Justice in a Land of Ice and Fire, Revisited

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS up to Game of Thrones Episode 2 of Season 8 – Since the books haven’t gotten that far, this focuses on where writers Benioff and Weiss have taken the world of Ice and Fire.

Lo, many years ago, I took a (fanboy-glazed) gander at The Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire at roughly the halfway point through its arc, and particularly at the interesting things the series does with the concept of justice.  The im/possibility of justice in this feudal-ish world remains among the dominant themes, if not the dominant theme, and the series has continued to tease out some important questions worth thinking about.  Rereading my earlier piece, I’m struck that I still basically agree with its conclusion, that in Westeros atomistic, small-scale justice may be the best its inhabitants can hope for, and that might, in fact, be enough to preserve their humanity.

What the show gets right about feudal justice is that judicial power flows from the authority of the lord (or occasionally lady).  State structures are fairly weak, and the only checks on the power of lords are the lords above them in the hierarchy, the Church, and the weight of family and tradition.  But the show only shows us the top echelons of the feudal system of justice.  Where are the magistrates, market inspectors, sheriffs, and tax collectors solving petty disputes, punishing theft, and keeping the wheels of commerce turning?  It’s never implied that such positions don’t exist in Westeros, but they seem to have no impact on the story or characters, leaving the impression that the bottom-most level of the pyramid of power consists of the lord’s banners, and that justice only extends to the matters brought before the lord in question.  The advisors and vassals in the immediate orbit of the lord may hope to influence that justice, but those in the great voids between lordly courts are left to carve out their own little pockets of personal justice if they can.   It’s a feudalism with barely any institutions to make it a “system.”  An individual lord’s sense of justice thus has an outsize influence on the course of events – awful for the real world, but narrative gold if you want to tease out dramatic consequences of character choices.

A common criticism of the HBO series once the story passed the point of George R. R. Martin’s books is that it has become less an inversion of high-fantasy Tolkienism and more a reinforcement of it.  Undoubtedly, this has been driven by the need to keep things reasonably popular with the fanbase – don’t you dare kill off Brienne!  But I don’t think Benioff and Weiss have given up on turning the tables on fantasy conventions.  Fans have complained about some of the characters’ decisions over the last few seasons.  They don’t seem quite in character, they say, or they seem stupid.  In some cases, this may indeed be flawed writing – the dialogue is certainly less crackling than when they had Martin’s great source material to draw from.  But I think it’s in those moments where something feels a little off, where our sensibilities rebel, that we’re still seeing the work of inversion and critique play out.

Stark Beheads

Wielding the sword yourself may be noble from one perspective.  But from another, it is the aggregation of all judicial power in a single person and an unwillingness to build institutions of justice that can exist in the lord’s absence.


The heroes in typical high fantasy don’t start out at the top, or if they do, they are soon cast down by a villain or circumstance so that they can rise again from the bottom.  If they didn’t already know, they will learn early in their arc that they are destined to be the king/queen/savior of the land or others will thrust that destiny upon them in recognition of the hero’s apparent qualities – nobility, strength, leadership, ability to withstand flames, etc.  Jon and Daenerys both follow very typical fantasy heroic arcs, so one shouldn’t really be shocked when Martin, Benioff, and Weiss try to turn the tables on the trope.  Their hero-ness ends up complicating their attempts to bring justice into the world.

It’s hard not to see why Daenerys’ story has inspired fans of all genders.  While it hits many of the beats of male hero-savior stories, it also never loses sight that she is a woman shaped by the particular prejudices and indignities heaped upon women in this world (and ours).  The gender revolution she enacts in Khal Drogo’s bed empowers her to take up other missions of inversion – Could she, not Viserys, be the Dragon?  Can slavery be stopped?  Can social classes so long at odds with one another be encouraged to live in harmony?  Her own experiences, her successes, and some of her failures lead her to believe that she is the Revolution embodied.  It is her destiny to rule.

Importantly, her sense of destiny is earned.  She uses her family name as a tool, but doesn’t rest on that, emphasizing in her official title her own accomplishments – the Unburnt, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons.  And while she is familiar with the Prophecy of Azor Ahai, the Prince that was promised, she doesn’t particularly embrace it as personal belief, even if Tyrion and Varys are able to make use of the Red Priestesses to bolster public order in Daenerys’ absence.  This is an important difference between her and Stannis.  Stannis’ sense of destiny was born of entitlement – he should be king because that’s what the rules say, he’s the most qualified, plus he’s being told he’s Azor Ahai.  Any of these could apply to Daenerys, but these do not animate her sense of destiny the way her Revolution does, and the purpose of that Revolution is to bring justice to those to whom is has always been denied.

However, like Stannis, her sense of destiny is also her blind spot and the source of many of her missteps.  The Revolution is too caught up in her own person, and she sees herself as the irreplaceable part of it.  Her reluctance to discuss institutions of succession or even institutions of anything shows a certain arrogant assumption that she alone can save the world.  We get a sense of her values – she doesn’t like slavery, rape, or gladiatorial combat, but she never articulates a larger vision of justice.  Once you break the wheel, what replaces it?  Daenerys.  That’s all well and good in lands that she’s liberated herself (did she really leave behind a sustainable system in Essos, though?), but what happens when she goes to a foreign land with superior armies and dragons proclaiming regime change without having done the homework about the people she’s seeking to liberate?  Did she really expect them to welcome her with open arms?

And like revolutionaries before her, she interprets disagreements with her as counter-revolutionary plots.  Her Destiny, her Revolution should be self-evident to those with eyes to see.  In such cases, she goes straight to the harshest punishments – crucifixion, beheading, and incineration.  To her followers in Essos, she is exceptional, but to her intended subjects in Westeros, she has yet to convince them of her exceptionalism by word or deed.  And time may be running out for a charm offensive.

Daenerys Execution

Unlike the Stark boys, Daenerys like to branch out in her methods of execution: The Masters of Meereen crucified S4E3, the Khals of Vaes Dothrak are about to get a taste S6E4, Tarly Smores S7E5, and Mossador beheaded for robbing her of the opportunity to behead a Son of the Harpy S5E2. 

Jon Snow is similarly blinded by his own idealism.  He makes his decisions based on his notion of the Greater Good, the good of human beings surviving, namely.  In this he is clearly right, but his justifications are so high in the stratosphere that he often forgets to articulate them clearly to his followers, which gets him into trouble.  His confidence in his rightness also leads him to ignore the advice of his friends and family.  Tyrion may complain of the difficulty of restraining Daenerys’ impulsiveness, but at least she has the courtesy to let her advisors say their piece.  Jon has rarely changed his mind in response to counsel.  Jon’s decisions to bring the Free Folk south of the wall and to pardon the children of the bannermen who sided with the Boltons at the Battle of the Bastards are noble and also strategically “correct” for a number of reasons.  The Living need as many warriors as they can get, after all.  But he fails to persuade his followers of this, resorting to “This is the right thing to do, and my decision is final.”  That gets knives through his heart and grumbling bannermen.

One of the things the series calls into question is the high fantasy assumption that nobility is the barometer of justice and goodness.  Acting nobly can be short-sighted, and to the extreme can be paradoxically selfish.  Ned Stark’s adherence to his code of nobility is the cause of much of the chaos after the death of Robert.  Nobility has good intentions – by going high, you may shame your enemies and inspire your allies to get to your goal.  But it is predicated on viewing oneself and having others view you as morally superior.  And there’s the rub.  In a world where a shared sense of nobility shapes social norms, you might earn the esteem of others simply by following the code.  But Westeros is not such a world.

Court Judgement

Feudal court judgments in ideal form – testimony is given, advisors counsel, and sentences are rendered.  Robert judges Arya, Nymeria, and Lady S1E2, Tyrion flirts with the Moon Door S1E6, Ser Barristan is ejected from the Kingsguard S1E8, Daenerys is judged by Khal Moro S6E1, Tyrion counsels exile for Jorah S5E8, and Littlefinger finds himself without a ladder S7E7. 


Remember back in Season 1 when Sansa was just the most annoying character ever?  This was certainly not on Sophie Turner – who has grown tremendously as an actor and brought Sansa’s dramatic evolution to life over the years.  But the character was just so naïve, so self-absorbed, and in denial of the hollowness of the privilege she sought to partake in.  She was the poster-child of high fantasy fandom, romanticizing the feudal, patriarchal system she was embedded in and a victim of.  While the suffering she has undergone over the course of the series is not the source of her intelligence or her strength, the need to survive has forced her to recognize those resources and value and hone them rather than simply “being a lady.”  Now in Season 8, she’s the only one that seems grounded in reality, worrying about where they will find food to feed a vast army and two dragons in Winter, and questioning the impulsive, poorly thought-out decisions of Jon and Tyrion.  She is finally a master of the Game.  If only they would listen.

Remember back in Season 1 when Tyrion was the cleverest man alive?  By sheer wits alone, he managed to dull many of the brutalities of the others at court.  Powered by the twin talents of drinking and knowing things, he was able to see the injustices of the world for what they are and was also able to see the ways he could tease the strings of power just enough to make a difference.  But he’s made a series of disastrous choices as Daenerys’ Hand that call into question his wisdom, from allowing a temporary reprieve from the abolition of slavery during the uprising in Slavers’ Bay to trusting his sister to commit the Lannister army to the fight against the Dead.  His problem is that he’s lost much of his cynicism, as he’s admitted.  He’s become an idealist and has lost sight of the way this brutal, feudal world really works, and consequently how to shape it for the better.  He’s looking for ways to redeem people rather than mitigating the actions of the irredeemable.

Sansa and Tyrion have traded places, in perfect counterpoint.

Moments of public justice drive much of the show’s action – court proclamations, death sentences, and “trials” are the scenarios in which most of the characters are forged and make fateful choices.  But for the number of “trials” in the series, few of them are actual trials with actual witnesses and cross-examination.  Usually, the accused has been pressured into confessing, or the verdict has been decided before any defense can be given.  Tyrion’s trial for the murder of Joffrey comes closest to a true trial, complete with a small jury of leaders of differing opinions and limited opportunities to mount a defense.  But the cards are still stacked against him.  Right before the trial by combat begins, Tyrion has a conversation with Jaime that captures something at the core of Tyrion’s character and his take on this world’s justice.

The larger implications of the story of Orson Lannister are at least political and probably also theological.

I would eat my lunch in the garden, chewing my mutton to the music of “kun kun kun”. And when I wasn’t watching him, I was thinking about him. Father droned on about the family legacy and I thought about Orson’s beetles. I read the histories of Targaryen conquests. Did I hear dragon wings? No, I heard “kun kun kun”. And I still couldn’t figure out why he was doing it. And I had to know because it was horrible, that all these beetles would be dying for no reason.

At the end of the speech, he lets the beetle go (alright it’s technically a pill bug in this scene, not a beetle, you nitpickers!).  A small act of kindness, a small withholding of cruelty towards a creature of no consequence.  It’s perhaps the most transcendent moment in the entire series for me.  There is death all around, Tyrion is himself likely about to be sentenced to die unjustly, it’s just a bug, yet it is still possible to exercise compassion.  Yes, the series can be gratuitous in its displays of cruelty, rape, and degradation, but its heart is deeply humanistic.  And Tyrion has been at the heart of the humanism for most of the series.   Tyrion’s most important talent is the ability to divine other people’s motivations and use that knowledge to nudge (or shove) them in a new, more just direction.  That’s precisely what bothers him about Cousin Orson.  He can’t wrap his head around someone deriving pleasure from senseless destruction.

Fast forward to Season 7, and Tyrion is standing beside Daenerys on a hilltop after the victory at the Battle of the Goldroad.  He’s been horrified at the suffering his queen has been able to inflict on the forces of his former house.  In a great decision Weiss and Benioff have most of the battle be seen through Jaime and Bronn’s eyes.  For perhaps the first time, the audience is unsure of whom to really root for.  The Lannisters are supposed to be the “bad guys,” but here they are being burnt to cinders by a dragon in an instant and being cut down by barbarians that seem almost supernatural in their brutality.  Tyrion has had to watch from afar and wrestle with his own feelings as both his brother Jaime and his queen have come within a hair’s breadth of slaying the other.

For Tyrion, this battle was the “lesser of two evils” given that Daenerys’ first impulse was just to burn King’s Landing to the ground.  At least in this scenario, the charred corpses are fighting men and not civilians.  But now she’s dealing with the Tarlys, who refuse to bend the knee.  Rather than entertaining any of the less fiery options Tyrion offers on how to persuade or compel them to come around, the Dragon Queen burns them to a crisp as an example.  This isn’t the first or the last time she will summarily execute people based on her sense of justice, despite the protestations of her most faithful advisors.  It can be argued that her decision is “justified” – they are defying her in wartime.  Likewise, she has the “right” to sentence them.  But is fearful obedience preferable to admiring devotion?  Kun kun kun.

Why is Tyrion so glum?  As he confesses to Varys, he’s finding it hard to manipulate the strings of power the way he used to.  Daenerys is not motivated by the naked self-interest of the King’s Landing crowd, and therefore can’t be outfoxed by offering the usual incentives.  She’s an idealist and becoming increasingly inflexible in her revolutionary ideology.  He’s become an idealist, as well, believing in her end, if not her means.  What’s the cleverest man alive to do?


