Friday, August 13, 2010

Prop 8 and paradigms

Victor Hugo famously said that there is no stronger force than an idea whose time has come. I think we're witnessing that right now.

I came across two interesting comments on the Prop-8 ruling, and the Ross Douthat column I discussed in my previous post. One was actually a comment on the other—Andrew Sullivan quoting Ezra Klein—but I thought his brief observation was rather insightful, and it made me think. The key Klein passage:

America does not currently conceive of marriage in the way that Douthat … would like it to conceive of marriage, and in the way it would need to conceive of marriage in order for there to be a good reason the institution can't accommodate gays. So to oppose gay marriage, Douthat … must first construct an alternative version of marriage, and then argue that if real marriage opens to gays, that's another step away from the idealized marriage that would be closed to gays.

It's like partisans of VCRs opposing improvements to DVDs because they make the widespread resurrection of VHS unlikely.

I liked this analogy a lot, in part because it got me thinking about paradigm shifts. Sullivan's comment got my mind working in similar ways: "It seems to me that we are witnessing the much faster collapse of the anti-gay marriage case - on logic and public opinion - that almost anyone anticipated. It is as if suddenly, one consensus has imploded and another begun."

Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigms works along much this same reasoning: that societal change is not gradual, but tends to happen with remarkable speed when it happens, and one dominant world-view will be eclipsed by another apparently all at once. Basically, what we witness is the inertia of accepted wisdom being overcome by incremental change that has gathered weight and force until it can no longer be withstood. What seemed timeless and enduring can suddenly no longer stand.

Even just a decade ago, gay marriage was considered a possibility but decades away from broad social acceptance; two decades ago it was unthinkable but for a tiny minority. Resistance to the idea is still strong, but waning fast; the strongest signal of this shift is less its vocal advocacy than mainstream indifference, which suggests more than anything a fait accompli. I'd like to think that we've reached that historical tipping-point.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking encouragement from odd sources

Just a few days ago, Proposition 8 was struck down in California, making gay marriage again legal in that state. The court case leading to this decision has been fascinating, and Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling will likely stand as a milestone decision in the history of human rights.

There are many, many aspects of this decision that are encouraging about the mainstreaming of the presence of gays and lesbians in contemporary culture. I want to cite two of them today.

Here's one: the principal lawyer in the team arguing against Prop 8 was Ted Olson, a conservative most famous for representing George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore 2000. Olson did an extraordinary job of taking down Prop 8 on its constitutional flaws, and we see his mad skillz here in an interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace:

That this former Bush proponent can argue so eloquently for the right of gay marriage doesn't encourage me so much because he's a conservative taking a stereotypically non-conservative position, as that the intellectual basis for his constitutional argument is so solid. Don't get me wrong: I'm always happy to see conservatives endorse socially liberal philosophy, but it's comforting to see so strong a vindication of a secular humanist reading of the U.S. constitution.

The second thing to which I want point was Ross Douthat's editorial the day before yesterday in the NY Times. It was a little garbled. From what I can gather, he attempted to articulate his opposition to gay marriage by way of a defence of heterosexual monogamy as something somehow exceptional. He writes:

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it's that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support ... But if we just accept this shift, we're giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

To my mind, it's the bit suggesting "lifelong heterosexual monogamy" is "a microcosm of civilization" that makes this art. Seriously? This would be less absurd a claim if he had not already, in the name of acknowledging certain anti-gay-marriage arguments as wrong-headed, dispensed with a clutch of their standards in his opening paragraph. For example, he cites the old saw that "Marriage is an ancient institution that has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman, and we meddle with that definition at our peril." These arguments, he admits, "have lost because they're wrong."

