Friday, February 28, 2014

The Sermonator

Kyle Idleman, AHA: The God Moment That Changes Everything

Sometimes, when reviewing Christian books, I encounter books that fail to savvy the difference between oral sermons and written prose. I always dread writing the ultimate review, because the author’s intent is sincere; the problem is strictly mechanical. But these mechanical problems get between the author and the audience. Such is the case with Kyle Idleman’s latest, which I fear will sail, unheeded, past its intended and desperately hungry audience.

Idleman’s years in the pulpit have taught him that true conversion happens according to a reliable formula, which he formulates by the acronym AHA: Awakening, Honesty, Action. He finds a demonstration of this pattern in the Prodigal Son narrative, and essentially spends the entire book equating that ancient narrative to modern circumstances. Unfortunately, he does this through two frustrating techniques which seminary freshmen know to avoid: hit-and-run examples and prooftexting.

While Idleman explicates the Prodigal Son at some length, he suddenly inserts anecdotes which supposedly support his position. Some are personal, like his peeing dog story or an amusing illustration about his barber. Others begin with “One father told me,” “A man getting ready to divorce his wife,” or the like. Though these stories putatively advance Idleman’s central point, he considers none important enough to sustain past one or two pages.

If these orphaned stories aren’t frustrating enough, Idleman frequently breaks into lists of one-sentence illustrations. He lists them with almost hip-hop rhythm, an interruption in his exegesis so sudden that it resembles the bridge in a pop song. Like, here’s a riff, then I’ll return to the real stanza. Except at times, he inserts them so often, his actual forward momentum just stops. Consider this representative sample from page 83:
A husband found the email correspondence, and the emotional affair was undeniable.
His parents found a joint in the floorboard of the car.
The boss finally fired the alcoholic for coming to work drunk.
She couldn’t pay her credit card bills and a court case was brewing.
It continues. Not only is this merely one sample of the kind of prose Idleman salts throughout his book, it’s barely half the list he prints on one page. There’s a similar list on the facing page, and another beginning on the next. All these people get their lives reduced to their lowest bankruptcy or, for the fortunate few, their greatest triumph. As the lists accumulate, it becomes downright dehumanizing.

Don’t mistake me: I’m sure that, as Teaching Pastor at one of America’s largest churches, Idleman has actually heard these confessions from parishioners. A pastor I know laughingly tells how parishioners walk into his office and say: “Preacher, you’ve never heard anything like this but…” followed by a confession that’s world-shaking to the parishioner, but consistent with everything the pastor’s heard before. Idleman reduces these moments to stray hit-and-run citations.

Between these illustrations, Idleman inserts Scriptural citations that supposedly reveal his message. Despite anchoring his focus on Luke’s Prodigal Son narrative, he mainly draws supporting Scripture from the Hebrew Bible, often only one or two verses. He’ll hopscotch among History, Wisdom, and Prophecy books, sometimes paraphrasing, and aiming at very small snippets, without context. This sometimes mutes the text’s original intent; other times, it completely changes what the Scripture actually says.

Theologians call this “prooftexting.” Rhetoricians call it “quote mining.” Either way, it functions by ignoring a citation’s role in the larger narrative. For instance, Idleman compresses the entire book of Job, most of which involves Job and God directly arguing, to a single paragraph. He shimmies right around Job’s true struggle, hastening straight to the conclusion, dismissing the entire forty-chapter disputation. Idleman wants to celebrate Job’s reward without Job’s struggle.

People who need God, people on the cusp of AHA moments, would read this sprawling,chaotic book and roll their eyes. People who read their Bible will finish as mystified as me. The only readers I can imagine reading this book already have their AHA behind them, but don’t investigate Christian theology deeper. Frankly, I’m not sure those people read Christian literature very often. This unfocused sermon won’t change their habits.

Idleman’s first book, Not a Fan, was a muscular call for Christians to live the beliefs we proclaim. I really liked that book and stand behind my warm review. This book reflects what many Millennials see when fleeing organized church: hummingbird-like thought, stained-glass language, and lack of will to face hard questions. Have you ever sat through a sermon that never found its point? This book reminds me of that.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pictures in a Confederate Gallery

Dorvall, writer, and Philip Renne, art, Southern Cross: Annuit Coeptis (CSA Confederate States of America, Volume 1)

In real life, when Lee and Longstreet feuded over how to resolve Gettysburg, Longstreet acquiesced to a straight assault up the center at Cemetery Ridge. History calls this futility Pickett’s Charge. But mononymic French scriptwriter Dorvall asks: what if Longstreet hadn’t folded? What if he’d sold Lee on a more complex pincer maneuver? With Meade’s forces smashed, Lee has a straight shot on Washington.

