Tuesday, April 27, 2010

White Protest, White Privilege

My good friend and fellow blogger Ed Palm has commented, both in his blog and in emails we've exchanged, that he considers much of the virulent right-wing reaction against Barack Obama's policies (and person) to be racially motivated. I've sensed the same--although, having been guilty of a fair degree of Bush-bashing myself, I'm not sure his political opponents were any kinder than Obama's.

But a recent counterfactual column by commentator Tim Wise has convinced me that--whatever the racial dynamics of anti-Obama sentiment--it is solely because of their race that the various groups fomenting such sentiment have been able not only to get away with their extremist agenda and terroristic threats against the president but to be lauded by many as latter-day champions of American freedom. Wise's essay hinges on the simple thought experiment: what if all these "patriotic" groups were non-white? How would we think of them then? Here's a snippet from the essay:

"Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters--the black protesters--spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protesters--these black protesters with guns--be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose."

The column is brilliant, exposing piece by piece how much of what we whites like to consider our God-given rights are in fact race-given rights--rights we have "earned" because of the color of our skin, and rights that are denied others because of the color of theirs. Having recently written an essay on race myself (forthcoming in the journal Smash Cake), I stand in awe of Wise's incisive critique not only of the white protestors but of the entire edifice of white privilege. I'll say no more here, because Wise says it all much better than I could. I'll simply end by saying that his is an essay that all thinking people should read. Its truths, to borrow a phrase, I hold to be self-evident.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bliss Is Ignorance

A new environmental essay of mine , titled "Bliss Is Ignorance," just appeared in the zine The Earth Comes First. I'm starting to have some success getting my writing placed in environmentally themed journals (including Canary, Terrain.org, and The Fear of Monkeys). I've also floated an environmental memoir about my frog-catching days that I hope will be picked up sooner or later. These publications are especially gratifying to me because, as a lifetime environmentalist--one who's tried his hand at everything from hosting rallies to joining environmental groups to lobbying politicians--I've long felt that I can best effect change through the written word. Check 'em out and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Facing the Inevitable

A friend forwarded me a report by a team of U.S., French, and Swiss scientists, first published last January, that concludes that global warming has reached a "point of no return," with its effects likely to linger for 1000 years even if we trim emissions back to pre-industrial levels.

Then there's my son, seven years old in less than a month, who for some reason (maybe because he's thinking about birthday presents) insisted on reading When Santa Turned Green as his bedtime book tonight. The story involves Santa's discovery of melting North Pole ice, his appeal to the world's children to address the problem of global warming, and the successful outcome of their efforts. The book's moral is deeply hopeful: "[Children] have the power to change the world." And in this book, they do.

Not being a child anymore, I'm doubtful if recycling plastic soda bottles will arrest global warming. I'm concerned lest we send the wrong message to those who bear our future, those whose own futures we've infringed upon through our habits of consumption and waste. I don't want my or anyone's children to despair--which some might be inclined to do if the effects of climate change are indeed irreversible--but neither do I want them to trivialize the problem, to imagine that there's a quick fix to the mess their parents and their parents' parents have gotten them into.

We've got to have hope--otherwise, why go on? But having hope doesn't need to mean denying, ignoring, or downplaying the realities. Having hope can mean accepting those realities and forging ahead nonetheless. (We all know we're going to die; in that sense, life is hopeless. But that needn't, and for most of us doesn't, stop us from trying to live, and to live good lives at that.) Individually, maybe even collectively, we might not be able to avert the inevitable climate effects our civilization has produced. We might have to live with those effects for a long, long time. But even if so, the choice presented to us is still a choice between living thoughtfully or living carelessly. The choice is between knowledge and ignorance. The choice is between moral and amoral, or even immoral, behavior.

Inevitability doesn't absolve us of responsibility.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Faith and Fantasy

My son's persistence finally wore down my misgivings, and I took him to see Clash of the Titans today. Turns out he wasn't bothered by the violence at all; I guess the threshold is a lot higher these days. But seeing it again did give me a chance to reflect further on the film's representation of human-divine warfare or, more broadly, on the film's position regarding the sacred.

To put it simply: the film's position is that the sacred is pretty much a farce. The gods are petty, grasping, egotistical thugs; the heroes are uniformly disdainful of worship or even of common courtesy toward the immortals; and the only human in the film whom one might call religious--a street prophet who warns his people not to spurn the gods--is depicted as a wide-eyed lunatic who drags the unoffending Andromeda to the sacrificial altar and who burns his own flesh to prove his devotion to his deities. If you were looking at this film alone, you'd have to grant some validity to the Religious Right's accusation that Hollywood is openly hostile toward its audience's spiritual values.

