Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Source of book: Audiobook from the library, then book from the library

This is a book that my family owned since I was a kid, but for some reason, I never read. That’s peculiar because I read just about everything I could get my hands on, and in retrospect, this seems like the sort of book I should have read. Oh well. I decided the kids and I could discover it together. 



A Wrinkle In Time was published in 1963, during the coldest part of the cold war. In some ways, it was unusual then and remains unusual now: It is a Science Fiction book by a female author featuring a female protagonist - which somehow became popular despite the deeply sexist culture of Science Fiction.

In any event, this is a children’s book, and is intended to be such. Thus, while there are deep themes, they are not dealt with in as much detail or with as much nuance as they would in a book for older readers. The narrative takes precedence, and the length of the book limits how much detail there can be. (One does wonder what the author could have done in a post-Harry Potter world, where 500 page children's books are a normal occurrence.)

The plot of the book centers around astrophysical theory - the idea that space and time are a unity, and that it is (theoretically) possible to travel across spacetime in a way as to avoid the limits of the speed of light. In the book, these are called “tesseracts,” or wrinkles in the fabric of spacetime. We might also refer to them as wormholes, or warp drive, or any of the other terms used for the same basic idea.

Meg is the oldest of four. Her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, is precocious, and has the ability to more or less read her mind. Her scientist father disappeared while working on a secret government project over a year ago, leaving behind the children and his wife, also a scientist. A mysterious woman, who calls herself Mrs. Whatsit, comes to town, and makes friends with Charles Wallace. Soon the two of them, and Calvin, a boy from Meg’s school, are whisked away on a planet hopping adventure with Mrs. Whatsit and her compatriots.

The children must visit a dark planet called Camazotz and attempt to rescue Meg and Charles Wallace’s father from a mysterious force called IT, which has taken over the planet and turned it into a dystopia of mind control and sameness.

A Wrinkle In Time has been controversial for two competing reasons. First, it is an explicitly Christian book, so it has been accused of being a bit preachy by secular critics. This criticism is both valid and a bit exaggerated, in my opinion. There is scripture quoted, often in imaginative ways, but it isn’t a book that proselytizes. And then there is the other criticism, given by some Christians, which is that it is far too ecumenical for their tastes. After all, while Christianity is the most prominent, Ghandi and Buddha and secular giants get named as fellow fighters against the darkness. So, I guess enough to offend everyone. Or something like that.

The central idea isn’t new to the world of fiction. It is, perhaps, a timeless myth, related to the monomyth. There is a darkness that threatens to envelop the universe, and humankind (and its equivalents throughout the universe) must fight against it. Unlike in Out of the Silent Planet, Earth isn’t a truly dark planet. Instead, it is a planet that is under assault, with the outcome not yet seen.  

When the children are first shown what the darkness looks like, they ask about those who fight it.

“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at the triumphantly.
And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
“Leonardo da Vinci? Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”
“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Ghandi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”

This is, I suspect, the passage that caused all the pearl clutching. The idea that others who are not of the same faith might be fighting the darkness, or that the fight might not just be to make converts is a bit incomprehensible to those who have been immersed in a tribalist vision of religion.

Even more controversial, though, might be the author’s idea of what the darkness is, at least if one were to think about it. The darkness is evil incarnate, if you will, as the author makes clear, but it is in its manifestation on Camazotz that it’s true nature becomes evident.

The most powerful scene in the book for me was the neighborhood that the children walk through when they arrive. Children are out playing, but everything is done to the same rhythm. It is a mechanistic play, done by cogs in a machine.

Except for one boy.

This boy, for whatever reason, is not bouncing his ball in time with the others. Later, they find he has been discovered, and is being tortured into conforming, as are all those who are unable or unwilling to be assimilated.

As Charles Wallace says after he is captured by the hive mind (thus speaking for IT, not himself):

“On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike. Differences create problems.”

The Communist parallel is obvious, of course. The individual doesn’t matter, only the State, and only the collective good. That is both the terror and the selling point of the Communist cult.

