Monday, September 30, 2013

Equal Rights—Unequal Consequences

Alison Wolf, The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World

Women’s roles have changed. We can look around and know that. But that doesn’t make those changes obvious. Even more, while social leaders debate whether those changes have been beneficial, they certainly have costs that even the most strident detractor hasn’t noticed. British labor researcher Alison Wolf has analyzed the data, and pulls conclusions that both feminists and traditionalists will find surprising.

Feminists have made much about whether women have equal work opportunity, equal pay, and equal hope of advancement in society. Wolf answers: it depends. Indeed, a great deal depends on your perspective. That’s because advancements in opportunities available to women have opened a massive gulf between highly educated, economically high-achieving women in the top fifth of wage earners, and everyone else.

Wolf asserts that women in the top quintile enjoy remarkable opportunity, equality, and autonomy, Steinem-era feminist promises made manifest. Indeed, because women are generally better prepared for college at the traditional age, and education (generally) correlates with economic advancement, a generation of highly prepared women may inherit society’s pinnacle. The old boy network may inhibit top-achieving women, but the operative word today is “old.”

The other four-fifths of women face economic pressures to work, but remain in a heavily segregated workforce. Despite some high-profile women truckers and cops, most working women continue doing, for pay, jobs they would do for free at home, like nursing, housekeeping, or child care. And economic impediments mean most women can’t cross the gap between the bottom four-fifths and the top.

These gaps have broad, unexpected consequences. Top-achieving women more often postpone getting married and having children, sometimes postponing them altogether (usually unintentionally). If they do have kids, they often farm child-rearing responsibilities to hired help. The recent rise of extreme wealth in certain sectors has led, Wolf says, to a reemergence of formerly dying servant jobs. Poor women’s opportunities less resemble their mothers’ lives than their great-grandmothers’.

Some of what Wolf describes could encompass general society. The widening gap between high-achieving professionals and the middle and lower classes, for instance, requires expensive, time-consuming credentials to cross, regardless of sex. But Wolf describes other ramifications that drive wedges between populations of women that were former allies. The “sisterhood” beloved by feminist leaders seems increasingly like a naïve vestige of bygone days.

Much as I appreciate Dr. Wolf’s analysis of the present, she contrasts it to an overly romanticized past. Women formerly, Wolf claims, were unified across class, race, and nationality in social pressures. All women were expected, someday, to marry and have children; even highly educated women from wealthy backgrounds would necessarily stop working eventually and assume the wife and mother role.

But did they really? Second-wave feminist leaders, who were preponderantly white and Jewish, initially met serious serious setbacks when they discovered that Black women had their own unique needs. And those same feminist leaders were originally hostile to lesbians, prompting angry defections from early supporters like Rita Mae Brown. One starts to suspect that women weren’t nearly as unified as Wolf presents.

Similarly, Wolf never quite sheds her geographical blinders. Though the statistics she cites compile women’s situations across regions, and frequently across national borders, she supplements these stats with interviews with high-skilled professional women, mostly women in her own network. As a professor at King’s College London, Wolf’s net primarily falls, unsurprisingly, across London and Manhattan.

Your typical Brit visiting America never ventures outside Manhattan and San Francisco. And your typical American visiting Britain never leaves London and the Lake District. But women (people, really) in rural areas like the American prairie or the Scottish Border region have categorically different opportunities. Prairie girls may become doctors and lawyers, but almost certainly lack the connections to become lucrative financial managers.

When Wolf divides women into quintiles, the women in the top fifth are substantially concentrated in large coastal cities. Manhattan makes a good example: the exodus of manufacturing from the American Northeast has left NYC with perpetually impoverished service industry workers, fabulously wealthy financial managers—and nothing in between. Bill Moyers quotes Nickolay Lamm that Manhattan has become a portrait of uncrossable extremes.

Notwithstanding these limitations, Wolf’s book does make a valuable contribution to a balanced library. Readers willing to think critically can mine her study for information, in which it is awash. Just remember to test what she writes against what you already know, or what you’re willing to learn. Society is changing, and that includes gender roles. Wolf gives us valuable tools to stay ahead of that change.

Friday, September 27, 2013

What Makes Modern Men Manful?

WARNING: this essay contains mild language and themes some readers may find disturbing.

I wonder how seriously to take the recent Unofficial Goldman Sachs Guide to Being a Man. Seriously, seventy-nine pointers? Many are good, like “If you perspire, wear a damn undershirt.” But even God stopped at ten. It’s too long, esoteric, and inclusive to memorize, much less actually use. Yet it reminds us of something many men forget: being a man is something we do, a choice we make daily.

Men, overall, jealously guard roles of manhood, desperate to ensure everyone recognizes their innate, unshakeable masculinity. While some men may overtly embrace feminine roles or feminine traits, these men remain outliers, and often get mocked by other men for their lack of manfulness, unless they find rapid success in whatever feminine endeavor they pursue. Despite years of progress, modern boys still aspire to become Rambo or John Wayne.

But we don’t necessarily have recorded standards of manfulness anymore. Societies once catalogued what traits constituted manfulness, training youth in these rules, ensuring they knew how to follow manly standards, and when to disregard them. Codifying manful rules was something of a pastime, and every dignitary from the Roman poet Ovid to George Washington compiled lists of how to remain manful in changing times.

Somewhere, those lists got shanghaied. “Virtue,” from the Latin for “masculinity,” once implied highly male standards of conduct, including justice, valor, and honesty. But say “virtue” now, and people imagine Victorian schoolmarms instructing girls how to sit in skirts. Lists of standards become inflexible laws, and inflexible laws become sanctimonious limits on manfulness. The solution becomes an entirely new problem.

Whether fairly or not, former standards of manfulness are now perceived as feminizing. And this leaves us with an important new definition: masculinity is whatever femininity is not. We define men’s characteristics oppositionally. I remember, in third grade, being told by a peer not to stand with one foot resting on a curb, simply because a girl nearby was doing the same. Thus we become men only by what feminine influences we reject.

This creates entirely new problems in today’s milieu, where women are welcome into male domains in ways men aren’t welcome into female domains. Women have embraced many stereotypically male jobs and hobbies. When Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas 2013, talked about enjoying bowhunting, and didn’t conceal her tattoos during the swimsuit competition, she received thunderous male applause nationwide this month.

Men cannot embrace feminine activities this way. When my father used his military retirement benefits to enroll in nursing school, he literally couldn’t find any nursing-related goods for men. Cards and souvenirs invariably used female pronouns, and he had to purchase his work clothes at military uniform stores. Comedians like Ben Stiller and Jimmy Carr openly belittle men who become nurses, because obviously, only spineless men and “faggots” do a woman’s job.

As women pursue vocations formerly exclusively male, men simply fall back. Hard science and math once belonged exclusively to men, because society believed women lacked the head for difficult empirical research. But when women proved both capable and willing, men ceded the domain. Something similar happened in classical music: search any conservatory, and you’ll find preponderantly women. Flute and violin, once entirely male instruments, have almost no male students today. Men are missing from modern science and humanities programs.

