Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

 Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book certainly qualifies, as I had no idea it existed. 

Our club had mixed feelings about this book, with some liking it, and others finding a bit meh. My personal opinion is that it was a good premise, but went on about twice as long as it needed to. 


My understanding is that Haig based the book on his own struggle with depression - and decided to make the protagonist female to distance the character from himself a bit. For that reason, the book resonated with those of our club who have had issues with depression, and the gradual exit from the bad places they have been. 


The premise is similar to ideas that have been done before - between our various club members, we came up with plenty of books, stories, and television that used the same basic idea. However, it was portrayed in an interesting way. 


Nora Seed lives a kind of crummy life, particularly compared to what she had hoped for at various times. Things spiral after her cat dies, she loses her job, and everyone around her seems to be distant from her. She attempts suicide, and finds herself in the “midnight library,” a sort of place in between life and death. A quantum multiverse something, one might say. The library has an infinity of books, which are the infinite number of ways her life would have been had she made different choices. She gets to try these various lives, coming back to the library as soon as she becomes disappointed with the other life. The library is curated by a woman who appears to be Mrs. Elm, Nora’s childhood school librarian, although she is more of a stand-in for God or the Universe or whatever you believe. 


Eventually, Nora is able to do a number of things which result in her returning to her actual life with a better attitude and a chance to live. First, she gets to read over her “book of regrets.” She has a lot, shall we say. I mean, we all do, but a lot of Nora’s problem is that she tends to focus on her regrets. Ironically, these have not helped her to make better decisions. 


The thing is, as she explores these other lives, her regrets slowly disappear, as she realizes that whatever gains she may have made with other decisions, there are always tradeoffs. And, in reality, many of her “regrets” aren’t actually based on facts at all. 


The first example is her regret at not keeping her cat inside. But as it turns out, the cat wasn’t hit by a car, he died of a heart defect. So her beating herself up over his death turns out to be based on a false idea. She wasn’t actually at fault. Likewise, many of the paths she might have taken would not have led to happiness for her. The man she might have married was - as she suspected - an alcoholic. Her instinct turned out to be right. Had she stayed in her brother’s band, they would have made it bigtime. But it would have destroyed her brother. Had she continued to swim competitively, she would have been great at it, but she would have become fake and faux-happy. 


And on and on. And that is my biggest complaint. The book just kept going with scenario after scenario, when the point would have been made with fewer. The other thing that was a bit grating is that in most of the scenarios, she would have been fantastic at something. For most of us...we aren’t. We are just deeply mediocre - and that’s okay! I will never be athletic, good looking, brilliant, or rich. But an ordinary life is nothing to complain about. 


The Sylvia Plath quote that opens the book speaks to this point.


“I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.”


That’s the dilemma, right? We humans kind of do want all those experiences. But we are finite, and coming to peace with that is part of accepting who we are and embracing the lives we have. 


There is also a scenario where Nora accepts her friend’s invite to visit in Australia. Things do not go as planned, alas. The friend is killed in a car accident, and Nora spirals into depression. Mrs. Elm assures here that there was nothing wrong with her choice - it was a good one. 


“It just shows you, doesn’t it?”

“Shows me what?”

“Well, that you can choose choices but not outcomes. But I stand by what I said. It was a good choice. It just wasn’t a desired outcome.”


In this particular scenario, the bad outcome was just rotten luck. Perhaps an example of the Butterfly Effect. But there are other things that Nora cannot change because other people are...who they are. Her ex-fiance Dan is still an alcoholic with a mean streak. (And it was good judgment to end the engagement.) Her father may end up doing different things in different scenarios, but he is still a jerk. Is it “better” if he dies of a heart attack (as in the main life) or ends up cheating on his wife and marrying a much younger woman? Who knows? But the one thing is clear: he is who he is. Nothing Nora can do or could have done changes that. Part of her coming to terms with her life is to understand that truth. 


This is one I have really been wrestling with myself over the last decade. I have some regrets regarding my choices, but not that many. (I’m not impulsive, so I don’t have a history of bad decisions.) I do, however, have a LOT of regrets about outcomes. There are a lot of things about my life that I wish had gone differently. But realistically, there were no choices that I could have made that would have led to the outcomes I desired. And some of the choices that I might have made (and sometimes wish I had) would have very likely led to an undesired outcome: I probably would not have met and married my wife, which would have been tragic indeed. In thinking through these choices, some of the big things that have affected my life have come to mind, and one by one I have had to realistically examine if there were choices that might have resulted in better outcomes. In many of them, the choice was never mine to begin with, as I have realized. 


