Friday, July 29, 2011

Towards a Politics of Imagination

When Bill O’Reilly, on his Fox News show, claimed this week that nobody sponsors the Tea Party movement, I was befuddled. When he claimed America’s political left is dishonest because it gets copious financial support from George Soros and, I was frustrated. But when O’Reilly claimed the Tea Party’s lack of financial support makes it America’s moral spine, my jaw hit the floor.

Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America into a One-Party StateEven O’Reilly’s opponents, after speaking to him, admit he’s a smart man. Though his famous quick temper and dogmatism let some accuse him of thick-headedness, most who meet him agree that he’s actually quite intelligent. So I can’t believe O’Reilly has never heard of the Scaife Foundation, Heritage Foundation, Koch brothers, and other conservative funders. I first read of them in Rampton and Stauber’s Banana Republicans, clear back in 2004.

Initially, O’Reilly’s attempt at the same spin he claims to loathe in others took me aback. Surely he wouldn’t muddy the already turgid political waters on purpose. After all, he works for Fox News, owned by the intensely connected and possibly corrupt Rupert Murdoch. As Rampton and Stauber observe, the American right leaves fewer fingerprints on its idea system than the left, but its connections run every bit as deep, possibly deeper.

Recall how, during the February conflict over Wisconsin state workers’ rights, Ian Murphy of called governor Scott Walker, pretending to be David Koch, and got the governor to admit gaming the legal system to benefit the wealthy. The Koch brothers have campaigned for such preferential treatment at least since the 1970’s. They even paid to bus “non-partisan” protesters to Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010.

The political left is hardly less tainted. As long as they keep accepting support from George Soros, “the man who broke the Bank of England,” they’re elbows-deep in dirty money. Old Joe Kennedy, father of JFK, made his fortune bootlegging, and torpedoed his own presidential aspirations when, as US ambassador to the United Kingdom, he expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler (or at least antipathy for his victims).

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary RadicalIn considering this money-based politics, and comparing it to the ideological inflexibility we’ve all seen in recent politics, I can’t help recalling a quote from Shane Claiborne. In The Irresistible Revolution, Claiborne recalls visiting an Iraqi Christian church prior to the 2003 war. An English-speaking parishioner lectured Claiborne that war is a failure of imagination. When frustrated and unable to resolve our differences, unimaginative persons just lash out.

America lacks a politics of imagination.

Our winner-take-all electoral system has yoked together people with conflicting impulses. If you oppose gay marriage, you must also support unlimited gun ownership. If you oppose war, you must also support the welfare state. Fox News and MSNBC take potshots at one another, making the conflict all the more doctrinaire. As we see with the religion debate, dissidents and fair-minded moderates have little voice in our democracy.

Anarchy and ChristianityYet some maintain their drive to resist. In Anarchy and Christianity, Jacques Ellul notes how these two movements, often at odds, actually serve a similar drive. Anarchists believe power (including religion) diminishes humans. Ellul says God agrees. Consider how, in Scripture, Jesus brings hope to sinners, but castigates priests. Scripture extols David, Israel’s golden boy resisting Saul, then mocks David, the increasingly impotent kingly ruin.

The 2003 anti-war protests saw liberals join forces with traditional “peace churches” like the Quakers and Mennonites. As inveterate protesters, the churches arrived with pre-made signs. But when the liberals raised the signs to brandish their peace slogans, they found anti-abortion signs on the reverse. Two groups that seldom talk found common ground, at least briefly, and engaged in dialogue too many had previously resisted.

The imagination to have such dialogue will never come from the top. That’s the politics of passivity. All politics deals with how ordinary people relate to power, and when we give control of that relationship over to the other side, they will always pursue their own purposes. People in power, no matter how benevolent their goals, can only lead when they hear from committed, passionate followers.

We cannot limit our vision of power to mere voting. The media who report (and steer) the debate, wealthy individuals and corporations who decide what merits their subsidies, and those who claim to speak for God engage in politics as much as politicians. George Soros and David Koch may hold no official office, but they are instruments of power.

And we must have enough imagination to refuse their limiting, autocratic scripts.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Curse of the Working Class

All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work, Revised and Updated EditionSocialist writer Barbara Garson admits, in All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work, that she began researching labor issues assuming that work itself is an unjust imposition by a hierarchy that sees humans as disposable equipment. It didn’t take long to realize why she was wrong. While managers resented her intrusive, sometimes inflammatory interviews, laborers were mostly pleased that someone took an interest in their work. She concluded that human beings need, and even enjoy, work. But management consistently begrudges its mere human workers.

This should not surprise anyone who reads Judeo-Christian theology. Christian theologians traditionally emphasize God’s injunction in Genesis 3:19:

By the sweat of your brow
  you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
  since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
  and to dust you will return.

From this theologians derive that humans must work. Labor is not optional drudgery, or something we can escape. Work is a divinely ordained part of human existence. Observe people who lack meaningful work: they drift quickly into what psychologists call existential malaise, or what theologians call the Dark Night of the Soul.

But scripture is not absolute on this. Work—like religion, family, and other God-given blessings—can impede anybody’s true calling. When Moses came to Egypt and distracted the Jews by bearing Yahweh’s liberating word, Pharaoh ordered: “Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies” (Exodus 5:9). Later, one of Moses’ commandments said:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns (Exodus 20:8-10).