Many alternate Civil War narratives turn on Gettysburg. Celebrated authors like Harry Turtledove, Terry Bisson, and Winston Churchill (and wannabes like Newt Gingrich) have buttered their bread with tales of Confederate victories or near-victories. Each has their own character; this graphic novel depicts power struggles within both a disgraced Union and an unprepared Confederacy. Mixing historical icons with original viewpoint characters, Dorvall questions why history looks the way it looks.

With Lee’s forces one day’s hard march away, Washington power structures descend into chaos. Loyalists, led by New York Senator Dwight Loads, strive to maintain order, while General George McClellan forcibly escorts Abraham Lincoln out under arms. The military coup jeopardizes democracy, surely, but also splits Army resources, propping the door for Beauregard’s invading Confederates. Looting, gang feuds, and slavecatching reduce the capitol to a malarial mudpit.

The Confederates fare hardly better. Despite near-certain victory, Lee and Forrest compete for power. Moderate Lee despises Forrest’s reactionary social engineering; Forrest considers Lee a Negro-loving accommodationist. While Lee operates aboveboard, organizing for postwar stability, Forrest gathers a band of mutinous officers to circumvent Lee’s orders, re-enslave blacks, and preserve white power. This first volume ends with Forrest on the verge of open rebellion.

Because this is a graphic novel, it allows a sweeping pictorial depiction of Dorvall’s vision. Artist Philip Renne’s images create potentially legendary moments: Lincoln getting dragged from the White House under guard, Grant and Chamberlain’s gallant last stand, Lee and Forrest glaring across a table at Gettysburg. Renne’s art, which looks like watercolors (it’s probably digital), resembles early Dark Horse comics, when they revitalized the industry nearly thirty years ago.

The art sometimes resembles storyboarding for a cinematic adaptation. Renne’s skill at sweeping landscapes and battle scenes almost resemble establishing shots, while his occasional extreme close-ups and Dutch angles make the characters move around our viewpoint. The art intermittently suffers from very dark, almost illegible hues, and Dorvall’s intrusive narrative captions, but ultimately, Renne’s soft-edged, dreamlike work has integrity in today’s repetetive, almost plagiaristic comics industry.

Renne’s art combines smoothly with Dorvall’s writing, much like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did with Watchmen. For instance, Renne draws Senator Loads looking remarkably like old Johnny Cash, letting us hear Renne’s dialog in something like Cash’s distinctive growly baritone. Where Harry Turtledove’s Civil War novels often feel populated with Morality Play refugees speaking sententiously, these characters have real voices and perform real actions, some of them futile.

Despite their use of historic figures like Lee and Chamberlain, Dorvall doesn’t expect readers to remember much history. He explains situations in brief thumbnail sketches that keep readers abreast, while also rewarding the historically versed with little winks. Flashes of the New York draft riots or the Capitol Building’s ongoing construction situate the story in its moment. But characters explain unfolding events to each other, cuing us into their world.

In fact, excessive historical knowledge may not advantage readers. The idea of George McClellan, a commander so pusillanimous that he once telegrammed Lincoln for instructions on the disposition of two captured cows, organizing a military coup, requires significant suspension of disbelief. One could better imagine Sherman having that kind of chutzpah, though admittedly, one can hardly imagine him actually doing that. In case of defeat, Congressional impeachment seems more likely.

But that’s the point. We don’t know what would’ve happened if the South had the advantage. That’s why authors love to speculate, and why audiences keep buying. The Civil War, arguably more than the Revolution, defines America’s self-image, and the cultural interplay that drove the war continues coloring American history. (Or haven’t you noticed how many Texans get elected President?) The debate defines who we, as Americans, think we are.

