Category Archives: Sexuality

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ‘The Way the Crow Flies’ – A Review

IX-anne-marie-macdonald-as-the-crow-fliesAnn-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies is not a horror novel, but it certainly covered some horrific ground. Did I mention I also enjoy reading bildungsroman novels, especially ones that are fabulously written?

MacDonald’s second novel (after Fall on Your Knees) follows the life of eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy, the daughter of Jack McCarthy, a high-ranking officer at the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Centralia, Ontario, Canada in the early sixties. Newly arrived after a long stint in Germany (where Madeleine was born), the family quickly adapts to life in a new part of the world, at least for Madeleine. Everything is off to a roaring start until she experiences unexpected trouble at school in the form of her abusive teacher Mr. March, who chooses a handful of girls to remain a few minutes after school for his personal pleasure, of which Madeleine is one. Tough subject matter to address in and of itself, but the bleakness level shifts into overdrive after Claire, an American classmate whose dad is stationed at the base for reasons known only to Madeleine’s father, is raped and murdered off-base and a beloved teenage neighbor, Ricky Froelich, becomes the state’s prime suspect, an easy scapegoat when the local authorities want to close this horrendous case quickly, and do so with the help of two of Madeleine’s classmates . . . who also happen to be members of the “after-three” club.

Is that dark enough for you? No? Well then, toss in the fact that the reason Claire’s father is stationed at the base is to smuggle a Nazi war criminal into the United States to serve as an assistant to Wernher von Braun as part of America’s plan to make sure it gets to the moon before those pesky Commies do, and that Madeleine’s father is a willing participant in this scheme, and that the teenager is the adopted son of Henry Froelich, a Jewish man who happened to be a prisoner at Mittelbau-Dora and knew the Nazi scientist who Jack secretly has holed up in a nearby town, only waiting for his order to brief Claire’s father and get the Nazi packing to the US. Jack also happens to be an important witness who could potentially vindicate Ricky’s innocence, but in doing so he would have to blow open the secret mission his own government has him participating in. Wait, even more issues come steadily down the pike with each new chapter, such as the fact that Madeleine is dealing with her burgeoning homosexuality, and her beloved older brother Mike is later sent to Vietnam. And, and . . .

If this plot seems over-complicated and a little too ‘just so’ to swallow, perhaps, but it should be noted that all of its various components were born from real-life events. Madeleine’s life is in part autobiographical, and the main plot point, the murder of Claire McCarroll, is based on the case of Steven Truscott. Of course, the Nazi war criminal being smuggled into Canada, and then into the US, is also modeled on historical precedent, namely Operation Paperclip. May be all of these events converging is one of those one-in-a-million things that sometimes do happen. It’s still pushing it, though MacDonald’s writing is so natural and self-assured that nothing ever feels forced, and the characters are sufficiently well-drawn that their respective motivations are perfectly understandable. Thus, it all feels too much like destiny about mid way through, a depressing conclusion indeed. Yet, somehow, amidst this carefully constructed fatalism, just when you think you have everything worked out and know how the story will end, the final piece is dropped into place, and it’s more shocking than you could ever have  imagined.

The Way the Crow Flies, published in 2003, was a well-deserving contender for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Lambda Literary Award, though it ultimately won neither. That’s unfortunate. It’s a beautifully written novel that bounces back and forth between the two major p.o.v. characters, Madeleine and Jack, and spans around thirty years, as the adult Madeleine deals with the fallout from her own childhood abuse as well as watching a dear friend get sent up the river for crimes she knows he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, Jack’s big secret and the guilt that results from it is taking a toll on his health, which in turn is adding more stress to Madeleine’s life, and on it goes, until things finally come to a head and both Jack and Madeleine are forced to deal with their past. MacDonald perfectly captures the tone and details of life on a Canadian air force base in 1963, and weaves the various strands of her intricate and involving tale in such a way that they feel consistent and complimentary, which by all rights they shouldn’t.

That said, the novel is not without its flaws. Mr. March, the pedophile teacher, is perhaps too clichéd and one-dimensional to be perfectly believable. There’s also the matter of conflating homosexuality with being sexually abused, and though the novel goes out of its way to disassociate the two, it ultimately reinforces the stereotype by putting the central protagonist in both categories. The story would’ve been better served by not adding this additional wrinkle to an already complicated plot. And then there’s what becomes of Madeleine’s brother Mike, which does feel gratuitous. With all the stuff Madeleine goes through, it’s understandable that she’s a mess. In fact, it’s fairly startling that she isn’t more messed up than she is.

But these are fairly minor problems in the scheme of things. For the most part Madeleine McCarthy is that rarest of literary treasures, a believable child character, and a charming one at that. Part of her ability to cope comes down to the fact that she’s always been a natural comedian even as a little girl. Indeed, she will eventually choose to go into comedy as a career. In line with that aspect of her personality, one of the things that makes eight-year-old Madeleine such a lovable and well-rounded child character is her tendency to constantly mimic her favorite Warner Brothers cartoons. This is so exceedingly spot on that I wish I’d thought of it. And the story itself is a murder mystery of the most fascinating kind: one that is viewed through the eyes of a protagonist who isn’t particularly interested in solving it, while the investigating cops here are more like antiheroes, as they just want the case resolved quickly and efficiently at the expense of good police work, resulting in a clear miscarriage of justice. With respect to the guilt or innocence of Steven Truscott, the model for Ricky Froelich in the book, I’d say it’s pretty clear where Ms. MacDonald comes down. Having now read some of the details of the Truscott case myself, I’m still on the fence, though leaning in the direction of innocence.

But one thing is perfectly clear to me: MacDonald needs to keep writing. She not only manages to address issues like sexual abuse and moral panic in a sensitive and compelling way, she shines a light on one of the darker chapters of the space race and the development of the Saturn V rocket. The ghastly twist ending is just icing on the cake.

Grade: A-


Okay, This Is Just Ridiculous

One of my pet issues is the many stupid ways society and the state handles minors who color outside the lines, so to speak, especially when it comes to criminal behavior.  Tangential to that is the sex abuse scare, and perhaps nowhere have these two issues intersected more absurdly than in the prosecution of minors who engage in sexting.

Before I get to my point though, let me clarify something: when it comes to the actual sexual abuse of children, I have no problem at all with the state throwing the book at such people.  It’s sad that I need to point this out at all, but the problem is that in today’s hyper-paranoid environment there seems to be little room for nuance in the eyes of many people: it’s all black and white, and the black applies to absolutely every intersection of the concepts of ‘child’ and ‘sex.’  Therefore, anyone who disagrees with any part of that is automatically suspect in their eyes.  Frankly, I say fuck that noise.  There are important nuances with these issues, and this is one of them.  I say that both as a rational human being and as a victim of molestation myself.

