Thursday, March 31, 2016

A little too....

I was watching NOVA last night, a show about how the universe is fundamentally mathematical (except, as even NOVA admitted, it isn't. It made me think of the old joke about the drunk looking for his lost keys under a street light, not because he lost them there, but because the light is so much better.  Physicists who said math explains the universe were rebutted by other scientists who pointed out math actually did a poor job of explaining phenomena noted in other fields, and that physics was pretty much locked in to looking for answers that math could provide.  Which explains my drunk under the street light.  But I digress....).  This morning it was proven to my satisfaction that the universe is not fundamentally mathematical, but rather fundamentally ironic.

Deliciously, deliciously ironic.

Salon noted this news story:

She went on to observe, “You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday. I will tell you they live within 5 miles of Franklin Avenue and Ardmore Boulevard and have been hiding out since in a home likely much closer to that backyard patio than anyone thinks. They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested. They’ve made the circuit and nothing has scared them enough. Now they are lost. Once you kill a neighbor’s three children, two nieces and her unborn grandson, there’s no coming back. There’s nothing nice to say about that.”
It's the "multiple siblings from multiple fathers" that raises it to art; or racism, your choice.

The irony?  I turn on the radio later in the morning, and Diane Rehm is interviewing Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper.  Seems they've written a joint memoir of sorts.  And that Anderson is her son by her third husband; she was also once married to Sidney Lumet, and before that to Leopold Stokowski.  I don't know if she had any children with Mr. Lumet, but she did with Mr. Stokowski.

Which isn't a problem, you know, because she's rich, and Anderson Cooper is successful.  And they're both white, which doesn't enter in the equation at all.  Does it?*

Remember when it was revealed the Sandy Hook shooter was a child of divorce?  There was some tut-tutting about the father not providing the right "influence" for the boy, but that didn't really go very far, because divorce is pretty commonplace among white families; and besides it was really the mother's fault for being such a gun freak, right?

So, when white people have multiple siblings from multiple fathers well, they deal with it.  Black people?  Apparently, not so much.

What are the mathematical odds I'd run into these two stories on the same day?  Tell me the universe isn't fundamentally ironic.

*and if Cooper had been scandalous rather than famous, would we blame rich white people?  Or just his mother?

The more things change

First, on the Hillary Clinton front.  Maybe you heard about those "150 FBI agents" working on Clinton's e-mails.  Well, not so fast:

The recently edited version of the 5000 word article by Robert O'Harrow in the WP has the following correction at the very end for those who have the stamina to read that far.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Clinton used two different email addresses, sometimes interchangeably, as secretary of state. She used only as secretary of state. Also, an earlier version of this article reported that 147 FBI agents had been detailed to the investigation, according to a lawmaker briefed by FBI Director James B. Comey. Two U.S. law enforcement officials have since told The Washington Post that figure is too high. The FBI will not provide an exact figure, but the officials say the number of FBI personnel involved is fewer than 50. 
Less than 50?  Yeah, apparently way less than 50:

Update from NBCNews:

But a former federal law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the Clinton investigation tells MSNBC an estimate anywhere near 50 agents is also off base.
"There are currently about 12 FBI agents working full-time on the case," says the source, who would only speak anonymously about an open investigation.
So there's that, and yes that "150 agents" number is going to stick because a lie is halfway around the world while truth is still putting its boots on.  Case in point:

This morning [July 25, 2015], The New York Times issued a second substantial correction to its anonymously-sourced report that originally hyped a potential Department of Justice investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of personal email. The paper has now removed the claim -- which appeared in both the article's headline and first sentence -- that two inspectors general were seeking a "criminal" investigation into the handling of Clinton's emails.

How much of a correction?

But the Times hadn't only botched the target of the inquiry, it misstated its nature as well. Yesterday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democratic member of the Benghazi Select Committee, released a statement saying that he had personally spoken with the State Department Inspector General and the Intelligence Community Inspector General and "both confirmed directly to me that they never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton's email usage. Instead, they said this was a 'routine' referral, and they have no idea how the New York Times got this so wrong."

Additionally, a Justice Department official reportedly said yesterday -- apparently contradicting earlier statements from the DOJ -- that the referral over the emails was not "criminal."
And yet still the argument rages on the intertoobs that Clinton will be indicted by the FBI (which agency doesn't seek indictments; the AG's of the DOJ do that) for her "e-mail scandal."  Which is never going to happen because nobody is trying to make it happen.

We used to call this "Clinton Derangement Syndrome."  Except now it's coming from erstwhile Democrats who think they are supporting Bernie Sanders with this stuff, as well as from a media all too willing to put sensation above responsibility.

And now we're going to have a revolution.  Well, to quote Jann Wenner, who knows a thing or two about revolutions:

Hillary Clinton has an impressive command of policy, the details, trade-offs and how it gets done. It's easy to blame billionaires for everything, but quite another to know what to do about it. During his 25 years in Congress, Sanders has stuck to uncompromising ideals, but his outsider stance has not attracted supporters among the Democrats. Paul Krugman writes that the Sanders movement has a "contempt for compromise."

Every time Sanders is challenged on how he plans to get his agenda through Congress and past the special interests, he responds that the "political revolution" that sweeps him into office will somehow be the magical instrument of the monumental changes he describes. This is a vague, deeply disingenuous idea that ignores the reality of modern America. With the narrow power base and limited political alliances that Sanders had built in his years as the democratic socialist senator from Vermont, how does he possibly have a chance of fighting such entrenched power?

I have been to the revolution before. It ain't happening.
Or you can ask Barney Frank:

Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it in terms of his accomplishments and that’s because of the role he stakes out. It is harder to get things done in the American political system than a lot of people realize, and what happens is they blame the people in office for the system. And that’s the same with the Tea Party. It’s “I voted for these Republicans, we have a Republican Congress, we voted for them, they took over Congress, they didn’t accomplish anything.” You gotta win at least two elections in a row.
"It's the same as the Tea Party" is how I now understand more and more of the most militant Sanders supporters.  Honestly, it's hard to slip a piece of paper between a Cruz fanatic and a Sanders fanatic.  They have the same goals, they just want different results; and most of all, they have the same methods and the same impatience with harsh reality.  The worst of them take the position of Susan Sarandon, only without the smile:  let Trump win and the whole system will burn to the ground; only then can the Phoenix of "true America" rise from the ashes.

Well, as Wenner said:  "I have been to the revolution.  It ain't happening."  Or, as Southern Beale put it:

America will not do a storm-the-Bastille style “revolution.” Ever. Much as the far right and far left may yearn for it, we won’t, because we don’t need to. Let me take this opportunity to channel my 7th grade social studies teacher and remind everyone that Americans are given an opportunity for “revolution” every two years when we hold our national elections. Imperfect though they may be, warts and all, voter suppression and two-party system be damned, the truth of the matter is, our democracy allows for a substantial — and peaceful — turnover in power, if the people demand it. That is our system. That is the system of most stable Western democracies. That is why we don’t have bloody, disruptive, revolutions in the UK and Canada and France and Germany and the like.
I'd say we're too British to storm the Bastille (there's a cultural reason the French did it and the British just replaced the King with Cromwell, however briefly); but she's right:  we change the system every 2 years.  But that doesn't mean we burn the system to the ground and start from ashes, or that anything ever arises from ashes except chaos.  Try as I might, I can't distinguish Sarandon's sentiments:

 Asked about her own vote, Sarandon replied, “I don’t know, I’m going to see what happens,” before she added with a smile, “You know, some people think Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately. If he gets in then things will really, you know, explode.” 
From those of Dick Cheney and the neocons who led us into Iraq on the basis that a little revolution would be good for the region.  Yeah, how's that working out?

The Tea Party wants to seize control of the government and bend it to it's solitary will.  The genius of the system is to make that nearly impossible, because democracy is the rule of the people, not the rule of some people.  Mostly it's not the people I want to be in charge (trust me, I've lived in Texas most of my life, I know what I'm talking about on that point).  But the revolutionaries have yet to convince me their way is an improvement.  Mostly, in the words of that old Who song, it's:  "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

We don't need a political revolution:  we need a change of culture; we need a change of heart.  One is dangerous, disruptive, and truly radical.  The other is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Yeah; the Titanic.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sons of Hobby Lobby

The governor of Georgia vetoes a "religious freedom" bill which would have allowed pastors in Georgia to refuse to do same-sex marriages, and allowed other "believers" to discriminate against people based on religious beliefs.

