old Testament.

As for the ten commandments, they're much more comprehensible, with the exception of the indictment against graven images. It is not clear, at least to me, that the scriptures are not saying that Jews and Christians should make no art at all. Clearly, they shouldn't worship graven images; however, the commandment seems to be pretty straightforward about making no images of anything on earth. Islamic art, which generally does not represent human beings, seems more in keeping with the commandment. I'm not sure why this should be.

There are more detailed rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but the aim of these first two books seems to be to set forth the story of the tribe and its covenant with God. That story, it should be pointed out, has more than passing kinship with the earlier Ugarit texts as well as the Enuma Elish. The texts most likely relate common stories from the region as well as a very traditional understanding of God: at this point, humans have no choice but to obey His direct commands or suffer the consequences. There is little nuance in these books and no jokes.

Again, absolutely none of this is to say that believers are fearful or ridiculous. I have very little in common with the Bill Maher school of scriptural criticism. Jews aren't defined by believing that bushes talk to people or that menstruating women should be exiled from the community. What they are defined by is the belief that human existence has distinct limits and rules that must be obeyed, and that there is a powerful creator God who maintains a covenant with His believers. None of this strikes me as naive or foolish, but only a matter of inner conviction.


Au revoir, Washington Post!

My grandfather subscribed to the Washington Post for twenty years. And, for at least eighteen of those years, he bitched about the Washington Post. They were a bunch of liberals, in his mind, and thus the paper was unreadable. He still read it. Probably so that he could bitch about it.

Having said that, I can't read the Washington Post anymore. It's not so much that they're "biased", although honestly, I don't know how you can look at an editorial board that ranges from Bill Kristol to George Will and complain that they're too liberal. The problem is that either their editorial board or their readership are not much interested in the same things I am, and they're interested in things that don't interest me very much at all.

Case in point: we were gone for the last week, so I wanted to catch up on the news. According to my favorite bloggers, there have been huge protests in Iran, which the regime has cracked down on with great force. I've been reluctant to talk about "revolution" in Iran, but it seems increasingly safe to talk about illegitimacy. This, it would seem to me, is really important.

When I went to the Washington Post website, however, I found no stories whatsoever on this issue. None. Instead, the three main stories were about some dumb douche who tried and failed to blow up a plane. This, clearly, is the most important thing happening in the world.

Now, I understand that some people care deeply whenever some nutcase tries to blow things up. And I'm certainly glad that the guy failed. But, I just can't relate to those people who think that one creep with a bomb is all-important, but a venerable and ancient nation yearning for modernist reforms is totally unimportant.

Ultimately, I feel like news sources like the Washington Post are aimed at those people who believe that danger is lurking everywhere in the world, and who seek out validation of that belief whenever possible. If you're looking to gain a deeper understanding of the world, you're out of luck. If you like to run around screaming on a regular basis, they're happy to oblige.

Having said that, I feel no need to read or bitch about the Washington Post ever again.


Book Notes: The Fugitive (Proust)

Wow, it's been a while! What can I say? Life got in the way. Actually, that's not true exactly. I've been doing plenty of reading, but reading a bunch of other stuff... As usual. Luckily, I don't think that Proust was angry; and it was very easy to get back into the story.

This is the sixth book of In Search of Lost Time and the story of the narrator's ill-fated love for Albertine comes to a conclusion here; his possessive jealousy and manipulation forces her out of his home and, before he can admit that he wants her back, she dies suddenly in an accident. It's a bit of a convenient conclusion, and yet it's hard to think of any other that Proust might have employed. Sadly, the narrator's prying doesn't end with Albertine's death, but is unexpectedly fruitful: he discovers that she really was making love with various women in the regions of the beach resort. The rest of the book is a very shrewd portrait of grief and healing. Meanwhile, Gilberte has become engaged to and marries Robert de Saint-Loup, a bit unexpectedly; she is now in good with the demi-monde in spite of their continued Antisemitism. However, he is also cheating on her, now with men. Relationships seem inevitably to lead to betrayal or jealousy in Proust.

As for the revealed secret bisexual life of Albertine, I was surprised by that the first time I read the novels, but couldn't say why now. Clearly, she's lying to him throughout their relationship, which at least starts to explain his suspicions and jealousy. Also, reading the books again, it's not as if Proust hides her lesbian proclivities. It's worth asking why so many of his characters move to Sodom or Gomorrah, in his terms. It seems like at least 1/3rd of sophisticated society dallies with the same sex in his books, quite often crossing class barriers to do so. Did Proust believe that the smart set was uniquely susceptible to homosexual proclivities? Are they? One thing is clear- if Albertine is actually a lesbian, her secretiveness and lying makes good sense. Like many of the other characters, she has a secret life. But, in early 20th century France, how could a homosexual not be an inveterate liar? Circumstances would seem to make lying an appropriate course of action.

The narrator, however, barely lies at all, except to himself. There, he excels. One of the frustrating things about these books is that he ties himself into illogical knots out of jealousy, and thus is lying in his narration. It's really a testament to what a great novelist Proust was that we, as readers, are frustrated with the main character for lying to himself in the narration: he's so real as a character that we know him better than he knows himself and can see through his self-delusions. There's a point in which he tells himself that, were Albertine alive, he would confront her with her affairs and then their relationship would be happy again; we know this is bullshit.

His jealousy is hard to understand. Even if Albertine cheats on him, she clearly only does it after he has made her crazy and miserable by analyzing her every move. Is Proust commenting on the impossibility of these sort of stifling patriarchal relationships? It is noteworthy how many of his men are cuckolds in one way or another. But, if his women are cheating, quite often it's because they're miserable. I wouldn't call Proust a feminist exactly, but he seems to understand human behavior from all sides. Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century, it's hard to relate to his narrator. Jealousy is something that most of us leave behind with adolescence. For him, jealousy reveals the hidden depths of his emotions; but he never really loves Albertine at all, which again we can see as readers, even if he can't. It is worth remembering that the narrator is very young, very sheltered, and quite a bit of a mama's boy when he meets Albertine.

Of course, even if he doesn't know himself, trying to make sense of himself through his memories is the work of a lifetime. None of the characters in Proust has what we would call a fixed and stable identity, nor can really explain themselves in a satisfactory way. His grand theme, if I can be so bold, seems to me summed up in a throwaway passage in this volume:

"Our ego is composed of the superimposition of our successive states. But this superimposition is not unalterable like the stratification of a mountain. Incessant upheavals raise to the surface ancient deposits."
He is constantly looking at the events of his life in different lights and interpreting them in entirely different ways as a result. The books return incessantly to the uncanny ways that memories act upon us in the present and the fact that we never really interpret them objectively or even accurately. Thus it takes decades to know ourselves, if that Delphic command can even be carried out at all. As for knowing others, it seems impossible in Proust's world.

Of course, this doomed but delightful quest to understand others will eventually lead our narrator to his destiny as a writer. But, we're not there yet. One more book to go.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Addictions, Sex and Drugs

A recent article in Salon asks the burning question: “Is sex addiction real?”: it seems a number of experts don’t consider it to be a “real” addiction. There are, of course, people with compulsive sexual behaviors, usually as the result of some trauma, but it sounds as if this is held to be different from “addiction”, which is seen more as a quasi-medical condition. In a similar vein, Susie Bright pokes entertaining fun on her audio program at the idea that Tiger Woods is a "sex addict".

To be honest, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the addiction-as-disease model anyway. While it certainly has helped plenty of people, it strikes me as more than a bit specious.

To establish some common first principles, we do know that certain substances produce chemical dependencies: frequent users of alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and the opiates will have trouble breaking with the pattern of use, and this trouble is chemical- their body needs the chemicals supplied by the drug. The same could well be true of sex, incidentally.

Right now, I'm trying to kick my ridiculous Pepsi abuse. I generally drink about four bottles a day of the stuff and actually can't remember a day in the last two decades that I went without. I have not had any since this morning, however. But it is now 2 am and I can't sleep. So, there you go.

