The Landscapes of Pokémon Go

Pokecaptured

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.

CarpBench

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.

android-device-screenshot-map_custom-eb0530f22c3b2e3011e13ac1c58b1c187b182472-s400-c85

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

POKÉPILGRIM

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.

TAKING THE SACRED DOWN A PEG

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

THE BOOK OF SOUTH PARK

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.

IT’S JUST A CARTOON, MAN

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.

 

NASTY, BIG, POINTY TEETH

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

CHICK MAGNET

 

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.

 

THE CHURCH LADY IN ALL OF US

 

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

Daffy!

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!

SPEAKING WITH THE ENEMY

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!!!!!!

PC vs MAC

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.

THE SKIVVY ON THE SERIES

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.

LARGER DISQUIETS

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.

IF YOU CAN’T TWEET SOMETHING NICE, STFU!

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!

WAGNER FEARED JEWISH COOTIES

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.

CARD’S GAME

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!

In Praise of Music

In Westeros, everyone can hear you scream!

This is a slight deviation from the main themes of the blog, but I want to give a shout out to the composers for serial TV series.  I don’t mean the likes of Law and Order: You know the Bum-Bum of Law and Order, but do Benson and Stabler have their own themes?  I’m talking about Battlestar Galactica (Bear McCreary) and Game of Thrones (Ramin Djawadi) and similar real serials.  Wagner may be a little unpopular due to his virulent antisemitism, and Hector Berlioz may be a little obscure, but the idea of the Leitmotiv and idee fixe, or a musical theme that traces a character or concept through an artistic work is thankfully alive and well.  One of the joys I’ve had in both these series is the musical progression of the themes the composers of these series have set forth.  McCreary chose both characters and plot themes to shape his musical ethos.  It is not an accident that it is a melody, interpreted by Starbuck and the Final Five, that determine the fate of the fleet – The Music of the Cosmos, however it may be interpreted.

The melodies of Game of Thrones are oriented more toward the different Houses than  specific characters.  The Starks have a Norse palette, and the Lannisters make use of the “Rains of Castamere” tune.  The cue for the Red Wedding near the end of Season 3 of GoT makes use of that song – which explores the dangers of opposing House Lannister-  to signal the assassination of our beloved Starks.  But the series has also seen the evolution of Daenerys’ theme as the progress of destiny and the progressing threat of the Others of the North.  It is worth it to take a gander at the sound tracks of these series. It has added to my enjoyment of these series.

The job of TV composers is to stay in the background, but serial narratives have in some programs have opened a venue for talented musicians to explore the possibilities of this genre.  Kudos to you, McCreary an Djawadi!

Justice in a Land of Ice and Fire

Don’t expect justice here . . .

This is heavy on spoilers from the first book, which sets up these characters, but I will go lighter on spoilers from the later books.  Given the approaching climax of the third season of Game of Thrones on HBO, I decided to strike while the iron is hot . . . so to speak.

Critics of high fantasy literature often argue that reactionary conservatism is endemic to the genre.  If Tolkien’s opus is taken as the definitive model, it’s not hard to agree.  Rightful and just kings return to their thrones; manservants are loyal and steadfast, if somewhat simple; the leisurely rustic life triumphs over the industrial proletariat; goodness and nobility shine forth from the skin of tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed paragons from the north and west; hordes of dark, vicious, evil races swarm from the south and east; women are passive, beautiful objects that need rescuing (with the occasional active, adventurous female, e.g. Eowyn, being an exception that proves the rule); and the underlying Christian ethos transcends time and space.  High fantasy, after all, finds its roots in the Romanticism of the 19th-century, in many ways a reaction against the cold scientism of the Enlightenment and the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution.  Despite the increasing number of women who have become consumers of the genre, one has only to peruse the covers in the fantasy section of Barnes & Noble to see the impossibly muscular manly-men and the well-endowed, scantily-clad women who love them.  Plus ça change . . .