Thus, when I’d read that parents in Virginia called the police after discovering nude photos that their 13-year-old daughter had taken of herself on her phone (and sent to friends), I was far more horrified by the parents’ actions than by the girl’s.  First off, Virginia again?  What the hell is it with that state?  Secondly, it’s not that I dismiss the girl’s actions–I think they were ill-considered, to say the least.  It’s that I am well aware that, in society’s well-meaning attempts to protect kids from abuse, it has clearly lost sight of the reason for its actions and has far too often hurt the very people it intends to protect.  One way this has occurred is through the prosecution of kids for sexting.  In the eyes of the law child pornography is child pornography, whether produced by abusive adults or by the kids themselves just having a little fun, and it’s just as illegal for minors to own it and produce it as it is for adults.  Which means it is possible–and indeed likely–for kids caught doing it to be prosecuted and treated like sex offenders.  The argument goes that these kids have to be stopped because the images might ruin their lives . . . as if subjecting them to criminal prosecution and labeling them sex offenders won’t.  Go figure.

Clearly society has lost it’s mind when it comes to kids and sex.  We need to treat these cases differently than we treat Chester Molester photographing himself raping a 9-year-old.  Heads up, people: teenagers have always been sexual beings.  It’s just that the technology available now makes it much easier for them to record and distribute their sexual activities, which means there’s hard evidence that sexual behaviors by kids doesn’t always equate to victimhood, and that, I think, is the real crime in society’s eyes: people just do not want to be reminded that their precious, angelic offspring sometimes behave sexually all on their own.  I can sort of understand–even if I don’t condone such thinking–why parents might want to see other people’s teens prosecuted for such things: serves as a nice lesson for their own kids, right?  This can happen to YOU, Junior/Missy, if you don’t keep your private parts to yourself until you become an adult.  But it’s hard to fathom parents turning in their own youngsters over to the cops . . . until you put it into the context of the zeitgeist in terms of kiddie sex.

This reminds me of the 80s and 90s when the big cultural bugaboo was drugs.  The War on Drugs got so insane that kids were being asked to inform on their own parents, never mind that having Mom and Dad arrested for smoking a doobie was likely to break up their family and destroy their parents’ marriage (not to mention getting the kids put into foster care where they were much more likely to be abused).  Kids were frightened because they were taught that drugs were such a horrible, all-consuming evil that NO cost–whether monetary, physical, mental, emotional, or whatever–was too high to get drugs off the streets.  And, of course, juvenile drug offenders were just as legally culpable as adults.  Several years and many billions of wasted dollars and lives later, it’s clear that the War on Drugs was a massive failure.  Drugs are no less widespread than they were back then, and the underworld that capitalized on their illegality has only gotten fatter and richer over the years.  Have we learned our lesson from that?  We’re only just starting to, it seems.  The atmosphere of fear surrounding drugs was so powerful that it warped the fabric of society in some dark and disturbing ways.  The sex abuse scare is now doing the same.

To be sure, there are some distinct differences between the drug issue and teen sexuality issue, but there are also a lot of similarities in the way we as a society deal with them.  For one thing, it seems we’d rather treat all cases with the blunt hammer of the law rather than try to find alternatives.  For another, as stated earlier, kids themselves are far too often hurt by the very laws and taboos that are meant to keep them safe.  Something has gone horribly wrong, and that something is called a moral panic.  There have been many of these throughout the history of human civilizations, and no doubt there will be more.  At their most extreme, moral panics can culminate in large-scale violent events like riots and even genocide, but mostly they just result in things like this, where the fear of a terrible outcome causes people to behave irrationally and do things that ironically tend only to make the situation worse.

No doubt these parents meant well, but they likely just ruined their daughter’s life.  Before, a handful of teens at the girl’s school knew about her actions.  Now, the whole world knows.  Before, she was a normal teenage girl with a (not particularly shocking) secret.  Now, she is a legally designated sex offender, and all that that entails.  And to what end?  Who exactly is being protected in this case?

Come on, people, we can do better than this.                   

Douglas Clegg’s ‘Goat Dance’ – A Review

IX-clegg-goat-danceA few years ago I did something that remains one of the low points of my life: I went to Virginia.  If you’re interested I’ll share the whole wretched event with you sometime, but suffice it to say, what should’ve been a relatively simple fourteen hour car trip turned into a thirty hour dead-of-winter hellride.  The thing is, I was a nervous wreck for three days leading up my trip and literally got almost no sleep during that time.  And there was a storm when we got there, and not one but two semi-trucks flipped across the middle of the interstate.  And we got lost in the mountains.  And, and . . .

Now, I have nothing against the state of Virginia itself; I’m sure it’s lovely (when not in the grip of a snow storm, that is) but I plan never to return if I can help it.  Ever.  But long before that trip I read a little novel called Goat Dance set in Virginia at wintertime by a then-new author on the horror fiction scene.  It probably planted the seeds of my dread of Virginia, for which the road trip only cemented it.

Oddly enough, I first read this book during another road trip, albeit a far less eventful one.  I was a teenager at the time.  I had already cut my horror teeth on a handful of novels by McCammon, Koontz and King, and I had just discovered Clive Barker.  Our vacation was ending and I wanted something to occupy my time during the twelve-hour ride back home.  I found Goat Dance in the book section of Wal-Mart, or maybe it was at a drugstore.  I don’t really remember where I picked it up.  It’s not important.  But the cover had caught my attention.  It had one of those cutout covers that were so in vogue in the ’90s, and the cutout revealed a goat-headed man with a pentagram carved into his forehead (which, by the way, is not in the book, and a good thing too), and I loved, loved, LOVED monsters, so I figured I’d give it a try.

[Note: As you can see, I didn’t use the original cover for my review–there are a variety of reprint covers and I chose the one I liked best.]

Anyway, expecting a so-so novel that would nevertheless keep me entertained for the duration of the trip, I bought it.  And then I read it, and . . . holy shit.  I finished the book right before we got home.  It had completely sucked me into its dark world.  When I say dark world, I’m fully aware this is a cliche often used to describe horror novels, but in this case the term is completely accurate.  This was Clegg’s debut novel, and he had knocked it right out of the park.  I haven’t read his entire oeuvre yet, but in terms of what I’ve read this book comes in second for me only to Neverland, or even ties with it, depending on my frame of mind.  Now this is what horror was capable of, and possibly more than any other book I’d read up to that point save McCammon’s Swan Song, it made me want to write in this genre.  And yet Clegg himself considers this one of his mediocre contributions.  Go figure.

The central protagonist of the story is Malcolm “Cup” Coffey, the survivor of one terrible winter at a prep school in Pontefract, Virginia which ultimately ended in two equally traumatic events for him: the death of another boy, and unrequited love for a girl named Lily, both of which Cup is still obsessed with years later.  So when Cup, now living in Washington, DC, receives a strange phone message from Lily on his answering machine one winter’s day, he decides to return to Pontefract to look Lily up and discovers a town caught in the grip of a nightmare that has only just begun and is slowly building up to something, of which Cup is unwittingly a big part.

