Secret Honor

The Founding Fathers, as flawed as they were, slaveowners and pornographers, smugglers and terrorists, understood one thing, a man’s path to God needed no help from the state. Is the religion of these conservatives so fragile that they need the state to prop it up, to tell us what to pray and think? Is that what they stand for? Is that their America?

-Steve Gilliard, “I’m a Fighting Liberal”

I don’t think I’ve been a big enough asshole lately. Sure, I’ve been whiny and caustic, but it’s time for some good, old-fashioned raging. I want Rush Limbaugh to die. I don’t mean that as a figure of speech. I honestly think the world would be a better place if he were skinned alive and hung from a tree. Don’t get me wrong—I would never advocate doing that to him. Murder is, and always will be, wrong. What’s distressing is that even that wouldn’t send the right message. We probably all know somebody who is either a Tea Partier or at least a sympathizer. Usually, when talking about them, we say, “He’s a wonderful person, until you ask him what he believes.” Politics are like that. People are always trying to separate a person’s political beliefs from the rest of them. Even the most conservative person you know is probably capable of acting like a savory human being under the right circumstances. That’s the problem with modern conservatism: every decent conservative I know is a decent person in spite of their beliefs, whereas I honestly believe that embracing liberal ideals has made me a better person.

Let me emphasize that the keyword in the phrase “modern conservatism” is the first one. It is not wrong to be in favor of limited government and a strong national defense. Conservatism is not inherently evil, and no matter how strongly held one’s beliefs may be, one can still benefit from being challenged. I miss the days when I would argue with my right-wing friends and say, “You have a point there.” But that hasn’t happened in years. These days, the only sane Republicans I know are constantly apologizing for their party, trying to excuse the inexcusable behavior of Boehner, McConnell, and their presidential candidates. Part of the reason why I am so glad to be a Democrat is that I honestly like my president. There are things about him that I would change if I could, but all things considered, he is moving this country forward. That’s a welcome relief after the Bush years.

Some people are optimists. I’m not sure what’s wrong with them. Whenever I allow myself to become optimistic about something, I am inevitably disappointed. I’m starting to think that cheerful people act that way just to piss me off. Something needs to be done about them. Perhaps they could be sent to work in sweatshops. Hell, if they’re so irrepressibly perky, why not make them do something that no one else could possibly enjoy?

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m interested in environmentalism. Specifically, I want to learn more about how saving the world begins at a grassroots level. One deeply influential figure in this field is Van Jones, the former green jobs czar for President Obama. One of his primary innovations was linking race relations, economics and environmentalism. It may seem counter-intuitive, but consider: if you don’t feel like you really belong to a society, how invested can you be in its survival? If you’re marginalized, you can’t fully participate even if you want to. My firsthand experiences with racism are few and far between, but I know damn well how it feels to deal with another kind of discrimination, and let me tell you that until we can eliminate prejudice dealing with race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and favorite brand of cereal, we cannot live in an eco-friendly society.

There is no more blatant example of the lack of equality in America than the Trayvon Martin case. That anyone could do what George Zimmerman did and try to pass it off as self-defense is unthinkable. That law enforcement could claim that this is anything other than an obvious hate crime is mind-boggling. It’s why I invite anyone reading this who thinks that since the election of President Obama, we’ve lived in a post-racial society to break off a broom handle and fuck themselves with it. I’m not kidding.

One of my favorite people of all time is Christopher Hitchens. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unrepentant asshole in punditry than that man. Time and time again, he tore into his opponents, exposing their hypocrisy and self-righteousness with gleeful zeal. Yesterday, I watched a debate from the latter days of his career between him and intelligent design shill/ignorant fucknut William Dembski. The entire debate is worth watching (I’ll post it below), but Hitchens’ closing remarks were excerpted in a million tributes after his death. In a way, he spent his entire career building to them:

When Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations and for blasphemy for challenging the gods of the city and he accepted his death, he did say, “Well, if we are lucky, perhaps I’ll be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters too,” in other words that the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure and what is true could always go on. Why is that important? Why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s the conversation I want to have while I’m still alive, which means that to me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet, that I haven’t understood enough, that I can’t know enough, that I’m always operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’d urge you to look at those who tell you, those people who tell you at your age that you’re dead until you believe as they do, what a terrible thing to be telling to children, and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside, however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.