Reviewers of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (the basis of HBO’s popular Game of Thrones) have often called him the “American Tolkien.”  This is a little hyperbolic, since from a literary perspective, Martin is closer to the pulpy, page-turner-ish Robert Jordan than to high English Tolkien (although Martin draws deeper characters and wittier dialogue than Jordan, in my opinion).  But in many ways, Martin is really an anti-Tolkien, inverting the romanticization of the medieval world typical of the genre.  The rightful king is a self-indulgent asshole, as are most of the pretenders; manservants are likely plotting to slit their masters’ throats; noblesse oblige is a transparent sham used to justify ridiculous entitlements; the dominant “races” are tyrannical and hierarchical, while the nomads and “savages” of the world seem to be the only ones to truly grasp the idea of freedom, albeit a freedom born of brutality; women are treated as inferior but have slightly more options available to them than real-world history afforded them; and all the religions seem equally hypocritical, brutal, and violent.

Martin’s epic is intensely character-driven, so the deeper themes and philosophies are often more subtle.  But one of the dominant themes is the (im)possibility of justice in a deeply flawed world.  Westeros is a land governed by a thriving feudal system based heavily on real-world Europe, but it’s a feudal system with chinks in its armor that allow alternative and empowering visions to bloom in the imaginations of the marginalized – women, dwarves, cripples, criminals, bastards, prostitutes, non-white peoples, and children.  The most compelling characters of the series emerge from an intense experience of feudal injustice.  Each of these characters has their own voice situated at the margins.  Martin allows these characters just enough room to try and do something about it – and here, indeed, is where the series earns the name “fantasy”.

CAN NOBLES BE NOBLE?

Many of the characters of the series still believe in the justness of their feudal system despite all evidence to the contrary. Eddard (Ned) Stark, his daughter Sansa, and Stannis, the brother of King Robert and one of the pretenders on Robert’s death, represent three iterations of this faith in the system.

A good question. But is he the politician we deserve or need?

Ned is the stereotypical fantasy hero who holds that loyalty to friends and family and the conscientious pursuit of honor and duty will create real virtue.  He is goody-two-shoes to a fault, but he is immediately admirable and sympathetic.  When administering the death penalty, he accords the accused the honor of being the executioner himself – the condemning judge must wield the blade – which is the act through which we are first introduced to the Starks and the ethos of the Northmen.   He has only once besmirched his honor, and that was in fathering the bastard Jon Snow, for which he punishes himself by raising Jon in his household as a constant reminder to himself and his wife Catelyn (and to Jon, as well) of his shame.  Considering how many bastards we eventually meet in the course of the story, Jon Snow is hardly anything unusual, but for Ned, his momentary dalliance was a profound betrayal of love and family.

We begin to suspect Martin’s deviousness when he takes this paragon of nobility and plops him down unceremoniously in the middle of the Machiavellian den of vipers that is King’s Landing, the capital.  As the hedonistic and world-weary King Robert’s newly-appointed Hand, he is left mostly to his own devices to sort out the murder of his predecessor and ferret out threats to the King.  The secret at the center of all the deceit is that all of Robert’s “children” are actually the children of Queen Cersei and her twin brother Jaime (a secret revealed early on when young Bran Stark catches them in the act, is pushed out a window by Jaime, and conveniently contracts amnesia until it is too late – just to remind you of the soap-opera conventions of the series).

So what?  Well, according to the rules of succession dictated by Westerosi feudalism, if son Joffrey is a bastard of incest, he cannot be the heir.  The throne must pass to Robert’s next oldest brother Stannis, a humorless and unpopular blowhard.  When Robert is (not so accidentally) gored fatally by a wild boar, Ned finds himself kingmaker, and his choice and its consequences drive the action for the next several books.  It turns out Ned’s true tragic flaw is to believe in nobility in an ignoble world.  He could have kept Cersei’s secret and offered to mentor and perhaps soften the sadistic Joffrey as regent.  Or he could have supported the claim of Renly, the younger Baratheon brother, who is popular, well-connected, reasonably virtuous, and stunning in eveningwear.  Or he could even arrest Cersei and her brood and take the throne himself with little complaint from the establishment.  But Ned is Ned, so he mercifully gives Cersei a chance to flee (as if!) and begins to clear the way for Stannis’ succession.  From the perspective of the rules of honor, family, and nobility he did precisely the just and right thing, but it was the worst thing he could have done.  Ned Stark loses his head, Joffrey climbs the throne with scheming Cersei at his back, and the realm descends into a bloody civil war in which ordinary people are made to suffer.