I hadn’t read the novel for about fifteen years (ironically, about the same amount of time that passes between the prep school events and Cup’s return to Pontefract), but I recently realized what a debt I owe to Clegg, and this novel in particular, for the structure and certain elements of the content for my novel-in-progress, AL+ER.  Like Goat Dance, my novel uses fictional supplemental items tangential to the story to reinforce its verisimilitude, has a small town where the horror builds slowly and is rooted in a past tragic event in the town’s history, and features a little girl who has certain abilities and who is something like a compliment to the protagonist.  Of course, my book is significantly different in a variety of ways too.  For one thing, the young girl plays a much bigger role in my story.  For another, neither the protagonist nor the girl are from the town (Milton’s Eye, Mississippi) where the bulk of the horror occurs and are not directly connected to it in any way.  Also, my book is meant to be the first in a series that will feature the protagonist and the girl as a team, and there is more of a science fiction feel to it than Clegg’s novel has.  But for me to suggest that Goat Dance wasn’t extremely influential on AL+ER would be a bald-faced lie.  And there you have it.  So I decided to reread it, to see if it had held up to time and my own maturity (such as it is) and to determine exactly to what degree I am borrowing from it.

Without going too much into the plot, I will divulge that Goat Dance is my favorite kind of horror novel: the kind where the horror builds slowly, and where, by the time the main characters realize it’s there, they’re already thoroughly caught up in its web and cannot escape it, only deal with it.  Peter Straub did it beautifully with Floating Dragon.  Bentley Little did it spectacularly with The Resort.  And Douglas Clegg does it equally amazingly in Goat Dance.

Another thing I love about the novel is that Clegg leaves a lot about the book’s antagonist–a force or being that goes by a variety of names, including Goatman (hence the garish and inaccurate figure on the book’s original cover)–to the imagination.  Where did this Eater of Souls come from?  We know how it got where it is, but we never really learn what it is or how long it’s been there.  The monster’s true self is never really shown.  We see the various masks it wears and the people it manipulates, but we never look upon its own visage, and maybe we couldn’t even if we wanted to, which gives the book a nicely handled Lovecraftian quality.

But has it held up over time?  Damn straight, it has.  In fact, I think I appreciated it even more this time around (my third reading of the book, incidentally) because one character in particular, a teacher at Pontefract Prep, reminded me so much of one of my own college professors.  And I realized certain aspects went over my head the first and second time I had read it.  When I was a younger reader, I often found my first reading of an amazing book to be more impressionistic than detail-oriented, which was perfectly fine by me.  In those days I might not have been able to completely express what it was about a book that appealed to me, but that was only a sign of its quality, because I wasn’t distracted by the little stuff that didn’t matter.  I didn’t just read those books; I lived them.  And if a book could so thoroughly pull me into its world that I forgot myself, then it was a resounding success.  Moreover, if a book like Goat Dance could make me want to take up residence in that world, no matter how dark and disturbing it was, then that was just sheer genius.  Perhaps the only other writer I have ever encountered that could do this to me with such dark material was Elizabeth Hand, especially with the novels Winterlong and Black Light.  How did that happen?

Turns out the key ingredient was a heady spice made up of the beauty of the writing itself, the detail in the world-building and that slow-burn sort of build-up.  By contrast, Clive Barker’s writing is every bit as smart and gorgeous, but I have only occasionally felt truly horrified by his work, merely awed by it.  I think the key difference there is that Barker, as brilliant as he is, has a tendency to dazzle you with the sheer weirdness of his worlds and characters, which makes his work more dark fantasy than straight-up horror to me.  Moreover, he tends to throw you right into the bizarreness rather than let it simmer and build, and that choice often has a peculiar flattening effect on the horror elements of his work.  This is not a criticism of the overall quality of Barker’s work, mind you.  I still love every minute of it.  It’s just that for me, with the exception of some of his early stuff, the horror aspects of his fiction tend to take a backseat to the dazzling spectacle of the fantasy, which is obviously where his heart is anyway.  Not a problem for me–I love that too, just for somewhat different reasons.

By the way, I just recently learned that Clegg is gay.  Not that I’m shocked; many of the best horror and dark fantasy authors tend to have non-heteronormative sexualities.  I think a lot of that stems from the fact that Westerners are so weirdly puritanical and guilt-ridden about sex to begin with, and when you add on top of that the fact that when you’re a preadolescent and your sexuality is just developing, if your sexual feelings happen to be taboo too, you begin to see the innate horror of existence in your formative years.  The fact that you are in a sense a slave to whatever weird or unusual quirks/hitches nature has decided to throw into the pot of your genetic materials and/or the profoundly influential early years of your existence, I think we non-heteronormatives really get a sense early in life that the layer between normalcy and strangeness can be paper-thin in spots.  It’s just one step up from there to understanding that the layer between civilization and chaos can be, and often is, equally threadbare.

And that dread realization is generally the driving force behind horror fiction.  It’s a way for some of us to make sense of the burbling randomness and insanity of life.  Further, the need some of us have to create horror, to synthesize it, at least in part taps into another primal fear: the unfairness of being born into a time and place when you are thought a freak for whatever you find beautiful.  In Goat Dance, Cup is dealing with his own sexual neuroses, and it manifests in a deeply symbolic way in the resolution, as he finds himself at one point trapped in a foul pit–the sickly throbbing heart of the Eater of Souls’ domain and influence–with a naked child, the very epitome of innocence and vulnerability, and the desire (to his horror) to . . . eat her.

Ziiiinnnnng!  Bull’s-eye, Mr. Clegg.  Bull’s-eye.

Grade: A+

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: Film Review

Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre.  When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it.  I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.

Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure.  Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm.  Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They LiveJaws and Titanic.

But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.

He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it.  Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities.  Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.”  It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream.  Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders.  Not that he has nothing positive to say about us.  For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.

With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view.  Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself.  I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success.  I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that.  In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism.  But more about that later.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed.  And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town.  Yeah, good luck to me, huh?

Grade: A

. . . Of the Week (5-24-14)

Article of the Week

As serendipity would have it, I happened to be doing some research on Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch a few days ago in relation to my novel AL+ER.  The connection is a bit oblique, but AL+ER is in part about the history of pop and rock music, as the main protagonist is both a musician and an aficionado of a wide range of music.  And as it turns out, Sacher-Masoch is a distant relation of singer Marianne Faithfull.  His most famous contribution to literature was the story Venus in Furs.  Sacher-Masoch also gave rise to the sexual kink we call masochism, so-named after the second part of his hyphenated last name.  With the Marquis De Sade’s fetish, sadism (the flip side of the coin, so to speak), masochism is usually combined into the all-encompassing erotic pain fetish known as sadomasochism, or S&M.  I confess that I’ve never really understood this fetish; but, as long as no one is really getting hurt and everything is consensual, who am I judge?  But I have long found the historical figures behind the odder aspects of science and culture to be fascinating.  I have an obsession of sorts with such people–the weirdos, outsiders, unsung geniuses, et al of history, as I have a sort of kinship with them.  Yes, folks, I too am weird. 🙂

Anyway, someone in the WordPress network caught my last Of the Week post and gave it the thumbs up.  I make a point of visiting every blog/website (if one exists) of whoever ‘likes’ anything on my site and was thus led to the blog ArtLark and, fortuitously, to this  article:

Furs and Female Domination in Sacher-Masoch’s Writing

If you like art and cultural history, the quality of ArtLark’s articles is consistently excellent. They’re going in my blogroll, so you can find them there from here on out.

