26 January 2010

A Purplebelly revisiting Firefly, with an old blog post and a fresh comparison with DS9

This is an old post of mine from The Anvil, the blog of my closest friend from college on which I occasionally posted, describing my mixed feelings about the Firefly series and the Serenity movie.

I am not unique in that I fell in love with Joss Whedon's Firefly from the first episode, nor in that I came late to Firefly fandom, having seen it on the DVD's. I felt, as most people did who love the show, that it was solid science-fiction that didn't require too drastic a suspension of disbelief and that even if it had it would have made up for it in spades with its characters. I got involved with the characters such that I was angry enough to bash something with my head when a certain character died in the movie (I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it). It was not a serial; each episode stood on its own and on the strength of the development of its characters. It simply oozed style as a gritty space-western complete with shootouts, last stands and train robberies. It was, all in all, a wonderful piece of science fiction that deserves to be remembered alongside Star Trek.

There is, however, one problem that particularly stands out. I cannot bring myself to agree with the primary messages of the series.

The story centres itself around a chevalier-mal-fait named Mal who, six years ago, fought on the side of the Independent Faction against the Union of Allied Planets (known informally as the Alliance and by the derogatory Purplebellies) in a planetary Civil War of sorts. Suffice to say, the Independents lost, and now the survivors must pick up the pieces and find work where they can (often as pirates or smugglers), on the border planets. Mal bought a small freighter (the titular Firefly) and acquired a crew, which are the foci of the TV show.

There is firstly the issue of the rather unsubtle sympathy with the historical Confederacy and Reconstruction-Era South which I find reprehensible (a country founded on the primary basis of institutionalised racism and exploitation is nowhere near deserving of this kind of sympathy in my book - this aspect goes ignored in the allegorical history of the series). But behind this there is another, deeper issue. I would describe myself as a lower-case 'd' democrat, but I believe that if democracy is going to work, it is going to have to entail some kind of communitarian ethic in which the citizens recognise their responsibilities both to each other and to the rule of law. Firefly's romanticisation of what I call the 'cowboy ethos' is, of course, understandable given the tenor of the series, but at the same time, it is something I see as the Achilles' heel of American-style democracy. As a society, we tend to emphasise the individual rights as sovereign, sometimes to the detriment of the realisation that no man lives in a vacuum - he lives among a community of other people and in a natural environment, both of which should have his respect. The language of independence and rugged self-sufficiency is, of course, a staple of American historical and political rhetoric and practise (and embodied in the mythos of the lone American cowboy), but, in general, very little attention is paid to the aspects of responsibility, of community-building and of interdependence which must also be primary realities of democratic practise.

I bring attention to the dichotomy of the main characters' views in Firefly regarding their situation in the system: on the one hand, you have the former Independents, struggling to survive on the fringes of the system, looking out for number one, exercising their right to live free from Alliance meddling. On the other side you have the Alliance: bureaucratic, heavy-handed, its citizens living in comparative comfort and closer contact with one another under (what appears to be) an oppressive, 1984-esque regime. The main characters (particularly Mal and Zoe)stand in complete support of the former and complete rejection of the latter, no doubt in part because they are still seen as the enemy.

Yes, the Alliance seems quite sketchy from Firefly's perspective. Many of the officials are corrupt in the vast bureaucracy, there are strong corporate ties with megacorps straight out of a cyberpunk novel (the logo of the 蓝日 'Blue Sun' company appears in many places), it dabbles in abduction, assassination and human experimentation (as the backstory of River Tam shows). But the Alliance is also run by a Parliament (perhaps in name only, but even so), its citizens are by and large happy and well-off (and more civilised), and the attitudes portrayed by characters in the series who have a strong Alliance background (Inara, Book, Simon and River Tam) display without a doubt that they have no trouble expressing their own opinions on touchy issues (a good, democratic quality). Joss Whedon even made parallels in the commentary between his Alliance and Gene Roddenberry's more optimistically-portrayed Federation, and admitted that the Alliance was being portrayed from a very specific point-of-view.

In jest, I asked a fellow fan of the series whether she thought me a total fascist for having more sympathy for the Alliance than for the former Independents. She pointed out many of the same points in the Alliance's favour I've made here. It strikes me that if the democratic dream is to come to full fruition, it is going to have to establish a dialectic between individualistic ideals of independence and more communitarian ideals of mutual respect, support and social capital. We should build a democratic society on the twin pillars, to borrow Dr. Amitai Etzioni's metaphor, of individual rights and responsibilities to one's community.