I imagine most would disagree with me, but I think the argument can be made that Ned is the true villain of the piece.  His refusal to make nuanced decisions based on a “lesser of two evils” rationale leads him to identify his choices as black or white.  Would there still be gore and suffering in Westeros?  Probably, but Ned chose narrow morality over pragmatic wisdom, and justice suffered for it.  Cue the orgy of hangings, disembowelings, flayings, castrations, beheadings, trials by combat, and nipple-ectomies (Nipples in a George R. R. Martin book have a life expectancy similar to hands in a George Lucas film).

C’mon, Sansa, show us your backbone! You know you wanna!

Neither Martin nor Westeros is kind to those who hold to notions of virtuous nobility.  If Ned Stark is the ultimate fantasy hero (Aragorn wrapped in Luke Skywalker with shades of Woodrow Wilson), his daughter is the ultimate fantasy consumer, starry-eyed and weak-kneed in the presence of jousting knights and romantic troubadours singing songs of valor and true love.  In many ways, her fate is worse than her father’s – to witness the plots and atrocities of the court first-hand, be powerless to stop them, and be forced to assert their justness publically.  She is a perpetual innocent victim, but her victimhood is a direct function of her willful naiveté.  After being subjected to humiliations from her betrothed Joffrey and cynical “life lessons” from her future mother-in-law Cersei, at the end of the third book (A Storm of Swords) we are led to believe that she will have a moment of respite:

“Her maid rolled herself more tightly in her blanket as the snow began to drift in the window.  Sansa eased open the door, and made her way down the winding stair.  When she opened the door to the garden, it was so lovely that she held her breath, unwilling to disturb such perfect beauty.  The snow drifted down and down, all in ghostly silence, and lay thick and unbroken on the ground.  All color had fled the world outside.  It was a place of whites and blacks and greys.  White towers and white snow and white statues, black shadows and black trees, the dark grey sky above.  A pure world, Sansa thought, I do not belong here.” (A Storm of Swords, chapter 80)

She builds a Winterfell in the snow, idealizing the castle home of her youth, a place of safety and certainty.  But the horrors of lust, jealousy, and deceit will quickly dash her vision in the book’s remaining pages, and still worse horrors await the reader in the epilogue. Sansa’s passivity makes her a very frustrating character and a stark contrast to the many courageous female characters in the epic.  We receive flashes of resistance, but she suppresses them herself long before anyone else attempts to.  She is the poster child for the false consciousness of the rich and powerful of the land, willfully blind to the injustices which surround them and which they may unwillingly perpetuate.

No one appreciates a guy who withstands a siege with the help of onions . . . or kills his brother with a foul weird blood-shadow from the uterus of someone with whom he should not be having sex.

Even though Stannis Baratheon is not a main point-of-view character, his shadow is long.  He represents the flipside of Ned Stark’s coin.  If Ned and Sansa cling to an idealized concept of nobility, Stannis represents the bald reality of what that entails.  He is, according to the rules, the true heir – Ned staked his life on it.  He possesses a noble’s sense of entitlement and a deep bitterness when others refuse to acknowledge his rights.  He should be king; he should be beloved; he should be acknowledged, but solely on the basis of his genealogy and dutiful service.  He is not vicious or evil; he is simply the product a system that (supposedly) prizes heritage and martial valor more than charisma, compassion, or insight. His sense that history and destiny must see his claim recognized is not helped by his red priestess, Melisandre, who tells him that he is an ancient hero reborn, prophesied to save the world from the cosmic threat of the Others from the Frozen North.  As the blind Maester Aegon observes, however, Stannis’ messianic fire sword gives off light, but does not give off heat.  It is his status and contrivance, not his character or passion, which puts him where he is.  He is not the one the world needs.

Like Ned and Sansa, his sense of justice and morality is without nuance, and while in the Starks this trait reinforces their “nobility,” in Stannis we see it more truly as something impersonal and inhumane.  His most loyal friend, Davos Seaworth, is a former smuggler who snuck in food and supplies to Stannis and his forces during a siege in the old rebellion against the Targaryens.  The reward for his bravery was a knighthood, but also the removal of his fingers – he was, after all, a smuggler and should be punished.  Stannis is pure justice, without mercy, forgiveness, or wisdom.  If peasants and savages die along his path to destiny, so be it.

It is striking that the cosmic backdrop of the story involves the dualistic clash of the necromantic Others from the far north and the ancient fire magic of the dragons, long thought extinct.  Yet the characters that reveal the most dualistic and rigid thinking seem the least-suited to succeed in the world of Westeros.  I suspect Martin is up to something sneaky in the remaining two books.