There is no choice I could have made that would have kept my parents from joining a patriarchal cult in my teens. 


There is no choice I could have made that would have prevented my parents from becoming increasingly reactionary and retrogressive in their politics and religion, starting in their late 30s.


There is no choice I could have made where my sister would not have been an abusive narcissist. 


There is no choice I could have made where my mother would have accepted and embraced my wife. Indeed, I do not think any actual human woman would have ever been what she wanted. 


 And some of the things I have wondered about - should I have moved out at 18? Gone to college out of state? Chosen a different career even if it meant taking on student debt? Those would probably have meant not marrying Amanda. Or, maybe if I had foreseen the future, I might have drawn a firmer line with my family before I married. But that would have just changed the timing of our battle. I doubt it would have changed the outcome. 


Nora also has a struggle I recognize. 


Nora had always had a problem accepting herself. From as far back as she could remember, she’d had the sense that she wasn’t enough. Her parents, who both had their own insecurities, had encouraged that idea.

She imagined, now, what it would be like to accept herself completely. Every mistake she had never made. Every mark on her body. Every dream she hadn’t reached or pain she had felt. Every lust or longing she had suppressed. 

She imagined accepting it all. The way she accepted nature. The way she accepted a glacier or a puffin or the breach of a whale.

She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best. 

And in doing so, she imagined what it was like to be free. 


In addition to accepting herself, Nora also has to accept the shitiness of the world.


Nora wanted to live in a world where no cruelty existed, but the only worlds she had available to her were worlds with humans in them.


I’ll end with a quote from near the end, where there are a couple pages of one-liner descriptions of her alternative lives. 


In one life her Facebook and Instagram only contained quotes from Rumi and Lao Tzu.


Let’s face it, if you are a middle-aged, middle-class white person, you know someone like that. At least one. I laughed out loud at that line. 


As I said, it was an interesting book, if a bit flawed. I think the strongest parts were the imagination in a few of the scenarios, and the very personal and experienced description of overcoming depression and the “book of regrets.” 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s “Make it a Double” selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Starting this year, because a bunch of us have a bit of extra time on our hands due to a certain malevolent virus, our hosts decided to add an optional second book for those who wanted a bit more to discuss. In this case, a number of our club members had read this and mentioned it as a humorous and well-written book. And, I have to agree with that assessment. It was a lot of fun, even though I read it in book form, rather than experience the audiobook read by Martin himself.


Born Standing Up is an autobiography, but only tells of Martin’s early life, from a little of his childhood through his career as a stand-up comedian. It ends before his movie career, which is what most of us younger (relatively speaking) sorts actually know of him. 


Thus, we hear of Martin’s first gig, at Disneyland as a kid, and his comedy theater days at Knott’s Berry Farm, before we even get to his actual solo gigs. Also interesting was the time he spent writing for the Smothers Brothers and other acts, and his connections to a number of unexpected people of the era. All of this is more fascinating than I expected, in large part because of Martin’s writing style. 


Martin does not use, nor does he need, a ghost writer. In his early career, he wrote as well as acted, and continued to write throughout his career. He also decided early on to stop borrowing jokes and routines, and make his shows completely original. All of this hard work shows in the book, because it is quite well written, excellently paced, and never boring. 


I was also struck by the fact that Martin is never even close to mean-spirited in this book. He is so overwhelmingly nice. He says kind things about his ex-girlfriends, gives credit to anyone who helped him along the way, and even shows sympathy for his dad, who was a pretty unmitigated asshole. 


One of the disadvantages of a book like this is that it is difficult - impossible actually - to capture exactly what makes Steve Martin funny. He himself admits he had difficulty getting a record contract because his schtick is very physical. Sure, he has great comedic timing, but the facts, the body language, everything put together is what makes him great. Seriously, I haven’t seen much of his early stuff, but even in his later movies, he steals his scenes by virtue of his incredible body language. My first experience of him was in Father of the Bride, many years ago, and he is hilarious as the straight man. Even with the sound off, he’s funny. 