Sansa honed her intervention skills early, here saving Ser Dontos from a death by wine.  This relationship pays off for her later (sort of). S2E1

Sansa, meanwhile, has come to a place where she is finally able to enact some justice of her own – and it is sometimes brutal.  It is perhaps a sign of Sansa’s journey and the way it has conditioned our sense of justice as the audience that many of us were pleased to see Ramsay and Littlefinger meet their bloody ends.  Both men did unspeakable things to her and others, and they “deserved” it.  While these executions were vengeance, they were not only vengeance.  These were destructive forces the realm is better off without.

If Tyrion’s talent is ferreting out people’s motivations, Sansa’s is building relationships and using those relationships to reshape motivation. Particularly in the “trial” (not even close to a trial) of Littlefinger, Sansa crafts an argument using clear evidence in an effort to convince the lords and ladies of the court at Winterfell of the justice of the inevitable verdict.  Littlefinger is not particularly popular with that audience to begin with, but, nevertheless, she dots her Is and crosses her Ts in order to have the sentence feel like it is the will of the group and not just the capricious whim of the Lady of Winterfell.  Much as Tyrion teased out Cersei’s mole on the Small Council all those years ago, Sansa utilizes patience, wit, and just the right amount of deception to trap her quarry.  The bare reality is that her judgment is no less summary than Joffrey deciding to lop off Ned’s head, but she passes public judgment in such a way that it strengthens the bonds between her and the Stark banner(wo)men rather than antagonizing or threatening them.


In the trial of Jaime we see all four styles interact.  Ultimately, Sansa’s method of building justice through loyalty and relationships of mutual obligation wins the day.  S8E2


Beyond critiquing the human justice of feudal fantasy, Game of Thrones has also played with the audience’s sense of meta-justice.  Most fantasy literature has tended to adhere to the more conservative notions in modern literature, particularly the idea that good should triumph and that evil should be punished.  But the most interesting characters are always those that fall to evil or those who undergo a redemptive arc.  How will the Creators – Martin, Benioff, Weiss, and the fans who harass them on social media – ultimately shape the cosmic justice of the world?  (To my mind, Justice demands that the White Walkers annihilate everything, but that’s just me.)

Theon and Jaime have had slow but steady redemptive arcs.  They have frequently backslid but have crossed the threshold of being sympathetic characters.  Cersei, interestingly, has had redemptive opportunities, particularly growing from her love for her children, but that has clearly all burned to ash.

Perhaps the more portentous reversal of character arc belongs to Melisandre.  As the inflexible and fanatical muse to the inflexible and fanatical Stannis, she has been an uncategorical villain up through her most villainous act – the burning at the stake of Shireen Baratheon, arguably the most painful moment in the series.  It was foreshadowed seasons ahead of time if you were paying attention, and a purely innocent and trusting child does not belong in a place like Westeros, and certainly not as part such a cold and unloving family.  Still, the moment hurt like hell – more than the Red Wedding.

But after Stannis’ loss, Melisandre is broken and wracked with doubt, an emotion with which she is totally unfamiliar.  She still has faith in the Lord of Light and that she is meant to be a servant of His plan, but she has lost faith in her ability to correctly divine the will of the Lord in her fiery visions.  Will she find redemption in service?

More important than the question of who takes the Iron Throne is whether our beloved characters get some sense of justice for themselves, although this will undeniably pit them against one another.  Walkers take them all!


A less conventional court judgment.  S7E2


The Heathers Conundrum

Heathers 1

It’s been a while since I’ve posted in the blog.  I try not to post raging screeds on here, and these times call for a lot of raging screeds – that’s for Facebook or Twitter.  Instead, I work hard to keep my posts here measured and thoughtful.  There’s a significant backlog of ideas I’d like to write about, but let me start with something topical.

Heathers is an amazing film (the original (1988), not the rather concerning planned Remake?).  It was surreal, raw, and touched something painfully and laughably real about high school life, particularly life for people who are “different.” The Breakfast Club tackled high school cliques several years earlier, and while it’s dramatically a better film, that is, had characters with much more emotional depth, the overall message of The Breakfast Club is “Gee, everyone is facing problems, maybe we just need to reach across the aisle and empathize just a little.”  But in Heathers Kum is definitely not Baya, and it pulls no punches.

The characters are designed to be shallow and utterly and surreally devoid of empathy.  The only character even capable of flawed empathy is the protagonist, Veronica (Winona Ryder in one of her best performances).  There are a few characters worthy of empathy – Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock, Heather McNamara, Betty Flynn – but they aren’t given opportunities in the story to model empathy, they rather serve as opportunities for Veronica to develop hers.  The “prophet” of empathy, Pauline Fleming, the “hippy” on the school faculty, wants to hold group mourning sessions (with press recording) and help everyone get in touch with their feelings (to the intense eye-rolling of the rest of the apathetic faculty).  Students are only too willing to get out of class to play along.  Fleming states that, “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.”  The earned cynicism of the film scorns the liberal “let’s all just hug” approach as much as the conservative “Goddamit, even the football guys were fags?” approach.  Adults just don’t get it, and neither do most of the kids.

There are some very dark themes in this movie, and even at the time I first saw it, my genuine laughter was tinged with just as genuine discomfort (by design, I suspect).  Veronica, despite wanting to run with the popular trio of Heathers, despises the way their social power is used to demean and further marginalize the cliques further down the hierarchy.  They force her to use her talent for mimicking the handwriting of others to create embarrassing fake love notes simply for amusement.  She confesses in her diary to fantasizing about killing Heather Chandler, the Queen Bitch, who makes Veronica and the other two Heathers act upon her cruel whims.

J.D. (Christian Slater) is only to happy to oblige, and so begins an adaptation of Faust on par with Little Shop of Horrors – the innocent desire for justice and kindness becomes a brick road of blood and moral decline.  J.D. drags Veronica into being an accomplice to a number of homicides, staged as the suicides of popular people that “just weren’t understood,” thanks to Veronica’s ability to mimic handwriting.  But knocking down one Heather only apotheosizes her after death and raises another in her place.  Likewise, the prominent suicide prompts some people who truly weren’t understood and the victims of Heathers’ (and Veronica’s unwilling) bullying to attempt suicide, culminating in J.D.’s plot to blow up the entire school as some sort of symbolic teen message to an uncaring adult world.  Veronica breaks free of his influence, foils his plot, claims the crown of popular girl, but in the service of empathy to the marginalized (a happy, but bitter and qualified, ending).

An amazing film, but a squirm fest for anyone who has lived through the endless stream of school shootings since Columbine.  One of the things that has upset me about the response to the most recent (as of this writing) school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida is the compartmentalization of school shootings from other mass shootings.  It has allowed the NRA and opponents of any gun control to deflect the underlying gun problem in our overall society to the specific problems of high school culture.  So, age limits and armed teachers are proposed, which in the best of scenarios may only reduce mass shootings (and overall gun deaths) by a miniscule fraction (still, a miniscule fraction is a step farther than the NRA has let us come before, so, sure, let’s entertain the ideas for a moment).

Heathers 2'

But, as much as I want to embark on a raging screed against the idea of arming teachers, I told you at the beginning that wasn’t my goal here.  So, despite the overall problem of gun violence not being a problem specific to schools, I want to focus on a high school specific dimension of the issue – the high school revenge fantasy.

Heathers didn’t originate this fantasy, but it expresses it in an honest and dissectible form.  Veronica, the most able to see the cruelty and evil of the teenage amplification of the general human trend to hierarchize and marginalize, is also the most able to articulate a fantastic destruction of that system – kill the bullies, tear it all down.  It’s important to note, that at every turn, Veronica does not actually want her fantasies to become reality.  She doesn’t actually want anyone to die, and J.D.’s Mephistophelian literal interpretation of her fantasies eventually forces her to confront the implications of her fantasy.

But seriously, didn’t most of us have some version of that in high school?  In my case, I created haikus for each member of my (relatively small, geez who writes hundreds of haikus?) class imagining creative death scenarios for each – this included some of my best friends.  It was meant to be humorous, and I shared it with some friends, including those mentioned.  It was sort of a Gashlycrumb Tinies sort of thing.  Some others in my class designed bombs in their spare time, which they tested on local wildlife – some of them went on to become rather successful engineers with happy and loving families.  Nowadays, they and I would probably be ferried off to the guidance counselor’s office.  I would hope they would probe more deeply before red-flagging us or sending us off to the proposed asylums.

It’s a dilemma that some of the same sorts of people who have a robust fantasy life can either be the best at delineating fantasy from reality or the worst.  What is a parent, teacher, guardian, or security guard armed to the teeth supposed to do with that fact?  Heathers, unfortunately, offers a rather cynical view.  Parents, teachers, and fellow students are so caught up in their own petty concerns that they are blind to the crisis of meaning of those very few students who are, in fact, grappling with questions on meaning, positive or negative.

In reality, I think people are capable of more empathy than Heathers allows, even if we live in a very empathy-challenged era of our history.  But, even the brave high schoolers from Stoneman Douglas cry that everyone knew the shooter was weird and dangerous.  Yes, the many tips given to local law enforcement seem to have been insufficiently investigated in this case.  But what if we start harassing everyone deemed “weird and dangerous”?  In some communities that might mean people who “look at you funny” or “acted like some autistic kid” or were seen “dressing like a goddamn girl” or were really into Japanese anime cosplay.  In this case, the reports of weirdness perhaps needed to be investigated further, but this is a fine line, and in the hands of the wrong people it can become a state-sponsored sanction of further bullying.  Even though, for though love of the gods, a better mental health system in our schools is desperately needed, that must be done without stigmatizing those who are simply not the norm – and as Heathers grasps, not even the apparently normal are really normal.

How do we distinguish, and how do we balance?  This is the Heathers conundrum.

The Landscapes of Pokémon Go


Creatures encountered during my walk around my neighborhood lake.

I will go on the record as pro-PoGo.  Pokémon Go has taken the globe by storm, leading to reactions of delight and panic from observers.  While not the first, and certainly not the last, “augmented reality” game that uses real world space as the backdrop for digital entertainment, it’s clear that this is the first to burst into the consciousness of the general public.  Businesses, churches, parks, and recreation centers are scrambling to discover if and how the phenomenon could aid their missions.  And lawyers, law enforcement, and private citizens are scrambling to deal with the real problems of trespassing and public safety.  To be honest, as a game, I don’t expect it to have too much longevity.  It’s certainly not an in-depth strategy game or 100-hour role-playing game (my usual tastes), but then again, most mobile games aren’t.  Now that the concepts are out there, we will likely have dozens of other attempts to capitalize on augmented reality that will surpass this one.  But it is definitely a “happening” if not a gargantuan shift like the growths of MMO’s over the last two decades.

I’ve spent some time wandering around my home town and around my place of work (after work, of course, ahem) hunting for the cartoonish creatures that can spawn almost anywhere.  I think I was just slightly too old to get hit with Pokémon fever when the card game first came out, and I confess to not really knowing what to do with these creatures other than collect them and level them up.  I may screw up the courage to try to battle another creature one day, or I might not.  So, I don’t really yet grasp the difference between Rattata and Pidgeotto.  But I took the opportunity to explore the game world, talk to other players congregating around lures, and just trying to process the experience.  There’s a lot people are talking about, including the social potential of the game, possible health applications, and the unintended criminal use of the app.  What has interested me most, however, has been the effect of the augmented reality map on the experience of space.  It inverts how the player may typically value the places and objects around him or her.  The TLDR historical marker transforms into a place a succor, and the half-rotten picnic table down the street becomes a site of epic conflict.

The first thing that jumped out at me in the app was the map design.  The basic map is essentially the standard two-dimensional Google map with a cartoony color palette and simpler shapes for streets and buildings.  But hovering cubes emerge three-dimensionally out of the surface, which represent the pokéstops where players can resupply when they are in close-enough physical proximity.  On the horizon rise frenetically-rotating ornate towers, reminiscent of Dr. Manhattan’s Martian palace from Watchmen.  These are the gyms, points of contestation where the three teams into which players divide themselves (red, yellow, blue) pit their Pokémon against one another for dominance and temporary ownership of that gym.


Carptastic Bench

The gyms tend to be placed at prominent public gathering places in the real world: parks, school playgrounds, rec centers, shopping malls, etc.   However, the choices of where to place the more numerous pokéstops strike me as nothing short of inspired.  Sure, many of them are no surprise: popular retail stores, churches, government buildings, smaller parks, and playgrounds.  But a significant number of them are “landmarks” that usually fall beneath our notice and thus don’t really “mark land” for us in any meaningful way.  They are benches dedicated to loved ones, plaques beneath trees planted in someone’s honor, overgrown milestones, historical markers, sites or buildings designated of historical or cultural significance (but maybe not much to look at), and, yes, even cemeteries (more on these below).

In his comparative work, the historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith often makes use of the metaphor of the map vs. territory.  In somewhat simplified terms, territory is relatively undifferentiated space.  The creation of a map requires choosing a perspective with which to ascribe meaning to the territory.  Such and such a myth, historical event, or even simply the name of its discoverer/mapper makes this mountain different from that mountain.  It is no longer space, but place.