The Church of England didn’t formally ordain women priests until 1994. But within ten years, British seminaries were graduating more women than men. Though men still control the hierarchy, those men are rapidly aging, and fewer male candidates arise to replace them. Fearful of being called feminine, men who feel drawn to religion fall back on increasingly conservative denominations, which only reinforce adversarial gender roles, worsening the problem.

This adversarial attitude turned ugly this year when Robin Thicke’s repellent single “Blurred Lines” spent the entire summer at #1 on the Billboard charts. This disgusting recitation of sexual dominance, backed with a video that blatantly treats women as transport for breasts, demonstrates the nasty consequences of today’s oppositional manhood. If men must squelch their own femininity, it’s a short, lazy step to squelching and destroying actual women.

Goldman Sachs has joined a panoply of other organizations that have attempted to create modern masculine codes, including Miller Beer, Maxim magazine, and Glenn Beck. These lists have failed to take hold, probably because audiences recognized the listmakers’ self-serving goals. Yet people keep making such lists, because we recognize an unmet need. Some magnanimous philosopher needs to commence the tough work of writing a man code for the modern age.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

If Life's a Stage, Then All School is Acting Class

Michael Sokolove, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater

You may not know Lou Volpe’s name, but if you’ve ever seen or acted in a high school production of Les Miserables or Rent, you owe him your thanks. His trailblazing theatre program at Truman High, in Levittown, Pennsylvania, has hosted the public school debuts of these and other storied Broadway plays, proving their viability as amateur productions. In Michael Sokolove’s remarkable biography, Volpe reminds us why education still matters.

For someone who’s contributed so much to amateur theatre, Volpe’s circumstances seem remarkably humble. He’s spent his entire career in one school, cultivating one community’s kids with such dogged persistence that some of his students are third-generation. While his community has crumbled, taking conventional academics with it, Volpe has persevered in an unprestigious art. More important, he has produced graduates ready for adult life.

Volpe’s career is inextricable from Levittown itself. Like its more prestigious Long Island cousin, Levittown, PA, metastasized during the post-WWII building boom. It was a good union town, sending countless husbands and sons to good-paying steel mill jobs. When the mills closed in the 1970s, it left a town unprepared. Now countless grandchildren of original residents, who bought amid hopeless optimism, stay because they can’t afford to leave.

Lou Volpe
Volpe began teaching English in 1969, and theatre dropped into his lap a few years later. He watched Truman High, a compromise school born from an unpopular merger, struggle to find its identity, with little history and lackluster sports. In an episode so unlikely it defies synopsis, a popular athlete quit wrestling to act in one of Volpe’s plays, giving Truman theatre an anti-establishment edge most theatre teachers would envy.

Combining dumb luck with natural curiosity and an immigrant son’s pertinacity, Volpe parlayed early successes into a theatre program so fruitful, even New York and London producers seek his assistance. Truman High’s cool kids join theatre like other schools’ BMOCs join football or business. Theatre, and Volpe, have become Truman’s biggest asset. But in Sokolove’s telling, Volpe’s most successful alumni take lessons from him far exceeding theatre.

Sokolove, who studied under Volpe before theatre found him, entwines Volpe’s biography and career with larger trends in American society and education. While suburban poverty slowly destroys Levittown, and education standards come to favor quantifiable job skills, Volpe persists in something older and more fundamental. Drawing his theatre students from all economic and academic strata, his program rewards one core value: self-discipline.

Michael Sokolove
I suspect Sokolove and Volpe share my opinion that schools do students a severe disservice by fitting them for careers. Life’s most important lessons cannot be tested on a Scantron sheet. Current attempts at standardizing education reward memorizing facts, and discourage individual curiosity. Sokolove reveals recent trends in education that even I had not known, seemingly designed to leave students helpless, apathetic, and dependent on authority.

But I always forget: that’s probably not accidental, is it? Dispirited students graduate to become excellent office or factory drones.

By contrast, Volpe’s theatre program cultivates character and moxie. Sokolove depicts Volpe pushing his actors, demanding they know themselves so they can create their characters. While many of Volpe’s best actors struggle academically, they find his theatre richly rewarding, in ways governments cannot test. Sokolove interviews Volpe’s alumni, who report, sometimes decades later, that they remember Volpe’s greatest lesson: strength of character.

These aren’t students born to luxury, the stereotypical rich arts kids. Many must leave rehearsal early because their families rely on the money from their after-school jobs. Yet even Volpe’s technical positions become hotly contested prizes, which may surprise theatre teachers who’ve gone begging for someone to run the light board. The prize is not necessarily theatre itself; Volpe opens doors into students that regular textbook academics never even acknowledge.

When Volpe retired in 2013, hundreds of his alumni returned for his final show. Some have risen in theatre’s highly competitive ranks, propelled by their experience with a teacher who demanded the best, then showed them how to reach it. Many others, though, left theatre after high school. The most important lesson Volpe taught them wasn’t theatre. It was to know themselves, and always act on what they know.

Sokolove doesn’t disguise his personal affection for Lou Volpe. Nor should he. Most successful people have one teacher who persuaded them to exceed themselves and break new ground. The ripples Lou Volpe created have impact beyond one underfunded school, or one dilapidated suburb. This book reminds us what good teachers do, and should inspire coming generations to discover that one glimmering truth.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Jane Austen Presents a Sherlock Holmes Extravaganza

Emma Jane Holloway, A Study in Silks

Evelina Cooper is in London for the Season, hoping to snag a rich, well-connected husband. Raised in the circus, she was reclaimed by her gentry kinfolk, putting her feet in two worlds. When murder strikes the household staff, Evelina must use her spellcasting and her mechanical genius to crack the case. But she must hurry, before someone involves her chaotic, meddling uncle, Sherlock Holmes.

Emma Jane Holloway’s first novel combines steampunk, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, and Victoriana with frenetic aplomb. Add a cowboy, and she’d have the perfect paperback. Considering the large market for period-based ensemble dramas, this novel could become a license to print money. But Ballantine should wait to count their haul, because Holloway’s intended audience may find this book frustrating.

Casual readers will notice, first, that this book is long. Really, really long. Over 530 pages of headache-inducing teeny type, with weirdly narrow margins, meaning it’s probably even longer than you think. If the entire trilogy resembles this book, Holloway’s finished series will run longer than Bantam’s two-volume paperback of Conan Doyle’s complete Holmes canon.

Nobody would probably mind this book’s length if its entire vast mass constituted a focused, energetic story. But Holloway rambles interminably about topics that scarcely advance her core narrative. The problem arises from her conflicting narrative influences. Though Holmes casts a long shadow over this book, he contributes little, and Holloway doesn’t much mimic Arthur Conan Doyle’s famously terse, unornamented style.

Instead, notice the author’s byline (even her website doesn’t conceal it’s a pseudonym): Emma Jane Holloway. Emma, Jane Austen’s saga of a rich matchmaker, blind to her own weaknesses. Like Austen, Holloway takes principle interest in her characters’ courtship habits, spending pages and pages and pages on her heroine’s painstaking efforts to choose a husband. The mystery, meanwhile, drops teasing hints about mechanical men and tree sprites, but advances only incrementally.

