Thursday, December 24, 2009


Years ago, when amateurism looked like something new, when it even seemed like an invention or discovery worthy of Time Magazine's yearly benevolence, I wrote -- and Heaven help me, enjoyed writing --an article on film adaptation. (I did not want to be part of a social revolution. I wanted to contribute knowledge to high school students who use the Internet for everything.) I enjoyed it for the pleasure of analysis, which is the complementary joy of English composition. Composing (writing) is bringing the stray herd of words and ideas together and making them all behave, making them function toward an end. Analysis is the breaking down of objects, and I love to examine and re-examine and then recombine. (My next will address how sad it is that such a fundamental concept as the difference between synthesis and analysis is forgotten and consigned to Philosophy class, when it's everyday knowledge. It could even be Business.) It is why we speak of "creativity," after all, for the ability to make a new thing from the old is as near to creation as most of us who lack plastic skills will ever get.

(A chimp has the ability to know that its reflection is an image of itself.)

In that article, I said that film adaptation (well, I implied that I said it) is not properly judged for literalness or inclusiveness or total fidelity, that a film is a separate artwork from its source and should function accordingly. How, then, is it an adaptation at all? If your movie of "Along Came a Spider" isn't going to try to be the same as the book I read, then how is it an adaptation? Well, I implied that films are adaptations of a thing in the original, not the whole. One adapts the theme, the aesthetic, the plot, or the worldview of the original, and then one employs the devices and strengths of film's art to do the thing the source did, whether that source was a ballet or a cartoon. One judges the adaptation by the achievement of the sameness within the newness. (It's like composition in that regard; the same words, but a new arrangement.) You keep the plot of the novel, or you achieve the same philosophy as the novel, or the same "point" as it, or the same worldview, or the same "effect" as it, but you use what film does to do it. If you succeed, you have adapted (made to fit). If you fail, you have not.

Adaptation is, therefore, an analytical composition. (The sentence in the Wikipedia article now saying, "it is derivative" was not mine, but amateurs are amateurs, and there's no stopping the boob Asp -- someone with a mania for categories and containers and little interest in the substances inside them -- from stomping along after one writes. I was ever comfortable with impermanence, as the achievement alone was my thrill.)

Alles klar?

There is a "however" coming in this essay. The "however" is with interesting people, like Stanley Kubrick, and dullards, like Roland Joffe. Kubrick's "The Shining" violates the plot, aesthetic, and theme of Stephen King's The Shining, but it's a better film than King's novel is a novel. (Some people say the same about his "A Clockwork Orange," which absolutely violates the intent and worldview and theme of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but I feel that both novel and film are great.) Kubrick's film is not the same at all. It is, in a sense, not an adaptation. However, his artistry and intellectual heft and cultural timing were such that we among the intelligentsia and literati and professoriate forgave him, blessed him, and honored him, and the cinephiles, who never cared about the source works to begin with, carried him about on their sloped shoulders, moth larvae and nits in a displaced nimbus around his frenzied comb-over.

Stanley Kubrick was an interesting person. He was canonized, in the academic sense. He became a lesson in film school, and dull wits always learn the wrong lessons from school.

The problem with dullards is that,
"Some are lost in the maze of schools
And emerge as coxcombs Nature meant for fools." (Pope)

The follow along directors after Kubrick are a loutish lot, half aware, half there. Where he could ignore almost everything Stephen King wrote in order to return to his solitary theme of the duality of the human psyche and civilization's Jungian shadow, he could do so because American, and western European society, was wretched, like Alex de Grand in "A Clockwork Orange" hearing the reminder of his cultural heritage, Beethoven, with the very same theme. How does a world of urban and urbane and polite and political deal with the shuddering bulk, the terrifying grin, the ravenous evil, of holocaust, genocides, and laissez-faire starvation?

[It's a long explanation. I urge you to look at some of the books on Kubrick. The author of The Short Timers, the collection of short stories upon which "Full Metal Jacket" was ostensibly based, wrote an essay for Esquire or The New Yorker or something that I read some years back that talked about his conversations with Kubrick during the adaptation and Kubrick's obsession during that process with Jung. That obsession, whether articulated in Jungian terms or not, is present throughout Kubrick's films. To be too brief: imagine that we have an inherited savage in our subconscious, a violent, gleefully hateful thing that is not the "id," but the negation of civilization. Civilization has to let that creature out in a safe form, if it is to function. Individuals in tightly controlled and anesthetized societies must reconnect with the savage, or else the savage will emerge in a crazy way. Wouldn't it be a good thing for a Jew after the war to examine that, to see in the holocaust and Mi Lai alike an expression of the savage in every apple faced youngster? Wouldn't it be good to take intellectuals, the ones partly to blame for the rise of the mechanized evil of the Reich, and make them confront their own culpability?
Don't believe me. It's ok. They're just movies. The point is that other people think this is happening and so are happy to see a novel by Stephen King turned into a meditation on how suburban marriage (and what would become the main text of "Fight Club" as the "feminizing" of men) can be another control that is susceptible to the Shadow.]

The little shoal of broken heads, scattered wits, and eager tits known as the other directors married the self-congratulatory Film World with the despair-induced coma of post-Modernism ("post-mortemism" is an old joke, but I think there's merit to it, because post modernism is not merely a collection of works without a manifesto, a series of nervous tics without a disease, but it is also a profoundly despairing "movement," in that it proclaims the vaccuum of Movement art; whatever emptiness we may now see in movements, giving up the effort is rather cheap) to announce "Whatever it is, it's alright." Oh, Donald Kaufmann's "Adaptation." doesn't count, so don't even bring that up.

No, if you'd let me...

Look, it's just that it's...

Ok, fine, let's do talk about it.
"Adaptation." doesn't count because it is an examination of adaptation. To say that it is an adaptation that examines adaptation is incorrect, because the adaptation within the examination is merely more cogitation. As a film, it is purely discursive. There is no "inside" to it at all. The film is completely outside itself at all times. Every element of the film, whether visual or spoken or gestured, is not a reference to a world, but a reference to potential references. Each thing is a question, not a statement, and certainly not a statement about the art object that is putatively source.

