12/27/2005

Breakfast on Pluto

Well, my dear friend Mr. Fidget and I decided to give it another go. We went to the Kendall this time, where there were two options at the time we'd chosen: Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, and Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto. Originally, when Itchy had suggested Pluto I'd said, wouldn't you rather see Trans-America? I mean, both are transgendered affairs, and I figured the latter would be more conventional, basically a drag Fandango. The thing you want when planning a film outing with a fidget is forward momentum, and road flicks have got to have that, if nothing else, right? Plus the spectacle of Felicity Huffman playing a MtF transexual, basically a woman playing a man playing a woman, seems very compelling to me. from the trailers, Huffman is utterly convincing in the role. (Even the name Felicity Huffman seems like a drag name, doesn't it?) But Trans-America's not playing anywhere yet. So the choice was between Jesus and Pluto. And something about the latter, from the trailers I'd seen, seemed a little too arty-farty for the mood I was in, plus I was pushing hard for Jesus because I felt like the stand-up pace and lack of a plot would be the perfect antidote for the fidgets (although I didn't say it this time).

My friend seemed resistant to the Jesus is Magic plan, from the get-go. We were still bickering about it when we got to the ticket counter, where a sort of surly-looking art-film Asian-American asked us what it would be. My friend told him of our quandary, and he had no hesitation. He said, sorta snide-like: "Sarah Silverman is not funny. She belongs to the 'airline food' brand of stand-up from the '90s--she's just not cutting edge." Well, hmph. I bet he wouldn't say that to Sarah Silverman's face.

I was like, ooh, so we look "cutting edge" to you? I mean, for this punk--he was probably in his teens in the nineties, and it seems like a million years ago, but it was only yesterday to me and Itchy. What's wrong with the '90s, anyway? Weren't they the '60s standing on its head, or something? Didn't we have a hipper President then? Wasn't the blowjob the handshake of the '90s? Who could sneer at that? There's nothing naughty about the noughties. It's all terrorism and tax cuts for the rich, and post-millennial post-apocalyptic post-traumatic stress syndrome. I mean, the handshake is the handshake of the noughties. Cutting edge my hairy arse.

And what the hell is the "airline food school of stand-up" anyway? I'm thinking Sarah Silverman must have made some off-color jokes about Asian-Americans.

But that's really all it took to tip the scales, so it was Breakfast on Pluto. I'd still like to see Jesus is Magic, just to see if it's really all that un-PC. Have you noticed that un-PC is the new black?The poster compares her to Lenny Bruce, but we'll see about that.

Anyway, I'm not sorry we went to see Breakfast on Pluto, and the surprising thing was, Itchy didn't fidget through it. I was waiting, but it never happened. And it's not that it wasn't a fairly fidgetable film. There was definitely a fidget factor. On a fidget scale of one to ten, Pluto comes in at about a 5.5, I'd say, although there's a 3% margin of error. If it were not for the enchanting Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later fame, the fidget factor would have gone through the roof.

First of all, rule number one: a man in a dress is at least as compelling as a woman in a dress, although in a different way, strange as it may seem. Why? We can get into that some other time. I think it's a question worth pursuing. But Cillian Murphy's Kitten is even more compelling than most men in dresses could ever hope to be. (There were times when he reminded me of Dina Martina, who had an almost unfathomably hilariously bizarre show at the Vixen in Provincetown all summer.)

The story is basically a picaresque, with Kitten's search for his birth mother framing the tale. The strength of Murphy's performance is that eventually we accept him for what he is without having to slap a label on him. The movie is not really about sex or sexuality, it does not seek to plumb the depths of why young Patrick becomes Kitten, even as it depicts Kitten seeking the answer to that question. But it's not so unusual to spend your life asking the wrong questions or seeking irrelevant answers, after all. Nor is it a waste of time. Kitten's singleminded pursuit of his birth mother leads him to a bigger truth. And that's how it is.

That's why, like Brokeback Mountain, Breakfast on Pluto is not a tale confined to the sexuality or gender identity of its protagonist. (Which is also why it's true that Brokeback Mountain is not a "gay film".) But Neil Jordan breached that old blood-brain barrier long ago. I mean, he's the one who gave us The Crying Game way back in 1992. His mixing of politics and cross-dressing makes you wonder if transvetitism or transexuality is a metaphor. I mean, is it a particularly apt metaphor for the Irish? For Ireland? I have read some interesting commentary of the book on which the movie's based suggesting that Kitten's transvestitism represents crossing borders. At any rate, it seems pretty clear that for the director, transvestitism is a handy metaphor for something.

The film is, in fact, filled to the gills with characters in "drag". Liam Neeson as a priest in his priestly skirts. Brendan Gleeson whose job at a small amusement park requires that he dress as a giant rodent (later we see him as the warden of the Tower of London). Prostitutes. Soldiers. Cops. It's all drag, isn't it? To some extent the movie--or a stream within it--is about who we are when we take off the costumes. Kitten never does, but it's at least partly because drag isn't drag for Kitten. Or at least, she doesn't hide under it. She reveals herself through it. But it would be a mistake to think of Kitten, in her movie incarnation, as a beacon of sexual freedom. The character in the book is called "Pussy," and her new, toned-down nickname in the movie fits her toned-down sexuality. It's not a movie, in the end, in which sex or sexuality is a major theme. Gender identity, yes, to some extent, and that to some extent as some sort of metaphor, but not sexuality, per se.

Whatever it all means, it's Cillian Murphy's movie, and he is an absolute joy to watch. He is able to wring emotional depth out of a character that might have been just another jock in a frock.

Recommended.
6.3 on the film snob-o-meter.
5.5 on the fidgetron.

12/25/2005

the best Christmas EVER!

I say that every year, and every year it's true! And this year it's truer than ever! Considering how I despised Christmas as a kid, nowadays it doesn't take much to please me where Christmas is concerned, and the older I get seems like the less it takes, which is the wonderful secret of growing up, isn't it? I find such pleasure in small things now, in a way I would have sneered at and mocked in the days of my foolish youth.



Itchy and I went to the zoo yesterday. Franklin Zoo not too far from here. It was fairly deserted, as you'd imagine. It was almost eerie, walking around looking at all the empty pens, and then all the sudden you'd come upon a peacock on a park bench, or hear the sound of a lion roaring in the distance. Poor lion. He was skin and bones. And all the animals, from the capybara to the blue-tongued skink in the rain forest exhibit were obviously bored out of their little heads. But you always feel especially bad for the primates. We were watching the silverback gorillas watching us--there's a little baby called Kimani who was on her mama's back, and kept playing with herself. There were two women in VOLUNTEER shirts watching them, too, and chastising Kimani for touching herself and Mama for snatching food from right out of baby's mouth. But who are they to be chastising the gorillas?

The VOLUNTEERS didn't acknowledge us though we were only a couple feet away, and when I asked one of them what the wires that lined the display were, she was sort of snide about it. They're for containment! she snapped. Zap! Ouch.

This morning Itchy asked me which animal reminded me of him. None really. I mean, there weren't that many animals there in the first place, and none that resembled him overmuch in any respect. He reminded me that usually when someone asks a question of you what they really want is for you to ask them back, which is something I always forget. So I said, OK, which animal reminded you of me? And he was like, guess. Criminy, I don't know, the skink? He said, no, the baby gorilla. I'm like, eh? He's like, you've got the same kind of build. I don't see it myself, but I didn't pursue it. I'll take it as a compliment, somehow. I mean, Kimani was cute, for a gorilla. I used to have a lover by that name, by the way, who was even cuter than the baby gorilla.

Mama was not very charming, but Papa, above, was this philosophical type. He was thoughtful and kept to himself, contemplating the mysteries of his cramped little universe (or planning his escape). I mean, you have to feel for these poor creatures, particularly since their behavior, expressions and mannerisms seem strangely, sometimes uncomfortably familiar.

The Mandrills were not as sympathetic, but then they look less like us than the silverbacks, don't they? And as a rule of thumb, human beings seem less kindly disposed towards those who look less like themselves, and in more or less direct proportion to the resemblance or lack thereof. Plus, the Mandrill's are so pornographic. No concealed ovulation here. Can you imagine human society if our more modest females didn't have concealed ovulation? It boggles the mind to think how different everything would be if evolution had taken just a very slightly different turn.

On our way out, we talked about what changes might make the zoo a bigger draw. There's a lot of potential there. What they need to do is hire some big-name do-nothing CEO at an unnecessarily, outrageously exorbitant fee, and build a big, beautiful gift shop right at the entrance, with a Starbuck's in it, and quadruple the entrance fee. If it doesn't cost enough to get in middle class people won't feel like there's anything worth seeing inside. But if the cost of admission is outrageous even if all the animals are stuffed or made of papier-mache, they won't admit it. As long as there's something to buy in the gift shop, that is. And a Starbuck's.