I read it pretty quickly, because I only got it a week before our meeting, so I didn’t take many notes. There are a few moments I loved, though. One is the sign on the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm, that for a literal decade, said “Entertaiment” before someone eventually noticed. 


It was also fun to see some call-outs to people I had no idea were connected to Martin. Most notably, Bill McEuen, who worked with Martin for many years and produced several of his albums. Martin was also friends with Bill’s brother John McEuen, founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (Martin apparently was pals with them when they cut that amazing double album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken - one of my favorite discoveries as a teen, and another album that Bill produced.) 


Also surprising was that a very young Martin dated (and lost his virginity to) Stormie Omartian, who later became a popular Christian author - my mom had a few of her books over the years, if I recall, although I never read any of them. As with all his exes, Martin has nothing but kind words for her, and some belated sympathy for the abuse she endured as a child (but never told him.) It was an unexpected connection for both my wife and I - in part because it was weird to see something from our religious history meet pop culture. 


Along with reading this book, my wife had me watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with the kids. Silly to be sure, but watching Michael Caine is always fun, and, despite some dated gags, Martin’s phenomenal control of his body and face and timing is still riveting. 


This was definitely a fun, quick, light read, but one that is thoughtful and well written too. 


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Part 4: The Theofascist Narrative, aka, The Culture Wars™

This post is part four of my series on Theofascism. As I post future installments, I will list them here:


Part 1: Everybody Does It - Politics and Philosophy

Part 2: Speaking a Common Language

Part 3: Theofascism, Bigotry, and Sincere Religious Belief


Earlier this year, I wrote a post about Trumpism, and why it is classic Fascism. In that post, I gave a summary of what I call the “Fascist Narrative.” This is the story that Fascists tell themselves to justify actions of violence and oppression against those they hate. (The violence and oppression come first - but people prefer to feel good about themselves, and thus create narratives that allow them to feel that orgasmic self-righteousness as they indulge their hate and selfishness.) Here it is:


Once upon a time, there was a great nation. That great nation was strong, and powerful, and healthy, and full of goodness. Men were manly, women were feminine and knew their place in the home, and racial and religious minorities knew their place on the margins of society. 

But then, the true people of the nation were undermined by enemies within and without. This rot happened because the true people of the nation were diluted by other people, who were not the true people. Even the true people became soft, abandoning their traditional values and hierarchies. The soft liberals undermined the manliness of the men, encouraged the women to leave the home, and invited in all sorts of “those people.” 

As a result, the nation lost its greatness. 

In order to restore national greatness, traditional values must be restored, men must be men again, women must return to the home, and the true people of the nation need to wrest control of the levers of power back from “those people” who are not the true people. And “those people” must be prevented from diluting the true people. They must be kept out, and evicted if necessary, so that the nation will once again belong to the true people.


Theofascism too has a narrative, and it is strikingly similar to the one for garden-variety fascism. 


Once upon a time, there was a great nation. That great nation was strong, and powerful, and healthy, and full of goodness. Men were manly, women were feminine and knew their place in the home, and racial and religious minorities knew their place on the margins of society. The nation was great because its people made God happy, and he blessed them.

But then, the true people of the nation were undermined by enemies within and without. This rot happened because the true people of the nation were diluted by other people, who were not the true people. Even the true people became soft, abandoning their traditional values and hierarchies. They lost their belief in the One True Theology. The soft liberals undermined the manliness of the men, encouraged the women to leave the home, and invited in all sorts of “those people” - people who had different theology, or were “savages” - people from those countries we sent missionaries to. LGBTQ people and unwed mothers were allowed to exist without persecution, and this made God furious at the true people. 

As a result, the nation lost its greatness. 

In order to restore national greatness, traditional values must be restored, men must be men again, women must return to the home, and the true people of the nation need to wrest control of the levers of power back from “those people” who are not the true people. And “those people” must be prevented from diluting the true people. They must be kept out, and evicted if necessary, so that the nation will once again belong to the true people. Everyone must return to the One True Theology, and return to persecution of those who violate the True Rules so that God will love the true people again. 


See, I didn’t have to make many changes. 


You might recognize this narrative if you, like me, grew up in Evangelicalism. 