I’ve often thought of Smith’s discussion of the connection between map and territory as our modes of navigation have transformed so rapidly in the past two decades.  Differences in navigation styles have traditionally been ascribed to gender (though we should take all that with a healthy dose of salt).  Women are said to prefer to navigate by landmarks (“Take the road through the center of town by the strip mall, turn left at the gas station, and go just beyond the Episcopal church”), while men are said to prefer more mechanical directions (“Go north on Route 32, turn west at Malcolm St., and go two more blocks”).  But with Google maps and in-car navigators, we have moved more and more in the “male” direction and perhaps even beyond it.  Landmarks and, in some cases, street names themselves are no longer necessary in a GPS-guided navigation system (“Go straight for two miles, turn left in half a mile, you will arrive in 200 meters, you’re here.”)  It’s only the numbers – distance, traffic density, speed, direction – that matter.  One of the effects of this has been sense of dis-place-ment.  Point A and point B are important, but the path between them is determined more by efficiency than scenic interest, sensory comfort, or narrative possibility.  For many of us, the spaces between become as good as featureless.

That’s why the map in Pokémon Go and perhaps in its future augmented-reality successors strikes me a potentially revolutionary.  It’s returned a sense of place and imposed a map on territory we’ve begun to ignore, and it’s using the very same GPS technology that has tended to pull us in the opposite direction.  Suddenly that rusty looking water tower has become a place of interest, a place to retrieve virtual supplies and perhaps capture an elusive monster hidden from the mundane eye.  It would be too hyperbolic to say the game is re-enchanting the world, but I think it is awakening many to the realization that technology has caused us to move about the world in increasingly alienated ways, making us forget the times as a child where wonder could lurk behind every bush, and we want to remember.


Pokestops are the blue cubes dotting the landscape; a monster to capture is center left; and the towering gym can be seen toward the horizon.  (from NPR.org article


One of the more scandalous stories to emerge in the game’s first weeks was the designation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and Arlington National Cemetery as pokéstops.  I don’t think anyone would disagree with the museum’s insistence that the game is not an appropriate activity at the site, and they already ask visitors to minimize the usage of digital devices in general, which can distract other visitors.  But as I’ve taken a look at the patterns of the game’s landscape, I’m beginning to think that the designation was the unintended consequence of a design feature rather than a design flaw.  Much of the map has been inherited from Niantic’s previous game, Ingress, another augmented reality game with a science fiction setting that has two teams establish their territories by controlling portals (pokéstops) through which an alien energy is seeping into the world.  Players in the early stages of Ingress’ development were encouraged to submit suggestions of local sites of cultural, artistic, or historical importance for portals, and many players seem to have taken a no-stone-unturned approach to unearth interesting and neglected places in their community.

I’m reminded of the Miyazaki film Sprited Away (arguably his best film) in which the young Chihiro is reluctantly moving to a new home with her parents.  On the way, they become lost in a landscape peppered with spirit shrines leading to an abandoned theme park.  But the same location is also a vacation spa for spirits, and Chihiro soon finds herself trapped in the spirit world, requiring courage and friendship to escape.  While landscapes dotted with spirit shrines or adventures in a parallel spirit world are hardly unique to Japanese culture, there does seem to be a certain Japanese aesthetic flavoring the map of Pokémon Go (as perhaps could be expected, given its origins).  But the aesthetic translates in unexpected ways.  We’re not really accustomed to thinking about park benches or memorial tree plaques as “shrines” exactly, but it wouldn’t be wrong to call them that.  And one doesn’t really need to know the story of Edna Petunia Crumplebottom, to whom the bench is dedicated, to sit on it, play around it, and simply appreciate the fact that this place is/was/can be important to someone.

Human beings honor their dead in such vastly different ways, from keeping grandma’s bones in the living room to scattering ashes at a distant location of importance to the deceased.  American cemeteries have increasingly become rationalized and rule-bound, placing limits on headstone sizes & shapes, what kinds of flowers can be placed and when, when flags are or are not appropriate.  Some of this stems from the economic realities of maintaining a cemetery.  Memorials flat on the ground make a riding mower more feasible.  And roaming around disposing of stinky dead flowers at random times may not be the best use of the custodians’ time.  But it also reflects the ethos of our gated subdivisions, in which egalitarianism is equated with uniformity.  You can’t have a pink roof, because then I’d have to get a purple roof, and property values will plummet!  So grey rooves for *everyone*.  While many of us visit the graves of loved ones or explore historical graveyards out of interest, cemeteries are mostly things that retreat into our daily space, forgotten, and current design trends seem to facilitate this.  They are no longer located around new churches or city centers (again, partly but not completely, for practical purposes).

But there are many cultures around the world and many American sub-cultures that approach the necropolis differently.  They are places to visit, have a picnic, decorate, and embellish. (While a different time and place entirely, Peter Brown’s Cult of the Saints discusses how early Christians’ tendency to perform so many communal activities in proximity to their dead disgusted the necrophobic pagan Romans.  These tensions are not new.)  While I would be more than cautious about letting hordes of pokéhunters trample across our nations’ cemeteries, I wonder if it’s not worth pushing back a little against the reflexive tut-tut at the thought of fun happening in our public memorial spaces. Cemeteries need not be morose locations, even if we don’t want them to become amusement parks either.

Certainly in places where the weight of death overshadows the memorial of life – the Holocaust museum, Arlington Cemetery, the Vietnam Memorial – it makes sense to ask visitors to have courtesy for other visitors in somber reflection (and these places already do – no need to make special poképronouncements beyond reminders of existing protocol).  And I imagine Niantic will soon have a mechanism allowing places to request removal as a pokéstop, just as they are working on allowing businesses to get added to the list (the landscape of consumption is another topic altogether!)  But places like the Lincoln Memorial, our national parks, the zoo, and so on, already play host to hosts of screaming children.  They can certainly handle some Pokémon trainers.  And including local memorials dedicated to a community’s past citizens in an enchanted game map need not be a desecration, but rather a way to keep our dead (collectively if not individually) among the community of the living.


Why Kim Davis Matters

I’m a late bloomer. I finally came out to myself, my closest friends, and family about 11 years ago, when I was living in Ohio. It was – and still kind of is – a difficult scrabbling out of the darkness. I was lucky: my friends and both parents and sibling unerringly expressed their unconditional love, even if they took a while to process the whole thing.

Most others, particularly in the Bible Belt, but really across the nation, are not quite so lucky. LGBT youth are disproportionately likely to be homeless and victims of suicide – a result not primarily of their inner turmoil but of the rejection and bullying of those who are most responsible for protecting and nurturing them.

11 years ago, at least for traditional romantics like me, coming out included mourning the “life that could have been” – picket fence, 2.5 children, vacations to Disney World, evenings rocking on the porch watching your grandchildren. While you could go on and have a reasonably happy life, the life you grew up expecting was to be forever out of your reach.

But some people fought back, fought for the notion that love is love, and family is family, and the concrete evidence that such was the case mounted up. Eventually, after years of struggle, the Supreme Court itself ruled that marriage is marriage – not redefined, but reinforced.

Not unexpectedly, people like Kim Davis showed up, the embodiment of every bully who beat us up in school (luckily not me, but I wasn’t out at the time), every supervisor whose comments required you to hide yourself, every radio personality who railed against your existence every day, every constitutional amendment author who placed the motion on the Ohio ballot to get Bush reelected.

The rare moment that the state has our back, Kim Davises step up and remind us that the hate will be never-ending, and that the powers-that-be will be powerless to stop the daily injustices. We have to live with that, but don’t ask us not to be angry, indignant, or to have a little Schadenfreude that we can now pretend she is a cast member of Orange is the New Black.

Laughing at Religion

One of the best segments on the old Daily Show was Stephen Colbert’s “This Week in God” – I wanted to have a clip here but WordPress and Comedy Central’s embedding system do not play well together.

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine asked a question on his feed: Are his religious friends more offended that his atheism means he doesn’t believe in any religion or that it means he doesn’t believe in their religion? I felt I had something to offer to the discussion from a historical perspective. In both pre-modern Christianity and Islam an accusation of atheism was usually considered far worse than an accusation of heresy, false religion, or sometimes even witchcraft, although technically the sin would have been spreading atheism rather than the unbelief in itself. However, instead of just saying that, I decided to be a little cheeky, as one sometimes is on Facebook. I conjured up hyperbolic images of demonic infidels, burnings at the stake, and suffering Presbyterians.

Another friend decided to call me out, calling my comment snarky and unproductive. On reflection, I decided that he was correct. Rather than facilitating the discussion, it put more pious friends, the actual target of the original question, on the defensive, perhaps leading to more guarded answers. I apologized and tried to rephrase my idea in a less dismissive tone. But this raised another question for me: Why did I think that kind of humor could facilitate the discussion in the first place? I actually think it can, but as with any humor, context and timing is everything. We live in an era when much of our substantive social debates, including debates about religion, are conducted by comedians, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Sarah Silverman, and Bill Maher. But where I find Colbert hilarious when he talks about religion, I can’t stand Maher, whom I see as a mean-spirited bigot. Why?

Humor is so interconnected with individual taste that you can’t really deduce universal rules. But I think an exploration of examples from across the spectrum might tease out some of the potential relationships between humorist, audience, context, and social effect.

Sam is not amused.


In the classroom, I’ve deliberately used irreverent humor for a pedagogical purpose. Despite all the disrespectful things said about Islam and other religions in certain corners of American culture, I’ve found that on the whole American students are reluctant to ask critical questions of religions other than their own – perhaps even more than they would with their own religions – although my friends in Biblical Studies may beg to differ. In fact, this is what I see as the central flaw in the way religion is discussed in American public space: People who aren’t seeking understanding speak loudly and disrespectfully while people who are seeking understanding avoid speaking up for fear of causing offense. My own response is to de-sacralize the sacred with humor.

The “Sacred” is an important concept in comparative religious studies, although different thinkers use the term in slightly different ways. While some emphasize the sacred as a person, place, or thing experienced as originating from a numinous realm, others, like Jonathan Z. Smith, suggest the idea of the sacred arises not from some passive experience but rather from the active reverence directed toward a sacred object. This accounts for why one person’s sacred object may seem mundane to another. Furthermore, the nature of this reverence means that the sacred must not be subjected to the types of attention given to everyday people, places, or things. You cannot look at it, touch it, listen to it, walk upon it, enter it, talk to it or about it, depict it, question it, or say its name without either being a special person or making oneself special in some way, such as through initiation, purification, education, and so forth.

One of the functions of humor is to take its object down a peg. This is its value as well as its danger. Humor can be used to keep down people already low on the social totem pole, just as it can be used to corrode the prestige of the rich and powerful. As the late great Joan Rivers was fond of saying, laughter can be a way to cope with even the most serious or horrible things. The Onion’s finest moment was its first post 9/11 issue, poking its satirical finger directly into the fresh wound, and it was gloriously healing. In a more everyday setting, humor can “break the ice” by lowering the tenor of a situation, making it less formal or tense. But still, ethnic jokes, blond jokes, fat jokes, and others of that type too often function to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and concrete material inequalities. As I suggested earlier, the difference between the appropriate and the inappropriate humor boils down to taste and context. But in all these cases, humor functions in essentially the same way: it tears things down.

People who teach about Islam tend to get annoyed by the general public obsession with Islamic veiling practices. Titles of news segments about “looking under the veil of Arabia,” “unveiling Islam,” or “removing the veil of secrecy from al-Qa’ida” hint at both assumptions about sexual repression in Muslim cultures and the titillation that comes from wondering what’s underneath. It’s all incredibly creepy when you think about it. Still, we know that the students are going to be coming in with veils on the brain, but yet they won’t necessarily know how to go about asking about it. At the beginning of one segment on gender relations, I started by telling the story of how I once tried on a burqa and proceeded to bump into everything. Everyone chuckles (whether out of true amusement or mere politeness doesn’t matter), but the most profane question is now on the table: How do they even see in those things? From there, the discussion can open up and bring in all sorts of different perspectives. I’ve signaled that the goal is not getting them to like or dislike the veil – and that it’s perfectly OK not to like it – but rather to understand a range of perspectives on the practice. No question will be considered offensive as long as it’s in the service of learning.

When teaching about Muhammad, I like to pull out a hadith (traditional narrative about the Prophet passed down by his followers) in which Muhammad is the butt of a practical joke by his wives. According to the narrative, Muhammad had a sweet tooth and loved honey-flavored drinks, which led him to spend a little bit more time with one of his wives (which one varies in the different versions) who exploited this fact by plying him with honey drinks. A’isha and several other wives decided to nip this in the bud by scheming to convince their husband that the honey beverage gave him bad breath and made him less sexy. He fell for it hook, line, and sinker, swearing off honey until their ruse was later revealed. While perhaps not a rip-roarer, it nevertheless allows us a chuckle at Muhammad’s expense. One of the reasons I like sharing this particular story is that I think it is originally intended to cause exactly such a chuckle. It’s an insider joke as much as an outsider joke. The hadith that highlight the Prophet’s home life paint a portrait of a human, relatable man suffering the everyday travails of married life. A real tension in Islamic thought stems from trying to revere and emulate Muhammad without making an idol out of him. The transmitters of this hadith take him down a notch without actually maligning him (Hadith involving A’isha do this a lot – her acerbic wit comes through so strongly that it’s easy to believe some real trace of her personality has made it through the hagiographies). Likewise, students of Islam ought to feel comfortable talking about Muhammad as a human being and probing what made him tick (to the degree you can based on what sources we have) if they seek to understand him and his followers.