While this novel is far longer than anything Conan Doyle ever wrote, it’s also confoundingly longer than anything Austen ever wrote. Holloway extends her heroine’s indecision over countless pages of banter, sparring, and mutual doubt. Evelina knows who she wants, and he wants her back; their courtship is impeded only by everybody’s unwillingness to say what everybody already knows.

Meanwhile, the body count rises and intensive backroom politicking begins showing real world consequences. Holloway introduces numerous subplots and a cast of thousands, so many that she can’t keep everyone engaged simultaneously. Key characters vanish and important revelations languish for nearly 100 pages because their subplots take second position. The streets one character walks to a clandestine confab merit more description than the meeting itself. The narration crawls.

I’ve criticized previous novels and novelists for lack of concrete detail, but Holloway proves the adage: “Everything in moderation.” She tries to do too much. Her vastly overwritten prose attempts to pastiche largely incompatible authorial styles. When her page count exceeds either The Hound of the Baskervilles or Mansfield Park, and she’s still introducing new characters, readers can only think: somebody tap the brakes!

Indeed, Holloway introduces so many threads that she can’t weave them all. She does well, comparatively, integrating steampunk into her Victorian milieu, and the politics surrounding technological upheaval is intermittently exciting. But her fantasy element feels like an afterthought. Only one central character practices magic, and she does so to make James Bond-type spy tools. Wizardry is less a subplot than a work-around.

Then, attentive readers will get increasingly frustrated by Holloway’s frequent Americanisms. Audiences who read Conan Doyle and Austen know enough British to feel bothered when authors use “English” that would sound inverted and Yoda-like in London. Even such minutiae as how Holloway spells “gray” jump out at her intended Anglophile audience. How can an author enamored of fine detail miss this?

Nor is Holloway’s prose helped by her humorless self-consciousness. Conan Doyle embroiders his fiction with waggish Victorian in-jokes. And Austen, if you ignore the starchy manner her works get taught in school, is more Monty Python than Important Literature. Yet Holloway remains persistently dry, except in moments of banter, which are quite good, but too episodic to leaven the entire novel.

At the risk of sounding sexist, this book will primarily attract middle-class women, who enjoy the escapism of intensively detailed period drama. Other audiences will find Holloway’s deluge of imagery, coupled with her lack of narrative momentum, draining, and her page count imposing. Holmes aficionados and English majors will particularly dislike this book, and beg Holloway to get out of her own way.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Margaret Mary, Bo Pelini, and America's Failing Universities

Bo Pelini
Online social media, which historically overlooks its own ironic juxtapositions, went bananas over two painfully apropos stories this week. In one, Margaret Mary Vojtko, a Pittsburgh-area college teacher, died under ignominious circumstances after a distinguished career that sadly included little pay and no benefits. Simultaneously, fans hotly debate the implications after Nebraska head football coach Bo Pelini said “fuck” six times on tape while dismissing mercurial fans.

Pelini, who has taken Nebraska to six bowl games in six seasons, makes $2,875,000 dollars annually—making him Nebraska’s highest-paid public employee, and the NCAA’s third-highest-paid football coach. Adjuncts like Margaret Mary earn a fixed salary per course per semester, and are generally limited in how many courses they may teach per year. Margaret Mary may have made $3,500 per course at private Duquesne University, twice what I made at a regional public university.

While Pelini's rant had justification—fans who walk out because he hasn’t secured victory before the half deserve some f-bombs—the attendant outrage suggests disproportionate priorities. Nebraska’s performance in a non-conference game, and fans’ calls for his ouster (again), imply that football somehow matters outside the stadium. Lack of outrage regarding Margaret Mary’s death implies that classroom learning doesn’t matter.

Statistics indicate that, unless your school is a BCS qualifier, your football program probably bleeds money. Even qualifiers like NU struggle to cover costs with tax abatements, advertising, and alumni donations. Universities justify these expenditures by saying that winning championships enhances enrollment and retention. Such assertions usually come without backing evidence, since football and enrollment are too divergent to easily study together.

Many recent books explore the lack of correlation between university expenditures and classroom outcomes. Football, once the darling of academic ire, now competes with lush campuses, extensive recreational opportunities, and resort-style residence facilities, especially at private universities. No wonder for-profit schools, once mocked, have become attractive options for poor students, adult students, and others who cannot benefit from adolescent largesse.

Duquesne University, Margaret Mary's school
Meanwhile, over half of university instructors find themselves locked at adjunct level, without benefits, job security, or official standing. Adjunct instructors generally teach general studies, like Freshman composition, introductory science, and basic math. They have little hope of achieving tenure-track status, and without it, no hope of watching their students progress throughout their academic career. Their ability to be good, lasting, influential teachers is stunted.

Yet educational theorist Gerald Graff makes a persuasive case that the gen-ed courses which schools disdain and fob off on adjuncts, are actually the most important in any school. The ability to translate thoughts into words, and arrange those words in an informative and pleasing way; to reason scientifically; to compute algorithmically—these aren’t nuisance courses distracting from specialization. These are education’s beating heart.

Highly educated people become adjuncts because they love teaching and believe in education. Lushly appointed Duquesne University let Margaret Mary Vojtko essentially starve while floating an NCAA Division I athletic program, because its leadership believes in prestige. This contrast between the university’s self-effacing workhorses and glory-seeking administration provides a glimpse into modern university policy.

It’s tough to imagine any way such disconnected values won’t distort universities’ educational mission. I had students finish the semester by shaking my hand, thanking me profusely for my dedication, and exiting my office, never to be seen again. Though they may not articulate it, students cannot miss the inherent subtext: academic effort doesn’t really matter. Nothing’s really worth pursuing beyond Finals Week.

Meanwhile, entire classes of students never know any coach but Pelini, whose persistent presence throughout their college careers emphasizes what really counts. Even Pelini’s subordinates get treated like royalty. Running back coach Ron Brown gets red carpet treatment at speaking engagements, including many at churches, where he is an outspoken opponent of gay rights. NU has become, essentially, a football academy.

Go Big Red
Many schools, like Boston University, Hofstra, and the University of Denver have discontinued their football programs. Some cite financial reasons: they’d rather spend that money on education. Some cite health concerns, especially amid current controversies about concussions and their lingering effects. And some schools just consider football’s popularity distracting. Such discontinued programs, however, remain rare outliers and front-page news.

The next American university that axes its football program, and redirects that money into creating secure, good-paying classroom jobs may face blowback. It may lose its alumni endowment. It may get mocked on ESPN. But it will also signal to current and prospective students nationwide that education, personal development, and long-term thinking matter. It will signal its identity as a school.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Dark History of the Nazi Brain Trust

Christian Ingrao, Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine

Germany occupies two distinct positions in popular imagination: for centuries, thinkers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Luther cast long shadows over European thought. Germany also bequeathed us Hitler. How did a nation renowned for intellectual accomplishment produce such ghastly horror? Did German acumen hibernate through those years? Not so, says French historian Christian Ingrao. His answer is both more complex, and more resistant to pat answers.

Ingrao charts eighty public intellectuals who came into their degrees between the World Wars, achieved significant distinction in their fields, and chose to ally themselves with the SS, especially its intelligence service, the SD. These intellectuals came from throughout the sciences and humanities, as well as all echelons of German society. These students’ wide diversity, and shocking ordinariness, contradicts common preconceptions of Nazi personalities.