Album Cover of the Week

Our album cover this week is from Moon Taxi’s Running Wild.  I can tell you pretty much exactly how this beautiful cover design was created.  First, the base image is a photo of some kind of natural formation taken from above at great distance.  The designer may have tinkered with the colors a bit beforehand, but it looks to me like he or she used a feature in Photoshop called ‘Invert’, which renders colors into their compliments.  It’s a bit like a film negative, actually.  Anyway, the inner image is simply a slightly smaller version of the base image rotated 180 degrees, so that’s how you get that bordered look.

Moon Taxi - Running Wild (cover)
Moon Taxi – Running Wild (cover)

Song of the Week

Josh Ritter has become one of my favorite singer-songwriters largely on the strength of one album, So Runs the World Away.  Not that his other albums are bad, mind you; it’s just that that particular album is . . . effin’ . . . amazing.  My favorite track on the album tends to shift day to day, but probably the one that I return to the most is Another New World.  The fact that one of the most poignant and haunting love songs ever penned was for a ship (called the Annabel Lee, no less) is, in my opinion, the ultimate testament to Ritter’s strength as a songwriter.  That he counts Stephen King as a fan doesn’t hurt either.  King may have provided the biggest bump to Ritter’s ever-rising popularity, and in return the musician gave the horror author a gift in the form of The Remnant, a song that, although not specifically about The Dark Tower as far as I know, definitely channels the spirit of King’s magnum opus.

In fact, I would call So Runs the World Away one of the most literary albums ever produced, containing as it does the musical narrative hat trick of The Curse, The Remnant and Another New World, not to mention a fine contribution to the Stagger Lee mythos in the form of Folk Bloodbath.  So there are many great choices here, but I have to go with Another New World.  It’s a heartbreaking story-song about one of those early polar expeditions that goes tragically wrong, and a man’s love for the ship that carried him through it.  Try not to cry while listening to this, I dare you . . .

Josh Ritter – Another New World

Meme of the Week

The quote, although not identified as such, is from dream hampton.

Art of the Week

A sweet Art Deco poster by Georges Favre for Peugeot, now a famous car company but originally a manufacturer of bicycles and coffee grinders . . .

Georges Favre - Peugeot (1924)
Georges Favre – Peugeot (1924)

That wraps it up for this week.  Everyone have a great Memorial Day weekend!

On Defining Sexual Orientation

Why Should We Care to Define It?

I’m not sure if sexual orientation has ever been adequately defined.  Most sites I’ve seen have been fairly ambiguous about the parameters of sexual orientation, and yet most people are still thoroughly opinionated about what they include and do not include in the definition.  Are fetishes sexual orientations?  Why or why not?  Does it include things like race or age as well as gender?  Why or why not?  How do we determine what a sexual orientation is, let alone what can be defined as one?  These are important questions, and yet in my experience many people in the LGBT community are generally afraid to commit to anything too ‘nailed down’ when it comes to defining sexual orientation, and that isn’t hard to understand given the long history of disenfranchisement of homosexuals, bisexuals, et al by the scientific community, including the so-called soft sciences.  I think there’s a dread of putting too many eggs in that basket only to see the social winds shift in the other direction and the evidence manipulated to the disadvantage of everyone but white bread heterosexuals.  I mean, sexual non-normatives have been burned in the past after all (sometimes quite literally).

And yes, society changes, the zeitgeist swinging back and forth on social and political issues, but it is my observation that the greater motion is inevitably and steadily towards tolerance.  For truth flows freely into understanding, which is to say, that which is known cannot then be a source for fear of the unknown, the likely origin of most intolerance of ‘out groups.’  I say it is the likely origin of most intolerance, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that I am here referring to all extant intolerance.  It may originate in fear of the unknown, but it is maintained largely through social conditioning, which is itself tied into those cognitive biases and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance I have discussed in earlier threads, making it a difficult thing to extract once it has grown roots in the mind.

At any rate, I think that some standardized criteria for the determination of a sexual orientation should be set in place, for a few reasons.  First and perhaps most importantly, it is vital to define sexual orientation in order to gain a better understanding of ourselves, which is advantageous in the formation of self-confidence.  We shall take an intellectual comfort in knowing who we are and why we are who we are.  In the same way that knowledge of our ancestry gives us roots in our time and place within our families, a full understanding of our sexual identity can give us a sense of both our unique place in the beautiful variegated tapestry of humanity and a satisfying familiarity with those like us.  When there are big chunks of our identity that we do not understand, we can feel out of place in our own skins, unable to settle into ourselves, and a rich, well-rounded knowledge of what sexual orientations are would no doubt be useful towards relieving that sort of existential discomfort.  This is especially crucial when we’re young adolescents just learning to navigate the treacherous, brackish waters of adult sexuality.

A second reason for marking out a clearer concept of sexual orientation is that it facilitates the smooth operation of scientific studies and scientific work, which, when done correctly and for the right reasons, are of immense benefit to all.  Still another reason would be for designating which forms of sexuality are to be afforded a certain status of equality and protection under law and which are not, as well as other legal questions that may arise with regard to sexual orientations.

There are other reasons I could lay out, but those should suffice.  And with that said, I will now offer my definition of a sexual orientation.

A Working Definition

In my view, the first and central marker for sexual orientation is an ongoing sexual preference, reaction, or condition towards members of a naturally occurring subset of a viable human population.  Now, let’s examine each part of that definition, with particular attention paid to the ‘naturally occurring subset of a viable human population’ clause in the above definition, because I don’t think it has heretofore been considered a proper facet of sexual orientation, at least not that I have ever seen.

Let’s start with that.  Why should this be a factor?  Well, in order to understand what’s so important about this concept, we must examine first what I mean by a viable human population.  This I define as any human population large and diverse enough to sustain perpetuation of the species.  This would mean that both genders would be required in such a population, and enough genetic diversity for the population not to genetically self-destruct.  But there are other dimensions that are relevant here that are rarely considered.  Perhaps the most important of them is age, since not all ages of human beings are equally capable of bearing and raising children; indeed, age is almost universally a factor in sexual orientation, since humans are generally attracted to a particular age range in addition to their gender preferences.  For the majority of people, whether gay, straight or otherwise, attraction is fairly age-specific: it does not start at age zero nor stretch indefinitely upwards.  In other words, there is a finite age range most of us have for our preferred partners that is biologically determined.  Consider that most people are not attracted to children or to the elderly, and additionally there is an optimum age or age range we find most attractive.

Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that I’m only speaking of viable populations as an overall marker for understanding the context of sexual orientations; I am NOT arguing that only those subsets of said population which can directly further the human species are to be considered as sexual orientations.  Rather, I am defining sexual orientations with respect to overall viable populations because I believe that sexual orientations could logically only develop genetic markers (and I’m quite convinced those are present) over time within a population where an ongoing attraction to a human subset could be sated, which means that those subsets have to be present long-term in the population somewhere.  To put it plainly, it makes no sense that a sexual orientation would arise in a population if the subset of that population a person was oriented towards did not occur commonly enough to make it worthwhile or advantageous for the orientation to arise.