FIGHTING THE POWER

The most interesting characters, at least for me but I suspect many will agree, tend to be those that recognize the systemic injustice of politics and society in the world of Westeros, but then try to make it better somehow.  But how do you fight it?  In the characters of Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and Arya Stark we are given three distinct answers – revolution, subversion, and rebellion.

If eating raw horse organs will save my people, I will do it gladly!

If Stannis thinks he’s the prophesied savior of the world but isn’t, Daenerys is clearly the one poised for this role, but yet she doesn’t quite know it yet.  Despite being the scion of a great house, overthrown by Robert’s rebellion, she has had none of the privileges of royalty.  More than any other character, the young queen follows a complex evolutionary arc that teaches her what must be sacrificed to truly rule and rule truly.  Unlike her self-entitled brother, Viserys, Dany begins her path to power at the very bottom, a pale and timid child sold to a Mongol-like Dothraki warlord as price for a horde that will help her house to regain the throne of Westeros.  At first little more than a sex slave, she learns to make her husband love her and respect her.  A rough and uncouth man, Drogo is nevertheless not cruel or abusive, and finds his increasingly confidant wife a pleasing asset.  It is not long before she has been able to assert a place of power among the nomads.

Beyond her own experience as chattel, one of her first lessons in the injustice of the world comes from her attempted intervention in the custom the Dothraki have of raping the women of conquered peoples.  She forbids the practice and takes several victims into her service.  One, the witch Mirri Maz Duur, betrays Dany, saving the life an ailing Drogo at the cost of placing Drogo in a permanent catatonic state and the life of Dany’s unborn child.  Dany protests:

“I spoke for you,” she said, anguished.  “I saved you.”

Saved me?”  The Lhazareen woman spat.  “Three riders had taken me, not as a man takes a woman but from behind, as a dog takes a bitch.  The fourth was in me when you rode past.  How then did you save me?  I saw my god’s house burn, where I had healed good men beyond counting.  My home they burned as well, and in the streets I saw a pile of heads.  I saw the head of a baker who made my bread.  I saw the head of a boy I had saved from deadeye fever, only three moons past.  I heard children crying as the riders drove them off with their whips.  Tell me again what you saved.” (A Game of Thrones, Chapter 68)

Another, Eroeh, who served Dany loyally, is taken and gang-raped in the dissolution of the tribe after Drogo’s death.  Her acts of kindness are undone by the resentment of the privileged who felt those privileges being challenged by uppity women.

It’s at this moment that Daenerys assumes (not so subtly) the mantle of the Wagnerian Brünnhilde, literally climbing the funeral pyre of her husband (fueled by the traitorous witch’s own body) and shaking the firmament with the birth of a new order.  In one of the first true appearances of magic in the series, Dany survives unharmed, albeit singed and hairless (something the TV series opted against) and the fossilized three dragon eggs burned with Drogo have hatched.  She is the Mother of Dragons, harbinger of the Revolution.

It could be expected that she would be motivated by revenge against the once loyal tribesmen who tore her people apart.  Or maybe she would be motivated to use her dragons to buy an army to sweep back into Westeros.  But what truly comes to motivate Dany is the cause of emancipation.  She takes upon herself the task of liberating all the slaves of the Eastern continent (Essos is a Greco-city-state Ancient Mediterranean-ish culture, just as Westeros is a Medieval European-ish culture).

The next step in the education of Queen Daenerys Targaryen is to learn the cost of Revolution.  Opportunists flock to see her dragons and attempt to take them away or control them through controlling her. And when she finally has an army of liberated military eunuchs behind her and is no longer dependent on the patronage of the greedy, the dragons start to become a powerful military weapon in their own right.  But as the dragons/the Revolution grow, they become harder to control and require more food to sustain them.  When it is finally revealed that one of the dragons has eaten a peasant’s child, she begins to show some cold feet.  Her conquest of the slave cities has not come without cost.  The class warfare backfires and the freed slaves become both victims and perpetrators of civil strife, as the remaining slaver cities unite against her.  There is sickness, interruption of trade, and scarcity of resources.  Is it even possible to be a benevolent conqueror?