Despite his Frenchness, Dorvall’s contribution to this identity debate is smart, energetic, and insightful. He paints a picture very different from the starchy inevitability we learned in high school history class. He forces Americans to ask ourselves: how would we differ today, if our base desires won in 1863? This is the first of seven volumes, so expect the answers to evolve over time. But Dorvall’s early conclusions aren’t pretty.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Delusionist's Wife

Pauline Hansen, Patchwork Reality: Happily Married to a Schizophrenic

I’m of two minds about this book. On the one hand, Pauline Hansen paints a harrowing story of her husband’s descent into adult-onset schizophrenia, a decline so gradual that nobody noticed until her family nearly imploded. Curtis Hansen’s madness unfolds with Christopher Nolan-ish creeping dread, like watching somebody else’s nightmare. On the other hand, Pauline could have stopped that nightmare by speaking up, and I start to wonder: why not?

Fourteen years and five kids into their marriage, the Hansens had reasonable blue-collar bliss. Two jobs, good community connections, and thriving family and religious life made them enviable when viewed from outside. But Curtis begins having dreams, which he believes prophetic. Pauline mistakes this for quirky behavior, and goes along. But quirks start accumulating, and Pauline uncovers small lies. None by themselves merit action. Nothing, individually, ever seems catastrophic.

Hansen’s account of her husband’s incremental madness has a horror movie’s imperceptible pace. I don’t make that analogy lightly. Weighing barely 140 pages altogether, Hansen’s memoir runs about as long as a Hollywood movie treatment, and like films, eschews introspection, preferring to emphasize action and interaction. Its narrative structure and tempo reflect films like Inception and A Beautiful Mind without directly copying them. Stephen King fans would feel comfy here.

Over nine years, Curtis gradually deciphers rules of The Game, an intricate reality show where wealthy investors subject the Hansens to experiments, testing their bonds. Pauline indulges Curtis’s rules while they seem merely annoying. But Curtis starts pursuing strange numerology. He makes life-altering decisions based on the colors of passing cars. He ultimately develops Capgras Delusion, believing his own children have been replaced by “proxy personalities.”

Curtis’s fantasy persists, partly, because momentary events verify it. Sudden gifts reflect his prophecy that somebody will bequeath them vast fortunes. Curtis believes somebody wants to tempt Pauline into infidelity, then a housecleaning client attempts a move on her. Since reality doesn’t actively contradict Curtis’s delusions, he becomes increasingly invested in The Game. The tests he uncovers, the ordeals he seemingly survives, make Jason Bourne seem small and unambitious.

Because Curtis reveals his secrets so slowly, Pauline feels no pressure to change. Each small concession fuels the next. But after dribbling details of The Game out for years, Curtis suddenly explodes, abandoning his job, smashing furniture with axes, and forsaking his children. Pauline extracts what’s going on by coaxing slow, painful confessions from Curtis. And he repeatedly swears her to secrecy before revealing even small details of The Game.

Here’s where my problem arises. Curtis’s supervisors call Pauline at home because Curtis vanishes for hours daily, and goes mute in public. Pauline’s children weep because Curtis stops talking to them. Pauline must make excuses to her parents and children when furniture vanishes with no explanation. Yet as Curtis turns Pauline into an unwilling liar, she continues concealing his destructive delusions… because she made a promise? Huh?

The horror movie analogy runs both ways. We understand Curtis’s decline, though we expect explanations (mid-thirties is awfully old to first manifest schizophrenia). But we don’t understand Pauline’s enabling. Like the bikini-clad coed who stupidly opens the haunted closet, this decision elicits not horror, but catcalls from the audience, who wonder why the character doesn’t realize she’s trapped in a slasher flick. Pauline’s own motivations simply need more explanation.

Pauline repeatedly references her religious faith. Indeed, the widening gap between Curtis’s faith and his actions is one major barometer that his cognition is impeded. I’d reconcile this problem by quoting Proverbs 20:25—“It is a trap to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider one’s vows.” Curtis extracts promises falsely; Pauline shouldn’t throw good money after bad by continuing to defend his indefensible actions.

Thus Hansen presents two narratives. In one, Curtis descends into his private reality, seeing himself starring in The Truman Show. In the other, Pauline doesn’t ask necessary questions, upholds false promises, and inadvertently indulges Curtis’s weird divination practices. Surely marital fidelity must require her, eventually, to call her husband’s bull. After all, by any reasonable definition, Curtis’s behavior toward her and their kids had already turned abusive.

Hansen’s portrait of her husband’s illness is both harrowing and humane. She demonstrates that schizophrenia doesn’t turn good people into psycho nut-jobs; people remain worth loving, even amidst their own madness. But she doesn’t shine the same all-seeing light on herself. Her enabling behavior isn’t incomprehensible, but needs some explanation beyond “he’d sworn me to secrecy.” Otherwise, I can do no better than to quote myself: “Huh?”