Secondly, there are definitely people who have what could be called an addictive personality. They tend to patterns of compulsive behavior. If they’re not abusing drugs, they’re abusing alcohol; if it’s not booze it’s screwing; if it’s not sex, it’s shopping. They tend, in my experience, to be deeply unhappy people who fill a void in their life with joyless, compulsive behaviors, rather than deal with their unhappiness.

But can you take the fact of chemical dependencies and the fact of addictive personalities and decide that there is a “disease” of addiction? A disease, incidentally, which we can’t test for since it doesn’t show up in anything but behavior, and which we can’t treat through medication, but which supposedly akin to cancer or any other genetically predetermined disease. So, it acts like a mental illness, which are most often the result of trauma, but it is in fact the result of a gene that hasn’t been located as of yet. Sure, the children of addicts tend to follow the behavior that they observed growing up. However, studies of primates and separated twins don’t show the expected filial patterns of inheritance.

Okay, so if it’s not a disease, who cares? Well, honestly, I don’t see a problem with programs like A.A. that amount to group therapy for people who share a mental illness. If it works, why not? I do think, though, that the euphemism tends to obscure the real issues, which is probably why A.A. has such a lousy success rate. I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that the only “cure” for addiction is to quit cold turkey, when we’ve all known people who were basically alcoholics until they learned to drink in moderation. Lastly, I’m uncomfortable with the model of “normal functioning”, which amounts to going to work, coming home, working and producing, and coping with unhappiness. It sounds like a middle manager’s vision of life.

Getting beyond the “disease”, as far as I can tell, having observed some close relations who are addicts, what we’re talking about is the sort of deep existential dread and unhappiness that used to be called “ennui”. Addictive behavior is sort of like eating food that has no flavor and adding any number of spices, but it still has no flavor. Life, as such, strikes the addict as empty, painful, pointless, shapeless, and bland. They fill that void with any number of stimulants, but can’t escape the character of existence.

Writers used to talk about the “horror loci”, which meant that the sufferer of ennui can’t go anywhere to escape this unhappiness, but desperately want to get away from everywhere they are. In my opinion, drug abuse corresponds more closely to the horror loci, and the underlying existential dread corresponds most closely to ennui. The problem is that we don’t think in terms of philosophy anymore; but in medicalized terms. This is a spiritual problem, but we don’t believe the soul exists outside of the material body.

And perhaps it doesn’t; but the medicalized body doesn’t give us many options for understanding existence. We only understand life in terms of “healthy” and “unhealthy”. Otherwise, we’re lost. I’m not sure that past generations, with terms like “spiritually developed”, “enlightened”, or “saved”, really had a worse map of the territory than we do.

Anyway, if we’re going to talk in medical terms, why should we consider “sex addiction” to be any more specious than the “disease” of alcoholism?

I get that sex is seen as a “healthy” part of life, while seeking to escape reality is “unhealthy”. Certainly, the singer Peaches was right when she said, “Let’s face it, we all want tush”. Yes, sex is a natural part of life, and the biological sex drive is always going to be at odds with functional morality. Primates don’t spend their entire lives fucking the same monkey; but we hope to do that and be so fulfilled by it as to compensate for all the empty moments of life. None of that means that we shouldn’t live in monogamous relationships, if that’s what works. It just means that we shouldn’t expect them to provide all the meaning and fulfillment to our lives.

Moreover, we shouldn’t expect the sort of constant happiness that most people seem to expect from life, and which doesn’t actually come with the package most of the time.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Frank Sidebottom - Christmas is Really Fantastic

Here's something that should, no doubt, put everyone in the holiday mood. Do not watch if you've taken illicit drugs or are about to go to sleep. And happy holidays!!


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Joan Collins in Tales From The Crypt (1972)

One of the great psycho Santas- here stalking Joan Collins in the 1972 anthology Tales from the Crypt.


Movie Notes: Christmas Evil (1980)

If you're planning to watch a number of psycho Santa horror movies this year, like I am, you will absolutely have to put Christmas Evil on the list. According to people who are "in the know" about these things (i.e. some Internet nurds, me, and John Waters basically) Christmas Evil is the best of the Christmas killer movies. There's some stiff competition, admittedly, but this is the only killer Santa movie that's seedy, creepy, funny, and poignant. So there.

Again, we have a movie that starts with a young boy traumatized. On Christmas Eve, 1946, young Harry sneaks downstairs and sees Santa (actually his Dad) about to go down on his Mom. This scene, incidentally, inspired my single favorite photo caption in Fangoria: a picture of Santa kneeling before mom's panties with the line, "Yes, vagina, there is a Santa Claus!" But I digress. The young boy sees this, gets freaked out, breaks a snow globe and cuts himself with the glass.

As an adult, Harry decides to revive the Christmas spirit in the modern world. Theoretically, this could go either way: it could be an inspirational story of the miracle of Christmas or a slasher film. The brilliance of Christmas Evil is that it's sort of both. Harry becomes a closet Santa, working in a toy store, making lists of good and bad children in the neighborhood, and sewing a Santa outfit. Basically, he's a fetishist. Nowadays, there's probably some website where Santa fetishists get together and talk shop, but this is 1980, so he's lonely and sort of depressing. Harry is played by Brandon Maggart, who was also on Sesame Street, although this movie might have put the kibosh on that! His daughter is singer Fiona Apple- and that is the probably the most worthless piece of trivia you'll ever read.

Anyway, Harry is sort of the schmuck of the toy factory and is taken advantage of terribly. His view of the world is entirely too rigid and self-righteous, and it's pretty much inevitable that he will snap. The movie is a bit slow in getting to the inevitable killing spree, but Maggart is great playing the put-upon putz in a crappy dead-end job, and director Lewis Jackson invests the film with just enough off-kilter humor. A favorite scene of mine has the police questioning a line up of Santas, having them turn to the right and say "ho, ho, ho!"

It's never entirely clear how seriously we're supposed to be taking all of this, and Jackson keeps the film on the edge of surreal and serious until the very end, which is an absolutely fantastic twist ending that you should avoid hearing about before you see the film.

Anyway, if you're also planning a Psycho Santa film festival, include the original Black Christmas and the segment from the original Tales from the Crypt in which an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa stalks Joan Collins. But, by all means, cap it off with Christmas Evil.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Noted Without (Much) Comment

L.A. Times:

"Laredo, Texas, is set to become the largest U.S. city without a bookstore. The B. Dalton in the Mall del Norte, owned by parent company Barnes & Noble, is slated to close next month. When it does, it will leave the city's close to 250,000 residents without a single bookstore."
Maybe it's happening because so many people get their books online or at the library. Maybe it's due to the relatively high illiteracy rate in Laredo. Or maybe it's a harbinger of things to come. Impossible to say. I will note that I live in a relatively poor, blue collar steel town that has at least three good bookstores, but none in the malls. Signs and wonders.


Words of Carrion Comfort

I just cannot get enough of Patrick Gannon's stuff, and I think I've already reached the legal limit for posting him to IdMarks, so I'm putting it here now.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Art for Today

"Murder in Tehran" (2009) By artist Siah Armajani.

Art Forum:

"Murder in Tehran, 2009, a massive black vitrine, appears familiar at first glance, a sort of update on Ashley Bickerton or Damien Hirst. Closer inspection yields layers of solemnity and meaning as the piece works its elegiac spell. Dressed in the colors of the Iranian Revolution and veiled, like that regime, under a heavy shroud, the piece is a memorial for those lost in the state response to protests surrounding the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12. The international face of that crackdown was a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot dead, purportedly, by Iranian security forces. Armajani memorializes her here, both in a bloodied figure cascading from atop the piece and in the dismembered limbs scattered among the stones within––both based on Neda’s exact proportions."


Khaled - Libertée (Festival Rio Loco---Toulouse__2009) (HD)

The king of rai, Cheb Khaled playing selections from his 2009 release Liberté.