The Unsettling of America: Culture & AgriculturePoet and philosopher Wendell Berry, in The Unsettling of America, notes that few people anymore work where we live, or live where we work. Labor forms a separate part of our lives, something we go to and then leave. Not coincidentally, he notes that we no longer have personal access to life’s ingredients. We do not grow our own food or draw our own water, and thanks to industry, we have limited access to clean fresh air.

By abandoning agrarian culture, wherein people work the land they inhabit and own the product of their labor, we have grown indifferent to ourselves. America, Earth’s most industrialized nation, also has the highest rates of depression and other affective disorders. We work jobs that enrich others yet give us no meaning. This, Berry says, is no way of life. Abandoning God’s work makes us poorer, sadder, diminished people.

It goes further than Berry may realize. Joshua Holland, in The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy, claims that less than eight percent of Americans in 2009 were unionized, though nearly two thirds say they would like to join unions. Where is our era’s Samuel Gompers? Like Pharaoh in Exodus, or the trusts in the Gilded Age, bosses today work employees beyond the point of exhaustion, and not surprisingly rule their empires with little dissent.

The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy: And Everything Else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs, and Corporate America By Joshua HollandI was recently offered a job with a decent wage and benefits, contingent on a seven-day work week. This seemed so obviously absurd that, when I commented on Facebook, I was astounded by how many people said I should take it, because “you were offered a job.” As though the bosses were magnanimous philanthropists presenting a gift from their largess, rather than needing me to do something for them.

Even disregarding Scripture, the human body isn’t built to work that way. In the 1990s, the Tokyo Zoo experimented with running every single day, but discovered that, unless the animals had one day in seven to rest, they became sick, and even died. Workers who do not receive one rest day in seven—a number that applies across cultures—develop heart disease, musculoskeletal disorders, mental illnesses, and other crippling conditions.

Work is good. I accepted another position, with a six-day week, in the same company, and am much happier than when I was unemployed. But work is not good for its own sake. If it stops making meaning for workers, and becomes the nucleus of their lives, what lives do they have left? Humans are not machines to use and discard. We should not accept those who would treat us as such.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why Johnny Only Thinks He Can't Read

I conclude every semester teaching university composition by telling my students this story:

Narrative of the Life of Frederick DouglassIn his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the famous runaway slave and eloquent speaker recounts how he learned to read. Sold at age ten, his new master’s wife took pity on the boy and began to teach him the alphabet. When the master discovered young Frederick had rudimentary literacy, the master beat the slave within an inch of his life. The master then delivered a matching beating to his wife, and declared that, if Frederick continued learning to read, the master wouldn’t hesitate to hang him.

After the story, I ask my students why the master would beat not only his slave, but his own wife, because the slave was learning to read? In the antebellum American South, literate slaves were hanged. Free people who taught slaves to read faced stiff fines and prison, and though they seldom risked execution, some white activists and free black teachers were lynched. What made literacy so offensive?

My students never get the answer right away. After watching them tapdance, I rephrase myself: what can literate slaves do that illiterate slaves cannot? Now they recite stock answers—“Follow the news?” “Write their ideas?” “Think?”—until one, usually near the back, finally reaches the right answer. Literate slaves can communicate with someone not right in front of them. Corollary: literate slaves can organize.

Put another way, literacy gives individuals power over their own lives. Similarly, mathematics isn’t about balancing your checkbook; it grants the ability to apply reason and answer questions you’ve never encountered before. History lets us see our actions in humanity’s larger social context. Educated persons, by definition, do not necessarily know their subjects. They know themselves, and no other human being can ever unjustly dominate them.

Rights of Man, Common Sense, and Other Political Writings (Oxford World's Classics)Early American colonists claimed to save slaves’ souls, so teaching them to read Scripture was mandatory. But after King Cotton made bottomless unpaid labor necessary, and Nat Turner’s rebellion proved slaves weren’t really happy, keeping slaves compliant took priority. (The BBC’s Huw Edwards reveals something similarly controversial in the history of British Sunday School: “if you could read the Bible, you could also read Tom Paine's The Rights of Man.”)

Compared to American slaves or British colliers, my students—usually white, usually middle class—generally come to school secure that nobody will beat them with a hickory switch for refusing to tote that bale or drag that cart. Though my small regional university receives few scions of wealth, my students generally do not fear going hungry, unclothed, or otherwise deprived. This can let them feel complacent, and take education for granted.

Resisting apathy isn’t helped by students’ prior schooling. When I ask about their background in my field, many say they see writing, literacy, and most English language and literature as distant from their real lives. If they can complete a job application and write e-mails and text messages, they’re satisfied, which makes me an imposition on their time.

The Old Man And The Sea (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition)I can’t blame them, if their education resembled mine. My 9th grade English teacher said our class could tell Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was profound because we couldn’t understand it. Only when I entered the university and saw future teachers taught did I realize my teacher probably didn’t understand the book either. Most teacher education consists of classroom management; prospective teachers have little grounding in their subjects.

Please don’t misunderstand: I respect teachers. Most I’ve met are enthusiastic people of high ideals and sterling character. But both teacher training and school culture encourage them to perpetuate ignorance and boredom in their students. Administrators increasingly come from non-educational backgrounds. American schools, already underfunded and short-staffed, are generally first on the chopping block during budget cuts.

Convinced that core academic disciplines are distant and artificial, but told repeatedly that they need degrees to get good jobs, students enroll at universities already alienated and bored. We teachers must (metaphorically) beat them to make them read. The reversal from Frederick Douglass is complete. Education no longer occurs at school, and our efforts have already failed.