But it is also both the attraction and evil of totalitarian systems of all kind. The key feature of totalitarianism is a control of the individual for the good of the group. And not just the prevention or punishment of certain antisocial tendencies (such as murder, theft, etc.), but a complete control of every aspect of life and thought. It is a belief that difference is the source of problems.

I don’t think (and I don’t think L’Engle intends) that totalitarianism is the only kind of evil. But it is a particularly pernicious one. As Solzhenitsyn once said (more or less), murder of a few is commonplace, but to murder millions requires an ideology.

I was struck, however, in this book, by the way that conformity is portrayed as an evil. This very much is a threat to both the Communist ideal (where conformity and sameness is enforced by violence) and to the ideal of cults like the one I was in, where sameness and conformity in things from dress to gender roles to theology to, well, pretty darn near everything was prized. It is the same spirit, and I believe L’Engle is right that both are evil.

I will note with some regret that L’Engle is also right that there are those who fight, not against evil, but on the side of evil.

Whether it is the calls for exclusion, murder, or torture of those of other religions or races - see politics this year for ample examples - or calls for the right to ostracize and punish those among us who cannot or will not conform to sameness in the matter of belief about sexuality and gender, it is the same spirit. Differences create problems, so best to eliminate differences altogether. (The Handmaid’s Tale is prescient in this regard…) 

I think that L’Engle too understood the opposite of evil, which isn’t some form of “good” or “righteousness,” but love. The only way to rescue Charles Wallace is love, because that is the one thing IT doesn’t have.

And that is the one thing totalitarian systems of all sorts do not have. And it is one thing that all calls for conformity cannot bring. Love is too messy, too individual, too empathetic, too flexible for all of these. Love doesn’t build systems and power and hierarchies, but shatters them.

And love cannot be explained or reduced to a definition.

“Who helps you?” Meg asked.
“Oh, dear, it is so difficult to explain things to you, small one. And I know now that it is not just because you are a child. The other two are as hard to reach into as you are. What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars helps us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.”

And that is why there is the whole list of diverse names of those who fight the darkness. Because love isn’t some creed that excludes all else, and it isn’t something that can be reduced to a formula. Those who fight on the side of love just know, and it is something that those who fight on the side of darkness do not know, and indeed cannot know. I could pretty much quote all of I John at this point, but this will do: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” May we always choose to fight on the side of love, rather than evil.

My kids enjoyed this book, and want to read the sequels. One note on how we experienced it: we started off with an audiobook read by the author. This got mixed reviews from the kids. Some thought her voice was good - and she was expressive. Others thought it was a bit grating, and I will concede it was more of gravel than of velvet. I liked it, but your mileage may vary. There are other audiobooks out there with other voices if you prefer. The other issue we had was that the first three disks worked, but the fourth did not. Thus, we returned it and I read the kids the rest of the book myself. No reviews on the narrator in this case, fortunately…






Monday, June 20, 2016

You Can't Take It With You by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

This was my third live play at The Empty Space this year already - they’ve had a great season.

Previous Empty Space productions:


I attended this one with my lovely and witty wife, who had always wanted to see the stage version of this one. We had seen the movie together years ago, perhaps while we were dating, I think? Anyway, this is one of those 1930s screwball comedies that seem a bit shocking in retrospect for what they got away with compared to, say 1950s television.

The Sycamore clan is an eccentric family headed up by Grandpa, who one day years ago decided that he had enough with his desk job and just quit. Also in the family are his son Paul, who tinkers and makes fireworks, Paul’s wife Penny, who writes (presumably terrible) plays. They have two daughters. Essie is an aspiring ballerina with zero talent, and is married to Ed, who is a bit dimwitted, plays the xylophone (glockenspiel was used in this version), and prints anarchist slogans which he places in Essie’s candies, which they sell. The other daughter, Alice, is the only normal person in the family. Also in the household are Mr. De Pinna, formerly the iceman, who now helps Paul make fireworks - and seems to be the victim of all the accidents that ensue; Rheba the African American maid (in a bit of an unfortunate stereotype), and Rheba’s beau, Donald.