And here is where we get to the part of my definition ‘naturally occurring.’  I think this is a relevant factor for precisely the reason I stated above.  A subset of a population that would inspire the development of a sexual orientation would have to be a prominent part of a viable human population pretty much by design–hence, naturally occurring.  Therefore, we could automatically rule out, say, an attraction to people with purple hair as a sexual orientation.  Why?  Because purple hair does not occur naturally, or at least not regularly enough to instigate the evolution of a genetic sexual predisposition towards people with purple hair.  But what of those with blond or black hair?  Well, the issue for me hinges on the fact of a population subset’s degree of relevance to the continuance of the overall species, and sorry to say, hair color is not an important factor in whether a population will be viable in the long term.  As such, hair color–whether blond, black, red, brown, purple, or orange with green polka dots–cannot be parlayed into an entire sexual orientation.  Nor could skin color, eye color or even race, even though these are naturally occurring phenomenon in human populations.

What can be included, then?  Well, let’s start with the original: gender.  We must now ask ourselves two questions: One, does it occur naturally?  Yes.  And two, is it intrinsic to the continuation of the species?  Yes.  Since both of these questions  can be answered in the affirmative, we can definitively say that gender is a relevant aspect of sexual orientation.  But the problem most people make is in looking at sexual orientation one-dimensionally, and that is as a matter of gender preference.  But we have already determined that there is at least one other dimension that impacts most people in their sexual identity, and that is age.  Again, we put the two questions to the test, and again the answer is ‘yes’ in both instances because age occurs naturally and because age of sexual maturity is a factor in all viable populations.  Age is thus a factor with respect to sexual orientation, and an important one.  And because of that, age-defined sexual attraction must necessarily be included as sexual orientations.

Age-Based Orientations

There are three broad categories here that everyone fits into: pedophilia (attraction to prepubescent children), teleiophilia (attraction to young to middle-aged adults, the category most people fall into) and gerontophilia (attraction to the elderly).  Please note that the classification of these categories as sexual orientations does not mean the behaviors associated with them should be regarded or treated equally under law; there are good reasons why adults having sex with children especially should not be legally protected.  But a distinction must be made between the orientation as a psycho-physiological state and the sexual activities of certain pedophiles.  It should be noted that there are pedophiles who do not act upon their sexual feelings or inclinations, and others who do not act upon them in any manner harmful to children, meaning they relegate their attractions to their fantasies alone.  However, I submit that such people should otherwise be granted the legal status and protections due all sexual orientations.

Sex with the elderly could also be problematic in certain situations where the elder has become helpless or otherwise beholden to the gerontophile, and those situations must be dealt with accordingly in the realm of law, but again, beyond that gerontophiles should receive the same protections under law as any biologically innate sexual orientation.  Essentially, I believe there is no place in a just society for emotionally-conditioned stigmas and taboos.  The law of course is a different matter, but I do not believe that social judgment and hatred of those who are sexually different from us is helpful to the situation as it is only likely to drive abusive types underground.  Sexual orientation is a deep-seated aspect of our identities and one almost impossible to reverse.  Demanding pedophiles, gerontophiles or indeed, teleiophiles to obey society’s laws is reasonable; asking them to change a fundamental aspect of who they are, or judging them for it, is not.

Species and Sexual Orientation

We have so far determined that there are two major dimensions to sexual orientation, gender and age, but are there any others?  What about species selection?  When subjected to our two vital questions ‘Does it occur naturally?’ and ‘Is it intrinsic to the continuation of the species?’, we can again answer in the affirmative to both: species do occur naturally and species selection is relevant to humanity’s ability to continue in perpetuity.  Ergo, species would seem to be a dimension of sexual orientation.  And as with age, humans are for the most part discriminating in the selection of species when it comes to sexual partners and generally prefer their own species.

However, if you’ll recall, my definition included the clause ‘viable human population’ with ‘human’ being the key word there.  But this is perhaps an arbitrary distinction; maybe it would be better to leave out the word human and just focus on viable populations in general, especially since the two-question test can be answered affirmatively.  In that case, zoophilia would also be classified as a sexual orientation (as would vegetophilia, if such a thing exists), but again, recognizing this as a sexual orientation does not then mean that it should be legalized in all its particulars.  But the same issues of dignity and recognition of genetic diversity in human sexual orientations applies here as applies to pedophilia and gerontophilia: it is both humane and scientifically important that we understand that sexual orientations arise naturally and are deeply rooted in our identities and our physiologies, and though thus far unsubstantiated, I am quite certain that gender, age and species are valid and valuable dimensions in the development of sexual orientation.  That there are divergences in the biological and psychosocial default of humanophilic, teleiophilic heterosexuality  on occasion in fact just reinforces that notion.

Species selection is one thing, but can we go further and extend this to inanimate objects?  The answer is no, for it fails our two-question test.  The answer to the first question, does it occur naturally, would depend on the object.  Some inanimate objects occur naturally, such as rocks and water, but other objects are man-made.  However, it is a question that applies to the general state of the thing, and if it cannot be answered in the affirmative in a general sense, then attraction to inanimate objects must be disqualified on the whole.  And the second question is basically irrelevant, since the answer to both questions must be answered with a ‘yes’ for a sexual phenomenon to be considered a sexual orientation by my definition.

The final element of my definition requiring our critique is the first part, ‘an ongoing sexual preference, reaction, or condition towards…’  This is pretty much self-explanatory, I think.  It just means that there must be an ongoing sexual interest in or reaction to a defined subset of a viable population  Thus, any feelings, behaviors or interests that are not of a sexual nature must necessarily be excluded from any definition of a sexual orientation, regardless of whether they were motivated by sex somewhere down the line.  Otherwise, all human feelings, behaviors or interests could be defined as sexual orientations, couldn’t they?

Secondary Aspects of Determining Sexual Orientation

In addition to my core definition, there are other factors that, although not inherent to all sexual orientations, appear often enough that can be used as markers for reinforcing the determination of a sexual orientation.  Please note that these are not universal to all individuals within a particular orientation, nor are they exclusive to said orientations.

1) Engaging in sexual behaviors with the adoriented population subset – This may seem rather obvious, but let’s be very careful here.  Sex with individuals in a particular subset does not automatically equate to an orientation.  For example, it should be remembered that homosexual activities often occur in situations where sexual partners of the preferred gender are not available (e.g. in prisons or on sailing vessels with all-male crews), especially when these conditions persist for long periods of time.  Likewise, child molesters are not necessarily pedophiles by orientation.  In some situations sexual abuse takes place due to the easy availability of children over partners of a preferred age.  This is likely what has occurs in many cases of priests abusing children.  In other situations, particularly in intrafamilial cases, sexual abuse is merely one dimension of a whole range of abusive behaviors heaped upon a child, and it frequently has little or nothing to do with actual sexual preferences.  Other people may simply experiment with sex outside of their general orientation.  But by and large, engaging in sex with the adoriented population subset, especially if it is ongoing, is a probable sign of a sexual orientation.

2) The early development of sexual feelings for an adoriented population subset – You’ve probably heard the stories from gays who have reported recognizing signs of their sexual orientation in early adolescence or even childhood.  I certainly knew my orientation by age 13, but the earliest signs I can recall started at age 11.  There are many similar accounts throughout the LGBT community, and the meager evidence we have gathered on it so far suggests the same exists in pedophiles.  Beyond that I don’t know, but I strongly suspect it is the same with all sexual orientations.  Again, this isn’t universal.  Some people may not recognize their preferences until well into adulthood, or may even switch orientations late in life, but again the evidence suggests that most members of a sexual orientation were aware of their orientation at least by the onset of adolescence if not earlier.