Hardly the image of ignorant Nazism from popular culture, Ingrao asserts these were legitimate intellectuals who indubitably advanced their disciplines. These weren’t mere regime puppets bolstered to advance Hitler’s prestige; world-class universities turned them into formidable public intelligentsia. Many made groundbreaking contributions that still receive scholarly study, notwithstanding their authors’ odious politics. Ingrao depicts many performing bizarre mental contortions to reconcile their academic aspirations with Nazism’s naked bigotry.

Often, we must reconstruct what bound these students to militant nationalism. Though the Allies required Nazis to write their memoirs as part of their war trials, Ingrao says, these intellectuals elided huge chunks of their past. Though they came of age amid Kaiser-era wartime propaganda, and most lost family in World War I, their autobiographies resist long-term introspection. Most are guilty of what Ingrao calls “creative reshaping of [their] past.”

Instead, Ingrao teases details from their other writings, academic transcripts, and public records. Many were student activists, achieving authority and respect—think “student council president.” Some struggled to survive and pay tuition, especially in the economic turmoil following the Armistice. And given German culture’s cross-border influence, most were widely traveled, giving them a worldly outlook, and an opportunity to export Nazi ideology.

Importantly, even after these intellectuals embraced Nazism, they didn’t merely fall in line. Ingrao demonstrates that they came from diverse social, economic, and religious positions, swarming Nazism’s surprisingly inclusive ranks. They debated ideology fiercely, and provided sometimes contradictory philosophies to Nazi thought. Their transition into the war machine occasioned as much contention as compliance. Ingrao suggests that, far from monolithic sameness, we might better contemplate multiple Nazisms, yielding multiple appeals to anger and fear.

Teachers and activists often pitch education as the necessary vaccine for violence or hatred. Yet in Ingrao’s telling, education, like any institution, inherently contains the seeds of abuse. These intellectuals, mostly as students (and somewhat later as teachers), managed to reconstruct education as an echo chamber and nationalist propaganda machine. And though he never directly says so, Ingrao implies that if it happened once, it could certainly happen again.

Make no mistake: this isn’t pop history or light beach reading. This book began life as Ingrao’s doctoral dissertation, and even revised, retains that dense academic veneer. Ingrao is a scholar, writing for fellow scholars, and his prose, compressed in tone and brimming with information, demands careful, unhurried reading. Ingrao expects readers as serious, informed, and committed as himself. Undertake this book only with sufficient time and sober purpose.

Among other hiccups, Ingrao often expects readers to share his love of, and prior knowledge about, Twentieth Century European history. He often flippantly dispenses names, dates, and untranslated blocks of German administrative terminology without clarification. He also succumbs to occasional digressions that might make sense to public policy scholars. Translator Andrew Brown catches many of these, but not all; expect bouts of confusion. (Ingrao mercifully includes a very brief glossary, which partly helps, though it’s confoundingly incomplete.)

Ingrao also importantly focuses on reactionary nationalist intellectuals, excluding all else. German universities produced important anti-Nazi voices like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl, who applied the same studious tools to their resistance that Franz Six and Werner Best applied to compliance. What countervailing forces influenced them? In a book this size (over 260 pages plus copious back matter), this contrast deserves greater consideration.

Yet for readers prepared to embrace Ingrao’s difficult heuristic, he exposes a previously unexamined corner of Nazi thought. Too often, we reject nuance, expecting Nazis to be unremittingly evil: a blandly uniform Satanic horde. Ingrao presents a movement that could be us, if we fail to guard our thoughts. The circumstances that created Ingrao’s subjects are hardly unique, and the frightening possibility of their recurrence demands our thoughtful examination.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Otto's All-Nite All-Rite Krime-O-Rama

Otto Penzler (editor), Kwik Krimes

Please forgive this anthology’s silly name. Despite its resemblance to a doughnut franchise, Otto Penzler, long-term friend of mystery authors everywhere, has compiled a spirited collection of over eighty crime and mystery stories, running under 1000 words—five pages tops. This creates a selection of authors’ views on what mystery fiction looks like when stripped of the ornaments that have accrued to the genre.

Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press and Manhattan’s legendary Mysterious Bookshop, has probably advanced his genre more than any non-author in the last fifty years. His work as editor guided authors like James Ellroy and Marcia Muller to stardom, gained American renown for international authors like PD James and Ruth Rendell, and edited collections that gave many young authors needed attention. This collection continues Penzler’s tradition.

1000 words seems remarkably short by current standards, since we’ve grown accustomed to novel-length virtuosity. But Poe’s Dupin stories, which essentially invented the detective genre, ran barely longer than this, as did many of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories. Like Poe and Conan Doyle, these authors reduce their styles to their most fundamental elements. The wildly different results highlight the diverse elements contributing to modern mystery fiction.

Some emphasize character. Christopher Fowler’s “The Girl Who Loved French Films” explores how somebody can deceive herself into becoming a con artist’s perfect pigeon. Patricia Abbot’s “Lambs of God” demonstrates how much violence one person can endure before becoming the monster he formerly fled. “Nothing Left to Lose,” Dana C. Kabel’s narrative of a particularly gruesome card game, demonstrates what broken souls can buy with pain.

Other stories highlight plot. Bruce DeSilva’s “A Foolproof Plan” mocks the sentiment inherent in its own title. Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s “Halloween” describes the intersection between public justice and private investigation, and what compromises each must make when they collide. Jon Land’s “The Tenth Notch” depicts two men trained to kill ruthlessly, trapped together in a situation of utter hopelessness. These stories care less about “who” than “how.”

The authors define their stories by what they include, but also what they exclude. Some eschew dialog or exposition, dropping us into action-heavy stories already in progress. Some are all set-up, ending with the narrative still in motion; others are all resolution, creating a world that ends without necessarily beginning. Many of the best stories forgo moral framework, reveling in ambiguity and challenging our desire for heroes or villains.

Penzler invites many novelists I’ve previously reviewed, letting long-time readers rediscover beloved authors anew. Lindsay Faye, who writes historical mysteries, here attempts a gritty urban noir. Tyler Dilts, author of the Danny Beckett procedurals, here drills down on one aspect of police technique, unpacking the psychological impact in one moment of honesty. And Andrew Klavan, often guilty of overwriting, reveals a remarkable storyteller when forced to remain austere.

This collection partly returns mystery to its roots. Not only Poe and Conan Doyle, but also Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, and other (predominantly British) mystery founders dealt in very concise, unornamented stories that named a problem, challenged readers to outthink the hero, and ended with some twist or flourish that upset everyone’s expectations. Though Collins and others wrote many classic novels, they lacked today’s accumulated mystery conventions.

Innovators like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett supplemented this cerebral foundation with highly demonstrative characters, complex and often lengthy procedures, and resolutions that often created more problems than they solved. While these authors crafted classic mysteries that remain readable, they also initiated an avalanche they couldn’t stop. Mysteries today obey so many conventions that new readers often find them cluttered and impenetrable.

Penzler does mystery a great service by forcing novelists, including many best-sellers, to choose one convention and unpack it with brutal efficiency. Nobody could mistake these stories for mindless returns to Golden Age detective classics. Rather, Penzler forces modern authors to re-envision contemporary mystery with Poe-like austerity. Hopefully, this starts a new trend.