The family all “does what they love” rather than work in a more serious manner. Except, of course, for Alice, who has an office job working for a wealthy Wall Street investor. Alice and the boss’s son fall in love, which leads to, well, complications.

Alice invites Tony and his parents to her house for dinner, but Tony intentionally comes a day early, so the families can see what the other is really like. It does not, shall we say, go well. But it goes rather hilariously. A glorious disaster of epic proportions, in no small part caused by Mr. Kolenkov, an impossibly loud Russian ex-pat, furious about the Revolution.

I won’t go further with the plot than that, other than to note that it is a comedy, so by definition must end well.

For all the hilarity, however, the heart of the play is an important question. How should a person live? Is it best to do what one loves, or does the need to make a living and contribute to society come first? Will, as Grandpa suggests, there be enough people who love to do menial but necessary tasks, or is the whole thing a pipe dream supported by the labors of others?

The Empty Space, as usual, put on an excellent production. Grandpa was played, naturally, with veteran actor and director Bob Kempf, a true fixture in local theater here for decades. Jesus Fidel was hilarious as the ill-starred Mr. De Pinna. Tessa Ogles shined as the earnest Alice. Alex Mitts (son of a legal colleague) did a fine job as the straight man of the play. I also must mention Kevin McDonald, who did such an amazing job as Malvolio in Twelfth Night last year, as the uptight Mr. Kirby. McDonald is somehow perfect when he winds himself as tight as can be, with a delightfully dry aspect. (In his program bio, he had to say what he loved, which was “Kevin McDonald loves writing program notes about himself in the third person…”

Alas for all, we went on the last weekend, so no chance to go see this in person. However, there is a new show every month or so, including In The Heights (by the writer of Hamilton) in July, so come on down if you are in the area. Wherever you are, I encourage you to support your local theater. 

Mr. De Pinna (Jesus Fidel) 
(The Empty Space publicity photo)

Ed Carmichael (Perrin Swanson)


Tony Kirby (Alex Mitts) and Alice Sycamore (Tessa Ogles)
Mr. Kirby (Kevin McDonald)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

If You Support Anti-LGBTQ "Religious Freedom" Laws, You Aren't Really Different from Omar Mateen

Do not plot harm against your neighbor,
    who lives trustfully near you.
Do not accuse anyone for no reason—
    when they have done you no harm. (Proverbs 3:29-30 NIV)


I promised myself I would take a week to cool off before writing this post, and I did. I admit I was rather burning when I saw the “outpourings of sympathy” for the victims of the Orlando shooting from people who make their living inciting hate against LGBTQ people - often while omitting to note that this was a hate crime. Yup, the Religious Right has largely made this about kicking all the Muslims out (despite the fact that Omar Mateen was born in the US), while panicking about calls on the Left for gun control.

But let us make no mistake about this: This was a hate crime - domestic terrorism - perpetrated deliberately against LGBTQ people.

I cannot see any reason to sugarcoat this fact, or make the specious claim that this was a crime against “America.” The shooter was not targeting “Americans,” he was targeting LGBTQ people. Period. Just like Dylann Roof wasn’t targeting “Americans,” he was targeting African Americans. This isn’t hard to understand.

It’s just hard to say when you yourself have been deliberately targeting LGBTQ people for harm. And the problem is, many of you on the religious right have been targeting LGBTQ people for harm, just like Omar Mateen.

I’m not going to pull punches here:

If you support the so-called “Religious Freedom” laws giving you the right to harm LGBTQ people, you really aren’t different from Omar Mateen. You just want to harm more slowly and in a way you don’t have to see the results.

***

Let me start with this: The dictionary definition of “hate” is “feel intense or passionate dislike for (someone)” Synonyms include loathing, disgust, shrinking from, finding intolerable, and so on.