3) Feelings for an adoriented population subset are multidimensional – What I mean by this is that you will generally find that the sexuality of those within an orientation go well beyond simple sexual stimulus and response.  Which is to say, often there is an emotional connection as well as the physical sexual responses in those belonging to a sexual orientation.  Sex is complex.  People tend to fall in love with members of their preferred population subset.

Those are the three biggies for me, but I am quite open to adding others to this list.  And remember, these are secondary signs only and are not universal.  But all in all, when taken together, they’re a pretty good measuring stick, I think.

In Conclusion

That’s pretty much all I have.  If you have any questions, need clarification or have any insights to include, by all means contact me.  I realize this post addresses some highly controversial concepts and behaviors.  You may find some of my ideas challenging, shocking or just flat wrong.  That’s fine, but we are intelligent adults and will address these things rationally and civilly, or we need not bother.  Thank you.

On Bigotry, Bugaboos, Beliefs & Balance . . .

(…And Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before)

On Facebook today, March 20th, I received the news that Fred Phelps, founder and ex-leader of the notoriously homophobic Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, had died.  With Reverend Phelps at its helm, the activist faction of the WBC has protested against the socialization and acceptance of gays and gay culture since at least the early nineties.  Among other targets of the WBC were secular and reformed Jews, all of the other mainstream religions (including all branches of Protestant Christianity but their own) and pedophiles.  You can get a pretty good overview of their philosophy, politics and M.O. at the Wikipedia page I linked to above.

A few days ago I had read that Phelps, who resembled some creepy cross between Clint Eastwood and the evil minister from Poltergeist II: The Other Side, was on his deathbed, so today’s news of his passing did not come as a surprise.  No, the truly surprising tidbit that has come out of this coverage was that Phelps had been ousted from his own church last year.  At first this fact seemed to me shockingly ironic, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it isn’t so ironic after all.  If one examines the history of all the extremist us-versus-them ideological movements, regardless of their rallying points or the basis for their beliefs they tend to implode, and I think it is because the psychology of the leadership of such movements are often so paranoid that they eventually begin to turn on each other.

Kane; Eastwood; Phelps

This is what happened with the Klu Klux Klan when they were at the height of their power in the 1920s.  Even when such groups manage to take over a government like the Nazis did in Germany and the Communists did in Russia, there is inevitably some internal purge that rarely spares even the most powerful members within that group.  With the Nazis it was Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the Sturm-Abteilung, without which Hitler never could have become Chancellor of Germany.  (If you’re interested, I discuss Röhm in some detail in an earlier article, Bothersome Nazis: Ernst Röhm and Julius Streicher.)  With the Communists the list was even longer and included many of the so-called Old Bolsheviks, again without whom the Russian Revolution would not have been successful.

Essentially, when one delves into their psychology and motivations, what becomes apparent is that trust issues and delusions of persecution are often innate to members of groups that are built around the persecution of other groups.  Hmm, whodathunkit?  It seems Alexander Pope had it right when he wrote:

All seems infected to th’ infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.

This is of course a generalization and we should be careful not to assign to it more weight than it genuinely possesses, but we cannot ignore the patterns which persist time and time again amongst such groups, or within the broader context of society as a whole.

We should also keep this paradigm in mind when considering how such all-encompassing hatred might take root to begin with.  In that light we might better understand what Daily Kos contributor tmservo433 is driving at in this article when he points out, “Last year, right before his ex-communication, Phelps faced confrontation of former members who wondered if Phelps himself wasn’t a gay man who’s self hatred manifested itself as it did.”  The article goes on to state that Phelps’s rage was at its most piquant whenever he was personally confronted with accusations of his own possible repressed homosexual feelings.  We may be tempted to write off these accusations as simply a desire by those former members to get Phelps’s goat, and no doubt some of that was going on, but it is neither here nor there, for the evidence for homophobic projection is now pretty well established.

My hunch is that this sort of projection applies to much more than just unpopular sexual orientations; I suspect it can be said of a great many qualities innate to humans both individually and as a whole, such as a will to violence.  We may all look down on murderers, but is there a person alive who has never had murderous feelings in his heart at some time?  Or sexual desires that make him uncomfortable?  Furthermore, I believe the overall moral health of a society is directly impacted by how openly and honestly its members are able to deal with such desires or drives in themselves, and perhaps more importantly, whether they are able to set aside their own personal guilt, shame, anger, etc. in order to deal fairly and ethically with others who violate that society’s laws and taboos.  I’m sorry to say in comparison to most of the Western world, Americans get an F in this department.  We are among the worst when it comes to our treatment of criminals.  For example, we are the only Western industrial (First World) nation to still practice the death penalty, despite the overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work as a detriment to violence, and we are number one in the entire world–including the worst of the Third World nations–when it comes to incarceration.

Why is this?  Whenever you ask this question of anyone who supports this Kafkaesque status quo, the answers you receive are invariably either astoundingly false (the deterrence argument), prone to mystical mumbo-jumbo (it’s God’s will), rooted in feelings of revenge, or some evasive thought-terminating cliche which ultimately amounts to a big “fuck you.”  Sometimes, in heated discussions, you get all of the above.  These replies never hold up to logical or ethical scrutiny, which is why the vast majority of the civilized world has rejected them.  We are the holdouts.  This is not to say that there haven’t been improvements over the years.  Those are pretty much inevitable, but they are usually slow in coming and almost always hard won.  It seems that we Americans, regardless of our political stripe, are all too frequently a prudish and mistrustful lot.

Maybe this traces back to our Puritan heritage.  I think that’s part of it, certainly.  But I think there is something else going on here too, something even bigger and older than religious fundamentalism.  We poor humans are doomed to operate our lives according to a great many internal prejudices called cognitive biases that trace back to the evolutionary development of our brains as organs of survival in a highly complex, ever-changing and seemingly infinite universe . . . what’s referred to by systems theorists as an open system.

What this means in the end is that the world we exist in provides so much information for our brains to take in, engaging us in feedback loops of such number and complexity that if our brains were unable to make speedy decisions based on this astounding amount of input, we would simply be unable to operate.  Our brains would be subject to something like combinatorial explosion, wherein a process becomes so exponentially complex that it becomes trapped in data processing and effectively ceases to function at the macro level in any useful way.  Ergo, without our built-in biases, we could never have evolved intelligence as the ability to do so would be an intractable problem for us.

As Jeremy Campbell has laid out in his excellent book The Improbable Machine, this has long been a thorn in the side of those attempting to develop a genuine AI; the original assumption of those working in this field–what makes humans intelligent is mostly/solely their capacity to be logical and that if a complex enough logic processor (Turing machine) could be developed, we would have an AI–has been all but demolished by a long history of abysmal failures sprinkled by a handful of modest successes.  Campbell shows that what makes us smart isn’t just our facility for logic but also–and perhaps even more importantly–our brain’s ability to make snap judgments based on previous experiences, no matter how skimpy or seemingly inapplicable to the extant problem those experiences may be.