Which apparently is okay if it means you can tell a gay couple to get out of your bakery, but probably wouldn't be so good if Muslims decided you were an infidel, or Jews decided you were Gentile and they couldn't take your filthy lucre.  No, I don't expect such things to happen, but why couldn't I discriminate against a Jew or a Muslim as a Christian in Georgia?*

Oh, yeah, the Civil Rights Act is why.  But at least I could discriminate against gays and lesbians and transgendered persons, and that's what religious belief is all about, right?

According to the Hobby Lobby decision, it is.  That's the Supreme Court ruling that unlocked this Pandora's Box which North Carolina has gleefully knocked the top off of, while Georgia has decided maybe that's not such a good idea.  And still the Supreme Court dithers.

The Court has taken the unusual step of acting like a legislative body:  they want more facts about insurance policies and what they cover before they can rule in Zubik v. Burwell.  Some see this as a sign Chief Justice Roberts or maybe Justice Kennedy want to rule in favor of the government, and need a fig leaf to cover them.  I wonder, however, if it isn't the male justices trying one last time to find evidence to support their fantasy about insurance and lady parts and delicate religious fee-fees.**

The only comfort I would draw from this discussion if it were happening in a legislative setting is that at least those involved were elected officials who could be removed from office in the next election.  True, incumbency is practically a life-time appointment, but it ain't necessarily so.  Being on the Supreme Court, as Justice Scalia just showed us, is forever.  Forever is turning into a very long time, indeed.

Ever since Hobby Lobby it has been open season on how far religious believers can go in extending their religious beliefs beyond the end of someone else's nose.  Now it is an offense to their delicate sensibilities (but never to God, interestingly enough) to not be able to discriminate against gay couples.  Of course, Georgia doesn't have a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, so Georgia bakers and dress makers and flower arrangers are free to say "NO!" to any couple they want to refuse, and pastors across the country, even in states with anti-discrimination laws, are free to refuse to conduct weddings.

Not because God tells them they must do so; but because they are delicate flowers who should not be forced to live in a world that includes people not just like them.  That's really what the argument is now.  It isn't religious at all:  it's selfish.

And if that doesn't go against the teachings of Christianity (and all these cases and laws are clearly aimed at "protecting" Christians first, not Muslims or Jews or Buddhists or Hindus, or what have you), then I don't know what does.

*Or, apparently, if I run Hobby Lobby.

**Just because it makes me look smart, I have to note that Dahlia Lithwick agrees with me:

Then, later in the day, the court handed down a truly baffling order in last week’s Zubik v. Burwell contraception mandate case asking the parties for further briefing. The order is one of the strangest things I have ever read. It demands the two parties comment on an imaginary workaround that would allow religious objectors to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate to notify their insurers that they object to providing birth control, but in an even more subtle fashion than the workaround already given them. One can almost hear Anthony Kennedy hollering between the lines: “Give me a legislative FIX, stat,” through all the legalese.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Can power even be avoided?

A thought I didn't manage to squeeze into that long diatribe about the movie nobody loves, is something I really want to reserve for the evaluation of the religious aspects of the story.  I've mentioned it before; it's Lex Luthor's line to Holly Hunter's character, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky (yeah, I know, real alternate universe stuff here).  The oldest lie in America, he tells her, is that power can be innocent.

That's an absolutely Niebuhrian line*; and the fact its stated by the villain of the story makes it even better.  But I'm not worried about moral man and immoral society or the irony of American history just now; I'm more interested in fascism and accepted narratives.

As I said before, part of the movie criticism of "B v. S" is rooted in me-tooism or group think or whatever you want to call it.  I call it common narrative: "serious" critics knew they could not praise a comic book movie, so they had to find reason to denigrate it:  too dark, too serious (seriously), and, of course, NO PLOT!  But we've dealt with that; what I'm interested in now is the change in the character of Batman caused by the work of Frank Miller, and how that change is now commonly discussed.

The usual measure of Miller's Batman is that he's a fascist (I'm pretty sure Andrew O'Hehir mentioned that here, by way of a footnote.).  The funny thing is, he isn't.  He's a criminal.  He says so himself in Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns."  And Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne practically quotes those words to Alfred, in "B v. S."  The distinction is important.

No one has ever, so far as I know, called a criminal a fascist.  An anarchist, maybe, but never a fascist.  Criminals and anarchists want to destroy the system; they want to create chaos.  Vigilantes are almost anarchists because they think the system is failing them, and they will "Take the law into their own hands" in order to set things right.  Criminals don't want to take the law into their hands; they want to defy the law.  Anarchists want to undo the law.  Fascists want to use the law:  to govern, with a very strong hand.

Vigilantes don't want to supplant government; they want to supplement it.  They act because they think government can't, or won't.  Their actions could be anarchic, but that isn't their intent.  Criminals want to evade the law; it's fine for everyone else, but for them their own set of rules (if any) is what they will follow.  Fascists don't want to be vigilantes or criminals; they want to be the government, the law, the rules.  They want complete control.

Miller's Batman doesn't want control; he wants justice.  He wants to do what the law won't, or can't; but even he won't kill the Joker, even after the Joker has killed hundreds in his escape from Arkham Asylum (in the "Dark Knight" series that Miller wrote).  Batman never takes the law into his hands that way; he never supplants the government entirely, or becomes a tool of the government.

But in Miller's telling, Superman does.

In Miller's universe Superman has become a "secret" agent of the Federal government.  TV stations get cut off the air in mid-sentence before a reporter can so much as mention the name "Superman."  Miller shows him on the battlefield, destroying tanks and jets which are presumably manned (Superman kills!), all in the name of "national security."  It's a scenario that takes on fresh meaning after 9/11 (the story was published long before).  After all, if you're going to protect people from evil, why not protect us from national enemies?  What's the line between stopping super-villains (or monsters, in the movies) and stopping national enemies, be they armies or suicide bombers?

I mention this because part of the plot of "B v. S" hinges on Holly Hunter's character holding hearings into what should be done about Superman.  As she tells him, in the United States we do things by consensus, not by the decision of one person.  Superman is shown hovering above a set of flooded houses, the occupants crouching on the roofs inches from the water.  This is obviously good:  one super-man can save all those poor victims of nature.  But he also saves Lois Lane from an African warlord Lane has gone to interview, when the situation goes pear-shaped.  That's good, too, right?  He saves her again, when Luthor throws Lane off a building.  Good, right?  But should Superman then threaten Luthor and try to arrest him, with no more power than his superpowers as authority?  Why does he get to decide who to take to the police, or who to assault on behalf of his girlfriend?  And if society disagrees with his decisions, what does society do?

In Miller's telling, society has decided by getting Superman's acquiescence.  It comes to that question:  who gets to decide what Superman does as Superman, in the movie; but then the question is avoided (with action; this is an action movie, not a philosophical examination of the nature of society).  But in Miller's telling Superman is the fascist:  he is the power the President alone can direct, and the ultimate power on the planet (literally a one-man army), under the direction of one Commander in Chief and absolutely no one else.  If that isn't fascism, what is?

But it's Miller's Batman who gleefully kicks ass and takes names, who is (in his own words) "born again" when he returns to crime-fighting and delights in brutalizing suspects (he breaks legs, he terrorizes people for information), and we can't approve of that, so:  Batman must be the fascist (fascists are bad!) and Superman must...not be mentioned.  Just like in Miller's story.

Funny, that.