Now, can I proceed?

No? Well, we'll have to argue about that particular movie some other time, then. Better yet, go to Film Comment and get cheers from the chorus. Meanwhile, I'll while away the mean.

So, these vacuoles that I'm referring to -- wretched creatures like the "remake" of "Wings of Desire" into "City of Angels" or "Bedazzled" or "Wicker Man" -- and the "adaptations" of works of literature like the Roland Joffe horror shows "Fat Man and Little Boy" and, of course, the most flightless, bloated, emetic turkey of them all, "The Scarlet Letter," passed themselves off as "different artworks." Anyone who complained that they had done violence to their originals got dismissed the same way that a fanboi is dismissed for saying, "But Rochester should never have blond hair!"

Because we had recognized that adaptation was not literalism, the film world had taken that as license to "riff on" source material. Because post modernism had used history in original works (like Mason & Dixon by Pynchon) freely as a metaphor, and because commercial media had begun to re-spin source tales over and over again (endless Christmas specials with the same Scrooge-vision for the regular characters of one's favorite TV drama or comedy), film makers had decided that the historicity and factuality of the source had no relevance. In fact, repetition or fidelity was "square" (or, when Gus van Sant did it in his "Psycho," "super post modern"), and so it was the duty of film makers to prove their artistic mettle by artless meddle, and every person unappreciative could be, should be, and must be, one tribe or another of Philistine.

What, then, do we do when new works, completely new works, use the names of old works? Do we say these are adaptations, when both the creators' intent (announced, usually) and execution are not to adapt any aspect or element of the original, but merely to "riff on the classic" or "tell a story the original author didn't get?"

Let me put a case to you away from film to make it clearer. Rod Stewart, who is a fine soccer player, sang a version of Tom Waits's "Downtown Train" and had a top 40 hit, back when there were such things. Stewart's version reiterated the chorus quite a bit, as well as introduced an orchestral marshmallow in both speakers to occupy any quiet, and his producing machine also made sure that there were sweeps of sentiment that simplified any possible irony. Waits's song had been complex, melancholy, and even bitter, and Rod's song had been a rendezvous between lovers. Stewart said, though, that, while he respected Tom Waits, he thought he found things in the song that Tom had missed. So, folks: is he "riffing?" People who would hesitate to object to a violently free film will quickly sneer at Rod Stewart's comment, and yet he kept all of the same lyrics and generally maintained the chord structure. He changed the aesthetic of the song. He kept the frame and changed the heart, because his purposes were different from the original purposes.

Ok, so here's my position. When you adapt, then that's no big deal: you adapt. When, though, you "riff," you have some duty to acknowledge that you are creating a new artwork by creating a new title. If you wish to muddle about with the Gawain story to make it fit the 1950's audience, then have the grace to call your title "Prince Valiant."

Microsoft did a very, very evil thing some years ago when they decided that Java's cross-platform programming language was a threat to their goal of One Ring to in the Darkness Bind Them. They wrote their own version of Java that would run only on Windows machines. This was known as "polluted Java." They released it free, and all sorts of polluted Java got out. It was like a virus, some thought. The biggest thing is that people couldn't tell if they had "real" Java or polluted Java applications, and so they couldn't tell, without laborious testing, if their Java applications were cross-platform or not. Well, an "adaptation" of "The Scarlet Letter" that has Hester and Dimsdale grooving in the woods while Micmac Indians teach the Puritains how to tolerate is polluted art.

"Riffing" on Beowulf is your business. Have a ball! Prove that you have no slavery to history (or fact) by simultaneously insisting that Christian influences in the work are not historical (thus belying your historical freedom as a post-modernist) and thereby continue the work begun by the Nazi scholars but now in the name of your Robert Graves quoting Wiccan friends and merging "myths" from different continents, centuries, and ethnicities in the belief that there must have been some gigantic vanilla porridge of Story underneath that you -- you clever dickens, you -- can decode. Go on! Have fun. Be a director who claims that Beowulf bored him at age 14 and therefore it is a boring work, and be a man who is so filled with satisfaction and self that he cannot realize that he has just admitted that his mind has not grown from early puberty. Go on! Get money for the project. Work with sinews and CGI to erect hundreds of thousands of tent poles in theater seats, and mistake that for interesting -- but do so under the banner of the U.S.'s PG-13. Declare artistry while feeding a multi-input, single-output media machine, and hope for a Christmas release and lots of dolls to be sold. Go on!

Do NOT call it "Beowulf," though. Call it "Wild Wolf, Monster Slayer" or "She Dragon: It's Really Hot in Here." Call it "Handsome and Grendel."

What is being done is not, simply put, adaptation. What the film makers are doing is not any attempt at adapting. It is an attempt at taking a title, of replacement. Roland Joffe wanted to replace Hawthorne's tale with his own, and Gaiman, the pleasures of The Graveyard Book notwithstanding, is not to be forgiven his involvement in the theft film of "Beowulf." As technology has allowed films to tell impossible tales faithfully, film makers have decided to cease even adapting. By itself, that would merely leave room for future films -- a future "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- but it is combined with a gleeful kleptomania and pollution.

Film makers, know this: Post modernism is no cover for theft, and it is no excuse for being a polluter. If you will not adapt, then do not steal. If you will take a name, then be aware that you risk pollution. There are stakes on the table, and some of us still care.

There are items in the cultural inventory that are not disposable. That is one of my objections, and I won't hide it. "Riffing" on a James Patterson novel does not bother me as much as "riffing" on George Eliot. The reason is not any dead white European snobbery, either, but rather than some items exist in a web of reference that constitutes culture, and when we release "polluted Java" into the stream, we are contaminating culture. Additionally, though, the simple fact is that this is not an act of adaptation. It is an act of erasure and rewriting. When the author or or studio executive has that in mind, then the result will be a new thing. It's much better if we notice that The Lion King is Hamlet than that Disney studios called it "Hamlet" and made it with cartoon lions singing Elton John songs, while they claimed that they "saw things that Shakespeare missed in the story" or that "Shakespeare is boring" and so they wanted to improve on it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Why We Must Fill In Afghanistan

In Scythia, Bactria, and Colchis, we have innumerable problems. We have one of those tipping points in history where things have gotten flopped over, where offense is greater than defense, or defense is greater than offense, or where the methods of crazy are better than the strategies of police or polite. Something is wrong.