In the classroom, the overall purpose is not the same as in a comedy club. At the end of the day, we do want students to have a healthy respect for the traditions and people they’re studying. At the same time, too much respect, or rather the wrong type of respect, can actually hamper learning. Humor is not the only way to cut through the untouchability of the sacred, but it can be effective, albeit potentially risky. For the downside is that for many within a tradition such treatment is the very definition of blasphemy, even if you’re not taking it to Rushdie-esque levels. I like to think I usually pull off the right balance, but I also freely admit that plenty of attempts fall flat or go too far in one direction or the other.

Religious figures get more than their fair share of lampooning on South Park, but we (usually, sometimes) love them for it


Despite my prodigious comedic talents, my humor in the classroom or on Facebook feeds is incredibly tame compared what you can get away with on cable television these days. The work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone provides some great test cases for how humor can increase or fail to increase understanding of religions and religious sensibilities. South Park is a fascinating litmus test. I doubt there is anyone who has not actually been offended by something in the show sooner or later, but I also doubt if anyone who has seen the show has not been rewarded quite often with deep belly laughs. Religion is one of their favorite targets, and their perspective is certainly not that of believers, but nor is their depiction devoid of human empathy. The genius of Parker and Stone stems from their ability to invert their own inversions, flipping the mirror back at the audience, subverting the attitudes that made the comedy possible in the first place. It doesn’t always work – like all humor – but they’ve developed a very effective formula.

A great example can be seen in the infamous Muhammad episode (Episode 201, April 2010), which was censored by Comedy Central when it first aired and has not been aired at all since then (although leaked versions appear from time to time, I happened to watch it on its original night). Much like The Satanic Verses, the episode strangely explores the very type of controversy that came to engulf its fate in the real world. Stone and Parker received “credible” death threats from a fringe group based on the first part of their story in episode 200, leading the network to heavily edit 201, which in turn resulted in cries of censorship. The plot involves all of South Park’s past celebrity targets (Michael Jackson, Rob Reiner, Mel Gibson, Bono, Pope Benedict, robot Barbara Streisand, et al.) led by Tom Cruise suing the town in order to force them to arrange a meeting with the Prophet Muhammad. Cruise’s scheme is to subject the Prophet to a process that will extract the mysterious “goo” that renders Muhammad immune to ridicule and transfer it to the other celebrities (such a brilliant idea!). Throughout 200, Muhammad only appears hidden in a bear costume to disguise his identity. In 201, he always has a big black bar with “Censored” on it super-imposed on what was presumably the bear costume. There could almost be no better illustration of the concept of the Sacred that I discussed above, that what makes something sacred is not necessarily some inherent trait, but rather how people treat (or don’t treat) it. The South Park crew takes this idea a step further, at least in the uncensored version of the “final lesson” speech that was never aired.

KYLE: That’s because there is no goo, Mr. Cruise. You see, I learned something today. Throughout this whole ordeal, we’ve all wanted to show things that we weren’t allowed to show, but it wasn’t because of some magic goo. It was because of the magical power of threatening people with violence. That’s obviously the only true power. If there’s anything we’ve all learned, it’s that terrorizing people works.

JESUS: That’s right. Don’t you see, gingers, if you don’t want to be made fun of anymore, all you need are guns and bombs to get people to stop.

SANTA: That’s right, friends. All you need to do is instill fear and be willing to hurt people and you can get whatever you want. The only true power is violence.

The litigants in episode 200: I find it interesting that Mel Gibson is one of the few characters in South Park that, like Saddam Hussein, are animated with a photograph of their heads.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with the premise that respect for the Prophet needs to be predicated on violence (see my take on the Danish cartoons below). But it is true that the idea of the sacred frequently serves as a tool of power and social control. It’s important to note, though, that Muhammad is actually not the butt of the joke in this episode, although he’s certainly not an object of reverence either. Rather it is those who want to avoid ridicule to the point of threatening others. We’re looking at you, Mr. Cruise.

In an effort to combat the local belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS, Elder Cunningham *slightly* embellishes the Book of Mormon by suggesting that God told Joseph Smith that all he had to do to cure himself of AIDS was to *ahem* “have intercourse” with a frog.

Their double-edged sword really shines in the musical The Book of Mormon, a long form treatment of religion. It is as crude, profane, and irreverent as South Park (without the bleeps!), but it humanizes religious belief in a way the audience may not have been suspecting. The plot follows a pair of young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda, where they encounter AIDS, poverty, female circumcision, and violent warlords. It pokes fun at all the idiosyncrasies of the Mormon Church, such as its attitudes toward sexuality, concept of divinity, and conflicted history with converts of African descent. But unexpectedly, it is religious belief that ends up empowering the characters to face and overcome their obstacles. In what I think is the best song of the show, the main female character Nabulungi speaks of the inspiration she feels after learning of the early Mormons’ trek to the promised land of Salt Lake City.  (Listen to it here.)

“Sal Tlay Ka Siti”

My mother once told me of a place
With waterfalls and unicorns flying
Where there was no suffering, no pain
Where there was laughter instead of dying

I always thought she’d made it up
To comfort me in times of pain
But now I know that place is real
Now I know its name

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
Not just a story Momma told
But a village in Oo-tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to Paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

I can imagine what it must be like
This perfect, happy place
I’ll bet the goat meat there is plentiful
And they have vitamin injections by the case

The warlords there are friendly
They help you cross the street
And there’s a Red Cross on every corner
With all the flour you can eat

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
The most perfect place on Earth
The flies don’t bite your eyeballs
And human life has worth
It isn’t a place of fairytales
It’s as real as it can be
A land where evil doesn’t exist
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

And I’ll bet the people are open-minded
And don’t care who you’ve been
And all I hope is that when I find it
I’m able to fit in
Will I fit in?

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
A land of hope and joy
And if I want to get there
I just have to follow that white boy

You were right, Momma
You didn’t lie
The place is real
And I’m gonna fly

I’m on my way
Soon life won’t be so shitty
Now salvation has a name
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

Although the character seems naïve and unsophisticated, the song is nevertheless poignant and powerful. It hits the balance perfectly, in my opinion. It points squarely at the appeal and empowerment of apocalyptic narratives in which the crappy world we’re stuck in is replaced by a this-worldly utopia or other-worldly paradise. By imagining that things could be different and better, Nabulungi is no longer complacent in accepting the injustices around her, and she becomes a leader and agent of social change. Other numbers highlight the “Top 10” of religious themes, such as the origin of evil, the derivation of ethics from sacred stories, and the tension of differing scriptural interpretations. While it’s certainly not ground-breaking theology, the religious psychology of the characters is surprisingly multi-dimensional.

To my mind, what is most subversive about The Book of Mormon isn’t its skewering of religious faith. In fact, despite its irreverence, I wouldn’t consider it polemical against Mormonism or Christianity in general, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, it attempts to get the audience to come out on the other side of the experience with a certain amount of empathy for people and ideas they were simply expecting to be able to mock. This is why I think Bill Maher fails in his critiques of religion. His one-note shtick is basically to say, “Look how stupid those religious people are.” Parker and Stone might also say that, but they don’t stop there, opting instead to humanize and complicate the objects of their satire. Sure, they remain abject and ridiculous, but the audience is prevented from simply adopting an attitude of smug superiority. If they had a credo, I think it might be “Ridiculousness and stupidity are part of the universal human condition.” Interestingly, the Latter Day Saints leadership responded to the production with a good deal of equanimity, even to the point of advertising in the playbill that “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”

LDS Advertisement: Taking it in stride and showing us how it’s done.


While Mormons have certainly experienced oppression and violence in their history, in 21st-century America there is no fear that riled-up audiences will leave a production of The Book of Mormon and start beating up random Mormons on the street or refusing to give them jobs because of their faith. While the show certainly laughs at Mormons more than with them, Mormons exist in a safe-enough social space that they can feel free to choose to laugh with those laughing at them, or not. Even though he didn’t win, the fact that Mitt Romney secured his party’s nomination for the presidency was historically significant, just as Kennedy’s election signaled to American Catholics that they were no longer a maligned minority (or at least, they no longer needed to care if they’re maligned in some quarters).

But I’d like to take a cue from Trey and Matt and invert the inversion. I had a very different reaction to the Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005 than most everyone else. Doubtless that was in part because my interests create a certain sympathy for Muslim perspectives. But actually, the first thing that occurred to me was how similar some of the cartoons were to some of the anti-semitic cartoons from pre-WWII Europe I was familiar with. While the question of free speech and the place of blasphemy laws in a free, secular society is a valid and important one, what most struck me was how far right-wing groups throughout Europe gleefully piled on the “let’s ratchet up the offense against Muslims” bandwagon. To be honest, most of the original cartoons were pretty innocuous. The most potentially offensive ones to my eyes were the one with a bomb in Muhammad’s turban and the one in which the Prophet appears with a black censor-stripe across his eyes and wielding a sword barring access to two veiled women with an open stripe that leaves only their eyes visible. While the former struck me as simply mean-spirited, the latter at least had a clever visual hook. Unfortunately, when some Danish imams compiled their dossier of the cartoons to send to their colleagues in the Middle East, they included some very-amateurish images that were over the top-offensive, such as a photo-manipulation that shows a praying Muslim man being sexually mounted by a dog (considered an unclean animal by many Muslims, making it even worse) with the caption: “This is really why Muslims pray prostrate.”

It’s significant that the response of U.S. Muslims was far more muted than their counterparts in Europe. The crazy Islamophobic rants one sees on FOX and weird FBI entrapment schemes notwithstanding, Muslims in the U.S. are not in the same kind of embattled position as in Europe. This is due to numerous factors, including the smaller size of the American Muslim community with respect to the majority, their largely middle-class and educated status, and the fact that American legal institutions protecting freedom of worship are fairly robust (and indeed are more interested in protecting religion from the state than the state from religion, for better or worse. I’d say largely for better). A better, if still inadequate, American analogy for the status of European Muslims would be the case of American Latinos. All the right-wing rhetoric about the dangers of immigrants to “our” language, jobs, culture, and morality are directed at Muslim immigrants instead. Europeans have the additional hurdle that they are less accustomed to imagining themselves as multicultural societies. Laws curtailing Muslim religious expression and practice, such as banning Islamic dress in schools or limiting the construction of mosques are becoming commonplace, and were in fact reaching a fever pitch around the time the cartoons were published. The cartoons thus struck many European Muslims as yet another attack denigrating and marginalizing their place in European society.

Left is a 1934 cover of a French translation of the Anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"; Right is a depiction of Muhammad from right-wing French cartoonist Steph Bergol (not one of the Danish cartoons)

Left is a 1934 cover of a French translation of the Anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; Right is a depiction of the Muslim threat from right-wing French cartoonist Steph Bergol (not one of the Danish cartoons)

The cartoons, or rather the context and intent behind them, made me think uncomfortably of pre-World War II political cartoons depicting Jews, who were often mocked for trying and failing to assimilate into “mainstream” European society. Even the physicality of the caricatures, such as an exaggerated hook nose, bushy unkempt eyebrows, and lascivious leer were reminiscent of anti-Jewish imagery. In some of the popular political cartoons that appeared in the wake of the controversy that sought to ramp up the level of offensiveness to make a point, much of the imagery seems deliberately cribbed from a century ago. Muhammad menacing a globe, leering at unsuspecting European women, and pulling the strings behind government policies that dilute the power of traditional (white) dominance. In short, unlike the satire of The Book of Mormon, the goal of many such cartoons was to de-humanize Muhammad and Muslims as a clear and present threat.

There’s a limit to such a comparison, of course, and I don’t think we’re on the verge of another genocide, but I believe the storm around the Muhammad cartoons were just as much about racist animus as about critique of religious fanaticism. Censorship or asking for censorship isn’t the solution in such cases. Nor do I think the success of multiculturalism depends on a punitive system of political correctness (in fact, I think it ultimately undermines it). The best response is perhaps to turn the comedic tables, as one of the 12 original Danish cartoonists did by depicting Kåre Bluitgen, the children’s author who complained of his difficulty finding willing illustrators for his children’s book about Muhammad and who thus started the ball rolling, dressed in a turban with an orange with the words “PR-Stunt” written on it – visually similar to the more famous image of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.

Occupy The Square

See The Square (al-Midan), a documentary film directed by Jehane Noujaim following a circle of associates drawn together by the events of Tahrir Square in Cairo from the ouster of Mubarak up through the ouster of Mursi.  It’s currently available for streaming on Netflix and is showing in many cities in the U.S., which will probably increase due to its Oscar nomination.  The film’s three principal protagonists represent three of the constituencies that participated in the Revolution – Ahmed Hassan, a working-class youth down on his luck who transforms into a first-class revolutionary orator; Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned and tortured for that association during the Mubarak era; and Khalid Abdalla, a fairly successful British-Egyptian actor from a family of Egyptian dissidents.    Around these three are a number of other revolutionary figures – Pierre, whose apartment overlooking the square becomes a revolutionary salon with a great filming vantage point; Aida, a social-media activist; Ragia, a human rights lawyer; and Ramy Essam, a musician who becomes the Arlo Guthrie of Tahrir Square. 

The film is not a history lesson.  In fact, it provides almost no context at all, other than the experiences of the people in the film.  It’s also not a global analysis.  There is no discussion of the international dimension of the Arab Spring, or even just the overall demographics of the Tahrir Square protests.  Everything is seen from this one slice of the movement.  This narrow choice, however, is what helps the film transcend the specifics of its events and highlight more universal themes, such as the tension between secular and religious visions for the state, the intersection of the media and political power, and the development of revolutionary consciousness.