Not every story succeeds. Penzler’s authors sometimes encounter the problem with modern short stories, that novelists aren’t skilled today in writing short. Some stories read like outlines; their authors haven’t so much reduced their prose to its smallest form, as simply elided anything necessary for their sweeping stories to make sense. Thankfully, though these stories exist, they remain an unobtrusive minority.

Thousand-word stories will certainly remain rare, brief excursions between the novels which will remain mystery staples. Yet hopefully, authors will repeat the feats these spartan nuggets prove possible. These short, economical gut-punches remind readers why they first fell in love with mystery.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Boy Shakespeare's Blueprint For New English Literature

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 20
William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

Despite William Shakespeare’s unquestioned acclaim in literary, theatrical, and psychological circles, critics have always puzzled over what to do with Titus Andronicus. It lacks the aplomb of Shakespeare’s later tragedies, revels in gore, and ends in such abrupt, excessive violence that many audiences are moved to laughter. Samuel Johnson and TS Eliot hated this play. Contemporary critics like Harold Bloom haven’t treated it much better.

Yet, reading it unencumbered by the baggage accruing to Shakespeare’s name, it actually brims with implications about a young playwright’s course through Elizabethan London’s highly competitive theatre marketplace. The traits critics so eagerly attack—swinging masculine bravado, blatant racism, wholly predictable revenge plot—would have attracted massive London audiences. When Bloom or Eliot calls it an obvious rent-payer, less doctrinaire playgoers reply: “Yes! That’s what makes it great!”

Unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays (he wrote four), Titus Andronicus is entirely fictional. When the title character marches victorious into the Roman Senate and launches into his bombastic encomium, he addresses a sort of no-place, populated by the kind of “Romans” often envisioned in high school history textbooks. Rather than a place where people live, it’s a mental landscape where high-minded ideals feud with blood sports, and Christian virtue combats Pagan might.

Into this stew Titus, soul broken by endless battle, brings a captured Goth queen. Sudden stratagems turn this war hostage into a Roman empress. Students of literary history know nothing good comes of mixing power models. Soon the national hero finds himself fleeing the emperor he once defended, and blood flows. Titus becomes partly a tragic hero, like Hamlet or Macbeth, but also the savage, blood-painted revenger rebalancing the scales.

This, probably Shakespeare’s first play, debuted in a London still reeling from Christopher Marlowe’s two-part epic Tamburlaine the Great, which reinvented British theatre. Shedding reliance on moralistic themes and Francophonic singsong rhyme, Marlowe blasted audiences with historical recreations that must have felt as shocking as Cecil B. DeMille’s work. British theatre would never recover from Marlowe’s well-deserved body blow.

Peter Thompson and Northrop Frye suggest Marlowe may have collaborated on Titus Andronicus and others of Shakespeare’s earliest historical plays, though this remains mere speculation. Shakespeare’s earliest works, however, certainly show Marlowe’s influence, and this play certainly reflects Marlowe’s long shadow on British theatre. Young Shakespeare probably had to emulate Marlowe as new playwrights today must emulate Charlie Kaufman or David Mamet.

Yet reading this for its inputs misses the full impact. Many themes that define Shakespeare’s classic tragedies, the themes that helped redefine our understanding of human nature and theatrical potential, appear here in embryonic form. The division of power between the (fictional) emperor Saturnine and his Goth queen Tamora presages King Lear. Aaron the Moor, crafty strategian and captive of a captive, commences ideas that find their mature form in both Othello and Iago.

Imagine if you uncovered Vincent van Gogh’s student paintings, where he developed the early forms of his distinctive gestural technique. Imagine Beethoven’s student notebooks, where he tested the germinal approach that would culminate in throwing off vestigial baroque influence and changing European music. That’s what you have when you read this play. All the ideas and actions that Shakespeare used to transform all following literature appear here, in their most elementary form.

Titus Andronicus wasn’t included in the First Folio, or published under Shakespeare’s name during his lifetime, probably because Shakespeare’s company didn’t own it. As a young apprentice, he apparently sold this play to the Rose, which, after Shakespeare became famous with the Globe, deliberately performed it opposite Globe productions to split his audience. This play wasn’t performed at all between 1596 and 1923, not in Shakespeare’s own words anyway.

Yet since 1955, innovative theatrical productions, and adaptations like Julie Taymor’s Titus have invited scholars and students to re-evaluate this play. Some interpretations have emphasized Shakespeare’s boyishly exuberant violence and self-conscious grandiloquence, pitching it as a black comedy. Others have highlighted the process by which Titus loses everything by stages, presaging modern cinematic tragedies. Like Shakespeare’s best work, Titus Andronicus rewards multiple interpretations.

William Shakespeare came from somewhere. Scant evidence survives from his life, though, and we know remarkably little about the circumstances that created literature’s greatest mind. But we do have Shakespeare’s words. We can see how ideas evolved throughout his career, and how themes begun in one play come to fruition in another. This play essentially contains the seed of everything that came after. After centuries of neglect, it has received part of the recognition it deserves.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

FYI for Christian Parents

Last week, a mommy blogger identified only as “Mrs. Hall” enjoyed her proverbial fifteen minutes when her open letter to teenage girls went viral on social media. Some people, mommies mostly, embraced her stand against flippant teenage sexuality. Others rebutted her fiercely. My favorite counter-arguments appeared here and here. (Thanks to Lauren Bonk for finding these gems.)

But the most telling information lives one click away from Mrs. Hall’s jeremiad, on her About page. Kimberly Hall, born in Zimbabwe to missionary parents, followed their footsteps into Christian ministry. She attended a Christian university, and also has ventured into Christian entrepreneurship. This blog continues her apparent efforts to cocoon herself in highly demonstrative conservative Christianity.

After Mrs. Hall’s unintended Internet celebrity, her information deserves unpacking, starting with her education at Wheaton College, possibly America’s most religiously conservative accredited university. Though widely recognized as a sterling academic institution, Wheaton’s brand of evangelical Protestantism attracts criticism. It has dismissed faculty for embracing both human evolution and Roman Catholicism, creating a shockingly narrow field of discourse.

Worse, its track record on sexual issues is dismal. A recent Sojourners article names Wheaton alumni for their lopsided sexual mores. Women are so shamed about sex that they cannot discuss their own bodies openly, while men preponderantly struggle with porn addiction. Though this problem probably began well before college, Wheaton’s sexual conservatism and ideological homogeneity create an environment that only compounds the situation.

Mrs. Hall, who signs her About page “Kim,” tells her teenage audience that they get “no second chances” after posting semi-sultry selfies in their jammies. She brags about censoring her sons’ online social lives so they never have to see their female peers wrapped only in a towel. She does this to protect her boys, “to keep their minds pure, and their thoughts praiseworthy.”

Does she believe one Instagram of a co-ed sticking her boobs out will irrevocably corrupt her otherwise pure boys? Does she consider her sons’ psyches so fragile that they cannot absorb one libidinous swipe from girls testing their nascent sexuality? And does she think, for one minute, that three industrious teenagers haven’t circumvented her online parental controls? I can’t believe she’s that naïve.