Dany, too, could end up a victim of idealism like Ned Stark, but her own experience of slavery and poverty have given her an edge that the landed nobility lack.  She has learned to be pragmatic and adopted an attitude of service, making uncomfortable personal choices for the greater good of her “children.”  Will she pull it off?  And will she be able to bring her new vision to Westeros?  Destiny say it’s so, but when has Martin let destiny have its way without a fight?

Not generally a fan of corporal punishment, but gee, Joffrey really needs to be slapped from time to time.

Tyrion Lannister is the favorite of most of Martin’s fans, and not just because of Peter Dinklage’s amazing portrayal on TV.  Without a doubt, he is the smartest man in the room, both in book-smarts and in his ability to think on his feet and toss out clever barbs.  He is, however, a dwarf, despised by his father and assumed by almost everyone he meets to be as evil as he is ugly (Peter Dinklage is handsomer than the descriptions in the book), the “Imp.”  By all the rules, he is forever barred from assuming true power, but he also sees the tangled strings of intrigue more clearly than anyone else.  He is the Michel de Certeau of Westeros.  Leading a revolution of dwarves and outcasts is clearly out of the question, so Tyrion assumes the role of trickster, manipulating situations behind the scenes.  As he says to the bastard Jon Snow early in the first novel, “Never forget what you are.  The rest of the world will not.  Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”  (A Game of Thrones, 14) Despite his reputation, he usually tries to counter-balance the injustices he sees around him.  For example, when Tyrion holds the post of King’s Hand, he sends the captain of the guard, Janos Slynt, who gleefully followed King Joffrey’s infanticidal orders, off to the Night’s Watch, where he can do no more harm (he thinks).  The only problem with doing such things behind the scenes, though, is he must remain an unsung hero even as he accumulates powerful enemies.

Through much of the second book, Tyrion is the only thing standing between the sadistic and megalomaniac King Joffrey and the rest of the kingdom, attempting to mentor him in ways that Cersei (or Robert, or Jaime, or Ned) has not.  Joffrey, though, is beyond redemption, and Tyrion, as his Hand, comes to be associated with the worst of the King’s misdeeds.  So Tyrion’s good intentions tend to be thwarted, much like Dany’s.  But this doesn’t prevent him from lying and conniving towards justice.

Arya Stark, played by Maise Williams in the HBO series and one of the best of an already talented cast.

The third option, the most modest, yet the assured one, appears on the plate of Arya Stark, the tomboy who’d rather learn sword-fighting than embroidery.  It is her status as a child, and as a girl who looks like a boy, that gets her out of the dreadful scrapes she experiences in the first two books.  By the middle of Clash, we see that she has started down the career path of assassin.  Like Daenerys, Arya has an evolutionary arc, although in this case she has a series of mentors in place of Dany’s antagonists: Syrio Forel, who teaches her swordsmanship for the small and agile; Yoren of the Night’s Watch, who teaches her to hide as a boy and trust other outcasts; (the TV series gives her some time as Tywin Lannister’s page, a brilliant deviation from the books); Jaqen H’qaar, a shape-changing Faceless One, who kills three men for Arya in exchange for her saving the lives of him and two other prisoners, and who presents the possibility of joining the Faceless guild in Braavos; Beric Dondarrion, loyal knight turned undying Robin Hood, waging a guerilla war against any lordly army, Lannister or Stark, who causes suffering to the innocent populace; and finally the Hound, the anti-knight who rejects all notions of honor (yet nevertheless has a keen sense of justice).   Each of these mentors has no qualms about bringing the strike of death from the shadows to those who they feel are remorseless scum.  Yet each has been motivated by some sense of justice – in the form of the balancing act of vengeance.

A witness to her father’s beheading, Arya begins a bedtime litany of all those against whom she will bring revenge, a list that frequently grows and occasionally diminishes with time.  It is truly a sign of the upside-down world Martin has created that this heroine who challenges five gender stereotypes before she has breakfast has chosen to become the face of Death.  This approach to righting injustice might seem piecemeal, but so far Arya has racked up more successes than either Dany or Tyrion and has had fewer failures.