Movie Notes: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

In the present day, in which it's impossible to think of Christmas without thinking of the "War on Christmas", it's hard to remember that bygone era in which the war on Christmas was over whether or not adults would be able to go see an R-rated movie about Santa Claus as a psycho killer. Far be in from me to suggest that some people were stupid in the 1980s; but indeed, adults went out and picketed this movie because they did not want other adults to see a film that made Santa Claus look bad. The 80s, you see, were a time in which mental giants walked the earth.

Technically, however, Silent Night, Deadly Night is not a movie in which the real Santa Claus kills; instead, a psycho killer who fancies himself Santa does the killing. And, I should mention that, technically, this movie sucks. Silent Night, Deadly Night clearly came in the midst of the 80s slasher cycle, and it hews pretty closely to the slasher formula: a horrible event that happened on a holiday several years ago, young people who screw and get killed, a psycho killer who does the killing, and remarkably flat acting, framing, writing, and direction. Why this film never became a holiday tradition is beyond me.

Christmas Eve, 1971, something terrible happened. A family went to visit their insane grandpa in the insane asylum (hard to believe anything might go wrong, eh?) with their young children. They're in a festive mood and the radio is playing lots of Christmas songs that you've never heard before. See, most of the Christmas classics are copywritten, so the producers had to hire struggling bands to write new Christmas songs and have the actors pretend to recognize them from days gone by. "OH! Is that 'Christmas Rockin' in Havana' by Troy Cunningham and the De-Troy-ers? Turn that up!"

Anyway, the family goes to visit Crazy Grandpa who subsequently freaks out the young son, Billy, by telling him that Santa Claus is an angry, jealous Santa who smites the naughty children with terrible vengeance. This is supposed to be scary; but it's hard not to think Grandpa is actually pretty awesome because the kid is a bit annoying, and the scene is sort of funny. But, now, the seed is planted in young Billy's fertile mind.

Meanwhile, a guy dressed as Santa holds up a liquor store and kills the clerk. Santa's car gets a flat tire, the family stops to help, and he kills Dad and slits Mom's throat. Before doing so, he rips open Mom's shirt so that young Billy will forever connect breasts with killing- and so the producers can shoehorn lots of tits into the film for no apparent reason. Oh, and the kid hides from Evil Santa about three feet away, but Santa doesn't see him. This happens a lot in the movie: people do things mere feet from other people who don't notice them. The film apparently takes place in an alternate universe in which everyone is nearsighted and all of the songs on the radio are by the same shitty bar band from the Midwest.

Now orphaned, Billy and his baby brother grow up in an orphanage run by Nuns and a bitchy Mother Superior. He has Christmas Issues, naturally, and Mother Superior responds by beating him. He receives a grand mal ass-whupping after seeing a young resident and her boyfriend screwing (Oh, no! Tits! Tits make Billy go crazy!), and comes to associate punishment with Christmas. In case you don't get that point, Billy will say "Punish!" repeatedly throughout the film. He also learns that meaningless sex is deeply wrong, a serious problem since this is the 80s and, if you've watched a lot of these movies, you know that young people screwed a lot in the 80s.

Billy grows up to be a strapping man and gets a job at the local department store. He's "making it" now, as evidenced by an inspirational power rock montage about making it. I realize that the American economy is currently in the shitter, and it's possible that the prosperity of the 1980s boom was largely due to power rock theme song montages. Countless 80s movies feature montages in which people make it in the world while forgotten bar bands play power chords to push them onward. I suspect this is what is missing today. I would like to suggest that the Obama administration pay me stimulus money to follow around Americans who are out of work and depressed, playing them 80s power rock songs on a boombox. Rahm Emmanuel- look me up here!

Unfortunately, there's trouble in power rock montage land. Adult Billy still has Christmas Issues- in fact, he's a ticking Christmas package primed to explode. You can see what's coming and only have to wait through interminable scene after interminable scene to get there. Oh. there's a subplot in which Billy has the hots for a a co-worker and fantasizes about her breasts, and a rivalry with a bizarrely hostile co-worker who always wears polo shirts. Also, the boss at the store gets the bright idea to have Billy play Santa.

So, you really know where this is going. The store has a Christmas party one evening. They're all drinking and dancing to all those classic Christmas songs like, "Christmas is Keen" by Kitty Calloway and the Jingle Sluts, and the hot co-worker nearly gets raped in the backroom by the polo shirt prick. Billy sees tits, Billy goes crazy, and you know the rest.

The movie does pick up in the last act. Linnea Quigley has a bit part in which she gets impaled topless on a trophy buck's antlers, while her teenage boyfriend misses all of this from ten feet away. A drunk bully out sledding gets decapitated while his oblivious friend is twenty feet away but somehow also misses it. The police kill the wrong Santa Claus. There's a dramatic final speech from Billy, who finally gets killed. And the final obligatory scary twist.

Silent Night, Deadly Night has its moments. But there's no suspense, the acting is terrible, and the direction is pretty stock. So, the only way to watch it is with friends and alcohol, laughing at how dumb it all is. It never reaches the realm of so-bad-it's-good. Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, on the other hand, is deliriously stupid, and well worth renting.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Patsy Cline - Walkin' After Midnight

Winchester, Virginia's own Patsy Cline singing one of my favorite of her numbers. God, what a voice.


Rumi was a genius

"Rumi was a genius
Siraj, you're an ass"
-Lyrics from "Rumi was a homo (But Wahhaj is a fag)" by the Kominas.
(A bit tongue-in-cheek that, but a cultural statement worth noting. More on that later.)

First, a strange bit of synchronicity: I decided to take a break from dissertating to write some notes about the 12th century Sufi mystic poet Rumi. And then I decided to take a break from that to surf the net for ten minutes. Within the first few minutes, I find this Daily Dish post about Rumi.

“Who has not heard the name of Jalaluddin Rumi?” asks the introduction to a Punjabi translation of his mystical poetry. Well, it’s perhaps not so safe to assume that English speakers are familiar with his work, which ranks among the highest of Islamic mystical poetry. The scholar Annnemarie Schimmel compares the many-sided richness of Rumi’s poetry to that of Shakespeare and its translation of personal suffering and love into something tangible and moving to Beethoven. One might disagree, but it remains the case that Rumi was one of the greatest poets in history.

Poetry has a strange relationship with Islam. The Prophet seems to condemn poetry in Sura 26, although he was most likely talking about very specific poets of his time who were rivals of a sort. Nevertheless, literalists often condemn poetry and Muslim poets often begin their works by downplaying their poetry as a trivial hobby. And yet, poetry is written throughout the Islamic world, much more than prose. It often seems as if whenever you scratch a Persian, you find a poet, and the same is basically true of Arabs. It’s hard to overstate the importance of poetry in this part of the world, especially to North Americans who might well be unaware.

Rumi, of course, could only express his faith through poetry, the language of mysticism. He was a professor and father of three, when in October 1244, he met the wandering mystic Shamsuddin, the “Sun of Religion”, from Tabriz, and was overwhelmed by his presence. “The two mystics spent days and nights, weeks and months together, deeply immersed in discussing spiritual love, and forgetting the world, family, and disciples.” Shamsuddin had achieved a remarkably high level of spiritual enlightenment; Rumi describes him as the “beloved”.

Understandably, this relationship aroused the ire of Rumi’s family and students and Shams was forced to leave secretly. Rumi was heartbroken and became an ecstatic poet of longing and suffering. As a mystic, he desired to be united with his “beloved” in the sense of Allah (a common trope in this sort of poem) and his spiritual leader. Eventually, the family found Shams and brought him back to live in Rumi’s home, albeit married to a girl from the household. As his eldest son described the meeting, “They fell at each other’s feet and neither knew which one was the lover and which the beloved.”

Tensions were still unavoidable, however, and most likely at the connivance of his youngest son, Shams was lured outside and murdered in 1248. Rumi was told he had left and searched for him in Syria before deciding that his friend lived inside him and his words were the words of Shams. Rumi’s poems describe his love and suffering for his friend, his similarity to the Prophet Muhammad, and his ecstatic union with God. As with most mystical poetry, terms like the “beloved” and “drunkenness” have multiple meanings, with an underlying idea being the desire to escape the material world and achieve unity with the Godhead.