But there is a price to be paid for this superfast inductive reasoning, and that price is the frustrating degree of inexactness we are subject to in this grand and mysterious universe we live in; moreover, the fact that we have a wide array of genetics and life experiences means that we can likely never reach a true philosophical consensus.  The advent of science has certainly pushed us forward by leaps and bounds on the logic front, but Campbell shows that logic has its limits.  In short, we owe as much (or more) to our structural cognitive biases for our intelligence as we do to our capacity for deduction, even as those same cognitive biases doom us to being wrong about the big things almost as often as we are right.

Some may find this fact distressing.  Personally, I embrace it, as it assures that humanity remains intellectually diverse enough to deal with almost any problem it faces.  Let’s put this into context.  Consider that there are types of algae that can reproduce both sexually and asexually (heterogamy); one magnificent example is the genus Volvox.  What’s fascinating about Volvox is that its use of heterogamy is dependent on environmental conditions.  When conditions are ideal, Volvox will often reproduce in asexual mode.  Asexual reproduction is basically a form of self-cloning, which makes sense for a species that finds its optimum environment.  It is operating by an instinctive version of that old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’  However, when Volvox is threatened it will switch to sexual reproduction, diversifying itself so that some part of it will be able to meet the new environmental challenge.  When the Volvox finds a match for the new environmental conditions, it will then stabilize by once more switching to asexual reproduction mode.  It’s a beautiful survival strategy for this little waterborn plant.

Now, humans can only reproduce sexually, so diversity is assured in our species.  And that’s a good thing, as our diversity has been an essential contribution to our evolution as the dominant species on Earth, both in reaching that position and in maintaining it.  Could we ever have gotten this intelligent if we reproduced asexually and were all clones of each other?  I would argue that the chance of doing so approaches nil.  Diversity is not merely valuable for a species to reach this level of intelligence; it is vital.  And the more diversity, the better we are able to meet whatever challenges our infinitely complex universe has to throw at us.  The Vulcans of Star Trek have a more succinct way of putting it, a motto which is sacred to them and even has its own symbol.  This is IDIC, which stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.  For my part, I think the Vulcans are onto something.

Balsavor - Vulcan IDIC Symbol
Balsavor – Vulcan IDIC Symbol

DeviantArt – Balsavor

At any rate, our brains may be designed to be biased, but we shouldn’t assume that all forms of bias are then morally viable or insurmountable.  It is one thing to accept that our perception of reality is skewed in a thousand ways by our need to make sense of it and exist comfortably within it; it’s something else altogether to actively seek to justify the maltreatment of whole swaths of humanity based on these distorted perceptions.  Indeed, my point here is that we have a duty to try to understand our biases and overcome them when they negatively impact the moral status of society, because biases can be mimetic.

Yes, these cognitive biases can eventually manifest in some individuals as prejudice against whole groups of people, but that is not something that happens overnight.  It is largely a matter of social conditioning, and as such, it is morally unacceptable, for I see the higher moral imperative of diversity as a matter of survival for the entire human species, not just individuals (or races, or sexes, or cultures, or nations).  Why?  Because the humble Volvox, and indeed the whole history of humanity, demonstrates that the key to the survival of a species is to live within as broad an ecological niche as possible.

But what is it that provides the possibility for broadening our niche?  The answer is a broad environment with which to interact.  I include here in my definition of ‘environment’ aspects of both nature and human artifice, and I believe for the most part that anything that does not directly threaten the human species and does not threaten this highest of moral imperatives, the need for diversity, we should labor to protect.  Yet is there such a thing as too much diversity?  Theoretically at least, yes–when a species diversifies to the point where individuals can no longer interact, that is a direct threat to its continuance for obvious reasons.  But that is a difficult point for social animals like us to reach.  Still, the overall goal and the key to everything (you will hear me say this many more times on this blog) is balance.

It has been said that nature seeks stasis.  I think to a large degree this is true.  Nature is extremely flexible, but that flexibility is not, as many climate change deniers claim, infinite.  It does have limitations.  We should take care to keep in mind that it is absolutely a fact that humanity has within its capacity the ability to destroy all life on planet Earth.  A full-scale world war with nuclear weapons would probably do it.  If that is so, then isn’t it also the case that slowly corrupting the planet’s entire ecocosm could also eventually kill the planet off?  There is almost certainly a finite balance in the natural domain, but while we cannot know whether that balance can be permanently undermined, we can and do know that nature’s existing balance has served us well as a species thus far and is therefore worth conserving.

So, we now have a reason to embrace and defend diversity in both humanity and in nature as a whole: both are fundamental to our continued survival.  People like Fred Phelps are moral dinosaurs doomed to extinction not because they offend our sensibilities but because they are at heart anti-life.  They believe in rules for the sake of having rules rather than making life better and happier for us all.  They embrace hatred, cruelty and violence, which are inherently things of extreme divisiveness that, when taken to their logical conclusion, push our species towards extinction by directly threatening our need for diversity.

But, shouldn’t the views of people like Phelps be tolerated too, for, don’t they add to our diversity?  No, because their views and ideas are ultimately more destructive to this prime moral imperative than their existence is constructive to it.  And that is really where diversity as a moral imperative should end: at the point where it becomes anti-humanity and runs counter to itself.  That is only logical.

Suck Dynasty: The Religious Freedom Defense is Nonsense

I want to say first that I hated Duck Dynasty long before the present controversy arose, and I could never get through a full episode before switching the channel.  In fact, I have a general abiding dislike for pretty much the entire range of so-called “reality television” which, on the whole, is neither realistic nor good television.  I do like reality shows that are somewhat educational in nature: Antiques Road Show, Pawn Stars, and so on (not because I’m a snob or anything but because I genuinely enjoy learning about antiques and collectibles–kinda hard for someone as poor as I am to be a snob anyway).

When the controversy over Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s anti-gay remarks arose I more or less ignored it at first, assuming it was a non-issue that would pass quickly out of public spectacle territory anyway.  But apparently a lot of people on either side of this debate are determined to milk this lame controversy of every last drop of its currency, and so I now find myself having an opinion on this despite my better judgment.

Although I agree with those who think Phil Robertson is an ignorant, hateful redneck who is using religion as a crutch to express his homophobic views, I don’t think he should be fired for having and speaking them.  In fact, I wish he’d done so earlier than he had.  Think of it this way: you go to the market to buy some melon and find that the melon is in a package, effectively disallowing you to inspect it in the round as customers are wont to do.  But the fruit looks healthy enough from what you can see and you purchase it and take it home, only to find upon opening the package that on the side you couldn’t see the melon is badly bruised and rotting.  If only you could’ve seen that this was the case while you were in the store, you wouldn’t have bought the crappy rotten melon and wouldn’t be stuck with it now (I know, I know, but consider the store to have a no return policy, okay?)

My point is this: I think it’s better to know where people stand at the outset so as to avoid investing time, money and/or emotions in them only to discover later that you wish you hadn’t bothered.  If every relationship could be entered into with that kind of honesty we would all be better off.  Of course, having been raised in the rural South and spending most of my life here, I pretty much knew what the Duck Dynasty folks were all about long before this came up.  Platitudes are just platitudes and often judging a book by its cover won’t result in any shocking revelations.  I find that that’s especially the case with the staunchly religious types.