Never fight a land war in Asia, the man said. Well, sure. How about a vertical insertion?

Right now, the United States has a new decision on Afghanistan, not an old one, and yet we seem to be confined to speaking only in metaphors and language from the past. I am going to break with every single practice I have ever had, as a writer, and speak directly about a foreign policy matter. I will explain why I, and why I believe we as humanist and pluralist nations of the West, have to engage with the problem of Afghanistan. I am aided in this by the fact that the people who propose pulling out of Afghanistan are actually arguing for staying in place, but I am hindered by the irresistable poisoned honey of historical analogy.

First, let us deal with the one analogy that everyone will invoke sooner or later: Vietnam. Afghanistan resembles Vietnam in its political regime. Karzai, in the analogy, is either President Diem or, much more fittingly, Durong Van Minh, the corrupt leader who allegedly made deals with the Vietcong. Afghanistan is also supposed to resemble Vietnam in that the insurgency is “out there” with aid from another country and employing terror to paralyze and then capture the food/drugs of the nation. Supposedly, the U.S. military, which was supposed to have flubbed Iraq because all they did was learn lessons from Vietnam, is now incapable of dealing with Afghanistan, because it is just like Vietnam. Finally, Afghanistan is like Vietnam in that once we begin sending troops, we will be bled constantly by a defensive posture (either because we won't “get tough,” if you're a neocon, or because our brutality radicalizes the population, if you're a realist or suffer from sanity).

The problem with the analogy is that the President is right: it requires a faulty reading of history. Afghanistan is not in the same situation at all, and the Taliban is not offering communism. It is offering efficiency at the cost of freedom, fairness, and personal identity in a land where personal autonomy is vital. The defensive posture is always a problem, because it's always easier to inflict damage on a defender and run away than it is to obliterate a mobile force. This is why it was easy for the U.S. forces to take Afghanistan in the first place. Attacking someone who is trying to defend is easier, these days, than defending against someone who can come from any direction, including up or down. The problem of the Afghanistan government is critical, absolutely critical, because it means that the Afghani villager gets to choose between vicious efficiency or kleptocracy and insecurity. People may face dangers, but not for shabby treatment. Even with that granted, though, Karzai is neither Diem (the man who tortured his own people in his anti-communist crusade) nor Minh. He infuriates his people by acting like a tribal man, an ethnic man, and a war lord's friend, but not by being a tyrant. (Malaki in Iraq, incidentally, bears scrutiny that no one in the U.S. is giving. We so want that to be over that we have ignored another Very Bad Situation in the making.)

All of the mottos about Bactria the inviolate and inconquerable (Alexander the Great), where Napoleon and the British could not win, where the Soviets could not prevail, are beside the point. First, the U.S. demonstrated that its military could take and destroy the military and political leadership and civil institutions of the area. In fact, NATO troops could easily defeat any military Afghanistan ever were to develop. It's not even a battle.

Can any foreign power govern Afghanistan, though? That's the question our cliches haven't addressed. That's the question that gets to the heart of the case. Afghanistan had a centralized government in the 1970's. Although this was a brief period, it did exist. Prior to that and since then, tribes and ethnicities have opposed one another, and groups that migrated in or practiced religious variations six thousand years ago refuse to treat one another as fellow citizens. Karzai wants to help “his people” who speak his language and belong to his tribe, and other groups want theirs. He lets murderous creatures disgrace him and destroy governance because they are of his tribe. This is an educated individual choosing to adopt an atavistic model for social organization, a model that has within it an eternal animosity toward central government. It has deponent governments -- little centralized decision bodies -- based on the tribe and family, and it bears some resemblance to the satrap, but with no personal, blood, ethnic, or religious commander above the unit. It is pre-nation-state.

So long as all of the “leaders” of Afghanistan are leaders of tribes and populations, rather than leaders of places, districts, and persons – so long as geography and isolation mean that it is a set of perpetually warring tribes – no nation may govern Afghanistan, and there is no Afghanistan to govern itself. The very name is an arbitrary distraction. If we know for certain that there is no hope, in fact, of any 1970's Afghanistan ever emerging from this generation, then we would be better off thinking of districts and populations and fighting, organizing, building, and negotiating separately.

The Taliban introduces theocracy, but theocracy is vague. There is no magic in that. If you believe that there is something so mysterious about “theocracy” that we can only deal with it in the discourse that it sets for itself (holy war), then you need to look at your own history. All of Europe had experiments with theocracy, and the United States has had multiple adventures in theocracy (aside from Bob Jones University). From the Massachussetts Bay Colony to the Shakers, the U.S. has had its theocracies, and it is easy enough to study how they interact with stresses from outside. In general, they thrive most when they have an enemy. The best way to fuel a theocracy is to put on a Great Satan costume, for then you seem to justify the founding assumptions. Avoiding offense is impossible (see the rewards President Obama has received from trying to avoid offending Christian Fundamentalists in the United States: they call him the anti-Christ and see in his politeness proof that he is trying to fool them), and so the best way to win is to simply not play. Refuse to speak of winning and losing, of conquest and triumph. Do not speak of yourself at all. Speak of the population you are there for.

As for whether or not we must be there, when “it is impossible to win,” we must be there because it is impossible to win. Every person who makes the case that no army can prevail in Afghanistan reinforces the argument that our armies must prevail in Afghanistan.

I opposed the Iraq war. I was and remain ambivalent about the Afghanistan war. However, a nation-sized hole in the earth where the world says “No army can prevail” is very bad. There must be no such place. Somalia, the grand shamble of “failed states,” is very similar to Afghanistan in its tribalism, in the way that each group fights for its group identity and has no concept of a nation at all, but Somalia is, obviously, no place that world opinion regards as impenetrable. World opinion holds that Somalia could be “taken” in weeks but that it has no value to the world.