Here is an example of Rumi's poetry:

Reason says, "I will beguile him with the tongue;"
Love says, "Be silent. I will beguile him with the soul."
The soul says to the heart, "Go, do not laugh at me
and yourself. What is there that is not his, that I may beguile him thereby?"
He is not sorrowful and anxious and seeking oblivion
that I may beguile him with wine and a heavy measure.
The arrow of his glance needs not a bow that I should
beguile the shaft of his gaze with a bow.
He is not prisoner of the world, fettered to this world
of earth, that I should beguile him with gold of the kingdom of the world.
He is an angel, though in form he is a man; he is not
lustful that I should beguile him with women.
Angels start away from the house wherein this form
is, so how should I beguile him with such a form and likeness?
He does not take a flock of horses, since he flies on wings;
his food is light, so how should I beguile him with bread?
He is not a merchant and trafficker in the market of the
world that I should beguile him with enchantment of gain and loss.
He is not veiled that I should make myself out sick and
utter sighs, to beguile him with lamentation.
I will bind my head and bow my head, for I have got out
of hand; I will not beguile his compassion with sickness or fluttering.
Hair by hair he sees my crookedness and feigning; what's
hidden from him that I should beguile him with anything hidden.
He is not a seeker of fame, a prince addicted to poets,
that I should beguile him with verses and lyrics and flowing poetry.
The glory of the unseen form is too great for me to
beguile it with blessing or Paradise.
Shams-e Tabriz, who is his chosen and beloved - perchance
I will beguile him with this same pole of the age.

This stuff about escaping the distractions of the material world might recall the Socratic distinction between the material and the sensible, with the latter being the mind’s grasp of reality, which exists as ideas in the mind of God. Indeed, Neo-Platonism was important to both Gnosticism in the Christian tradition and Sufism in the Muslim tradition. The underlying idea is that the mind can achieve a transcendent encounter with the face of God by escaping the distractions of physical existence. In Sufism, this is often compared to drunkenness (and was often tied to drunkenness!) or dizziness. Both Sufism and Gnosticism stand apart from doctrinaire faith because neither practice requires a “Church” or specific rituals. In fact, such things might get in the way. While Sufis often had “lodges”, they did not need the local mosque in the same way that Christian mystics didn’t need the local Church. Some consider this apostasy.

As for the Kominas, they are a "Punjabi Taqwacore" punk band, whose first single was entitled “Rumi was a Homo, but Wahhaj is a fag”, a somewhat childish attack (in true punk fashion) directed at the leader of The Muslim Alliance in North America, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who has issued some virulently homophobic statements in the past. It should be obvious why young Muslims lambasting the reactionary homophobia of mainstream religious leaders is culturally significant. If it isn’t, think of how rarely you hear about it happening.

As for Rumi’s sexuality, I think the point is that Rumi is undeniably the spiritual superior of all of us, regardless of his love for another man. Muslims often argue that we can’t really call Rumi a “homosexual” because he likely never had sex with Shams, an argument that misses the point entirely. What defines you is your love, not how you express that love. The absurdity is in thinking that spiritual love doesn’t count, so long as nobody has an orgasm. Thus a man writing an epic poem of devotion and longing to another man who he is deeply in love with must be “straight as an arrow” because that’s what we define as “devout”. The smaller point is that Rumi was enlightened spiritually by his love for another man. The larger point is that spiritual enlightenment has nothing whatsoever to do with who you love and what parts they have, nor with sexuality.

[Note: Not being a scholar on any of this, I'm sure there are errors here. Note them politely and I'll gladly correct them.]


New Scientist unfairly defends science

A brief note: I suggested recently that, since we're skeptical about the claims made by climate scientists (which, again, seems reasonable), we should also be skeptical about the claims made by the "skeptics", many of which are totally overblown, if not outright lies. Anyway, New Scientist had the same idea recently, critically investigating the scientific claims made by some of the leading global warming "skeptics" (and uncritically repeated on myriad blogs, of course).

You know the punchline, right? Well, some of the claims fall apart under a "pattern of strange errors", others are indeed outright lies, and some are just really bad science. The comments, of course, are priceless. Lots of sputtering about how unfair it is to do this. It's "biased", "politically-motivated", a "hack job", et cetera. So, clearly, don't anybody slander the slanderers, or think critically about the "critical thinkers".


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hellzapoppin' to "Jumpin' at the Woodside"

This is beautiful. Someone took Whitey's Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin', in a scene which was choreographed to Count Basie's Jumpin at the Woodside, and then scored to a different but similar composition in the actual film- so the studio wouldn't have to pay for Count Basie's song- and put the original song back in. If you don't enjoy this, I would imagine you're not human.



One of the things I like about languages are the terms that don't really translate directly between them, and so express ideas that can only really be had in that language! I hope to one day learn German mostly because there are a few terms in that language that our department's German historians use in conversations. I understand why they don't bother to translate them into English. It's the same with amour propre- it doesn't really mean self-love or self-esteem, although those are the closest equivalents in English. So, just call it amour propre. If you read enough French works on the subject (Rousseau writes about it, for instance), you sort of absorb the sense of it.

One funny thing though is that once you absorb the sense of the word, you forget that it's not commonly used in your native tongue. A case in point: Julian Sanchez points out the role of ressentiment in contemporary politics, and is praised for his shrewd analysis. Honestly, though, it never occurred to me that ressentiment isn't commonly discussed in US politics- I just assumed everyone knew it plays a big role in all politics. Maybe that should be rôle.

Sanchez quotes:

Ressentiment is a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, an assignation of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.
If you've ever read Saint Simon on the French court, you get where ressentiment was born! Sanchez talks about it in terms of "the pathology of the current conservative movement" and some of what he says there is pretty shrewd. I should note that I can't remember ever having a conversation with a conservative Sarah Palin enthusiast in which the fact that she "drives liberals crazy" didn't come up quickly, as if that's a good reason to elect a candidate!

In reality, I think the party out of power often falls prey to ressentiment. I remember taking a course in about 2003 in which one of my classmates was a middle aged teacher who just hate-hate-hated George W. Bush. Every break of every session he would complain about George W. Bush in the most hyperbolic language. After a while, it got to be funny because I realized that no matter what I told him about Bush, provided it was heinous enough, he would believe. I kept wanting to ask him, "So, did you hear about that young boy Bush molested when he was in college?" I guarantee he'd have bought it.

I think that sort of anger and contempt comes more from alienation than philosophy.

Sanchez is pretty clear that the "conservative movement" has little in common with the actual philosophy of conservatism and much to do with ressentiment. But, in fact, I remember a time in which the left was also driven by spiraling ressentiment. About 1991 or so, after over a decade of Republican rule, I knew a lot of lefties who were wedded to a sort of martyr complex: Oh, we will never change society, but at least we can fail with integrity! It was really depressing.

People I knew became increasingly extreme in order to show their devotion while in the wilderness. I remember listening to a radical feminist once argue that authors who wrote in tongues other than their own were "racists" because they were "appropriating native cultures". Porn, of course, was akin to Nazi propaganda, as were music videos. I still remember a graffiti reading "Men, reject maleness". Sure, no problem. I'll get to that when I get a spare moment! And then there was the argument that the left should work to "abolish the family". The less said about that, the better.

All of that is fringe stuff now. But, there was a point at which left-wing politics were all about ressentiment for the "mainstream", which the left was very far from being a part of. I think my skepticism about right-wing anti-science arguments comes from hearing the same exact arguments in the PC 90s- back then, left-wingers would tell you that there are no biological differences between men and women, but the "Scientific establishment" was too ideologically biased to tell the truth about that, what with all of its "propaganda" about hormones. Objective measures of the world, of course, were said to be impossible.