The movie, as I say, doesn't resolve the question, although it does ask it (from another Superman story):  "Must there be a Superman?"  The comic book left that question open.  Hunter answers it:  "Well, there is."  And the legitimate issue is:  what would a government, a society, a civil people, do about that?  Praise his independent actions, no matter what they were, because society would always approve of them?  Or control his actions by insisting he had to act in consultation and connection with others, the way our government does.  Even the FBI doesn't act on it's own volition:  it answers to the Justice Department, to the Court system; it has to go through the AG's to get into the courtroom and prosecute a suspect, and it can't do that if the attorneys don't think there is a case to be made.  Batman foils bad guys but, in Miller's telling (and that responsibility shifts to Superman in the latest movie) Batman fights the police, too, as they try to stop him.  He's a vigilante, after all; or as he says, he's a criminal.  He has to be a criminal.

Can Superman be a criminal?  Can he avoid being a fascist?  It's a very interesting question.

*But it isn't a quote, so I guess it's not "smart".

Monday, March 28, 2016

Dawn of Movie Narratives

If I start off telling you that Oedipus is akin to Batman or Superman, you're going to think I'm saying the play by Sophocles bears any comparison to the movies which have poured out of Hollywood since the '80's. If I mention the tendency of Shakespeare to use complex double plots in even his comedies, you're going to think I'm trying to compare the work of Zack Snyder to the Bard of Avon.

I'm not doing either of those things.  I'm certainly not trying to elevate comic book stories to the level of the greatest literature of the world.  Frank Miller is good; he's no Sophocles.  Superman and Batman have proven to be enduring characters; but they aren't on the level of Greek myth.  Part of that is because of the way our culture venerates Greek mythology over, say, Anglo-Saxon mythology.  We could have gone with Beowulf over Odysseus; but that's an argument for another time (or an "Easter egg," in modern movie criticism parlance.  And yes, I hope to draw all these threads together before the final scene.  We'll see if I can do it.)

There is a useful comparison between Oedipus and Batman; and it lies in story telling.  Let me start here and see if we can get somewhere.  Aristotle, in his Poetics, identified the elements necessary to a tragedy.  Some of them are so particular to Greek stagecraft (like "melody," which referred to the tune the Chorus chanted to.  Who uses a chorus as narrator as the Greeks did?) they are easily ignored; some, like the "tragic hero," have become touchstones for discriminating tragedy from drama.  But Aristotle insisted the story for a tragedy must be "complete," by which he meant the story began at the beginning of the play, and ended at the end.

And he used as his example of the exemplary tragedy the play he considered the greatest tragedy every written:  "Oedipus Rex," as it has come to us.  The problem is, "Oedipus Rex" violates Aristotle's dictum of "completeness."

Well, it does if you interpret it in a certain way.  Aristotle's standards have been reinterpreted over the centuries, partly out of necessity.  No one presents plays the way Aristotle would have understood them, so the essentials of Aristotle's argument had to prevail over the particular.  In the 18th century this meant discovering the "unities" of time, place, and plot, ideas that expanded on Aristotle's original observations and were used, among other things, to denigrate Shakespeare's "Othello," because it doesn't take place in the time it takes to watch the play (Act 1 begins in Venice, Act II takes up in Cyprus, which must be weeks later) or take place in one place.  It also involves the anger of Iago who, when the play opens, is plotting against Othello for reasons that occurred before the story begins.

Then again, so does "Oedipus Rex."  If you don't know the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx, you're never quite clear on why Thebes made Oedipus king when he showed up after King Laertes failed to return.  The play tells you Oedipus killed Laertes; it tells you the entire Oedipus tale, from prophecy to recognition, but it never explains the story of the Sphinx.  And it's Oedipus' defeat of the Sphinx which earned him the throne that leads to sleeping with his own mother.  It's what we could call a significant plot point, its absence a significant plot hole.

Except everybody in Athens knew the story before they sat down to watch Sophocles' version of it.

Just as most of us (well, certainly those of us going to the movies) know the origin story of Superman (born on Krypton, a planet exploding as he left, though why it was exploding has changed over the decades), or Batman, who watched his parents die in a robbery attempt (again, who shot them and why they were vulnerable to the robbery, whether it even was a robbery or actually an assassination, being details which have changed with practically every telling).  Even Sophocles' version of the Oedipus story is a version; it isn't the only way the story was told.

The same is true for Superman and Batman.   In the earlier days of Batman, Alfred the loyal butler was little more than a butler (that varied over time; at one point in the comics Alfred himself became a costumed crime fighter).  He's always been British because, well, butlers are British, aren't they?  In Miller's telling Alfred has training in military field medicine (a trait that carried over to Nolan's telling).  In "Batman v. Superman," Alfred is a mechanical engineer (rebuilding the "Batmobile" at one point) as well as a drone pilot (and according to at least one website a former SAS agent, though if that came up in the movie I missed it).    The essential, however, never changes:  Alfred is the British butler and closest confidante of Bruce Wayne.  The audience knows that going in; any change in Alfred's capabilities is accepted as a variation on a theme.  It doesn't violate the basic expectation of the characters.

And so Superman's girlfriend is Lois Lane.  In "Batman v. Superman," Clark and Lois live together, and she knows all about him, even saving his life more than once in the movie.  (She also makes goo-goo eyes at him once too often.  Ripley from "Alien" she's not, and Amy Adams deserves better.)  In the movie the relationship is more frankly adult than anything the comics have ever allowed themselves (or, more likely, been allowed).  Superman grows up in Kansas, his parents are the Kents,  his hometown is Smallville, etc., etc., etc.

If you go to "Batman v. Superman" and haven't seen "Man of Steel," you probably still understand who that woman is Superman goes to visit midway through the movie, and you may understand Jonathan Kent is dead in this version (in the comics the Kents were alive and well for a long time.  In "The Adventures of Lois and Clark" they were a prominent part of Superman's life.  So it goes.).  But if you didn't see "Man of Steel" you may wonder who that guy is talking to Clark in an arctic wasteland, and why he vanishes after he's contributed what he does to the story of Superman (there are two plots here:  the story of Batman, and the story of Superman.  The shortchanged character is Wonder Woman, who only shows up in the last 30 minutes; but we are promised a separate movie for her, so apparently that's okay.)

What I'm getting at is the mythology we create around these characters, and how we provide narratives of that mythology.  I was going to discuss the movie "Batman v. Superman," which despite the general critical consensus (which I think has to despise comic book movies as either unserious or, the critics favorite, a plot-less mess), I thoroughly enjoyed.  Yes, it runs for three hours (nearly!), and yes some members of my viewing party enjoyed it less than I; but I found the story interesting (even as it showed Bruce Wayne in training to take on Superman, which was probably a real low point for the people I was with) and coherent and to have actually a triple plot (as it turned out) which resolved itself into a coherent conclusion, even as it pointed to further story developments in movies yet to come.

And that latter point returns me to my thesis:  how do we tell these stories?  We all know the origin stories of Batman and Superman, yet Hollywood feels compelled to tell those stories again and again.  This isn't a bad thing, necessarily.  The first Thor movie was a bit thick trying to given an "origin" for Thor being on earth, but the origins of Iron Man were compelling (IMHO, anyway).  The origins of the Hulk have floundered (started over twice), as well as the Fantastic Four (don't even ask).  But despite the Christopher Reeves Superman series (where Marlon Brando played Jor-El, and did a terrible job.  I saw "B v. S" at the Alamo Drafthouse, my go-to theater for such movies because of the pre-feature film they put together.  This one did not disappoint, as a "Turkish Jor El", in subtitles, explained how Brando used cue cards for his role as Jor-El, refusing to memorize lines.  They then played the scene where Jor-El sends Clark to earth, but first has to make a speech over him.  It was not only terrible dialogue (I felt for the actor playing the mother, who had to look like she was listening to that drivel), but it was obvious Brando was reading it, not reciting it.  Anyway.....) which gave us the Superman origin (and used it in the end of that first movie), we got the origin again in "Man of Steel" (and again, used it to end the movie; badly, I thought, and I don't mean Superman killing Zod).  Christopher Nolan did the same thing with Christian Bale's Batman, but that was central to the story he told in the entire trilogy.