They may be wrong by Douthat's own admission, but he then essentially advances the same argument by different means. The argument by way of nature doesn't work, he acknowledges; anyone claiming homosexuality as unnatural must needs account for genetic and biological evidence, to say nothing of the Central Park Zoo's homosexual penguins. So he reverts to an argument by way of civilization. Heterosexual monogamy, he further acknowledges, is unnatural in itself: "If 'natural' is defined to mean 'congruent with our biological instincts,' it's arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable." However—and here is his basic point—it is in its unnaturality that heterosexual monogamy deserves to be enshrined and protected, as it is the basis of Western civilization: it is in fact, to repeat his words, "one of the great ideas of Western civilization."

I'm not really sure where to begin here. Maybe pointing out that heterosexual marriage was not the sole provenance of Western civilization—I'm pretty sure ancient Chinese and Indian cultures practised something comparable. Secondly: dude, have you read Plato's Symposium? If there's any consensus on what the cradle of Western democratic and humanistic ideals was, ancient Athens is kind of it. And, um, not to put too fine a point on it—but they did quite love their man-on-man encounters, to the point where Plato (he to whom all of Western philosophy is but a footnote, remember) enshrined it as the most perfect expression of aesthetic love. Also, Sappho—let's not forget Sappho either.

But really, that kind of nitpicking (as fun as it is) is kind of beside the point. The point is the sheer incoherence of Douthat's piece. It reads as the flailing of a conservative thinker—a religious conservative at that—who on one hand is too intelligent to accept the standard anti-gay arguments but also cannot abandon the basic precepts of his faith and political convictions. Which leads to a kind of desperate re-framing of the issue: same-sex marriage isn't the natural order of things, but it's a great idea we abandon at our own peril—much like school prayer. Or white presidents.

Of course, once Douthat acknowledges same-sex marriage as an idea among other ideas, he cedes the absolutist ground on which the Right tends to frame the issue of marriage—kind of like how those Biblical passages "proving" the earth's centrality had to be re-read as allegorical in the face of the Copernican Revolution, or legislative racism gave way before the U.S. constitution's basic promise of human rights. There's still a long way to go, but it's always comforting to have indicators of hope.

Friday, August 06, 2010

In praise of arbitrary milestones

As heralded several days ago, this is the five hundredth post to this humble bog. Given that this blog also recently celebrated its five anniversary, that means that over the last five years I have published posts at an average rate of once every 3.68 days. Not too shabby.

I'd drink champage if I had it. I don't, so I'll settle for a Friday afternoon cocktail. I will sip it and think of you, my readers. Slainte!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

More Big Love ruminations, or, No Mormons were harmed in the writing of this post

We've made it to the end of season three of Big Love, and while it got a little uneven over the last few episodes, overall I still have to give the series a big thumbs up. I've been pounding out some notes on the various points of interest the series has—academically speaking—for potential articles; there are a variety of tangents I can take, but the one that occurred to me today is the weird incongruity between the kind of shows HBO has become known for, and the basic content of Big Love. To put it another way: HBO has always taken advantage of its freedom as a pay station to depict things like nudity and profanity, stuff you can't get away with on regular cable. Indeed, HBO series take transgression to a new level, with the very nearly Shakespearian potty mouths of Deadwood, or the frequent graphic gay sex of Oz.

Big Love, on the other hand, depicts deeply religious and self-consciously decent people for whom swearing is about as unthinkable as taking a drink. The most offensive the language gets are with such foul ejaculations as "Oh, my heck!" and "What the H are you thinking?" (come to think of it, the phrase "foul ejaculations" would probably cause serious upset within the Henrickson clan). To those familiar with the blue language of The Wire and Deadwood, Big Love is almost shocking for its propriety. I amuse myself sometimes imagining a crossover episode that would make Jimmy McNulty a house guest of the Henricksons.

Which made me ponder: is this how HBO now gives us edgy content? There's a great Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin shows Hobbes how he offends his parents with his music: elevator music, played very softly. When you have very secular and liberal sensibilities, when you grew up listening to industrial music or gangsta rap (or both), what exactly do your children have to do to earn your disapprobation? Christian rock and a membership in the Young Conservatives?