Plus, feed the Goddam animals. Don't the Geneva Conventions apply here? You can't starve a prisoner. That lion was trying to roar--but it was kind of a pathetic sound he was making. Because he was too weak to really roar like a lion should roar. Itchy was like, that's how they get when you all you feed 'em's Alpo. And the gorillas. Those VOLUNTEERS tossed them a few carrot and celery slices. Mama Gorilla was eating the straw off the floor. I mean, come on.

Later in the evening we went to the early Christmas Eve service at Trinity Church. I had never been inside, but, to be truthful, while it was nice and all, it was nothing special. I knew almost as soon as we got there it was a mistake to have come. You got a bunch of white people in the pews who can't carry a tune and that Phantom of the Opera organ music. There were a couple of Midieval pieces--a cappella--that were lovely, but other than that everything, regardless of how glorious it was meant to be came out sounding like a funeral dirge.

The sermon was informative rather than persuasive, listing who Christ was born for. "If you're x,y, or z, then He was born for you." The point was obviously that He had been born for everyone, so that went on and on and on. It was an exhaustive inventory. There was one line I jotted down, because I liked it, and that was "He came to hallow being human." And that seems to me to be something quite practical a Messiah could do.

We left during communion to have margaritas at a steakhouse down the street. If they did the Last Supper today, they'd probably have it catered, with a fully-stocked cash bar, and I'm sure a couple of the disciples would order margaritas, so I felt totally justified. I wonder if they'd have had bloody marys? Judas probably. Peter would have had whatever The Lord was having. Such a brown-noser. I'm just surprised Christ couldn't see it.

Oh, but the part I most disliked about the mass was the greeting, or "The Peace" as it was called in the program, where you turn to your neighbor and say "The peace of the Lord be with you," and they say, "and also with you." I wasn't really feeling the love, if I'm to be a hundred percent honest about it. And anyway, I like doing things in my own time, and my own way. That's probably what I get my nose all bent out of joint over when it comes to church-going. It's always stand up! Sit down! stand up! On your knees! Say this! Say that! Stand up! Sing along! Sit down! Shut up! Now drop and gimme twenty! No wonder Christians are so friggin bossy. Monkey see, monkey do, right? I feel like screaming, hey! You're not the boss of me! But, you know, you go to church, you gotta know what you're getting into. I like the pomp and circumstance, but I can do without the audience participation. Next year I'll take in a concert instead. Bach or Handel, or something like that.

Like I said, we went to a steakhouse afterwards, had a lovely meal and got tanked. Woke up (a little hung-over, maybe) to a good, old-fashioned Christmas-morning shag, had brunch, napped the afternoon away, and made a bunch of phone calls in the evening, to relatives and friends. Got up to speed on all the gossip back home.

All in all, a very Merry Christmas.

12/24/2005

Munich

***SPOILER WARNING: Plot and ending details follow***

Went to see Munich last night with this friend of mine who's a real fidget. But he said there were three movies he was up for seeing: Brokeback Mountain, Syriana, or Munich. Not only had I already seen Brokeback Mountain (I wrote about it here, and here, in fact) but it's a long-enough film, and one in which nothing really happens (aside from a little sodomy in a pup tent *yawn* and that's in the first twenty minutes). Brokeback Mountain is a movie about deferred choices and sins of omission, more than anything. So the thought of seeing it a second time, especially so soon after having seen it the first time, much less with a fidget was...well, it was out of the question. Syriana, I have read, is a bit scattered and unfocused, as for plot, and very complicated--to the point of being indecipherable. It's been compared to Traffic. It probably would have been perfect for someone with Adult ADD, like my dear friend, but I was particularly interested in Munich for a number of reasons, so that's the one I chose.

I'll get to the movie itself momentarily. It clocks in at nearly three hours (about the same length as the new installment of the Harry Potter franchise), and while it's an emotionally complex film with a lot of action, it's still a tough one for a fidget not to fidget through. And since we saw it at Harvard Square in one of the smaller theaters upstairs, and he's a big, tall bloke, it was all the worse. He wasn't the only one. There were some students right behind us. One of them hit me in the head when he came in and took his seat, and didn't say "excuse me," or anything, and then proceeded to kick the back of my seat at fairly regular intervals throughout the film. But, you go to see a movie in a cramped little theater, and you get what you get.

There was also a bum two seats over and one row down, who was talking to himself. I say he was a bum because he had that peculiar smell--of stale beer and cigarettes, when they have infiltrated every atom of your being, when it's Bud, not blood running through your veins. He got up midway through the movie, and went out to have a smoke, I guess, and when he came back he missed his row, and sat down at the end of ours instead, right on top of somebody's coat! After a couple of minutes, the guy whose coat it was was like, "erm, excuse me, I think you're sitting on my coat." The bum was like, "ssssshhhhhh!" They got it straightened out eventually.

So after the movie (which I will talk about in greater detail in a minute, I swear) my friend and I went to have a beer and a bite to eat, and I said something about his fidgeting. First he denied it outright. Then it was like, "I didn't fidget that much." I mean, relative to what? Then, he struck back: "you're a film-snob!" he said. Because he fidgets, I'm a film snob? Partly this was a reaction to my admitting that when we go to movies (and we have seen many together), his fidgeting is a factor for me. I at least acknowledge the reality of his fidgeting, and opt for films that are as reasonably fidget-proof as films these days can be. He found that patronizing, apparently. I said, it was purely practical. He then told me I should not have said anything about it, at least not to his face. I shrugged. It's not like he doesn't know he fidgets. He can't not know, right? And personally I don't think there's anything wrong with factoring in fidgeting. The fidget factor is real, and why shouldn't we acknowledge it?

I don't know if I'm really such a film-snob. I suppose on the snobbery scale, where zero's, say, Look Who's Talking Now and ten's maybe Warhol's Empire, I'm probably a six. But the problem is everyone's film-snob index is different. If, for someone, Look Who's Talking Now is a ten, then what do you do? Not that that's the case here, mind you. But I'm afraid this incident has thrown our joint film-viewing future into doubt. No more Frog and Toad At the Movies. No more Itchy and Scratchy Out On the Town. The fidget and the film-snob. Hmph.

One thing I did that would have annoyed me if I were him (did you get that?) was three times during the film I leaned over and whispered something to him. About the film, of course. But you can be sure I was showing off my level-6 film-snobbery whenever I did. The first time, it was when Daniel Craig appeared, and I whispered "he's the new James Bond." He's not very suave in Munich, but he has an undeniable magnetism. Very sexy in a Steve McQueeny kind of way. I might actually go see a Bond film if he's playing Bond. Up to now, there's been no other Bond but Sean for me. Which is perfectly appropriate for a level-6 film-snob, don't you think?

The next two times I leaned over to whisper, "that's Budapest." I lived in Budapest for five years and many scenes in Munich that are supposed to take place in Paris were filmed there. I recognized Andrassy ut, a very--and very deliberately--Parisian grand boulevard in Pest--several scenes were filmed in front of the opera house there, and other scenes took place on Vecsey u. between Szabadsag ter and Vertanuk ter, right around the corner from the Parliament on one end, and the American Embassy on the other. You could see the Soviet monument at the end of the street (though the big gold Soviet star was missing), and the very distinctive Hungarian National TV (MTV) building in the background. That added levels to the film for me. And I could not contain myself. I felt I had to let my friend in on it.

He returned the favor, as for whispering, when the always, always scrumptilicious Mathieu Kassovitz is dispatched by a bomb in the last hour of the film. "Did he blow himself up?" My friend asked. Well, it seems so, but it was, as many things were in Munich, somewhat ambiguous. But I wasn't going to whisper all that. So I whispered back, "yes." On reflection, I do think it was a suicide, myself.

As for the film itself. It is the best, most mature Spielberg film I've ever seen. It was not flawless by any means, but it is as close to flawless as the director is ever likely to get. And it is a peculiarly, and powerfully Jewish film, too. Much more than the very-nearly vile Schindler's List, even, for which Spielberg felt he needed the goy intermediary of Schindler to bring the story of Shoah to a mass audience. There was no such intermediary here, although Eric Bana's Avner is never seen sporting a yarmulka or anything. More important, the story is the kind of dialectic Judaism fairly invented.