And really, when I think of the fantasy films I know, it's hard to find one that endorses traditional Western religious values. Just to name some recent examples: Avatar locates the sacred not in the spiritually bankrupt human society but in the earth-worship of the indigenes; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus eviscerates Christianity as so much wish-fulfillment and mumbo-jumbo while mustering considerable sympathy for the Devil; and The Lovely Bones conjures a Limbo state that's far more an expression of digital wizardry than of godly design. One of the previews before Clash pretty much summed up the dominant fantasy-film attitude toward the divine: in the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, when one dream-stalked character whispers, "Oh, God," he's answered by Freddy Krueger's snarl: "No. Just me."

What are we to make of the smearing of the sacred in fantasy film? Maybe it is because Hollywood is full of atheistic, liberal elites who wish to tear down the moral fabric of the nation. Or maybe it's because fantasy, as otherworldly entertainment, has no room for the traditional belief systems most oriented toward the otherworldly; maybe fantasy, in its fulfillment of humanity's immortal desire for something beyond this mortal realm, crowds God out of the scene and off the screen. In this sense, the plot device that drives Clash of the Titans perhaps signifies an impulse deep in the history of fantasy (and fantasy film) itself: Perseus's defiance of his creator mirrors fantasy's impulse to create a world wholly of its own. And the reaction against this impulse looks back to an equally old distrust of such godlike powers of invention. The Israelites were punished for worshipping images of their own devising; the Puritans hated the stage because it jeopardized God's monopoly on the making of men. Perhaps fantasy will always find itself pitted against its society's most deeply held systems of belief. Perhaps it could not be fantasy if it did not vaunt against the gods.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Clash of the Humans

Ray Harryhausen geek that I am, I saw the remake of Clash of the Titans this morning (first day in the theaters, first show, first customer in the door). It wasn’t utterly horrible. The special effects were generally cool--I especially liked the slow build to the Kraken’s emergence--and they managed to preserve most of the creatures from the original: Medusa, of course (a snake hybrid as in Harryhausen’s conception), Pegasus (black instead of white, and fluidly animated; but then again, so was Harryhausen’s model), the giant scorpions, Charon, Calibos (though he was played by a man in makeup, with no special effects, and with a drastically different history than in the 1981 film). They even threw in Bubo (the original model, I’ve heard) for a cameo. It was too violent--a real problem for me since my six-year-old son is desperate to see it--and the actor who played Perseus, Sam Worthington, was completely unconvincing as the son of a god. But it was fun in a silly sort of way, and given how high my expectations were, I wouldn’t say the filmmakers let me down too much.

One thing, though, that I found puzzling in the film--and this takes me back to my earlier post about the Percy Jackson movie that came out a couple months ago--was its addition of a plot element that’s nowhere to be found in the original, not to mention in the mythic source materials: war between gods and mortals. I won’t go into the details (they’re too convoluted to trace anyway), but suffice it to say that the plot is set in motion by humanity’s determination to cast off divine oppression, and that the ensuing events arise in the form of the gods’ retaliation against such monumental sacrilege. This is basically the plot of the Percy Jackson movie--gods versus people--and it’s pretty close to the plot of last year’s blockbuster 2012 (divine prophecy results in end of the world) and of another movie from earlier this year, Legion (God sends angels to wipe out humanity; humanity fights back with lots of really cool guns). The tagline of Clash of the Titans is “Damn the Gods,” and that pretty accurately sums up this new genre of what we might call antideity fantasy.

I call it “antideity” and not “atheist” because, of course, it assumes the presence of a God or gods as humanity’s antagonist. And it makes you wonder: why are we so ticked off at the gods all of a sudden? What did they ever do to us? Any film that relies on this plot element automatically renders itself ridiculous: after all, the gods are gods, and by definition we mortals can’t win a war against them no matter how cool our swords or guns may be. So we must be really keen to tangle with them if we’re willing to court ridiculousness in so doing. Is it that we feel particularly aggrieved right now--that the collapse of so many world systems (economic, environmental, political, international) is making us feel as if malign, omnipotent powers are indeed toying with us? Or is it, as I suggested in my earlier post, that blaming the gods gets us off the hook? (Perseus’s adoptive human father, a shaggy, confused-looking Pete Postlethwaite, curses the gods when his fishing nets keep coming up empty. They’re coming up empty for us too, but that’s because we’ve overfished all the world’s waters.) Maybe the gods stand in for mortal enemies: our own indifferent government, the heartless corporations that run so much of our lives. Maybe, deep down, when we curse the gods we’re really cursing ourselves.

The moment everyone was waiting for--it’s almost worth the price of admission--is when Liam Neeson’s Zeus thunders to Ralph Fiennes’s Hades, “Release the Kraken!” It’s got an operatic quality to it, and also an Oppenheimer quality. For in the beast’s elemental fury against human civilization we see, as in a mirror, the truth: it is we, not the gods, who have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.