Unless the point of school is to encourage illiteracy, innumeracy, and indifference. Unless school deliberately produces docile graduates who look to others for motivation and identity. Then school is a rousing success. But I cannot accept that. We must recapture that Frederick Douglass spirit, if not for society’s cultural and economic future, then because that attitude is just ethically right.

The time for change is now.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Three Women of Strength and Character


Life, In Spite of Me: Extraordinary Hope After a Fatal ChoiceKristen Jane Anderson’s suicide attempt came at the culmination of several traumas: death in the family, a friend’s suicide, and a brutal and degrading attack on her body.  But she held her despair inside, as our society expects women to do, until it became too much to bear; then she threw herself beneath a train.  That’s when the real misery began.

Anderson’s memoir, Life, In Spite of Me, details how she discovered she could not rely on her own strength.  Even in trying to kill herself to end the pain, she misfired: the train didn’t kill her, it just severed her legs.  Thus she sank into even greater pain, and wondered at her own inability to even commit suicide correctly.

And who can blame her?  American society has very strict expectations of women.  We expect them to remain cheerful, never complain—especially about men—and beam forth pollyannaish rays of sunshine.  When Anderson tried to do that, after suffering demeaning violence, it came to nothing.  Her human strength could never overcome the inevitability of failure.

But Anderson’s memoir doesn’t just detail her steady decline.  When she reached what she considered her lowest point, she realized her family, friends, and God were there.  As long as she relied on human strength, she came to nothing; only when she trusted in something greater than herself did she find meaning.

The Best Worst Thing: A MemoirUnfortunately, such bastions can be hard to find.  Like Anderson, Kristen K. Brown lost everything she thought she had in one cruel sitting.  In The Best Worst Thing, she describes the torture she felt when her husband, only thirty years old, died in his sleep.  Kristen went to bed one night a happy young wife and mother to an infant, and woke a widow and a single mother.

Brown enjoyed constant support from family and friends, and even investigated her faith more deeply (though her insights remain fairly abstract).  But if she learned one lesson, it was that loss germinates inside until it seems as large as your universe.  Like Anderson, though, Brown finally reached the point where, to keep living, she had to surprise herself and do something profound.

Unlike Anderson, who tells an essentially religious story, Brown’s memoir deals with the secular struggle of loss and recovery.  Nevertheless, she learns the importance of turning outside herself.  If she wants to survive, she must stop relying on her own resources and join the larger human community.  Only then does she become who she was meant to be.

I like Brown’s memoir, but it lacks Anderson’s unity.  Now a working minister, Anderson has found a voice to reach an audience, and her story has a clear through-line with an unmistakable take-home message.  Brown’s story is more anecdotal, a string of occurrences to create a mood.  Only in the final fifty pages does she bring the threads together into a meaty story.

I Choose to Be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor's Triumph Over TragedyMissy Jenkins combines the best of both worlds in I Choose to Be Happy.  As the worst-hit survivor of the 1997 Paducah, Kentucky, school shooting, no one would blame Jenkins for nursing her grievances.  After all, she lost every dream that had anything to do with walking.  Yet she realized she had a choice, and let self-pity go by the wayside.

On the one hand, Jenkins describes how formerly routine activities, like getting up and getting dressed in the morning, have become excruciating.  But where she had previously drifted through life as aimlessly as any teen, Jenkins suddenly found a purpose.  Once she regained her autonomy, she found herself an unlikely celebrity and acknowledged expert on youth violence.

Life, for Jenkins, became a constant discovery.  She uncovered the dark side of her pristine small town, and how many youth suffer in silence.  Then she discovered an unmet need that she was uniquely positioned to address.  As a guide and counselor for victims of violence, both through her media life and now in her profession, she has become a source of strength for others.

Like Anderson, Jenkins offers her readers a mainly religious resolution.  Though I have occasional problems—I fear she makes forgiveness look too easy, especially for those who struggle to forgive—her story of how she didn’t let someone else write her script is both uplifting and bold.  And like both Anderson and Brown, Jenkins proves we cannot trust our strength alone.

These three insights into life lived despite tragedy remind me why life remains worth living.  And it gives me three women I can look up to with pride.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why the Kindle Hasn't Killed the Book

When George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons appeared this week, my local bookstore held a midnight release party so readers could grab the book as early as possible on its official release date.  Just as with the new Harry Potter and X-Men movies, determined fans want their favorite books early, not to be the first to read them, but so they can enjoy them with fellow fans and peers.  This proves, I believe, why printed books will survive the digital revolution.

As I’ve said before, premature postmortems on print literature overlook books’ cultural significance.  The Kindle and other electronic readers ballyhoo themselves on the same grounds that critics once used to claim that movies, radio, or TV would kill print: the ease, speed, and economy of more advanced technologies should make them more desirable than books.  Amazon recently emphasized this in an admittedly well-done and funny ad:

I cannot deny the Kindle’s ease.  As the first person in my English department to own a Kindle, several people who make their living parsing books approached me early to ask what I thought of the device.  My favorite anecdote involves me entering my local brewpub, ordering a beer, and clicking “Buy Now” on a book I’d wanted for some time.  My book arrived before my beer did.  That’s clearly both easy and convenient.