Spielberg has a penchant, like Oliver Stone, for clobbering his audience over the head repeatedly with whatever message he is trying to convey. He cannot be serious without getting all didactic. And I have felt that, like Stone, he thinks the gravity of the film, its seriousness, is related to its length. The longer a movie, the more serious it must be. But one of the most serious, emotionally and intellectually complex, and moving films I have ever seen is a little over ten minutes long (laugh if you like, but it's Yuri Norstein's Hedgehog in the Fog). One emotionally dense film that came out this year that gives us no less than four richly imagined and beautifully-acted characters and clocks in at a measely hour and 28 minutes is The Squid and the Whale. The strange alchemy of film pays no head to ordinary time. We can watch a four-hour epic and have no feeling whatsoever for any of the characters in it (Alexander, anyone? Or how about Troy?) or we can develop a deep attachment to characters in, like I said, a ten minute short. That is the mystery and magic of film.

But while Munich is occasionally too something--or too everything--thanks in part, I think, to the coupling of screenwriters Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame and Eric Roth of Forrest Gump, its characters are real-enough, richly-enough acted by an indisputably incredible cast, that we do come to care for them, which is the absolute minimum requirement of a film, if the director expects you to spend three hours of your life watching it.

The Forrest Gump aspects of the film are the characters themselves, who are touchingly human. Eric Bana's Avner is the undisputed protaganist, but he is not the moral center of the film. He is the Everyman who never reaches a conclusion, who never articulates his moral quandery, and is still conflicted at the end. The Moral center of the film is Mathieu Kassovitz's at once Gump-like and supremely Speilbergian bomb-maker. He is mercifully underplayed by Kassovitz. his character risks becoming precious, but blows himself to bits before he does. He could have ended up a speechifying caricature, but Spielberg, showing what must have been superhuman restraint, allows him only a few short lines that provide the only unequivocal expression of a moral conscience in the film. It is a beautiful, urgent scene (that was filmed, I think, in Eiffel's Nyugati train Station in Budapest), and it comes off as utterly human. Avner is never able to articulate a moral argument for or against what he is doing, but he pays an enormous price, emotionally for doing it.

The Kushner bits of the film seem to me to be structural. I found Angels in America affecting at times but also affected in the extreme, which fit the subject matter, although the last forty-five minutes of the HBO miniseries were overbearing (not to mention interminable). Here the bits I'm willing to bet Kushner had more of a hand in come off as contrived, and take us out of the narrative in order to force a point. The jarring flashbacks--or "imaginings"--of the scene in Munich by Avner at key points in the film remind us that this is an exercise. I think if Spielberg had foregone flashbacks and left the chronology intact, it could have been as powerful a film, if not more powerful than it was. The final "flashback," that takes place as a shell-shocked Avner is fucking his wife, approached the ridiculous on every conceivable level.

There were lots of typically Spielbergian touches, and there were a couple of Schindler moments. The dialogue between Avner and the PLO operative about the importance of having a home is mirrored near the drawn-out denouement of the film (drawn-out denouements are also a Spielberg specialty) when Avner's mother says basically the same thing. The scenario that allowed for the first soliloquy demanded suspension of disbelief in the extreme, but was apparently the only way Spielberg could humanize the Palestinian perspective.

Which brings up the issue of "equivalence" that some critics are so up in arms about. The idea is that showing the Palestinian side is tantamount to excusing the crimes and condoning the methods of groups like Black September. I don't think Spielberg ever reaches "equivalence" in Munich. What he seems more interested in exploring, in the character of Avner, is not anything to do with "equivalence," but more with the extent to which, as Lynn Cohen's Golda Meir says, a nation or people is forced to compromise its highest values, and the implications (both personal and political) of such a compromise for those who are forced by circumstances to make it.

Spielberg makes it perfectly obvious that he is speaking not only to Israelis here, and not only about Munich, but to Americans after 9/11. The very last shot of the film frames Lower Manhattan with the Twin Towers center-screen.

12/23/2005

You too can be a super-sized Superman!

I was talking to a friend of mine about the upcoming Superman Returns, and he said he'd heard that actor Brandon Routh's tool was so monstrously huge Warner Bros. demanded it be digitally minimized. You can see where the rumor started here.

Until it appears in the New York Times or The Christian Science Monitor, I refuse to believe it. And anyway, anybody flitting around in his spandex underwear is going to have a more or less obscene bulge, or two or three. That's just the nature of comic book superherodom. And no disrespect to Brandon Routh, who I'm sure is nice enough, and well-enough hung and all, but I think it's a PR thing. Advance buzz. Warner Bros. leaks some silly manufactured rumor about their new horse-hung superhero, and word spreads, you know? I heard it's positively elephantine! Let's go see it at the IMAX theater!

I'm giving away trade secrets here, but you can thank me later. For the fellas who want to look supersized in spandex, here's a tip: IT'S ALL IN THE BALLS, boys. You can actually buy underwear and swimsuits specially designed with the patented "sling support system" to "give your boys a lift," and enhance your package (see handy diagram at left). It's kind of like a push-up bra, but only lifts, doesn't separate (ouch!), thank goodness. Don't ask me how I know this, by the way. I have this friend, you know, who has a complex...

Anyway, if you're on a budget, a cheaper solution is a cock ring, and the advantage is you can then mix and match it with any old ratty pair of briefs you've got laying around in your filthy flat.

In my opinion, too big a bulge is a bit of an embarrassment. Better to be discreet, and then when you whip it out, watch their jaws drop. Most everybody knows the size of a flaccid thingy has little to do with how it is when fully inflated. There are showers and there are growers.

But there's a bigger issue here. In our phallocentric culture isn't it about time balls got their due? The testicles do all the hard work, but the phallus gets all the glory. Doesn't seem fair. And speaking of glorious phalluses, the truth is when you're dealing with a man's manhood you need to make a distinction. Consulting Jung here can be instructive.

In Modern Man in Search of His Soul, he bashes Freud on the issue of signs and symbols. He says, "It’s well known that the Freudian school operates with hard and fast sexual ‘symbols’; but these are just what I should call signs, for they are made to stand for sexuality, and this is supposed to be something definitive. As a matter of fact, Freud’s concept of sexuality is thoroughly elastic, and so vague that it can be made to include almost anything." To prove the point, he uses everybody’s favorite psychoanalytical body part:

"Take, for instance, the so-called phallic symbols, which are supposed to stand for the membrum virile and nothing more. Psychologically speaking, the membrum is itself…a symbolic image whose wider content cannot easily be determined. As was customary throughout antiquity, primitive people today make free use of phallic symbols, yet it never occurs to them to confuse the phallus, as a ritualistic symbol, with the penis. They always take the phallus to mean the creative mana, the power of healing and fertility, ‘that which is unusually potent’. Its [mana’s] equivalents in mythology and in dreams are the bull, the ass, the pomegranate, the yoni, the he-goat, lightning, the horse’s hoof, the dance, the magical cohabitation in the furrow, and the menstrual fluid, to mention only a few of many. That which underlies all of these images—and sexuality itself—is an archetypal content that is hard to grasp, and that finds its best psychological expression in the primitive mana symbol."

Are you getting what I'm getting at here? "It never occurs to them to confuse the phallus, as a ritualistic symbol, with the penis." The way it stands, a big bulge of saggy, flaccid bits is just a penis and testes in a wrinkly old fleshsack. Flaccid, it's really not good for much, sexually (or symbolically) speaking. By showing off your big gooey, flaccid wad, you say nothing about your potency, which is presumably the point of showing it off. For that, you'd do better to buy the "balls-in-one briefs" here, top left. It arranges your bits in a more traditional cock-n-balls configuration, as you can see. Much better than the Sleepy-time for Mr. Pee-pee briefs above. Since antiquity "ye olde cock-n-balls"--standing proud--has conveyed the message: "hic habitat felicita": here lies happiness! I mean, if you go to the ancient city of Pompeii, you'll see it (bottom left) perfectly preserved on almost every corner, in the pavement, on the houses, everywhere. With the cock-n-balls, you get the best of both worlds. Sure, the phallus still gets top billing, but the testicles are respectably represented. They cannot, at any rate, be denied.

You won't see a flaccid peter anywhere in Pompeii, by the way. And that's because flaccid, it's just a penis, boys. But standing proud, it's so much more: it's a phallus. Penises are purely functional (and their function is not glamorous--they funnel liquid waste out of the body), but phalluses are invested with symbolic, even magical qualities: from them comes life, happiness, mana. When you're sporting that superwoody, it's not just any old thing, either; it's transformed, as if by magic, into the ur-phallus. Just as when the pope puts on his miter, he is no longer just any old pope. He is THE Pope. It is a kind of sexual transubstantiation (the phallus thing, not the pope thing).

Now, as I was saying, you wouldn't know it by looking at the proliferation of phallic monuments, and our generally phallocentric culture, but balls are the big thing, just like the song by AC/DC says. When people want to say somebody's got character, or courage, what do they say? "He's got balls." What do they say when they want to put you down? "Don't be such a dick," or "what a dickhead."