I say this of course with my tongue in my cheek, but one of the things I like about Big Love is that it does not depict the Henricksons' religious devotion ironically (which might be the series more subtle irony, but I will come to that). On the contrary, the characters are quite earnest in their faith. To be sure, there are some comic moments (usually involving Nicki) where the tenets of Mormon fundamentalism appear risible, but the show lets Bill and his clan be sincere in their beliefs with a minimum of implicit critique.

That being said, it is hard to avoid the fact that HBO's prevailing demographic is a university-educated, largely secular and liberal audience—an audience likely to be at least sceptical of such religious fervour as depicted on the show, at most dismissive or hostile. I can of course only proceed from my own subjective response to the show, but I have to imagine that there are many viewers of a similar mindset to mine: who like the Henricksons as characters, but also view this world—not just the polygamists' world, but a social context in which one's adherence to the Mormon Church (or any church) is an arbiter of one's social virtue—is utterly alien. Indeed, one of the most interesting thematic points of Big Love, and something I suspect mitigates the Henricksons' lifestyle for a liberal audience, is the fact that the social condemnation of polygamy proceeds not from an abhorrence of such a crushingly patriarchal system, but from the dogma of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Polygamy, originally a basic tenet of the Mormon Church, was officially disavowed in 1890 by church president Wilson Woodruff under Congressional pressure. The prejudice against the Henricksons seems to be less a matter of intellectual distinction than pious adherence to church doctrine, and the church itself functions on the show as a panoptical entity with a constant disapproving eyebrow cocked at anyone not vigorously active in church activity. (In season one, the church distributes colour-coded street maps to neighbourhoods indicating which homes are "active" and which ones are "inactive"; Nicki, whose dress and demeanour identify her as a fundamentalist, has her house blacked out).

The series also fosters an understanding of Mormonism, and the Henricksons' heretical offshoot, only gradually—and it was only in the third season that the theological underpinnings of polygamy and the history of the LDS Church came into focus. Again speaking from a subjective position here, this has the effect of introducing the loonier aspects of Mormonism only when you have an emotional investment in these characters. To wit: in the 1820s in western New York, Joseph Smith Jr. (who had been previously arrested several times for grifting and scamming people) announced that he had, after three visitations from the Angel Moroni, discovered two gold plates that told the story of the origins of those living in America and the truth of the Gospels. He also had two magical stones that, when fashioned into eyeglasses, allowed him to translate the plates. In the course of about two months, dictating from behind a curtain (he refused to show the plates to anyone, but needed a scribe as he was himself illiterate), Smith produced about 500 pages of what was to become The Book of Mormon. Persecution from locals hostile to the self-styled prophet and his followers led to a protracted journey across the U.S., during which Joseph Smith was killed in Illinois in another altercation with locals (leaving behind thirty-two wives). The "saints" were ultimately led to the Salt Lake by Smith's lieutenant Brigham Young, where they established the geographical home of the LDS Church. Mormonism continues to be today one of the world's fastest-growing religions, boasting such congregants as Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck.

The principle behind polygamy—simply referred to as "The Principle" on Big Love—is the belief that the family you have in the temporal world is with you in the "Celestial Kingdom," the highest and most blessed plane of the afterlife, and that it is one's moral obligation to grow the temporal family as much as possible in order to obtain a more blessed afterlife. Hence, all of the difficulties faced by the Henrickson clan in maintaining and growing their family—and the pursuit of a family structure abhorrent to secularists because of its basis in an egregious paternalism and patriarchal imperative—are undertaken in the name of an arcane religious doctrine that I'm fairly certain seems not just odd to the HBO demographic, but actively delusional and quasi-insane. Which, I would argue, is where the series develops its subtle irony—dramatic irony, as it were, as the audience watches Bill et al subject themselves to a host of difficulties for reasons they find, at the very least, unnecessary.