The point being, each time Batman or Superman appears on film in a new continuity with new actors (discarding the Keaton to Clooney series), we have to act like we've never heard of the hero until we get the origin story.  That this doesn't happen for Batman in "B v. S" just keeps the focus on Superman; Batman's history is presumed (for Superman, see "Man of Steel").  We see a shattered ruin that is clearly meant to be Wayne Manor, but more as it appears in "Kingdom Come" than any other version of Batman (in that story, Bruce Wayne is old, as he is in Miller's telling, but the mansion has been destroyed by the Joker and Bane, he tells Superman.  In "B v. S" Wayne walks through the pillared ruins of the house (he lives in some version, or maybe the original, Philip Johnson glass house, in the middle of the estate (where else would you put a glass house?)), the pillars are covered in graffiti, including question marks clearly meant to invoke the Riddler.  Yes, I'm a comic book geek.....).  There are other comics references, but I won't bore you now (maybe later).  We are supposed to know the story of Batman, and to understand this is a Batman with some experience on him.  He even has a museum of sorts in the Batcave, but it's a grim reminder of failures, not a parade of triumphs.

And again, if you don't catch the references, it's because you don't know the mythology.

Sophocles, as I say, did the same thing.  Everyone in his original audience knew the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx, Sophocles had no reason to add that particular bit of exposition to a play redolent with exposition (everything has happened to Oedipus before the play begins; the action of the play is just Oedipus learning about it).  I prefer "Antigone," actually, on this point:  the action of that play is the tragedy.  The story unfolds as we watch, not as new characters arrive with another piece of the Oedipus puzzle.  But if you don't know the story of "Oedipus Rex," "Antigone" doesn't make a lot of sense; and, of course, without those two, "Oedipus at Colonus" is a closed book.  Shakespeare's tragedies, by comparison, are much more self-contained and complete (and yes, Shakespeare did repeat characters:  Falstaff from the Henry IV plays reappears in "The Merry Wives of Windsor").

Comic books are not tragedies or plays, but movies are plays of a sort.  Comic books are closer to modern mythology, although they are mythology of the "Beowulf" class:  the heroes embody virtues society praises and venerates.  The Oedipus myth is mostly about the Greek concept of creation and reality (chaos v. logos, and chaos eventually wins.  Think comic books where the villains aren't vanquished and generally prevail).  But movies being plays is where we run into the problem, and it's because of the salient feature of plays that sets them apart from every other form of literature.

No narrator.

This is actually a key factor in Aristotle's definition of tragedy.  The story, he said, must be presented, not told.  "Presented" means it must be acted, not described or recited.  Movies have struggled with this since their beginning.  There's a portion of "B v. S" which is without dialogue, as we watch Bruce Wayne train to build up his muscle mass.  It might be a slow part of the movie for some, but it gives us a physical Batman who wears a fabric (not kevlar reinforced rubber) costume, and who looks like he has the muscles for the suit (rather than the suit making him look muscular).  He's competing with Superman, after all, who clearly doesn't have to work out (what would Superman bench press?) in the  "looks like a comic book super hero" competition.

So movies have to present, but they also now have to tell a story that is connected to other stories (as comic books have been doing for decades).  This, however, is a problem.

We accepted that the Harry Potter movies were a series because we knew the books they came from.  Each book was self-contained, but each book also built on the one before; try watching the last Harry Potter film if you haven't seen the first 7.  In the last Avengers movie there is a scene with Thor which makes no sense in terms of the plot of the film, except to inspire Thor to return for the final battle (although why is still a mystery).  Presumably that's answered in a movie yet to come; and, of course, what happened to The Hulk?  Will he never be able to play hide the zucchini with Natasha? (Don't blame me, Tony Stark started it!).  Do these things spoil the movie, or fit within the framework of the MCU the audience for these films is probably interested in?

Here's the thing:  movies either stand alone, or they create a series with a series of improbabilities.  "The Thin Man" was so popular it spawned "After the Thin Man," a movie that takes up where the first movie ended.  You don't need to know the first movie to enjoy the second, but it helps to keep you from wondering what some of the dialogue is about, and some of the opening action.  James Bond, on the other hand, has no continuity at all, save for M and Spectre and Moneypenney, and soon that overall lack of continuity became ridiculous; except the Daniel Craig story arc (which tried a new direction) didn't last much beyond "Quantum of Solace" and petered out entirely in "Skyfall."  "Spectre" was, by all accounts, a disaster, so maybe continuity and James Bond movies are just incompatible.  Continuity can create the soap opera effect:  the next film is impenetrable to the uninitiated.  But lack of continuity creates a cartoon character, as happened to James Bond.  So there is always this narrative problem:  how complete is complete enough?  And is complete sometimes too complete, allowing for no further storytelling without massive and deadening amounts of exposition, or just a cartoon character whose story is retold in a series of ever more ridiculous movies that all come to resemble each other?

The other problem is:  movies are not novels; they are short stories.

Despite the fact movies are more often adapted from novels than short stories, movies are not novels. They cannot portray a story with the complexity of a novel.  "B v. S" runs for nearly three hours, but it cannot go any deeper into any of the characters (Amy Adams' Lois Lane gets particularly short shrift:  is she a strong, independent adult, or a woman who needs Superman to take care of her physical and emotional needs?  The movie can't seem to decide, and fails toward the latter, poorer choice.)  Minor characters are adjuncts, major characters must be limned in broad strokes in order to get on with the story.  Even a movie version of the Iliad reduces the story to as bare a narrative as possible, and any version of the Odyssey inevitably dwells on the spectacle (Cyclops!  Men turned to pigs!  Sirens!) rather than the complexity of the character of Odysseus.  What we expect of movies is what Poe expected of short stories:  if you can't tell the story in one sitting, you're doing it wrong.  And if you need more than one movie to do it, again:  you're doing it wrong.

Except we also like it this way (narratives overlapping and connecting with other movies), else why  would Marvel and Disney imagine an MCU, and make it happen?  Besides, does anyone think they're going to stop making "Star Wars" movies anytime soon?

So it comes to this for movie critics:  they can fight a rearguard action defending an idea of movie story telling that they think must be defended ("No plot" is my favorite.  Damning when the movie is a comic book movie, but not when it's a Marx Brothers movie or "Napoleon Dynamite."  And then there are the reviews where I wonder if the critic and I saw the same film, because the plot summary provided is so wildly off what I just saw.  This is where Shakespeare's multiple plots comes in (see., e.g., "Midsummer Night's Dream"):  are modern critics incapable of following the action, or do they just think sneering at plot is a kind of insight?), or they can climb on board the shiny new bus and extol another blockbuster whose only real purpose to exist is to sell tickets.  "B v. S" is clearly in the latter category.  It provides what I (and apparently many others) go to movies to see:  enormous spectacle.   I realize that puts "B v. S" on par with "Cleopatra," but so be it.  If Shakespeare hadn't included sword play in his tragedies, as well as word play, his actors would have been splattered with food long before the fifth act.

Interestingly, and if I get a chance to see it again I can comment more intelligently on this, there is a lot of religion in "Batman v. Superman."  Not in the hyperactive way we're used to now, but more as part of the lives of the characters.  The film opens with the final fight from "Man of Steel" as seen by people on the streets the buildings are crashing into and, in one case, a man standing in an office as the heat vision of the Kryptonians slashes through the building.  He offers a prayer to God for his own soul before we know he is a body in that pile of rubble that crashes to the ground.  There are other references that don't involve Lex Luthor's obsession with Superman as an earthbound god which add an unusual richness to an otherwise comic book movie references I don't recognize from any of the source material clearly used in this film (that being "Kingdom Come," as I mentioned; "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller, and "The Death of Superman," at least.).  Those references are not casually thrown in for "color," and also are not dominant themes of the film.  But an examination of religion in this movie (it was badly overstated in "Man of Steel," casually understated here) might repay the effort.  I'm sure Religion Dispatches will be on that before I am; I'm also sure I won't like what they have to say.

Go and please the world.

We continue to use myth to tell ourselves stories about who we are and who we want to be.  As of old, these myths are not rooted in actual events which have become distorted over time (that's a condescending view of myth that we should have discarded by now), they are metaphors for making concrete things that are too abstract to discuss easily.   Wonder Woman, for example, is a warrior in this telling.  She gets the sword I only know from "Kingdom Come" and a warrior's zeal that made my wife think she was supposed to be Xena (the costume, too, is not the star spangled panties and American eagle breastwork we've come to expect, so that threw her; that, and the character is never called "Wonder Woman.").  It's that retelling that's most interesting, just as Batman's costume is so monotone the huge flattened bat logo on the chest is almost invisible, but all the more sinister for being so.  And don't get me started on a Batman who kills with impunity....