Testicles are obviously the unsung heroes of the reproductive process. Why isn't our culture more testiculocentric, then? Well, one problem is, how to represent testiculocentricity? Can you imagine The Washington Monument with two big gold domes at the base? We'd find it too vulgar, because while testicles do all the hard work, they just aren't anywhere near as glamorous or photogenic as the phallus at full-sproing.

And to add injury to insult, they're left out in the cold on the doormat while the phallus is invited in to the warm, cozy womb! And that's really the key to their lowly status. As much as we pay lip service to testicles, you've got to admit they're not worth much all by themselves. The same cannot be said of the phallus. Even castrati, even eunuchs, can still get it up, so long as their castration was post-pubertal. So maybe balls deserve their second-class citizen status after all.

The phallus is the thing, evolutionarily speaking, as Dr. Jared Diamond has pointed out (I've talked about it here). The female of the species seems to think size does indeed matter. In fact, as a species we are putting inordinate biological resources into pumping up penis-size. It is a case, as Dr. Jared suggests, of runaway selection. But it's really the ladies who are in charge of that whole process. So it's not men who are necessarily to blame for all those phallic monuments. It's because that's the bit of the apparatus that delivers the goods (in so many ways) that it is a potent symbol for both genders.

Doesn't change the fact though, that it's the balls that make the wad. You can't walk around with a woody all day. Big balls are what women see when you're stuffed into those Levi's, or that the boys are sneaking peeks at when you're prancing around on the beach in your thong (don't pretend you didn't know you'd "wandered" onto the gay beach, either). Whether your rod matches the expectations generated by your wad, only she (whether she's a she or a he, or a he-she or a she-he) knows.

Ah, the phallic fallacy. Will balls ever get their proper due? I say, buy yourself a pair of those balls-out briefs and wear them proudly. And to Warner Bros. I say, don't touch Superman's wad! Think of Lois and Jimmy!

12/22/2005

keeping the Christ in Christmas and the id in I.D.

Common sense has prevailed in a rare, refreshingly candid refutation of Intelligent Design as a scientific theory. The media has handled the ID snake oil salesmen with kid gloves up to now, lest they fall victim to a bias toward reality-based, erm, reality. Proponents of ID have been taunting sensible folks, testing our tolerance for nonsense, and it was way past time for a serious smack-down. ID does not belong in science class, period. Maybe in sociology class, in the chapter on the madness of crowds. Or in psychology texts, under "denial" or "delusion" or (I'll get to this in a minute) "impotence/omnipotence" or "victim complex."

The relevant question all along has been something like: how does mention of ID in science class, or anything about ID itself help the nation's children prepare themselves for a world and a competitive market that both require knowledge and daily application of scientific inquiry? What does saying that cellular communication is too complicated to figure out, so it must have been invented by God, do to promote the kind of critical thinking needed to master the modern milieu? Nothing.

Believe in God to your little heart's content. Most scientists do. No one is suggesting such belief be banned or punishable by death. There is no Atheistic-Evolutionist cabal dreaming up a Holy Inquisition. No one is out to get you. There is no War on Christmas. Santa is safe. Isn't all this hysteria getting a little, I don't know, repetitive?

Once and for all: belief in the theory of Evolution does not conflict in any way with belief in God. What it conflicts with is the literal reading of the Biblical account of creation in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. That's what's at stake. Whether we will pay tribute to the literal reading of the Biblical account of creation in the Old Testament Book of Genesis in science classrooms or not. Period. This is a fringe Fundamentalist crusade, not a Christian one. Most sensible Christian people want to give their children the tools to succeed in the world. As for PR, all I have to say to the fundamentalists out there is: you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

As for shoving creationism down captive children's throats in science class. It's not a good time for it. Studies have shown that Americans have fallen way behind in the sciences. Here we are a society that takes advantage, to an unparalleled degree, of the amenities scientific research and development have produced, saying science and the scientific method are either at best, unimportant, or at worst utter nonsense. It's the height of decadence, is what it is. I mean, we're certainly not falling behind in consuming products that the scientific method alone has made possible.

We are Christian consumers, marching righteously to the Mall of America! We don't really understand where technology comes from, but that's OK, as long as we've got lots of it to amuse and entertain us! God will provide! God gave us X-Box, after all! 'Lectricity? Oh, that comes from Heaven. We flip this here switch, see, and an angel flies up to Heaven and asks God real nicely to turn on the lights, and when God says OK, the angel comes back real quick-like, and turns 'em on. Cell-phones? Why God invented them, too, of course. I couldn't never understand how to make one myself, so he must have!

That's about the level of intelligence you need to subscribe to Intelligent Design.

It's obviously not about promoting intelligence in our children, or encouraging them to pursue lines of rational inquiry or to think critically about the way things are and how to make them better, all of which science does. That's the thing. Science is optimistic. The religious mountebanks who are peddling ID are end-timers. They don't believe in this world, or in their own children's future, much less yours.

When you look at how the proponents of ID have reacted to this week's court decision barring it from mention in science classrooms, you get a sense of what ID is really about. It's not science, it's psychology.

There was an op-ed piece in yesterday's USA Today by John G. West, an associate director of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture (which is basically a legitimate-sounding front for the ID political agenda). West, typically disingenuous, insists that ID is "not a religious-based idea, but instead an evidence-based scientific theory that holds there are certain features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause." In other words, it doesn't have to be God who "digitally encoded" our DNA, it could have been space aliens, or, heck, why not the devil? This is the blabadee-bla part of ID and is of little consequence, since it ponders the unknowable to no purpose.

He goes on (ingeniously applying the old "I'm-rubber-you're-glue" defense): "Evolutionists used to style themselves the champions of free speech and academic freedom against unthinking dogmatism. But increasingly, they have become the new dogmatists, demanding judicially-imposed censorship of dissent." This is a bit of sophistry, attempting to equate science and religion, when they are apples and oranges. What makes science is its method. How that method is applied, or what that method reveals may have implications for religion, somehow, but the two are different realms of inquiry, entirely.

And he goes further, succinctly stating the appeal of the ID movement to those in it: "Now, Darwinists are trying to silence debate through persecution." This is essentially the same thing Falwell's fundies are saying when they insist there's a war on Christmas, or Christianity in our culture: we are the real victims. The battle for ID in the schools is a battle to claim supreme victim status. Here you're spewing nonsense and trying to force it down everybody's throat, and when they finally say, "all right, that's enough," you cry victim. It's a little childish, isn't it?

I mean, here we have cries of victimization from those who would have forced teachers to capitulate to their dogma, just as the Pope forced Galileo to. The mandated mention of ID in science class was not about truth, or advancing our children's education so that they could succeed in the real, not some faith-based fantasy world; it was about power. And now that they have been rebuked, the victimizers are claiming victimization. Seriously though, can you say "cry for help"? But it's so boring. They're so, so boring.

I suspect that if we ignored them they would go away. There aren't nearly as many of them as their disproportionate mention in the media would suggest. Let's try it.

Or here's another solution: if you're one of these people, speak up, and we'll set up a little reserve for you all, where you can go and have your way and do as you like (I warn you: it won't be as much fun since you won't be able to impose it on anybody else). You can go and live just the way Adam and Eve did in the Bible story, since that's how God created you. That means, no cars, TVs or cell phones, because that's science. Good riddance, and God bless!

12/21/2005

here's to another 86 years!

Good for Johnny Damon! The Sox are all set to launch another 86-year losing streak. They couldn't handle victory, could they?

Now Sox fanatics, a legendarily whiny bunch, are--what else?--whining that Johnny's a greedy pig and a turncoat to boot, but why shouldn't he get what he's worth on the market? Because a bunch of schlubs have their hopes and dreams pinned to their Sox? Newsflash, bitches: YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. That's something the Yankees know that the original yankees further North have apparently forgotten.

Bostonians aren't the most charming lot, but they apparently think they possess something that should inspire loyalty. I got news for y'all. Johnny can get admiration, adulation, adoration, and all the rest Sox fans have to offer in New York. You want to show your appreciation, put your money where your mouth is. This is America, not Soviet Russia. People work for money here, remember?

"In bed with the enemy," Dan Shaughnessy wrote of Damon in the Globe. But the Sox are, and always have been, their own worst enemy. They win one World Series in 86 years, and then set about with great fury to figure out exactly how to lose them for the next 86. I for one BELIEVE they'll do it.

Romney announces his New England Eugenics Initiative

I just heard on the radio about Mitt Romney's new abstinence program for inner city teens. According to the report, it will focus mainly on black and Hispanic communities.