Afghanistan is important because we have said, for thousands of years now, that anyone who goes in there is safe from the nation states of the world. If you can get permission from the tribe (not the nation), you can do anything you want in Afghanistan, from grow opium to plan attacks on world trade. In the past, the stakes were not very high, because the thing that made one “safe” made the world “safe” from you, too: geography meant isolation in both senses. Now, though, one individuals can go in, embed, train, and, because of global transportation and trade links with Pakistan, India, and Iran, and because of proxy fights, fly away easily to fight elsewhere on a one-way ticket. Thus, if we say that Afghanistan is a place where one can be invulnerable, then the world's populations are all in danger, regardless of the threat. If al Qaeda were to disappear tomorrow and Osama bin Laden were to recant and repent, then the danger would be the same. The world's nations must not allow there to be a place that will refuse to organize and yet still benefit from global access and travel. That makes for a case of offense being far more powerful than defense.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Time is one of those things that isn't a thing at all, nor a quality, nor a process, and yet we speak of it, without any qualifications on the subject whatever, beyond the qualifications of a citizen.
"...the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions...." --Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub
In our natural state, we know time without knowing of it. We feel it without comprehending it. In fact, although we teach our three year olds how the big and little hands go, we say that we teach them to "tell" time. We "tell" time the way we we have "more than words can tell," the way that "tellers" work in a bank or the "tiller" holds the money. It is, of course, to count.

We marvel that prehistoric societies, whom we picture in our swinishly ethnocentric minds as possessed of the intelligence of three year olds, built megalithic clocks and told the seasons. Those clever people, we think, had such importance for the seasons that they piled up mounds to mark planting day. We solved the matter with a simple computer chip, after a master horologist fought a lifetime against metal rockers and springs to build the H4. A cricket escapement! However, there is little to marvel at, except that the two accomplishments, the microchip and the megalith, represent different organizations of time in life to measure time on life.

The shock we rugged individualists experience when we gaze upon megaliths and metroliths, is nearly always the same in its expression. After the "wow," the slack jawed, shutter snapping, goofus nearly always says, "How'd they build a thing like that?" This betrays an internal dialog. The tourist is thinking about what life must have been like in 100 BC or 3000 BC and how it would have been to chip away at a mountain, or to tote rocks, or to toss dirt, day after day, with no clue what you were doing, because some mysterious guy assures you that there is a purpose. It would take generations to finish. It might take centuries to finish. At the conclusion of all of that work, the other average Josephines and Joes would have not a hint as to what it was that their parents had built. It would be big, alright, but the measuring of time? Nah. Not for them.

On the other hand, the same average person who breaks his LCD watch open with a hammer and seeks what's inside gets treated to a little plate of magic. A tiny, green magic platter makes time go. Some mysterious goo oil floats in a crystal dish, and then this green thing is behind it, and that there is the battery. The work can be seen under a magnifying glass, and it shows all the marks of the work of giants. Shamans built this device. Magicians made it go. Wizards worked the enchantment of miniaturization.

We call this magic, we sum up all of this skill beyond comprehension, with a single word: genius.

The Harrison clock is a work of genius. The microchip is a work of genius. The design of the geosynchronous satellite is a work of genius. The use of frequency skipping algorithms is genius. By "genius" we encode not merely greatness but solitude, and therein lies the difference between the megalithic calendar and the modern.

We organize our efforts at telling out the time by the individual. The child will learn to count out the personal time, and the applicant will be on time for the job interview, and the student will finish the test in the specified time limits. The clock will come from the clock maker. I suspect, on no evidence but the bones of time left standing, that the other generations, the ones who puzzle us with their monuments of horology, that their society told time, that their tribe counted the planting, that their nation moved at intervals, not their individuals. They, therefore, would be as dumbstruck at our individual calendars on our cell phones, filled with appointments, as we are at their multi-generational buildings.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Hoc Signo Winky

Constantine's vision of the cross was supposed to be an even bet and an intervention. Constantine was, supposedly, bribed by... his subconscious? God? the pagan gods? a cloud?... to convert to Christianity purely to achieve a military victory. If he marched to war under the banner of his own nation's method of executing criminals, he would win. He would triumph under the sign of capture, ignominy, defeat, and desecration. It's a radical thing, alright.

The oddity of Constantine's vision is deeper merely than the symbology, deeper than the curiosity of God offering a goody to a pagan. For those of you who do not know history, Constantine was fighting the other emperors of Rome for sole rule. Who would be Caesar? Well, the sign at Milivan Bridge said, "You will be Caesar under the sign of the cross." He converted to Christianity, and he won.

The additional oddity is that the Christian God would have to have behaved exactly like a Roman god to be the one behind the vision. In Jewish and Christian scriptures, this is not how God works. God does not go up to strangers and say, "Build me a temple, and I'll give you riches." Look at David in 1 Samuel 19 or thereabouts, you find that David asks God first whether he should do battle or not, just as Saul had. Later, you see prophets coming to tell David that he must do X or Y, by God's decree. In the Pentecost, and in the vision that comes to Peter concerning kosher food, the vision simply appears and gives revelation without any offers, without any enticements. It is a truth and a law and a command, not an either/or. There is no indication that they have to show or boast or wear something, that they have to signify, but more that they must do or believe.

The New Testament's signs seem to reveal spiritual states within the recipient.

On the other hand, one of my favorite pieces of Epic is the end of Odyssey, when Odysseus has to make amends to Poseidon by walking inland with an oar on his shoulders until someone says, "Hey, what's that thing?" At that point, he has to plant the oar, make a sacrifice, and create a temple to the wronged god. Now that is a pagan god. The logic is the logic of the agora: "You ruined my temple, and so I ruined your life. To get me to stop it, you need to give me a new temple where the people would never worship an ocean god: far, far inland!" Poseidon is bargaining for cult. It's quid pro quo.

For years and years, I've been bothered by the idea of signifying the invisible, of "testifying" in public without being asked. Let's be extremely clear, here, lest someone accuse me of even more heterodoxy than I already have. "Testifying" (I'm not fond of the term, as it has a pretty heavy gender bias in it, if we're frank and aware, and a woman's testimony would be untrustworthy) is something I have no problem with.