We continue to try to make sense of who we are and what we want from the world; and we continue to tell stories in order to help us do that.  As ever, the medium is at least part of the message.

Post for Easter Monday

Which should be a holy day (now "holiday") too.  It is for me, in part; but in part not, so I'll deal with secular matters related to the day before.

I'm just going to repeat myself, because it's easier.  I think Google got burned in 2013, because they did nothing special for Easter Sunday.  Same old new-style Google home page I don't see anymore because browsers can use Google by default, and I had to look to know they'd changed their font (perhaps I should check the kerning).

This is still available from 2014, at RD, the best part of which I quoted then.  But rereading the article I have to say, again:  "No.  The word "Easter" is not related to a Germanic goddess."

New Advent can enlighten you.  Or you can just take what I said in summary.  Shortest answer:  there is no referent to Eostre, the Germanic goddess, outside of the reference by Bede.  Maybe that's where the English word came from, but it's got nothing to do with the celebration of the Pasch (Passover), and it seems to be a word history Bede made up.  So the interesting point is the Pasch, not the supposed pagan connection.

I still like this bit, from that RD article, because nothing has yet changed in the world, despite all the efforts to make it so:

Last year, the Dawkins Foundation posted an Internet meme claiming that Easter is named after the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, which was dragged out again by contrarians who reposted it to remind everyone what Easter is “really” about. This secret history of Easter is a bit like the childhood myth that consuming Pop Rocks and Coke at the same time causes your stomach to explode: It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it’s fun to tell people because it makes you feel smart. These smug proclamations are not only irritating, they’re a disturbing index of our level of discourse about religion. Surrounding the Easter/Ishtar conspiracy theory is a toxic brew of anti-intellectualism, heresiological claims masquerading as historical ones, and simple sadism and incivility facilitated by new media.

But this time, despite their error with Bede's "Eostre," I want to go a bit deeper into their argument:

New Testament scholars have noted that since The DaVinci Code became a cultural phenomenon, there’s been a surge of conspiratorial claims about Jesus, the early church, and the influence of Pagan mystery religions. Authors such as Craig Evans and Bart Ehrman have written with bewilderment at the revival of “mythicist” theories of Jesus and “nineteenth-century philosophical hokum” that was long ago dismissed by serious scholars who read Greek and Hebrew.

All religious traditions change over time. However, to tell people of a different religion that they don’t know what their religious rituals actually mean is ipso facto not a historical argument but a sectarian one. The claim that Christians unknowingly practice a Pagan mystery religion has a long history combining sectarian claims with goofy pseudo-scholarship. It was Protestant Reformers, in fact, who first accused their Catholic rivals of adulterating Christianity with Paganism.

However, it was during the French Revolution that the “mythicist” claims first surfaced. Constantin Francois Volney, in his 1791 essay “Ruins of Empire,” claimed that all religions are derived from sun worship and that “Christ” is cognate with the Hindu “Krishna.” Charles Francois-Dupuis built on this idea in The Origins of All Religions (1795) and introduced discussion of Babylonian religion, including the resurrected god Tammuz. 

It's all of a piece with the worried mother who told me in high school (no, not my mother) that the peace symbols on my sandals (still wish I'd held onto those) were ancient Satanic symbols; when, in fact, it was a symbol created in the 1950's for a British anti-nuclear weapons group.  (and this morning talk of conspiracies has me thinking of John Oliver, who in this bit is kind of funny, but mostly because he uses so many words and tropes I encounter constantly in internet comments.  Maybe there is a conspiracy conspiracy after all; or maybe it's just the Cadbury Creme Eggs, which truly are inedible and yet return annually to store shelves.  Then again, how do you explain the persistence of Taco Bell?)

A little knowledge is still a very dangerous thing.  The poor woman was actually worried that her daughter, seeing my sandals, was going to endanger her immortal soul.  It's no less an anxiety than the internet commenters I read who insist Hillary Clinton is evil.  They don't even know what they mean, they just know it's bad.  They are like children making noises that sound like adult sounds, but apparently they have enough education to type on the internet, which they turn into their sandbox all over again.

And then there's that Dawkins internet meme about Easter and Ishtar.  After all, "Easter" sort of sounds like "Ishtar, and is it really a coincidence that the word "God" in English can be spelled backwards as "dog"?  Hmmmmmmm?

This part seems to be lost from that RD article, but I have it in my blog post, and it's a handy conclusion to my thoughts on the matter:

As a religion professor, I usually have both devout Christians and committed Atheists in my classroom. Both types of students can enhance the class and add to the discussion. What I can't stand—from either group—is smugness. Atheists and Christians often have different values and different visions of what constitutes the good society. Through earnest dialogue about these differences, common values can be found and understandings can be reached. But progress has never been made through sloppy historical claims and spewing bile across the Internet.

That latter, "spewing bile," seems to be all our national political discourse is capable of.  It's almost a religious discourse, with some people saying their vote cannot be tainted by using it to support someone they don't 100% support and agree with.  They are saying that their vote is holy, and must be kept pure and unscathed.  Which is an interesting argument from people who also insist religion should either disappear, or be kept firmly and rigidly separate from government, even to the extent of how other voters choose whom they will vote for.

Easter, and Eastertide (much longer than Christmastide), like Christmas, could be a time to reflect on how to change such animosities and even find common values.  But that's what's lost in secular Easter and secular Christmas: the whole point of the original purpose.  It's really not an accident that Eastertide ends with Pentecost, the great reversal of the dispersal of nations at the Tower of Babel.  It's also no accident the world pretty much ignores that occasion (and lesson) altogether.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Year of Jubilee

I started this as an addendum to this post; but things keep piling up, and now the whole thing is turning into a series.  First, that intended addendum:

Since I brought up the "hijacking" comments in oral arguments, I just have to add this:

The logic that the conservative justices put forward Wednesday that somehow the challengers’ health plans had been “hijacked” by the government is also divorced from health care reality, [Timothy] Jost [, a health law specialist at the Washington and Lee University School of Law] said.

“Some of the justices don’t seem to understand how employee benefits works,” Jost said, arguing that government has always imposed requirements on plans, dating back to ERISA in 1974 and state laws before that.

“[The government has] always ‘hijacked’ employee benefit plans for carrying out various public purposes,” Jost said. “Again, I don’t think they really understand how these various things work.”
This is why Congress holds hearings and takes evidence and finds out what the laws it is going to pass will do in the real world.  And exactly why you don't want judges "legislating from the bench."

And then I read this, about voting in Arizona (already a great cockup) and elsewhere, and I thought about the judicial repeal of the Voting Rights Act on the grounds we really don't need it anymore.  How's that working out?

It's enough to make a guy regret the Warren Court.  For all the good they did, there's always blowback.  (Then again, there's always the struggle for control:  Congress passed RFRA in the 90's to restore the balance it thought undone by Employment Div. v. Smith.  The Court has since obliged with Hobby Lobby (ruling interpreting RFRA) and now Zubik v. Burwell, the birth control case recently argued where the Court showed so much insight into the practical issues affecting ordinary people.  As ever, be careful what you ask for; you might get it.)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

We are fine, they are the problem

NPR was just interviewing a gentleman who is trying to steer young Muslims away from ISIS.  He talked about how ISIS uses selected verses from the Koran and applies them to "geopolitics" (his term), and how it's a method that can be very persuasive.

And it struck me:  persuasive to whom?

The majority of the world's Muslims live in southeast Asia; but no one has images of Asians flocking to Syria to join Daesh in the fight for a caliphate.  I imagine most Muslim Asians aren't even interested in a caliphate.  That's a cultural marker, not a religious one.  It would mean as much to me, a lifelong Protestant, as an appeal to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire, which was Roman Catholic and European (i.e., not Asian or American).  Now maybe if you wanted to establish a new German principality or take over Geneva again.....