Friday, February 14, 2014

C.S. Lewis and the Invention of Love

C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition

Before he gained international renown as a Christian fantasist, philosopher, and part-time scold, England knew Clive Staples Lewis primarily as a medievalist and literary schoolman. Recent pushes by academic presses and Lewis loyalists have seen his scholarship reissued for millennial readers, and this latest will surely please both Lewis’ Christian partisans and secular academics. But clear your calendar, and don’t mistake it for easy reading.

Sometime around the late Eleventh Century CE, French poets invented the concept of “Courtly Love,” a baroque code by which men venerate women, but only at great remove. You must love, for such is the human soul’s substance. But love happens in ways we’d consider scandalous. A man cannot love his wife, the code demands, because a man must love a lady. And your wife is no lady, she’s a woman.

At that time, European poetry was mired in preachy Christian allegory, and poets, at least those who set their verse on paper, strove to wed ancient Greco-Roman grandeur with schoolmarmish treatises on virtue.The result, Lewis demonstrates, was persistently dreary. There’s a reason you never encounter Tenth Century poets in literature classes: they’d devolved into high-handed, imitative epics that sound tin-earred beside Sophocles or Ovid.

Poets like Chr├ętien de Troyes, Guillaume de Lorris, and Geoffrey Chaucer broke this death spiral with verse novels that, superficially, extol adultery, virility, and romance. These troubadours renounced constricting public pietism, favoring stories of chivalrous exploits, courtly intrigue, and sexual indulgence. Many poems involved King Arthur’s court, and explored themes Lewis’ drinking chum, JRR Tolkien, would immediately recognize as heroic mythmaking in primordial dreamscapes.

If you’ve been in love in Europe or America, you’ve felt these poets’ echo. The idea of venerating women, proving manfulness to earn your lover’s hand, and classic white weddings, come from these poets. But their primitive Nicholas Sparks ethos conceals deeper metaphorical ambitions. While these troubadours revised what it means to love your spouse or lover, they subtly also revised what we mean by loving friends, strangers, and God.

That is, these poets didn’t just push their stories. They pushed a moral framework seemingly built on Christian agape, but elaborated through powerfully sensual contexts. This framework evolved, Lewis shows, sometimes growing more explicit and allegorical, other times vanishingly indirect. If early Christian theology sounds strange today, celebrating love while not always showing what looks loving to us, it’s because we understand love through these poets’ lenses.

Reading Lewis’ explication feels pleasingly like a marathon. He stuffs very long chapters with very long paragraphs, writing in a willfully erudite manner that invites readers to pace themselves. Commencing from Chr├ętien’s fairly straightforward chivalric romances, Lewis leads readers through famed authors, like Chaucer and Spenser, and obscure but influential voices like Guillaume de Lorris and Thomas Usk. We finish, winded but exhilarated, feeling we’ve seen a whole new world.

This work probably wouldn’t get written today. Not only is its physical length imposing (at over 450 pages, it’s twice the length of most scholarly books currently published), Lewis’ long, scholarly digressions, including one hundred pages on declining allegorical literature in Late Antiquity, could alienate generalists. Long blocks of untranslated Latin, Greek, and Occitan demand literate audiences prepared for copious supporting research. Remember, this was published before Google.

Yet these qualities recommend Lewis to modern audiences. Freed from current limitations, like the need to placate tenure committees and private donors, Lewis boldly assails an intensely specialized topic with rigor and aplomb. We witness a great mind subjecting ideas to acute Socratic analysis, elevating some conclusions, discarding others. He’s operatic, opinionated, and free of false humility. And Lewis keeps his long, polysyllabic inquiry moving with unexpected moments of dry, biting humor.

Lewis has his own limitations, to which he often remains blind. He extols these truly mammoth poems, some running over twenty thousand lines, and claims modern readers must struggle with literature written for a “scholastic and aristocratic age.” In sum, Lewis clearly thinks everyone in pre-Renaissance Europe had leisure and literacy sufficient to sit around reading sensual metaphysical epics. This foretells the idealistic anti-modernism pervading his didactic novels.