Yet I still purchase print books.  Not only do I read hard copy, I hoard it, making regular trips to the hardware store for new shelf space to stockpile my books.  If Kindle books are so clearly superior, reason dictates I should donate my paper books to Goodwill and go all digital.  Why don’t I?

Henry Jenkins, America’s foremost scholar of fandom and fan culture, writes in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers that fans, often derided as nerds and outcasts, actually build strong communal identity around whatever they adore.  Our pluralistic society is no longer unified by religion, language, patriotism, or even national myths like the Pilgrims or cowboys.  In lieu of this, fans congregate around some cultural artifact, like books or movies, to forge a shared heritage.

This very brief paraphrase doesn’t do Jenkins justice.  But I offer it because sharing is no mere luxury.  Where it is absent, people seek it wherever they can find it, often looking in wildly inappropriate places.  Many people who return from cults, hate groups, and other destructive social syndicates admit they joined not because they agreed with the groups’ defining principles, but because they felt loved and accepted.

Despite Ayn Rand hyperbole about individualistic supermen and parasitic crowds, humans are psychologically geared toward group membership.  We make friends early and often, not because we need them to do our work or create mutual utility networks, but because we get simple pleasure being around people we care about.  But in our mobile, professionally segmented society, few people make friends based on physical proximity or career compatibility.

Love of a common artifact, like a desired book from a celebrity author, links people around both the object, and the experience of enjoying the object.  Sharing books builds important bonds.  Back in high school, I lent my friend Edward some books by humorist P.J. O’Rourke, and we bonded by reading each other our favorite passages.  Edward and I remain in touch today—which I cannot say about “friends” with whom I lacked such bonds.

I appreciate my Kindle because it lets me snag information quickly.  If I need to dredge up a fact, or consume a book for the knowledge it contains, I reach for my Kindle.  And it makes a convenient door into publishing for new authors in today’s conflicted economy.  After Time-Warner dithered on publicizing my friend Jerry’s first novel, he jumped ship and published his short story collection God, Time, Perception & Sexy Androids digitally.  It has received several warm reviews from true fans.

But digital reading is an innately private phenomenon.  I can’t share my book with friends.  (The Nook, with which I have no familiarity, lets readers share books.  I’ll withhold judgment for now.)  For true book lovers, those who forge an identity with others over reading, this is no small loss.

Today, you can purchase nearly anything (other than perishable food) online, usually cheaper than in a store.  Yet shopping remains an important social enterprise.  As Jack Trytten says, we seldom purchase what we purchase; we actually purchase some virtue we associate with the purchase.  In the case of shopping, especially shopping for cultural experiences, we purchase the bond the item brings.

Digital reading does not yet provide that bond.  Until it does, print books will occupy a unique and irreplaceable pinnacle in our culture and our lives.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Holy Vigilante, Batman! (Part Two)

Defining Justice in a Nihilistic Universe

Note: this essay was intended to appear last Wednesday, but got pushed back because I felt the need to answer the outcry surrounding the Casey Anthony verdict. I have amended a few points here to reflect what I said last week.

In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus, a notorious sophist, claims that “justice is the advantage of the stronger” and laws primarily exist to enforce social hierarchy.  Philosophers debate whether Thrasymachus, an actual historical figure whose writings survive only in fragments, really meant this claim, or if he was Plato’s straw man.  We can say with confidence, though, that many unjust people create ad hoc justice around themselves to fend off a world that remains appallingly heartless.

Comic book writer/artist Frank Miller created Gotham gangster Carmine “The Roman” Falcone as Batman’s first nemesis in Batman: Year One.  He has appeared occasionally since then, evolving as comic book characters do—comics’ ongoing, soap-operatic format lends characters to shifting interpretations.  Altogether more interesting, from a social mythology standpoint, is Falcone’s appearance, played by British actor Tom Wilkinson, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

In Nolan’s interpretation (which differs significantly from Miller’s), Bruce Wayne is spurred to venture into the world and cultivate his Batman persona after confronting Falcone in his private tavern.  Though the subterranean street outside his door is squalid and littered with detritus of urban collapse, Falcone’s tavern is softly lit, subdued, and marked by the customers’ posh dress.  Just walking through the door, Wayne sees that Falcone has built a fortress of order amid Gotham’s rapid entropy.

Wayne and Falcone have an brief exchange, culminating in a storytelling device sometimes derided as “The Reason You Suck” speech.  In this wheezy trope, one character, usually a villain, trumpets another beaten character’s supposed shortcomings to emphasize innate superiority.  Brandishing a gun, Falcone says:

Look around you: you'll see two councilmen, a union official, a couple off-duty cops, and a judge.  Now, I wouldn't have a second's hesitation of blowing your head off right here and right now in front of 'em.  Now, that's power you can't buy!  That's the power of fear.

Though distinctly stereotypical in its sentiments, Falcone’s speech makes a significant point: for all Falcone’s disregard for law, order, or human life, he is no mere evil plaguing the world as indifferently as the weather.  He wants something from humanity.  He wants their fear.

As business guru Jack Trytten says in his book The G Point (previously reviewed here), people never buy a product because they want that product.  People buy products because they want what the products can provide: ease, economy, prestige, or whatever they lack.  Falcone does not want people to fear him because he wants fear, nor does he run a massive crime enterprise because he wants lawlessness.  Carmine Falcone wants power—presumably because he feels powerless.