In France, there is still much lingering ressentiment on the Marxist left- you should see how they respond when some writer publishes a critical book about the history of Marxism! The knee-jerk charge is that the writer is a reactionary or a fascist! Heaven help you if you criticize the old culture heroes of left bank Marxisme.

Anyway, I've all-but-stopped reading conservative websites because it's impossible to keep up with just who we're supposed to be outraged against this week (actually, the same is true of a lot of feminist websites. Bust excluded.) Reading all the ressentiment towards city-dwellers, academics, journalists, climate scientists and biologists, liberals, insufficiently-conservative Republicans, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, atheists, and all of the other outrageous sources of outrage tends to shrink ones's heart and narrow one's mind. The end product of bile is ash.

But, of course, ressentiment is common of all political movements with limited power. At the extreme would be those movements that have no hope of ever bringing change by normal channels and so turn to political violence. Having once rented a room, by pure accident, from members of the Animal Liberation Front, I've seen this sort of ressentiment up close, and it seems to be entirely self-sustaining. It's a faith in itself. I hate you, therefore I am.

If I had to guess, I'd say the US political system should swing regularly between the two parties in the forseeable future, and that when each party is out of power, we should see their crazies come out with outrage towards the rest of the culture. Most likely, their ressentiment will die down when their party gains power and flare up whenever they lose power, like a demented see-saw. This is assuming that neither party becomes like the Bloc Quebecois here in Canada- an angry party that will never rule, but exists mainly to cause trouble for the hated majority.

But that could never happen, eh?


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Of arms and men (and war on Christmas) I Sing...

According to an email I recently received, repeatedly, the “War on Christmas” is still on this year, with heavy fighting and many casualties on both sides. I notice that I always get these from the pro-Christmas side; never from the anti-Christmas forces, which suggests to me that they’re fairly disorganized. Also, apparently, their major accomplishment, in the eyes of the anti-Christmas brigades, was forcing teenagers at the mall to greet shoppers with “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” This first suggests that this is the single pussiest war ever (and, yes, I did use that as a superlative adjective). Secondly, it suggests a paucity of accomplishments on the part of the anti-Christmas forces. If they could force the malls to stop playing the same irritating Christmas music for two months out of the year, it would be worth losing a few young lives over.

It is worth thinking seriously about why people are so concerned over this. Okay, honestly, it’s not worth thinking seriously about; but I need a break from my dissertation, so here goes. The first point is that, yes, the “War on Christmas” is largely a media-created “movement” intended to get people to buy books or watch certain television programs. It’s about as serious as the “Disco is dead” movement was in the 70s. However, the people who send me these emails take this issue seriously, which suggests that their serious concerns are being channeled towards a silly cause.

Part of that, I would imagine, is simply that people like to be a part of something. It helps to feel like our unexpressed desires and fears are shared by others and can be expressed collectively. Positioning ourselves against an Other, usually defined as almost comically evil, allows us to make some sense of ourselves in easily defined terms. We are the people who defend Christian tradition, as against those who either don’t or who are thought to attack Christian tradition. This defense, then, is an expression of belief, but also a “good work”. Forwarding these emails demonstrates faith, while perhaps strengthening it. It’s a bit like the Crusades, but really childish and non-violent.

Many Americans worry about the secularization of society. Even in a country with as much religious allegiance as America, it’s noticeable that religious belief plays little role in most people’s daily lives. Few of them seem to have read their own religious books, and instead, many seem to embrace a sort of meaningless pop religion. As a relative outsider, I find this tacky. I would imagine that the devout find it worse than tacky.

It’s worth noting, however, that no serious theologian that I know of has spoken out about this “War on Christmas”. Instead, the crusaders have been simple yeoman douchebags like Bill O’Reilly. One could speculate that the theologians understand the concept of religious pluralism and prefer it to letting the majority decide how faith should be practiced. Or that they don’t want to cheapen faith by reducing it to a catchy marketing slogan. Also, they must know that America is a pluralist society with a secular public sphere and has been since its founding, regardless of what people wish to believe.

I do suspect that this has to do with the never-ending battle about religious expression in the public sphere, a struggle in which both sides have tended towards the obnoxious. Many states have decided that public schools, for example, should nix the Christmas pageants, something that does strike me as heavy-handed, provided that these evening events are still not mandatory. So I guess I’m on the “pro-Christmas” side there. My general feeling is that, if it’s not forced on me, I’m okay with people celebrating their faith, even if they do so in a public building. It’s no skin off my heathen ass.

Next, I think this stuff might be connected to the commercialization of Christmas that people worry about every year. For devout Christians, of course, Christmas is the focus of the religious season of Advent. For everyone else, it is a time of sales and shopping. This tends to debase and devalue the original religious idea. Of course, consumer capitalism tends to debase all cultural traditions, being based, as Adam Smith put it, on the continuous creation and satisfaction of new needs. Traditions are venerable because they have endured. In consumer culture, everything becomes outdated and is replaced with the newer and better thing as a matter of course.

None of this is evil, but it does necessitate a lack of stable fixities, which people tend to find upsetting, especially as they get older. I’ve noticed that I get these emails from people back home that grew up in smaller, homogenous, and organic communities based largely in clans. In their lives, they’ve seen the local businesses replaced by impersonal chain stores and communal religious traditions replaced by “Black Friday” and Blue-Light Specials. I think there is some yearning for something that has been lost.

I also think it’s inescapable that some of that yearning is tied to demographic changes- those small communities are less homogeneous than they used to be, and not everyone has those religious traditions. Some people find it hard to adjust to sharing space with people with whom they haven’t much in common. Others do things like replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” out of courtesy, and this riles up their bitterness about having to adjust to new residents from other cultures.

People have claimed that the “war on Christmas” meme started with white nationalists, which I can’t possibly verify. There is, however, a real animus about cultural pluralism underlying a lot of this. The warriors imagine that the more polite among us are bending to social control and that there has been some sort of power shift. I think, therefore, that the War to save Christmas makes me uncomfortable because it makes the bullying assumption that the majority should show no courtesy towards any minority and that we wouldn’t do so if we weren’t made to be “sensitive”. Instead, my politeness reveals that the “PC Nazis” have forced me to suck up to the Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. Otherwise, I’d be an asshole. In keeping with the teachings of Christ, of course.

So, maybe it’s the focus that bothers me. I think these people just care about exercising a certain amount of power in public, which they’re already able to. Most likely, nobody would care if they said “Merry Christmas”. Of course, they might hear “Happy Hanukkah” in return. That’s the problem, I think. They don’t want to be free to say what they want; they want to make other people say what they want to hear.

Or, maybe they’re just bitching. I think I’d actually approve if they “defended” Christmas by reviving door to door caroling. I haven’t seen anyone do that since I was a kid. Why not express your faith by spreading joy, rather than waging miserable “wars”?

[Note: After spending 20 minutes thinking about this topic I do, in fact, feel a bit stupider. sorry.]


Of course, the Mainers pronouce it "Bee-yah"

Apparently, the Allagash Brewer in Portland, Maine is now trying to brew beer the Belgian way, in a koelschip. I note this only because Claire and I will be going to Portland during the New Year's season, and I am assuming that storylines A and B will intersect.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mr. Bungle - Goodbye Sober Day (fanmade)

I'm on a bit of a Mr.Bungle kick right now. Enjoy this before it's taken down for numerous copyright violations.


Art for Today

"Appeared to the Monkey" by Buffalo artist Peter Fowler.