Look, I don't want to take any chance of maligning the Holy Spirit. Again: I have enough weight cast on thin ice of fire as it is. Constantine's vision may have come from the Holy Spirit as an act of Grace. That, unlike a vision of revelation, makes perfect sense. That the Spirit would use the man's own innate voice to get him to the point of making a decision, that it would get him to the brink, is possible, but it just doesn't seem like God to go around looking to add converts. Let's be manifest for once: Why does Jesus command his disciples to spread the word? Is it to swell the congregation? Is it to get more money? Since Jesus didn't have any money, rode a borrowed donkey, stayed in homes people loaned him, slept in public fields, and dressed in common homespun, it's not very likely that the Lord wanted a new Reverend Ike Cadillac. Jesus tells his disciples to "preach the good news of Kingdom of God," not to preach the good news of a new church with four new video screens and a dynamite youth leader and three services a day and a radio outreach and several books of fascinating sayings that are guaranteed to save your marriage.

Well, never mind that. I may be wrong about Constantine.

I feel a bit more secure, though, in my disquiet with Constantine's descendants. "By this sign, I will drive." The ichthus symbol, which was used by early Christians as a furtive form of identification during an era of persecution, has become an ubiquity on American roads. One website promises, of the symbols, that, when you see them, "You will smile (in bumper to bumper traffic), because Jesus loves you." That these symbols are affixed the the rear bumpers exclusively is telling, as the symbol is intended to inform the person symbolically and literally powerless and inferior that the vehicle ahead, superior, and advanced is driven by the forgiven. I have seen the symbol combined with other placards of controversy, such as, "Not perfect, just forgiven" and the evergreen "If it ain't King James it ain't Bible." However, the symbol has occurred most often solo. People who would never plaster their cars with bumperstickers will put the ichthus on, and always on the bumper.

I will leave aside the fact that it finds a home on the vehicles often decried by the pastors who organized What Would Jesus Drive?, because there is no class or race or sex that owns the symbol. It's everywhere. It's a visual assumption these days. In fact, it has become so automatic a device and herald that it has generated a wide variety of parody symbols, and those, too, have become so common as to have lost their meaning.

The folks at have the only answer I have seen for the purposefulness of the sticker. They suggest that, unlike every other bumper sticker in America, the ichthus is not there to tell the other drivers about the car owner, not there to identify, but rather to spread a message of healing to other Christians. I have to give them credit for their creativity, but I cannot quite believe that they are accurate. The ichthus sticker is an emblem of one's faith, a way of telling the poor schmo behind you, "I'm a Christian." From a way to identify and establish community in secret, it has gone to a method of boasting or taunting. It is a form of pride or antagonism. Is the agnostic or atheist behind you supposed to honk her horn, pull up, and ask to hear your conversion narrative? Is he supposed to see the sticker and be nicer to you, as a driver? Is he supposed to realize that there is an army of Christians, and his kind are outnumbered?

Further, what are you actually saying with the sticker? Are you saying that you are a Christian, or that you are devout? You tell me that you practice your faith in a way that I probably cannot share very easily. You tell me that you see faith as a matter of public action and political identity. I see my political identity as an outgrowth of my faith. Finally, is your soul something as fixed and clumsily two dimensional as a cartoon or cartouche? Does your soul flow from days of faith to doubt, piety to dullness, fire to chill? Is your faith alive, or is it a static accomplishment to be chalked up and then marked in chalk lines on the bumper?

Speaking of making the ineffable indelible, how different is the impulse behind the ichthus bumper sticker from the "Purity Ring?"

I went looking for an illustration for you. I found this: Generations of Virtue Purity Rings.

about that.

Generations of VIRTUE (see esp. #4 & #7). Yep... as Shamela would say, "He comes abed now, Mama. O Lud, my vartu! My vartu!" A generation of vartu would result.

Anyway, there are purity rings aplenty, and we need to maintain our Purity of Essence.

Now, of course, this "purity" and "virtue" are both references, not coded at all, to virginity. While the abstinence movement has a motto that is semantically and philosophically suspect ("True love waits"), as well as theologically null, they have learned exactly one lesson from previous attempts at genetic clamp down: they have chastity control for both male and female alike. Both boys and girls are encouraged to spend money on special rings that they can wear that will prove that they are virgins. Girls at school calling you a slut? Slip one of these on your finger, preferably from a fine jeweler, and you can show off your taste in jewelry, your class, and put those rumors to bed (but nothing else). Your son is hording stacks of Hustler, and his "history" tab on Internet Exploder shows Red Tube and other nasty sites? Weld this thing on the offending hand.

Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that the children want these items. I have not been convinced of it, but let's make the assumption. If they do, their motives will come from the sort of true purity that the adult world has forgotten and cannot access.

However, whether the desire for the rings comes from the children or the adults, let's step back and think about what they are for just a second. They are visible emblems of hymeneal state! These are the most primitive, pre-industrial, bride-price, gauche, commodifying, reductions of the value of the person to a single experience that we could come up with. They turn a single event into the meaning of the girl. The boy can be "pure" again. He can wait some more. She, though, is testifying. She is advertising her virginity.

I find this vile. I find it a horrific thing to do to one's daughter, to see in someone else's daughter, to accept in social behavior. It is advertising.

"By this sign, you may conquer," it says. It reduces our young women to flaps of skin, to incidents, to accidents, to crimes, and then it slaps a sign on them, a seal.

I pray we return to carrying our signs in our hearts and living our faiths rather than advertising them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Irrelevance of Evolution

"If a minister believes and teaches evolution, he is a stinking skunk, a hypocrite, and a liar." -- Billy Sunday, 1925Well, there are few stupid arguments as stupid and stupidly hot as "evolution," with the very name of the debate telling lies and the participants occupying increasingly weird positions in order to have absolutely nothing to do with the other. Instead of extending an open ear or mind to one another, they begin from the assumption that the other is either an agent of evil or intolerance and then proceed to revile and ostracize.