That is literally the narrative of the Culture Wars™


As I pointed out above, the narrative was created afterward. It did not come first. In the case of the Culture Wars™, the reason they exist is because the Religious Right - and all that grew from that - was founded in order to preserve racial segregation. We should never, ever, ever forget that. Along with the racial segregation came opposition to feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment, which should not even have been controversial, but somehow became so. (For the simple reason that a shocking number of people still are opposed to the political, social, and economic equality of women.) 


From this desire to use cultural and government force to relegate racial minorities and women to subservient roles in society came the Culture Wars™, and it is easy to see in the narrative that it was there to justify the use of power to oppress those who were different. Different in religious beliefs (or non-religious beliefs), different in religious practice (particularly when it came to sexual taboos), and different in socio-economic status. 


My point in writing this particular post is to point out the obvious: whenever you hear the theofascist narrative, you should understand that you will also be seeing theofascist policies and the use (or at least attempted use) of political and social power to harm others. 


That’s a significant reason we left organized religion. We didn’t want to fight the culture wars and thought that they were fundamentally immoral and antichristian. Unfortunately, this refusal to fight the culture wars severed family relationships as well. 


The power of the narrative is great. 


It has been said that sex sells. And it does. But FEAR sells far better than sex. (Fear of sex may sell best of all…) And it is very much FEAR that theofascists are selling, just like regular fascists. Fear of the other. Fear of cultural change. And, in the case of theofascism, fear that God will smite anyone who doesn’t join the theofascist movement. I have discussed this before, but it bears repeating: the hatred against LGBTQ people is fanned by the teaching that if the good “christian” people of the world do not actively persecute LGBTQ people, God is going to destroy them - and maybe even send them to hell. This may be even more powerful than the Nazi claim that Jews were going to destroy Germany. I mean, not just national destruction, but maybe hell too? 


Unsurprisingly, given the common narrative, there is a LOT of overlap between theofascists and racist fascists here in the US. The attempted coup back in January brought together the Proud Boys (who prayed for success before they stormed the Capitol - it’s literally on video), people wearing Camp Auschwitz gear, and thousands of white Evangelicals convinced (and still convinced!) that the election was stolen from Trump. This is why the core of Trumpism is Evangelicalism - the theofascist Cultural Warrior subculture, terrified that God will hate them if they let the “liberals” win. This is also why white Evangelicals, more than any other group, are viciously anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-voting rights. The narratives overlap, and they do so intentionally. 


And that brings us back to the beginning. The narrative exists to justify the violence and oppression. White conservative christians have enjoyed significant cultural and political dominance for a long time, but that dominance is crumbling as whites become a smaller percentage of the population, and as younger people, disgusted by the organized church, continue to flee. The only way to maintain dominance, if you lose the numbers game, is to engage in increasing violence and oppression of others - maintaining power by force against others. At some level, our consciences know that is wrong. So we invent the narrative to justify our evil behavior. 


As I will show in the next post, theofascism is currently being expressed in a number of specific actions taken against vulnerable groups - all justified in the name of God. 




For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (II Timothy 1:7)


You want to know how to recognize that a movement is not from God, but from...the opposite side? 


It is selling fear. 


The Culture Wars™ are selling fear. Specifically, fear of other people different from you. Fear of LGBTQ people. Fear of people who are not Republicans. Fear of people with different theology. And, if we are honest, fear of people with different skin color too. (Hence the “rock, jazz, and other “African” music is from the devil.) 


Without this constant stoking of fear, the Culture Wars™ would not exist. 


Instead, if we operated out of love, out of a place of security in our own beliefs, and out of rationality, we would be able to listen to those outside the tribe, and find our commonalities. That would be an actually Christian way to approach cultural - and demographic - change.




One more thought on why theofascism has arisen:


Conservative Christians have given up on making converts.


Seriously. Think about it. If you actually think you can convert people, you do not need the power of government. If you can convert people, you don’t need to fear them. If you can convert people, there is no reason for anxiety about change. 


But it has been a LONG time since conservative Christians have been able to convert much of anyone. And they know it. It’s not hard to understand why, of course. Why would anyone want to buy what they are selling? It’s shit. It’s based on lies and hate and whiteness and misogyny. It is social darwinist economic policy, xenophobia, denial of science and reality. As others have noted:


You can’t fake light.

You can’t fake fruit.

You can’t fake love.


They have no light to shed on reality, because they don’t believe in it. They have rotten, festering fruit that nobody wants to eat. And they have no love - only fear and hate. 