You can read all about why post-industrial Buffalo is becoming one of the country's great art scenes here.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Another One Rides the Bus

“You’re crazy for taking the bus!
Yeah, I’m crazy! So, what’s the fuss?”
-Jonathan Richman, 'You're Crazy for Taking the Bus'

Today, I was riding the public bus in Hamilton at about one o’clock in the afternoon. This can be a bit difficult at times, and this was one of those times. The brakes on the bus were going bad, and to compensate, the driver was pumping them for the entire block leading up to each stop. It was a bit like that herky-jerky ride up the first hill on a rollercoaster. And then you had people who wanted to know where the bus was going, in great detail, before riding. So, the driver would have to explain, while stopped at the bus stop, for five minutes or so. Then a drunken man got on with his wife and she paid for both of them, and he paid for himself. They had lost $2.50 here, and so the bus came to a halt while it was decided what to do. The bus driver completed a form so they could file a claim, which was sort of a Christmas miracle for them, but ten boring minutes for me. Finally, you had a guy who held up the bus for five minutes to make sure it was going near to the beer store he was aiming for. After getting on, he quizzed everyone sitting near him about what was the closest stop to his beer store because he didn’t want “to waste any time” walking there. My thought is that, if it’s one in the afternoon on a Monday and you’re taking public transit to the Beer Store, your time is probably not that friggin’ valuable.

But, I love taking the bus. Really, I do. A lot of people don’t like to take the bus, but even on bad days like this I like it. It allows me to relax and think. I can read a book. I don’t have to worry about parking. And Claire can confirm that I hate to drive. Besides, a bus pass costs 1/4th my monthly car insurance bill, and that’s before gas and oil. Most of all, I actually enjoy the people who ride the bus. They’re interesting and they give me things to talk about. Sure, some of them have been rode hard and hung up wet. I can now distinguish, on sight, between alcoholics and meth addicts, a trick that is sure to impress people at the next cocktail party I attend! And I’m still amazed at the virtually identical hip hop “street” clothes work by all young males in this town. But, there’s just something inherently interesting about people on the bus; maybe it’s the fact that, if you’re riding the bus, you’re not usually that pretentious. You’re not likely putting on airs on the bus! People are just themselves there, in all of their bewildering glory.

Our city has a few hundred buses, which means that the service is very regular. Rarely do you have to wait more than five minutes for a bus. They tend to be well-used too; a lot of people here can’t afford to have two cars or a garage. Nevertheless, public transit makes less money than it spends and makes up the difference through taxes.

There’s no particular shame in this. Every public transit system in the world runs at a loss, with the exception of a few subway lines in Japan, which are notoriously busy. As you might expect, then, there are plenty of people who believe that public transit should be privatized. Why should the taxpayers subsidize the losers on the bus? No wonder the buses lose money; after all, the “state” runs them. If they were run by private companies for a profit, they would surely be run more efficiently, be cleaner, and the service would be better. And, hey, there would be competition, so more buses!

Of course, if there were more buses, each line would have less riders, thus make less money. Not to mention that you’d have to raise the fares anyway to make that profit. So, nobody doubts that the fares would have to go up. The hope is that you could justify the higher fares through added “value”; special perks like music on the buses, plush interiors, or people coming around to stamp your ticket. Riding the bus would become more of a luxury or a special treat. The quality would improve with the profit motive and the higher fares.

And yet, I’m guessing that most people in this town wouldn’t vote to have more expensive private bus lines replace the public buses. Because the value of the public buses is not just economic- they haven’t “failed” simply by losing money. Their value is in making life a bit more livable for the people who need to use them. Elderly people ride the bus because they can’t drive any more but still want to go to their doctor, the library, or the market. People who are mentally or physically disabled ride the bus to go to the social services offices downtown or to the park. Young parents ride the bus and spend the money they save on their kids. Most of all, people who live in the seedier part of the city go work in the more prosperous side and bring money back. In many cities- Paris is a perfect example- the outskirts are still vibrant because the buses and trains serve as a lifeline. Otherwise, you’d have more complete social collapse in the poor neighborhoods.

The argument against all of this is that, if people were physically isolated, they might have the inspiration to improve those slums. But, of course, they still wouldn’t have the money to. And then you have a lot more people who are working class and who are just trying to save money; getting rid of a car is a great way to do that. In general, the buses serve a social good because they allow for people in urban areas to have the sort of physical mobility that brings cultural and economic benefits to all parts of the city. They allow for circulation between social hubs and cross-cultural exchange. It’s a cliché in New York to say that the Metro lines are the circulatory system of the city; it’s also true.

The irony, of course, is that the privatization movement, which is aimed at freeing the public from the iron hand of the state, isn’t actually popular enough with the public to ever offer them a chance to vote on it; you can thus only “liberate” them without their consent. When cities actually do try to get rid of public services, it amounts to a betrayal because people plan their lives around these services. Californians know all about this. I actually lived in a city that tried to cut back on trash pick up, libraries, and emergency services; people were outraged.

Besides, given how the economy is going, a lot more people will be riding the bus in the future. This, after all, is why you build bus lines in the first place, or really do anything in the interest of the common good- because one day it could be you that has to use them! Don’t worry, though. There’s still plenty of room on the bus, and riding the bus is a great way to meet people.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

What a bunch of rubes!

Here is another video (after the jump) that I've seen linked all over Internet Hell and back, and which I suppose people are getting a kick out of. As usual, I'm a big prig here and the video makes me more uncomfortable than amused. I don't like this arguing tactic, which just strikes me as tacky and counterproductive. Let me try to articulate why that is.

Okay, so the guy is interviewing Sarah Palin fans outside of one of her book signings, and asking them about which of her positions on what specific political issues they support. Here's how they respond:

Get it? The punchline is that they're almost totally uninformed about any issues, any platforms, or any particular programs. And, in general, what they do seem to know is either easy slogans or incorrect facts. Haw, haw! What a bunch of rubes! Excuse me for asking, but the point here being?

Well, the point apparently is to make fun of these people. And, I'm not saying that they shouldn't be better informed. But it seems to me that you could do this with the hard core fans of any major public figure. Why, in fact, you could probably do it with supporters of, say, Barack Obama:

But, again, what exactly is accomplished here? Basically, people who voted for Obama can watch the interviews with the most clueless Palin supporters, make fun of them, and feel superior. People who voted for John McCain can watch interviews with the most clueless Obama supporters, make fun of them and feel superior. Forget about trying to persuade other people of the rightness of your positions on various topics- or trying to understand their perspective; that's what politics is all about, and this is more like a club, a tribe, or a team. It's cliques really.

Now, I don't really care about Sarah Palin; I don't really care about Barack Obama either. In terms of politics, I look at what the political organizations hope to accomplish, decide how I feel about that, and am not interested at all in "looking into the soul" of the candidate. But, I have some idea why these people (and half my family) like Sarah Palin, which makes me especially uncomfortable with making fun of them.

Let's look at that huge class in America that could be roughly defined as middle/working class. They do things like drive buses, work in retail stores, build houses, pave roads, manage small businesses, fix cars, work in IT, drive trucks, and so forth. Basically, just about everybody in the country, right? Economically, we call them middle class, but many of them are struggling towards the lower end of that income bracket. Because, what's happened over the last three or four decades is that middle income jobs have not seen a real increase in wages, while prices in everything have risen. Which means that those people are struggling, week by week, to get by. That requires a great deal of savvy, intelligence, and perseverance. It doesn't leave a lot of time to study political science.

Meanwhile, in that time, no political figure has really done anything to improve those people's lot. At one time, liberals in the United States were politically tied to the working class. However, they have become alienated from the "hard hats". People like to blame this on "the 60s"; however, it really came earlier with the McCarthy era. It's not that liberals were communists, of course, but many of them were sympathetic to socialism and found the public hysteria terrifying. McCarthyism isn't really so easily categorized as "right wing", since Truman started the business with the loyalty oaths. But, it had the effect of convincing a lot of liberals that middle class people were the "boobsoisie" in Mencken's term. See also: Archie Bunker, the "establishment", "Joe Six Pack", "Joe Lunch pail", et cetera. The Other. In the 60s, as we all know, the cultural split widened.

Many working class people, of course, hate the rich. The real accomplishment of the Republicans was to capitalize off of that resentment by directing it towards more vaguely defined "cultural elites". Not so much the capitalist class as the ivory tower academics. Middle American resentment towards liberals, meanwhile, wasn't entirely wrong. Liberals didn't fully deserve it, but they did in fact define themselves, quite often, as being at odds with the average middle American, somehow more enlightened or "educated", and even a bit resentful towards American culture. The real accomplishment of Obama, therefore, was to ignite long dormant left-wing patriotism, something Bill Clinton could not do. It was a short-lived accomplishment.