For more good ideas from a radical-centrist with his head screwed on straight, allow me to recommend his weblog: http://www.amitai-notes.com/blog

Here's to finding a balance:

Long Live the Alliance! 同盟万岁!

In retrospect, my views on the political stance of Firefly have been a little bit better fleshed-out. (Certainly my writing style is better now than then!) The Civil War parallels and its apparent sympathy with the Confederate 'Lost Cause' are still as problematic and as dismaying as ever in my view, as is the 'cowboy ethos' which Firefly celebrates. But my view of American democracy has changed significantly, thanks in no small part to the election of Barack Obama, and also thanks to Alexis de Tocqueville, whose amazingly insightful book Democracy in America changed many of my preconceptions of the American potential for progress. In addition, my tastes in science fiction in film and television have taken a more recognisable shape due to greater exposure since then: Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, Total Recall - and particularly Deep Space Nine.

Yes, Firefly is politically problematic, and these problems tend to infect the rest of the show and the movie after it. The knee-jerk libertarian objections to any kind of notion of common values or the common good manifest in strange ways, particularly in Serenity, where when Mal's crew objects to turning Serenity into a facsimile of a reaver vessel, he pretty much says straight out 'if you get in my way I will gun you down'. But more than being morally problematic, it makes the ethical 'verse of Firefly Manichaean and mind-numbingly boring. Whedon asserted it as an artistic and moral criticism of Star Trek, but as such it doesn't get a lot of mileage. The moral centre is always Mal - that's the guy we're always expected to root for - and his enemy is always The System (whether represented by the Hands of Blue or by the Operative or by nameless captains of nameless Alliance vessels). The stories are all more or less variations on the same archetypical story, in which the Underdog must outwit The System to keep flying another day. Artistically, it tries to make use of a 'grungy' Western look, but fails to transcend the Bat Durston stereotype with it. (Excuse me? Cattle in the cargo hold?)

By comparison, Deep Space Nine takes Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision of the Federation and systematically subverts it in remarkably ingenious ways. Firstly, Cdr (later Capt) Sisko is not a perfect human being or even a model Starfleet officer. The first episode sees him struggling with his past and with his assignment, which is a source of tension between him and the Federation (as voiced by Capt Picard in the pilot episode, 'Emissary'). He finds himself embroiled in a volatile political situation on Bajor, which has managed to successfully overthrow the dictatorial Cardassian Union and erect a shoddy provisional government, which it is his job to prepare for entry into the Federation.

The secular-humanist universe of Star Trek is fractured in DS9 to make room for a thoughtful critique of religion. (Firefly doesn't do this at all and Serenity only marginally; despite Mal's outspoken atheism and Book's past as a preacher, it often ends in a 'let's agree to disagree' cop-out or doesn't resolve itself full stop.) We watch Sisko's struggle with the religious leaders on Bajor and with his own CO's, trying to come to grips with his own commitments and often stumbling - as when the Prophets sent the first Emissary to the station in an attempt to figuratively smack some sense into him (in the episode 'Accession').

Further, Deep Space Nine anticipates the critiques of Firefly, and it handles the central premises of Firefly with much better balance and insight than Firefly itself does. It talks about the lives of the ordinary people on the frontier, light-years away from Starfleet Command. It presents the colonists on the DMZ with Cardassia, who feel that they have been ill-served by the Federation (which signed a treaty that put them in Cardassian space). Many of them join the Maquis, a rebel group which is fighting for its own 'Lost Cause'. Even the character of Mal Reynolds was anticipated in Michael Eddington.

Sisko and Eddington

Only, the relationship between Eddington and Sisko is far more interesting than that between Mal and (for the most convenient example) the Operative. Capt Sisko is a believer in the Federation in the same way the Operative is a believer in the Alliance, but he is not a nameless, one-dimensional villain who subverts his conscience completely to his government. Sisko knows the colonists have been screwed over by the Federation. He rails against his superior officers' demands of him in dealing with the Maquis:

On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see Paradise. Well, it's easy to be a saint in Paradise, but the Maquis do not live in Paradise. Out there in the demilitarized zone, all the problems haven't been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints. Just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not!

But Sisko is a realist - that's what makes his character so interesting. He commits to Federation ideals, but often shows himself capable of seeing the other side of the argument, and often demonstrates his capacity to bend the rules when the occasion suits, as in 'In the Pale Moonlight' (which I still think is one of the finest pieces of serial television ever made, ever). This is contrasted with the doctrinaire, romantic idealism of Eddington, who considers himself a Robin Hood or a Jesse James (even drawing an explicit parallel between himself and Jean Valjean of Les Miserables in 'For the Uniform'). As the hero of his own melodrama, Eddington gives himself licence for all manner of excess and crime - in much the way Mal does. (The difference is, Serenity wants us to buy into the idea that Mal is the Plucky Hero, that the Alliance is the Evil Empire, and that the setting of Firefly is the Grand Arena.)

Mal and Operative

But Deep Space Nine is consistently sceptical of such idealism, in ways that very much echo the critiques of Reinhold Niebuhr. The idealism of Eddington is ultimately a self-destructive fantasy (as Sisko points out in 'For the Uniform' when he notes that the colonists are victims not of Starfleet or of the Cardassians, but the Maquis themselves), and leads him ultimately to a revenge-obsessed nihilism against a universe that saw fit to dash his hopes (in 'Blaze of Glory'). This is mirrored to some extent in Mal's character, but it is never explored, examined, tested or resolved; he retains it unquestioning throughout the series and the movie, and we're just called to accept it. Firefly's idealism is just as unleavened and as unabated as the original Star Trek's idealism was - and every bit as dangerous - but it is a negationist and reactive idealism.

Visually, Deep Space Nine retains the sterile cleanliness of Star Trek, something which Firefly did succeed in challenging (for better or for worse). Technically, it is fairly unsophisticated, though the makeup work is significantly better than in Star Trek's previous incarnations. But in terms of story and philosophical exploration of ethical issues, there is simply no comparison.

I kind of feel like a Niner fanboy going 'DS9 good, Firefly bad', but really that's not my intent. I do think that DS9 gets fairly consistently overlooked as a solid (if flawed) work of science fiction, while a number of comparative pipsqueaks (Firefly among them) get praised well out of proportion to their merits - generally for the wrong reasons.

EDIT: for a fuller historical treatment on Firefly, here's Anarquistador.

24 January 2010

24 January update

Firstly, went to S. Stephen's again today, in the morning for Solemn High Mass and again in the evening for a concert of sacred Renaissance music given by the a cappella group Convivium Musicum. It was an absolutely stunning performance - most of the music was in Latin or French, but a couple of English pieces were thrown in for good measure; it was perfectly-rounded four-part harmony. It's a sad fact that that kind of music isn't often heard anymore, even in Protestant churches which value such polyphonic choral music as part of their tradition - being rapidly displaced by CWM, follow-the-bouncing-ball hymns and other such pop-spawned monstrosities. (Is it any wonder I'm - without leaving Protestantism entirely - pulling for the highest of High Churches, on the baritone line?) Anyway, Mass was awesome - this one was a first for S. Stephen's newest priest, Fr. Michael Tuck. A lot of the students were back, so I got to meet a lot more parishioners my own age, which was also cool.

A minor setback - my poor Lenovo laptop completely gave up the ghost after contracting the Google redirect virus and my ham-fisted attempts to try and cure it on my own. I have to get the HD reformatted and Windows XP Pro SP2 reinstalled; thankfully most of my data has been backed up. As they say, though, 'an ounce of prevention'... I'm getting the full version of Symantec and a third-party firewall on my next go-round, and I'm going to be a lot more careful about surfing the web.

Also - I was accepted at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University for the IR master's programme, one of my top choices! I'm so overjoyed about that piece of news it's getting ridiculous! We'll see what kind of options I have as I go, but at least I know I have one, and a truly decent one at that.

RIC classes start tomorrow: all three of them (Micro, Macro and Russian). Chances are I'm going to feel slightly overwhelmed by the sudden transition back to academic work, but again, we'll see.

Also, basic fact of life: Terry Pratchett is teh awesome.

20 January 2010

Mass Effect – a highly-belated review

This is pretty much typical me: a computer game comes out which is way too advanced for my hardware, so I file it away in my brain that I want to play it someday. Then, somewhere down the line, a new game which reminds me of the older game that I wanted to play pops up, and I go out and get the older game which, miraculously, my current system can handle with ease. In this case, Mass Effect 2 comes out in five days, and I’ve just finished playing the first installment, which was released over two years ago.

Mass Effect is Knights of the Old Republic in the Unreal engine. Seriously. It’s got a tremendously similar storyline – the main quest is for the player character, Cdr Shepard of the human Systems Alliance Navy to save the galaxy from a shadowy external threat whose nature is never made really clear even by the end, by following a previous hero (Spectre, or Special Tactics and Reconnaisance Agent of the Citadel – roughly a galactic version of the UN) who has apparently turned traitor and allied himself with a race of evil machines (‘geth’) which look suspiciously like the Advanced Sith Droids of the original Knights, having the same curving ‘heads’ and single robotic eye.


The story is a bit more satisfying than Knights, since the game isn’t wrapped up in so much of Lucas’ extended Star Wars universe – you kind of get the feeling that this is the story BioWare wanted to do with Knights. It’s certainly better at creating this sense of cosmic dread with various doomsayers and indoctrinated cultists placed appropriately throughout the game. Ultimately, though they are completely insane, they are proven right, since just beyond the galaxy (in ‘dark space’) are a race of immensely long-lived dystheistic Lovecraftian ‘reapers’ who – for reasons unknown to the rest of us – build up organic space-faring civilisations with advanced technology and then completely and brutally annihilate them every few hundred thousand years or so before retreating back into dark space. The Sith, though they did have the entire ‘destroyer of worlds’ thing down pretty much pat through their first incarnation in the Star Wars movies, are still very much human-scale villains. When you’re facing down a massive Cthulhu-faced monster-ship parked outside, reveling in the power to twist minds and bodies beyond recognition, it becomes a bit of a different ball game.

End spoilers

The plot is pretty straightforwardly linear, but there’s a lot of freedom to explore dozens of ‘uncharted’ worlds in your tank (which handles like a hippopotamus on a skating rink). A lot of locations are variations on the same three or four maps, but I suppose the excuse in-game is that colonial equipment and buildings are pretty much prefabricated, and most ships of the same class look the same inside. That said, there’s still a lot of creativity put into this game – the graphics are polished and the environments beautiful. The Citadel (kind of a home base after the introductory mission) is immense and elaborate, and (without the rapid transit) really difficult to navigate the first time through.

Combat is where the game at once satisfies and frustrates. It’s purely shooter territory (despite being mostly in third-person), but there’s still a ‘pause’ screen and you can still issue orders. Your allies, however, prefer to think of your orders more as guidelines, since generally they just follow you around. Enemies also, for some reason, just randomly charge in at you despite being fired at from three sides and you can only tell friend from ally by using the targeting HUD, which leaves me in complete agreement with Ben Croshaw (Zero Punctuation) when he claimed with regard to the combat that ‘the word “clusterf**k” ceases to be adequate’.

I disagree with Mr Croshaw on the issue of dialogue, though – his main gripe being that Mass Effect’s dialogue is needlessly excessive. He does point out that a lot of the dialogue and codex entries are skippable (and I thank him for that), but generally I found there was less conversation per actual gameplay in Mass Effect than in Knights; that might be, however, because I actually did play all the sidequests. Mostly, the sidequests summed up are: the Systems Alliance Navy is too busy bickering with their frenemies in the Citadel to actually do anything about their problems, so your ship turns out to be The Only Ship In The Sector and you personally are saddled with the responsibility of settling all these problems – all of which take place, as said previously, on the same three or four maps.

Speaking of sidequests, &c., one of Mass Effect’s big selling points was the romance subplot, which was apparently enough to earn it an ‘M’ rating. Honestly, folks – nothing here you won’t see on prime-time television. True, Knights just had the fade-to-black, but when the ESRB says ‘Partial Nudity’ and ‘Sexual Themes’, they mean about fifteen tastefully-done seconds of bare thighs and flanks, and some more bare shoulder with the pillow-talk, but that’s pretty much it, really. My version of Cdr Shepard ended up romancing the blue alien scientist, albeit with a bit more discretion than Capt Kirk.

Voice talent features some pretty familiar names: Jennifer Hale, Raphael Sbarge and Kimberly Brooks from Knights, Lance Henriksen from The Terminator, Marina Sirtis of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame and Seth Green from Family Guy and The Italian Job.

Not much more to say, other than that it was an enjoyable ARPG and that I’m looking forward to the sequel.

17 January 2010

Going in circles

I’m young. I realise this. I have a long way to go before I know enough to find a place of rest in this beautiful, mad universe. But that’s not going to stop me searching for it.

Peace Corps was a blow; that much is true – in that I thought I had found a place where I belonged but ultimately a false sense of security did me in. The Friends meeting was a quiet site of solace and peace; I have already described my family ties and my attraction to the Quaker philosophy and discipline of meditative silence. But I can’t help but feel that some things still need to be said, sometimes again and again. What’s more, some things need to be sung, in joy!

So I find myself going in circles; once a member of an Episcopal Church, I decided to return. Today, I went to S. Stephen’s Church in Providence the high-church community up near Brown, to hear Solemn High Mass. The church building was beautiful in itself, with great Gothic architecture and massive stained-glass windows. The service was mostly sung by a choir and by the celebrant and rector, and processions were done at the call to worship, at the Gospel reading and at the benediction, complete with burning incense. The entire service was elaborate and ornate, taking place mostly up in the choir before the altar (which was not screened off from the congregation). It reminded me strongly of Alexandrovski Russian Orthodox Church in Saimasai, while I served there as a Trainee; but the hymns and the liturgy were familiar, and I took the opportunity by the throat (as it were) to sing. Ecstatically. It was good to be able to do that again.

The sermon was greatly enjoyable. Fr. Alexander talked about theology and symbolism intelligibly but without talking down to us, describing the differences between miracles (in the synoptic Gospels) and signs (in John). He dropped the name of William Willimon (the Methodist bishop and former chaplain at Duke University), but the theology he preached was much more in line with a liberal interpretation of Thomas Aquinas than with Willimon (in a good way!). The sign of Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana was the matter of Fr. Alexander’s sermon: a deeply symbolic narrative ‘place’ in Jesus’ ministry, with the feast as the recurring analogy for the Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s covenant with humanity (likened to that between a bridegroom and a bride!). And the wine has run out. Something, somewhere, has gone wrong for this wedded couple, God and us. But Jesus brings forth new wine – not from nothing, but from the water that was already there.

Fr. Alexander’s interpretation – which I thought very highly of – was that Jesus had not come to destroy the old creation and replace it from nothing. The world is not beyond redemption; the water has the potential to be transformed into something worthy – the new wine. This is not Resident Aliens theology; this is a few turns in the opposite direction. We are in the world that Christ has come not to condemn, but to save. As members of Christ’s body, it is upon us to carry forth his will with our fallible and imperfect abilities, to bring forth what is worthy in the world. That is something I feel must be said – and heard! – again and again.

I’ll go a few more Sundays; keep going in this circle, see where it takes me.

15 January 2010


Back to college for me, I guess.

I’ve already enrolled in Microeconomics and in Beginning Russian at Rhode Island College, and am still awaiting confirmation on Macroeconomics from the professor of that course. These courses are going to be necessary for my future career in international relations, and it’s better to do them sooner rather than later. I’ve completed all my applications to master’s programs in public policy and international studies; now all I have to do for them is keep my fingers very tightly crossed and see what kind of choices I have by March and April.

My reading list right now is pretty long; I’m currently reading a selection from Dr. Samuel Johnson’s collected works. It’s funny – the more I read the guy’s work, the more I admire him. It’s not just that he was a cat person and a teaholic, though both are excellent qualities. Here’s a guy who was decades (if not centuries!) ahead of his time in his thinking on racial and sexual equality and on treatment of the poor and socially-outcast, who spoke out stridently against war in the Falklands and against empire in the Americas. And yet, in every line he conveys a deep sense of respect for tradition, for his country and for the social order. Despite his witty jabs at journalists, authors and critics (some of which are more light-hearted and teasing than others – his cautions to authors were done quite obviously tongue-in-cheek given his own profession), you read a man who entertains a lot of serious thought on a number of issues. Reading some of his Idler essays and his Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands, I feel as though much of what he said is as applicable now as it was back in the mid-18th Century!

Also on my reading queue are the letters, essays, prayers and speeches of Elizabeth I Tudor of England (who had the fortune – whether good or ill depends on one’s perspective – of being born a royal and thus a preordained claim to fame which exceeded her literary and scholastic talents), Hints to a Quaker by Frederick Denison Maurice and The Death Trilogy by Terry Pratchett (a much-appreciated Christmas gift from my sister).

Will keep posted as events merit, &c.

14 January 2010

Prayers for Haiti

This is an immense and shocking tragedy, the more so since it appears the Haitian government is so hard-put to handle any relief and recovery efforts. My prayers go out to the people of Haiti, to those who have suffered injuries and lost their homes and members of their families.

I'd like to encourage my readers briefly to give to a suitable charity. One Day's Wages (to which I have given my most recent donation), a Seattle-based charity run by Eugene and Minhee Cho, has set up an emergency relief fund in conjunction with World Concern for the earthquake survivors in Haiti. Dr. Russell Arben Fox has suggested Partners in Health, and the folks at Sadly, No! have recommended Doctors Without Borders.

11 January 2010

Theocracy, laicism or moderation? - a question on the public role of faith

Why is it that even when Ross Douthat is right, he gets it completely wrong?

His concluding point in this week’s New York Times column is quite sound. We should be talking about theology as a society, because theology does matter, and we weren’t always as squeamish about God-talk as we are now. The grand, venerable tradition of social-gospel Protestantism, with its roots in the Continental philosophers (Hegel and Schleiermacher) and high-church English theologians such as Frederick Denison Maurice, used to be a powerful voice for progressive social change. To this tradition belonged such great thinkers and public men of God as Henry Ward Beecher, Henry Emerson Fosdick, Borden Parker Bowne, James Cone and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a tradition of prophetic Christianity that has sadly fallen out of favour and replaced on the one hand with an effete pseudo-liberalism lacking in discipline and on the other with a crude, spiteful and radical fundamentalism, but it’s a tradition that shrewd, good-hearted religious leaders like Dr Robert Allan Hill (Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University) are attempting to resurrect.

Theology – and the humanities in general – should have a place in politics and in the national discussion, and Mr Douthat is exactly right about why. How we approach this business of living in the universe, how we impose our own meanings on a seemingly-meaningless world is the basis for all of our political proclivities, for all of our human interactions. We shoot ourselves and our political discourse in the foot if we block off one entire mode of thinking from discussion in the public sphere in a misguided spirit of laicism. We don’t want to be Iran or pre-Westphalian Europe, but we also don’t want to be modern France, where one is forbidden from any expression of faith in the public square, whether a headscarf or a cross, a rosary or a yarmulke.

But Mr Douthat, positioned as he often is as defender of the indefensible, has made this point by doing exactly the wrong thing with it. It’s well and good to have a national discussion about religion – Lord knows we don’t take it seriously enough anymore. But as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, ‘[f]or everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under Heaven’. Brit Hume’s crude assault on Buddhism vis-à-vis Tiger Woods on (what is in actuality a shoddy excuse for) a news programme was inappropriate to say the least. The ‘knee-jerk outrage’ Mr Douthat dismisses was in some partial measure justified, since this was not the ‘freewheeling religious debate’ that Mr Douthat claims it was. There was no serious or respectful discussion about how Buddhists and Christians should relate to each other, no exploration into what it actually means to be Buddhist and no good representation of the Christian faith at all other than Hume’s facile characterisation of Christianity as therapeutic, redemptive and forgiving. (Ironically, the judgmental attitude of Brit Hume and the rest of the news media toward Mr Woods – and toward celebrities in general when their worse behaviour inevitably hits the light of day – has been neither therapeutic, nor redemptive, nor forgiving. St Paul had some harsh words, if I recall correctly, in his letter to the Romans about this kind of idle gossip.)

If we’re going to have the kind of productive debate about religion that I assume Mr Douthat wants, we have to get away from this kind of unilateral sanctimony. I am a Christian – an imperfect one, God knows, but one who is not likely to give up trying to follow Jesus anytime soon – but I’d like to see a little more respect and civility from my fellows. Buddhism is a great and enduring tradition of faith that has brought meaning to many millions of people over the past twenty-five centuries; rather than dismissing it wholesale in a couple of sentences we might, with some measure of humility, inquire as to why and how it has succeeded for so many and for so long. Though I struggle to understand its teachings on karma and the non-reality of the self, it nevertheless has many valuable things to say on righteousness in thought, word and deed (the Eightfold Path) and seeks to promote moderation in all things.

I think sometimes we Christians could stand to benefit from a little of that.

10 January 2010

Along the lefthand road to Toryism

I have always suspected I’ve been a Tory at heart. My first inkling was when I was in eighth grade, taking Mrs Angela Abbott’s American history course – when, for contrariness’ sake with regard to the rest of my classmates, I enthusiastically took up the Loyalist position on the War of American Independence. But it has been a long and winding road in the Tory direction, and I’d like a chance to see if I can’t retrace my steps.

I think a significant part of my left-Toryism may be attributed to my fascination with history and with old ways of doing things. I learned from my parents to have a deep respect for the Navajo and Puebloan peoples of the American Southwest, who proudly kept their traditions alive and who took pride in having done things pretty much the same way for eight hundred years, despite the disruption caused by the Spaniards and later by the Americans. I learned to respect for my own Germanic-influenced culture when I lived in Wisconsin: Midwesterners take care of the people in their neighbourhoods, and have a community ethic which other parts of the country sometimes lack – they take seriously their roles as their brothers’ keepers. I think I saw this as being very much a transplanted Old World phenomenon rather than a truly New World one, and that may have shaped much of my future leftism.

And I loved the aesthetics of European high culture. Thanks to my best and closest friend in elementary school (a self-described hopeless romantic and frantic half-Greek geek), I was introduced to the Moomin books by Tove Jansson – or at least, the Farrar, Straus and Giroux translations of them – and the British spelling and grammar rubbed off considerably on me, turning me into a staunch Anglophile. My list of favourite authors of fiction has consistently featured some fairly prominent Englishmen and -women: Thomas Malory, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, William Blake, Edith Pargeter, Jane Austen, Jo Rowling, Dorothy Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett. I was even an honest-to-God monarchist for a long while, and routinely defended the aesthetic merits of the Anglo-Catholic high-church tradition to my parents when we were members of an Episcopal church after moving to Rhode Island.

This may seem like a bit of a strange retrospective, but I think it has a significant bearing on my current political proclivities. What frightens me most about the Republican Party and the right in this country is precisely that they are not conservative in any meaningful sense of the word, but rather, they are radical. George W. Bush pursued policies which were actively and blatantly disruptive to the social order at home and to the global order abroad. He prided himself on his vulgarity and his anti-intellectualism, and he cultivated a politic of disrespect, impropriety and incivility which has carried itself into the current Republican Party and into the Tea Party movement – the current standard-bearers of this flaunted incivility are former governor Sarah Palin and representative Michele Bachmann, and its lasting icon is likely to be Senator Joe ‘You Lie’ Wilson. The language and tactics with which they rally their supporters are increasingly crude, increasingly ugly and increasingly bellicose. Those who promote respectful, meaningful debate, professional courtesy and fact-driven policy are dismissed as ‘thought police’ and doctrinaire agents of ‘political correctness’ and are routinely compared to fascists.

This should be nothing new. David Neiwert and the people running the blog Crooks and Liars have done an admirable job researching and reporting on the growing radicalism of the modern right. But sadly, the responsibility for this state of affairs in American politics lies also with the modern American left of the late 1960’s. I was not around during the 1960’s, but my father was in Washington while it was burning due to the riots that had replaced the civil, composed and courteous demonstrations of Martin Luther King, Jr. Something went wrong – a polarising lack of civility and respect crept into American politics in the 1960’s that we still haven’t been able to dislodge. The vital centre politics of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy had been shattered. The radical left-wing Trotskyites for whom the ends justified any means transformed into neoconservative war-hawks while the advocates of the hedonistic, individualistic counter-culture suddenly became born-again neoliberals and Reagan supporters. Both have carried forward this total disrespect for expertise, for the rule of law and for legitimate authority which have gotten us into such deep trouble now in our foreign policy, in our environmental policy and in our economic policy.

This disrespect now runs rampant across all levels of society. Children don’t feel obliged to respect their parents. Parents don’t feel obliged to respect educators or academics. Teachers and professors don’t feel obliged to respect school administrators or parents. The society thrives on confrontation, promotes narrow self-interest and thrill-seeking at the expense of the environment and the community, and panders to the most vulgar and aesthetically unattractive aspects of our consumeristic drive with teenybopper music, Transformers and Twilight.

What we need is a new kind of socially-responsible, affirming communitarianism, analogous to the One Nation Conservative school among Great Britain’s Tories, as articulated by Phillip Blond. I think President Obama is on the right track in this regard, opening up discussion about civility, community and volunteer service, civic tradition, real family values (meaning: not thinly-disguised homophobia or misogyny), organic society and what T S Eliot called the ‘permanent things’. He may not get very far in implementing policies which will help bring about the kind of society we want, but I think the ideas he’s bringing forward may be enough to build a platform for a new kind of Democratic Toryism.