I, of course, have no real problem with the idea of the Origin of Species in adaptation to environmental pressure and the morphological and genetic changes necessary to create greatest fitness for an environment. I don't have a problem with the earth being quite old. I don't have a problem with God working over a very long time. I don't worry about it much, either.

I don't worry about the "theory" part, either, because there have been multiple adaptations to environment in my lifetime that have generated new organisms, if not new species (speciation is slow, even for bacteria, because we talk about species in terms of sexual reproduction and viability of young, and I don't think bacteria get it on). The moths adapting to soot.... Meh. I'm not a bird. If someone "proves" evolution tomorrow, my beliefs in the Advent won't change, and my belief in the resurrection won't change, and my belief in a single God won't change. If someone "proves" creation tomorrow, my beliefs will be similarly unchanged.

Does this mean that "the Bible is wrong?" Well, my illustration, above, is of Noah's Ark, and you can read Augustine's Civitas Dei for his allegorical reading of the Ark. To him, the Ark was the human body, and it would be saved by the dove, as Christ would save us in the sea of sin and death. If that argument by analogy bothers you, you can look at it another way entirely and ask whether or not God made a Covenant with the human race that, although they had sinned in Eden and shown that they were going to go for the sinful path every time and build every city on the master plan of Sodom, He would agree to tolerate the wickedness of the world if His people held true to Him? Does that seem like a valid understanding? Is it fit cosmology? In fact, if you put a time line out, where the events are spiritual rather than chronological, you have generation, choice, degradation, choice, degradation, choice, salvation, choice....

I was talking to a group the other day about sex and gender. The group had within it some people who don't believe in Evolution. They will not tolerate anyone who mentions evolution from the podium, either. That does not hem me in as much as you might think, I find. Why would I need to talk about it? What on earth do pre-humans have to do with any topic I'm going to discuss?

Do these students believe in genetics? That is all they need. They only need to have been to a farm, or had dogs, or seen children. They only need to know about primitive animal husbandry. If parents have an innate trait, or even an epigenetic trait from their environments, there is a strong chance that the same epigenetics (through gender) will be at play in their same sexed offspring and genetics will be at work as well.

The point I was getting to was the debatable science about masculine and feminine brains. According to this research, exposure to testosterone in vitro causes the brain to go off towards war toys and logic (and rape, of course, because men are all rapists). Lacanian "research" agrees that women's "polymorphous perversity" means that their egos are amorphous and marshmallow-like and therefore non-linear. The masculine is arrows and sticks and guns and spears... especially spears. On the brain side, the masculine is plot that moves strictly and rigidly from 1 to 10, while the feminine wanders and floats. Lyric poetry is feminine, and epic poetry is masculine. Masculine is Stephen King, and feminine is ... well, no one agrees.

When I've had these sessions with these skeptical students, I have pointed out, over and over again, that it is always possible that these people make correct observations and have silly explanations for them. I.e. it is possible that Freud's description of the "anal retentive" personality is spot on, that there are loads of folks who fit it precisely, but it's really unlikely that all of them are secretly clenching their sphincters and enjoying it.

Anyway, it occurred to me that I could go at sex and gender and brains and bolster this stuff, overcoming their reluctance, with evolution-ish explanations. I said, "Just think back to all of us living in tribes. We don't know anything about germ theory, and we don't know anything about machine guns. We don't know about viruses, and we don't know about advanced flight. Now, it makes sense that the men who go out to kill the bear without worrying about how the bear feels are going to be the best men in the village, doesn't it? It also makes sense that women who worry constantly about how clean their tents are are going to have the healthiest food, the healthiest children, the healthiest husbands, and the healthiest homes, and if they worry always about the health and emotions of the children that their mates are ignoring, they're going to be better mothers. We don't need evolution for that to get passed on, do we?"

I just thought I would share this. Everyone shrieks in horror, but "evolution" has to do with the derivation of species and genera. Genetics and inheritance is something I don't think even the most radical literalist would deny.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Hey, hold my place, will you?

This is what they call a place holder post.

I suppose a post is itself kind of a place holder, when you think about it. You dig a hole, put a piece of wood in there, and then tie fence to it.

I want to thank my persistent and indefatigable reader during that political diatribe.

From there, I have two directions I could go. First, I have thoughts of writing about being a scion. I wouldn't have given much thought to it, myself, except that being a scion means having a whole extended family telling you about it. It goes with the job. The problem with that is that it could quickly get personal, and I absolutely abhor blogs that are written about, for, and to their authors.

The other direction is to go toward a big Thought I had in church. Now, I realize that most of my reader(s) aren't religious. Of the one(s) with religion, I doubt (m)any have my slice of the orange on the subject, so that's a low yield topic. The thing is, this Thought was nearly a Revelation, but the problem with revelations is that they almost always get people in fire, holy or otherwise. This one would make me more heretical than I already am, but, like the way I already am, not so anyone would actually care about it.

I don't think I'll write about private revelation on the Internet. Seems like a bad idea to me. (Not to others, I know.)

Instead, my next will be comparing Purity Rings to Ichthus stickers (fish symbols on the backs of cars), with strong disapproval of both.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Heel America (part three)

The final part of this tedious argument. I apologize for taking so long, but I had me some things.

(That there is a GFDL photo from that website whose name I will not type.)

As John Gay's character said, "Money well timed, and properly applied, will do anything" (The Beggar's Opera II xii). This is because money is fluid, liquid, symbolic, transferable, "fungible." It moves and causes to move, as it contains within itself desires yet to be fulfilled and labor exchanged. It gets taken from one person to the next to the next. A worker exchanges laying cables for six hours for money that goes to a bank as a piece of an interest payment on a cell phone the worker got seven months before, and then that goes to the next person's pocket after the withdrawal at an ATM, in exchange for thirty minutes of her day in the office waiting for the phone to ring, but she will then be able to use it, holding it out, to get someone else to run back to a kitchen and bring out six meals for her family.