So, having failed to make converts, they shifted during my childhood to “if you can make converts, make more babies,” and then sheltered us from reality, used various control techniques to make it hard to leave, and retreated into insular communities. And, predictably, that hasn’t worked either, as many of us left and are fighting back against what was done to us. 


So what’s left? Theofascism. Use the power of government violence to harm those who disagree. 


Monday, April 19, 2021

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

 Source of book: I own this.


While not officially my selection for Women’s History Month, I did choose to read this book as an adjacent selection. I previously read The House of Mirth a couple years ago. 



The Age of Innocence was written 15 years after The House of Mirth, and it has a very different feel. The earlier book had a razor-sharp, nasty edge to the humor, and a really bitter view of old New York society. Time seemed to have mellowed Wharton a bit, as the humor in this book is gentler, and the social critique tinged with sadness, not anger. 


One reason for this may have been that, in 1905, the old class-based New York society that Wharton grew up in was still hanging on, after a fashion. By 1920, World War One had dramatically changed everything - something The Age of Innocence notes in its epilogue. During Wharton’s lifetime, The Age of Innocence won the most accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize, and indeed, the novel has aged fairly well, despite being intentionally about a very specific time and place. 


I also felt that the characters were more nuanced in this book than the other. Wharton’s skills grew with time and experience. Plus, she put a lot of herself into this book - her actual personality, not just her frustration with social hypocrisy and sexism. The result is a cast of characters that feel more human and complex than in the earlier book. There are no villains, in the true sense, except for the Count, and he never actually appears in the story; really society itself is the villain, but it is too impersonal and too inertial to be called a usual villain. Indeed, while society is the stage on which the story plays out, and social mores affect the characters, the heart of the story is about regret and missed chances, and the question of how fantasy compares to reality. Which is why the ending is devastating, even though nothing really happens. 


The protagonist of the story is, interestingly, a man. Newland Archer is a scion of a wealthy and high-class New York family. He works as a lawyer, but doesn’t need the money, which is kind of amusing to us 21st Century lawyer sorts - no billable hours, little work to do most days, a steady paycheck - it’s like a fantasy island. Newland has just become engaged to May Welland, a very eligible young woman of a similarly prestigious family. She’s also pretty, docile, incurious, and socially perfect. This is what Newland thinks he wants. At least until May’s cousin Ellen shows up. 


Ellen is now the Countess Olenksa, having married a Polish aristocrat. The problem is, he is an abusive and philandering asshole - and it is strongly implied he swings both ways - and she has left him to return to the United States. This is, of course, a huge social disgrace. Although not as much of one as it would be if she were to follow through with her threats and divorce him. (Shudders and pearl clutching.) Ellen is everything May is not: sophisticated in a European way, striking rather than pretty, intelligent, and shockingly unconcerned with New York social niceties. 


It is, of course, socially impossible for Newland to marry Ellen, so, when he falls in love with her, he has exactly zero good options. He can keep her as a mistress, or he could run off with her to Europe, or...well, those are the options. So, of course, he marries May, mostly regrets it, and feels his life has become horrifyingly conventional and boring. But (spoiler) many years later, when he and Ellen are both free, he declines the change to see her again, feeling that his fantasy of her would leave him disappointed with the reality. And he is probably right. 


The general consensus about the characters seems to be that the stand-in for Wharton is not Ellen, but rather Newland. The ennui, the disappointment, the desire for something more that can never truly be satisfied - these are her. As is the life with a spouse who was unable or unwilling to travel - that was Wharton’s husband, who she eventually divorced. And that makes sense, because Newland is the most developed character, and his psyche is the true subject of the book, not Ellen’s difficult reality. For that matter, Ellen herself seems to accept the limitations of her life far better than Newland. She takes the one action she must, which is to secure a way to exist without having to reconcile with her husband. But she chooses to support the marriage of May and Newland, even though, in a different world, she would have preferred to marry Newland. 


The way the internal (and external) drama plays out over the course of the book is superbly written. Wharton’s pacing is good anyway, but the slow tightening of the strings that control society happens one micrometer at a time as the story progresses. I already mentioned that the characters are good in this one. Newland and Ellen, of course, as the central ones. But also May, who, despite her insipid public persona is willing to fight for her own. That she and Newland are never able to connect as friends is also one of the tragedies of the book. Had she been able to let the mask slip for a bit, she might have become more. Had she been willing to actually live, rather than exist within convention, they might have traveled and talked and connected. With that, she and Newland may have been happy. But, that didn’t happen. 