For once, I have nothing to add.

Image stolen borrowed from Despair.com.

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Theatre With an “Re”

A friend of mine told me that whenever someone says that they’re not into musical theater, but they like some of it, what they’re really saying is, “I like Sondheim.” He told me this after I’d said just that, and he’d correctly assumed that I was a Sweeney Todd fan. What can I say? I like fucked-up shit. Sweeney Todd is twisted, melodramatic, and deliriously entertaining. I had the privilege of seeing the Broadway revival in which the actors doubled as the orchestra. It was phenomenal. Michael Cerveris was a killer Sweeney, and I’ll watch Patti LuPone do just about anything. Nonetheless, I’m pretty indifferent to the medium, although  I’m writing in defense of it right now. It used to be that showtunes occasionally found air time on the radio. I don’t listen to the radio, but I don’t think that happens much anymore, if at all. It’s sad, because some of them, like this hit from the ‘80s musical Chess, are quite radio-friendly.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a quite a polarizing figure. There are people who consider him the spawn of Satan, and those who consider him the savior of Broadway. In a way, they’re both right. You may not be a fan of his work (I’m not, at least, not especially), but you have to admit that the man can write a catchy pop song better than just about any living songwriter. On the off chance that you haven’t heard these songs before, give them a listen and see if you don’t spend the rest of your life humming them. It takes talent to produce an earworm that unshakable. The only show of Webber’s I’ve ever really liked was Jesus Christ Superstar. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing, perhaps I’m just not a good critic, but I think it’s a fun, breezy show that has a lot to say about Judas’ relationship with Jesus. And of course, there’s the title song, which is an earworm to end all earworms.

Part of Webber’s secret is repetition: his songs rarely clock in at less than four minutes, and even then, they’re reprised again and again over the course of his shows. Maybe that’s why I like Superstar. Sure, it’s repetitive, but it’s also short, which gives Webber’s tried-and-true tactic of getting louder and changing keys until the song is seared into one’s brain with a hot iron less time to become irritating. What’s most intriguing about the show is how controversial it was at the time of its release. My father recalls sitting through lengthy sermons from his extremely conservative pastor about the evils of the show and the liberties it takes with Biblical text. Of course, saying that to a teenager is like saying, “Don’t do drugs.” The whole time, all my father could think about was how much he desperately needed to see this show. These days, it seems pretty tame, so tame that my Catholic high school had, by the time I got there, not only performed it, but performed it on two separate seasons.

I’m glad that I grew up in a relatively progressive religious community rather than a fire-and-brimstone community. For one thing, it was easier on me, and for another, it was easier on the people who had to be around me. I don’t believe that everyone I encountered was a good person deep down. Some were misguided, some had integrity, and some were bigots for whom faith was a cudgel with which to alienate and exclude those who did not conform to their narrow interpretation of Scripture. But thankfully, most were willing to listen, even if they didn’t understand. I’ve said this before, but you can’t ask for much more. When I tell people that I was raised Catholic, I get mixed responses. Some people look at me as if I just said I was beaten by my parents. Others look on with curiosity. What did I learn from growing up Catholic? Mainly, I learned that faith is not, as some would have you believe, inherently evil. It can be a force for good or bad, and we should not let the rampant misuse of it throughout human history mislead us into thinking that the only answer is to eliminate it completely. There are people who could not live without it. I won’t take it away from them. What about you?

I’ve been taught Shakespeare by quite a few teachers. The best one I ever had gave us a homework assignment early on that asked us to find a line in the play we were reading (The Taming of the Shrew) that we liked saying out loud and say it to the person who sat next to us at the next lecture. Her favorite line came after Katherina’s monologue explaining that women should be subservient to their husbands, to which her husband replies, “Why, there’s a wench! Come on and kiss me, Kate.” Try to say that without smiling. It’s impossible. Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read, and it’s time for more teachers to get that into their heads. If theater really wants to find a larger audience, it needs to do so not by watering itself down, but by being exactly what it is: a unique medium that allows for a more intimate connection between the performers and the audience than any film or literature can accomplish. Books and movies have their place as well, but that is not the realm of Shakespeare. The man was, first and foremost, a crowd-pleaser.