A “hate crime” is one committed as a result of one’s prejudice against a particular group. If you want to put the two together, it is a crime committed because of the intense, passionate dislike for a group, motivated by one’s loathing and disgust for that group. Obviously, a hate crime requires a crime.

But I want to go a little further. The essence of hate in action is action or inaction with the intent to harm someone based on one’s loathing and disgust for that person’s group.

Given that, we can say the following: the Omar Mateen was demonstrating hate in action. His loathing and disgust for LGBTQ people (and perhaps himself - see below) let him to take action to harm them.

But we can also say this: a person who lets a gay person drown because of his loathing for LGBTQ people is also demonstrating hate in action - or at least inaction. It isn’t a crime (there is no duty to rescue in most cases) but it is certainly a moral and ethical violation. (Saint James, for example, makes it clear in his screed against the wealthy that their failure to care for the poor was sin: ‘If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them.”

Let me lay it out, then:

One who actively or passively seeks to harm someone because of loathing, disgust, intense and passionate dislike, is demonstrating hatred it action.

I’m so sick of Christians taking this raw hatred and calling it “love.” No, it isn’t. It’s hate. It’s a need to control other people. It’s fear that God will smite you if you don’t hate. It’s fear you might change your mind about a cherished theological sacred cow if you act compassionately.

***

Let me look at these so-called “religious freedom” laws. I’m particularly noting the laws recently passed in Mississippi and North Carolina. (I’ll talk about the transgender aspects of the laws in future posts.) There have also been laws that were narrowly defeated (or vetoed) in Indiana and Kansas - and more are proposed elsewhere.

I believe it is crucial to actually look at what the laws say, not just what some conservative pundit says they say. If you actually read the laws, they broadly exempt from anti-discrimination laws ANYONE who denies goods or services based on their belief that sex should only be between a man and a woman within the bounds of marriage.


Think about that for a minute. Haven’t we experienced this before in our history? Like, say, up until 50 years ago?

***

I keep hearing people claim that these laws are just about being forced to “participate” in same-sex weddings. Again, read the text.

And take a look at these cases:

  1. Guy with an auto repair shop won’t serve gays.  But he will give you a discount if you bring your gun. Because he can’t bring himself to associate with “sinners.”
  2. A pediatrician declined to accept a child as a patient because her parents were lesbian.  Her excuse? Well, she couldn’t form a good doctor/parent relationship. Because LGBTQ people are too loathsome to treat with ordinary courtesy and professionalism, apparently; and not even the needs of a child overcome that loathing.
  3. Police chief with a good record is summarily fired by the mayor, because she is lesbian. 

This is clearly far beyond baking a cake or (in my own case) playing a little music at a wedding.

This is about denying LGBTQ people basic access to society. It is nothing less than Jim Crow in a new situation.

Let me just note that Christians are so very quick to cry “persecution” for all kinds of silly things. But I bet they would be screaming bloody murder if they were actually being denied employment, housing, medical care for their kids, and basic goods and services. And I agree, this would be persecution. Real persecution. 

So why are Christians so eager to persecute others?

Let’s not sugar coat this either. If you deny a person housing, employment, health care, goods and services, isn’t that likely to risk their death? I mean really, if everyone did it - and if everyone was that kind of “Christian,” that’s what would happen - wouldn’t it be near impossible to survive?

And hey, this actually happened to African Americans. If you haven’t, read W.E.B Du Bois's book The Souls of Black Folk and read about how his toddler son died from cholera because he couldn’t get medical care. An educated, middle class African American, and his son died because of Jim Crow.

Do you really believe that this won’t happen to LGBTQ people in some parts of this country? Don’t you see that if everyone thought like this, it would cause real, tangible damage to people?

***

Let’s go back to Omar Mateen. He appears to have believed that he was doing God’s Will™ by harming LGBTQ people.

When you deny goods, services, housing, employment, and health care to LGBTQ people, are you not doing the same thing? Harming someone in the name of God?