The social system is portrayed with a confidence and accuracy that only a true insider like Wharton could have pulled off. Indeed, at the time it was published, those who, like her, had grown up in New York society praised it as accurate down to the last detail. Speaking of details, the interior decor is lovingly depicted: no surprise since Wharton also worked as an interior designer - and indeed set many of the fashions of the day. 


There are so many great lines in the book too. I have always loved this sort of writing and this sort of book - I’m a bit old fashioned in some ways - so there was a lot of visceral pleasure in the well-turned phrases for me. Anyway, here are some of them. 


Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to…


The book is plotted such that the beginning and the end have a lot of mirrored images, from the opera and singer being the same to many of the same ideas being shown again, but in a different light. Thus, the book mentions “new people” at the beginning and end. After the Beauforts’ failure, the society guardians worry that the vacuum will be filled by the “wrong” people. 


“It will never do, my dear Louisa, to let people like Mrs. Lemuel Struthers think they can step into Regina’s shoes. It is just at such times that new people push in and get a footing.”


And there is this zinger, on the fashion to leave the opera before the end, to “avoid the traffic”:


It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.


Ah, the old “leave Dodger Stadium before the crowds” thing is apparently neither modern nor limited to the West Coast. 


Or, how about this description of May and Ellen’s grandmother, the matriarch of the socially powerful Mingott family?


The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost un-wrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.


Because of her size, she defies convention by having her bedroom on the first floor of the house. 


Her visitors were startled and fascinated by the foreignness of this arrangement, which recalled scenes in French fiction, and architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of. This was how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies, in apartments with all the rooms on one floor, and all the indecent propinquities that their novels described. It amused Newland Archer (who had secretly situated the love-scenes of “Monsieur de Camors” in Mrs. Mingott’s bedroom) to picture her blameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery; but he said to himself, with considerable admiration, that if a lover had been what she wanted, the intrepid woman could have had him too.


Later, as Newland realizes he is having second thoughts about marrying May, Wharton writes this remarkable line. 


With a new sense of awe, he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes, and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul’s custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland’s familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas. 


Isn’t that the truth. Now, you may be down for an adventure, of course. But you will want to have the sort of someone that you like to adventure with come along, not someone anchored to a rigid social system. Fortunately for me, I picked well. In retrospect, my family would have preferred I had ended up with someone who would, like May, rigidly uphold the structures of the social system, not of New York society, but of the white fundamentalist subculture. But I have no regrets about my choice. Throughout the book, Wharton expands on Newland’s feeling of entrapment. 


Packed in the family landau they rolled from one tribal doorstep to another, and Archer, when the afternoon’s round was over, parted from his betrothed with the feeling that he had been shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped. 


Ellen too feels somewhat trapped by society. Her family does their best to help her acclimatize to New York - she has lived overseas most of her life. Newland explains that they are trying to help, but she also needs to pay attention to their guidance through the treacherous waters of society. 


She shook her head and sighed. “Oh, I know - I know! But on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant. Aunt Welland put it in those very words when I tried….Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”


Yes indeed. It is very lonely being around people who just want you to pretend, to avoid the unpleasant reality. 


Wharton also gets some cutting digs in at society, this one in an inadvertently amusing an damning statement by Mr. van der Luyden, the official guardian of social distinctions, in complaining about these foreign sorts - Ellen included - who just mix with everyone as if they were equal. 


“You know what these English grandees are. They’re all alike. Louisa and I are very fond of our cousin - but it’s hopeless to expect people who are accustomed to the European courts to trouble themselves about our little republican distinctions.” 


As Newland’s view of the social system that he grew up in starts to crack, he notices that there is a kind of intentional “innocence” that chooses to wilfully ignore the harsh realities caused by their “morality.” The society matriarchs are opposed to Ellen getting a divorce, but all the while they look the other way at what she appears to have to do to survive - become the mistress of someone wealthy. Newland sees through this, and comes to loathe this kind of “innocence.”


Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!


But of course, that is exactly what happens. May, even more than her mother, never is able to give up her “innocence.” Later, after they are married, Newland has this observation. 