Teenage boys think about sex. They think about what it’s like, how to get it, and what they’ll forfeit for it. Suffused with hormones and thoughts they’ve never experienced before, they see sex in newspaper advertising circulars and shopping malls. When a peer tries to look sexy, moms like Mrs. Hall have a choice: they can deny sex exists. Or they can see a classic teachable moment.

Coming of age before the Web, my parents noticed different signs of sexual onset. But when they did, they sat me down with a medical encyclopedia and gave me “the talk.” More than a discussion of sexual mechanics, they also emphasized responsibility. They said I bore sole duty for my thoughts. Those thoughts would come, my parents explained, but I had power to choose whether I ruled my thoughts, or my thoughts ruled me.

Mrs. Hall, though, sees her sons buffeted by impulses they cannot control. This should give her pause for concern, since if they cannot learn to control their libidos now, under their parents’ roof, how will they react as adults when nobody guards the gate? Though she presumably means the opposite, she’s training her sons to consider themselves helpless against life’s influences. To paraphrase Mrs. Hall, they can’t quickly un-learn it.

Her About page identifies Mrs. Hall as “Director of Women’s ministries” at a major Protestant congregation. In her pastoral duties, does Mrs. Hall tell victims of workplace sexual harassment, domestic battery, or rape to cover themselves up? Does she tell adult women to accept blame for how society demeans and objectifies women? If not, how can she say that to teens, who lack experience and maturity in these matters?

Even her format reveals Mrs. Hall’s prejudices. While reprimanding girls for “the red carpet pose, the extra-arched back, and the sultry pout,” she supplements it with cheescake-ish pictures of her sons in swimming trunks. Her unspoken message is that boys’ bodies are value-neutral, while girls’ bodies are objects of lust. (She’s since scrubbed these photos from her blog, but not from the Wayback Machine.)

I’ve written recently about how denying teen girls their natural development creates the problem it seeks to prevent. Mrs. Hall shops this problem to teen girls everywhere. In her sheltered, sectarian way, Mrs. Hall surely means well. But if she can’t raise her sons to take responsibility for their own libidos, she may live to face problems more severe than girlish sexuality on Facebook. Nobody wants that.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Grace Schulman On Striving for the Ordinary

Grace Schulman, Without a Claim: Poems

I recall reading that most poets’ best work is complete before they turn thirty. Since I write poetry past that age, I don’t want to believe it, William Wordsworth notwithstanding. But Grace Schulman’s latest collection doesn’t still my fears. Pushing eighty, following a storied sixty-year career, Schulman shows great comfort and familiarity with poetic convention. But it resembles the work of somebody eager to be known as a poet.

Don’t mistake me; I can’t call this collection “bad.” It has many redeeming moments. Were this a semester portfolio in an MFA program, I’d give it a B. But in today’s media-saturated culture, we cannot afford time for B-level material. Her thematic focus starts strong, but gets diffuse as the collection progresses, while her language, sometimes confident, often drifts into the sort of comfy finger exercises beloved by students.

Take, for instance, the poems which start this collection. They address Schulman’s Long Island residence, and what it means to “own” (put that in air quotes) land that many peoples have warred over for generations. But while she addresses many important themes, I wait in vain for her to bear down on one. She primarily acknowledges a checklist of sub-themes, as in this from “The Sound”:
Accabonac, Shinnecock, Peconic, Napeague,
the creek, the bay, the stream, the Sound, the sounds

of consonants, hard c’s and k’s. Atlantic,
the ocean’s surge, the click of waves

collapsed on rocks in corrugated waters,
the crowd circling a stranded whale

sent by the god Moshup to beach at Paumanok.
The Montauks left us names. [...]
Indeed, the Montauks left us names, and Schulman seems determined to include them all. While this is perhaps an extreme example, it resembles the sort of listing I remember circling in red pencil in too many workshops. She seems to think naming concepts equals explicating them. And that’s saying nothing about the limp metaphor of “corrugated waters.”

After the first dozen pages, Schulman broadens her theme from “place” to “identity,” which is amorphous but does maintain continuity with her introductory poems. A selection of poems about poets, artists, and artisans gives Schulman the opportunity to stand analytically outside herself. She makes decent use of the opportunity, as in this analysis of a painting, “Woman on the Ceiling”:
Her face shines from the ceiling, ample hair
unbound, the color of wheat in wind,
leaves caught in its stray wisps, her skin paler

than the dark hands of congregants below
reaching to touch the Law on silver scrolls
shouldered and hoisted high from a plaster niche. [...]

You were there all the time, sister of saints
and goddesses, hauled up with shards of a jar,
lost coins, the puzzle of a child’s shoe...
This relatively long poem’s graceful arc spotlights Schulman at her poetic best, starting with “mere” ekphrasis, moving into more active inquiry of what it means to be Jewish in a religiously plural society. Moreover, she does so while remaining mercifully free of sentiment or bombast, those flaccid tools of hip contemporary poets. If only Schulman’s whole collection achieved this high standard.

Alas, as the collection progresses, Schulman spreads herself painfully thin: too much toast, not enough jam. By the end, I can’t find a theme at all, while her verse gets cluttered with talky narration, unfocused imagery, and bleakly impenetrable passages in strictly noun-verb syntax. Individual poems, like “Fool’s Gold” or “The Unbuilder,” stand out from the background. But selections like “Cool Jazz” feel more typical:
Late afternoon, under a salmon sky,
a night heron stalking with charcoal plumage
leaned sideways like a bowling pin off balance

on an island risen for the day
only to sink later with the tide.
I saw Miles Davis lean aslant, a night heron

on Broadway, shoulders hunched, horn pointed down,
until he hoisted brass and played away
sadness of Spain, his sadness, with a tight mute...
This unfortunately resembles this collections entire latter half: a panoply of ordinary images, end-stopped lines, and doctrinaire reliance on a stanza form that doesn’t advance the poem. Does Schulman suddenly fear her story isn’t important enough, that she must tell someone else’s? Why does this collection, which started out so intimate, finish up so entirely external?

Again, don’t think this means I consider Schulman a poor poet. Like Wordsworth’s later work, she shows flashes of distinct genius. But this collection feels hasty, like Schulman fears she’ll never get another bite of the apple. If that’s so, surely she doesn’t want this sprawling, diffuse collection to define her final legacy.

Friday, September 6, 2013

John Fogerty at 68

I cringed slightly to learn that John Fogerty’s newest collection, Wrote a Song For Everyone, is both a duets album and a career retrospective. Both of these tend to be the product of artists ready to be embalmed. But at age 68, Fogerty has surely earned the right to secure his legacy however he deems fit. I’m just not persuaded his best work is behind him.

Fogerty is of course best known as leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival. When I saw him live in concert, he led with CCR’s defining classic, “Born on the Bayou,” a B-side track that nevertheless cemented his place in rock history. This track, and its A-side, “Proud Mary,” proclaimed CCR’s subsequent arc of organic rock, infused with a mix of country, soul, blues, and zydeco.