Hey Mitt, why not just sterilize 'em all?

12/20/2005

Is Brokeback Mountain a gay movie or isn't it?

That is the question. The critics are saying it's not, really. "I wouldn't even really call it a gay movie," Jeffrey Friedman, co-director of "The Celluloid Closet," a 1995 documentary about homosexuality in Hollywood, summed it up for the San Francisco Chronicle. And furthermore: "Calling this a gay cowboy movie really diminishes it." Ouch.

So the critics are saying it's about star-crossed lovers who just happen to both be men. And so far as I know, no one involved in the movie identifies as gay. Annie Proulx, the author of the short story on which the movie's based isn't, that I know of. Nor is Larry McMurtry, the screenwriter. Ang Lee, the director isn't. Heath Ledger isn't, either. I mean, come on, he's Australian. And married. And neither is Jake Gyllenhaal (according to Jake Gyllenhaal, at least). But still, it sure feels like a gay movie, somehow, to some folks.

Here are some reasons why it's probably not, though:

1) It's not called Bareback Mountain.
2) Beans. A lot of beans. Way too many beans.
3) No lube.
4) No product.
5) No waxing.
6) No chaps.
7) Doesn't Prada make a pup tent?
8) No Gloria Gaynor on the soundtrack.
9) Lots of Willie Nelson on the soundtrack.
10) Whatever happened to romance? Kissing first, then swapping blowjobs, then fucking?
11) Oh, and where's the money shot?

12/19/2005

a man and his shirt

Just saw Brokeback Mountain with a couple of friends. Not to spoil anything, but it turns out to be about Heath Ledger shacking up with Jake Gyllenhaal's shirt.

No, here's the message people: always, always err on the side of exuberance. Always err on the side of love. There is no time in this life to do otherwise. You may end up being beaten to death with a crowbar, but, you know what? Everybody dies. Until your time comes, live it up.

Ang Lee has said, "I am attracted to sad stories, because sadness lasts longer than happiness." Truer words were never spoken, friends.

It was a moving film, at any rate, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

12/18/2005

note to Boston MFA: Tetons = TITS

Met some friends this morning for brunch and to take in the perfectly anodyne Ansel Adams exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. You can save yourself a lot of aggravation by skipping the show and just buying the catalog--the pictures in the book are the same size as the ones on the wall of the exhibition hall, and you'll be able to view them better in the comfort of your own home.

But the choice of an Adams exhibition is in line with the MFA's goal of showing very nice, irrelevant art. There is a snooty austerity in its presentation that appeals to Boston's snooty patrons of the arts. It's the same kind of thing you saw in the Ralph Lauren show earlier this year, and the Gainsborough exhibition back in '03. They all gave patrons the illusion of class, but otherwise left you unmoved. There was nothing vital here, and nothing we had not seen before. But that's safe territory for the MFA.

The most disheartening thing about the experience is hard to articulate. It's always the same, though. The only people of color I saw during my visit were at the coat check and behind the counter at the gift shop, and, of course, the security personnel. Now, there are a couple ways to look at this. You could see it as a reflection on the fair hiring practices of the MFA, and praise them for conscientiously recruiting minorities for these front-line, low-wage jobs. They should feel lucky to have jobs at all, right?

The problem for me is that we are getting awfully used to this dynamic: blacks behind the counter, serving whites. We're back to thinking that that's pretty much the natural order of things. You can say it's the market place, and no reflection of our values, but the truth is it's increasingly obvious--painfully obvious sometimes--that we are a nation giving up on the idea that equity and equality are both everyone's right and everyone's responsibility. We need to work harder individually and as a society, period.

The MFA has done its part to price undesirables out and to offer exhibitions and art all but empty of culturally relevant material, divorced from the vitality of modern life and culture. It has instead actively marketed art-snobbery. The experience of art is a luxury item, not a reflection of life or a vital force in democracy.

This anodyne approach seems meant to bring in as wide an audience as possible, but it actually excludes those for whom art has meaning beyond status. I got the feeling observing the crowd at the Ansel Adams show that it would have had significantly less value to them were it to have been free. It was an event not primarily because of the subject matter, although the austerity of Adams' work fit in with the idea of art as something monumental, monolithic, somehow static. And not least, more decorative than declamatory, as strains of modern art can be--above all, tasteful.

Not to knock Ansel Adams. His images are inseparable from our experience of the American West. His images from Yosemite, his photos of the Tetons--I saw them long before I visited Yosemite and the Tetons, and they informed and augmented the majesty of the landscape for me. But the show was staid. The images were small, the plaques were informative, but there was something vital missing. The energy in the exhibition hall was as stagnant as the air.

12/17/2005

the power of "Ooga ooga!"

From a story in the New York Times yesterday with the headline, "Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds":

"When the test was last administered, in 1992, 40 percent of the nation's college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. But on the 2003 test, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills....

"The college graduates who in 2003 failed to demonstrate proficiency included 53 percent who scored at the intermediate level and 14 percent who scored at the basic level, meaning they could read and understand short, commonplace prose texts. Three percent of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated "below basic" literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose."

I met this friend of mine for lunch at the highly recommended Neptune restaurant in the North End--the red snapper'll knock your socks off. We were looking for someplace to have an espresso afterwards. We're standing outside this coffee shop and my buddy's like, "I wonder if they sell coffee here, or just tea, or what..." There were all these students with their laptops at a counter in the shop-window, facing the street, and they all looked totally dejected, working on their term papers and finals, and whatnot. I was like, "looks like they're selling misery." And it did.

I told him, you know, a town like this, I should be able to make big bucks editing (read: writing) term papers for these sods. But the truth is, people are cheap when it comes to that kind of thing. But if you can afford $40,000 a year in tuition, you should pay out the nose for your term papers, along with everything else. They want to skimp on the price they pay for people to do their homework for them so they'll have more of their allowance to spend on their crack cocaine, crytal meth, and roofies.

It's not just students, though. There's this sort of corporate slave mentality when it comes to "content" these days. The drones produce the intellectual property to bring in the advertizers. The people who actually produce something are, of course, at the bottom of the heap. It's the guys on top, sitting around with their thumbs up their asses, who are raking in the dough.

I saw this ad on Craig's list a couple weeks ago for editors for screenplays. Whoever it was who wanted them was willing to pay a whopping thirty bucks a script to have them read and rewritten! What year is it again? 1930? I've worked on scripts at nearly that price per page, bitch. You wonder what people are thinking.

The fact is, we live in a world where the written word is so prevalent, people have gotten the idea that just because they can read it at a sixth-grade level and can write emails with a few stale expressions strung together, and sprinkled with emoticons, that this is "literacy." Most people can communicate with words, sure, but like dogs communicate by barking. Want proof? Listen to what people are barking into their cell phones: yes! no! you! me! come! go! when? now! OK, yes, it's communication. Of a sort. We're a nation of Tarzans and Janes. "Ooga ooga!"

Even my friend, who is not the most verbally gifted and knows it, but is nontheless a wildly successful entrepreneur, fell into the trap of assuming he could write the great American novel if only he had the time. That's the reason students have other people write their term papers, too. They'd do it themselves, just like they'd clean their own rooms instead of having the Mexican maid do it, but they just don't have the time, poor dears. They're too busy smoking crack, snorting tina, and raping coeds. It's a grueling schedule. But because they've deluded themselves into thinking they could if only they had more time, they're able to justify paying a pittance for someone else to do it. The pen and the PC aren't really any different from the broom and dustpan, when you think about it. "Dude, it's no big deal--it's only seven pages! I'd do it myself but I'm, like, tripping my balls off at the moment and later me and my, like, roomates have plans to, like, sodomize the neighbor's cat with a whiffle ball bat, hang it from a tree and, like, set it on fire. You know, I've got a very rigorous schedule, dude!"

The illusion of literacy is evident everywhere in our culture. We've learned to communicate in snappy little sound bites, with our vanity plate vocabulary, and in certain situations, that's more than enough. But anyone who's lived abroad in a society where their native tongue isn't spoken, can appreciate that while you can survive by sound bite, it's hard to thrive--intellectually, emotionally, spiritually--without more accutely honed language skills. The devil's in the details.

Hungarians, with whom I spent much of my twenties, take great pride in their language. And it is a real hum-dinger. I remember talking with some of my students there when I first arrived, about poetry, and the difficulties of translating it into another tongue. One of my more sagacious pupils said, "French poetry is much better in Hungarian than in the original French." I said, hmm, why's that? He argued that Hungarian was more supple, mainly on account of what he deemed as its richer vocabulary. He argued that not only do Hungarians have more words than the French to define their emotional states, but they have more emotional states to define (which is, of course, why they need more words to define them). I couldn't argue with him. I didn't have the language, even if I'd wanted to.

