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Excursus: Neutrality, and Why I Am Neither For Nor Against It

yellow-neutral-face-hi

As I wrote the last couple paragraphs of “Heresy:  Systems of Control“, I began to fudge on the phrasing a bit, and it occurred to me that I ought to write another post explaining why, and elaborating the issues involved.  I almost said that in a pluralistic society we must respect all religious beliefs while keeping public policy neutral.  However, that little word–“neutral”–has caused issues in blog discussions elsewhere to which I’ve been privy, so I want to look at it here.

In a confessional state, there is no question of neutrality.  A given religion is the official one, simple as that.  How this is manifested may vary:  there may be no separation between church and state at all, or there may be moderate separation, or the state may acknowledge the state church in merely symbolic ways.  Religions other than the official state religion may be banned and persecuted, tolerated with restrictions, or left totally alone.  Regardless of the specifics, though, there is no pretense of neutrality–there is the state religion which is favored and enshrined in law, and there is everything else.

The United States, of course, not only has no state religion, but the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ensures that there never will be an American state religion.  We have been a pluralistic society from the beginning:  first, with most forms of Christianity represented in colonial times;  later on, with immigration and religious ferment, almost all human religions have come to be found within the boundaries of the USA.  As a result of this, we tend to think of ourselves as “neutral”–that is, people of all faiths are treated the same, and no one religion should have a special place over any other.  This had always seemed to me, for one, to be self-evident.  However, in the course of various blog discussions I’ve had over the last year, I’ve come across a frequently expressed counter-narrative.

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Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky

A discussion about workers rights, social justice, perversion of the political system, and such for International Workers Day.

Prologue: Religion, LARPing, and Comic Books

greedo_han

Before I get on with the points I want to make in this new series, I want to point to a couple of essays that set the stage.

The first is from the old Beliefnet blog, “Kingdom of Priests”, by author and (ugh) supporter of Intelligent Design, David Klinghoffer.  I disagree with him on many points, Intelligent Design being but one, but his comparison of a convert to radical Islam and a fantasy fan is interesting.  An excerpt:

An item by Marissa Brostoff at Tablet directs our attention to a fascinating and very thorough profile of the former Adam Pearlman [the young man who converted and joined Al-Qaeda] in The New Yorker, which in turns notes the peculiarly elaborate and archaic rhetorical style of Gadahn’s work as an Al-Qaeda spokesman: ”Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from the Lord of the Rings.”

The Tolkien allusion caught my attention. I hadn’t previously given much thought to young Mr. Pearlman’s spiritual journey — born in Oregon, raised on a goat farm in Southern California, shy teenager, converted to Islam at age 17 — but that line about the Lord of the Rings struck me as telling. Did you ever notice the way with some converts, not just converts to any given religion but to all kinds of thought systems, ideologies, and other enthusiasms, there’s often a heavy element of fantasy role playing?

When I was a Southern California youth myself, we’d play Dungeons & Dragons, and everyone got to pick his Tolkienesque fantasy identity — wizard, warrior, hobbit, elf, whatever you like. Nerdy kids, or momma’s boys like me (there is a difference!), reveled in the chance to pretend to be someone else, a person much more exotic, interesting, and powerful. It sure strikes me that young Pearlman has been on such a trip of his own these past 13 years or more. The rest of the New Yorker profile bears this out. Fantasy role playing ran in the family.

Relatedly, in this essay Julian Sanchez theorizes about the mindset of many believers:

Fundamentalists of every sect are, pretty much by definition, strongly committed to the literal truth of all of their scripture. But the garden variety “believer,” I suspect, may often be more accurately thought of as a “suspension-of-disbeliever.”

When you think about the actual functions that religious narratives serve in people’s lives, literal truth or falsity is often rather beside the point, and yet suspension of disbelief is a necessary condition of immersion in the story. On this view, Richard Dawkins is a little like that guy who keeps pointing out that all the ways superhero physics don’t really make sense. (Wouldn’t characters with “super strength” would really need super speed as well to do stuff like punching through concrete? Shouldn’t Cyclops be propelled backwards when he unleashes those concussive eye beams?”) It’s not annoying because we literally believed the stories, but because our enjoyment depends on our not attending too explicitly to their unreality. People can, on one level, be powerfully committed to the idea that Han Solo shot first, dammit—while on another being perfectly aware that, really, nobody shot anybody, and it’s actually just Harrison Ford and a dude in a green rubber suit with some laser effects added in post production.

Fanboys, of course, know their cherished fantasy worlds are fantasy, and will admit as much readily if you press them. For many ordinary believers, I suspect the situation is closer to what I think my initial view of Sherlock Holmes probably was: I knew that Watson “was” Holmes’ faithful sidekick, and that Moriarty “was” his archenemy, but if you asked me whether I meant this “was” in the sense of a historical truth claim or only as a “truth” about a fictional narrative, I suspect I would have initially been surprised by the question, because nothing about my relationship to the narrative or my reasons for enjoying it turned essentially on whether the events it depicted had really happened.

Now as a religious person myself, I don’t think these insights invalidate religion in general or specific religions in particular.  I do think they make valid points, though, and often cut closer to home than many of us would like to think.  In the next post I want to look at cultural factors that set the stage for this, and then I want to look at ramifications.  And by the way, Han did shoot first!

