Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Ears Have It

I just took the 10-year-old daughter of a friend to see "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." It was slight but sweet, with an especially charming performance by Dustin Hoffman (though as an aside, I do wish he'd return to material that's really worthy of him).

But my real interest in the movie concerns Zach Mills, who plays Mr. Magorium's eccentric young friend. Is there an unwritten but ironclad rule in Hollywood that all precocious little boys MUST have gigantic ears? The kind you're always staring at, because they're so freakish? (Remember the kid in 'Witness'?) This seems to me a rare form of exploitation. "Casting, get me a boy. I don't care who, just so his ears are huge. Like Spock, or one of the Seven Dwarfs. That way he'll be cute, and the audience will feel a little sorry for him. It'll also make him look smart, because with ears like that, you'd damn well better be smart." I imagine an audition room crowded with hundreds of big-eared boys, each one accompanied by a stage mother who is grateful that her boy's Dumbo-like appendages might finally come in handy.

As I'm typing this I'm wondering if this prejudice toward outfitting smart, socially inept boys with huge ears is a nod to the vulnerability all of us feel as kids. In some ways, I suppose we all had monstrous ears attached to our heads, if only metaphorically.

Still, I say enough. No more funny ears. It's a form of child abuse. Worse, like any cliche, it's so unimaginative.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Liberals: Can You Even Call Them Real Americans? Vote Now.

When I walk on the treadmill at my local gym, I like to zone out by watching one of the several TV screens mounted on the wall. But choices are limited. I can watch soaps, I can watch any of a variety courtroom shows (Judge Judy, Divorce Court, the youngish white woman, the middle-aged black guy), I can watch MTV, or I can watch Fox News. I abhor Fox News, but the other shows bore me, so I'm stuck.

Recent Fox headlines and near-headlines:

Does Being First Lady Qualify You to be President? (Ahem. Get it?) We'll Ask Laura Bush.

How One Town Destroyed Christmas with Its Ban on Colored Outdoor Lights.

Watch this Footage of Illegals Scurrying Across the Border. Is Prison the Only Answer?

Smashing Individual Liberties by Refusing to Hire Smokers. Good Idea or Bad? And How Upset Would You Be?

Why Socialized Medicine is Bad for Your (Financial) Health.

The Clintons: Evil or Merely Deluded? You Decide. (OK, I'm making this one up, but only barely.)

Depressing, from any kind of objective journalistic viewpoint. I know, I know, but I wish somebody would tell me again: how do they justify this stuff?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

So is it okay to call Hillary Clinton a "bitch"? The question came up when some woman referred to Clinton that way at a McCain fundraiser. "How do we beat the bitch?" she asked McCain. (To his credit, McCain was reportedly taken aback.)

But to the point. Since people call Hillary Clinton a bitch all the time, it's beyond futile to ask if it's alright. Of course it's not; that's why people do it. Being transgressive means breaking rules, not following them, even if the rule-breaking is, as in this case, so unimaginative. The question is, why do so many Clinton opponents, men and women both, need to spice up their anti-Hillary zingers with such gender-specific, sexually loaded language? Hillary's not an asshole, not a jerk, not a bastard, not a freak. She's a bitch. Only women can be bitches, and only certain types of women - those who exhibit symptoms of PMS 24/7, who are pushy, who are ambitious. Those who are, well, like Hillary Clinton. Uppity women. You know the type.

Well, well. For a woman like me, who's never been much of an overt feminist, this is a sad and revealing state of affairs. We're still ambivalent about women in this society, aren't we? It's taken Hillary Clinton to make me see just how infantile we still are. I'm no great fan of Clinton's, but I feel sorry for her. How much misguided, misdirected and poorly understood hatred is one figure supposed to absorb?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Athiesm, on Trial Again, with Baba

The cc'ing of emails can be a fascinating thing. It lets you glimpse bits and pieces of conversations that aren't yours, but that perhaps you have influenced, and then fill in the mysterious gaps with imagined dialogue. My friend Baba recently started and then abruptly ended some email correspondence with someone named Ted, who appears to be the son or nephew of somebody with a Polish email address (you got me; I don't know him.) The topic: God. Baba has always had something of a problem with him.

From Baba to Ted, cc'd to me:

BABA: Your uncle Bill has in the past forwarded some of his exchanges with you and I found them fascinating. I would very much love to engage in discussion with you but my Parkinson afflictions which has long prevented me from speaking properly is now extended to my typing where because of the tremors I double and triple strike the keys. Rather than attempt discourse I will shoot you a relevant reflection on scattered thoughts that I have now and then.

Andy Rooney said if his house was in flames... there is one book he would attempt to salvage from his library: Walter Lippmann's "A Preface to Morals". I have since read the book and concur with Andy... It is perhaps the most important book I've ever read. Suggest you do the same. Here is some of that exchange:

That exchange was with me. I had read the book at his behest, but he was bewildered by my feeling that it was a "period piece." I had written in explanation:

ME: You're absolutely right about the eternal nature of the book. Lippmann was very prescient in predicting that the loss of religious certainty would leave many people feeling unmoored. It's only a period piece in that he was right there, historically speaking, when the great shift was beginning to happen, and so speaks from the point of view of a very erudite guy who sees a cataclysm coming and doesn't know how it will all play out. You can actually tell how worried he is. Another thing I really love about the book is that it sums up religious history in a way I hadn't seen done before, and makes it so obvious (though Lippmann would never say so, exactly), that religion is an artifact of culture, reflecting us at every period of our development.