One of the fascinating things about the film is how the expatriate Egyptians, such as Khalid and the filmmaker, see through the duplicitous character of Egyptian military leaders, while local Egyptians, like Ahmed and Magdy, have trouble finding fault with the military.

The most important element that prevents the documentary from becoming just a hymn of praise for a bunch of plucky social-media savvy liberals is the arc of Magdy, whose conflicted relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood adds layers of depth to the story.  In defiance of Brotherhood orders to stay away in the early days of the protest, Magdy comes to the square and develops a friendship with Ahmed, sharing stories of the wrongs done them by the regime and the promise of national unity represented by the diverse protesters, crossing lines of gender, economics, education, and religion.  We see the friendship strain, but survive, the growing divide and increasing violence between the Brotherhood and liberal revolutionaries after the ouster of Mubarak.  But when Mursi in turn is called upon to step down towards the end of the film, Magdi makes a reluctant choice to stand with the Brotherhood.  In the moment that I found the most striking in the film, he says that if the Brotherhood cannot stay in control of the government he fears that he and many others will once again be jailed, tortured, and possibly be executed as part of an outlawed group.  His frustrating and tragic inability to imagine a politically pluralist state stems from his own very real experiences of exclusion and brutality.

Noujaim may be familiar to some as the director of the film Control Room, a documentary about al-Jazeera and its struggle to cover the war in Iraq.  Both films share a desire to explore ways new media forms can challenge the state’s and military’s management of information and propaganda.  Like al-Jazeera, the You Tubists and Twitterers of The Square remain aware of the power of emotional spin and access to the public.  The space of Tahrir Square serves as a metaphor for so many things in the film, but one of the strongest resonances is with the new public space of the internet.  The revolutionaries choose to record everything and play the videos back to others to galvanize opinion.  And through Khalid’s frequent Skype chats with his father in Britain, we see ways in which the revolutionaries can harness the trans-nationalism of the net to make an end run around the Egyptian military’s attempts to control and limit access to information.  Noujaim’s comments during an interview with Jon Stewart reinforce the idea that occupying webspace may have been as important as occupying physical space to creating possibilities for more voices to be heard in Egyptian politics.  But aren’t those voices primarily those of tech-savvy urbanites with friends outside Egypt?  The film acknowledges the question from time to time, but too often falls back on the discomfiting argument that the intelligentsia must sometimes stand in as the voice of the voiceless.  For better or worse, this is often the crux of the liberal conundrum.

Like a lot of Americans I’ve spoken with, I’ve sometimes been disappointed about the progress of the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere.  The military seems back in control again, so aren’t Egyptians essentially back at square one?  The film’s unexpectedly upbeat answer is an emphatic “No!”  In a society that for more than 30 years had been inculcated with the idea that political participation is dangerous and ineffective, being able to affect significant change at least 3 times in the last 2 years has indeed been revolutionary.  The film’s protagonists are often ambivalent about the actual changes that occurred, but they are not ambivalent about the political empowerment they’ve felt.  The illusion of the state’s infallibility and inviolability has been shattered, as has their stranglehold on information.  A door of protest has been opened that will not be easily closed.

Getting Their Goat: Imagined Satanisms

Suffer the little children to come unto me. I’m hungry!

Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Krampus!!  Wait . . .wait . . .  no it’s not.  It’s a recent design proposal for a Satanist monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol.  Hot on the forked tail of the successful bid to place a Festivus pole and a Flying Spaghetti Monster display next to a Nativity scene in the Florida State Capitol for the holidays, a group known as the Satanic Temple has put forward their proposal as a protest to the placement of a Ten Commandments memorial on state property in Oklahoma.  It’s certainly eye-catching and has prompted the usual conservative outrage and liberal mockery and goating (. . . excuse me, that’s gloating).  Indeed, this is likely just the latest quickly-forgotten salvo in the Culture Wars, an answer to the dog whistle (. . . excuse me, that’s duck whistle) of Phil Robertson.

I’m drawn to this story more than some others because Baphomet, the demon in the design, has such an interesting history, one that highlights so much of the wiring of the minds of contemporary, conspiracy-theorizing, American political evangelicals.  In addition to first amendment issues raised by the proposed monument, I’ve seen many posts around the blogosphere exploring “what Satanists believe.”  This is a valid enough question, but one that’s hard to answer.  “Satanism” isn’t a single cohesive movement and exists at the intersection of neo-paganism (searching for spiritualities historically suppressed by Christianity), occult mysticism, radical materialist individualism (represented by Ayn Rand’s (. . . excuse me, that’s Anton LaVey’s) Church of Satan), and self-conscious parody religions.  What all the philosophies and organizations under the Satanist umbrella seem to have in common is a deliberate adoption of what many Christians throughout history have imagined Satanism to be.

Rather than look at what actual modern Satanists do or don’t do, I’m hoping to highlight a few interesting moments in the history of the specter of Satanism.  Satanism is imagined as an inversion of Christianity, but symbolic inversion can have multiple effects, often simultaneously.  On the one hand, seeing your system rendered upside-down opens up the possibility that right-side up might not be as natural or self-evident as originally thought.  This corrosive effect attracts most of those who would consider themselves modern Satanists as well as eliciting sympathy from the Jon Stewarts of the world.  But on the other hand, feelings of disgust at the upside-down image can sometimes reinforce one’s investment in the right-side up version.  Whose side are you on?  Our side or that of the gay, Muslim, Communist (big-C), Baphomet-worshipping, baby-eating evil-doers?  Since inversion can have this reinforcing effect on the intended targets, this proposal will probably do little to move the trenches of the Culture Wars in either direction.



Most historians of the Baphomet image locate its origins not in the fear of Satanism, per se, but rather in Islamophobia version 1.0 during the early Crusades.  The name “Baphomet” itself is most likely a corruption of the name Muhammad in the medieval dialects of southern France.  It was very common, particularly in French writings of the era, to treat Muslims as idol worshipers.  Perhaps the most well-known example of this trope can be found in the Song of Roland, in which the Saracens are said to worship an unholy trinity consisting of Mahound (i.e. Muhammad), Apollo, and Termagant.  Ironically, although the Song of Roland (c. 1150) claims to recount an actual historical event, the original Battle of Roncevaux in 778 was far more complicated than the Christian-Muslim clash of civilizations it presents.  Charlemagne was actually entering Iberia in alliance with the caliph in Baghdad, who was hoping to displace the Umayyad emir in Cordoba, who in turn had an alliance with an army of Christian Basques.  It’s an excellent example of how later purveyors of Crusade-think reduced earlier complex Muslim-Christian relationships to a flat binary.

Interestingly, Christian polemicists who resided in or near Muslim lands, took a very different tack when attacking Islam.  Unable to depict Muslims as simple idolaters, something that would be self-evidently false to them, they turn instead to the image of the False Prophet from the biblical Book of Revelation.  They had to acknowledge that Muslims worshiped the same God as Jews and Christians, so they treated Islam more as a Christian heresy than a form of paganism, attempting to pinpoint ways that Muhammad and the Qur’an had perverted the Biblical scriptures (an interesting mirror image of a common Muslim polemical genre).  One of the most fascinating examples is Eulogius of Cordoba (d. 859), who used his talent for polemical writing to lend his support (and his life) to an unusual martyrdom movement.  Muslim rulers, and particularly Muslim rulers in Spain, were generally very tolerant of Jewish and Christian subjects as People of the Book.  While certainly not equal under the law, Christians and Jews who peacefully accepted Muslim rule and did not try to convert Muslims were left in peace and actually had a good degree of economic, social, and political mobility, short of becoming ruler themselves.  In the absence of persecution, yet yearning for the instant Paradise of martyrdom, the martyrs of Cordoba would voluntarily step forward before Muslim magistrates and insult Muhammad.  For those of you just joining us, this is not generally a good thing in Islamic Law, and, at the time, required execution.  Eulogius records 48 (including himself) in his martyrology of the movement.

For the visual appearance of the goat-headed Baphomet, we need to look elsewhere.  The supposed medieval Muhammad idols were usually not described as goat-headed, although the descriptions we have do seem to focus on the idol’s head with attributes such as three faces or encrusted gemstones.  The image’s origin appears to be more recent, most likely during the rise of popular occultism in the late 19th-century.   That being said, Baphomet’s resemblance to Krampus is likely more than coincidental.  It was fairly common as Christianity spread through Europe for pre-Christian beings, such as fauns, forest deities, and so forth to be re-purposed as demons, fairies, and things that go bump in the night.

One further moment is worth mentioning: the trial and dissolution of the Templars in 1307.  Many Europeans returned from the Crusades with more nuanced understandings of the Middle East than those just starting out on their adventures of Saracen-smiting.  For these and likely more political reasons, groups like the Templars became suspect.  Accused of being gay, Muslim, communist (small-c), Baphomet-worshipping, baby-eating evil-doers (I wish I were jesting, but, alas, I’m not), the leaders of the Templars were burned at the stake and the order dissolved.  As any reader of Umberto Eco (who then subsequently delves into less-fictionalized history) knows, this moment has been appropriated as a foundation myth for a majority of European secret societies and occultist movements from the Freemasons, to the Golden Dawn, to, yes, the Church of Satan.


Death Cookie



Ever since a hapless missionary dared knock on the door of my forsaken Catholic household to try and convert my young soul during the Saturday morning cartoons, I have been a collector of Chick tracts.  Most of you have probably encountered these diminutive comic books without even necessarily knowing just how ubiquitous they are or where they come from.  Fortunately for collectors and curious observers, Chick Publications makes most of their tracts free over the Internet.  While the worldview expressed in these tracts might not be generalizable to all American political evangelicals, they do hit on a number of widespread motifs shared in many of their theological conspiracy theories.  Since the 1960’s, hundreds of these tracts have been created and distributed widely among American churches and missionary groups abroad.  Each tract tackles a particular modern evil: homosexuality, witchcraft, Satanism, alcohol, Judaism, Islam, and scary Eastern religions. But the biggest bugaboo is the Whore of Babylon herself, the Roman Catholic Church.

In the text that follows, I’ll link some of the tracts that I think are most representative.  It’s easy to laugh, until you realize that they are a widespread mechanism of many people’s theological “education.”  If I may be so bold, I will attempt to render the predominant threads of Chick’s oeuvre into a coherent theory.  Satan has attempted to undermine Salvation History numerous times.  Beyond the obvious temptation in the garden, he has had his hand in many other significant turns in religion.  After the flood, he turned the inhabitants of Babylon to goddess worship even after they were dispersed for blasphemous architecture (Why Is Mary Crying?).  Meanwhile, he tried to supplement the real Bible with these horrible things known as Aprocrypha (The Attack) and later the Gnostic writings.  Eventually Satan created his most powerful servant, the Catholic Church, which forced these false texts into the Bible and revived the evils of ancient paganism, including sacrifice (Are Roman Catholics Christians?), sun worship (The Death Cookie), and the aforementioned goddess worship.   Later, in the 7th-century, a man named Muhammad had an encounter with Satan, which was almost thwarted if not for his Catholic (?!) wife, Khadija (Men of Peace?).  These evils have subsequently shown themselves in even newer manifestations, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Masons (That’s Baphomet?), Evolutionism, and Climate-Change-ism (Global Warming).  

To be fair, Chick tracts make an easy target, and many Evangelicals have a far more sophisticated and historically-grounded set of justifications for their particular beliefs.  Nevertheless, most would share a worldview in which Satan represents a clear, present, and material danger, manipulating environmental and social forces to undermine the salvation of individual souls – not just the danger of temptation welling up from an individual psyche.  Opposing the imagined works of Satan thus becomes not a matter of interchangeable “beliefs” but a matter of one’s own salvation.  A “live and let live” pluralistic attitude in fact endangers one’s very soul.  To pluralistic liberal-types, a Baphomet statue is at most an indictment of political Evangelical hypocrisy on the first amendment and at least a harmless joke at the expense of Evangelicals.  But for those that see Satan manipulating contemporary events, the Church of Satan needs no real power for the statue proposal to be a sign of Satan’s influence, if only in the blasé treatment of the issue in the all-too-secular press.  The stakes are high, and liberal Christians or secular humanists fail to recognize that there are any stakes at all.




As an academic-type, I would usually try to avoid a polemical and belittling tone on matters of faith, but the social critic in me finds it too difficult to not point to the pernicious repercussions of finding Satanism around every corner.  All too recently, a couple was released from prison more than 20 years after their conviction for Satanic ritual abuse of children.  We seem to have these sorts of episodes in cycles, the culprits being anything from witches, to Dungeons and Dragons, to video games.  That’s not to say that there aren’t more than enough lunatics who commit horrible crimes in the name of Satan or Satanism, but a vast underground conspiracy of Satanists waiting to take over America just doesn’t exist (unless it does, and they’re paying me to deny it).  To be honest, a Venn diagram of traits exhibited by teenagers enamored of Ayn Randian objectivism and those of teenagers enamored of modern Satanism would probably have a good deal of overlap.  So if you’re looking for the Satanic conspiracy, go scrutinize Rand Paul and Paul Ryan a bit more closely.  (Just kidding, I don’t really think they’re Satanists, just unhinged loons).