***
Why supporting the law is as bad as discriminating yourself.

Freedom does not exist in a vacuum. Freedom is a right to do or not do something. And a government guaranteed freedom is one which has the force of law behind it.

Let me give a good example from our history:

Some Southerners are real quick to claim that the Civil War was about “State’s Rights.” But rights do not just exist as an intangible. We were and are talking about a specific right that was considered worth dying for: the right to own another human being.

This isn’t really up for debate. The Confederates had no illusions about this, but were clear and open that they were fighting to preserve and extend slavery. (Please, please read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ outstanding longform article in The Atlantic and check the primary sources, which he links.)  It is also rather beyond dispute that the South thought it was on the side of Almighty God, defending the good against evil.

Likewise, in this case, look at what “Religious Freedom” means. Freedom to do what?

Deny people employment

Deny people housing

Refuse to sell goods or services

Refused to do one’s job as a government employee

Deny people and their children medical care

Exclude people from society

And why?

Because they do not share your beliefs about what they should or should not do with their genitals.

That’s what this is about. It is about expressing hatred by harming others. In the name of God.

That’s a big problem.

And it’s the same basic problem with what Omar Mateen did.

It is based on the belief that one’s god requires one to harm others.

It is based on fear that if one does not express hate toward others, god will retaliate. 

And don’t try to fall back on the “they can just go somewhere else” bullcrap. If you succeed in converting the entire world to your religion, they won’t have anywhere to go. You are really just counting on the fact that other people aren’t as much of an Asshole for Jesus™ as you are. That’s shameful.

And when you advocate for the government to protect people’s right to harm others in the name of religion, you are standing by watching as others use their religion to harm others. It’s as if you sold the gun to Mateen knowing he would go gun people down. Either way, you are standing by and watching people be harmed when you could have prevented it.

Don’t think for a minute that with these laws in place there won’t be pressure brought to bear on businesses who choose to serve LGBTQ people either. The long history of “Christian” boycotts of corporations for the unspeakable evil of providing health benefits to same sex partners should be ample evidence that - particularly in some communities - serving an LGBTQ person would be the equivalent of serving an African American back in Jim Crow. Basically economic suicide.

***

The thing is, at heart it is the same. It’s just less messy.

Mateen watched his victims bleed and die. That’s messy.

But the person who turns away a child from their medical practice probably won’t see that child die because of a curable condition missed because the child couldn’t get primary care.

But the person who refuses to employ LGBTQ people probably won’t have to watch that person succumb to hunger.

But the person who refuses to rent to LGBTQ people won’t have to see that person freeze under a bridge. (For what it is worth, 40% of homeless teens are LGBTQ.)

And one step removed from that, since I don’t own rental property, a medical practice, or have employees, I can pretend that my vote for a “Religious Freedom” law won’t harm anyone, even though I really should know better.

And I won’t have to watch an LGBTQ person commit suicide in despair either, most likely.

As a society, we have a various points recognized that minorities of all sorts are and have always been at risk for harm from the majority. Hence, we have the Civil Rights laws and their various relatives. We have employee protection laws, consumer protection laws, and so on. Without these, the powerful inevitably prey on the weak.

Just as we can’t say, “well, it wasn’t my factory that blew up,” we can’t just say “well, I didn’t fire that person.” We make the laws, and we are responsible for their effects, whether we want to be or not.

When we support laws like this, we are no different than the person who did not own slaves personally, but stood up and fought for the right of others to do so. We rightfully condemn that person for being on the side of evil. 

***

Oh, and before I forget: if you supported Ted Cruz, you actually went further. I posted at more length here, but the bottom line is this. Cruz (and Jindal and Huckabee) spoke at a conference put on by Kevin Swanson, who has openly called for the execution of LGBTQ people. 

Cruz was asked about this before appearing at the conference, and refused to answer the question. He knowingly chose to link himself with someone who has called for exactly what Omar Mateen did. 