Synopsizing this study feels cheapening, because any recap necessarily omits vast quantities of information. Lewis writes with great intellectual curiosity and accomplishment, clearly expecting readers who share his ambition. Yet there’s nothing like seeing great minds in action, and the dialectic between Lewis and his classic sources rewards mindful reading. Take your time, because Lewis has prepared an intense, thoroughgoing journey, and you don’t want to miss any of it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fear and Loathing On Mount Olympus

Barbra Annino, Sin City Goddess

Late in his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that human brains seek out patterns and familiarity because, without it, we couldn’t perceive anything over the mass-media clutter of modern life. Duhigg referred specifically to the essential conformity of Top-40 pop songs, but his science explains the proliferation of movie sequels and syndicated Breaking Bad ripoffs. It also explains this perfectly pleasant but deeply risk-averse panto play.

The Olympian Gods have retreated from daily life, spending eternity playing poker and taking earthside holidays. When the Fury Alecto vanishes from her Vegas vacation, Olympus musters Tisiphone, who avenges murders, from self-imposed exile. But fearing her violent history, Hades deputizes deceased human FBI agent Archer Mays. The gorgeous goddess and her hunky human sidekick must upend Sin City, before some human jeopardizes the old gods’ authority.

Annino culls her favorite bits from Rick Riordan, Elmore Leonard, and Hunter S. Thompson to craft a meringue of paperback conventions so familiar, you could wear it like a Snuggie. Name your favorite boilerplate, Annino probably uses it. How audiences receive this venerability will depend on what expectations they bring to the reading experience. Do readers want stories that repeat recognizable standards? If that’s you, here’s your book.

Urban fantasy audiences expect a female protagonist, Harry Dresden notwithstanding, and they expect her to be “strong,” which usually means angry and man-free. Annino gives them that. But audiences also expect strong romantic undertones, and at least one sexual encounter. So somehow, Tisiphone, who has existed for millennia, falls for Archer Mays, whose gay porn-ready name reflects his aggressive masculinity. (The sex borders on rape, but Tisiphone apparently approves.)

Audiences likewise expect mythical conflicts in outsized settings, so Annino cues up Vegas. Our heroes’ investigation caroms between Caesar’s Palace and the slums decaying in the Strip’s long shadow. I’d almost like this choice if Vicki Pettersson hadn’t chosen similar settings. Pettersson, a former showgirl, infuses her Vegas with vigor and violence. Annino’s Vegas is decent but underexplored, and feels lower-stakes than a typical CSI episode.

Annino’s one unexpected choice is her choice of villain. Where Rick Riordan would revive some mythological savage, Annino reduces that to a MacGuffin, choosing instead an aptly frightening human antagonist. No spoilers here, but Annino selects a prime example of gnarled human depravity. If she doesn’t plumb her villain’s depths fully, it’s only because she’s selected a villain so vile, readers couldn’t share that journey without getting stained.

Scenes click by hastily. Chapters run short, averaging under five pages, and weave between first-person narrator Tisiphone and her human villain. This creates a Silence of the Lambs-ish cinematic texture that readers will either love or hate. Her short chapters mean expository conversations can take four or five chapters to complete; but once the action gets rolling, such rapid-cutting narrative ensures an urgency, propelling characters between intense beat breaks.

It’s tough to review books like this. Annino unequivocally doesn’t write for audiences like me, audiences who read to go on journeys and encounter something innovative. I expect books to do violence to my comfy presuppositions; I want to finish reading, in some way, changed. Predictable situations and neat endings leave me cold. Annino writes for readers who hope to encounter what’s already familiar, to nestle into a book like a hammock.

I expect, for instance, that an author incorporating Greek mythology will treat the Olympian gods as greater beings, somewhat like humans but much, much vaster. Rick Riordan does this. But Annino’s Olympus is a high-tech headquarters, her gods primarily strategists, and their abilities primarily dedicated to communicator rings, escape portals, and other spy-movie workarounds. This Olympus suspiciously resembles MI6, less Rick Riordan and more Ian Fleming.

I expect urban fantasy to represent a breach between mythology and modernity. I expect self-assured humanism to confront forces humans cannot possibly explain. Annino instead reduces gods and demons to human scale. Marilyn Monroe was secretly Aphrodite, or vice versa. Olympian gods aspire to vacation on the Strip. This makes everything easy to grasp, requiring minimal investment of thought, but also not generating a Tolkien-ish sense of wonder.