The insularity of the world depicted on Big Love also contributes, I believe, to its dramatic appeal to a largely secular audience. Though not harping on this point, both the polygamists and the mainstream Mormons make it clear that those not baptized into the LDS Church are damned—or at least definitively excluded from eternal joy in the Celestial Kingdom. Hence, though we may find the Henricksons endearing, we have little reason to be sympathetic to an exclusive religious doctrine that so emphatically shuts out not just non-Christians and non-believers, but the vast majority of Christians as well. The incursions of secular perspectives are few and far between, and were the show to consistently stage the conflict as between religion and secularism, I certainly know I would find it a lot more difficult to sympathize with the Henricksons and their fellow-travellers. To put it simply, I'd have a dog in the hunt, whereas in its current form I find myself sufficiently outside the show's context to be at once more objective and also more emotionally involved with the main characters.

As a final thought, I would argue that the great value of Big Love is the fact that it offers a subtle but trenchant critique of religious doctrine and the nuclear family portraying both taken to their illogical extremes. The disturbing, cultish quality of the compound-living fundamentalists is contrasted with the modern sheen of the contemporary LDS—but as already mentioned, the mainstream LDS Church is itself portrayed as oppressive and prejudiced, and besides which sharing the bizarre origin story of the self-styled latter-day Mohammed, Joseph Smith Jr. The thought that occurs to me however when reading the Smith narrative is that the only thing that really makes it more unbelievable than any other religious origin story is its proximity to us in time—it lacks the aura of authenticity bestowed upon other religions' starting-points because it emerges not in mythic time, but in years recent enough for us to read about Smith's arrests for grifting in the New York newspapers of the day.

Similarly, the contrast between the Henricksons' shiny modern suburban life and the rustic, rudimentary pioneer-village of the fundamentalist compound is a visual cue that identifies them more closely with television's standard depictions of the nuclear family. Throughout the first season, Big Love generally depicts the Henricksons as happy and balanced family unit that who would have a perfect life if only the rest of the world wasn't prejudiced against them. This happiness is however increasingly shown to be a facade, with the cracks showing as various family members chafe against the asymmetries of what is ultimately shown to be a rigidly hierarchical system. Though Bill himself at first seems like a veritable paradigm of masculine responsibility, generosity, and, yes, liberality, he increasingly comes to assert the absolute authority of the patriarch and make recourse to doctrinal justification for that authority. In the process, the traditional model of the nuclear family suffers by comparison: the "father knows best" model, which as I've suggested in previous posts is a television staple, ultimately appeals to the same logic of innate masculine authority.

OK, much longer post than I'd planned. Still ... thoughts?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Summer reading

It is August already, and just as I always do at this point in the summer, I wonder where the hell the last few months went. The school year is just around the corner, and many of the things I had planned to get done by this point are still, well, piled up in the on-deck circle.

On the other hand, I have done an awful lot of reading—most of it research-related, but a lot of it has also been purely for pleasure (though this is one of the benefits of being an English professor whose area of specialization is contemporary: more than a few titles listed here have article potential. Any guesses which ones?) Here are the highlights:

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls and The Silver Swan.

Benjamin Black is the nom de plume for Booker-winning Irish novelist John Banville, who took up the new moniker so that he could write detective fiction. Not that there is much in the way of deception, considering that the author bio begins "Benjamin Black is the pen name of acclaimed author John Banville ..." and features Banville's recognizable mug quite prominently. I guess he wanted to make it clear that genre fiction was just a hobby. At any rate, the novels are quite good, and excellent antidotes to those who want to romanticize living in Ireland—they take place in 1950s Dublin, and more than anything else are atmospheric evocations of a grimy, impoverished and pettishly puritanical culture. Black/ Banville's "detective" is a broken down, quasi-alcoholic pathologist named Quirke who finds himself embroiled in mysteries that he sort of half-assedly investigates. The attraction of these novels is not in Quirke's talents as an investigator (he is, frankly, rather inept), so anyone hoping for a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot will be disappointed. And while he's a hard-drinking ladies' man, Quirke lacks the edge of a Sam Spade, given that he sort of muddles through things. Call it soft-boiled detective fiction, and enjoy it for Banville/ Black's glorious prose.

Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals.

I have written about my love for Sir Terry's parodic fantasy fiction severaltimes on this blog. His wit and intelligence are always impressive, but his sheer productivity is mind-numbing. Unseen Academicals is his thirty-seventh Discworld novel (with number thirty-eight due out in the fall). Impressive for anyone—doubly impressive for someone battling Alzheimer's. I had the good fortune to read Unseen Academicals during the World Cup; this Discworld instalment is all about the ancient game of Foote-the-Ball and the changes the game adopts when it becomes imperative for the wizards of Unseen University to field a team and play the local thugs of the city of Ankh-Morpork. If you're utterly confused by this premise, you are obviously a Discworld virgin; I suggest you remedy that, and soon. Unseen Academicals has all the usual components of a Pratchett novel: sharp satire, absurd humour, a colourful yet deeply sympathetic (for the most part) cast of characters, and a multilayered storyline that never quite goes in the direction you expect. Highly recommended for the initiated.

John R. Hale, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy.

Triremes! Sea battles! Brilliant Greek names like Themistocles, Pericles, Thrasybulus, and Demosthenes! I picked this book up on a whim at the UWO bookstore, out of a general fascination with ancient Greek and military history, and couldn't put it down. Hale is a brilliant historian—from my brief investigation of the guy's scholarly cred, he is pretty much the authority on ancient navies. And Vikings. But for my purposes, he also is an amazing storyteller. This book takes you from just before the first Persian War up to the death of Alexander the Great, and shows how Athens and its democratic legacy was basically made possible by its navy.

Jo Walton, Farthing and Ha'Penny.

These are two old-style English murder mysteries set in an alternative history in which England negotiated a truce with Hitler in 1941. I was surprised at first with how unobtrusive the alternative historical context was: it really does sort of fade into the background in Farthing, but with Ha'Penny Walton makes it increasingly prevalent. The effect is somewhat insidious: before you know it, you are taken out of the comfortable familiarity of the genteel English mystery and made to face an all-too-possible alternative history in which the blight of Nazism has not been eliminated from Europe and Britain is slowly but inexorably sliding into fascism itself. The third book of the trilogy, Half a Crown, I have not yet been able to lay my hands on.

Richard K. Morgan, Market Forces and Broken Angels.

Some of you will remember my post on Richard K. Morgan's Black Man back in May, something made rather remarkably memorable by the fact that Morgan himself responded to my criticisms of his novel in my comments section. This precipitated a great back-and-forth over email between me and the man himself, with the tentative promise of an interview that—ideally—I can shop to an SF journal in conjunction with an article on his novels. In the interests of said article, I needed to read the two Morgan books I hadn't yet got around to. Unfortunately, publishers have not been cooperating with me this summer: it seems that all the books I want to get are out of print or out of stock, or (in the case of the two Morgan books in question) only available in audio format. Fortunately, my good friend Tim Blackmore here at UWO (who was obliquely responsible for me discovering Morgan to begin with) came to my rescue with a loaner of the two novels in question. All of which is an account of everything but the books themselves. So: Market Forces is exactly one half of an extrapolative dystopia (which may well be a redundant term), depicting a future in which high-stakes capitalism literally entails killing to get ahead, and which overtly profits from conflicts in the developing world. This much is good; the Mad Max-style combat between corporate ladder-climbers—in which they do battle in souped-up cars on the highway—is out of step with the general intellectual seriousness of the rest of the novel. Broken Angels is the second of the three Takeshi Kovacs novels, and exhibits the same fusion of hard-boiled detective fiction and cyberpunk of the other two.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation.