In modern parlance, we make reference to the “rule of law,” that notion that justice transcends all race, class, gender, and political status.  Even the President is subject to the law.  Such is not the reality for societies in a feudal or tribal situation (Afghanistan?).  There is no strong state to enforce such justice, so justice must be sought through personal relationships and networks of patronage.  In a tribal situation, vengeance is justice; in a strong or strengthening state, vengeance or the use of patronage networks is known as corruption.  But that doesn’t always work either, if you end up being betrayed by your relatives and allies.  It makes for great drama, as the longevity of the Mafia movie genre attests.  Westeros is a feudal realm that claims to support the rule of law, but is actually far more tribal than the Ned Starks of the world would admit.  If there is a “lesson” to be learned from Martin’s epic, it’s that the system of justice we hold dear obscures a myriad of privileges and entitlements that elevate some over others in the same moment that it denies such inequality exists.

ON OUR OWN

A family torn apart and never getting back together. They all think the others are dead. The reality is a little more complicated than that . . .

In contrast to the narratives of friendship and loyalty in The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and most representatives of the fantasy genre, the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire live in a morally atomistic universe.  After the radical dispersal of the characters in the first two books, none of the main characters get to reunite with those they love most for very long, if at all.  And when family members and friends find one another, conflicting priorities pit them asunder, as Catelyn Stark’s desire to reunite her family causes her to free the captured Jaime, eliminating one of her son Robb’s few diplomatic bargaining chips and causing a deep wedge in their relationship.  Tyrion and Jaime, the only family member who ever had showed him kindness are soon split by revelations about how Jaime destroyed one of the only moments of true happiness in Tyrion’s life.  Arya and Bran Stark in the third book are moments away from being reunited with siblings, only to have cruel fate intervene.  And although surrounded by advisors, Dany is increasingly learning that even her most trusted advisors have ulterior motives and should be kept at arms’ length.

The help and aid of family, friends, servants, lords, and even passing strangers cannot be assumed, and, in fact, harm can be expected to come from those corners instead.  In Martin’s world, Sam would have plotted with Gollum to filch the Ring and toss Frodo (that elitist bourgeois stooge of the snooty elves!) alone into the Dead Marshes (Why wait till Mordor, smelly shit-hole?).  Then he would have thwacked Gollum (slave mentality!) in the head, taken the Ring, captured Gandalf (self-righteous self-appointed Christ-like messiah!), and hanged the wizard’s flayed corpse at the gates of Mordor as a warning to Sauron (small-minded plotter with no true understanding of the workings of Power!).  Go Sam, the true and only Master of the World!

So in Westeros, each of the characters must learn to be mistrusting and self-reliant.  Yet this is not some Ayn Randian medieval individualistic paradise.  It is a dystopia; the system is rotten to the core, and it is not conducive to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.  Justice will not and cannot come from group action or state structures.  Even the noble, well-intentioned, guerilla Brotherhood without Banners under Beric can only dish out a brutal vengeance on rampaging soldiers, steeping the land still deeper in blood and violence.

And yet, I find Martin’s world optimistic and profoundly humanistic (even if the American liberal in me finds his lack of faith in true government reform disturbing).  The Needle-pricks of Arya, Tyrion’s small Sisyphean acts of corrosion, and Dany’s insistence to keep her people free at any personal cost place the primary responsibility for goodness and justice on the individual human being, even in the face of ugliness on a global scale.  Even the Hound, reviled as the brutal extension of Joffrey’s sadism, finds ways to make Sansa’s life better in ways that she will never understand or appreciate.  Arya’s refusal to kill the Hound as he lay mortally wounded could be taken as a cruelty, but at another level it is a silent acknowledgement that he no longer deserved to be on her death list – forgiveness in the midst of the gore and pus.

The cosmic backdrop of the battle between Ice and Fire has been on the back burner (so to speak) for most of the series.  But we know that “winter is coming.”  One of the things I’m anxious to see (if Martin ever finishes the last two books) is how the seemingly classic Good vs. Evil battle on the horizon will be squared with the atomistic, non-dualistic moral universe established by the characters on the ground.  I believe a clue can be found in one of the world-building conceits of the world: Seasons are not regular (no astronomical or geological explanation is even hinted at).  They follow each other in proper order, but the length of winters and summers can last years and perhaps decades.  It’s not totally random or relativistic, but nor is it totally fixed and predictable.  The opening credit sequence of the TV series gives us a gods-eye view of the world, giving the impression that there is some deeper cohesive meaning to the whole story.  But given Martin’s tendencies for the cruel twist, I have to wonder if the Others aren’t in fact the good guys, sent to resurrect the sins of the Realm and send them out to annihilate the whole mess.

Should we welcome the zombie-makers as our new rightful and just overlords?