As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting: the function was exhausted because the need was past.


Ouch. One wonders if Wharton’s experience is on display here. One suspects that it is a mercy that May dies before she can see her son marry the daughter of the disgraced British banker, Beaufort, whose largesse Ellen depends on. 


Beaufort’s financial failure in the Panic of 1973 is the event that brings things to a crisis. With money no longer forthcoming from her family, her husband, or Beaufort, Ellen is placed in a bind. She eventually finds a solution, but the veiled gossip about her and Beaufort (the book is never clear if they are actually lovers, or if this is just the assumption - just like they all assume Newland and Ellen are having an affair, even though they never consummate it) places her in a ever more precarious social position. Here too, Wharton gets a scathing line in. 


New York was inexorable in its condemnation of business irregularities. So far there had been no exception to its tacit rule that those who broke the law of probity must pay; and every one was aware that even Beaufort and Beaufort’s wife would be offered up unflinchingly to this principle. But to be obliged to offer them up would be not only painful but inconvenient. The disappearance of the Beauforts would leave a considerable void in their compact little circle; and those who were too ignorant or too careless to shudder at the moral catastrophe bewailed in advance the loss of the best ball-room in New York.


Here is another zinger, about the way that New York society looked down on men who played around. Less so than women who did the same, interestingly. For sexist reasons, but still. 


It was easier, and less dastardly on the whole, for a wife to play such a part toward her husband. A woman’s standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be lower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved. Then she could always plead moods and nerves, and the right not to be held too strictly to account; and even in the most strait-laced societies the laugh was always against the husband. 

But in Archer’s little world no one laughed at a wife deceived, and a certain measure of contempt was attached to men who continued their philandering after marriage. In the rotation of crops there was a recognized season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once.


And so, Newland is trapped, by society, by his wife, and by his own lack of judgment. The ending is fascinating. As I said, to read it is to be devastated. But the thing is, I think Newland is ultimately right. His love for Ellen has never been entirely based on reality. It is his fantasy. His attraction to her is as much about his wish to break the bounds of society as anything else. But we know he will not, and indeed cannot, because his own personality fits best with that society. We may feel bad for him that he never really gets to “live.” But we are also convinced that eloping with Ellen would have led to even greater unhappiness for him. And for her, of course. 


This is where the nuance of the book really shows. The world changes, society changes, circumstances change. But what has happened has happened. It cannot be changed. And, one suspects, nothing would have been gained anyway. 


The saving grace is the close relationship Newland develops with his son, and there is the promise that, since the next generation will marry for love, Newland can look forward to his daughter-in-law becoming part of that friendship. 


The Age of Innocence is an enjoyable read, with a psychological depth I appreciate from my favorite authors, like Anthony Trollope and Henry James. It was a lot less of a blow to the head than The House of Mirth, because of its subtlety and more perceptive humor. I own a few other Wharton novels, so it will be interesting to compare them to the two I have read. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Theofascism Part 3: Theofascism, Bigotry, and Sincere Religious Belief

This post is part three of my series on Theofascism. As I post future installments, I will list them here:


Part 1: Everybody Does It - Politics and Philosophy

Part 2: Speaking a Common Language




This installment is one I actually considered writing on its own a few years back, and never got around to it. I have been thinking about this a lot since leaving the Gothard cult, and it makes sense of so many of the unnecessary battles with my own family. 


In order to understand this installment, you really need to read Part 2, because this one builds on that. In essence, all three categories I discuss here are in the realm of “religious beliefs.” These are not the things you can discuss using a common - and secular - language. These are not issues of “how do we treat other people” or “how do we balance competing needs within a society.” Beliefs that resonate across religious and non-religious lines can be discussed like any other issue. I’m talking about matters of religion and religious practice, and the cultural preferences that go along with them. 


Here are the categories as I see them:

1.         Sincere Religious Beliefs

2.         Religious Bigotry

3.         Theofascism


These are analogous to other beliefs that tip into bigotry or fascism as well. Racism and misogyny, for example, can be bigotry without becoming fascist. One might even argue that, say, a belief that God wants you personally to only marry within your own race could be sincere, albeit still racist, as long as it applied only to you. It is when you think that others are bound that it becomes racist bigotry. And when you want the law to enforce it, it becomes fascist. 


Let’s look at these one at a time, with some examples. 