He had written back:

BABA: The Freudian notion that God is a projection of child/parent relationships is something with which I've long been familiar... but the further idea that the organization of governments in heaven historically reflect governments and societies on earth was a real mind-blower.

What I wrote in response to Baba's note to Ted:

ME: A few thoughts on this topic.

A while ago I read 'Letter to a Christian Nation' by Sam Harris, and found it quite interesting and challenging, though not always entirely convincing. In fact, in the last 10 years I've read any number of books about religion (including the Bible) in my own quest to understand the story that religion tells and what relevance it has to everyday modern life. I've sought to understand if there was something in it, some kernel, that I could really believe, because faith as a concept is so empty and cynical, at least to me. 'Faith' announces its very hollowness and dares you to
call it what it really is. Instead I wanted to find something in religion, down in the heart of it, that I knew instinctively to be true. I wanted to find something irreducible in it - an idea or fundamental truth - that could explain why modern, scientifically minded people are still carrying out these rituals and proclaiming these beliefs.

This quest was important to me only because the human impulse toward the sacred is so pronounced, at least in me and my life, and because religion offers a hallowed contemplative space that simply isn't available elsewhere.

Say what you will, but I've found this to be absolutely true - religion fills a social and personal function that is utterly unique. This is really the enduring appeal of religion, I've come to see. The discussion can't simply be about the religious claims that athiests get so hung up on.

Anybody can see that most of the "facts" of religion are either unverifiable or easily debunked. It's about the opportunities that religion gives us to think about ourselves, our obligations, and our destiny (and, in Christianity, to hold ourselves up against a model of pure goodness and rectitude, which is what Jesus functions as). And, in the community of a congregation, to join our best intentions with the best intentions of others for purposes that seem not exactly human, but divine.

It's obvious that people who are motivated by God will indeed manage to do things they wouldn't have done otherwise - they're unreasoning, for better or worse.

Either way, it's a powerful and seductive source of energy. I wonder if religious aptitude, so to speak, is like any other human trait - one either has it or doesn't. If one has, no intellectual attack on religion can truly matter. And a great many of us have it. We can try to rid ourselves of it, but we can't quite do it. Believe me, I know. And to the extent that our personal religious expression leads us to act pro-socially (excuse the annoying jargon), that probably isn't a bad thing. To the extent that it makes us stupid and destructive, it is undeniably a bad thing. (Look at social policy in the Bush administration to see how ridiculous religion can make us.)

What he wrote to Ted, who apparently wanted to argue the merits of athiesm:

BABA: This is getting funny. I was nudged into the discussion by your uncle (the one with the the Polish web address). To be fair to the process I would have to beg off since any respectable reply will require too much typing.

But a few quick points... I have been in NUMEROUS debates with atheists over the years except it was always I who was the atheist.

I have since come to realize that there must be a great deal more to this universe than meets the eye. I am content to call it "the great spirit" and let it go at that. Makes me feel good. Makes me feel joined. Gives me a feeling of reverence and humility. Gives me a sense of community and proves nothing!

Don't sweat it. You're an intelligent kid with an inquiring mind and as you continue to probe you'll experience many twists and turns in the years ahead.

You don't have to sell me atheism. On the limited level that it's debated, I already buy the dreary argument. It's just that I've come to realize after 80 years that this puny little ball of cottage cheese above my eyes is simply not up to the task of comprehending that awesome immensity out there. But I reverence it knowing that I, as a diminutive speck of star-stuff, am somehow co-generated and connected with it all. And it is precisely that mysterious connection that inspires in me what others might call religious feeling.

No more proofs. On the limited level of "proving" things, I'm already on your side.


And that is where we've come to rest. I'm with you, Baba. I'm with you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Whose Culture is the 'Culture of Death'?

Read this...

Family-planning advocates criticize President Bush's appointment of a contraceptive critic to be head of the federal program responsible for providing birth-control funding and other family-planning services to the poor.

Susan Orr, associate commissioner of the Health & Human Services (HHS) Admin. on Children, Youth & Families Children's Bureau, is moving to a new position. Orr has accepted a transfer to become director of the Office of Population Affairs (OPA) in the Office of Public Health & Science. In her new position, Orr will advise HHS on a wide range of reproductive health topics. She will oversee Title X, the nation's family-planning program.

Family-planning advocates denounce the appointment. Orr currently is on the board of directors of Teen Choice, a nonprofit group advocating for abstinence in lieu of contraception.

Before joining the Bush administration, she was senior director for marriage and family care at the Family Research Council (a religious advocacy group founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family), and director of the Center for Social Policy at the Reason Public Policy Institute. Orr has been criticized for public statements about her views on contraception.