Rock was deeply split in 1968. While Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, and Steppenwolf nursed a highly produced blues-rock that evolved into heavy metal, acts like Little Feat and The Band championed a more austere, rural sound. CCR appeared, superficially, to come into the latter camp. But Fogerty also cherry-picked sources like doo-wop and Motown. Thus, like Hendrix, CCR’s popularity transcended race in what was still a shockingly segregated music business.

Fogerty could relate to his audience in ways many pop stars couldn’t, because he was one of them. Where the MC5 constructed their vision of bohemian poverty, Fogerty was a middle son from a broken home. He didn’t need to fake unpretentious aspirations in “Porterville” or “Hey Tonight.” While Country Joe McDonald wailed his bombastic “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die Rag” against Vietnam, Fogerty, a genuine draftee, expressed real shared sentiment in his signature classic, “Fortunate Son.”

CCR burned fast and hard: they released five albums in 1969 and 1970, each an acknowledged classic. But Fogerty was also a tyrant. As lead guitarist, vocalist, and chief songwriter, he felt free to make demands of his bandmates. In band photos, John’s brother Tom, original bandleader when they cut some unsuccessful 45’s as The Golliwogs, looks haunted as his former band, and his career, drift outside his control.

Despite their distinct retro sound, CCR wasn’t unique in their time. Gram Parsons labored to create his Cosmic American Music, though he dwelt beneath the shadows of popular artists like Roger McGuinn and Mick Jagger. The Eagles created a slick, commercial version of CCR’s sound, getting the number-one hits that evaded CCR. But it’s tough to imagine these acts’ success without Fogerty and CCR bequeathing them an eager audience.

Tom Fogerty quit the band in January 1971, and John’s remaining bandmates lobbied for more creative control. Badly outnumbered, Fogerty acquiesced, but refused to sing lead on songs his bandmates wrote. He made his merely adequate bandmates sing their own songs, essentially sabotaging CCR’s final album, which is nearly unlistenable. Fogerty now refuses to play with his surviving bandmates (though his reasons are complex and not entirely unfair).

Asked to name CCR’s classics, fans might cite “Proud Mary,” “Down On the Corner,” or “Lookin’ Out My Back Door.” These bouncy singalong gems remain radio staples. Yet on broader view, Fogerty’s repertoire proves remarkably pessimistic. Early on, Fogerty penned songs like “Bad Moon Rising” and “Fortunate Son.” This only got more extreme with time; tracks like “Someday Never Comes” and “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” bespeak an extremely bleak outlook.

CCR’s bitter split was followed by years of battles with their label, Fantasy Records, over who owned Fogerty’s compositions. An unfairly lopsided contract limited Fogerty’s control of his own songs, and Fantasy licensed CCR’s songs in ways that cheapened their image. (Fogerty’s songs have recently appeared in commercials for Walgreen’s and Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, among others.) Incensed, Fogerty stopped playing his best songs rather than grant royalties to Fantasy.

During the years of alienation from his own work, Fogerty, a notorious perfectionist, struggled to produce listenable recordings. Though fans embraced his album Centerfield, its immediate follow-up, Eye of the Zombie, failed completely. His album Hoodoo so completely failed to meet Fogerty’s standards that he ordered the master tapes destroyed. He so faded from view that a 1993 Reuters report called him a “recluse.”

Around this time Johnny Cash, one of CCR’s early proponents, appealed to Fogerty to play his classics, lest America remember “Proud Mary” as an Ike & Tina Turner hit. For this and other reasons, Fogerty’s live shows became highlight reels of CCR’s best moments. When I saw him live in 1997, over two-thirds of his set consisted of CCR hits and, at age 52, remained a tireless performer, highly keyed to his audience.

Reclaiming his CCR works really revitalized his creativity. Although charting solo tracks like “Almost Saturday Night” and “Centerfield” captured audience attention and kept his name alive in a turbulent music business, even fans must admit that most of his early solo work lacked the CCR spark. But when “Proud Mary” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” returned to his repertoire, he suddenly became able to produce albums like Blue Moon Swamp and Revival, indubitable sequels to CCR’s best work.

In some ways, Wrote a Song For Everyone feels like a possible capstone for Fogerty’s career. He could retire after this: by revisiting twelve of his self-penned classics (ten CCR tracks and two solo songs), melding his style with popular rock and country artists, asserts his broad influence in today’s most popular guitar-driven music genres. Yet the two original tracks display a continuing creative vitality, suggesting that, if he chose, he could keep playing.

Some pairings seem surprising. My Morning Jacket’s dreamlike arrangement on “Long As I Can See the Light” brings new insight to the track’s short-term melancholy and longer-term optimism. Bob Seger’s take on “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” complete with piano line pinched from “Night Moves,” turns this into a Seger track that merges seamlessly with his classic work. And Fogerty teams with Alan Jackson, another veteran prone to comebacks, to revitalize “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”

Other combos seem downright natural. The Foo Fighters sound like they were made to record “Fortunate Son,” while Miranda Lambert, possibly the best thing going in today’s moribund pop country milieu, pairs sweetly with my absolute favorite CCR track, “Wrote a Song For Everyone.” And the massive ensemble, including Jennifer Hudson, that joins Fogerty on “Proud Mary” manages to meld Fogerty’s original with Ike & Tina’s remake, bonded with a distinct zydeco/jazz flourish.

Fogerty’s two original tracks convince me that he still has distinct future possibilities. “Mystic Highway,” a straightforward country rocker with a gospel-style breakdown, could fit seamlessly on his 1980s albums, while “Train of Fools” could have come off Blue Moon Swamp. Considering his band’s early dissolution and his long legal troubles have kept Fogerty from truly fulfilling his potential. But these tracks reassure me that, perhaps, his best work isn’t yet done.

In some ways, John Fogerty emblematizes today’s music business. In particular, he represents the ongoing battle between the “music” half and the “business” half: should the need to make a profit trump the artist’s prerogative to create art that feeds the soul? A generation from now, nobody will remember lucrative acts like One Direction. John Fogerty’s work will long outlast the man himself, because it nourishes the human spirit. And this new album proves that definitively.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Christian-Industrial Complex

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television

You know it exists: that channel (or cluster of channels) on your cable service, which you always flip past, where silk-suited preachers exhort the masses. Sometimes they offer True Believers vast earthly prosperity in return for “love offerings.” Others promise to feed Darfur or support missionaries in Mongolia. These networks are part of a parallel economy of Christian stores, media, and other services that Nadia Bolz-Weber calls “the Christian-Industrial Complex.”

Bolz-Weber, a recent seminarian and avowed humorist, decided to watch twenty-four straight hours of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), America’s largest Christian broadcaster, home of such hot names as Joel Osteen and classics like PTL. Coming from a liturgically conservative but theologically moderate church, she admitted not watching Christian TV. Most Christians who attend mainline churches won’t go anywhere near Christian TV. So what happens if we do?

Merriam-Webster defines “cynical” as “captious, peevish; contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.” Bolz-Weber admits both her cynical viewpoint and her sarcastic rejoinders. She even calls her blog “The Sarcastic Lutheran.” I was surprised, though, since I come from Bolz-Weber’s denomination and largely share her views, just how cynical my responses to her cynicism were. I was profoundly disturbed, not by her, but by my own reaction.