Now Reagan was a snake oil salesman. But, this doesn't change the fact that liberals still hope to change a culture that they still have some lingering resentment towards. Certainly, that resentment is not always wrong- for example, it was right to detest middle American racism. But, often it amounts to a sort of cultural snobbishness- writing off housewives as "unfulfilled", rejecting faith as "bigotry", making higher degrees the sole marker of intelligence, and so forth. There's a tendency to talk down to people instead of talking to them. After all, they're "backwards" and "uneducated".

But, one thing I've learned in a decade in higher ed is that academics simply have one specific intelligence out of many. It has nothing to do with smarts.- I simply like to read old books and documents in foreign languages a lot more than other people do. It's got nothing more to do with intelligence than being a baseball card collector. Sure, I have some training, but so what? Lots of people have training.

Do you have any idea how much you have to know to drive a truck? Not only do you have to know how to operate the vehicle; you also have to maintain the truck, which includes doing regular inspections and repairs. You have to know all of the parts of the engine to make sure they're in good shape before you actually hit the road. The book you have to learn in order to get the CDL is, therefore, about as thick as a Bible, and this doesn't get into learning what sounds, smells, and sensations mean engine trouble. My point here is that being a truck driver requires a specific intelligence. Just as being a homemaker requires a specific intelligence. As installing plumbing requires a specific intelligence. Actually, they all require a host of intellgences- a skill set. Working people are many things; but "uneducated" is not one of them.

Nevertheless, many of them feel and resent being looked down upon by the larger culture. Now, sometimes they are patronized and sometimes they aren't. I know many academics who have a deep respect for working people, in their life and scholarship. And the media really presents a fairly mixed image of these people, simultaneously trying to sell products to small town working Americans, and telling stories that are primarily about urban white collar Americans. Politicians, meanwhile, flatter and cajole middle Americans, while doing nothing for them.

What I think working people (including half my family) respond to in Sarah Palin is the sense that she comes from a similar background and can relate to their concerns and their lives. They describe her as "genuine" and "one of us". Are they right? Probably no more than progressives who see Obama as an urbane champion of progressive causes. But the underlying hope- that someone will represent those people who have reason to feel ignored and disdained- is very real, and very understandable.

Now, I don't want to oversell these people, just because I'm from that background. Many of my family members, old friends, and former co-workers can be overly resentful and defensive about things that most people don't really care about. (I also get the "we must save Christmas!" emails!) And some of them are painfully self-aggrandizing about their lives; and really convinced that people in the cities are The Other. I have a relative who will strongly defend his right to eat at McDonald's in the face of an imagined overwhelming anti-McDonald's prejudice, for example. Let's just say that I've known plenty of people in middle America who are especially enamored with the smell of their own farts. Just like everywhere else really.

And, just like the people who make these videos! The underlying message to these things is "People with a different take on the world have an illegitimate viewpoint". I agree that most people should be a lot better informed than they are, but the aim here isn't to inform; it's to democratize contempt. The main reason I quit watching television a few years ago was that I got sick of reality programs whose message is "Hey, look at how dumb these people are!" broadcast to alienated and atomized consumers in their tiny cocoons. I see a lot of the same contempt on the Internet.

I'm starting to feel like I've absorbed toxic levels of it.
Terrence famously wrote: "Homo sum; humanī nil ā mē alienum putō."
Roughly: "I am a man; I reckon nothing human is alien to me." (My mediocre translation.)

I'm not at the point in which I can say the same. And I'm not sure any of the communications media are getting me any closer to that point. It's hard to understand where other people are coming from anyway. But there's a dangerous delusion in convincing yourself that, wherever they're coming from, it's probably a lot lower down than your elevated vantage point.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Taoism, Leviticus, and the golden mean

Taoism often reminds me of the moderation or "golden mean" discussed in a lot of Greek classical thought as well as the attention to physical cleanliness and health in Leviticus. This speaks, I think, to the common concerns of people in close-knit village societies. In all honesty, it's impossible for me to read much of Greek writing, especially Homer of course but even high classical stuff, without thinking of the small village society; and the same is true of the Mosaic books of the Old Testament as well as the Confucian classics. When I read this stuff, I generally visualize African tribal communities that I've seen in National Geographic documentaries. I realize that's not how most people imagine Achilles or Moses!

Village life also comes to mind when I read the classics of Daoism. For example, the great Chinese doctor and Taoist Sun Simiao writes in the classic text Zhenzhong ji (here translated in Readings in Daoist Mysticism, Livia Kohn, 2009) writes:

If you think much, the spirit will disperse.

If you reflect much, the heart will be labored.

If you laugh much, the organs and viscera will soar up.

If you speak much, the ocean of Qi will be empty and vacant.

If you enjoy much, the gall bladder and bladder will take in outside wind.
For a child of the Enlightenment, some of this seems a bit harsh: what could be wrong with thinking and laughing? I think it makes a bit more sense for a monk or villager in tight corners. There the goal is accommodation to some extent. You're just trying to live together without conflict. Note also that the problem is with excess and the goal is moderation, as in Aristotle. I also like the emphasis on the body, although the idea of the bladder taking in outside wind is pretty amusing. The idea that it’s really about being moderate and calm in tight living conditions comes across as the passage continues:
If you get angry much, the fascia will push the blood around.

If you delight much, the spirit and the heart will be deviant and unsettled.

If you mourn much, the hair and whiskers will dry and wither.

If you like much, the will and Qi will become one-sided and overloaded.

If you dislike much, the essence and power will race off and soar away.

If you engage yourself much, the muscles and meridians will be tense & nervous.

If you deal much, wisdom and worry will be all confused.

All these things attack people’s lives more than axes and spears; they diminish people’s destiny worse than wolves and wolverines.

I’d imagine wolverines are more trouble that delight, but that’s just me. The ideal seems to be a sort of peaceful balance. I think again of the golden mean. There’s also the idea of being somewhat detached or indifferent to the world.

Where Sun Simiato reminds me of Leviticus is that he also talks a lot about eating and cleanliness, in similarly specific rules. Perhaps the funniest rule in Leviticus- that the people of Moses should not eat owls- is less specific than Sun’s rule never to urinate facing east. But there’s a similar emphasis on bodily purity. The Old Testament atones for uncleanness through very specific animal sacrifices, and sometimes executions. This text feels they can lead to physical ailments. But, in both cases, I understand it as inattentive behaviors can lead to physical pollution and this can cause spiritual problems. Leviticus is notoriously harsh about male homosexuality and female menstruation, and Sun is a bit harsh about laughing and thinking. But I think this comes from the village milieu, and reads strangely to us because we live in a much different world.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Webster's Falls 1

Webster's Falls 1
Originally uploaded by D. S. Hałas
Here's a nice picture up on flicker of Webster's Falls, one of over 100 waterfalls in Hamilton. Our city is divided by the escarpment- Claire and I live about two blocks from it in fact. This means that we have a lot of waterfalls here. This is, of course, the same escarpment that Niagara Falls goes over. They are now trying to "brand" Hamilton as "The Waterfall Capital of the World". It's better than out current tag line, "You Can Smell the Steel Mills from the Highway!".


Underwater Santa for christmas in Japan

Well, it's getting to be that time again! To get everyone into the Christmas spirit, here's Santa Claus hugging an eel underwater.


"Death Comes to Town"

Just a note for all the other Kids in the Hall fans: they have an eight-episode murder mystery premiering on the CBC next spring. Death Comes to Town reunites all the Kids who also wrote and directed it. I will let all our non-Canadian friends know when it is available to watch (or download, shhhhh!) outside of Canuckia. It is safe to say, though, that I am excited about this.


Movie Notes: Trasgredire (2000)

Tinto Brass makes dirty movies.