But again, Annino doesn’t write for me. She writes for people who read to be comforted, soothed, dare I say anesthetized. Her prose has the comforting predictability and moderate stakes of prime-time TV. Perhaps people who want books to take them away for two hours and redeposit them safely will enjoy this big-hearted but harmless confection. Readers like me, who prefer slightly dangerous books, will feel largely underwhelmed.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Human Strain

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Since multi-celled life began around 600 million years ago, natural history has seen five mass extinctions. Life’s trend line favors greater complexity: more than twice the number of life forms exist today than right before the dinosaurs vanished. Yet five times, the number has contracted violently. Scientists who study and classify life’s profound complexity say we’re now facing a sixth mass extinction, the first caused by one species’ actions.

New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert takes two tacks in her analysis of extinction. She considers extinction as a philosophical concept and scientific fact, while also exploring current circumstances where entire species are vanishing under human eyes. The results are often astonishing. Our understanding of Earth’s biome continues evolving, but Kolbert cannot escape the consequence that humans, inevitably, change all life around ourselves.

Natural philosophers once couldn’t comprehend the idea of extinction. Whenever explorers encountered bones of vanished animals, they invented extravagant explanations how the bones arrived: Noah’s flood, or mythological creatures, or we’ll find them across the horizon. Even Thomas Jefferson, himself a noted naturalist, couldn’t compass the idea that species might vanish. This even as European colonialism changed environments wherever white plows broke the soil.

But French researcher Georges Cuvier examined the evidence and could only conclude: entire categories of species no longer existed on earth. Cuvier identified mammoths, pterodactyls, giant sloths, and other vanished species. But he didn’t just prove that species had vanished in the past; he proved that species could still vanish today, changing how humans perceive our relationship with nature. Any species could potentially vanish—including, imaginably, us.

Globally, innumerable species now face critical jeopardy. Kolbert travels to witness heroic efforts to preserve the Panamanian golden frog, tropical corals, and complex Amazonian biomes. But extinctions resist easy explanation. Traditional narratives, like global warming, habitat loss, or hunting, prove too simplistic for Earth’s complex, shifting biology. One factor underlies all likely explanations, though: species are vanishing because of human actions. We’re annihilating species we haven’t even identified yet.

Humans pushing other species off the brink is nothing new. Science has demonstrated that ancient “megafauna,” like mastodons and moas, vanished when early humans overhunted them. We probably also exterminated Neanderthals, too. But circumstances have changed today. Humans know the consequences our actions are producing, and have the choice whether to continue. Unlike our ancestors, we can no longer sit back in ignorance, blind to the consequences of our actions.

This makes today’s extinctions different from the past. Each of the “Big Five” had different causes: depletion of breathable air, or global cooling, or the Chicxulub asteroid. Some mass extinctions have happened slowly, and one happened in one violent day. But never before has one species so thoroughly changed Earth’s ecology. Humans so completely dominate Earth today that some scientists recognize a new geological era, beginning around 1750, the Anthropocene.

Essentially, humans aggressively reverse natural history. Earth separated the continents to create separate life spheres; our transportation technologies bring these spheres together, turning ordinary species into invasive weeds. Earth pulled carbon out of the air, creating a temperate, breathable atmosphere; we turn that carbon into fuel, burn it, and create the most carbon-soaked conditions our planet has seen in forty million years. We turn Earth’s clock back.

Kolbert doesn’t completely disparage human activity. Though our consumption has driven many creatures to, or past, the point of extinction, we’ve also worked to prevent that very effect. Professional scientists and interested volunteers strive heroically to prevent extinction. Species long vanished in nature survive because humans persevere. But even this proves Kolbert’s underlying thesis, that human action, not wind and water, now dominates Earth’s surface.

One recalls the invisible morals Lee Van Ham warns about.

Notwithstanding her title, Kolbert admits we aren’t in a sixth mass extinction event. Yet. Though many, many species are critically endangered, and extinctions currently occur far beyond what ordinary biology explains. But growing knowledge and humans’ ability to make moral decisions make reversal of this dismal trend possible. Humans could restore Earth to the unprecedented diversity that life enjoyed relatively recently. The question, then, becomes: will we?

Humans act. That’s our nature. Unlike, say, the tropical trees Kolbert spotlights in one chapter, we don’t just strike balances with nature; we make choices, devise plans, and act. But in our technological we’ve accepted complacency as the price of comfort. Kolbert calls humans to choose against passivity and dedicate ourselves to reversing our destructive ways. The burden lies on us now. Will we listen while we still have time?