One final, more banal, example, but one I found unnerving because of its proximity.  A few years ago, the Knights of Columbus at the Catholic church I grew up in began stationing knights along the path of worshipers after they had received communion.  When I inquired into this practice I was told that Satanists were known to sneak into churches, pocket the host, and take it home to use in ritual sacrifice.  This is unlike the traditional use of the paten to keep the host from falling to the ground and being profaned (See Are Roman Catholics Christian? above – true story: in grade school, I once dropped the Communion wafer, which landed on its side and rolled a good 20 feet down the aisle, with me chasing it thinking, “Why is Jesus running away from me?”  Read into that what you will.).  In fact, I found this notion disturbingly reminiscent of the medieval Blood Libel leveled against Jews, in which Jews were believed to abduct consecrated hosts or even Christian children to torture during Passover.  So while a Baphomet statue with an inviting and utilitarian chair in his lap can be a laughing matter, that fact that it’s not a laughing matter for many Evangelicals should perhaps not itself be a laughing matter for the rest of us.  

Ducking the Issue


Much ado is being made about the remarks of Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, that he gave in an interview by Drew Magary featured in the January issue GQ magazine.  In words that have already become viral, he said:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

Later, when asked to elaborate on what sin actually is:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

So, GLAAD and other organizations complained to A&E, the network that hosts Duck Dynasty, and Phil Robertson has now found himself suspended from the show indefinitely.  (He also claimed that in his experience blacks were perfectly content in the pre-civil rights-era South, so LGBT organizations were not the only ones to come knocking).  Cue the right wing panic factory decrying how gays, liberals, and Muslim-lovers are bullying Christians into submission and silence.  Sarah Palin, Boddy Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Terry Jones (of Qur’an-burning fame), among others, have all weighed-in, and we can expect this to overshadow the “War on Christmas” (or Megyn Kelly’s war on black Santa, depending on your viewpoint) for the next day or two at least.

Wow.  I can’t believe I’m about to side with Sarah Palin on something.  Although, to be fair to my reputation as the embodiment of everything the Tea Party despises, I’m not actually siding with her, because she’s framing it as a constitutional or free speech issue, which is ignorant and silly (I will, for now, refrain from speculating on Ms. Palin’s dietary habits.)  But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is fairly light fare for a supposedly homophobic tirade, and maybe we on the left are over-reacting in ways that actually hurt the ongoing struggle against homophobia and other forms of hate.

A few disclaimers: I do find his remarks offensive, but just not enough to suspend him, were I A&E.  I also think A&E can suspend whomever they want whenever they want if they feel it’s in their (or their advertisers’) interests.  It has nothing to do with the government, the Constitution, or free speech.  It’s about money.  To be honest, this controversy will probably be GOOD for them and the show, because more people are arguing passionately about it now than they were last week (I even suspect the whole thing to be somewhat orchestrated by A&E’s publicity department – you want to tell me they don’t get to look at the GQ interview beforehand?) Another disclaimer: I do not watch the show.   Not only do I not watch any reality TV, but I also suspect that a show focusing on an ultra-conservative, wealthy hunting business family in Louisiana would have little appeal for me.  A lot of people like it.  I hear they’re funny, brutally honest, and can laugh at themselves.  I’ve also read that their contract with A&E forbids the producers from trying to create and fan rivalries among the family members.  Given that family turmoil is usually the bread and butter of reality TV (one of the many reasons I hate it), I’m glad that the Robertsons stuck to their guns (so to speak) and that their decision has actually bolstered their popularity.

Phil Robertson, if you can see him!


I think we’re having the wrong conversation.  We’ve started lumping anything vaguely critical or questioning of homosexuality together under the homophobic umbrella.  We’ve put Alec Baldwin in the same box as Pat Robertson (no relation to Phil that I’m aware of).  Doesn’t that strike anyone as bizarre and absurd?  That’s not to say we shouldn’t express our displeasure and hurt at Baldwin’s outbursts, but Alec Baldwin is hardly the poster child for the “burn the gays” faction, in fact, quite the opposite.  We should call it out when we see it, but we don’t need to “get medieval on their ass” every single time.  It weakens the sense of outrage when it’s really called for.

There are many prominent and influential Americans out there who with a straight face spout vitriol that gays, lesbians, and other queer folk should be imprisoned, castrated, gathered into concentration camps, or forced to undergo shock therapy.   You also have “family” organizations working hard to prevent LBGT legal rights to marry, adopt, and make medical decisions for partners.  Even as there has been progress in the Americas (North and South!) and Europe, we have Uganda considering the death penalty for gays and Russian skinheads kidnapping gay kids and torturing them for all to see on YouTube as Putin looks on with warnings to representatives of Western “gay propaganda.”  While not solely responsible, many American “family” organizations have gotten into bed with Putin and right-wing leaders in Uganda (insert plug here for God Love Uganda).

But Phil Robertson didn’t suggest any of these things, although he might sympathize in private, which is his right.  His public statements have more to do with his theology and his ideas about sexual “mechanics.”  After all, Robertson begins his comments by trying to wrap his head around something that would baffle pretty much any straight person.  How does that gay thing even work?  Socrates said that wisdom begins with recognizing what you don’t know, and if it weren’t an interview, that would have been a great opening for a conversation.  For all his bluster, Phil Robertson seems like a reasonably thoughtful person for a reality TV star.

George Takei (the King of Facebook) has succinctly suggested that casual homophobia derives primarily from the “ick” factor – the desires and pleasures of gays and lesbians don’t make intuitive sense to heterosexuals.  Why should they?  It’s kind of what makes them heterosexual, poor things.  The idea of sex, or even a kiss (because come on, real gay people are not having any more sex than anyone else, i.e. not very much at all) with someone of the same gender makes them queasy.  It just feels inherently disgusting.  This is a human, visceral response, but this revulsion can be remedied in most cases with a rational and friendly conversation.  Food and entertainment choices make good, if inadequate, comparisons.  If you don’t like broccoli, that doesn’t mean you can’t eat it or that you can’t have a certain abstract respect for both broccoli and the broccoli eater.  But the best you can hope for is that it’s heavily salted and smothered in melted cheddar.  And  . . . eventually the analogy breaks down, but it’s a perfectly normal 21st century conversation.

As for his theology, Phil Robertson cannot be blamed for sharing a view of Christianity and the Bible that are shared by many, many people.  Be warned, I’m about to walk out onto some thin ice with my liberal theologically-inclined friends.  When I’m inclined to find divine inspiration in scripture, I find the readings of Leviticus or the Sodom story (both the Biblical and Qur’anic versions) from liberal Biblical and Qur’anic scholars largely persuasive.  The abominations of Leviticus emphasize the creation of clear categories that protect a certain idea of the body, personhood, and community.  We are not like the pagans.  We keep our bodily fluids under control.  We don’t eat foods that are conceptually icky (Ewwww, crabs, lobsters, and shrimp are basically sea spiders.  Pigs . . . yuck!).  None of these need be binding under the dictum from Acts that call nothing God has made unclean.  And the Sodom story is much more about betraying hospitality and raping guests than specifically male-on-male sex.  If you read the full story, which is filled with pillars of salt (for the sin of what, nostalgia?), fathers offering daughters to be raped, daughters raping fathers to get babies, and all sorts of really weird shit, you could be excused for thinking the authors of Genesis had been pilfering hallucinogens from their dirty pagan neighbors.  All joking aside, the logic of Genesis and much of the rest of the Torah is profoundly and disturbingly alien to a modern reader, and this might not be a bad thing.

But let’s be honest.  The idea of finding the “pure, original” meaning of Scripture is kind of what got us into this whole mess in the first place.  Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, but the notion that you can understand the Bible in isolation from the many thousands of educated others seems rather . . . how shall I say?  Protestant?  The bare fact of the matter is that most interpreters of the Bible and Qur’an over the past millennia have nearly universally condemned homosexuality, based, rightly or wrongly, on scripture.  I don’t think this means that Judaism, Christianity, or Islam are inherently homophobic, but I also don’t think that tossing a pro-gay interpretation – no matter how based in the text – into the pile of ages will convince enough people to truly change things.

This doesn’t mean dialogue isn’t possible.  After all, “love the sinner, not the sin” is certainly a step up from “burn the heretic on the nearest tree.”   Scriptures are complicated, and different parts have been emphasized in different times.  Compassion, the dignity of persons, the importance of love and complementarity in marriage, love your neighbor, don’t judge lest you be judged, blessed be the meek, etc.  These are all concepts that can lead to more open religious communities, and more and more are taking that plunge.  But tackling the interpretations of the ages won’t convince people if A) they hold stock in the interpretations of the ages, or B) they reject the interpretations of the ages and would rather embrace an idiosyncratic version that looks suspiciously like the interpretations of the ages.  In short, the theological solution isn’t in reinterpreting Sodom, but rather in sidelining it.

I’m somewhat encouraged that Phil Roberston didn’t limit his concept of sin to homosexuality.  There’s actually a discernable theme – adulterers, people who sleep around, prostitutes, slanderers.  Taken with what we know about his conditions with his contract with A&E, the heart of sin for him seems to be betrayal.  I think we can, and should, respect that.  Lying to people about your fundamental nature or relationships is the worst thing.  This, too, is something to work with.  Certainly in Biblical times, most homosexual activity would have constituted an extra-marital affair.  In some times and cultures, extra-marital affairs with either sex were tolerated, but they were still, fundamentally, extra-marital dalliances.

This is what is incredibly different about the present moment.  The idea that individuals of the same sex can form long-lasting, stable, monogamous (or at least honestly open) relationships is truly radical and new.  We can maybe find isolated examples of sanctioned same-sex relationships in the historical record, but the scale and normalcy of the idea belongs distinctly to us.  What I find most ironic about the “family values” vs. “gay rights” debate is that both sides share a core of concepts about what constitutes family and marriage.  It’s just that the “family values” crowd is focused on a history in which homosexual relationships were, by definition, violations of marriage and stability.  The fact that many in the gay community eschew marriage equality efforts as collaboration with the conservative establishment is additional evidence that something has changed.  The values of Phil Robertson are not alien to many gay people.  They have more in common than either would like to admit.  It is truly tragic that they don’t see the common ground under their feet.

The War on Christmas!!!!!!


Political Correctness has a relatively loose definition.  Typically, we understand it as a liberal attempt to enforce “diverse” standards in the media and higher education.  Don’t assume a narrator is male, and what not.  Although I’m a card-carrying liberal, gay, Muslim-loving, intellectual type, I’m not a big fan of many of the tactics associated with PC these days  (Bill Maher, despite being “politically incorrect,” displays some of the worst sides of PC).  But, I think it’s important to point out that long before political correctness became a concept, there have always been subtle and not-so-subtle ways to censor and channel public discourse in ways favorable to one or another political or economic class.  The press seems to censor itself, or at least it used to.  And individuals learn which opinions are not good to express in the company they’re keeping.  This has good and bad sides.  Try saying that you think German is an awesome language in 1943.  By the way, I can say that German is an absolutely amazing language (Übernachtungsmöglichkeit, need I say more?  Look it up!), but I’d hold my peace in the corridors of power during WWII.  In short, PC isn’t a conspiracy, but a social dynamic we’ve had from the start.  That Stanley Fish put a name to it simply allows us to talk about it more openly, in theory, at least.

There are, however, several new dynamics added by the internet age, and more specifically, the social media age.  Every public utterance by every public personality, no matter how banal, has become a matter of intense scrutiny.  Granted, GQ is a relatively high visibility venue, but do we really require Phil Robertson to censor his speech 24/7?  Or Alec Baldwin?   And even if we criticize them for their inappropriate comments, do we need to lobby to remove them from their source of income (albeit not the only source of income for these examples)?

I think public discussions about homophobic, Islamophobic, and racist comments can be very valuable.  Megyn Kelly’s comments about white Santa and Jesus are repulsive, but are actually pretty typical for FOX.  I have no desire to see her fired.  She is giving voice to real people, no matter how bizarre and ignorant they may seem to those of us who shy away from FOX news.  But I do have a desire to talk about her comments.  We need to analyze them, pull them apart, learn more about how off-hand media comments shape our national conversations about race, class, and sexuality.  Most importantly, we need to engage these people and take their assumptions seriously, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.  Censoring them and pushing them to the margins actually does us gay-Muslim loving liberals a disservice.  Right now, the focus seems to be on Phil Robertson, but I actually think he represents people that are principled, but open to persuasion or, at least, dialogue.  We’ve become such a divided nation, I really think it’s important to pinpoint possibilities to bring us back together.  As repugnant as we might find Robertson’s comments, he actually offers an unusually open nexus of discussion.  It’s worth taking advantage of.

Straight and Arrow

Stephen Amell as the Green Arrow

While I consume more than my fair share of media, I’ve generally been rather sparing with my choices for regular TV viewing.  I tend to wait for a show to have a solid first season in reviews and a strong beginning to a second before I even watch the pilot on the web.  Good writing is important to me, as are interesting and well-acted characters, although I gravitate to the more fantastic of the settings, even if that means passing up on some quality “real-world” dramas.  So Battlestar Galactica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are still my favorites, and I have yet to watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Dexter, although they are on my eventual list.  The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are my current indulgences.  A couple of friends who know my tastes suggested I give Arrow a look.

