My teenage son and I have become enthusiastic fans of Doctor Who. We enjoy the imaginative settings and characters, the show’s sense of curiosity, and the unusual perspective allowed by a story with time travel at its center.
For a long time, I’ve appreciated the way that Doctor Who helps young people become comfortable with their differences. While adolescent society in general pushes teenagers to conform, Doctor Who opens up a universe of diversity, to show that differences make life fun. In reality, we push to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. In Doctor Who, we see a married lesbian couple in which one of the women is a lizard.
The point isn’t to make us all into lesbians who become aroused at the sight of scaly skin. The point is to open up all kinds of possibilities for people in ways that have nothing at all to do with gender identity. It’s this celebration of weirdness that excites non-conformists who watch Doctor Who, and brings them to do deliciously goofy things like dress up in costume. When they wear the clothes of their favorite version of The Doctor, they embrace this vision of inspired cosmic eccentricity.
So, this week, my son and I eagerly went to see the Aqmerican premier of season eight of the revitalized Doctor Who. We even went to see it in a movie theater, to give the viewing a sense of occasion.
My son loved it. I left with a sense of dread.
I remember when I was a teenager, and adults put out frightening messages about television and movies that were dangerous for people my age. There was a campaign against Satanic influences in heavy metal music. I thought it was all ridiculous, and most of it was. Heavy metal wasn’t dangerous. It was just very bad music.
I didn’t listen to heavy metal, but it wasn’t the superficial demonic gimmicks of goofy bands like Black Sabbath that turned me off. Those were just silly provocations. What turned me off was that the music wasn’t very interesting. It was simple, repetitive, predictable, without subtlety. It was loud for the sake of being loud, which isn’t worth paying attention to after the first 30 seconds of loudness has passed.
As a parent, I’ve tried to remember my own experience with excessive efforts by adults to control what adolescents see, but at the first Doctor Who episode of the 8th season, I found my limit. The episode, entitled Deep Breath, features robots that mask their mechanical identity with pieces of flesh that they harvest from the bodies of humans they have killed. As the robots try to make a getaway, one of them uses a hot air balloon that has been stitched together from pieces of human skin.
I understand that the Doctor Who writers meant for the robots to be a kind of dark version of The Doctor himself, and for his Tardis time machine, but the balloon made of human skin was a step too far. It wasn’t necessary to make any larger point. It was a shocking element that had no purpose other than being shocking.
Well, it worked. I was shocked. I was disgusted.
More importantly, I was disappointed. A balloon of human skin is frightening, but it isn’t intelligently frightening. It isn’t subtle. It isn’t interesting. It’s just plain abominable. It is, like the pseudo-Satanism of heavy metal rockers, a cheap trick to distract from an underlying lack of substance. It’s an insult to the audience.
I’m not against fear. I’m not even against horror. I’m against the use of disgusting cheap tricks to evoke these feelings simply in order to provoke a physiological excitement. There’s no creativity or eccentricity within that sort of fear.
There are fears that are deep and dark within the human psyche, but transcend the brain stem’s anxieties about pain and death. When we explore these fears, we learn important things about ourselves, and become the better for it. That’s not he kind of fear that Doctor Who season 8 seems to be interested in. So, this is where my son and I will leave Doctor Who.
As a palette cleanser, on this last week of summer before school begins, my kids are watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Journey. This show does what Doctor Who ought to be doing, expanding minds with possibilities rather than shrinking them down with terror of alien predators.
But what next? I’m looking for smart, creative books, audio, or video that pushes the boundaries of our assumptions about reality. I don’t care whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. I want materials for my teenager that can bring the sense of openness that I once thought we could find in Doctor Who – without the ever-present monsters and ghoulish provocations.
That’s what roadside church signs tell me on my drive through central Maine today:
There are a lot of good people suffering in the world. Jesus (and God the Father of whom Jesus is supposed to be one mysterious aspect) are supposed to omniscient and omnipotent. If they exist and they care about the suffering of good people, why don’t they relieve that suffering? They could, you know, with no bad repercussions. That’s what “omnipotent” means. But if they exist, they don’t relieve the suffering of good people. What does that say about the character of Jesus and God?