Monday, February 3, 2014

MSNBC Needs To Stop Apologizing


After Cheerios brought back the interracial family that viewers either loved or hated last year for a Super Bowl ad, an unnamed MSNBC tweeted: “Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.” Anywhere else, such sentiments would have quickly vanished amid the countless flippant opinions expressed hourly in the overcrowded Twitterverse.

But because this tweet appeared under the lucrative, left-leaning MSNBC masthead, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus took highly telegenic umbrage. MSNBC president Phil Griffin deleted the tweet and released a statement distancing his organization from the sentiments. In his apology, he also stated that the responsible staffer had been sacked, presumably ensuring that nobody but the network’s celebrity pundits can voice controversial opinions ever again.

This comes after MSNBC stalwart Martin Bashir resigned following crude comments about half-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin; Melissa Harris-Perry apologized so often for ill-considered comments about Mitt Romney’s mixed race grandchild that she resembled a medieval flagellant; and MSNBC killed Alec Baldwin’s weekly chatfest after only five episodes because he used coarse language in a shouting match with paparazzi.

MSNBC, which strives to provide a liberal counterweight to monolithic conservative opinion aggregator Fox News, is instead quickly becoming the leader in retraction journalism. Repeatedly, some paid opinionator says something relatively mild by cable standards, then the other side’s professional representatives scream bloody murder. MSNBC, its delegates, or its stars hastily retract whatever they said, and once again, heads roll.


In fairness, sometimes consequences make sense. Melissa Harris-Perry’s absurdly personal comments about the Romney family are inexcusable. But Sarah Palin chose public life, and compared to what online opinionators have said about her, Martin Bashir sounded downright modest. And if Reince Priebus dislikes glib tweets, he should talk with Bill O’Reilly, whose modus operandi is to have an apoplexy and shout abuse whenever anybody refutes him.

That nameless staffer’s comments aren’t unjustified, either. While official Republican leadership distances itself from Bull Connor-style racism, attitudes haven’t vanished just because leaders disavow them. I’ve heard people use ugly racial language at my workplace, and must carefully time when I visit my favorite bar. Anyone who remembers last spring's Cheerios controversy saw language that makes my most unevolved coworkers sound like NAACP allies.

Conservatism isn’t one unified movement. Duck Dynasty religious conservatives disagree deeply with Ayn Rand libertarians, gunslinging neoconservatives, and unreconstructed racists. Although leaders like Reince Priebus struggle to keep conservatives focused on their shared values, icons like Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan have voiced frustration whenever internal divides become visible. Last year’s Cheerios explosion, when a vocal minority used profoundly disturbing language, was one such time.

Simply observing that this behavior happened once, and could happen again, doesn’t make MSNBC bad. Conservatives and liberals see the world differently. They bring distinct presuppositions to simple acts like watching television. What one group considers innocuous, even sweet, another side considers shocking. More important, the two opposing views define how unaligned Americans perceive the debate.


Outlying extremes delineate the acceptable parameters of American political discourse. While most thinking citizens would disavow both John Birch conservatism and old-school Communism, such groups’ continued existence serves to help people split the difference and find the common middle. Since most citizens prefer to identify with moderate, centrist politics, and avoid extremism, a clearly defined middle is absolutely necessary.

But the organized conservative media, distinct from Republican party leadership, has become increasingly strident in recent years. The rise of talk radio in the 1980s, and cable news in the 1990s, gave public podiums to opinions formerly reserved for mimeographed partisan newsletters. These new media opportunities redefined public conservatism just as Cold War exigencies surrendered to New Millennium opportunities.

Whenever MSNBC, or any other progressive venue, apologizes for itself, it permits organizations like Fox News (which almost never apologizes) to move America’s political center further right. Ideas that sounded like partisan codswallop not long ago, like defaulting on national debt as political maneuvering, have entered ordinary discourse. And it happened because one side makes strident demands, while the other demurely refuses to call bullshit.

Every time MSNBC retracts mildly boisterous opinions or fires slightly vociferous pundits, they tacitly permit Fox News to set America’s political tone. We need opinionators who say things too harsh for ordinary discourse, because it lets us seem polite when chiding disruptive or antisocial behavior. MSNBC’s concession to Reince Priebus, who is himself not racist, nevertheless lets racism seem that much more normal. And that’s a step backward.