In 2000, while working as a policy director at the Family Research Council, she objected to a Washington, DC, city council bill requiring health insurers to pay for contraceptives. By not including a "conscience clause" allowing employers to withhold contraceptive coverage, Orr said the council would force employers "to make a choice between serving God and serving the DC government."

"It's not about choice. It's not about healthcare. It's about making everyone collaborators with the culture of death," she said.

And this is exactly how religion poisons politics. One appointment at a time, often under the radar. I'd say the Bush experiment with God is complete: religion practiced as policy makes people stupid, and worse yet, makes them proud of being stupid. The stupider they are, the more God loves them. And if they end up martyred by the secular hordes, God will love them even more. It's the ultimate win-win. It's easy, in the above appointment, to see who loses.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pro-Lifers, Get Serious

Garry Wills was on Talk of the Nation today. The discussion was about whether abortion is or is not a religious issue. He says it's not, because it isn't specifically addressed in the Bible, and besides, we humans happily engage in mass killing just about all the time, so let's not be so squeamish. (He didn't use those words, of course, but that's what he was saying in essence.)

I completely agree with him, even while wondering what his opinion might be if the Bible did proscribe abortion.

I've never had an abortion, and given what I know about myself, that's a very good thing. My heart would have been broken - by the procedure itself, and by the circumstances that would have necessitated it. Luckily for me, those circumstances never arose. And that's why my opinion shouldn't count for very much: I don't have the right to settle a question for others that I never had to face myself.

Not to say that others don't have this right. I'm willing to give it to them, for a price. But this is what I need from them first: some real commitment. That's right, all you pro-lifers out there. I will never take you seriously until I see you actually inconveniencing yourself for your pro-life principles. Here are some ways you might prove yourself to me:

  • adopt a child no one else wants; there are lots of them. These excess living children could use your assistance.

  • demand an end to our adventure in Iraq, which has killed untold numbers of innocent civilians (all already born and living on the planet at the time of their deaths).

  • become a vegetarian. (Ever seen photographs of "factory farm" chickens? It's genocide on a mass scale.)

  • write a 1,000-word essay describing what our society would be like if abortion were outlawed. Compare and contrast statistics from countries were abortion is currently legal/illegal. Describe maternal death and injury due to backstreet abortions. Face the fact that, if you got the society you say you want, it would look different from the one you enjoy now: more unwanted children, either raised by inadequate mothers or an inadequate social service system (one is as bad as the other, if you know anything at all about foster care), and growing up to foist upon society all their well-deserved furies and confusions. Graph and color-code all this, and get back to me with conclusions that for once are founded in reality, not theatrical religious impulses.

  • explain to me why we value some lives more than others. Don't deny it; we do. There are those of us in favor of keeping a brain-dead woman alive in Florida, at vast expense, and at the same time denying poor children insurance. Figure that one out.

Do all this, and I'll begin to listen. But not until then. Not one moment before then.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

So You Want to Live 'Biblically'?

Every few weeks, I run out of books to read. This always strikes me as a terrible calamity, which I remedy immediately by running to the local used bookstore, or by checking out what's new at our tiny local library, or by falling back, if the crisis is acute, on old issues of The New Yorker.

But tonight it's too late to go searching for a new book to buy or borrow. In moments like this, I resort to thinking about books I've read about. Often these aren't books I would be inclined to read, or at least not all the way through - but something about them has piqued my interest.

One of these books is 'A Year of Living Biblically,' which is by some guy I've never read before who seems to want to have it both ways - on the one hand, to make a semi-serious attempt to live every one of the Bible's rules, and on the other, to make a book-length joke about the absurdity of the whole project. In some promo, he's on a New York street with a shepherd's crook, a Moses beard, and a live sheep. Profound, huh?

I know, the book's gotten some good reviews, but I can't help thinking that's because none of us knows what to think of religion anymore. Is it, after all, a joke? Is it - any of it - worth taking seriously?

I've had a project in mind - I brought it up with David a couple of years ago. I'd just finished a biography of St. Theresa of Lisieux, who was so intent on self-effacement that she put herself last in line for everything, even when it was her turn to be first. She asked for the most unpalatable food, took the worst chores, befriended the most unlikable of her fellow nuns. Perhaps there was something self-consciously showy about some of her sacrifices, but this last bit - seeking out the company of unpleasant people, of bores - was exactly what Jesus was talking about.

Could any of us do the same, even as a temporary experiment? David has always complained about a particularly tiresome co-worker of his, an incessant moper who is always regaling someone in the office with the details of his most recent crisis. A misery sponge - that's what people call him behind his back.

I asked David if he thought, even for one day, he could make a project of this guy - sit down and talk with him, laugh, commiserate, be a friend. Give him the attention he so obviously craves. Just out of ... love, I suppose. The word, of course, made David cringe. The project didn't appeal to him. He could be good in other ways, he thought - any other way. But not this one.

But, if any of us really feels like taking the Bible seriously (and given that we can't stop talking about this very decrepit book, I assume some of us do), then what else is there? You can dress up in shepherd's outfits all you want, but actual kindness - the kind that puts us out and makes us uncomfortable - is the only act that counts. It's the only one required.

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