You see the point already:  the appeal of Daesh is an appeal to culture, not to religion.   Yet it is, in a sense, pan-cultural; but that's no different than distinguishing the culture(s) of Texas from the culture(s) of California, or of Idaho (or Vermont or Maine, for that matter).   The minor differences are overridden by the major ones.  If you condemn Islam for militancy, you might as well say Christianity is the source for white supremacy.  In America there are strong connections between Christianity and white supremacy, at least among white supremacist groups.  We tend to think of the KKK as akin to skinheads and other Neo-Nazi groups, but the KKK used to (at least; I'm not up on their current ideology) justify their brand of race hatred with appeals to scripture, and how God opposed the "mongrelization" of the races.  Most of us understand that appeal was cultural, not religious; and we've never condemned religion as a whole for the vile ideas of the KKK and other white supremacist groups that used religious language to make their appeal.

It's not an appeal that reached very many of us; then again, our country has never been in the midst of the kind of chaos visited upon Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan and Syria, to name but four; and almost all of that brought into those countries by the "West."  So even those the message reached where never in a position to push chaos the way Daesh is now, a chaos that makes them look bigger and stronger and more important (and even representative) than they really are.

Why is the message of hatred Daesh spews appealing?  Because it has a cultural appeal, not a religious one.  Eliminate religion (an impossible goal, and as sensible as a child wishing to eliminate school so they can play all day every day), and you would still have Daesh, or the bombing in Brussels.  Religion is being used as a cultural marker here; but it's the underlying culture, and the history and geopolitics of a region, that is at play.

And what really matters is how it affects us.  Is anybody really concerned with the chaos in the Sudan?  Or the Lord's Army in Nigeria?  Well, somebody is, but you know, I mean us.

Oyez, oyez, oy vey!

As I was saying just the other day, we have to be really careful about what we ask our Courts to do,  because we're getting sheer nonsense like this:

The challengers argue there other ways for female employees to receive the contraceptive care. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who was defending the accommodation, and some of the liberal justices countered that those alternatives ignored the original aims of the Affordable Care Act. But the conservatives on the court seemed to agree with the challengers and wondered, Why can’t all these female employees just go out and get a second insurance plan for their birth control?

“What type a burden does that impose? Is it because these exchanges are so unworkable, even with the help of a navigator, that a woman who wants to get free contraceptive coverage simply has to sign up for that on one of the exchanges?” Justice Samuel Alito asked, snarkily, about the Obamacare health insurance exchanges used by those without employer-based health care plans.

Verrilli pointed out that those sort of contraceptive-only policies don’t even exist on the exchanges, and in a hypothetical world where they did, that extra effort undercuts the reason Congress passed a mandate for preventive care in the first place.
“Her regular doctor has to say to her, 'Sorry, I can't help you.' It's not just that you don't get the prescription paid for. It's not just that he can't write the prescription, he can't counsel or educate the patient,” Verrilli said.

Alito didn’t believe that is what would happen, arguing that her regular doctor would just be paid for by whatever second plan the woman purchased. Verrilli countered it wouldn’t all happen so seamlessly.

“She'd have to go out and buy the separate plan, find a doctor who is willing to take the separate plan,” Verrilli said, but Alito's disbelief continued: Why can't Congress could simply subsidize second plans for affected female employees to purchase?
“If it's so easy to provide, if it's so free, why can't they just get it through another plan?” Kennedy asked Verrilli later on in the arguments. Chief Justice John Roberts jumped in:

“So it comes down to a question of who has to do the paperwork? If it's the employee that has to do it, that's no good. If it's the religious organization that has to do it, that's okay?” he said.

As Roberts continued to insist that women could simply get contraceptive coverage on the exchanges, the liberal justices finally had enough with the idea.

“They're not on the exchanges,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor interjected. “That's a falsehood. The exchanges require full-service health insurance policies with minimum coverages that are set forth that are very comprehensive. We're creating a new program."

Justice Stephen Breyer offered an explanation of the concerns about women who are “inertia bound,” meaning that people who would benefit from contraceptive coverage but wouldn't have the initiative to get it on their own. Meanwhile Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pushed back on Roberts' suggestion it was just a matter of paperwork.

“Is it just a matter of filing the form for her, or is there a real difference between an employer saying we're not going to cover contraceptives ... and the woman who suddenly doesn't have it as part of her package and has to go out...” she said, as Verrilli jumped in to elaborate on the distinction.

We're pretty much heading for the 4-4 tie that leaves a patchwork of decisions in place around the country, which should please his nibs Sen. McConnell, but won't exactly excite anyone else.  What we have here are Justices living in la-la land, as ignorant of the healthcare marketplace as the out-of-touch politician who can't tell you the price of milk.  When you consider that,  it almost makes you grateful for representative government.

Well, at least the latter isn't a lifetime appointment.*

*And for those of you keeping track:  filling out a form = substantial burden, even a "hijacking" (Alito and Roberts' term) of health insurance; driving 200 miles to obtain an abortion, and having to do so twice or spend the night (since you can't get it the day you ask for it)?  Not a substantial burden.

"Burden" is in the eye of the beholder.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

This is how you do it

Honestly, I wouldn't forgive myself if I didn't post this.  The context should be perfectly obvious, but for posterity I'll say this is President Obama after he's just left Cuba:

"As far as the notion of having surveillance of neighborhoods where Muslims are present, I just left a country that engages in that kind of neighborhood surveillance, which, by the way, the father of Sen. Cruz escaped for America, the land of the free," he said.
Cruz is still stumbling over himself to walk back that idiocy, without walking it back at all.  And they said real life is never like this:

Yup.  That's how you do it.

When we can't blame terrorists

Hugh Stephens tells how, on April 16th, 1947, two Liberty ships docked at Texas City on the Houston ship channel -- the Grandcamp and the High Flyer. Both were loading cargoes of that same fertilizer [ammonium nitrate]. The Grandcamp held 2300 tons -- the High Flyer, 1000 tons. The rest of High Flyer's cargo was sulfur.

At 8:00 that morning, a small fire broke out in one of the Grandcamp's holds. The ship master tried to suffocate the fire by closing the hatches. He didn't want to use water for fear he'd damage his cargo. At 8:30, the hatches blew and, observers said, a beautiful orange smoke began pouring out. Finally firemen began hosing down the hold. But, by now, the water just vaporized.

At 9:12, a terrible explosion! Pedestrians were knocked down ten miles away in Galveston! People 150 miles away heard the sound. Two airplanes were blown out of the sky. Oil tanks were ignited.

Throughout the day, the extent of the horror unfolded. Fire was everywhere. The nearby High Flyer was burning. At 1:00 AM it exploded even more violently than the Grandcamp had. In the end, some 600 people died and 3500 or so were injured. Property damage ran to billions measured in today's dollars.

How could such a thing happen? No-smoking signs were posted, but who paid any mind to a no-smoking sign in 1947! A cigarette almost surely started the fire. Texas docks had shipped munitions during WW-II under tight military control. Their safety record had been spotless. Now the military was gone. People grew careless. Worst of all, no one seemed to realize that , under the right circumstances, ammonium nitrate fertilizer can become is a vicious explosive.

Some of the terrible fertilizer explosions -- Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center -- were intentional. But I finished high school in the logging town of Roseburg, Oregon the same year Texas City burned. Twelve years later, in 1959, a truck delivering six tons of fertilizer parked overnight in downtown Roseburg. Loggers needed it to blow up large stumps. Lay a sack of fertilizer and a quarter stick of dynamite on a stump -- good-bye stump!

This time, someone dropped a cigarette into a trash barrel next to the truck. The fire detonated the truck at 2:00 AM. Luckily the downtown was almost empty. Thirteen people died nevertheless, and the devastation was total over an area six blocks in diameter.

For half a century, we've feared the atom bomb and high technology. Meanwhile, we suffer these devastating onslaughts, not from hi-tech at all, but from fertilizer and cigarettes!


HIATT: Just back to the campaign. You are smart and you went to a good school. Yet you are up there and talking about your hands and the size of private …


HIATT: … your private parts.

TRUMP: No, no. No, no. I am not doing that.

HIATT: Do you regret having engaged in that?