My Parents Bore Me

Don’t get me wrong: my parents are nice people. They are, however, white. And as I’ve previously established, white people are not always the most fun to be around. Last night, I went to dinner with a bunch of my mother’s colleagues. Dinner was delicious, and the conversation was pleasant. Too pleasant. Have you ever been in a room full of aging, middle-class white people? It’s more boring than watching golf (which, incidentally, some of these people probably played.) In fairness, I should mention that there were two people of color at this event. But even they were pretty white. I don’t want to come down too hard on them. Perhaps if I got to know these people, I’d realize how interesting they are. But I doubt it. Sometimes you really can just look at someone and know that their life story would bore you to tears. You might be protesting that I might turn out like them someday. I don’t think I will.

Growing old gracefully is, like many things, largely about attitude. Some people lose their looks and some people stop caring how they look, but one thing that doesn’t change is how cool you are. Coolness is not defined by how up-to-date you are on the latest pop culture. If that were true, bloggers would be cool, and blogging is just about the least cool thing there is. No, it’s more like being funny like being sexy. The harder you try, the less you are. And I, no matter what anyone else says, am cool, funny, and sexy. Suck on that, bitches. What’s more, I’ll still be all of those things when I’m 70. Why? Because I want to be, and I don’t waste all of my time trying to pass myself off as something that I know deep down that I never can be. I don’t pretend to be serene or patient like everyone at that dinner seemed to be, so why should they pretend to be cool? To their credit, none of them did. They’re boring, and that’s exactly what they appear to like to be.

Cool, funny, and sexy are all superficial qualities, when you get right down to it. It’s entirely possible to be all of those things and still be loathsome. Am I loathsome? That’s for you to decide. One fellow who was three years below me in high school thanked me before I graduated for being a “role model”. I was shocked. All I did was sit next to him in choir practice and make sarcastic remarks all year. There’s no telling what you can do when you’re not thinking. People touch each other’s lives in all sorts of ways. My parents have touched my life by teaching me what I don’t want to become.

I’m not sure if I’ve properly conveyed yet how boring they are. Every time I talk to one of them, they tell me what movies they’ve seen lately and ask me how I’m doing. That’s it. I have a Jewish friend whose family members are, according to him, fond of disclosing details of their sex lives at gatherings. God, I wish I were Jewish. Not all Jewish families are like that, but I guarantee you that no Catholic families are like that. Catholicism is all about shame and guilt. Jews are the most oppressed group of people in history, so why shouldn’t they live it up a little bit more? My father is the kind of man who goes to work every morning and is greeted with, “Good morning, [father of Robot King]. How are the wife and kids?” Even though that doesn’t happen, it should.

I have a smutty mind. If any of my family members are reading this, stop. I don’t want to know that you have genitals, let alone sex lives. As far as I am concerned, a stork left my siblings and me on my parents’ doorstep back in the ‘80s and my mother and father just like living together. So I really don’t want you knowing anything at all about my sex life. Have you left the room now? Good. You can come back on the next post. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t have enough sex. I went to a gymnastics competition over the weekend, and all I could think was, “Woof.” There are times when I had difficulty following the event because one of the guys was changing off to the side. I have to stop talking about this now or I will become unable to finish this post.

Sex is a wonderful thing in that it makes fools of us all. No matter who you are, young or old, black or white, king, queen, or peasant, you look like an idiot when you’re getting off. What I’m trying to do with this article is not mock people who are different from me, not make generalizations about people I don’t know, but expose our common humanity. Even my parents probably have one or two sordid or outrageous stories in their past, though I am loath to admit it. Yet they seem to have put that behind them. Part of that might be a product of getting older, but not all of it. Some people stop trying after they hit a certain age. Some people realize that they weren’t that impressive to begin with. Is it worth the effort to keep up appearances? To me, it is, but that’s because I’m the sort of person for whom appearances are about a lot more than just image.

What Would Jesus Do?

"Weekend" is a touching, beautiful movie that also features gay sex. I just turned you off of it, didn't I?