08 January 2010

Happy new year! + Nothing to write Holmes about?

Many happy returns, gentle readers, for the upcoming new decade. My prayers are that it will be more enlightened and sensible than the last.

And one of the things that I did since the new year has been to watch Guy Ritchie's newest film, an original take on the Holmes Mythos. I had been steeling myself for the worst, but the one Guy Ritchie movie I've had the privilege of seeing (Snatch.) was incredibly entertaining, with an ingenious caper plot, a dry and morbid humour and plenty of action sequences. Ritchie definitely knew how to bring the best acting he could out of Brad Pitt and Jason Statham in that work, even though the range of both actors is fairly limited.

The same cannot be said of Robert Downey Jr, whose range is quite wide, but whose performance as Sherlock Holmes I did not find wanting. Devastatingly brilliant yet lacking in social graces and patience for civility, Downey brings to Holmes a highly authentic intensity. Jude Law's Dr Watson was similarly authentic and convincing, and I enjoyed what they did with the dynamic between Holmes and Watson. The screenwriters (and Law, I suppose) interpret Watson as the primary humanising force on Holmes, kept around not so that Holmes can feel superior but so that Holmes can stay sane. (This was the interpretation Laurie R King brought to the Holmes Mythos, but 'Uncle John' was quickly replaced in her rendition by her character Mary Russell.) True enough, this does have some basis in the books, but what I did not particularly enjoy was the interpretation of Holmes as a brash street fighter / action hero.

(I can understand why they did it, though. I don't think critics like A O Scott give Ritchie due credit for his reading of Holmes - I think he saw in Holmes the self-destructive tendencies brought about by his cynicism and ennui, which Ritchie expresses in the boxing matches, but which were expressed in the novels through opiate abuse and lack of sleep. I can imagine that these would be difficult to express visually, and our culture being what it is the MPAA might have increased the rating due to the presence of drugs... but this is not an excuse, more a postulation of the screenwriters' thinking more than anything else.)

Rachel McAdams' femme fatale interpretation of Irene Adler was likewise entertaining, though she seemed at parts to be channelling a Helena Bonham Carter character. I'm a bit surprised and vexed at what they decided to do with her, making her a love interest for Holmes and a pawn of 'The Professor' rather than a worthy adversary in her own right - but again, it seems to be what a modern movie-going audience would expect.

I enjoyed what they did with Mark Strong's character, Lord Blackwood, and the story they put him at the centre of was remarkably well-done. I greatly enjoyed the steampunk-influenced aesthetic of the whole thing, two parts Verne and three parts Dickens. Though I appreciated the little steampunkish in-jokes (‘Radio-wave transmitters! That’s the future, Watson!’) it seemed like the movie couldn’t decide which side of the Crisis of Modernity it wanted to represent: siding with the triumphalists or the sceptics of Victorian industry and empire. (Sometimes, it did both simultaneously, as with the climactic scene atop the Tower Bridge.) Despite its stylistic indecision, the theme of the movie was nevertheless highly political, and had a lot to do with the political power of fear, and how easily it can be exploited by those with imperial ambitions. In that, it reminded me of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (and even V for Vendetta), but on the other side of the coin. This may be a bit of a stretch, and probably not what the Holmes writers intended, but I read Lord Blackwood as a Bruce Wayne gone terribly, terribly wrong. Rather than using his reputation, his knowledge of engineering and chemistry, his mastery of subterfuge and the power of fear against those who prey on the fearful (as the Batman of the Nolan re-boot does), he uses them all to manipulate and exploit his peers and the greater British populace. The difference is that he does not share Bruce Wayne's agony and moral ambiguity, already having chosen his way and willing to sacrifice anything and anyone in it (a missed opportunity on Ritchie's part, maybe?). Sherlock Holmes represents (however imperfectly) the powers of rational inquiry against his adversary, a larger-than-life agent of fear and superstition. In that, I think, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have taken pride in this interpretation.

Was it a faithful interpretation of the beloved character? Perhaps; I am not the best to judge, having at best a passing familiarity with the original Holmes canon. Did it do justice to him? I’d say it did, at least part-way – as might any interpretation which saves Holmes from becoming a perennial detective-fiction cliché. Was it enjoyable and entertaining? Certainly – it’s a movie I could very well watch again.