TRUMP: No, I had to do it. Look, this guy. Here’s my hands. Now I have my hands, I hear, on the New Yorker, a picture of my hands.

MARCUS: You’re on the cover.

TRUMP: A hand with little fingers coming out of a stem. Like, little. Look at my hands. They’re fine. Nobody other than Graydon Carter years ago used to use that. My hands are normal hands. During a debate, he was losing, and he said, “Oh, he has small hands and therefore, you know what that means.” This was not me. This was Rubio that said, “He has small hands and you know what that means.” Okay? So, he started it. So, what I said a couple of days later … and what happened is I was on line shaking hands with supporters, and one of supporters got up and he said, “Mr. Trump, you have strong hands. You have good-sized hands.” And then another one would say, “You have great hands, Mr. Trump, I had no idea.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I thought you were like deformed, and I thought you had small hands.” I had fifty people … Is that a correct statement? I mean people were writing, “How are Mr. Trump’s hands?” My hands are fine. You know, my hands are normal. Slightly large, actually. In fact, I buy a slightly smaller than large glove, okay? No, but I did this because everybody was saying to me, “Oh, your hands are very nice. They are normal.” So Rubio, in a debate, said, because he had nothing else to say … now I was hitting him pretty hard. He wanted to do his Don Rickles stuff and it didn’t work out. Obviously, it didn’t work too well. But one of the things he said was “He has small hands and therefore, you know what that means, he has small something else.” You can look it up. I didn’t say it.

MARCUS: You chose to raise it …

TRUMP: No, I chose to respond.

MARUS: You chose to respond.

TRUMP: I had no choice.

MARCUS: You chose to raise it during a debate. Can you explain why you had no choice?

TRUMP: I don’t want people to go around thinking that I have a problem. I’m telling you, Ruth, I had so many people. I would say 25, 30 people would tell me … every time I’d shake people’s hand, “Oh, you have nice hands.” Why shouldn’t I? And, by the way, by saying that I solved the problem. Nobody questions … I even held up my hands, and said, “Look, take a look at that hand.”

MARCUS: You told us in the debate ….

TRUMP: And by saying that, I solved the problem. Nobody questions. Everyone held my hand. I said look. Take a look at that hand.

MARCUS: You told us in the debate that you guaranteed there was not another problem. Was that presidential? And why did you decide to do that?

TRUMP: I don’t know if it was presidential, honestly, whether it is or not. He said, ‘Donald Trump has small hands and therefore he has small something else.’ I didn’t say that. And all I did is when he failed, when he was failing, when he was, when Christie made him look bad, I gave him the– a little recap and I said,  and I said, and I had this big strong powerful hand ready to grab him, because I thought he was going to faint. And everybody took it fine. Whether it was presidential or not I can’t tell you. I can just say that what he said was a lie. And everybody, they wanted to do stories on my hands; after I said that, they never did. And then I held up the hand, I showed people the hand. You know, when I’ve got a big audience. So yeah, I think it’s not a question of presidential …

MARCUS: He said he regrets …

HIATT: Okay, let’s move on here. Let’s move on.

TRUMP: I did feel I should respond. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. But I felt I should respond because everybody was talking about it.

Or you can support the guy who wants to make Jewish ghettoes in Nazi Germany out of "Muslim neighborhoods" in the U.S.

And scattered across the internet are people who would rather vote for the guy obsessed by his hands than the woman who was once our Secretary of State, just because they won't be able to feel the Bern in November, and they're going to teach America a lesson in rejecting their favored candidate.

The whole thing makes you reconsider not only whether humanity is nature's last word, but whether or not giving everyone the vote is such a good idea, after all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"And believe me, my admiration for you hasn't died...."

My mind is clearer now
At last, all too well, I can see
Where we all soon will be.

If you strip away,
the myth from the man
you can see where
we all soon will be.

Jesus!  You've started to believe
the things they say of you!
You really do believe,
This talk of God is true!

And all the good you've done
Will soon get swept away
You've begun to matter more
than the things you say!

Holy Week begins again.  Time to dust off the original recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and start playing it loudly when no one else is at home (why inflict my memories on my family?).  That's the music for Holy Week at Chez Advents:  "Jesus Christ Superstar" (original record recording, please, scratches, pops, and all.  Ian Gillan is the ONLY Jesus allowed to sing the role, IMHO.) and Bach's Easter Oratorio.  On Easter, of course.  Holy Week should be conducted with the meditation that "All your followers are blind!  Too much heaven on their minds!"  But this time around I hear the words of Judas anew.  What would it mean for Jesus to matter more than the things he said?

It's a Paul v. the Gospels question, but not the simplistic question simplistic critics of Paul think is so fatal to Pauline studies and the Pauline letters.   What Jesus did matters more to Paul than the things he said because Paul only quotes Jesus saying some of the words of institution (as we call them now) of the eucharisto (as he called it then).  It's the gospels that give us the parables and the statements about Peter ("Rock") and the miracles.  Paul only has the resurrection to rely on; but it's enough for him.

So, first:  which should matter more?  The resurrection; or the sayings of Jesus?  Well, if you go with the resurrection, then it seems that is paramount, because that is now seen as the salvific act by which sinful humanity is spared the depredations of damnation.  But if you go with what Jesus said, then the focus on the resurrection (and so salvation) is the wrong place to put the emphasis, as it tends to let you off the hook for what you do, so long as you believe the right things about the resurrection on any given Sunday morning.

Do my prejudices show yet?

It really is the dividing point of Christianity.  Easter is the most important date on the Christian calendar for the Orthodox Church.  Fortunately for the Protestant churches Easter is always on a Sunday; it isn't the moveable feast that Christmas is (this will be a problem again this year).  But in secular Christianity, Christmas is the big holiday.  Easter is relegated to hats and clothes (not so much any longer, but once.  I'm thinking that was more American aberration than not, but, no matter.) and colored eggs and chocolate bunnies.  Even churches have Easter egg hunts on Sunday after the celebration of the Resurrection; and we jammed Passion Sunday into Palm Sunday because otherwise nobody would be in church to remember the Passion story (be honest; how many people do you know attend Good Friday services?  If done right, they are seriously depressing.  If done wrong, they aren't worth the bother.  I only remember Maundy Thursday service in my Presbyterian childhood; an evening communion service, but nothing else until Sunday morning, and lots of cheery sunrise services around town.  Get up early and have the rest of the day to yourself.  Yes, I am cynical; why do you ask?).  Easter is just the other Sunday when you should be in church (well, Christmas Eve is almost never on Sunday, and when it is, do you go in the morning, or in the evening?  Never both, amirite?).

Besides, the eggs and chocolate are for the kids.  I mean, you can get a box of Godiva with affecting scenes of Spring on the outside, but chocolate bunnies are definitely not for a palate craving high-dollar chocolates.

So, which really matters more?  To the "are you saved?" crowd, it's the Resurrection, whether they realize it or not.  The whole question of faith comes down to "letting Jesus into your heart", and that means accepting the sacrifice on the cross which paid in God's blood for your sin (Anselm's satisfaction theory, but there are so many variations the distinctions begin to blur unless you are really, really interested in it.  Don't even  get me started on TULIP.  Please, just don't.)  But that's the problem with salvation in Christianity:  it's used to divide the sheep from the goats, and to make sure you are among the sheep.

An idea which would appall Jean Cauvin, by the way.  Which is kinda funny.

Anyway, as I've noted before:

I've yet to meet a person whose theology emphasized individual salvation who didn't use that emphasis to deny comfort and succor to others.  Oh, they make nice noises about helping the destitute, but as far as really doing it, not much happens.  Individual salvation means you are individually responsible for the state of your immortal soul.  And if you are individually responsible for the state of your soul, you are individually responsible for the state of your life.  In this understanding, the community doesn't exist to take you in, it exists to set you straight, to straighten you out, to determine whether or not you are worthy of admission to the company of the Blessed.  Any help is short term and blunted, and meant to get you back to being responsible for yourself again, the way God intended! 
Which is as good a way as any to get me around to this meditation on Psalm 73 by Martin Buber, courtesy of Pastor Dan:

The good, says the Psalmist, is ‘to draw near to God’. He does not say that those near to God are good. But he does call the bad ‘those who are far from God’. In the language of modern thought that means that there are men who have no share in existence, but there are no men who possess existence. Existence cannot be possessed, but only shared in. One does not rest in the lap of existence, but one draws near to it. ‘Nearness’ is nothing but such a drawing and coming near continually and as long as the human person lives.
Of course "drawing near to God" is, in salvific terms, being "saved."  Well, in certain salvation theories; and there's the rub.  How do you draw nearer to God by drawing away from other people, or by drawing a circle round those inside the blessed, and those outside (the damned)?  Is what Jesus said at all relevant to what Jesus did, to who Jesus was?  Is the Psalm as Buber reads it relevant at all?