But he did have a point. And I have thought about it a lot over the years. We have this Platonic idea of thoughts as sort of fully formed things floating around that we have only to snatch out of the air, but anyone who's spent much time thinking, and then trying to articulate his thoughts knows that it's not quite that simple. Articulating it is half the battle.

Granted, it's not important for the short ejaculations, the grunts and groans, squeeks, shrieks and howls we take for talking points these days. I mean, we went to war on the virtue of "ooga ooga!" Why not, right?

I remember right after my dad died, I was talking to this kind of annoying person I knew, old-friend type. She just kept hounding me with the question, ‘how do you feel?’ I was like, I feel OK. ‘But how do you feel?’ Well, it was expected, you know. ‘Yes, but how do you feel?’ And then, after about five minutes of ‘probing’ or ‘disclosing’ or whatever she calls it she’s like, ‘well, do you feel…sad?’ I was like, Oh, yeah, that’s the word I was searching for! You hit the nail on the head! I feel "ooga ooga!"

Point is: if that's as close an approximation to what you're feeling or thinking as you can get it's better to just bark or howl at the moon.

12/13/2005

pro-choice AND anti-abortion?

I read an op-ed piece in the Glob [omission of the "e" entirely intentional] by Joan Vennochi last week. All of the paper’s "conservative" columnists are such caricatures you’ve gotta wonder if they aren't really ultra-liberals out to take the piss. I mean, Jeff Jacoby is not for real. Can't be. And—though she doesn’t write for the Glob—I'm thoroughly convinced Ann Coulter is a brilliant pomo rad-lib parody of the frigid reactionary post-feministic fascist.

Anyway, Vennochi's column last week was about an anti-abortion Democrat the national party is backing in Pennsylvania because they feel he can topple Republican reptile Rick Santorum, who is also, among other things, anti-abortion. So, to recap: two candidates, one a Democrat, one a Republican, both apparently anti-abortion. Vennochi sees a conflict in the Democrats backing Robert P. Casey, Jr. for the US Senate in PA while opposing Samuel A. Alito, Jr., who is also anti-abortion, by all accounts, for the supreme court in DC.

One thing pundits never tire of is pointing out whatever they perceive is a politician’s hypocrisy. And God knows there’s no shortage of it out there on both sides of the aisle. Politics is a species of hypocrisy, after all. But there are degrees. The nature of representative democracy is such that a legislator is called to reach a compromise between his individual conscience and the consensus of his constituency. And further, when it is an issue of constitutionality, he is sworn to uphold the law regardless of current consensus. We are, after all, “a nation of laws.” This is the apparently too-nuanced argument John Kerry made on the abortion issue when questioned by that awful, whimpering Stepford blonde in the second debate, which Mr. Bush could not, for the life of him, decipher.

So the big question here is whether a political party, or those who pledge allegiance to it, can be pro-choice and anti-abortion at the same time, and the answer is very simple: yes. The moderate "pro-choice and anti-abortion" stance is nothing new, in fact. Robert R. Bowers argued over a decade ago in his book, Pro-choice and Anti-abortion: Constitutional Theory and Public Policy, that the Constitution itself required the government to reject the current pro- versus anti-abortion endgame and seek a moderate solution.

Organizations, religious and secular, have sprung up to address the issue from the middle ground as well. Respect for Life, for example, is a faith-based organization that acknowledges that "almost all abortions are caused by unwanted conceptions. Methods of preventing these conceptions are numerous, and... their availability and use would reduce the number of abortions performed." One of Respect for Life's top priorities? "Promote reproductive freedom and responsibility." Sounds strangely… reasonable, doesn’t it?

As with everything in politics (it’s a cynical business, people), we have to ask, cui bono? “Who benefits?” Who benefits from hammering home the idea, at odds with reality, that there is a Culture War on that demands absolute allegiance to the opposing orthodoxies of Left and Right? The fact is, the further we get from playing into the ideological framing of this and other issues, and political and religious orthodoxy in general, the better off we'll all be.

So Vennochi is assuming, increasingly wrongly as it turns out, that we are all on the same page when it comes to how the debate is framed. She’s arguing as if we all agree that orthodoxy is the chief criterion by which we should judge our lawmakers. That is the right's biggest triumph in redefining governance in our era. Nowadays orthodox politicians of either persuasion proudly refer to themselves as "profile". But this is precisely what's wrong with party politics. It leaves nothing to the individual conscience. And that's what we American individualists should esteem, not sexual purity and ideological orthodoxy. The good news is, you can only function as a party in purity-and-orthodoxy mode for so long, before fissures and cracks appear, hypocrisies are exposed, and individual conscience reasserts itself. What's happening is the extreme right is wearing out its welcome, with its unrecognizable alternate reality and its pig-headed rigidity, just as the extreme left did long ago (though part of the right’s shtick is that its extremism is simply a reasonable reaction to the left’s—but the radicals are tilting at windmills—there is no “liberal conspiracy” afoot and no “liberal threat” looming).

What is happening is the terms of the debate are changing, subtly but surely. And subtlety is the operative concept here. There is a feeling amongst lawmakers and pundits that We, The People lack the ability to decipher nuanced arguments, or see shades of gray. Inflammatory and accusatory rhetoric is always a winner in public debate. Pig-headed and hypocritical rigidity is taken as evidence of some ridiculously vaunted, unshakable "core values." But pragmatism informed by conscience is how most of us live our dynamic daily lives—why on earth would we want a government even rhetorically mired in the bog of orthodoxy? The one unshakable core value that matters in a democracy is precisely the commitment to seek out varying opinions in search of a just compromise.

Really, the battle is still between progressivism and orthodoxy, but so far, the Democratic Party (and a significant number of cartoon liberals) have basically submitted to orthodoxy: they are just the flipside of Republicans and cartoon conservatives. There are as many "profile" politicians on the left as on the right. Political Correctness is the most obvious and unimaginative example of liberal orthodoxy (and the most doggedly overused by their disingenuous critics on the right), but orthodoxy is not only about beliefs (or substitutes for them), it’s also about the way the whole discourse is framed. The abortion debate is only one of many going on at the moment (but always more fiercely in election years) that assume an overarching orthodoxy.

Can you be for and against abortion at the same time? Well, one thing "yes" would imply is an idea of a public realm and a private realm with a sort of firewall between them. It would also imply the existence of citizens rather than automatons. Automatons have no inner or private lives. Citizens come complete with complicated upgrades like a conscience and the ability to deliberate. Automatons never make the wrong choice, because they aren’t offered any and, anyway, they have no capacity to choose. Citizens do, but they then have to cope with the consequences of whatever they choose. As for citizen-politicians, “yes” would acknowledge what we all know to be true, which is that, as with most jobs, theirs often requires a suspension of self-interest.

"Yes" would not only be an acknowledgment of the Other's private, autonomous existence, and his or her right to make his or her own way in the world, an idea ostensibly advocated by conservatives, but would also be an acknowledgment of a shared reality where those private selves intersect in sometimes very significant ways, as equals, in the crucible of lived experience. Ideology and orthodoxy are static, and set out to impose that stasis on the dynamism (or chaos) of life as it is lived in real-time. The goal is order through social control.

* * *

But back to abortion. The most enduring and compelling argument against legal abortion is that while pro-abortion forces argue for the acknowledgment of a woman's right to make her own choices, they ignore the fetus's "right to life". No such right exists in law as of yet. Roe v. Wade dealt with the issue thusly (in section IX of the ruling, which I quote here at length):

The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a ‘person’ within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment. The appellant conceded as much on reargument. On the other hand, the appellee conceded on reargument that no case could be cited that holds that a fetus is a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Constitution does not define ‘person’ in so many words. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment contains three references to ‘person.’ The first, in defining ‘citizens,’ speaks of ‘persons born or naturalized in the United States.’ The word also appears both in the Due Process Clause and in the Equal Protection Clause. ‘Person’ is used in other places in the Constitution: in the listing of qualifications for Representatives and Senators; in the Apportionment Clause; in the Migration and Importation provision; in the Emolument Clause; in the Electors provisions; in the provision outlining qualifications for the office of President; in the Extradition provisions; and in the Fifth, Twelfth, and Twenty-second Amendments, as well as in 2 and 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. But in nearly all these instances, the use of the word is such that it has application only postnatally. None indicates, with any assurance, that it has any possible pre-natal application.