In other words, like Batman, Falcone sees Gotham falling to ruin and wants to do something about it.  Unlike Batman, who turns his desire for justice outward, Falcone presents a self-centered world, but one no less geared to fighting urban decay.  Those loyal to Falcone enjoy the perks of his world, emblematized by his posh, comfortably tavern.  Those outside, like the homeless man warming his hands over a burning trash barrel, live in fear.  Falcone becomes a law unto himself.

Compare Falcone to Depression-era bank robber Willie Sutton.  Though he denied saying he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” he admitted another reason.  In his memoir, Where the Money Was, Sutton said: “Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.”  At a time of economic collapse, when countless Americans despaired of constant bread lines, Sutton took control.  He made his life mean something, even if that meaning was counterproductive.

Comic books and movies regard Batman as heroic because he turns his efforts to punishing those he considers lawbreakers, those who victimize the powerless.  But consider the history of organized crime.  Al Capone was born to immigrant parents in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and fought his way out of poverty.  Jesse James backed the losing side in the Civil War and was branded an outlaw because he rode with Quantrill’s Raiders.  John Gotti grew up in a poor ghetto and took up crime to offset his dissolute father’s gambling losses.

Born rich, Batman has the luxury of turning his attention to others.  Born in the belly of a decaying city, Carmine Falcone can’t build justice for anyone else until he builds it for himself.  Sure, he’s a criminal; but the justice system failed him, so he had to build one of his own.  While this does not excuse his crimes, it certainly suggests that, like Batman, Falcone only wants to protect the powerless, especially himself, and not let strangers run roughshod over the people.

We can debate whether justice is the advantage of the strong.  But we know justice is certainly the prerogative of the strong.  So, to some, Carmine Falcone is the better hero than Batman.

Part One: Sanctifying Civilian Justice
Part Three: Bane's Dichotomy Between Servitude and Chaos

Monday, July 11, 2011

People Who Buy and Sell People

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am unable to present a new book review this week. Until next week, enjoy this 2009 classic from my newspaper days.

Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba offers a whirlwind tour of pre-Castro Cuba. Her insights into U.S. dollar imperialism are educational and reveal how people treat humans as commodities to be expended. A mass ensemble occupies United Fruit’s empire in verdant Oriente Province like American pharaohs. They buy presidents, sell workers, and insulate themselves from consequences.

K.C. Stites was born in Oriente. A true company son, his youthful eye sees Cuba’s whites grow squalid, even as he enjoys his life of Yanquí privilege. Everly Lederer moved to Oriente as a girl. She shifts from Treasure Island fantasies to an unruly youth, running wild with the boys and romancing a Haitian servant. In Havana, a French gunrunner falls for an enigmatic dancer. He loses himself in her radical ideals even as she becomes Cuba’s own Mata Hari.

The story runs from 1952 to the revolution of 1958. It draws historic figures like Castro, Batista, Christian de la Mazière, and Earl Smith into a vast portrait of United Fruit’s decadent decline. She lets them present themselves, the bad with the good, in all their waning glory. Not every plot thread is treated equally. Some are soap operatic, feeling quick and crude.

Those few readers who still revere la revolución may not appreciate Kushner’s frank handling of the Castro brothers. She hangs some pretty blunt terms on them. But overall, Kushner draws an interesting image of decay in a world that will never exist again.

Valerie Martin’s parable of human commerce is more explicit in Property. She shows that owning people makes owners into small, filthy wrecks of humanity.

Manon Gaudet marries for money, and gets Sarah as her house slave in the bargain. Then her odious husband makes Sarah his mistress. To amplify the insult, Manon cannot give her nameless husband children. Sarah has the only son in their house.

As Manon survives epidemics, slave revolts, and her vulgar husband, her world narrows to focus wholly on Sarah. An umbilical of hatred links the women. When violence leaves Manon widowed and alone, her only joy comes in tormenting Sarah. She becomes poisonous, spewing self-hatred outward onto her slave. Property is an ironic tragedy. The more wronged Manon thinks herself, the more abusive she becomes.

Manon survives lies, humiliation, and violence, to emerge a smaller person. Everything she touches turns to ash, as she blames anyone but herself. This book is a necessary antidote to the romanticism of Gone with the Wind. It reveals the antebellum South as no showcase of posh gentility. But its pious tone implies the author thinks she is writing another Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Martin takes a stand against a life that hasn’t existed for nearly 150 years. Why?

In fairness, Manon is more nuanced and realistic than Simon Legree. And Sarah’s willfulness is a good counterpoint. They are intriguing characters in a perversely attractive story. But it says nothing readers don’t already know. It’s just a new angle on an old story.

Kushner and Martin tell languid literary tales of human trafficking. Russell Whitfield aims for adventure in Gladiatrix.

Lysandra is a Spartan warrior priestess until chance makes her an arena slave. The daily struggle to survive gains new implications on the bloody sands of the Roman sports ground. A gladiatrix is a mix of athlete, warrior, and porn star. Lysandra’s fierce, sexually charged tale transforms her from a green recruit into the Danica Patrick of ancient Anatolia.

Whitfield’s First-century Roman setting is a field where history doesn’t know much. This gives him room to build his narrative so that it doesn’t seem like a museum display. This novel lavishes readers with violence and sex. Wall-to-wall arena brawls are the order of the day, with excruciatingly detailed injuries and deaths.

The sex is pretty explicit. Forbidden to sleep with men, Lysandra has a tempestuous affair with a fellow gladiatrix, with every step of their lovemaking spelled out on the page. A lesbian once told me there are two kinds of lesbian porn: porn for lesbians, and porn featuring “lesbians” for straight men. Lysandra’s liaison is the latter.