Accompanied by a rotating roster of fellow jesters, Bolz-Weber spends an entire day watching TBN. She admits she wanted some conservative evangelicals to join her, but was unable to find anybody who actually watches TBN. Apparently, mainline pastors and TBN devotees run in circles that never overlap. Moderates, atheists, Jews, sure: she could find all these. But not one conservative evangelical. In Denver? Seriously? She couldn’t hang a flyer at Orchard Road?

Then Bolz-Weber lobs bombs at TBN’s personalities that often just look mean. She mocks televangelists’ mannerisms, homiletics, and hair. Rather than breaking new ground, she often rehashed specific mockeries I remember from “Bloom County” comic strips, circa 1987. I started rolling my eyes and guffawing. Though I’m no televangelist apologist, I found myself answering Bolz-Weber’s cynicism with my own. When I realized what I’d done, it shocked me.

Philosophic cynicism may be a legitimate response to life’s near-constant assaults. But knee-jerk cynicism is nothing but a way to hold people at arm’s length, exonerating ourselves from the need to communicate. About TBN’s aggressive money solicitations, Bolz-Weber writes: “I am seriously skeptical about how much of the money people send in is actually used [to feed Sudanese refugees] and how much is used to fund [Rod] Parsley’s lifestyle.”

So am I. Yet I responded to Bolz-Weber’s cynicism with a cynical eye-roll. I’m cynical about her cynicism. Very “meta.” And in that moment, something cracked: I’ve feigned a world-weary attitude to prevent either Rod Parsley or Nadia Bolz-Weber from touching my soul. If I can remain looking down my nose at either would-be persuader, I need not reevaluate my own positions. I can continue, untouched by another human’s need. My scars protect my status quo.

Equally important, I needn’t understand or communicate with anybody whose views differ from mine. If they’re beneath my contempt, why should I listen? Bolz-Weber admits this, too. Years of postgraduate theological study have left her more able to communicate with atheists and Jews than her own fellow Christians. Therefore, she realizes, the more TBN she watches, that televangelists meet a need she’s profoundly unprepared to answer in her own parishioners.

We all know the phenomenon, where people only talk with people they already agree with, and emerge from the conversation believing a more extreme, intolerant version of their original beliefs. Psychologists call this “group polarization,” though the military has an altogether more appropriate term: “incestuous amplification.” Too many Christians today demonstrate this incestuous tendency. No wonder unbelievers find our daily discourse strident and unpleasant.

Bolz-Weber and I, almost simultaneously, find ourselves unable to sustain our practiced cynicism under its own self-contradictory weight. We cannot hide our hearts behind practiced academic trickery and hope to convince anyone else that our positions have merit. We cannot call ourselves ambassadors of the Prince of Peace while regarding some people with reflexive contempt. Cynicism, ultimately, is the opposite of Christianity.

Did Bolz-Weber intentionally provide an object lesson in my own prideful errors? Maybe. We bookish Protestants are a repetitive lot, demonstrating the same errors with monotonous regularity. Cynicism is easy; Christ’s love is hard. Because we come from similar spiritual backgrounds, it shouldn’t surprise me that Bolz-Weber and I commit the same sins. And her ability to overcome hers gives me hope that I can overcome mine.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Holy Vigilante, Batman! (Part Three)

Bane's Dichotomy Between Servitude and Chaos

Something has always bugged me about Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Not their tightly plotted stories or gritty urban-realist design, which make the Burton/Schumacher films look dated and primitive. Nor the justification for vigilantism, which I couldn’t criticize better than comics writer Alan Moore already has. But watching The Dark Knight Rises, I finally realized: Nolan has turned Batman into a fascist tract.

Batman has long represented mighty justice, emerging from shadows to deal swift comeuppance to criminals. But unlike blindfolded, scales-bearing Themis, Batman makes no pretence of impartiality. He maintains hip-pocket alliances with cops, dispenses summary justice that any judge would discard, and openly disdains due process. He’s every frazzled parent’s ultimate Hail Mary pass: stay in line, or some black-clad bogeyman will serve physical comeuppance.

This makes sense in the Depression-era milieu that first birthed Batman. In an age of rampant official corruption, seeing a rich socialite use his wealth for eleemosynary ends must have gratified countless teens. Even today, when sensational crime stories lead nightly newscasts, Batman seems like a bastion against tides of urban lawlessness. Christian Bale conveys this raspy-throated image of bootleg vengeance with understated elegance.

But that description, which accurately embodies Nolan’s first two Batman films, rings hollow here. Once decaying, Gotham has enjoyed eight years of peace, defined herein as “order.” Sharp-suited tycoons feel safe walking the streets. Where contract murder once ruled Gotham, the city has turned a skilled jewel thief into their local celebrity. Gotham has achieved a pre-9/11 state of decadent complacence.

Note that the situation for common Gothamites hasn’t improved. Selena Kyle and her partner live in squalor equal to any number of windows Batman peeped through during crime’s heyday. But the “Dent Act” prevents bottom-feeders from threatening the hierarchy. After eight years, Gotham maintains the same mayor and police commissioner, suggesting that city governance is decided on high; elections occur to ratify decisions over which citizens have no power.

Into this environment of bread and circuses—that is, parties and football—rides Tom Hardy as Bane, who begins as a mercenary but adopts the stylings of populism, repeatedly offering to return Gotham to “you, the people.” By this he doesn’t mean Jeffersonian ideals of an informed, engaged citizenry; instead, Bane constructs an army of riff-raff to enforce his Maoist social design. His first act is to open the jails and establish a convict-run kangaroo court.

Thus Nolan presents Gotham an unpalatable choice: either comply with the hierarchy, or give command of their city to its lowest members. Nolan lards the narrative with allusions to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. His inescapable moral: we choose which form of manifest social injustice to accept. Do we prefer peaceful subservience under the hierarchy, or chaotic Reign-of-Terror rule by the commune’s foulest denizens?

Batman, with his wealth and technology, could use this opportunity to reject both choices. But with his hovercraft, pulleys, and access to vantage points, he literally stands on high, fighting to restore the old order. It’s like if, amid Cold War desperation, an avenging angel chose to reinvest feudal domains and divinely anointed kings. Batman chooses the tyranny of peaceful mediocrity over the tyranny of an uprising he cannot control.

Importantly, when Batman dispenses justice from on high, he doesn’t represent the Christian God. When Bane dynamites the prison gates, he says: “the powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure.” Compare the Virgin Mary’s praise in Luke 1:52-53: God “has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

Like Nietzsche, Batman rejects Christian and Platonist ideals of justice, favoring something older and more savage. Forced to choose between Bane’s Bolshevik militia and Batman leading a phalanx of uniformed cops, Gotham itself has no choice. The city’s champion chooses for them, throwing his support and physical strength behind a legal superstructure which even Commissioner Gordon admits he built on a lie. Gotham’s citizens have but one choice: to submit.

Early in the film, Bane calls himself “necessary evil.” Commissioner Gordon might describe Batman as equally necessary. But social theorist Jacques Ellul wrote: “necessity never establishes legitimacy; the world of necessity is a world of weakness, a world that denies man.” If Batman simply embodies the form of injustice Gotham can accept, perhaps Ra’s al Ghul was right. Time has come to burn it down and start over.
Holy Vigilante, Batman: