Tag Archives: religion

‘The Book of Strange New Things’ – A Review

IX-michel-faber-the-book-of-strange-new-thingsTruth be told, I’ve actually read several books in between my last review and this one, but somehow a review just never gelled for those other books. First, there was Charles Grant’s Symphony, the first in a tetralogy in which one book each is dedicated to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While I have a weird little anecdote about this novel’s cover design in relation to a dream I had in high school (several years before the book was published), I’ll spare you that and just say that the first volume in the series was a massive letdown, and I likely won’t be reading the rest of them. I have a general rule against reviewing anything that I would rate less than a C- because I hate being mean to writers, knowing as I do exactly how hard it is to write a novel—any novel—much less a good one. And let’s say this book just missed the mark of being review-worthy.

Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s colossal ode to Africa The Poisonwood Bible, about the mostly all-female Price clan, headed by the firebrand Southern preacher Nathan Price, and their adventures as missionaries in the Belgian Congo against the backdrop of the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s. Here I had the opposite problem: the book was certainly worthy of a review, but I felt that any legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at it would require someone with a far more extensive and nuanced understanding of African history and culture than I happen to possess. Next I tackled the Seventh Annual Edition of Gardner Dozois’ highly regarded anthology series The Year’s Best Science Fiction. The failure here for me was in the prodigious diversity of ideas which threatened to overwhelm me (a common issue I have with good science fiction anthologies), and I will need to read it again to properly review it. Finally, I worked William Styron’s short but exemplary meditation on his own clinical depression, Darkness Visible, into my reading schedule, a text that feels holy to those of us who have suffered from the same affliction at some point in our lives, and therefore to review it was, for me, something akin to sacrilege.

Little did I know, reading all of these books was essentially laying the groundwork for reviewing a novel more in my critical wheelhouse: The Book of Strange New Things by Dutch/British author Michel Faber, a book that shares some territory with Mary Doria Russell’s multi-award-winning The Sparrow, in that both are about an idealistic Christian missionary traveling to an alien world to bring the Gospel to the natives, only to face a series of unexpected challenges upon arrival. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas The Sparrow‘s central protagonist is a conservative Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico, that of The Book of Strange New Things is a liberal Protestant minister from Britain. And whereas Russell’s novel tackles the politics of sex and the emotional impact of rape, Faber’s is at heart a love story. And now I promise to stop with the comparisons and just focus on the volume credited in the headline.

From the outset Faber takes pains to establish the depth and vigor of the relationship between Peter and Beatrice Leigh, which is a good thing because he wastes little time in getting the pastor off to the planet Oasis, where USIC (the acronym is never explained, adding to the mega-corp’s highly mysterious nature throughout the story) has established a . . . colony? Base? Neither of these feel quite accurate in describing the setup USIC has created on the planet, where a handful of handpicked humans toil away in the hardscrabble environment of a world that is, impossibly, both wet and dry at the same time, incredibly humid and yet almost desert-like in its sparsity of life and geological features. A world where the nigh incessant rain comes down in rhythmic spirals. The one intelligent species here are humanoid in form, but their faces are maddeningly unfamiliar, devoid of anything even remotely face-like.

When Peter arrives, he finds several facets of this new place both unsettling and fascinating. For one thing, the USIC habitat is engineered to keep its workers satisfied and incurious about everything outside of their jobs, including what’s going on back on Earth. Or rather, especially what’s going on back on Earth. This is problematic for Peter, who initially tries to keep his promise to communicate regularly with Bea via the Shoot (basically an interplanetary email device that allows for near instantaneous communication between Earth and Oasis) but soon his work with the all too amenable Oasans—which includes mastering their bizarre, nearly impervious form of speech and helping them build a proper church in their otherwise insular and conformist community—causes him to slack off on his transmissions. Naturally, being millions of miles away both physically and mentally, Peter begins to grow apart from his wife, who is dealing with some major issues of her own back home, where civilization has fallen into complete chaos as environmental disasters caused by severe climate change have begun to take their toll. But these problems become almost abstract to Peter as he endeavors to understand what motivates the Oasans, not to mention what happened to his predecessor, the original pastor who inspired the natives to take up Christianity so passionately, and who went missing before Peter’s arrival.

Even as Peter and Bea grow apart, Peter finds himself growing closer to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, who is battling depression and guilt and wants to go home to visit her estranged father. Soon he develops feelings for her that further threaten his marriage, while on the tumultuous Earth, Bea has seemingly lost her faith in God. Will Peter and Bea’s love survive these setbacks? Could any marriage endure these immense psychic and spatial distances, or these ever-multiplying forms and levels of alienation? This is the central question the book asks, and it is largely left to the reader whether the question is satisfactorily answered or not. Meanwhile, there is a pastoral quality to The Book of Strange New Things, an ease and lightness in its unfolding which expertly belies the gloom gathering just off the horizon. Like the Oasans’ ovoid-bricked homes and the sterile USIC compound, the story itself is meticulously constructed to be nonthreatening, or rather to appear so. But danger lurks in unexpected places, like those challenges to love and faith that often strike us obliquely, out of the blue.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel is its restraint. Faber could easily have taken this in a dozen more jarring, gruesome or sensational directions. He could have made it far more confrontational to the those who put their faith in God—or science for that matter—to save us from ourselves. Instead, what he gives us is a soft sell of the very things he seems to castigate, sort of an anti-satire, a thing that comes across ultimately as fresh and original even as it polishes its familiar tropes to a glittering shine, and that is borderline miraculous. He even leaves off in a way that invites a sequel, but if one never materializes the novel will remain nothing less than a holistic and accomplished piece, a fully realized work of science fiction that should be read widely.

Grade: A


The Southern Culture of Violence

Although I was born in Michigan and lived there intermittently over the course of my forty-two years, I grew up in rural Tennessee and still live there today.  I am half Southern by blood (my mom’s family is from Arkansas) and have spent the majority of my life here.  I love the South.  It’s a beautiful place to live: the mountains, the forests, the wildlife, the winding country roads.  But I have to admit that there is something terribly wrong here, and that something is an entrenched culture of poverty and violence.  Some of the talking heads here will claim that the problem only exists in the urban areas, but don’t be fooled.  I have never lived in a Southern city, only on the fringes of small towns, with the closest metropolitan areas of any real size an hour’s drive away from me, and I see the effects of poverty here everyday.

For privacy reasons I will not identify the town I live in at this point, but I would like to compare it to a town in Michigan I once lived in, also to remain unnamed.  That town–let’s call it Town M–was once identified as one of the five hundred best small towns in America (it was in a book!)  When I was growing up, it had–at one time or another–an independent book store, an arcade and a music store.  Today there are art galleries, bars and microbreweries in the town, and street art is prominently displayed.  It has brick sidewalks with permanent metal benches interspersed throughout.  It’s a beautiful place.  There’s an annual multi-day Summerfest in this town.  It even has suburbs for its middle class.

By contrast,  the Tennessee town–which I will dub Town T–has virtually nothing in the way of entertainment (unless you consider Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly to be entertainment).  There is a movie theater, but Town M has one of those too.  There are fast food joints, a handful of independently own restaurants, a newspaper, and a whole bunch of stores, banks and churches.  That’s about it.  It’s a grubby and unattractive town.  And it is not a town geared towards young people; nor is it interested in growth.  Its leaders are all about maintaining the status quo, nothing more.  There was a bookstore here at one time, but it was aimed mostly at serving Christians, and it was short-lived.  There is virtually no middle class here–there is a small number of wealthy citizens and a ton of poor people.  (Guess which group I belong to?)

And there is the heart of the problem that infects the South.  This is a place devoted to the outmoded notion of trickle-down economics, which any decent economist will tell you is nonsense and doesn’t work.  But the South is a conservative culture with a lot of desperately poor folks who are still living on the fumes of hope for the American Dream, who are told by their religious leaders that if they bear the hardships of this life, they will be heartily rewarded in the next.  And so they continue to endure this hell instead of working on making it better.  Meanwhile, it is wholly infested with the shallow and the meaningless, as well as the outright self-destructive–the worst aspects of commercialism run rampant, a strange contrast to its purported spirituality.

This is the reality of the modern South, and it has come with a high price.  Let me explain.  When I lived in Town M, I knew only one person connected to a murder, and it was a distant one: the father of a girl I went to elementary school with killed two elderly women over money.  And I certainly didn’t know anyone who was murdered.  Not so here.  Since I’ve lived here, I have known of no less than four murders with less than three degrees of separation from me, and in three of the four cases I knew the victims.  If we break them down, two of the victims died by firearms, one by stabbing and choking, the last partly by vehicular homicide and partly by being burnt alive.  Three of the four were intrafamilial murders, and all four were crimes of passion.  Three of the victims were female, one male, and all were killed by males.  These murders had different motives: one was over a breakup and the killer being turned in for other crimes, one was over a payment dispute, the third was over drugs, and I do not know the motive for the last murder.  But the uniting factor for all of these is that both victim and perpetrator were poor.

Violence is also at the heart of the recent debate over the Confederate flag.  The rallying cry of those defending its continued public use is that it represents heritage rather than hate and bigotry, but this argument has been soundly drubbed by Lonn Taylor in his article The Confederate Flag’s Big Lie.  The flag in question was not, in fact, the standard of the Confederate “nation” (as it were); it was a flag created specifically for the war, since the official Confederate flag was too difficult to distinguish from Old Glory in the heat of battle.  Hence, it is a flag attached to violence by design: a battle flag.  Moreover, as Taylor explains, it was never associated with Southern “heritage” until the 1950s, when the Ku Klux Klan adopted it as a way to protest civil rights advances, and Southerners–including some state governments–simply carried that concept further.  Segregation itself was a violent affair, predicated on keeping blacks in their own mini-reservations, separating them from white-designated locations and arenas by force if need be.  To say nothing of slavery, the continued practice of which Southern Americans fought and killed their fellow countrymen to try to protect.

Today, however, Southern violence is largely directed at other Southerners.  For a region of people famous for their pride, it seems they are awful willing to hurt and kill their fellow Southerners.  Indeed, the South is consistently the most violent region in the US and has been for decades.  Going by state alone, my own–Tennessee–often makes the top of that list every year.  Anyway, guess what else the South is tops in?  If you said poverty, ding ding, you win the prize!  And we’re also number one in obesity, thanks largely to a diet high in fatty and fried foods.  I see this as another facet of Southern violence, only turned inward, against themselves.  Perhaps it stems from guilt and insecurity, or something similar.  Maybe deep down most Southerners really do feel awful about their shameful history, but they can’t express it outwardly because they fear being an outsider in their own society.  So they punish themselves by eating badly.  Ha!  Armchair psychology, I admit.

At any rate, the South is clearly afraid of progress.  Many here still resent those Yankees for trouncing them during the Civil War.  They may not always say it openly, but it’s just beneath the surface of their conversations about the “federal government” taking away their rights.  Here that term is just code-speak for “outsiders”, meaning anyone who comes into the South and mucks up their way of life.  And the debate over keeping the Confederate flag prominently displayed really comes down to the fact that Southerners resent being reminded that they lost the Civil War, and that it will never be ‘business as usual’ here ever again.  Nobody holds a grudge like a Southerner.  Trust me: I’ve seen it too many times.  This is, I think, where the violence stems from, at least in part.  Far from dying out, racism is still woven into the very fabric of Southern life and thought.  Segregation, though no longer enforced in any official capacity, is still imposed unofficially by white Southerners refusing to sell certain property to blacks or other races, and keeping their distances from them in other ways too.  Don’t get me wrong: there are some genuinely tolerant and open-minded white people in the South (I’m one of them), but they are a small minority.

Ironically, the newly stoked controversy over the so-called “rebel flag” and the mass shooting of blacks by an avowed white supremacist which caused it happened to fall in the same time frame as the historic Supreme Court vote that assures the legal protection of gay marriage throughout the nation, and the rainbow flag has since been waving vigorously across the land.  There was even a meme floating around Facebook which said something to the effect of, “My Facebook looks like a war broke out between the Confederacy and a Skittles factory.”  We may make light of it, but there is something intrinsic about the Culture War in there.  In the larger sense, the fight between conservatives and liberals is really about fear vs. love, with conservatives defending a culture of fear and liberals defending a culture of love.

Think of it this way: conservatives embrace largely two things, small government and strong religious values, the former because they do not trust others and the latter because they do not trust themselves.  Conservatism is an inherently cynical worldview, a highly negative and paranoid way of looking at reality.  It suggests that outsiders (be they other nations, other religions, other powers, etc.) are to be feared and violently opposed.  Hence, we get a huge military, strong anti-Muslim sentiment, massive opposition to any large, centrally organized government, and so on.  Given its attachment to religion–which is ultimately just a glorified death cult (it’s about spending your life in preparation for death and whatever comes after)–and its love of violence to solve problems, conservatism is also about death.  In contrast, liberalism is about trust: trusting individuals to guide their own morality and trusting the government to properly take care of its people.  Trust arises out of affection, which is to say, love.  Liberalism is therefore a culture of love.  It embraces diversity for the sake of diversity and human well-being.  It says that, no matter what happens, we are going to be okay.  We will survive by accepting transformation, not by avoiding it.  Indeed, the scientific principle of evolution teaches that those most likely to survive long-term are the ones most susceptible to change.  It’s really no wonder conservatives despise it: it goes against everything they believe.  So, yes, conservatism is a philosophy of stasis, and stasis is death.  Growth comes about through change, and anything that does not change either dies or readies itself for death.  There are no other options.  To stand still is to give in to entropy, that steady march of the universe towards chaos.

And so, South, I love ya, but it’s time for you to change.  It’s time to give up your outmoded and archaic worldview.  If you don’t, your culture will eventually perish, swallowed up by its own violence and stagnation.  You should’ve learned your lesson by now: you cannot have your Johnny Reb cake and eat it too.  Lose the racism, paranoia and delusions of a heritage worth defending and move into the 21st century.  Come on, you can make the leap; it’s not that far.  And we’ll be waiting . . .

Additional Resources:

Secession, the Confederate Flag and Slavery

The Truth About Confederate History, Part 1 (Snopes)

I Have a Message for Those Who Claim the Confederate Flag Represents Their Heritage

Flags of the Confederate States of America (Wikipedia)

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

Some Thoughts on the Scientific Method and the Anti-Science Mentality in the United States

There’s a succinct and spot-on piece penned by Editor-in-Chief Analee Newitz over at io9 entitled If You Love Science, This Will Make You Lose Your Sh*t.  The article examines a piece written by Jason Mitchell, a Harvard-based professor of psychology, who addressed a growing criticism of the social sciences surrounding the fact that many of its researchers have published studies throughout the last decade or so with results that were not reproducible.  Mitchell, therefore, challenged the very notion that reproducibility is important to the sciences, which is no less than a brazen refutation of the concept of science itself.  Newitz (rightly) ripped Mitchell a new one for this nonsense.

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to examine the scientific method, what it is and what it’s for.  In a nutshell, the scientific method is a process through which scientists can test their hypotheses, which is just a fancy word for hunches, albeit ones that are usually well thought through.  The origins of the scientific method as such can be traced back to the Renaissance, but the concept behind it goes back at least as far as Aristotle, so it has a long and distinguished history.  In fact, it is one of the few human inventions that have lasted, being tweaked, refined and improved upon over the centuries rather than completely scrapped for a different approach.  But the latter is precisely what Mitchell is proposing scientists do.

Mitchell’s belief that reproducibility isn’t important to science is a dangerous precedent for someone in his position to set.  Reproducibility, which is the ability of both the original experimenter and others in the scientific community to duplicate the results of an experiment, is vital for determining scientific truths.  Otherwise, a study could be fabricated whole-cloth and passed off as accurate without anyone being the wiser.  Think about the implications of that.  Would you trust your children’s lives or your own to a new medication that had only been demonstrated to be safe and effective in a single study that couldn’t be duplicated?  And yet, this is the level of standards we have been getting in the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics) as a matter of course in the last few years, which is the reason for the criticisms that have been leveled against many of the studies in these fields.  Even without gross fabrications these fields have traditionally had less rigorous standards to abide by than the hard sciences, but it seems that some, including Mitchell, believe there should be even fewer standards for testing claims, or perhaps none at all.

All of the fields listed above have been problematic, but the one that most concerns me is psychology because it is the one that most directly impacts the lives of many people.  Thus, for someone of Mitchell’s standing to dismiss the importance of reproducibility in studies that come out of his field is downright chilling.  For starters, consider that psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are often called as expert witnesses in criminal court proceedings, sometimes in literal life-or-death cases.  Now, if you were on trial for a murder you didn’t commit, would you want your fate put into the hands of someone who placed little or no importance on the most accurate and widely respected forms of fact-finding among scientists?  I wouldn’t.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the so-called soft sciences that have been impacted by this kind of lazy thinking.  It has even infiltrated the hard sciences, most notably in the areas of evolutionary theory and biology, the big bang theory and climatology.  What you should notice immediately if you are at all politically aware is that the importance placed on empirical fact-gathering for these issues tends to break down along political and religious lines, with liberals tending to support the validity of traditional scientific thought and conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, tending to favor a faster and looser approach to the empirical evidence, despite what they may claim.  Anyone who takes science seriously can discover this for themselves by putting their studies and claims to the test.  But, of course, if the test itself is viewed and treated as valueless by them, then they can make the results say whatever they like, which is mighty convenient for those who hold to beliefs not supported by the hard evidence.  Like climate change deniers.

The fact that the vast majority of scientists working in the field of climatology (not to mention tangential fields like geology and oceanography) agree that our planet is indeed undergoing significant climate change and that we humans are to a large extent responsible for it should be enough to silence the deniers.  The problem is that it has become a deeply politicized issue.  Without politicians jumping into the fray, this probably would not be a controversial issue at all.  But it is, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: many wealthy politicians, particularly those who are fiscally conservative, have a direct financial stake in businesses that are strongly contributing to global warming.  The Guardian points out that a mere ninety companies worldwide are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s problematic emissions, with most of the bigger ones being oil and coal companies.  Guess who are some of the major investors and employees of these companies?  Wealthy conservative politicians.

These are primarily Republicans, but there are also some conservative Southern and Western Democrats in the mix.  And it isn’t just politicians who are directly tied to Big Oil and Big Coal who are the problem; those companies also use their money to gain political advantages through Congress.  If you’re interested, there’s a website that lays out the connections between energy companies and major political players: Dirty Energy Money.  It is definitely worth a look.

By the way, lest you think these politicians are just constantly lying to our faces, well, there is certainly some of that going on, but it isn’t the whole picture.  You see, often what happens is that these fallacies begin first as lies, but eventually the liars tell their lies so often that they begin to believe their own lies.  So how does that happen, exactly?  Do you remember those pesky things called cognitive biases that I’ve talked about before?  One of the biggies here is confirmation bias.  This is the tendency for people to gravitate toward information that already supports what they believe.  Thus, these politicians and heads of energy corporations have fabricated their own science with which to counter the real science.  Likewise, the deeply religious have fabricated their own science to counter the mainstream scientific findings that disturb them.  So, you see?  They no longer have to lie–they have their own bona fide science they can believe in, allowing them the comfort of avoiding the unpleasant evidence that shows their beliefs to be misguided.  This is what we call pseudoscience (literally: ‘false science’), and the more people they can convince to swallow it, the easier it is for them to maintain their Grand Delusion.  Unfortunately, their success rates are frighteningly high because a great many people are too morally and/or emotionally weak to face Truth-with-a-capital-T.

And if it’s that easy to convince people to dismiss the overwhelming evidence presented by the hard sciences, imagine how easy it is to sway people when it comes to the murkier realms explored by the social sciences.  It’s true: hard policies with regard to mental health issues and other social issues are often a reflection of the current societal biases that are masquerading as science.  This is why in the past, when homosexuality held a much greater stigma attached to it than it does now, the studies of the day often tended to reflect the stereotypes of that era–because psychological studies which are not held to the same rigorous standards as the hard sciences are far too easy to manipulate to reflect whatever the investigators want it to reflect.  So please remember that fact when you consider studies coming out today that deal with issues which are in some sense politically, socially or ethically controversial.

. . . Of the Week (6-22-14)

This really should’ve been put out yesterday, but much of my day was consumed with writing a longer article for this blog.  Anyway, a day late and a dollar short . . . the story of my life.

Article of the Week

I’m not a fan of the American gun culture at all.  I own a rifle, but more out of necessity (everyone in the South has at least one) than any desire to have it.  I have lost two different family members in two completely separate incidents to gun violence, both of them crime-of-passion murders that almost certainly would not have happened if guns hadn’t been present in the home.  Here’s a lovely fact: in America, on average, three women a day are murdered by their spouses or partners.  And the number one means of doing it?  Guns, by far.  Something to think about.

A ‘Grim Tally’: Abusers, Guns, and the Women They Kill

Album Cover of the Week

Sound Tribe Sector 9 is an instrumental/electronica band–not my usual taste, but I do like a couple of their songs.  And I absolutely love this cover design!  Outer space?  Check.  Surreal weirdness?  Check.  Strong composition?  Check.  There you have it.

STS9 - When the Dust Settles (cover)
STS9 – When the Dust Settles (cover)

Website of the Week

As a bona fide agnostic (more or less), I love a good skeptical site, and this one is a winner.  There are some annoying aspects to the site, like the email updates pop-up and a crappy layout, but the information it provides is fantastic.  So, check it out.


Artwork of the Week

Two for one today, both by William Mortensen.  Mortensen was an early twentieth century photographer of the Pictorialist school, which was basically the opposite of documentary style photography.  Pictorialist photographs were artificially crafted scenes made to resemble paintings, and sometimes elaborate set pieces were created just for one photograph.  Mortensen was one of the best photographers who worked in this style.

William Mortensen - The Heretic
William Mortensen – The Heretic
William Mortensen - Mutual Admiration
William Mortensen – Mutual Admiration

Song of the Day

I almost included this song in my post The Ultimate ‘Dark Tower’ Playlist.  It’s dark, haunting and somewhat surreal, so it fits the theme in a vague way, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t actually about the books and in the end I didn’t include it in that list.  Still, it’s such a fantastic song that I felt it needed to be posted somewhere on my blog.  It’s the first track from Dave Smallen’s album Desolation.  Incidentally, Smallen is also a visual artist, and he creates his own album covers in addition to the music, including the one for Desolation, which you can see here.  You can hear the entire album–not to mention his other albums–at his site as well, and I encourage you to do so.  He deserves to be better known.

Dave Smallen – The Tower

That’s all for this week.  Until next time, sayonara and have a great week!

. . . Of the Week (6-13-14)

Well, I missed Of the Week last week, but I made sure to set aside time for it this week.  Let’s get to it, shall we?

Article of the Week

I first came across this at one of my favorite sites, io9, so a shout-out to them.  The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan info gathering organization, recently published a study that shows Americans have become more politically and ideologically divided than they have been in over twenty years.  My contention is that much of this polarization has occurred for largely two reasons:

1) The advent of the internet has exposed people to others who do not think like they do on a scale unprecedented in history, and we know that when their beliefs are strongly challenged, most people do not immediately adjust to the change but instead have a tendency to become entrenched a la the Backfire Effect.  When and if they do revise their beliefs, they generally do so very slowly and often inadequately, meaning not enough to compensate for the Backfire Effect.  (See also the Semmelweis Reflex.)

2) In times of uncertainty and hardship (e.g. that caused by an economic recession), people often dig in their heels, retreating into what is familiar and unchallenging to them.

Anyway, it’s a pretty interesting read, with lots of lovely graphs and charts.

Political Polarization in the American Public

Album Cover of the Week

I don’t know much about this band other than that they are a doom/death metal band.  Not really my cup of tea, but I do love this black-and-white cover design for their album Ritual of Passing.  It adheres to my preference for strong basic shapes as design elements, and I’ve always loved the Eye of Providence concept (as my last banner design attests).  It always seems to make for a strong graphic design element.

Atriarch - Ritual of Passing (cover)
Atriarch – Ritual of Passing (cover)

Artwork of the Week

I spotted this sweet design on the TeeFury site and felt it was worth sharing.  The design is a mash-up of Aliens and Jurassic Park done by Justyna Dorsz.  I love it!

Justyna Dorsz - LV-426
Justyna Dorsz – LV-426

Song/Video of the Week

I love a good sci-fi themed song, and the band Only Son hit my sweet spot with this one.  It’s a creepy tune about a future society in which genetically engineered children are par for the course and your financial status determines the quality of the child you will get.  An eerily effective song,  and the music video beautifully reinforces the music.

Only Son – It’s a Boy

Quote of the Week

Finally, a quote from Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, a rare religious leader who has the courage to be honest about the Bible.

“The Bible has been used for centuries by Christians as a weapon of control. To read it literally is to believe in a three-tiered universe, to condone slavery, to treat women as inferior creatures, to believe that sickness is caused by God’s punishment and that mental disease and epilepsy are caused by demonic possession. When someone tells me that they believe the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God, I always ask, ‘Have you ever read it?'” – Bishop John Shelby Spong

Have a great weekend and enjoy the week ahead!

Society’s Dread of Children Coming to a Head: The Slender Man Murder Case

First off, my apologies for missing this week’s Of the Week post.  I had a lot on my plate Friday and Saturday, and I was ill all day yesterday.  I reckon we’ll skip it this time and get back on schedule next weekend.  Anyway . . .

Before I get into the meat of this article, it should be said up front that I support youth rights, favoring the kind of system (or something very near it) expounded upon in Dr. Robert Epstein’s excellent book Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence.  Everyone should read this book, seriously.  Epstein points out that by treating kids essentially as slaves until they reach the arbitrary age at which we decide they are adults, the effects of raising children this way have been profoundly negative, using examples from other cultures to show how children in the West are particularly disadvantaged by this system.  Epstein proposes a system of tests that children can take when and if they so choose, and if they pass the tests, they can opt into age of majority.  I think this is an excellent idea.  It doesn’t treat youngsters with the one-size-fits-all sledgehammer approach to age of minority/majority and its attendant rights, and that is important in raising children to recognize themselves as individuals rather than just cogs in a machine who only become fully human at age 18 (one might even argue that by then it is too late to reverse the damage of such a system).

This simplistic, black-and-white system is ultimately hypocritical by design, and nowhere is the flaming hypocrisy of it more evident then in cases where kids commit shockingly violent crimes.  It seems that society wants to have it both ways: when kids kill, they can be treated as adults by law and locked up for as long as possible, but otherwise they are perfectly innocent little angels who must be protected from themselves and the big bad world every second of the day.  Since kids do not transition mentally, physically, morally  and so on from pure childish ignorance to perfect adulthood all in one day but rather develop gradually over time, this Magic Age system is astoundingly stupid and just plain lazy, not to mention much too convenient for those who hold power over kids.  I think they deserve better than that.

This is the context in which I want to examine the attempted murder of a young girl by her two friends.  The victim was stabbed nearly twenty times by the young girls, who claim they intended to sacrifice her to an internet-born fiend called the Slender Man.  The perpetrators were Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, both aged 12.  You’ll note that the name and face of the victim in this case has not been released, which is typical in cases where a minor has been victimized under law.  And yet the names and faces of the perpetrators–also kids–have been plastered all over the internet at this point.  There has been a discussion of whether or not these girls fully understood the moral ramifications of their actions, and most people seem to agree that 12-year-olds do know the difference between right and wrong, at least to the extent that they know not to kill their friends.  I tend to agree, but then kids do not all develop at the same rate either.  What we have to go by in this case are the psychological profiles of the perps, and their motives.  Since we don’t yet have the former, we’ll have to focus solely on the latter.

These girls, perhaps out of fear, were attempting to sacrifice another girl to a fictitious monster.  Many cultures have a less than sparkling history when it comes to human sacrifices to nonexistent beings, and I’m not entirely convinced this action wasn’t committed in the same spirit.  And these are kids, after all, and clearly imaginative ones at that.  The evidence suggests both of these girls were obsessed with the Slender Man.  So, are these girls immature for their age?  Well, far too many people–most of them adults, sadly–believe in a lot of nonsensical supernatural things, and perhaps the only thing stopping them from committing murders in the name of their faith is the law.  People don’t give up their mystical ideas easily, and many of them will behave just as irrationally if given half a chance.

It’s easy to point the finger at an internet meme (or a movie, or a video game, or whatever) and say, “There’s the culprit!”  Certainly we cannot ignore those factors either, but if you want my opinion–and you must if you’re still reading this article–then the real culprit here is the willingness of far, far too many people in our culture to put  their particular brand of spiritual silliness before logic and empirical evidence, which is to say, they value religion over science.  Many people will argue that their religion isn’t dangerous–after all, most people don’t commit murders in the name of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on, but I suggest that it is only because they fear legal or social reprisals, not because their religion happens to be a peaceful one by design.  I grew up in Christianity, hearing the stories of the Bible, so I know better.  The evidence for this is overwhelming when you examine historical contexts in which the Church, Temple or Mosque was all-powerful, and even today in societies that are theocratic (I’m looking at you, Islam) you see all kinds of atrocities committed in support of upholding the supremacy of that particular faith.  The fact is, the more superstitious the people, the more violent they tend to be, and America is still a pretty violent culture when compared against other Western industrial nations that are much less religious than we are.

Sure, kids are often more susceptible to social pressures than adults, who tend to become set in their ways and resistant to the social pressures of youth culture.  In fact, I believe it is because adults fear the power of youth culture that they keep them oppressed.  Many argue that it’s for their own good, and to an extent that’s true, but can you imagine any other minority group being oppressed as a whole on that argument alone, or really any such simplistic argument?  The evidence that we have become more and more terrified of children can be seen in every aspect of society, from its hypocritical and nonsensical laws that keep them firmly under adult control at all times (we are all born with inalienable rights, but we can’t actually use them until we turn 18–doesn’t that remind you of the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm when they claim, “We are all equal, but some are more equal than others”?–it’s a flat-out contradiction and renders the whole concept of inalienable rights meaningless) to the massive moral panic we’re currently held captive to over child and adolescent sexuality.

And the argument that kids must be protected from themselves could just as easily be extended to, say, women, and in fact once was.  Men used to believe that women were too prone to emotion-based actions and thus had to be controlled.  Is that not exactly the same argument (or a variant of it) applied to the whole group of 0-18s today?  Granted, rights have limitations–of course they do.  It would be ridiculous to treat a newborn the same way we treat 16-year-olds or even 12-year-olds, but in legal terms–and very frequently in social terms–that’s precisely what we do.

Unless, of course, they commit a horrific crime.  Then all bets are off.  Kids are no longer innocent angels but violent predators who knew exactly what they were doing.  Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways and still have a morally consistent system.  Either these girls knew what they were getting into or they didn’t.  If they didn’t, then they cannot in good conscience be tried as adults.  But if they did know, then why are they still legally designated as minors?  Would any kid ever really grow up morally confident in such a system, where they are only treated like adults when they fuck up big time?  To me that is a glaring, almost paradoxical flaw in the system.  It’s time to reexamine how we treat and view children and adolescents in our culture.  And while we’re at it, maybe we should grow up as a society and give up our own absurd mystical crutches too, to show kids that adulthood is actually something worth aspiring to.  Mystical fantasies are fine when treated as such, but when you use them to guide not only your own behavior but attempt to force others to abide by your belief system, then why should you expect kids to be able to discern fantasy from reality? Just a thought.

. . . Of the Week (5-31-14)

Artwork of the Week

I’ve been perusing the work of several contemporary Japanese poster artists and graphic designers this week, so I am sharing an image from one of the best, Tadanori Yokoo.  Tadanori’s career really took off in the late sixties, as he thoroughly embraced the psychedelic art of the era and filtered it through his own culture, thus becoming one of the first Japanese artists to be recognized for their psychedelic art in the West.  Around the early eighties he more or less gave up graphic design and focused on painting, but it is his poster and album art that I am most fond of.

Tadanori Yokoo - The Bombay Store
Tadanori Yokoo – The Bombay Store

Album Cover of the Week

The central image of this cover for Matt Elliott’s Howling Songs is interesting enough, and the cover would’ve been okay with just that, but the graphic designer’s decision to flank the image with a floral pattern was the icing on the cake, I think.

Edit: I have since learned that the artist for this piece is Vania Zouravliov.  I had seen his work before, but I didn’t make the connection.  I actually had the good fortune to stumble on it accidentally.

Vania’s official site is here.

Vania Zouravliov - Matt Elliott - Howling Songs (cover)
Vania Zouravliov – Matt Elliott – Howling Songs (cover)

Song of the Week

This week’s tune is from the excellent album The Body, the Blood, the Machine by the rock band The Thermals.  The song is called Here’s Your Future.  You really should give the entire album a spin though.

The Thermals – Here’s Your Future

And last but not least . . .

Meme of the Week

Everyone have a wonderful week!

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.

Moral Minority Report: The Day I Challenged a College Professor… and Won

There are days when one is struck with that proverbial flash of brilliance, and when it comes banging into your head, the floodgates are thrown open and a powerful surging force carries everything in its path downriver, including your will.  You are, for a few precious and lofty seconds, the slave to your genius (by which I mean the ancient concept of a genius, a kind of living essence or spirit of things) and something partway between intuition and intellectual pride takes over your mind and body.  This is an amazing feeling, one that is, in my experience, quite superior to any drug-induced high or sexual orgasm.  Perhaps it’s because it is the rarest of phenomena, at least for me.  You may be blessed to have these mother-of-all-epiphanies once or twice a week or even daily; as for me, I must content myself with being struck with it once or twice every decade.

On most days these things tend to hit me when I am at home, often while reading or thinking about a story I’m working on or some such.  There is, however, a jewel of a day for me in which not only was I caught up by the thought, but I was granted along with it the courage to challenge a college professor with whom I was politically and philosophically at odds.  This particular professor, one of my Communications profs, in fact (my college major was journalism), was relentlessly conservative and a staunch Christian.  She was also one of those people who could stare at a student and reduce him or her to quivering jelly, if you know what I mean.

As a university student I was generally quiet, although I usually made it a point to sit at the front of all my classes and pay strict attention to what was being said.  Usually I took notes.  This professor, who was teaching a Media Ethics class at the time if I’m not mistaken, was lecturing us about censorship, and it became increasingly clear that she actually favored censorship, an idea that rather horrified me at the time.

[A side note here: the notion that college profs are as a rule extremely liberal is in my experience a misconception.  First, it depends on where the university is.  If it’s a large metropolitan university, well of course the professors are bound to be more liberal.  It doesn’t take a genius (I mean the other kind this time) to figure out that city folks tend to lean liberal and country folks tend to lean conservative.  The university I attended was in a moderately sized town in the South, but most of my profs were either moderates or hardcore conservatives of the Bible-thumping variety.  Second, it has been my experience that, despite their reputation for a liberal bias, media people actually tend to have a conservative bias; I suspect this is to publicly counteract the prevailing mythology of a liberal media.]

Anyhow, this prof–let’s call her Dr. Nicneven, which isn’t her real name obviously but sounds somewhat similar to her real name–brought up a discussion of the 2 Live Crew controversy in the late 1980s, which I remember quite well.  If you don’t know the story kiddies, read up about the album that caused all the fuss, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, here, here and here.  Basically a Christian media watchdog going by the unassuming name of American Family Association filed an obscenity suit against 2 Live Crew after the release of the aforesaid album and the presiding judge ruled in favor of the AFA, effectively rendering the album illegal and setting up the band for arrest when they next performed (which they were, as well as some store owners who sold the album).  These arrests were successfully appealed at the U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case,  and thus the album’s legality was reinstated.  Moreover, the controversy assured that the group would be propelled into the international limelight, with As Nasty as They Wanna Be, a not particularly good rap album (that’s being generous actually) that barely would have made ripples if not for the brouhaha, winding up selling like hotcakes.

And that is pretty much the entire history of censorship in America: the great majority of writers, musicians and artists that were initially censored were eventually vindicated, and in many cases were made famous by these cases, assuring brisk sales of their work.  It is safe to say that censorship has rarely been bad for business–quite the opposite, really, much to the chagrin of the censorious types.  You would think that these blacklisters, bowdlerizers and expungers would learn from history, and maybe to a large degree they have, but inevitably someone finds something to be so offensive as to warrant legal measures to keep eyes and ears from being “assaulted” with said media.

But I digress.  I had remained quiet throughout the lecture while my ire continued to wax, but alas Dr. Nicneven expressed her view that certain material deemed offensive by the moral gatekeepers should be regulated because it might instigate criminal activity, and without a pause I blurted out, “But you can’t do that.  You can’t punish society for a crime that hasn’t been committed yet.”

No, really.

My professor replied in turn, “And some people believe that,” but it was clear to everyone present that the idea had never really occurred to her–not, at least, in such a quintessential way.  Now, I am not so naive as to think that this point was a revolutionary one on my part, nor that this woman who held a doctorate in Communications had never been introduced to the concept in some form.  And to be perfectly honest, having just released the killing blow to her argument, I was actually as stunned by my words as she was.  Wherever it had come from, my verbal jab had deflated her, this mighty bastion of Christian pride and prudery, and she finished out her lecture sitting rather than standing as was customary for her, and not even at her desk at the center of the classroom but in a chair near the classroom door.  When the class was over and students were filing out, she made a point of saying to me–one of the last students to leave–that I had made a compelling argument, and she meant it.  She was honest anyway.  I’ll give her that.

I think what had really gotten to her was the sleek ultramodern nature of my dispute, an idea that was political equivalent of the sci-fi film Minority Report, wherein psychics are employed by the police force to capture criminals prior to their actual commission of a crime.  Dr Nick, as luck would have it, was a fan of science fiction, in particular the TV series Star Trek, a show which had certainly dealt with the moral implications of the abuses of time.  I am certain of precious few things in this life, but one thing I am reasonably sure of is that my most stalwartly conservative professor had never before been confronted with the notion that censorship punished the many to prevent the possible (but by my no means certain) infractions of the few who might be so negatively influenced.  When reduced down to those terms, it becomes readily obvious to any thinking person that such an argument for censorship is embarrassingly unsound, to say the least.

To this day it is the one moment, brief as it was, of my college days that I am most proud of.  It is the glorious crown my intellectual life, even though I cannot say from whence the words, let alone the thought, came barreling out of me.  And it is still the most satisfying argument against media censorship I have in my debate arsenal.