High art this ain’t. In places, despite clever historic reconstructions, it's downright dumb. But it's also gobs of fun. At root, this is a boys’ action-adventure story. The twist is, the action-adventurers are women. Whitfield keeps it from feeling like a mere twist, though. For all its genre predictability, this book is a rousing romp through historic sports.

Gladiatrix is speedy, cinematic, and multi-dimensional. Nobody will mistake it for great literature, but it’s full of slick, audacious storybook fun.

Friday, July 8, 2011

How To Argue About God

Unfortunately for anyone who starts a brouhaha over God’s presence, absence, or nature, no one is neutral on the topic. People invest great effort and energy in their belief—or unbelief—until it merges into their identity. Sure, some people don’t care much about the question, don’t invest themselves in it; but those people will not be persuaded by any argument, no matter how well staged or deeply felt.

Alister McGrath grew up amid the Belfast Troubles, when religious identity spurred some of history’s worst violence. He dealt with this reality by rejecting all religion. But as he reveals in Why God Won't Go Away, he couldn’t sustain that attitude forever. Now a professor of theology, McGrath has gained fame in Britain for publicly debating Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, leaders of an emergent anti-religious company called the New Atheists.

Along with Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have recently changed atheism’s tone into aggressive evangelism. All four proclaim the inherent triumph of atheism, which they promulgate but don’t define. McGrath does not fault their unbelief, but he stresses flaws in their reasoning. He emphasizes their harsh jingoism, not far from imperial conquerors. He shows how, even in their own words, their intensity is only steps removed from violence.

But McGrath lacks the same eye of discretion on his own side of the aisle. I remember hearing Krista Tippett, author of Speaking of Faith and host of the radio show of the same title. Back in 2007 she said: “I haven't interviewed Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens for the same reason I never interviewed Jerry Falwell, which is that he had all the answers for himself and everyone else.” This sums up the problem with the entire debate.

The stridency of current atheist rhetoric positively corresponds with unpleasant Christian militancy. People who seek rules to live by, whether the Ten Commandments or the Three Laws of Thermodynamics, often become shrill when they think they’ve discovered rules for everybody. This behavior brings the tone of debate down globally, isolating people who believe deeply but not aggressively. Humankind suffers.

McGrath observes early that Daniel Dennett’s “relative lack of verbal aggressiveness and ridicule possibly explains why Breaking the Spell failed to sell as well as” deliberately inflammatory works by Harris and Hitchens. Anyone who watches TV knows bombast and grandiloquence get attention, even when they’re stupid. Unfortunately, that’s sort of the point. The debate is defined by people who grab attention rather than advance shared understanding.

Notably, if we can take McGrath’s self-deprecating narrative seriously, atheists, who form a much larger population share in Britain than in America, are more embarrassed by New Atheist bluster than Christians. He says that “my most vociferous defenders are moderate atheists—often academics—who are sickened by such mindless hostility and alarmed at the damage it’s inflicting on the public image of atheism.” Who can blame them?

But as they change the verbal tone, Christian militants and New Atheists also openly bid for political authority. American conservatives see Christianity as a natural ally, though that’s a debate for elsewhere, and make religious orthodoxy a litmus test. Meanwhile Sam Harris openly desires to scrub God from political debate and public decision-making. Taken from a longer view, both positions seem misguided.

As Peter Hitchens (Christopher’s Christian brother) asserts in The Rage Against God, Christianity suffered in Britain after World War II substantially because the postwar generation saw the church throw its lot in with the Empire. When one declined, they both did. Sadly, we’ve seen the same course of events in America, with a President who claimed to receive messages direct from God hastened an unpopular war, which likely contributed to declining church attendance numbers.

This coarsening of religious discourse, coinciding with unacceptable political rabble-rousing, lowers acceptable standards in contemporary society. Instead of communicating with our rivals, seeing them as human beings with their own hopes and dreams, we accept mudslinging, heel-dragging, and ad hominem attacks as normal. The gaps widen, people don’t talk to one another, and before long, we don’t feel we should communicate.

God’s presence or absence cannot be determined through laboratory science. Spirit cannot be abstracted from its environment for intensive empirical research. Thus we absolutely need to speak to one another, as human beings, about this vitally important topic. Shouting, caricaturing, and trying to silence the opposition will only lead to retrenchment and exasperation.

These questions won’t go away. And we owe it to each other to seek the answers.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony: the Difference Between Justice and Rage

By now you know that Casey Anthony was found not guilty yesterday, July 5th, in the death of her daughter Caylee. Within minutes, the Monday-morning quarterbacks weighed in: did the prosecution let justice down? Did the defense circumvent the law and let a killer walk free? Or perhaps, are our assumptions wrong, and did she really not kill her daughter?

I was in high school in 1992 when jurors returned not guilty verdicts on the police accused of beating Rodney King. Many of my friends felt American justice fumbled terribly, and right on our doorstep too (I lived in San Diego then). I would not join the chorus in second-guessing the jury, because I believe jurisprudence needs to remain independent of public opinion. But too many friends assumed I meant that the accused cops were innocent.

Let me be plain: based on the evidence I saw on television, the cops who beat Rodney King were probably guilty of misconduct and brutality. If I had to judge on Casey Anthony based on what I know, she looks guilty. But remember, jurors are sworn to a higher standard than I am. When they ruled Casey “Not Guilty,” they were not saying she isn’t guilty, much less innocent. They were saying the prosecution hadn’t proved Casey guilty.