In communities all over the world, many people are praying to an omniscient and omnipotent God for the relief of the suffering of good people. Some of those good people are going to go right on suffering. If God exists and God is good, how can anyone say that “help is just a prayer away”?
From the Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin, a chart of the frequency of miracles over time:
Young, sexed up human beings might get some useful perspective on their struggles by considering the plight of Cloeon dipterum, a common species of mayfly that lives in the Northern Hemisphere. Mayflies have a period of adult sexuality that only lasts a few weeks. The short sexual life of the mayfly is common knowledge, and is reflected in the scientific name of the group of insects: Ephemeroptera.
What’s less well known is that males of Cloeon dipterum are so hyper-focused on finding sexually available females that they have evolved extra parts to their eyes, called turbinate eyes, so that they can locate single females as they swerve through giant mayfly swarms in the air. Going to a bar to pick up sexual partners is predictable and calm compared to the chaos that mayflies have to endure.
What’s more, young Cloeon dipterum don’t just have adolescent angst. They go through periods where they are going through so many changes that they literally cannot breathe. In a paper published in the September issue of the journal Freshwater Science, researchers report on observations that when larval members of the species molt, they lose the lining of the tracheal systems through which they breathe, and have to go through the insect equivalent of holding their breath while the lining reforms. Global warming may increase the respiratory stress of molting for these insects, the researchers speculate.
But, for those who make it to the brief mayfly adulthood, sexual mores are fairly flexible, according to the Journal of the North American Benthological Society. Female mayflies are able to produce young without mating at all, but the females continue to mate with males nonetheless every now and then, in order to add a touch of tangy genetic diversity to the mix.
I was a little surprised this morning when I saw an announcement on Twitter that Occupy Washington has released its latest online newsletter.
I was even more surprised when I discovered that the Occupy Washington newsletter, “Based on #OccupyTogether – a group that occupies McPherson Square in Washington DC,” showed nothing but photographs of Justin Bieber. I was there when Occupy Washington began, and it didn’t look like this.
But then, the Occupy Movement never began with any goals, or specific grievances, or centralized control. The idea was that people would show up, and then things would just sort of happen.
Well, now Justin Bieber pictures are happening. Who is to say this isn’t an authentic manifestation of the Occupy Movement? I certainly don’t see anyone else trying to do anything with Occupy Washington.
Pouty photographs of teen idols certainly have done a better job of occupying bits of turf in Washington DC than protesters have.
A professional adventurer named Alex Bellini has decided that he’s going to spend an entire year living on an iceberg off the coast of Greenland. His purpose: To show people that climate change is something they should pay attention to.
Bellini also says he’ll be performing scientific study: “My objective is reporting and investigating, by means of scientific methods, the entire lifetime of an iceberg. I want to prove how the pace of ice-melting has dramatically accelerated over the last decades.”
An obvious problem with this scientific aspect of Bellini’s project is that it would take decades to prove that the pace of ice-melting has dramatically accelerated over the last decades. Bellini’s observations won’t provide evidence of global ice-melting, either, just evidence of one iceberg melting.
It isn’t news that icebergs melt, nor is the melting of an iceberg necessarily related to climate change. Icebergs have been observed melting for thousands of years. It’s an expected phenomenon, even if climate change isn’t taking place.
People aren’t really concerned about icebergs melting so much as they are concerned about Arctic Sea Ice thinning, and ice melting on Greenland and Antarctica. Why isn’t Bellini going to watch the ice melting there? Because the scale of these melts isn’t as personal? Because the storyline is wrong?
There’s little drama to Alex Bellini’s trip. The iceberg he’s on will melt. Maybe it will melt away. Perhaps it will melt just a little bit.
In the meantime, there are real scientists doing well-designed, useful scientific research to track global patterns in ice melt. Among them are the people at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. They don’t showboat, but day after day they provide data that are then communicated to people around the world.
Maybe that isn’t adventure, but it is, in the long term, the best way to communicate to people that climate change is an issue they ought to pay attention to.
Did Cinderella’s mother die? Yes, but not in the way that you think, according to Pepelezka, the Slavic version of the Cinderella story, as retold in Sixty Folk-Tales From Exclusively Slavic Sources by A. H. Wraitslaw. The story starts with a group of girls who were spinning wool together around a deep chasm in a rock.
“Up came a white-bearded old man, who said to them: ‘Girls! as you spin and chatter, be circumspect round this rift; or, if any of you drops her spindle into it, her mother will be turned into a cow.’ Thus saying he departed. The girls were astonished at his words, and crowded round the rift to look into it. Unfortunately, one of them, the most beautiful of all, dropped her spindle into it. Towards evening, when she went home, she espied a cow – her mother – in front of the gate, and drove her out with the other cattle to pasture.”
The cow has to go and chew cud while her husband gets married to another woman, a stepmother who isn’t very nice. The stepmother gives Pepelezka impossible tasks, but the mother cow talks to her daughter, and helps her accomplish what is asked of her. These involve, as with the spinning around the chasm, household tasks.
Eventually, Pepelezka’s stepmother figures out that something strange is going on with that particular cow, and orders her husband to kill it. Pepelezka is terrified, but her cow mother assures her that an Obi-Wan sort of transformation will take place.
“When the girl heard that they were going to kill the cow she began to cry, and told the cow secretly that they were going to kill her. She said to the girl: ‘Be quiet–don’t cry! If they kill me, you must not eat any of my flesh, but must collect the bones and bury them behind the cottage. Then if need come to you, you must go to the grave, and help will come to you thence.'”
The husband kills the cow, and cooks up the bovine body of his first wife for dinner. Everyone in the family eats the meat, except for Pepelezka, who gathers and buries the bones as she has been told to do.
Pepelezka gets an awesome set of clothes, just like the Cinderella that we all know. However, these don’t arrive with the bippity boppity boo of a fairy helper, but appear one day in a magic box on the grave of her mother, accompanied by two white doves. These are not just one fancy gown, but a series of them, a white one, a silver one, and a gold one. The Emperor’s son notices her quickly in these outfits, being enthusiastic for the latest fashions.
When Pepelezka takes the golden gown to show herself to the Emperor’s son for a third time, that’s when her shoe slips off, to be found by the young man. All the land is searched for the girl whose foot fits the shoe, and when the Emperor’s son comes to Pepelezka’s house, her stepmother hides her under a trough of water. The plan is undone by a rooster, however.
“The cock had flown on to the trough, and when she told the emperor’s son that there was no other girl there, he crowed: ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo! pretty girl under trough!’ The stepmother shrieked out: ‘Shoo! eagles have brought you!’ * But the emperor’s son, on hearing the cock say this, went up and took the trough off; and there was, indeed, the girl that he had seen in the church with those beautiful dresses, only on one foot she had no shoe. He tried the shoe on her; it went on, and was exactly the same as that on the other foot. Then the emperor’s son took her by the hand, conducted her to his court, married her, and punished her stepmother for her evil heart.”
The new political interest group We Need Smith is thick with normative narratives – stories that seek to tell us what’s ordinary for Americans, and reflecting a troubled and confused relationship with this cultural identity.
On the one hand, We Need Smith seems to reject the normative American identity, as reflected through our democratic process. The shadowy group rejects the legitimacy of the leaders that American voters have chosen to represent them at the national level. In this sense, We Need Smith appears to be seeking to promote unusual, even conspicuously unpopular political ideas, writing that it opposes “the usual politics, the usual politicians, and the usual interest groups”.
However, underneath this first blush of defiance of normal politics, We Need Smith proposes to grab political power for a specific group: Normal Americans. We Need Smith promises to support only “leaders from mainstream America”, electing politicians who come from “the real America”.
What is mainstream America? It’s the America of the majority. Apparently, We Need Smith doesn’t intend to incorporate minorities into its political movement. If you are outside of the mainstream, you won’t be welcome in We Need Smith.
What is the real America? The very concept suggests the existence of a phony America – created by groups of people who pretend to be American but aren’t authentically American. They’re pretenders to the American identity, who must be rejected, and not allowed to have a say in the American political system
We Need Smith, this new political organization insists, and seeks to collect Smiths as supporters. But, what is a Smith, and what if you aren’t a Smith?
The political concept of Smith has a very culturally-specific history in the United States. It’s a history of white political power, and even more particularly, the power of English-speaking Americans of Anglo ancestry. This Anglocentric cultural narrative of has many manifestations, including the legends of Plymouth Rock, placing colonists of English ancestry at the center of American identity, even though the thirteen colonies were culturally diverse, holding people speaking many different languages, carrying names from many nations of origin. It’s carried by the members of the Mayflower Society, who seek to establish their value as Americans by proving ancestral connection to English colonists who came to North America aboard the Mayflower.
Despite the cultural diversity of the American colonies at the time of the Revolution of 1776, the idea that people of English descent are “real Americans” has been pervasive. It was particularly strong in 1939, when Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the movie that We Need Smith cites as its inspiration, was released. The name of the title character, Mr. Smith, was chosen because Smith was felt to be a normal American name, unlike surnames of Americans whose ancestors came from places other than the British Isles.
Mr. Rossi Goes To Washington would not have sent this message of normalcy. Mr. Rodriguez Goes To Washington would not have been perceived as a tale of an ordinary American. Mr. Suzuki Goes To Washington would have seemed like the tale of a foreigner. Mr. Kabbah Goes To Washington would have been considered downright exotic.
When the political insiders at We Need Smith decided to use the surname Smith as a synonym for a “real American” who comes from “mainstream America”, they chose to evoke the longstanding belief that people with English ancestry are at the core of the American identity, the normal people who are entitled to political power, while everyone else is an outsider who threatens “the American Dream”. This Anglocentric ethnic idea is present even in the scanty political agenda of We Need Smith, which seeks to require that congressional legislation to be written “in clear English”.
For the people at We Need Smith clarity and English identity seem to be one and the same. This attitude is antidemocratic, and not just because it excludes ethnic minorities. The focus from We Need Smith on adherence to mainstream normality closes off the critical thinking that is vital to effective democracy. The vague populism of the group rewards conformity, and seeks to exclude leaders who are willing to stand apart from the crowd.
The claims by We Need Smith that there is a secret cabal of mysterious elites who are culturally estranged from the authentic folk of the United States ought to be alarming to anyone who is familiar with right wing conspiracy theorists who assert the existence of an Illuminati elite that controls the machinery of political and economic power. The overlap of these new conspiracy theories with contemporary antisemitism should also serve as an additional caution: The Nazi Party of Germany in the time of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington shared the belief of We Need Smith that cultural minorities wield unjust power over the majority.
It’s quite possible that the individuals behind We Need Smith have no specific intention of relying upon the creepy political appeal of xenophobic paranoia. It’s possible it merely picked up references to these racist ideologies from standard American political platitudes that just so happen to be derived from unjust presumptions embedded within our nation’s history. But then, even if that’s the case, it’s not a valid excuse.
Any new political organization ought to be leading us away from the prejudices that have dominated American politics in the past, rather than exploiting them for its own political purposes. We Need Smith fails this test.
This week, President Barack Obama reacted to the murder of journalist James Foley by announcing that American involvement in the religious civil war in Iraq will escalate. The execution of Foley by the removal of his head was of course an inexcusable act.
What isn’t clear is how increasing American military involvement in Iraq can make up for the atrocity, given that the US military just got done spending almost an entire decade clearing Iraq of Muslim extremists. We got rid of Al Quaida in Iraq. Now ISIS/ISIL has popped up. Get rid of ISIS/ISIL this time, and another group of violent Muslim extremists will probably pop up and commit atrocities again. Barack Obama has failed to explain what he intends to do done differently this time, to avoid the failures of the last Iraq War.
Obama doesn’t seem to have a plan for his new Iraq War at all, only reacting to political pressure to do something. The politics of religion in particular seems to distort his analysis of the situation in Iraq in dangerous ways. Obama only decided that the US should return to war in Iraq after he received political pressure from American Christians to protect Christians and Yazidis in Iraq. Before those religious groups were targeted in the Iraqi civil war, Obama seemed content to stay out of the mess.
The twisted religious motivations of the Iraq War were in evidence again in Obama’s statement condemning the decapitation of James Foley, when, even as he condemned the religiously-inspired warriors of ISIS/ISIL, he sought to claim that religion has nothing at all to do with the Iraqi civil war. He said, “They have murdered Muslims – both Sunni and Shia – by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can for no other reason than they practice a different religion. They declared their ambition to commit genocide against an ancient people. So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
ISIL speaks for no religion?
The inclination to avoid blaming all Muslims for the actions of some is admirable. However, it is naive of Barack Obama to pretend that Islam is a religion of peace, from which the actions of ISIL are a bizarre departure.
In the very same paragraph where he claims that ISIL is irreligious, he acknowledges that their motivations are religious, that they kill people “for no other reason than they practice a different religion”. ISIL certainly does speak for a religion – not an entire religion, but they do speak for a religion nonetheless. The old saying that actions speak louder than words comes to mind.
That ISIL’s victims are overwhelmingly Muslim has no bearing on the fact that ISIL’s violence is speaking for a branch of Islam. When Mary Tudor engaged in her vicious burning of Protestants at the stake, all of her victims were Christians, but that didn’t change the fact that she was speaking for her branch of Christianity when she committed her own atrocities.
When ISIS/ISIL spokesmman Abu Mosa pledged to “raise the flag of Allah” over the White House, he was speaking for his religion. Many Muslims disagree with him, but that’s how religions are. Multiple people speak for every religion, with multiple messages, each reflecting some aspect of their religion, often disagreeing with each other. To deny the violent strain within Islam is absurd, just as it is absurd to deny the violent strain within Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism – yes, Buddhism.
No faith teaches people to massacre innocents?
This claim is obviously false to anyone who knows just a bit of religious history. Most religions have, at some time, implored their followers to massacre innocents.
Of course, it isn’t just Islam that has a history of teaching people to massacre innocents. Christians’ holy book contains many passages in which their god commands his followers to kill entire villages of people, even the babies. Christians can’t honestly claim that these biblical genocides are something that their religion was absolved of when Jesus came along and declared that God had changed his mind about the old laws. The New Testament contains passages clearly approving of the old religious genocide, and promising new terrors to come for unbelievers. Christians also have been happy to use the Bible’s genocides as justification of their own, as in the slaughter of Native Americans by American colonists.
No just God would stand for what they did… and for what the do every single day?
Here, Barack Obama gets to the height of his religious absurdity. If no just god would stand for the violence of ISIS/ISIL, then how come Barack Obama’s god allows ISIL/ISIS to go on doing it, as Obama says, “every single day”? The god of Obama’s religion is supposed to be all-powerful, so that he could stop the violence at any time, if he wanted to.
Either Obama’s god is not really all powerful, or is not really just, or does not exist at all.
The motivation behind this part of Obama’s speech seems to be to discourage anti-Islamic hatred in the United States. That motivation is laudable, but the execution in sloppy, and thus undermines itself. There’s no need to assert historical and theological absurdities in order to urge a mood of toleration among members of different religions here in the United States.
All President Obama needed to say is that, although religious differences have led people in Iraq to hate each other violently, we don’t need to do the same, because here in the United States, all people are equal under the law, regardless of religion. We don’t have to promote ridiculous fantasies about the purity of religion in order to promote the idea that people should be free to practice it.
What do you get when church and state are mixed?
You get things like the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Who could object to that?
Atheists could object, of course, but then, you know how atheists are, complaining all the time…
…when they get locked up behind bars.
This week, Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a government body that seeks out religious heretics so that they may be punished, referred a list of atheist bloggers from Saudi Arabia to the Interior Ministry, so that the atheists could be hunted down by the police and thrown into prison. Human Rights Watch notes that the government of Saudi Arabia categorizes the promotion of atheist ideas as a form of terrorism.
We don’t arrest people for being atheist here in the United States, but there are many who wish to make Christianity an official state-sponsored religion. In Florida, the Brevard County Commission voted unanimously this week to exclude members of the Central Florida Freethought Community from ever giving an invocation before the Commission.
The Commission told the freethinkers that the purpose of invocation is “guidance for the County Commission from the highest spiritual authority”. Given that freethinkers are often atheists, and don’t acknowledge spiritual authority, they aren’t eligible to give an invocation. One of the commissioners, Andy Anderson, explained that only Christian prayers should be allowed before the Brevard County Commission, because Christianity is under attack… in Iraq.
Christians are under attack in Iraq, but not because of separation of church and state. Rather, attacks against Christians come from groups that seek to strengthen the incorporation of religion into government at all levels. The best way to protect Christians from attack is also the best way to protect atheists from attack – to honor the approach of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, ensuring that government neither sponsors religion nor opposes its free practice.