I didn’t much like The Passion of the Christ. Besides its anti-Semitic undertones, it struck me as having a very shallow view of Christian theology. Jesus’ greatest sacrifice wasn’t being scourged and crucified. It was giving up a “normal” life with a wife, kids, and a steady job as a carpenter. Martin Scorsese dramatized this beautifully in his superior The Last Temptation of Christ, and while I won’t give away the film’s main plot twist, I will say that by the time Willem Dafoe declares that he wants to be the Messiah, I was deeply moved. The strongest emotion I felt during The Passion was boredom. Seriously, it takes twenty minutes for Jesus to carry the cross to Golgotha. Is Mel Gibson presenting the crucifixion to us in real time? In that time, I could watch an episode of The Colbert Report. Hell, Colbert has as much to say about Catholicism as Gibson does.

Religion and politics are two of the hardest topics to tackle in an artistic medium. Both lend themselves to beating the audience over the head with one’s message. One film to get it right was Amazing Grace, an underrated movie about William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament who motivated the government to end slavery in 19th-century England. It’s a surprisingly warm film, showing that one does not have to become a priest to be doing God’s work. I believe that, and I don’t even believe in God. (Well, mostly. It’s kind of complicated.) The fun part of religious belief is that you can define it however you want. I thought about labeling myself an “atheist”, but that word just seems cold. If there is one thing that religion is good at offering, it’s reassurance. That’s why many non-believers have adopted the label of a humanist, saying that since they don’t believe in God, they believe in the power of humanity to solve its own problems. It is, as one of my favorite humanists pointed out, an astonishing leap of faith.

This of course, is difficult to do when one is presented with the continued existence of terrorism, poverty, and Kate Hudson. I haven’t seen any of her movies since Almost Famous, but there is not a more useless genre than the modern romantic comedy. It used to be that the best romantic comedies starred Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant. Now they star Matthew McConaughey and whatever blonde actress needs a quick paycheck. Why is it so hard to make a love story that has an element of comedy? I write love stories sometimes, and it saddens me that the best contemporary cinema has to offer in the romance department is sad or bittersweet movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Once, and Weekend. Love can be funny sometimes. In fact, it’s one of the funniest things there is.

Part of the problem is fantasy. All entertainment is a form of fantasy, offering people a world where the answers are somehow simpler than they are in real life, where even moral dilemmas are calculated to split the audience right down the middle. But shitty romantic comedies do something different, offering us a protagonist who is nothing more than a blank slate into which female viewers can project themselves. It’s ironic that so many of these women name Pride and Prejudice as one of their favorite books, as that novel cleverly subverts its readers’ expectations by making the protagonist as much a source of the conflict as her seemingly-difficult beau is. Perhaps the women who see Pride and Prejudice as nothing more than Mary Sue escapism are reading selectively. If you do that, you can justify almost everything.

There was a conservative Christian group several years ago that was considering rewriting the Bible to leave out all of the liberal bits. That would eliminate virtually the entire New Testament. Their reasoning may seem convoluted, but it’s actually quite simple: conservatism is always right, so if God seems to be espousing a liberal point of view, he must be mistaken. What’s that you say? God is perfect? Yeah, but even a Supreme Being can be misquoted. Jesus wants us to screw over anyone who is different. It says right there in the…actually, it doesn’t. Wait, let me pencil it in.

In a way, I admire the brazen attitude of the people who continue to hold onto beliefs that the Bible explicitly contradicts. What they’re saying is that they love their prejudices more than anything else, including God. I wish Democrats believed in anything that strongly. God may love everyone equally, but I’m pretty sure there are times when He is banging His head against the wall. Hey, He created us. As imperfect beings, I would imagine that we are the only things that an omnipotent, omniscient entity can’t comprehend (assuming, of course, that He exists.) It’s like Doctor Who (you didn’t think I’d make it through an entire post without mentioning that, did you?). For the first season of the New Series, Rose Tyler is a pretty good audience surrogate, providing the white, female twentysomethings in the audience with a vessel through which they can imagine themselves traversing space and time with a charming older man. In season two, she becomes downright insufferable, jeopardizing the entire universe so that she can see her father one last time and moping endlessly when her story finally comes to a close (for the time being, anyway.) Yet I know people who insist that she is still likeable then, even going so far as to call her relationship with the Doctor one of the greatest love stories. That’s only true if you like to imagine yourself as a flawless person who will inspire devotion in others no matter what you do. It requires endless justification, but isn’t that what love is all about?