All this, together with our observation, supra, that throughout the major portion of the 19th century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.
This is, of course, the final frontier for abortion foes. Remember, it was nearly a century after its ratification that the Fourteenth Amendment was extended to women. One thing Roe v. Wade did do to get the ball rolling on fetal rights was to allow states to consider the fetus’ rights as distinct from the woman’s. Since Roe there’ve been a multitude of rulings in criminal law, particularly in cases of substance abuse by pregnant women, and third-party fetal killings, that may come to be used at some point to extend the Fourteenth Amendment to fetuses, too. The implications are obvious.

I'm not particularly moved by hysterical cries of "murder!" outside clinics, though, because my gut tells me the ones screaming the loudest have ulterior motives. Otherwise they wouldn't have time for their self-righteous protests, as they'd be too busy helping find educational resources and providing job counseling for men and women "at risk," offering alternatives to women in abusive relationships, lobbying for more public resources for kids growing up in poverty, etc. There is too much demonizing of women in anti-abortion cant for it to really be about the fetus, though the fetus is symbolically significant. It is a campaign fueled by so much unmitigated hatred for what you'd imagine from the rhetoric was an army of devil-women born with one purpose—to abort babies—led by a cabal of evil doctors—a campaign so dependent on the self-perception of the righteousness of its base and the irredeemable malevolence of its enemy, that it seems very likely it's at least as much an expression of a social need for a scapegoat as anything else. Otherwise, it might occur to protesters that education, access to resources, and compassion get better results.

Part of the problem here is that the people who are most recalcitrant on the issue, whatever their stance, aren't looking for a solution, because the issue itself is really secondary. The conflict itself serves a deep-seated, psychological need. Some aspects of the anti-abortion crusade remind me of the dynamic described by San francisco psychiatrist Steve Karpman in his "drama triangle" theory. In other ways it's obviously straight-up, flat-out scapegoating we're dealing with. Again, I say this because their methods don't match their stated motives. What motivates and mobilizes them is the evil of the enemy, full-stop. They could devote themselves to working in their communities, encouraging alternatives to abortion, providing the education and tools people need to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and so on, but that would require hard work, developing a sense of empathy--looking on The Other as something other than evil, and it just doesn't match the high you get from demonizing them. There's nothing like self-righteous indignation to get the blood pumping! Scapegoating is very energizing.

And prohibition is a concession to propriety, not reality. It's no secret that prohibiting abortion doesn't stop abortions. As with other prohibitionist moves (big P Prohibition and the drug war leap to mind) there are a couple of enduring truths: supply and demand persists, but with no effective regulation except possibly by elements of organized crime. There's another fact that applies, and that's that the wealthier you are the less of an issue the legality of whatever it is you wish to obtain (drugs, abortions, child-prostitutes, whatever) is. Americans from the upper classes will have no difficulty getting their abortions, safely and speedily, regardless of legality, and regardless of their political affiliation.

And that's another thing about orthodoxy: aside from being a total drag, it breeds hypocrisy. That's why whenever you find a despotic regime that imposes orthodoxy on the masses, you will always find a decadent and totally corrupt upper crust. Because people who preach orthodoxy expect the masses to adhere to it, while they, themselves are exempt.

To be against abortion, or indifferent to it, personally, but to acknowledge the need to keep it legal, regulated and safe where the alternative is not the cessation of abortions but a proliferation of illegal, unregulated, and doubly deadly ones, is a perfectly reasonable, pragmatic stance, and once you've abandoned the idiocy of orthodoxy, really in no way contradictory.

There are seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in the right's orthodoxy, too, though. On the one hand many self-proclaimed conservatives are for removing restrictions hindering the free market, which would, of course, encourage the very social vices they profess to abhor. Hmm. Their answer is to punish the dog for devouring the t-bone they've thrown in its bowl. It's a little disingenuous is all I'm saying.

12/10/2005

who's rude?

I was doing some writing on rudeness this morning, and searching the web for articles and so on on the topic. There's a whole blog devoted to it, not surprisingly, by a certain Harvard-educated lawyer named Laurie Puhn. It's called Rudeness, Interrupted. It's fairly humorless, but then polite people often are, unfortunately.

I followed a link from her website to The Associated Press-Ipsos poll on public attitudes about rudeness. The thing that struck me, and that I found funny, was how according to the poll, it was everyone else in society who's rude. For a number of categories, in answer to the question "Is this something you yourself have done in the last few months, or not," if it was something rude, the answer was always overwhelmingly "not me!" For example: "Used a swear word in public?" Yes: 37%, No: 63%. "Used your cell phone in a loud or annoying manner in public?" Yes: 8%, No: 91%. "Gotten impatient with someone in public and spoken rudely to them?" Yes: 23%, No: 77%. "Made an obscene gesture at another person while driving a car?" Yes: 13%, No: 87%. You know what I'm saying? It's like it's twelve people doing all the rude behavior and the rest of us are poor, innocent victims. Hogwash. Especially that 8% on the cell phone. But would you expect people who engage in irritating behavior like that to tell the truth about it afterwards? The other patently absurd figure is that 87% that's never made a rude gesture while driving a car!

So when we're talking about the perception of a general upsurge in rude behavior there seems to be this sort of "exemption clause." But hardly anyone, in reality, is innocent. We're all guilty of participating in a culture of mutual loathing, disdain, and victimization. No use playing just the victim. I mean, we all know that victims often become victimizers, and rudeness works like a meme: when someone rages-out on you, chances are, later on, at some point in the day, you'll pass it on to someone else.

world's largest crustacean-coated dreidel/menorah


So I'm in Miami, walking down Lincoln Road, when I come upon this truly magnificent sight: what the artist (sitting to the left of his marvelous crustacean-coated creations in the picture here) claims is the world's largest dreidel! (And it actually spins, sort of.) I don't think the menorah is the world's largest, but it probably is the largest of its kind, maybe--dare we hope?--the only one of its kind.

12/05/2005

more on the Christmahanukwanzakah tree SCANDAL

This seems to be an issue that arouses passions in people, because everywhere I go people--friend and foe alike--are screaming at me: "It's a Christmas tree!!!" (And, yes, often with one to three exclamation points at the end.)

I read a letter to the editor in today's Globe from a "reform Jew" referencing an article by the repulsive Jeff Jacoby, that may help to clarify the issue:

"JEFF JACOBY'S column is right on the mark. I am a Reform Jew and am not offended if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas. Actually, I'm pleased. The message of Christmas is universal, and the season is a joyous one.

"Recently, I told a neighbor how beautiful his Christmas lights were. He thanked me and was glad that I had commented on it.

"Like Jacoby, I appreciate living in a country where there is freedom of religion for all faiths. And I appreciate how far the Christian majority has gone in being sensitive to the feelings of those of the Jewish faith. My response is to respect and honor the Christian tradition."

Now, I'm not gonna get into the whole "Reform Jew" thing here, or how appallingly toadying the line "I appreciate how far the Christian majority has gone," and etc, is. But it does show how truly ridiculous the whole made-up controversy is.

What the reader here is talking about is really a matter of etiquette, and nothing more. One assumption we must all agree on is that we live in an increasingly ethnically and culturally (and religiously) diverse nation, and our cities are especially diverse. This is a truth we cannot deny, and a strength we should celebrate.

It is not "PC" to say "Happy Hanukkah" to someone we know is Jewish, it's just good manners in an ethnically and culturally diverse civil society. Were we to insist on the greeting "Merry Christmas" for someone we know is not Christian, particularly someone who obviously practices another faith, it could be interpreted as needlessly strident.

It is not "PC" to say "Happy Holidays" to someone whose religious affiliation we don't know, but who we suspect may not be Christian. This will increasingly be the case, so get used to it. Making a big stink and forcing your point is tactless and tedious. That's just the way it is. How would you react to someone who wished you "Happy Hanukkah" when you weren't Jewish? You would correct them, of course, and you would be right to. And you would also be right to expect that they would thereafter honor your acknowledged religious preference by offering appropriate holiday greetings. This is not "PC," again, it's just good, old-fashioned manners.

Nor is it offensive in the least to say "Merry Christmas" to someone we know to be Christian. So when Mr. Rosen, the "Reform Jew" complimented his neighbor on his "Christmas lights" there was nothing objectionable in it. We have a whole complex world of intimate social relations to maneuver, and no one is suggesting we avoid any reference to anything that we find definitive enough in our personal lives to characterize us, individually. But going about assuming people of other faiths won't be offended by your stridency is a bit antisocial.

Which brings me to my point: I call my tree a "Christmas tree". But it is not my tree we're talking about here. As stridently politicized as we are in America, there is still a difference between the personal and the public. The government has a duty to speak to, and for a diverse public, but has made no attempt to force its neutral nomenclature on private citizens.