From my La-Z-Boy, it sure looked like the prosecution did a lackluster job. They pushed for the death penalty on a case with too little evidence. Their sleepwalking approach to this case made me wonder why they pressed charges on such tender premises. Then I realized they probably had another spur to action.

I've already commented on the moralistic hysteria accompanying this case. Since then, the news media has observed crowds jockeying for limited gallery seats, catcalling the defense, and picking fistfights. Commentators have spent less time and energy on actual proceedings than on Casey herself, deriding her stone-faced demeanor and wondering whether her refusal to wear her heart on her sleeves proves psychological pathology.

Relentless personal judgement has been the elephant in the room with this case. Nancy Grace’s strident condemnation soured me on the morning news. News programs rerun footage of Casey Anthony being escorted in handcuffs while an off-camera crowd shouts “baby killer,” repeating the same footage so often that it becomes clear the image serves to let journalists insert unannounced editorial opinion.

Democracy is not about the quadrennial right to vote for talking head-in-chief. More than any other element, democracy depends on the hope that, if accused of a crime, citizens can rest confident that our cases will be heard by our peers, who agree to judge us according to certain rules. If that guarantee gets hijacked to mollify media hysteria, democracy has been subverted.

When a representative of the court attempted to address the crowd yesterday, he was shouted down by citizens crying slogans like “No Justice For Caylee!” Their behavior combined the worst aspects of tourists and rubberneckers at a traffic wreck. Such herds always accrue to disasters like this, but justice requires they must not set the standards for a reliable trial.

I’m not alone in this opinion. Both the prosecution and the defense, in the wake of the verdict, spoke harshly against the media coverage, which made gathering a jury pool exorbitantly expensive and difficult. Both Caylee as victim and Casey as defendant deserve justice, and when the court cannot assemble a jury, or even guarantee the defendant’s bodily safety, this flies in the face of justice.

For hours after the jury read their verdict yesterday, countless TV talking heads spoke at (and past) each other about what this means for Casey Anthony, her family, and general society. News anchors read strangers’ Tweets and Facebook updates like news. In the 24-hour news cycle, which must manufacture something to report constantly, we think we’ve grown accustomed to manufactured apocalypses, but I discovered yesterday that I am not.

As a Christian, my heritage teaches me what happens when crowds start baying for blood. Not that anyone would confuse Casey Anthony with Jesus; but herd behavior has little to do with justice. Whether Jesus before Pilate, the Nuremberg Rallies, or a Klan lynching, clamoring crowds, however benevolent in their language, pervert the course of justice.

Casey Anthony has been ruled not guilty, not innocent. Free citizens should not permit angry outbursts to stand in for redress or law. And if media-generated hysteria again pushes action on a case not yet ready to run, we shouldn’t act surprised when guilty citizens walk free.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Three Summer Beach Thrillers

I get called “elitist” whenever I say this, but a large segment of publishing caters to people who don’t read much. Books appear every year meant to let people mark time on airplanes, diddle around before bedtime, or fall asleep at the beach. Please don’t mistake me: I don’t mind these books, or the people who write them. But some such books are better than others.

Take Erica Spindler’s Watch Me Die. Glass artist Mira Gallier hasn’t accepted her husband’s death in Hurricane Katrina. Without her business restoring church windows, she’d collapse. When the priest in the church she just finished dies beneath defaced windows, she feels deeply about the murder. Then the bum who threatened her, the father-in-law who nurses a grudge, and others near Mira die violently, with biblical quotes written over the bodies. Somebody’s tightening the net around Mira, and if she can’t figure out who fast, she’ll get arrested—or worse.

Admittedly, nothing innovative happens in this story. Its egregious red herrings, suspects who burst up like whack-a-mole puppets, and Agatha Christie-like plot will seem entirely familiar to anyone who has read more than three amateur sleuth mysteries. Spindler hammers clues so vigorously that veteran readers know who to dismiss fairly early. It hits so many clichés so fast that parts of it descend into comedy.

Yet Spindler crafts characters of such internal complexity that readers want to finish the story. We know, because we’ve read this plot before, that the characters make bad choices. We know, because we’re not stupid, how the story will ultimately resolve. Yet we persevere because we care about these people, and want to see them come out okay. Spindler knows what audiences crave, and gives it to them.

James Barney could take some lessons in that area. His debut, The Genesis Key, has a more ambitious background story, yet plays everything by the numbers. Like Spindler, Barney does nothing new; unlike Spindler, Barney does nothing to make the story appealing. Long, talky exposition, frenetically short chapters, interchangeable characters, and comically overwritten dialog conspire to steal all energy from this book.

Dr. Kathleen Sainsbury’s research into human aging only aims to eliminate Alzheimer’s and dementia. But her late parents’ archaeological research opens Pandora’s box when ancient DNA offers to give centuries-long lifespans to those who can afford it. Suddenly everyone wants something from Sainsbury: treatment, money, power, or blood. The mild researcher finds herself at the nexus of conspiracies, maneuvers, and multinational black ops.

Combining cutting-edge science with Biblical exegesis and ancient folklore, this book ballyhoos the venerable theme that There Are Certain Things Science Should Not Know. Its amateurish conflation of the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, rudimentary genetics, and political intrigue intend, perhaps, to illuminate deeper human truths. But as one expository monologue mounts on another, while the science gets only sillier, my only reaction is laughter. And I just can’t make myself care about these entirely interchangeable characters.