Arrow is based on the DC superhero Green Arrow, who in the comics is essentially a Batman-like “mere mortal” vigilante with a more limited arsenal (A bow and some trick arrows), a Robin Hood costume, a blond goatee, and leftist politics.  And like Batman, the Emerald Archer’s secret identity, Oliver Queen, is a billionaire playboy who runs a technology mega-corporation.  The TV adaptation on the CW (for those of you who, like me, tend to avoid network television, the CW was created as a merger of the WB and UPN) stars Stephen Amell as the titular character with a tone and setting that is attempting to capitalize on the success of Smallville, the soap-operafication of Clark Kent’s pre-Superman years, as well as the recent gritty reboots of Superman and Batman on the big screen.

As a kid I was only a very casual comic book reader, preferring sci-fi and fantasy novels.  When I was about 8, though, I was an eager fan of the Superman and Batman live actions shows on TV as well as the Superfriends cartoon (which has not aged well – kids’ cartoons have improved so much since the era of Hanna Barbara mass production).  As a teenager, some friends introduced me to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, both of which were regarded as signaling a new era in which comic book writing was to become more sophisticated and aimed at a broader and older (albeit still largely male, at the time) audience.  Published in 1986, these works tackled directly some of the thornier issues generated by the ideas of trans-humanism and vigilantism that have always undergirded the genre but had rarely been addressed with such serious depth.  Each imagined a near-present dystopia on the verge of nuclear war in which the US government was dominated by right-wing authoritarians who had either co-opted superheroes for military objectives or forced them into retirement.

Although the character dates back to the 1940’s, my first real exposure to the Green Arrow was his cameo toward the end of The Dark Knight Returns.  In the final chapter, Batman has violated his enforced retirement and has failed to comply with the demands of a US government on the cusp of nuclear war with the USSR.  Superman, now a co-opted agent of the US military is ordered by President “Reagan” to bring down the masked vigilante.  The Green Arrow, who had apparently served time in prison for being a commie anarchist and has always despised Superman’s blind obedience to a rigid legalism, agrees to help Batman in the final duel, contributing a single kryptonite arrow.  Superman wins, but Batman has faked his own death in order to continue or a more clandestine vigilante crusade against an increasingly dictatorial government.  On further inspection, I learned that at least since late 60’s, the Green Arrow has often been a critical voice exposing the ethical blind spots of other heroes in the DC pantheon, in particular that a “law and order” approach to crime often ignores or exacerbates some of the underlying causes of crime, such as economic inequality, racism, and the corruption of the wealthy.  This strikes me as incredibly rich source material for a contemporary series, especially in an era of Occupy, the One Percent, and unchecked government surveillance.


Arrow boasts a strong ensemble cast.

So how does Arrow measure up?  For network television, it performs incredibly well, in my opinion.  But before praising its strengths, I would have to point out that it does have a few weaknesses that hold it back from being truly excellent.  Most of these stem from its network, which seems to aim most of its programming at what the executives perceive as the interests of its target demographic: late teens, early 20’s (despite its darker and more violent presentation).  Much of the character development occurs in night clubs, raves, the foyers of mansions, or during shopping trips.  On the one hand, the milieu of Oliver Queen the playboy billionaire ought to be spoiled, hedonistic, whiny, and callow.  But even the characters from more modest means, such as Roy Harper, are perfectly-coiffed, groomed, gelled, and sporting Abercrombie & Fitch.  I’m not sure I want to watch Oliver Queen 90210.

For a hero punishing the rich and powerful who are exploiting the poor and vulnerable, he actually knows very little of the exploited poor and vulnerable.  Oliver tells us in the voiceover that the bad crime boss of this week has cheated hundreds of poor, elderly retirees of their pensions, but we never actually see the lives of and consequences for the actual victims.  Laurel, Oliver’s once-and-future love interest, works as a pro bono attorney for the poor, but most of her clients come in looking like Stew and Margaret from the McMansion down the street.  The second season seems to be rectifying this a bit by setting more scenes in the devastated Glades (the ghetto), but it’s hard to see how Oliver can develop a social conscience without actually witnessing the suffering of the underclass firsthand (apparently in the comics, he eventually loses his fortune and has to actually live on the streets in the Glades – perhaps we’ll see this?)

While the writers spin some solid long-term arcs, the episodes usually follow a “villain-of-the-week” format, which was a criticism often made of Smallville (which I did not watch myself, except an episode here and there) and other successful WB hero series, such as Charmed.  For some unexplained reason, this seems to be a network gospel that successful cable series have wisely jettisoned.  In the Internet era, it’s easy to catch up on what you missed; you don’t need a weekly reset button returning us to status quo ante.  Not that all shows need to have ongoing plots like The Walking Dead (but note each episode in The Walking Dead still explores a distinct theme or character dynamic that marks it as a cohesive “chapter.”  Longer and more complex stories need not sacrifice formal episodicity.)

Fortunately, the writers have been able to mitigate some of the weaknesses of an episodic series by weaving two parallel story arcs into each season, taking an approach similar to Buffy or Lost.  One is set in the “present,” which has allowed the story to dive in medias res into the adventures of the Vigilante, or the “Hood,” as the police have dubbed him.  Experienced as ongoing flashbacks, the second story arc follows Oliver’s origin story.  Marooned for five years on a deserted island in the North China Sea (that has been blessed by foliage that looks suspiciously like that of British Columbia) after his father’s yacht has been sabotaged, Oliver is rescued by a bad-ass fugitive martial artist, pursued by paramilitaries set on provoking a war between the US and China, and slowly trained to leave his pampered, spoiled life behind to become a highly-trained hunter.  These flashbacks have also served to showcase Stephen Amell’s acting abilities.  While I think there are still ways for him to grow as an actor, it’s fun watching the contrasting physicalities of the high-pitched, slumping, shuffling brat; the tightly-wound, emotionally-restrained (stunted?), more mature Oliver; and the rageaholic, growling, unforgiving Hood.  This guy has a lot of potential as a leading man, even if this show doesn’t last long.

The promise of this scene was apparently what got John Barrowman to sign up as the Season One villain.

Have I mentioned the abs?  If you want constant female nudity, profanity, and sex, go watch HBO, which seems to contractually obligate their shows to show a certain quota of female flesh per week.  But if you want abs, Arrow is where you go.  Nearly every episode has Oliver’s impressive workout regimens (which Amell apparently does himself) interspersed with the drama.  I suppose the CW is going for the female (and gay) demographic here, since the superhero setting and pyrotechnic action ought to attract the young male demographic well enough.  But in Season 1, there was only a single, discreet sex scene – pretty tame even for network TV.  So the show is “sexy” without being actually sexy (more on that later).

Finally, while Oliver is the central pillar of the narrative, the show has a strong supporting cast of characters (and actors).  It’s very much an ensemble show, reminiscent of Buffy in some respects (although it has yet to reach such heights!).  In the comics, Green Arrow has superhero sidekicks and partners, such as Black Canary and Speedy, who are only just beginning to materialize in the Arrow story arc.  But the writers have created a new ordinary mortal team to share Oliver’s mission for the series: John Diggle (named after one of the writers of the comic series), Oliver’s African-American Iraq War veteran bodyguard (David Ramsey), and Felcity Smoak (a character from another DC hero mythology), an IT specialist who can basically do anything with something that has circuits (Emily Bett Rickards), both the comic relief and the truth-speaker.

Most importantly, these two characters are being used as the agents of Oliver’s ethical education.  In the comics (except for the after-the-fact origin stories), the Green Arrow arrives mostly as a fully-formed hero with a social conscience.  But in Arrow, the island gives Oliver superhero bad-assness, but he is not an ethically-mature person.  His two partners have issues with his overly vengeful and violent vigilantism (alliteration score!) in the first season, which leads to the experimentation with a less severe code of honor in the second season.  I think it’s a wonderful choice to make the hero a deeply flawed and evolving character as opposed to a boring paragon endpoint.  There’s a wonderful exchange in the second episode of the second season in which Oliver is assuming the CEO spot at Queen Consolidated.  I’m hoping this is a good sign of things to come.

            Oliver: I need a Girl Wednesday.

            Felicity: It’s ‘Friday’ and the answer is “No.”

            Oliver: These computers have been upgraded. Far more processing power than your typical secretary.

            Felicity: Did you know I went to MIT? Do you know what I majored in? Hint: Not the secretarial arts.

            Oliver: Felicity! We all need to have secret identities now. If I’m going to be ‘Oliver Queen, CEO,’ then I can’t very well travel down 18 floors every time you and I need to discuss how we spend our nights!

            Felicity: And I love spending the night with you [embarrassed at the innuendo, breathes]… 3… 2… 1… I worked very hard to get where I am and it wasn’t so I could fetch you coffee!

            Diggle: Well, it could be worse. My secret identity is his black driver.

One of the other important character development dynamics is how Oliver reconnects with his family after being presumed dead for five years.  His mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson), has remarried, but, it turns out, has also been involved in the main Big Bad plot to destroy the Glades in a synthetic earthquake and in the sabotage of the yacht that killed Oliver’s father and marooned him on the island.  While his initial ire is directed toward his stepfather, it turns out that his stepfather is much more of a stand-up guy than we are first led to believe.  There is also Oliver’s younger sister, Thea (Willa Holland), who is going through some rough growing pains, but interestingly ending up the most grounded of the Queen family.


Oliver Queen is not intimidated by the Beautiful People of the superhero class.

There are two components of the overall tone that make me reticent to give a full-hearted endorsement of the show.  The first is the super-serious tenor of the stories and dialogue.  The Green Arrow of the comic books is a snarky, rebellious, anarchic critic, who doesn’t mind pissing off the sanctimonious monologues of Superman and Batman.  DC’s products have been taking a second place to Marvel’s of late because of their über-serious and dark takes on Batman and Superman.  I like dark, no, I love dark, and I thought the DC movies really explored some of the complex issues of their heroes’ mythologies.  But The Avengers was downright fun, as have been the associated iterations of the different stories of the individual Avengers.  Yes, Marvel has long been dominated by the incomparable Stan Lee, who knows how to write superhero snark, and the movies are now being overseen by Joss Wheedon, one of the best writers of tragicomic dialogue ever.  But they could easily have opted for dark.  Tony Stark’s descent into alcoholism was a big theme in the comics, but the movies have opted to tip-toe around it.

I understand that the writers of Arrow don’t want to descend into the campiness of the 60’s Batman series.  But unlike Marvel’s generally witty lineup, Green Arrow is the only major DC hero with a robust and self-aware sense of humor.  The problem is that his humor has usually been oppositional.  He points out the flaws and hypocrisies of the A-Team: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman.  The political dialogues of Green Arrow and Green Lantern in the 70’s comics were the crucible out of which Green Arrow became more than a Batman clone.  Making him the central character creates some problems.  He’s no longer the commentator on the outside looking in, but I don’t think that’s an insurmountable writing challenge.  Amell has a talent for humor.  My favorite scenes in the series so far have been the raised eyebrows, spontaneous smirks, the lame cover-ups, and the rare banter.  It’s a tough balance when you’re going for dark and deep, but ultimately Green Arrow is not really a dark, brooding hero. He’s the dude cracking jokes in the back of the class. I hope they find a way to lighten up, just a bit.

In the 70’s Green Lantern and Green Arrow traveled the country together debating the options of leftist politics. When they got home, Oliver’s sidekick Speedy had become addicted to drugs.

My second issue is the overly self-sacrificial asceticism of the first season plot.  This seems to be an ongoing flaw with much superhero literature overall and has done a deep disservice to what was once the core audience, nerdy teenage males.  So many superheroes forgo pursuing healthy social lives because of the danger they might put their loved ones in or because of the potential distraction from the heroic mission.  Simply, this is a tired and outdated trope.  True, most religions espouse sexual abstinence as a way to achieve higher spiritual and moral states (and sometimes states of super-human miraculous powers).  The monks who taught me in high school spoke of their voluntary sublimation of desire for the sake of a higher good.  The dedication and discipline is admirable, but is it really a prerequisite for doing good deeds in the modern era?  I don’t think even my monks would have said so.  Unfortunately, the finale of the first season sets up waves and waves of guilt and destruction emanating from that single and brief sex scene I mentioned earlier.  Are we in a horror movie or something?

In the last few decades, superheroes have been growing up and developing stable relationships.  Superman and Spiderman have gotten married, and the Green Arrow of the comics, in addition to taking advantage of the free love of the 60’s and 70’s, also settled down and had at least one kid.  Yes, the hero who must forswear love is incredibly tragic, but it’s also bullshit.  I don’t need or want Arrow to become a sex-centric show, but it would be so refreshing to have a hero who can maintain and hide his identity from the general public and still manage to develop healthy and honest relationships with those around him.  Fortunately, none of the female characters on the show are shrinking violets, so it’s not misogynistic as so many comic book expressions have been in the past.  Superhero closets have dramatic resonance, but it would be a tribute to the Green Arrow of the comics to see Oliver transcend this issue in the series and come out to those closest to him.

There has to be a happy medium between womanizing playboy and sexual renunciant. You need to take a cue from . . . well, you!

In short, this series has a lot of potential in the source material, the ensemble talent they’ve gathered, and some of the narrative arcs the writers have decided to pursue.  The second season of a show like this often turns out to be the make-or-break moment.  In order to truly shine, I think Arrow needs to move beyond the perceived limited demographics of the CW and the dark, brooding, ascetic tropes favored by the current management of DC Comics.  It needs to embrace what is fun, interesting, and politically relevant about the Green Arrow mythos.