Can we possess the salvation of the Cross, the blessings of the resurrection?  Or can we only share in them?  Paul never hoards them for only those who appreciate the gift; he throws it wildly, like seed.  He scatters it to anyone who wants to listen.

This idea Judas expresses, what Jesus did v. what Jesus said, comes up all the time.  Just this morning in an interview at Salon about the bombings in Brussels, Pastor Dan said this:

You mention this in passing: The matter of praying for enemies, including violent ones. To what extent does that make sense, and do you feel conflicted by the issue?

I don’t feel conflicted by it, but then I’m a conflicted Christian. I don’t expect it to make much sense to someone who isn’t. From the Christian perspective, we always have to come back to the perspective that Jesus died for us all. He died for his enemies as much – if not more – than his friends.

And not just for the good people.
Maybe it's just an easier shorthand to refer to the deed rather than the words, because you don't really connect the Crucifixion to your enemies except through the words of Jesus; and, not coincidentally, the words of Paul.  But to explain that you have to put the words in context, and as Pastor Dan notes, that's not a simple task.  Easier to mention the deed (actions speak louder than words), even though the interpretation of that deed is itself a complex exegesis.

Not for nothing I'll quote the conclusion of that interview, because it saves me writing it out again, and because it points to the true importance of the Crucifixion, the lesson that has to be learned over and over again, the lesson of Holy Week and why it isn't about "just us":

Today you tweeted: “Reminder: this week we remember a man tortured to death as a potential threat to the security state.” I think I know what you mean here, but if you could tell us a little more about where you’re going with that.

The Romans were literally an occupying force in the state of Israel; it was a military occupation. The way Jesus’ enemies got the Romans to execute him was to say, “This guy wants to lead a rebellion against your occupation.”

And the Romans take the bait. If you think about what happens in that scene with Pontius Pilate: Pilate isn’t even convinced that Jesus is the threat he’s made out to be. But, he’s not going to take any chances, so he goes ahead, and kills him.

Because Jesus is a nobody. Pilate pays no price for executing just some other guy who’s getting wise about our presence in Palestine. He’s not even a military threat – but he might possibly be one. And the response is, “Torture him, kill him. Be done with it.”

Now, understanding that story, whose side do you think we’re supposed to be on? I don’t think you can really hear that story, and take it in, and not think that you’re supposed to be on Jesus’s side. And the consequence of that is you have to reject that kind of state-sponsored violence against powerless people.

One of the points is, This government is repressive and dysfunctional. And Jesus comes in way to say, both to the oppressed and the oppressors: “This isn’t working. There is a better way to do things.”

When you start to get ahold of that, it opens up all these different possibilities. We don’t have to act in a way that’s taking advantage of one another. We don’t have to act in a way that’s violence toward one another. Life can be more than it is right now.

"Always hoped that I'd be an apostle; knew that I would make it if I tried.  Then when we've retired we can write the Gospels, so they'll still talk about us when we've died. " Almost 45 years later, those words till conjure up certain images.

Sorry; the stereo is going as I type.

The message of Jesus is easily encapsulated in the basileia tou theou, a phrase I refuse to translate because all the translations mislead into "kingdom" and "empire" and "God" in ways we're trained to listen for and understand, and I want to wear away all those meanings and plant the seed in fresh ground.  New wine in new wineskins, and all that.  Besides, I like the echoes of "basilica" there; it's appropriate, in its own way.  It's easily encapsulated there, but it's not easily conveyed there.    Which is fine; it shouldn't be easily conveyed.  You have to study the words of Jesus to understand it; and you have to study the deeds, to.

Which is not to say Jesus should matter more than the things he said.  Even God doesn't earn that distinction.  That's the creation of an idol; a figure of stone or wood or even feathers, an object of human creation, a golden calf.  We don't need that.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Day 2016

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Words: Ancient Irish; translated to English by Mary Elizabeth Byrne, 1905. You may also find a version of the words in Eleanor Hull’s Poem Book of the Gael (1912).

Music: “Slane,” of Irish folk origin. Slane Hill is about ten miles from Tara in County Meath. It was on Slane Hill around 433 AD that St. Patrick defied a royal edict by lighting candles on Easter Eve. High King Logaire of Tara had decreed that no one could light a fire before Logaire began the pagan spring festival by lighting a fire on Tara Hill. Logaire was so impressed by Patrick’s devotion that, despite his defiance (or perhaps because of it?), he let him continue his missionary work. The rest is history.
I recognize the story about the music may be apocryphal; but it's worth passing on.

The definitive recorded performance is by Van Morrison, with the Chieftans, on Hymns to the Silence.

(repeated from 2005, when, I now realize, the translation above was 100 years old.)

Just Us

Lots of thumb sucking about the Merrick Garland nomination.

Salon has two or three articles (daily!) which will lament one non-liberal aspect or another of Judge Garland's record.  TPM, on the other hand, has two or three articles (daily!) about what a brilliant political maneuver it is for Obama to nominate Garland, as it puts the GOP between a rock and a hard place, and tightens the screws on the vise (sorry, early morning metaphors come out of the blender.  And as for people complaining about English spelling, how do you distinguish "vice" from "vise" without spelling?  We have a lot of words like that, because English has too many words and not enough sounds to accommodate them all.  Through and threw, for example; dear and deer; meat and meet; wait and weight; know and no; the list goes on.  But I digress.....)

And Slate makes the perfectly reasonable argument that Garland is a stalking horse for a fight between Obama and Congress.

Most of the complaints about Garland (which you can find, for a short time, at Salon; or there are links in articles at Slate or TPM) are about how illiberal he is, what a disappointment he actually is to the liberal Democratic base, etc.  There are comments about how he will be another Anthony Kennedy, as if that is the worst thing possible.  No, the worst thing possible is that he be another Scalia; or, worse yet, an absolute cipher like Thomas.

Frankly, I'm tired of the Supreme Court being so political.  Scalia reveled in that role.  He enjoyed writing outrageous opinions that got people arguing about what he said.  He wanted the attention.  Alito is as bad as Scalia, but nobody notices him.  Thomas is as thoughtful as mud, and as stuck in one place as the proverbial stick; but who cares?  Scalia turned the Court into a WWW cage match, and any shredding of the Court's reputation for august and objective review of the law was destroyed by the man.

And we need to replace that fig leaf.

Judicial realism is a theory of jurisprudence that arose from sitting judges who observed their own behavior as judges and came to the conclusion they decided on a "hunch" (It's actually called the "judicial hunch" in jurisprudence) what the right outcome of a given case should be, and then applied legal reasoning to get there.  The legal reasoning is the fig leaf, meant to justify the conclusions of the Court and essentially sell it as justice.  It's not a perfect system, but it's better than all the others; as someone once said of democracy.

Think of the cases recently where this hasn't really worked.  Hobby Lobby.  Citizens United.  Bush v. Gore.  Do we really need to politicize the Court further by making every appointment to the highest bench in the land a political mud fight which makes shutting down the government look tame by comparison?  Must every battle be absolute, Robert Bork defeated on one side, Lani Guinier on the other?

For the sake of the entire judicial system:  no.

Garland's nomination may well be simply a clever political play by Obama.  Or maybe he thinks Garland deserves to be on the Supreme Court, and the nation deserves to have him as a Justice.  Heaven knows, the country could do worse than have more Justices who simply want to decide cases, than Justices who want to make a point against all those they disagree with.  We have cable news for that.