Kath Russell blends these two approaches in A Pointed Death. When biotech entrepreneur Nola Billingsley said she wanted to see embezzler Roger Chen dead, she never thought she’d live to see it. But as both his victimized employer and the one to discover his body, the cops rush her to the top of the suspect list. Now, as she tries to rebuild her career, she also has to stay one step ahead of the police to prove her innocence.

Russell’s writing has the technical density Barney shares, but she doesn’t resort to creaky techno stereotypes—characters explaining the obvious to each other, long monologues from dark strangers, or ubiquitous nosy journalists—like Barney does. Russell reveals details by having characters interact like human beings. This means readers have to keep up, but Russell makes that easy by avoiding jargon or pointy-headed discursion.

Also, where Erica Spindler is deadly earnest, and James Barney is pathetically earnest, Russell has a sense of humor. Her storytelling resembles TV shows like Monk or The Closer, character-driven series where the often workmanlike mystery matters less than the characters. For Russell, the investigation is essentially the pressure cooker in which she combines the characters, then waits to watch them interact.

Calling thrillers like these “beach reading,” and admitting they challenge readers as little as possible, is not a slight. These authors hope to keep you awake past your bedtime. But there are ways to do that right, and ways that are merely ridiculous. It pays for readers to stay smart in picking out their dumb reading.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Big Bang Theory Theory (Part Three)

The Raj/Howard Continuum

Kunal Nayyar as Raj Koothrappali;
Simon Helberg as Howard Wolowitz
If Leonard and Sheldon represent conflicting impulses about human relationships and belonging on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, their friends Raj and Howard represent another root human conflict.  On the surface they seem to struggle with their desire to have sex, coupled with their powerful will to sabotage themselves.  But on closer consideration, both want something deeper than sex: they want fulfillment.  And they achieve that simple human desire in ways that subvert every expectation.

From the first episode, when Howard and Raj are thunderstruck by Penny’s beauty, both characters declare their obsession with having sex.  Yet that same first episode establishes that they accept, in advance, that they will not have sex.  Therefore, Raj turns mute, while Howard becomes bombastic and odious.  This gives them advance insurance that they don’t need to expect much; going in, they know they will fail.

We can read this two different ways.  In the first reading, this makes a statement about science, and the ways people create limits for themselves according to their expectations.  As Rampton & Stauber demonstrate, the scientific process is complex, time-consuming, and expensive, so many practitioners create ways to abridge the process.  Note that at colleges like CalTech, where these characters work, “hookup” culture has done something similar for sex.

But the second reading says less about them than about us.  Audiences come to television with certain learned expectations, and often rebel when they're disregarded.  In particular, we expect to see couples circle one another in a tightly choreographed dance that can last years, like Ross and Rachel on Friends.  We think we know how couples behave on Planet Sitcom, and who rightly belongs together, like Leonard and Penny.  These two remain blind to these rules.

Thus they subvert not just our expectations, but the language of sitcom writers everywhere.  These two fail to make significant connections outside their narrow circle, at least until Howard meets Bernadette in the middle of Season Three.  The Ross/Rachel dynamic of circling, coming together, flying apart, yet remaining ultimately in one another’s orbit, ultimately doesn’t apply to these characters.

But it precisely describes their bromance.    These two have the kind of arguments which sitcom lingo tells us couples have, because they displace their psychological drive away from girls and onto one another.  There’s nothing notably homosexual about either character, and on the rare occasions when the slightest sexual tension arises they recoil; but they have the relationship courting couples always maintain on Planet Sitcom.

Leonard’s mother points out, first in Season Two and again in Season Three, that Howard and Raj have an ersatz homosexual marriage.  Though both characters reject that reading, and their intricate arrangements keep each other’s bodies at arm’s length, when they need the emotional satisfaction of another human soul, they seek each other.  So their continuum isn’t really about sex, despite surface appearances; it touches much deeper needs.

Like all married households, theirs develops its own esoteric traditions.  Though they keep separate apartments, they’ve learned to speak each other’s language and anticipate each other’s actions.  And they’ve learned to key off one another regarding their shared, yet fruitless, desire for sex.  Going through the motions has become their equivalent, in a traditional marriage, of Thanksgiving dinner or board game night.

Humans can live without sex, but we can’t live without connection to another soul.  In that way, we might reject homosexual interpretations and regard Raj and Howard as a faux monastic community.  Like Benedictines, who choose a task within the monastery, they’ve chosen applied physics, while games and comics comprise their liturgy.  Note that both characters have rejected their family’s religious heritage; they share a secular orthodoxy of alternating insight and frivolity.

In a way, despite their constant sexual frustration, they are happier than either Leonard or Sheldon.  Where those two want something they cannot have without a price they will not pay, Howard and Raj have let their wants become a public mask.  They certainly have what they need.  And while they may work themselves into the occasional tizzy over their need for common sexual release, they share a bond that would make most married couples jealous.

It’s actually reassuring to see such a happy couple on network television.  Since happy people tend to be kind of boring, the media spotlight people wracked in misery.  Though these two suffer their setbacks, and often get shelved behind Leonard and Sheldon’s humorous bumbling, they have a wealth of connection that few stars can touch.  And good for them, too.

Part One: The Leonard/Sheldon Disjunction
Part Two: The Penny Polarization