***

It shouldn’t be too hard to see what is going on here. For so long, Evangelicalism has taught that a legitimate expression of the Christian religion is to condemn and persecute those who do not follow the same sexual rules.

Not just that, but a good Christian must take every opportunity to express his or her displeasure to other people for their sexual choices. Otherwise, the Christian is deemed to be “participating” in their sin. That this only applies to sexual rules is pretty evident.

But isn’t that what is going on here? Don’t you believe that your god requires you to express displeasure to others about their sexual behavior, and bring god’s wrath to bear on them?

And isn’t that what Omar Mateen did?

***

Bottom line: when you harm others - or give others permission to do that harm - in the name of your god, you really aren’t different from Omar Mateen. You just lie to yourself better.

Clive James once said about those who venerated Leon Trotsky, “It followed, or seemed to follow, that Trotsky must have embodied a more human version of the historic force that sacrificed innocent people to egalitarian principle: a version that would sacrifice fewer of them, in a nicer way. Alas, it followed only if the facts were left out.”

The quote is apropos here. Omar Mateen sacrificed innocent people to the principle that God Hates Fags. “Religious Freedom” laws are the Trotsky to Mateen’s Stalin. While they pretend to sacrifice fewer people, and in a nicer way, this only is true if the facts were left out.

So, if you are one of those who expressed sympathy for the victims, ask yourself if you aren't really just trying to do the same thing, in a "nicer" way.

***


As should be pretty obvious, persecution of LGBTQ people is driven - like all hate - by fear. Yoda got it right, and is still right today:


Note on a common objection:

I’m sure I will hear the objection that Mateen didn’t give his victims a chance to repent. Thus, persecuting LGBTQ people with “Religious Freedom” laws might lead at least some of them to repent. If you are sure of hell as conscious eternal torment, then perhaps this makes sense. Inflict pain and suffering on people now, maybe save their souls…

Hey, you know what? Someone already did this better!

Ever heard of the Inquisition?

Here’s how it worked: accuse someone of a crime, like, say, for sake of argument, “sodomy.” You don’t even need proof. Just torture the person until they confess. Once they do, a bit more torture is all that is needed to get them to “repent” in order to stop the pain. Then, before they have a chance to recant, execute them for the crime. It’s perfect! Just inflict pain now, save their eternal soul, and you can feel good that you just tortured and murdered someone in God’s name. Hey, it “worked” before…

See, you want to do the same thing. Inflict pain. Ostracism, exclusion, homelessness, starvation, lack of medical care. That’ll cause repentance, right?

(I’m not joking either. John MacArthur recommends this to parents of LGBTQ kids.) 

***

Note on Consistency:

When I have discussed this issue with others, I have found that there is a class of people who have strong libertarian beliefs. The ones who are intellectually honest will eventually admit - or concede - that the same arguments in favor of “Religious Freedom” laws also apply to Jim Crow. If it is okay to deny a lesbian a job because your religion tells you to, then isn’t it okay to deny an African American a job because your religion tells you to? 

***

Note on Omar Mateen:

It has come out that Mateen frequented the club he shot up, and had connected to same sex (potential) partners using hookup apps. There is at least an inference to be drawn that he may well have been gay, and that his response to the despair of being condemned by his religion pushed him in the direction of projecting his self-hatred onto others and murdering them. 

***

Other relevant posts:


And, my series on Dominionism, which I believe explains why the Religious Right believes that “free exercise of religion” means forcing other people to follow their religious rules.


And one I have linked before from atheist Neil Carter. I (obviously) don't agree with all his conclusions, but there is a lot of truth in this post. I personally have experienced all four of the forms of toxic "love" he describes, from friends and even family. 

Your Love Is Toxic

Link addition, June 22, 2016:

Interesting analysis by fivethirtyeight.com (Nate Silver's site) on the frequency of hate crimes by group. On a population percentage basis, hate crimes against LGBTQ people are several times greater than against African Americans and Jews, who are the next most common. 



http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/hate-crimes-against-lgbt-people-are-sadly-common/