However, his work has a certain cache because his dirty movies are very well-made, quite stylish, and tend more towards the tease than the pornographic. They're well-liked among a certain kind of feminist. It's interesting to me that his films often express a philosophy about female desire and infidelity that I'm not sure I remember seeing in any other movies. The vast majority of films (and quite a bit of literature) treat female infidelity as potent, but ultimately destructive, to others and usually to herself. It always ends badly.

And then you have Tinto Brass. In contrast, his films basically argue that female infidelity is not only healthy, but actually strengthens and enriches her primary relationship. He thinks monogamy is unnatural. So, for a cheating woman, the occasional fling is good for her libido, fun, and has no real effect on her love for her partner. For the cuckold, his unconfirmed suspicions arouse a tinge of jealousy, which ignites his sexual desire. So, their sex life is improved by increased desire on both ends. It's sort of a win-win situation. One can disagree with a lot here; although (to be a bit provocative) I'll admit that it does make a good bit of sense. And it's perhaps the most non-misogynist attitude I've ever seen in a dirty movie. Because his point seems to be that jealous men (the fountainhead of misogyny) just need to get over it.

Certainly that's the case in Trasgredire (released as "Cheeky!" in the UK, and "Transgressions" in the US). The main character, Carla (Yula Mayarchuk), has just moved to London from Venice in order to go to school, and is trying to get her boyfriend Matteo (Jarno Berardi) to come join her. She's quite a beautiful girl and, like a character in a sex romp fantasy, likes to flirt with whoever she can and go around in short skirts with no underwear (she's allergic, naturally). This behavior makes Matteo crazy with suspicion and jealousy. But, for her, it's all in good fun. Like most of Brass's female leads, she is frivolous, lighthearted, and sexy. The rest of us just take things too seriously.

So, this is all usual sex farce stuff thus far. Matteo, however, soon comes to realize, through a series of episodes (of course), that his jealousy really turns him on, so long as he's suspicious. And we discover, of course, that Carla really is fooling around with her female real estate agent, a stud at a party, a camera shop owner, a cute classmate, a masseur, et cetera! She's pretty okay with meaningless sex. But she still loves him madly. It's complicated. The decide the best idea is for her to promise to lie to him. Thus, she can continue fooling around, and he can stay a little bit jealous, and their sex life will be extraordinary.

Of course, it's easy to see where their plan might run into problems in the real world; or maybe not. I'm not going to tub-thump for cheating here! One thing I like about Tinto Brass though is that, unlike most dirty filmmakers, you get the feeling that he really adores women outside of his fantasy version of them. He sees a power they have that society often denies. I often see these young women around Hamilton who look so worn out and dejected, dressed so shabby and dumpy, and walking around with these angry-looking lugs; and I think, "If they only knew how sexy they really are, their boyfriends would be in real trouble!" Oh, but it would be fun though!


This is what I was bitching about.

Okay, so my post about global warming might not have been "controversial", but it seems like I wasn't exactly clear. Brian makes the reasonable point that serious commentators aren't talking about a conspiracy. Granted. But a lot of know-nothing commentators are. Here's an article from the New York Post on the "Global warming con job". In the article, the writer claims that global warming is an "imaginary beast", an "imaginary problem", and "fraud". (I guess we can debate about whether the NYPost is talking about an actual conspiracy, or just unintentional fraud.) My point was that people who make such claims (regularly) should have pretty airtight evidence for them. So, let's see what evidence the writer offers:

* A claim from the Science & Public Policy Institute that temperatures have recently increased. The Science & Public Policy Institute, incidentally, is a conservative think tank that was founded by Republican politicians with the express purpose of convincing the public that global warming might not be caused by humans and definitely does not require any action.

* Four sentences picked out of those 3,000 stolen emails with no context or even explanation of them. We don't even get their respective paragraphs or a link!

* The claim that CRU dumped data, for reasons that are never explained, and actually what sort of data is never explained; we're just to understand that it was nefarious, for sure.

And this is supposed to be much stronger evidence than NASA and all these other groups have offered for the theory of global warming! I just don't find this sort of cherry picked and misrepresented "evidence" as fully convincing as a lot of other people do, including this columnist. Should there be an investigation into what happened at the CRU? Absolutely, and there is one ongoing apparently. I definitely don't buy Al Gore's argument that all the questions about the CRU are "silly" either. However, after a few weeks of reading breathless articles along the lines of "Yippee! The global warming theory is collapsing!", I felt compelled to explain why I remain skeptical that the right wing think tank theory has won the day. But, we can agree (I think) that articles like this are not making a serious argument.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Proof of the Gay Agenda!

A scene from the film Run, Ronnie, Run that comes to mind whenever I hear people like that "ex-gay" fellow talk about the gay predatory agenda. It's sort of an uneven movie- but worth a rental for a few scenes like this one.


Doesn't the guy have a right to be wrong?

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Okay, I keep getting directed to this video in which a cable news talk show host (?) "demolishes" one of these "ex-gay" writers, by linking him to anti-gay laws in Uganda. I take it that people like this interview because they find it exhilarating and hard hitting. I'm a bit bothered by it actually.

I do get that the guy is a bit of a charlatan. He's one of these people that publishes pseudo-psychological books with little to no evidence supporting their claims. In his case, he has a degree in clinical therapy, as well as having once lived a homosexual lifestyle, since disowned. He thinks that qualifies him to promote himself as an expert in "reforming" homosexuals. He's apparently been disbarred for some sort of fraud and he, indeed, sounds like a bit of a snake oil salesman.

As for "reforming" gays, my sense of it is that there are just a lot more bisexuals in the population than anyone wants to admit. When someone lives in a heterosexual marriage for decades, gets divorced, and then settles down with a same sex partner, I just assume they were always bisexual, although I know plenty of people who assume they were "living a lie" before and have "come out" now. Similarly, when someone goes the other way, I just assume they're bi; not that they have been "cured". I think sexuality is probably pretty fluid; something that many monosexuals are frankly way too close-minded about.

So, as for "curing gays", yes, I think the guy is wrong on that count. But, in the first place, I'm not sure that he doesn't believe what he's saying. The interviewer seems to think that he's a con artist, and maybe he is. But I get the feeling here that he's fully bought the con. I think he's trying to convince others of something that he has convinced himself of. It's a small difference, but it's important.

With people like that, I think you have to use reason to try to show them where they're wrong, or at least, why you disagree with them. Instead, the interviewer is really trying to cast as much doubt on him as a person as she can. I think her hope is to dissuade the people who believe what he has to say. But, I'm not sure that the end result isn't that people who already agree with his nonsense will continue to believe in it, because she really just seems to be trying to shame the guy, as opposed to persuasively arguing that he's deluded. But, if he is deluded, what's the point in trying to shame him? How will that change his mind? Or the minds of any of the deluded people who agree with him? What is the point here?

I think the point is to rile up those people who already think that "ex-gays" are deluded. Okay, sure. Great. But where I think she goes over the line is in holding the guy responsible for the horrifying anti-gay laws in Uganda. 1. This guy goes around claiming that gays can "reform themselves"; and 2. the psychos in Uganda are using that to bolster their case that gays should be jailed or executed for not going straight. All of that is evident. But does that mean that the deluded guy is directly responsible for what the psychos are doing in Uganda? Because that's how I take it when she says that he has "blood on his hands", and I don't get the sense that the anti-gay extremists in Uganda really needed the imprimatur of US evangelicals and ex-gay ministries to do what they're doing. And I don't actually think the deluded guy was trying to give them his imprimatur to do those things. Maybe I'm just giving him the benefit of the doubt here.

I realize this is a hair-splitting and vague point I'm making, but I think there's a real difference between saying that the guy is wrong and deluded, which I agree with, and saying that he shouldn't be expressing his deluded opinions because other people with those opinions are trying to get their state to kill homosexuals, and it might encourage them. I think the attempt here is to put his deluded opinions beyond the pale by conflating them with other people's far more extreme opinions. And that's what bothers me.

Does anyone else see that? Am I being too kind? What are you supposed to do when you think that someone else's beliefs are deluded and wrong?