Love is never easy. It requires sacrifice and making tough decisions instead of convenient ones. Jesus understood that, preaching that no matter what, you must love everyone including and especially the people who hurt you. Ayn Rand didn’t, seeing love as something to be doled out at her pleasure. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’d rather read the Bible than Atlas Shrugged.

Fun With Racism

A Japanese-American friend of mine believes that there is no more marginalized group of people in Hollywood than young Asian-American men. I believe him. That’s not going to stop me from making stupid jokes at the expense of people who are different. I’m not a racist. I just like laughing at racism. That’s an important distinction. Someone somewhere is singing this song, so I’ll just link to it and move on.

There’s an old Doctor Who serial that I really love. It’s not the most PC choice of viewing material, but God, it’s entertaining. The story involved a Chinese magician named Chang who uses his hypnotist powers to lure women underneath his theater for his master, a powerful sorcerer who is trying to regain his strength, to feed on them. That’s just one element of the story, but if I keep going, we’ll be here all day. What makes the story (which is called The Talons of Weng-Chiang for anyone who is curious) so controversial is not its characterization, which takes a stereotypical character and subverts the assumptions that others make about him (when the Doctor asks if they’ve met before, Chang responds that perhaps all Chinamen simply look the same to him), but the casting: he is played by a white man in yellowface.

On the commentary track for this episode, John Bennett, the actor who played Chang, expresses regret that the role was not given to an Asian, but no shame over taking the role. Why should he? It’s not his fault that the producers were too scared to give the role to someone with the right skin tone, and if he didn’t take it, someone else would. He’s very good, anyway, giving a convincing and nuanced performance despite the layers of makeup and the ease with which the character could become a caricature. But as my friend would no doubt point out, Asians are the only group of people left to whom Hollywood will deny roles by changing the ethnicity of the main characters. If The Talons of Weng-Chiang were made today, Chang would be played by an Asian. That’s about all that’s changed. These days, we have movies like The Last Airbender, in which the main characters should be Asian yet the lead actors are all white, and 21, which is based on a true story involving a group of Asian students that was made into a Hollywood movie starring Kevin Spacey and the Ewan McGregor lookalike from Across the Universe. Hooray for progress?

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Sometimes people use it to gloss over the problems with times gone by. I use it to cast them in a different light. I know many people who consider the 1950s a lost decade because it was a time that, on the surface, was idyllic. The world portrayed by Leave It to Beaver and memorialized by countless retro diners was a perfect place to live if you were white, male, straight, and Christian. Otherwise, it could be pretty rough. But I’m not going to hold that against the white, straight, male Christians who lived through that period so long as they remember that their comfort came at a cost. Some people feel guilty for the sins of their fathers. I say it’s never too late to make amends.

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is The Venture Bros. It’s an absolutely hysterical Adult Swim show that parodies Jonny Quest, The Fantastic Four, and about a million other targets. I’ve never watched Jonny Quest; I just love the idea of taking everything that viewers loved as kids and mocking it shamelessly. What is the past for if not to be dissected and viewed from every possible angle? Just don’t overdo it. You’ll forget what the main purpose of learning history is: to inform the future.

I’ll close with a video clip I was directed to recently by one of my favorite humor writers. This is basically what would happen if you gave a bunch of twelve year-old kids a budget and adult actors who were willing to perform in their film. It’s hilarious in ways that are simply impossible for any parodist to mimic. The “ninjas” look like rejects from Mortal Kombat on their way to a Pride Parade. Their weapons of choice are time-honored ninja weapons like pole-arms and boomerangs. It’s hilarious, is what I’m trying to say, and more than that, it takes me back to a simpler time, a time when I didn’t give a shit about things like that because I just wanted to play with my toys. Adults can revisit that if they like. They just have to remember that some of those toys were banned for good reason.