As for Robertson’s defenders, I think too many of them are mistaking a privately-owned media company’s ability to fire their employees with a First Amendment issue, which concerns the federal government’s ability to censor the speech of private citizens or entities.  The great irony–or perhaps the great hypocrisy–here is that the people screaming about the First Amendment in this case are the same ones who ordinarily gripe about government interference of business in any way.  Well, what the hell do you guys think A&E is?  It’s a corporation, a business, and its owners and operators made a decision about their bottom line and their ethical stance.  Now, there is a limit to that.  For example, our federal government has rightly determined that a company cannot reject people for who or what they are at their core; hence, there are laws against firing people with regard to their race, sex, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.  It isn’t foolproof and I have my own experience with being fired from a major company over things admitted (outside of work, no less) about my own sexuality.  Did I deserve to be fired?  Clearly not.  But I didn’t put up a fight, even though in retrospect I probably I should have.

Anyway, where I differ from the state’s advancement of free speech protections is with regard to religion, which is exactly the issue being cited by Robertson and his supporters.  The difference to me between all of the other qualities I mentioned above and religion is this: unlike the other things, religious belief is not an innate quality.  If it was, it wouldn’t need to be taught to children, much less reinforced on a daily basis by parents and church elders.  H. P. Lovecraft has a thoroughly awesome quote about that:

“If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences.”

In essence, Lovecraft is saying that if religion was true, we would not need to teach it to kids because its truth would be inherent and obvious to them.

{{{Spoiler Alert }}}

In Jill Paton Walsh’s excellent novel Knowledge of Angels this very issue becomes the crux of a life or death decision for the story’s major protagonist.  The story is set on a European island during the Medieval era and concerns Palinor, a nobleman from an unspecified nation who had been shipwrecked and washed ashore on this island.  Though he could not prove he was a citizen of his claimed nation in any official capacity without sending off correspondence to his homeland, he was clearly civilized and was treated as such by the deeply religious people of the island for the time being.  However, the nobleman was a confessed agnostic, and moreover, he claimed that in his country not only were there a variety of legally protected religions, there were also a great many atheists and agnostics, also legally protected.

This presents a huge problem to the superstitious islanders.  By law, with no legal standing on the island until his citizenship could be proven, Palinor was to be executed.  Meanwhile, the agnostic was polite, well-spoken and highly  intelligent (he even built a small aqueduct system to serve the manor where he was staying while on the island), and the island’s church representatives try to convince Palinor of Christianity’s truth by presenting every philosophical argument available to them.  In the end, however, Palinor’s sounder reason prevails and he remains unconvinced.  Still, the island’s church leaders have another trick up their sleeves, for housed at a nearby convent is a young girl who had been raised in the wild by wolves and only recently captured, and she appears to hold the key to whether the knowledge of God is innate in humans.  Of course, as the girl becomes more civilized and learns to communicate, she inevitably disappoints the church’s agents by failing to give them the answers they seek and eventually flees back into the forest, effectively renouncing civilization and religion altogether.  Meanwhile, with no one to come to his defense, tragedy befalls Palinor and, it is suggested, ultimately to the island itself as his countrymen have come with a massive fleet of well-armed ships to retrieve him . . . too late.

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Unsurprisingly, then, Walsh’s novel comes down on the side of humanism, and no doubt if the situations in the novel had been real events, the story she presents is pretty likely how things would’ve played out.  The fact is, religious beliefs are a far different matter than is sex, race, skin color or sexual orientation.  These things are all either genetically inherited or in some way picked up inadvertently in childhood, or both.  I suppose the latter could happen with religion too, but how often is it?  Virtually never.  Some scholars even claim that our brains evolved the spiritual instinct, and maybe that’s true, but let’s be clear here: spirituality and religion are not the same thing.  I consider myself a spiritual person, but I do not belong or adhere to any particular religious system.  My beliefs are suitably vague because I do not believe that the spiritual world–if it exists at all–can be quantified or understood in any meaningful way, and therein lies the problem with religion.  It has surpassed spiritual instincts or tendencies and has, almost by definition, quantified (standardized) a set of beliefs about the spiritual realm.

Now let’s compare the other qualities that offer their typologies protection by law.  First, race, sex, nationality, and so on are all clearly genetically determined and cannot be said to be a choice of those so affected in any capacity whatsoever.  Sexuality is a tricky one though.  We do not yet know to what degree divergent sexual orientations are instigated by genes, congenital abnormalities, or by environment.  My suspicion is that all three of those factors likely play a part, though to varying degrees in individuals.  What I absolutely do know is that those of us with divergent sexualities did not choose them.  We are not gluttons for punishment or martyrs at the outset (what children are?), but sometimes we learn to be later in life, because we must deal with our highly unpopular sexualities any way we can and society often leaves us few other choices.  In fact, in my experience those of us who aren’t blessed with plain vanilla heterosexuality often tend to realize our sexual differences gradually.  There is no singular moment where you say to yourself, “Aha!  I am queer and that’s that.”  Indeed, there is often resistance at first because no child wants to be seen as so utterly abnormal, not to mention repulsive to a great many people, simply for who they are.

In my case I started to understand that I wasn’t like the other boys in my fifth grade class when they all agreed that the prematurely developed girl in class was hot and I failed to see her appeal; in fact, I found her to be downright unattractive.  I could say more here but I’ll leave it there in the interest of good taste.  Which leads me to my next point: in free speech terms, if we were to set Phil Robertson’s statements against matters of sexual orientation, the only legitimate comparison would be if a gay man went on TV and said something to the effect of, “My sexuality compels me to find straight people to be demented and evil.”  One’s sexuality does no such thing.  It is the choice to be hateful and exclusionary that compels that, whether set down in a book or not, and the only thing that one’s sexuality does compel is finding a certain group of people attractive.

Likewise, having an instinct for spirituality does not compel one towards thinking or believing anything beyond that vague notion of something (possibly) existing beyond consensus reality (and it certainly doesn’t compel one to go proclaim his hateful views in a popular public venue!)  Anything else obviously goes beyond instinct and moves into the realm of selective beliefs.  People have been trying to prove conclusively that their particular brand of spirituality is the right one since time immemorial and by any means possible, only to meet with failure every time.  That said, it’s all fine and good for people to believe whatever they like, but when their beliefs do not accord with those of their employers, especially when those beliefs are a) highly public and b) inherently disparaging of another group that is legitimately protected by the government, I think the offending employee’s bosses certainly have a right to shitcan him or her.

And let’s be honest: most of those who claim this is a religious speech issue are being disingenuous anyway.  What this is really about is their right to vocally attack a group they dislike while hiding behind their religion.  That way it doesn’t look like it’s just their own homophobia or whatnot because, after all, [their] God condemns it and you can’t very well argue with him, can you?

Well, like I said, I don’t think Robertson should be fired anyway.  Let him be rejected the natural way until his show’s audience dwindles and he and his whole ignorant clan are ousted for poor ratings.  That would be far more fitting.  And if the show remains popular in spite of Robertson’s holy dumbassery, well then it just shows that we need to do a better job of counteracting bigotry at home and in schools, eh?