Boycotting Buggery

Ender’s Game the film comes out in the US in November

I’ve often said on this blog that science fiction and fantasy – imaginative literature – when it’s at its best, makes use of the Verfremdungseffekt (Brecht’s term for deliberately stylizing drama to create a sense of distance between the audience and the action) to encourage its readers/viewers to reflect on the human condition, ethics, or society in a new way. Growing up, perhaps no science fiction work caused me to ruminate on “the meaning of life” as much as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Its protagonist, the young Ender, is a brilliant, earnest child, violently and brutally bullied by his siblings and peers and cynically manipulated by adults (and a military) who wish to shape his fate and talents to their own desires and needs. The character has spoken and continues to speak to angsty teenage nerds everywhere.

But the central engine of Ender’s Game and its sequels runs on a profoundly ethical problem. At the story’s climax, Ender believes he is participating in a simulated war game, when, in fact, his commands are being passed down to a real military force in the field. Using his strategy, the fleet proceeds to annihilate the homeworld of an alien species (the “Buggers”), perceived by some in the human military as an existential threat. Ender becomes the Xenocide, “killer of the Other,” hero of the militarists but despised by himself. The rest of Ender’s saga develops from his desire to atone for the killing, however inadvertently, of an entire sentient species. Enders’s Game and its sequels highlight and explore the concept of empathy at its roots. How can you learn to feel ethically responsible toward even the most strange and alien of creatures, no matter how repulsive their customs and habits?

The story also raises interesting questions about military and political ethics (which might be why it’s often assigned in military training): How responsible was an average guard at Auschwitz for what went on there? Was the Hiroshima bomb justified, and even if it was, what kind of ethical responsibility still falls on those who dropped it? How do you balance the need to make a soldier a killing machine with their humanity? And can we act ethically in a society that is guided by military-industrial priorities?

From the Marvel Comics version of Ender's Game

Would you let your mother marry this bugger? Ahem . . . I mean, would you let your mother defend this queen? Ahem . . . no, well, this is embarrassing. Orson Scott Card says, “Just don’t do it!”  Wait, do you see the muscles on that dude?  Ahem  . . .

Given the theme of the stories and the impact they had on a blooming xenophile and quasi-pacifist such as my teenage self, it was with some distress that I learned in later years that Orson Scott Card is one of the most noxious, homophobic writers in America. He has felt strongly enough on the issue to produce numerous screeds, advocating, among other things, that homosexual behavior should lead to the revocation of citizenship, that homosexuality is the result of abuse, that same-sex marriage will lead to the downfall of America and civilization as we know it, and that right-thinking Americans should rebel against any government that seeks to legalize it. He has even become a board member for the National Organization for Marriage, one of the more powerful anti-gay hate groups currently active. To be honest, in the context of NOM none of his arguments are particularly original, although he’s a talented-enough writer to convey his utter apoplexy at the thought of gay people existing. But it does kind of hurt to hear this kind of stuff coming out of the mouth of an admired author.

There have been calls to boycott the upcoming film adaptation of Ender’s Game, starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and some promising younger talent. Card has been the target of similar boycott campaigns in the past. Only recently, he was dropped as writer for a series of Superman comics when fans and the project’s lead artist protested. Card has recently asked people to not boycott the film because the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA renders his opposition to gay marriage “moot.”  He adds, obnoxiously or willfully ignorant of what the word tolerance means,  “Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”  Many in the blogosphere have resisted calls for boycotts, saying that he’s just the product of a Mormon upbringing (as if every Mormon out there campaigns for NOM) or that a boycott may backfire in unpredictable ways.

I’m on the fence about boycotting, in part because I’m not all that big on boycotts anyway, but also I’m on the fence about the growth of the boycott and retribution culture we seem to revel in these days. I think Card is an interesting case, because the degree of his involvement with anti-gay causes makes his case different from, say, Paula Deen’s racist remarks and fantasies. Likewise, since Ender’s Game is not particularly a story about sexuality (it’s striking in its asexuality, in fact), the work itself doesn’t seem to be wound up in the ideologies of its creator in the same way Wagner’s Parzival extols racial purity in the face of the Wandering Jew. I think it’s worth exploring why Card’s case may be different from both.

Kermit knows it’s not easy being green.


In our instant social media existence, the slightest offhand tweet or Facebook post by a celebrity inevitably leads to canceled advertising contracts, insincere public apologies, and the endless analysis of 24-hour news channels that have long since given up spending the money to bring their audiences information about the actual world beyond the bubble. The recent flap about Paula Deen is a great example, I think, of our boycotting culture. Her frequent, albeit non-public, use of the N-word and planning a wedding reception that had an ante-bellum costuming theme (complete with racially-accurate servants) are indeed pretty disgusting. But she has lost many, if not most, of her contracts, as a result. I agree she should be ridiculed and taken to task for her casual racism (and that her brother should be taken to court for his alleged racial and sexual harassment), but that could have been a starting point about a conversation about what exactly is “casual racism.” Instead, the focus seems to be on destroying her career. Now, if it turned out she was a leading figure in the KKK, if she had stolen all her recipes from an unknown and uncredited African-American cooking genius, or even if she had a public Gibsonian drunken meltdown, some of these responses might be warranted.

Unfortunately, this sort of overkill vengefulness often results in a backlash that brings the episode to a disturbing denouement. At the end of the news cycle, instead of thinking to themselves, “Gee, Paula really shouldn’t have said that. I hope she can rise above her racist background,” the American CNN-viewing public will more likely respond, “Hey, back off! Paula has a right to be racist!” In the hands of the right-wing media, you then get the sense that using the N-word is a way to exercise your patriotic duty to speak freely or the would-be-funny-if-not-so-sinister claim that “creepy-ass cracker” is a reverse-racist equivalent of the N-word.

Let’s take another, contrasting example, Chick-Fil-A. Some of us had been aware of reports of discrimination against gay customers and employees going back years, but their stance became more public when they decided to co-sponsor a “marriage” conference in 2011. This led to calls by some LGBT organizations to boycott the chain. This was followed by an un-boycott, as evangelicals flocked to consume fast-food in the name of Christ. This case is different from Deen, in my opinion, because Chick-Fil-A decided to make their bigotry part of their public image, and have been pursuing that agenda consistently for a long time. If you patronized the restaurant, you knew that a portion of what you spent there would go to certain ultra-conservative causes (They claim that they no longer donate to anti-LGBT organizations, but the owners, the Cathy family, are still visible and vocal in those circles).

Many of Chick-Fil-A’s supporters felt that calls for a boycott amounted to a restriction of free speech. Obviously, such people haven’t thought about the Constitution much beyond what Bill O’Reilly tells them is in it, but they do raise an interesting question, even if it’s not the one they thought. As a consumer, to what degree do I feel the need to patronize only places of business owned by people I agree with politically? Will I buy a drink from a bartender I know voted for Bush? What if he talked about how much he likes Bush to his customers? What if he volunteered for the Bush campaign? What if he liked to talk about how stupid Democrats are? What if he were Bush’s chief policy advisor? What if he was even the one who invented hanging chads? Somewhere along that line, I would stop wanting to buy his beer, but I’m not sure if I could come up with a hard and fast rule for the exact point where bygones-be-bygones becomes get-off-of-my-lawn. If I boycotted local businesses whose owners belonged to the NRA, I’d have to start raising my own food.

I do boycott Chick-Fil-A (and had before 2011), but, to be honest, I never ate there anyway nor had any desire to. Essentially, I’m taking credit for doing something politically I would have done apolitically anyway. I also boycott Lowe’s, although I feel kind of bad about it. They had advertised on the TLC reality show All-American Muslim, which had as its task the depiction of the banal day-to-day lives of ordinary Muslims in America (Episode One: Khadija buys laundry detergent!). But the American Family Association threatened to boycott them for supporting a program that dared to suggest that Muslims were normal and not terrorists lurking in our backyard (How that’s a “family values” issue, I’m not sure, but if there’s one thing these folk hate more than gays, it’s Muslims. Fun trick: Tell them you’re a Gay Muslim Socialist and catch their facial expression with your cellphone – Priceless!). Lowe’s pulled their ads. So now, I’m boycotting them for having a really weak spine, which isn’t completely fair, since they’re only secondarily involved. But if you can’t stand up to something so pernicious, what good are you? It balances out, because the AFA boycotts Home Depot for sponsoring Gay Pride events. As long as everyone can get their fluorescent light bulbs replaced somewhere, it all works out, I guess.

However, I don’t boycott Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, or Apple, even though they have some very questionable labor practices at home and abroad. Nor do I boycott Facebook, even as it colludes with (and actively designs algorithms for) the NSA and FBI to subject us to constant invasive surveillance. Apparently, it boils down to whether a boycott would constitute an inconvenience to me. I guess I’m not as ideologically committed as my conservative relatives think I am. But I think I’m probably not that different from the average consumer, in this regard. At least I thought about boycotting them. Does that count for something in the karmic wheel?

Wagner’s Parzival Act 3: A little soda water will get rid of that little stain of Judaism, don’t you worry!


The other contrast I wanted to make with Card and Ender’s Game is the case of Wagner – no, not that The Case of Wagner, my overly erudite readers, although Nietzsche’s observations about anti-Semitism and the relationship of the creator with the creation make a good starting point. One of the first things you learn about Wagner if and when you study him in Music History is that he was a rabid anti-Semite. Not only did he write about it, but there are several plainly anti-Semitic characters in more than one opera. In Das Rheingold Alberich the money-hungry dwarf renounces love to claim the eponymous gold, thereby starting the chain of events in the Ring that brings down the gods. (Ever notice that depictions of Tolkien’s dwarves have exaggerated hook noses right out of a 19th-century anti-Semitic caricature?). And then there’s Kundry in Parzival, a very literal depiction of the Wandering Jew legend, condemned to wander the Earth deathless until the Second Coming for mocking Christ on the Cross. The Wandering Jew motif shows up in less literal fashion in Der Fliegende Holländer. Hitler loved Wagner and these operas, and for this reason, many have boycotted Wagner over the years. Whether Wagner would have approved of the extremes Hitler embraced remains an unanswered question, but without a doubt Wagner and his work contributed, in more than small ways, to an environment in which German National Socialism could come to power.

But I love Wagner. I think his operas are on par with of some of the best imaginative fiction of more recent times. He presents the surrealism of mythology, framed in the incredibly stylized conventions of opera, and explores love, sacrifice, human destiny, and religion in thoughtful and moving ways. Admittedly, Wagner is an acquired taste, and one needs to spend many, many, many, many hours to develop that taste. But he knew the power of a booming score and flaming explosions more than a century before Michael Bay. Hollywood owes a lot to his production philosophy and aesthetics. Unfortunately, he skipped the class of storytelling called “show, don’t tell.” Wagner characters spend a lot of time describing their life histories in rhyming couplets in the middle of what ought to be incredibly gripping scenarios. “I’m here to murder you, foul temptress! But first, sit down and listen to me recount the story of my mother’s long and tragic tale, after I remind you of the underlying philosophical structure of the cosmos.”

This may sound counter-intuitive, but knowing of Wagner’s anti-Semitism deepens my enjoyment of his operas. Deconstructing an author’s psyche is part of the fun of great art and literature, isn’t it? You can watch Birth of a Nation and appreciate its visual storytelling, even if you find its themes disturbing and bizarre. But is that enjoyment a function of the cushion of time? The era of virulent German Anti-Semitism is (mostly) past. The Ku Klux Klan, while still extant, is largely viewed as a de-fanged fringe group. I do have to say, however, that recently re-watching the film Red Dawn (the original) made me feel icky. I didn’t quite grasp this in my youth, but it goes through all the NRA talking points (evil gun registries, commies might invade YOUR town tomorrow, etc.) over the course of the movie, and it’s been a great recruitment tool for the militia movement. I am glad, though, that I went to see Zero Dark Thirty, even if the thought of boycotting it crossed my mind. The ideas were worth engaging, even as a more antagonistic audience member.

Maybe he just needed to be bullied less as a kid.


Ender’s Game, however, is yet another category. Although many have searched for homophobic themes in Card’s work (more prominent in some than in others), it’s not a story thematically linked to anti-gay bigotry in the same way that Parzival relies on notions of racial purity. The odd attitude of Card and his characters to sexuality and the body are certainly worth deconstructing, but they are hardly part of heavy-handed propaganda. I think in many ways, the product is separable from its creator. Perhaps it even deserves to be rescued from its creator.

This is true of Ender’s Game more than most. Ender is raised to hate the Other. The inhumanity (literally, in this case) and danger of the Buggers has been reinforced by Ender’s commanders, the politicians, and the media his entire life (comparisons to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers are apt up to this point). But then, catastrophically, devastatingly, Ender learns that all of that has been wrong. He comes to believe that the Other has intrinsic value, simply by being, and that the right of Others to simply be is worth struggling to preserve. Ender dedicates the rest of his life to that end.

I have to recognize that reading Ender’s story as a kid contributed, in some way great or small, to my ethical formation and that of many others, such that we can see Orson Scott Card’s virulent, over-the-top hate for what it is and reject it. I find it tragic that Card himself cannot see the bitter irony. Assuming it gets halfway decent reviews (I’ve been burnt before), I will not be boycotting the film, but I will see it affirming what the story can stand for rather than what its author has chosen to stand for.

P.S. I have to pat myself on the back for my choice of title, just in case no one else decides to do so. It’s a triple entendre!