The truth is, if the right had not raised its unholy stink over the semantics of a government website (and it is no mere coincidence it was a Massachusetts government website), and the lame utterance of one government functionary at the tree lighting, hardly anyone would have noticed. All the private people at the lighting called the tree whatever they wanted anyway, and no one made any attempt to stop them, nor should they have. Because there was no gag order. Nor will the "PC" storm troopers break down your door Christmas morning and force you to surrender your Christmas goodies unless you swear to call them "holiday gifts". Breathe easy, your Christmas is safe. The PC Grinch isn't coming to steal it from you, no matter what Rev. Falwell says.

The right has suggested "PC" is the McCarthyism of the left, though it has no Joseph McCarthy and no House Committee on Un-American Activities. "PC" is nowadays largely the bugaboo of the right, and when innocuous incidents like a reference to a "holiday tree" on a government website is cause for jihad, you almost have to pity them that they have nothing better to rally the troops round.

12/02/2005

thoughts on this Christmahanukwanzakah

I have a confession to make. I usually don't read the Boston Metro unless I'm in it. But friends tell me when I've written something that's set the op-ed page ablaze. I have heard personally from some people about the Christmahanukwanzakah tree suggestion. No one really seems to like it, alas, so I don't think it's got a chance of getting through City Council.

When my friend Robert emailed to summarize today's "feedback" in the paper--"To be brief: You're a unabomber, you need to check your meds, and you are offensive to the extreme. (2 ltrs) "--I have to admit my interest was piqued, and I went ahead and read them.

One said, in part: "There is no such thing as a Hanukkah or Kwanzaa tree. If we were to call a tree a Hanukkah tree, it would be offensive to Jewish people, so why does he think it is not offensive to mix the word Hanukkah into a description of the Christmas tree? It would be equally offensive to call a menorah a 'Christmas menorah.'"

Because Jews actually have a sense of humor, "Hanukkah tree" would not be as offensive as it would be just outright eye-rollingly ridiculous. I do agree a "Christmas menorah" would be offensive (much more offensive, in fact, than a "Hanukkah tree"), but that's because the menorah is a sacred object. A Christmas tree is not. FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL, THE CHRISTMAS TREE IS NOT A RELIGIOUS SYMBOL, PEOPLE. The menorah IS. And it is an ancient one, central to the story of the Jews with a sacred role in worship. If you don't get the difference, I can't help you.

Now, if you want a Christian symbol, the cross is one. or palm leaves. Or the communion chalice. But as beloved as it is (and I love Chritmas trees with their sparkly lights as much as the next guy), the Christmas tree is not. It has no sacred function, and Christianity was just fine without it for nearly two thousand years. And if *poof* it turned into a "holiday tree" just like that, Christianity would survive utterly unscathed. No doctrinal or liturgical changes would be necessary. Again, it serves no sacred function. Sentimental? Yes. Sacred? No. (And, yes, there's a difference.)

The other ltte must be reproduced in its entirety for the full effect:

"Will someone please check Mike Mennonno’s medication levels? His anti-religion and Christo-phobic rants are sounding more and more like the paranoid manifestos of the Unabomber. Mr. Mennonno should be reminded that the 'culture war crusade' was started by the left’s attack on the definition of marriage, Christmas and the word God. The true fear in today’s changing society comes from Mr. Mennonno and his ilk. The rising tide of immigrants is coming from religious cultures, and that’s a threat to his pagan, politically correct tribe of 3 to 4 percent of the population."

So now I'm a pagan! Groovy! Let's fuck!

No, really, my meds are just fine. At the moment I feel like I'm floating on a sort of pink, feathery wave of good vibrations that smells like Hubba Bubba bubble gum.

I'm not anti-religion, people. Just because I'm anti-your made-up "religion," doesn't mean I'm anti-religion in general. We clear? Right-wingers take note. Christ wasn't one of you. No matter how you twist it, and how hard you hate it, Christ wasn't right-wing. You all seem to have been hoodwinked, and hooked up with, erm, the anti-Christ. An honest enough mistake, I guess.

Just to give you an idea of the kind of twisted shit that's out there being passed off as "Christian," I happened upon a website run by "Got Questions Ministries," that boasts "73,403 Bible Questions Answered!" Everything that is wrong with this counterfeit Christianity can be found on this site, starting with claims like: "With over 700 answers to frequently asked Bible questions published online, approximately 70% of the questions we are asked already have answers available to you instantly." Wouldn't want to actually read the thing and think about it yourself, would you? That would require developing a real sense of conscience, and we don't want that, do we? Not to Jesus-out on you all, but Christ himself spoke in such a way, with parables, that suggests the answers aren't easy, or instant. We're supposed to think about things. Deeply, in fact.

By the way, I've read the book and about the only thing Christ was totally straightforward about was this: "The first of all the commandments is...thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these."

I'd stumbled upon GotQuestions.org after googling "hate the sin, not the sinner." One of the site's 700 FAQs happens to be "Are we to love the sinner but hate the sin?" And the answer, in part: "Many Christians use the cliché 'Love the sinner, hate the sin.' However, we must realize that this is an exhortation to us as imperfect human beings. The difference between us and God in regard to loving and hating is vast. Even as Christians, we remain imperfect in our humanity and cannot love completely, nor can we hate without malice. But, God can do both of these perfectly well, because He is God! God can hate without any sinful intent at all. Therefore, he can hate the sin and the sinner in a perfectly holy way." Well, that's reassuring. God is hate.

This version of "religion" is really more like a form of mental illness. It reminds me of nothing so much as Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death--those who are in despair from not knowing they're in despair. So often this type of personality projects it outward. It's the world that is sinful and sinning against her, and it's her duty to "minister" to the sinners. She is the one shining light of holiness in the office where she works, or the only righteous one on the bus, or the only true believer in Filene's Basement, or Burger King, or wherever she finds herself. This is a flattering picture of oneself, the perfection of hypocrisy.

As for the "culture war," it didn't start with gay marriage. The idea of the American kulturkampf is that on a whole constellation of issues, people fall on one side or the other of all of them, not based on religious affiliation but based on ideology. We know the issues because they have been relentlessly exploited by politicians who use them as "wedges" in election years. James Davison Hunter, in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America identified the battleground as Progressivism versus Orthodoxy. To say that the left is responsible is either appallingly naive or just pathetically ignorant. It takes two to tango.

Which was partly my point in the piece. The right jumped on this non-story (I mean, call the friggin tree whatever you want) and got the troops all worked up into their customary froth. But the truth is, any Christian worth his salt would have seen through it. Only these counterfeit Christians took the bait. Christ was not a divider. The same can't be said for the Rev. Falwell. His modis operandi is to spread the fear of the Other, and the hatred that always attends such fear (because, remember, God is Hate). He and his followers are flattering themselves thinking they're Christians when, actually, they're doing the devil's work.

the latest on the neocon con job

So President Bush, again after that interminable deer in the headlights phase his administration is known for in a crisis, has come up with a plan to "win" in Iraq. I hope it includes another scene of our Peter Pan President flitting across the deck of an aircraft carrier in a tight little flight suit, brass band playing and banners declaring his glorious victory waving. That was so much fun the first time around.

This war was lost from the get-go and there is no winning it now, regardless of what the armchair warriors back home would like to believe. The neocons have conned the war's supporters into believing it's about conservatives versus liberals, that it's a domestic issue that cuts to the core of what it is to be a Republican or Democrat. And this strategy has paid dividends to the GOP, but it's bullshit, and it's starting to backfire, because the bullshit detectors are going off all across the nation.

There are a number of reasons why this war is unwinnable, some of which James Fallows touches on in his cover piece for this month's Atlantic Monthly, "Why Iraq Has No Army." After the initial shock and awe, the "liberating army" stood by and watched, along with the rest of the world, as the country descended into chaos. Vital time was lost, and then the civilians in the administration lost interest.

Lately the obvious has been getting some press. Self-proclaimed "Liberators" who don't know the language or respect the culture of those they're "liberating" seldom "win" in the end. "Liberators" who torture those they have "liberated" never do. But, aside from the human relations problems the idea of imposing a democratic system on a tribal culture is sheer hubris. Even the idea of Iraq's arbitrary borders--it's very existence as a nation-state--is flawed. The imposition of arbitrary and artificial borders in the name of a particular idea of social and political organization has reaped destruction in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe (and not just the Balkans--Spain, the UK, France, even Belgium). There are obvious advantages to everyone playing by the same rules and adhering to a certain model of the nation-state, but there is a cost as well.

In Iraq, three populations traditionally at odds with each other are expected to share a single nation, governed democratically. This expectation is part of the neocon fallacy, where America waves its fairy wand, and *poof* free market democracies appear.