1.         Sincere Religious Beliefs


Whether or not you are religious, most of us in this era are fine with people believing stuff we don’t, and partaking in practices that we find weird or silly. These beliefs are religious (or superstitious if you prefer), but they are not necessarily bigoted. 


For example, one might believe that God forbids you to eat food sacrificed to idols (see: Romans). Or pork. Or Twinkies. One might believe God forbids caffeine. Or God wants you to wear a particular style of clothing. Or only have sex with someone of the opposite biological sex and gender identity and only after a certain civil or religious ceremony. Or you might believe that because you are a vagina person, not a penis person, that you should not work for a living, but spend your full time caring for home and children. You may believe a UFO will come for you when a comet arrives. You may believe that holy water protects against vampires. You believe that God doesn’t want you to have an abortion or use birth control? Fine, don’t. (But be upfront with your partner about that, please.) 


Whatever your beliefs, if you sincerely believe God is calling on YOU to do something that does not harm others, but only affects YOU, then this is a sincere belief. And in our society, those of us more or less on the Left support your right to believe these things and parake in these practices. As long as you don’t insist we believe or practice. That’s the very definition of “freedom of religion.”

2.         Religious Bigotry


Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance 


Religious bigotry is when you decide that not only has God called YOU to do something, God has called OTHER PEOPLE to do it as well. Just like, say, racial bigotry, it is a belief that people who hold to your opinions and prejudices are better than other people, and thus you can treat others with hatred, contempt, or intolerance. 


Big difference. 


If God has called you to abstain from pork, fine. But when you start carping at me because I love bacon, you have crossed the line into bigotry. If you choose to wear old fashioned clothing, fine. It’s your body, dress how you prefer. (Within the basic social constraints - no shoes, no service, right? And wear your damn mask to protect others from Covid.)  But when you decide that God wants other people to dress a certain way, you have crossed the line into bigotry. If you believe a soul is created when egg meets sperm, that’s fine for you. But that belief is younger than I am, not supported by science, and a lot of people do not believe the same way as you. Ditto for the split of breadwinning, childcare, and housework. How I do that is none of your business. You want to wait for the UFO? Go for it. But don’t ask me to wait up with you. 


The reason that this is bigotry is this: you believe that God speaks to you more than to other people.


You literally believe that God told you instructions about how I should live my life. And that I didn’t receive my own (contradictory) instructions from God myself. You know better than I do about my own life. God likes you better, which is why he told you what to tell me. And you disdain me and feel entitled to correct me for not believing the same way you do. 


That’s straight up bigotry. 


It may be sincere bigotry. But it’s still bigotry. And it is breathtakingly arrogant. 

3.         Theofascism


From bigotry, it is a very small step to the embrace of theofascism. After all, if your disapproval of others doesn’t force them to change, then it is easy to consider using government violence to enforce the rule. Those damn women won’t cover up? Make them wear a hijab! Women won’t stay home? Make them have a male guardian with them to leave the house. 


Oh, you think Wahabbist Islam is different? You sure about that? Those LGBTQ people make God hate our country? Make sure they don’t get jobs or housing or goods or services or healthcare. Women use birth control and think they can have sex without being owned by a man? Outlaw it! Outlaw porn! Keep books out of libraries if they have LGBTQ people in them. Or if they talk about police brutality. But don’t dare stop publishing books with racial stereotypes. 


Not too long ago - during my parents’ lifetime - religious bigots were railing against interracial marriage, and furious that it was legalized. Heck, the Religious Right was literally founded to perpetuate segregation. Bigotry tends to lead to theofascism. All it takes is bigotry added to political power. 


Which is why a primary goal of those of us who believe in religious freedom is to prevent bigots from getting political power. They tend to be all too fond of the Inquisition. 




As I have noted in every post so far, this applies beyond the political. While political power is necessary for theofascism, its roots go much deeper, into society, churches, and families. The white Evangelical church has been a breeding ground for theofascism (and white supremacist fascism too) for decades. Many families, including mine, were sucked into the Culture Wars™ in some way or another during the 1980s and 90s, whether from Bill Gothard or James Dobson. My generation (and the Millennials too) had our childhood and teen years defined by this sense of cultural grievance and militant bigotry. And when some of us chose a different path as adults, we have found sustained pressure on us from our families - we are the black sheep who betrayed the cause.