The paper of the money means nothing, of course. We all know that, don't we? If you didn't already know that you no longer follow the yellow brick road, that you're in Emerald City, where things are just a question of belief, then at least I hope you know that the thing has Caesar's name and face on it, so it belongs to him, so give it back. I'm sure that every child has stared at a piece of money at some point and wondered what it really means and concluded that, other than a nice piece of art, it does not actually mean anything. (The same could be said of gold or silver, of course.)

The reason we do not want a politician who has risen from a micro-town is that such a person has risen, almost certainly, from neo-feudalism, and neo-feudalism is, by its nature, corrupt according to democratic standards.

What separates what I call neo-feudalism, and I'm coining terms left and right and freely admit it, here, from feudalism is that feudalism was being bound to the land. Feudalism meant that workers and lords of land alike were bound to the land, rooted, and obligated to it. For every peasant unable to escape the manor, there was a pouting lordling or lady wishing to go to Paris or London to live but "having to" attend to the dull and boring country estates. The absentee landlords of the 18th and 19th centuries created a crisis and were ultimately complicit in the effective ending of the power of feudalism on the political side. As they stopped ever visiting their estates, they stopped "meddling" with minor civil service positions like local curates, judges, justices, and the like, and so, even as they abused their tenants more, they freed their regions from their control.

In the frontier American town and the post-Reconstruction Southern town, land was binding, too. The children of the town fathers/founders "had to" take over their parents' businesses, whether those were farms or industries. They also "had to" uphold the traditions of mediation and moderation and behave the way that they were "expected" to behave. The "lady" did not curse. The "gentleman" did not get drunk. All of those codes were explicitly embedded in a land/power exchange that required sacrifice. I am hardly the only person to compare it to aristocracy.

The neo-feudal, though, is flexible. The land conveys the position, but land is bought for money, sold for money, and bought again for money. The people "in charge" in the micro-town now will tell you, quite openly, that they are in charge because they have the money to be in charge. Like the dollar bill in Emerald City, it is not eminent, but simply a question of belief.
Frequently, it's a question of people believing that somehow they have a "right" to things because of the money. Since money comes as an exchange, they believe that it conveys at the same time equivalence and therefore worth. If I work for four hours and get paid, I accept that my four hours "equals" that pay, that therefore my hours are "worth" that pay, that I "earned" that money. So long as I think only of myself and I am ignorant entirely of the rest of society, I can think this way indefinitely. If, however, I think for a moment that an investment banker did less work in four hours than I did and got paid seventy times as much, I begin to think that he "didn't deserve it." For his part, he thinks he did.

Once you think you "earned" your money, you think that anything you get with your money is fair, deserved, earned. It's proper. If this is your only scale, if money is the only way you learn to think of land, politics, education, labor, and love, then you will think in terms of "deserving" whatever your money can get.

My problem with the micro-town is that, in the absence of its deserted founding cores, it has kept its structures of control and gained controllers who are taught at the knee of money. The class has risen because of money, because of overcoming educational shortfalls, delicate manners, political savvy, etc., with money, and they owe their allegiance and belief to money and hold a grave antipathy toward those things that stood in their way. Like L.B. Johnson with the Kennedy people, they're sure that smart alecks with education are making fun of them, and so they hold a grudge against schooling. The old generation never swore or got drunk, and so they believe it's time to use the "n word" in City Hall. The old generation was careful to separate church and state, and so they want to put their pastor on the payroll. They have chips on their shoulders.

Most of us in the United States focus obsessively on our national election for the President, and some of us focus on the U.S. Senate races in our states. Fewer of us focus on our House of Representatives races. How many people know who represents them in their state legislatures? How many people know much about that person? What is the voting like in that kind of a race? While the President might declare a war (even though Congress is supposed to do that), your state legislature is going to have a radical effect on your day to day life, and you will find some really surprising people serving there. Many states hold to the Cincinnatan ideal and want their parliamentarians to work other jobs, but the result is that most have assembly people who represent local wealth centers. One rarely sees "community organizers" in the assembly, especially when it comes to rural areas. Instead, one sees the local saw mill owner upset at some tax bill he got, or a John Birch Society member who sees a chance to get his state to be the first to independently declare itself God-fearing.

In the small, small towns, land money has meant politicians who have ingrained in them a belief that they have a right to whatever it is that they do. I began my diatribe with Sarah Palin because she is an excellent example of what we do not want, and what we would in fact get, from today's small town politician.
Near me, we had an episode (no link) where a county commissioner had a girlfriend and wife matching set. He also had a rich family in land, of course. Anyway, the girlfriend was not liked by the wife, and we can thank her, the wife, and her antipathy, for finding out about the fact that the girlfriend had embezzled several tens of thousands of dollars (nearly hundreds) from the county for her personal use (new cars, actually). Boring, I know. It hardly comes up to John Ensign level. However, what makes this worthy is what the Commissioner said about it. He said that it was alright. He forgave her, so he didn't think he would press charges.

Fortunately, the Sheriff and D.A. were able to explain the differences between civil and criminal law, but I'm not sure they ever could get him to understand the difference between meum et tuum.

See what's missing from his mind? He thinks in terms of money, the way I described above. He earned it. It's his. He gets to do with it what he wants. The world does not exist, and society does not exist. Despite micro-towns having less of a border between classes than large cities, they foster, with their easy status changes and easy power, narcissism.

Another town near me that does not appear on your satellite views had a mayor for life. Let's call him Perry Ellis and pretend that he was as well dressed as the men's wear designer. He managed to be in a bubble, at first, where he could make silly decisions, but slowly it accreted into a shell, and then the shell petrified, with Perry inside. Eventually, Perry was like a Mexican jumping bean. The problem with it was that the town was the bean getting hurled about. Senior citizen parks without trees and away from all amenities (but near his land), with contracts going to friends of his, five lane highways coming into town from nowhere to nowhere, new schools on interstates... all sorts of things where it looked like private gain was going along with public nuisance.