Here's my two-part SF heresy: (1) I had never read Asimov's classic Foundation until this summer, and (2) I was totally underwhelmed by it. Even taking into account my belated encounter with it, having read a slew of contemporary SF classics that have all profited from Asimov's playbook, it felt pretty thin to me. Now, the overall concept, of a massive galactic empire in decay and the efforts of a group of scholars to preserve civilization through the inevitable crash and dark age that follows, is positively visionary. But the actual story that told was, well, insufficient to the promise of that concept. Granted, I have yet to read the subsequent Foundation novels, but the quality of the storytelling itself was disappointing enough to not make me enthusiastic about reading them. I'm sure I will at some point, for the simple need to cover my SF bases, but it is not currently high on my priority list.

Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged.

Speaking of the weird caprices of publishing this summer: after having The Blade Itself recommended to me a few years ago by a fellow fantasy enthusiast, I finally got around to picking it up this summer. I quite enjoyed it: it is a great story of, among other things, the world-weariness of those whose life is lived by the blade. The alternative world evoked is quite vivid, and the characters well realized. I avidly picked up book number two, Before They Are Hanged, but have not been able to lay hands on Last Argument of Kings ... for reasons passing understanding, the first two are readily available but the third has effectively vanished from this earth. Adding insult to injury, Abercrombie's most recent novel (which seems to take place in the same world some twenty years later) is also on the shelves.

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner.

Did anyone else find this novel way overrated? For a while after it first came out, it seemed to be all anyone could talk about. I'd heard its brilliance praised to the skies by many people whose opinions I respect, and so had always meant to get around to reading it. Well, I finally did ... and was waiting for that storytelling or technical brilliance to appear. Not so much. I found the story generally engaging, if a bit pedestrian, and the dramatic sequences really rather contrived. It kind of had all the set-pieces a western audience expects of a novel set in Afghanistan, with little to question, complicate, or challenge those assumptions.

Cormac McCarthy, Child of God.

I love love love Cormac McCarthy, and ever have since first reading Blood Meridian. It's a bit of a truism to call him William Faulkner's heir apparent—on one hand, I think that is true (him and Toni Morrison), but at the same time he's marked out his own thematic and stylistic territory. He stumbled a bit with All The Pretty Horses, but The Crossing and Cities of the Plain more than made up for that. And then, No Country for Old Men. And then ... The Road. B'Jaysus, of the handful of novels I've read that have left me metaphorically in the fetal position from sheer emotional exhaustion, that one is certainly in the top three. Anyway, I realised this summer I had not read any of his three earliest novels, and on the recommendation of s student decided to start with Child of God. And ... phew. OK, Cormac—I'm seeing some of your later fiction here, some of your key themes and tropes, but not with the subtlety and nuance you learn. Child of God is set in Tennessee mountain country and follows the exploits of Les Ballard, who may or may not be developmentally challenged. Les basically descends into increasingly depraved behaviour, much of it necrophiliac in nature. And that's all I will say, aside from the fact that McCarthy's prose makes even the most revolting situations worth reading.

Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

I quite simply have to love Anthony Bourdain. His schtick as the bad boy of the food world and the iconoclast of the Food Network would be entertaining but ultimately boring if undertaken by anyone else. Many of his targets are pretty easy, especially food "personalities" like Rachael Ray. Back when he published Kitchen Confidential in 2000—the book that made his reputation and his subsequent career—he took equal aim at all celebrity chefs, especially the likes of Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Now, ten years later, he is far more seasoned and thoughtful, and quite willing to admit error. This last quality is what most endears me to Bourdain: it's easy to be an iconoclast, but pretty damn hard to be a thoughtful one willing to revise one's opinions. And revise he has: he bemoans the increasing slide into populism made by the Food Network, while acknowledging that of course the network will go where the money is; he continues to mock Emeril et al, but gently, and acknowledges the fact that they are and always were superior chefs to him; and on that note, he is quite frank about his own pedestrian talents in the kitchen—he is (or was) a journeyman cook, and offers heartfelt advice to those just starting out about how to avoid his own missteps; all the while still being utterly unforgiving to those he sees as villains of the food world, from the leaders of the "slow food" movement to manufacturers of ground beef. Whatever else you think of him, Bourdain is always an entertaining read.