Sarah Palin's "house gate" scandal reminded me exactly of a small town mayor. The allegations are at Jot America and come from The Village Voice, with a great deal of follow up. Palin was mayor of Wasilla, AK. She awarded a huge contract to build an unneeded sports complex to Kumin Associates. The architect for the firm was the son of one of Palin's advisors on one side and of the state Republican Party head on the other. For the complex, there are many allegations of cronyism and favors and party contributions. One of the subs was Spenard Builders, and they later hired Sarah for a TV commercial, sponsored Todd Palin's snowmobile (yeah, I said it: snowmobile!) team, and may have given all the materials for Sarah and Todd's house that Todd "built all by himself" on Lake Lucille (this from Mudflats).

Does any of this sound like Perry? How about Sarah's reaction? She blocked laws that would have required builders to list their suppliers and contractors in Wasilla. She has come out afterward saying that all of this is hers, her right, and completely proper. Sound like the local County fellow with his girlfriend?

Sarah Palin's perspective is like the post-flight neo-feudal town's politician's in every respect. She thinks her money and her self-elevation has earned her the right to do whatever is best for her. The idea of other people's needs is irrelevant. It's all me. Climb, go, get, and take it all personally, because "personal" is the only medium, the only message, the only canvas upon which politics is painted.

I know that it possible that there are good small town politicians. I have met them in Carrboro, NC. I have seen them. I know they exist, and I have seen them jump up to the next level quickly, but the idea that we need/want "Real American" politicians? Don't make me wretch.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Site Review

I apologize for interrupting my philosophico-historico-politico-misanthropy about rurality and orality, but for once I'm going to write a blog entry like everyone else's blog entry. I'm going to write about something I did. I hope you'll all forgive me.

I ain't telling where I found that scene, because I ain't writing about that place. Instead, I want to offer a site review. Before we were all addicted to "microblogging" (as if blogging weren't already a miniaturized form of expression), people used to offer up reviews of websites. Before that, we used to write reviews of restaurants and stores and things -- reviews of places. That's what this is.

In NYC, a popular bit of graffiti was, "Pray for Pills." Well, let us take time to at least hope for Xanax. I went to Best Buy yesterday.

I went to Taulkinham, because I had me some things I needed to do. That's a 100 mi., 2 hr trip, but it's the nearest non-Wal*Mart shopping to me. While there, I visited Sabbath Lily, and Old Navy and Barnes Ignoble, as well as a mall-bounded Earth Bound Trading Company (where one can buy the religious objects of all sorts of exotic cultures and put your weed in them). When I left the behemoth mall, I thought that I would look at the world of appliances and noisy electrical gadgets at Best Buy. Like going to see a "Brokeback Mountain"/ "Time Traveler's Wife"/ "Julie and Julia" triple feature, I wish I hadn't gone. (Scenery is not a character. Trying to come up with ways to keep the man and woman apart so as to prevent having to explain romance's endurance is not interesting. Julia Child is fascinating; bloggers should do something half so interesting before they get to be part of the story.)

Best Buy has always been the place to find out what our corporate overlords want our future to be. They declare that they sell "what's hot," but, of course, they do no such thing. They, in fact,
participate very, very actively in creating demand. Ever since they went with an all-Windows/no OS/2 software policy, in order to get synergy with Microsoft, Best Buy has been a "synergy" kind of place.

Disney coined the term "imagineer." I have a new term: imaginerr. An imaginerr is a person who imagines a future that will generate maximum profit, and then shapes the consumer to fit the product. It is a person who designs people rather than entertainment. The Disney folks were evil for creating tinfoil simulacra and then saying, "This is American history." They Bowdlerized and forced narrative frames onto reality and sold the result as reality. That was and remains plenty bad, but in boardrooms of MBA's right now, marketeers (like mousketeers, but without the charm) are designing you.

Best Buy have been in bed with the imaginerrs of our future. They don't sell 3G phones before they're popular because 3G is hot: they sell them to make 3G ubiquitous and then to become the "the place for 3G." They have a long, long history of moving exclusively toward whatever product line or product type the major corporations are planning to shove us toward.

If you go to the Best Buy, be prepared to read the future. The subtext of their sales floor is what the goobers and yaboes of next year will be. They will show you tomorrow's yawning maw. When I went yesterday, the subtext was not below the line at all. It was bold, and it said: THE TELEVISION IS YOUR DEITY. Your television will eat your computer, your telephone, your games, your stereo, and everything else. You must serve your television, because your television will be the SOLE "entertainment module" in your home.

Everything, and I mean every damn thing, plugs into the television or the iPod. Their computer selection is off to the side, but those they have boast of their media server readiness. Their stereo equipment has ceased to exist, except in the form of A/V componentry that plugs into your television. Stereo speakers are ALL for your television, to provide the greatest Sens-o-round experience in Doubly 5.2 Direct X. Telephones are for video and send to your video server. Their DVD's are almost all Blu-ray now. Even small stereos were not to be found, as they were all extensions of iPods.

I looked for a CD player and some bookshelf speakers. Alas, fool that I am, I should have stayed in my cave. CD players are not good. Now, mp3 players rule. The irony that mp3, which was a compression method designed to allow us computer nerds to back up our higher fidelity .au files, has replaced the .au file because of the sheer gluttony of the idiocracy is only painful if you think. You see, the iPod/mp3 player is "better" than the CD player, because "you can get, like, thousands of songs on there." They sound like junk, but, when you listen on a 0.25" cell phone speaker, subtlety isn't your game to begin with. Speakers? Sure. Center channel, or satellite, or subwoofer? Is it for behind my television or beside my television?

The store was loud, extremely.

The blue golf shirts were following me around (they may have been people, but I'm not sure).

The customers, though, were that added element that made the soup's bilious toxins really pop. They were a mixture of extras from Axe body spray and Mountain Dew commercials, with some Ford Truck background extras woven between them, wallets extended like offerings to pagan gods. In the parking lot, these animated rag dolls were trying out the latest moves they'd learned on Grand Theft Auto or auditioning for MTV Rims, or whatever it's called.

Walking into the store was an insult. Looking at the merchandise was a confirmation that the corporations of the world want me to suffer needlessly for their amusement. Walking out was like surfacing after being held underwater by a bully.

So, do I want to go look at electronics again? The web is safer, closer, and, fortunately, devoid of people.