Update:  A fascinating if disturbing article along much the same lines I’m discussing.

An item by Marissa Brostoff at Tablet directs our attention to a fascinating and very thorough profile of the former Adam Pearlman in The New Yorker, which in turns notes the peculiarly elaborate and archaic rhetorical style of Gadahn’s work as an Al-Qaeda spokesman: ”Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from the Lord of the Rings.”

The Tolkien allusion caught my attention. I hadn’t previously given much thought to young Mr. Pearlman’s spiritual journey — born in Oregon, raised on a goat farm in Southern California, shy teenager, converted to Islam at age 17 — but that line about the Lord of the Rings struck me as telling. Did you ever notice the way with some converts, not just converts to any given religion but to all kinds of thought systems, ideologies, and other enthusiasms, there’s often a heavy element of fantasy role playing?
When I was a Southern California youth myself, we’d play Dungeons & Dragons, and everyone got to pick his Tolkienesque fantasy identity — wizard, warrior, hobbit, elf, whatever you like. Nerdy kids, or momma’s boys like me (there is a difference!), reveled in the chance to pretend to be someone else, a person much more exotic, interesting, and powerful. It sure strikes me that young Pearlman has been on such a trip of his own these past 13 years or more. The rest of the New Yorker profile bears this out. Fantasy role playing ran in the family.

Read more at http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/kingdomofpriests/2009/06/religious-conversion-as-fantasy-role-playing.html#0zccIYpisj8E7xGh.99

An item by Marissa Brostoff at Tablet directs our attention to a fascinating and very thorough profile of the former Adam Pearlman in The New Yorker, which in turns notes the peculiarly elaborate and archaic rhetorical style of Gadahn’s work as an Al-Qaeda spokesman: ”Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from the Lord of the Rings.”

The Tolkien allusion caught my attention. I hadn’t previously given much thought to young Mr. Pearlman’s spiritual journey — born in Oregon, raised on a goat farm in Southern California, shy teenager, converted to Islam at age 17 — but that line about the Lord of the Rings struck me as telling. Did you ever notice the way with some converts, not just converts to any given religion but to all kinds of thought systems, ideologies, and other enthusiasms, there’s often a heavy element of fantasy role playing?
When I was a Southern California youth myself, we’d play Dungeons & Dragons, and everyone got to pick his Tolkienesque fantasy identity — wizard, warrior, hobbit, elf, whatever you like. Nerdy kids, or momma’s boys like me (there is a difference!), reveled in the chance to pretend to be someone else, a person much more exotic, interesting, and powerful. It sure strikes me that young Pearlman has been on such a trip of his own these past 13 years or more. The rest of the New Yorker profile bears this out. Fantasy role playing ran in the family.

Read more at http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/kingdomofpriests/2009/06/religious-conversion-as-fantasy-role-playing.html#0zccIYpisj8E7xGh.99

An item by Marissa Brostoff at Tablet directs our attention to a fascinating and very thorough profile of the former Adam Pearlman in The New Yorker, which in turns notes the peculiarly elaborate and archaic rhetorical style of Gadahn’s work as an Al-Qaeda spokesman: ”Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from the Lord of the Rings.”

The Tolkien allusion caught my attention. I hadn’t previously given much thought to young Mr. Pearlman’s spiritual journey — born in Oregon, raised on a goat farm in Southern California, shy teenager, converted to Islam at age 17 — but that line about the Lord of the Rings struck me as telling. Did you ever notice the way with some converts, not just converts to any given religion but to all kinds of thought systems, ideologies, and other enthusiasms, there’s often a heavy element of fantasy role playing?
When I was a Southern California youth myself, we’d play Dungeons & Dragons, and everyone got to pick his Tolkienesque fantasy identity — wizard, warrior, hobbit, elf, whatever you like. Nerdy kids, or momma’s boys like me (there is a difference!), reveled in the chance to pretend to be someone else, a person much more exotic, interesting, and powerful. It sure strikes me that young Pearlman has been on such a trip of his own these past 13 years or more. The rest of the New Yorker profile bears this out. Fantasy role playing ran in the family.

Read more at http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/kingdomofpriests/2009/06/religious-conversion-as-fantasy-role-playing.html#0zccIYpisj8E7xGh.99

Religion, Role-playing, and Reality: Index

The above is one of my favorites from the College Humor website.  It gets things pretty much dead to rights.  Moreover, I don’t take it is ridiculing or being unfair to religion; in fact, it suggests an interesting way of looking at faith.  The analogies between religion and role-playing, or more broadly between religion and”nerd” or “geek” subculture are something I want to explore in upcoming posts.  I think we’ll find out some interesting things as we go.

Prologue: Religion, LARPing, and Comic Books

The Disenchantment of the World, Part 1:  What is Religion, Anyway?

The Disenchantment of the World, Part 2:  The Rise of Monotheism

The Disenchantment of the World, Part 3:  The One God Triumphs

Quote for the Week

url

Just as language has no longer anything in common with the thing it names, so the movements of most of the people who live in cities have lost their connexion with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, Worpswede (1903); courtesy of Wikiquote.

Pop Culture Tricksters

L-r:  Pee Wee Herman, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic

L-r: Pee Wee Herman, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic

I posed the question, “Could Joel or Mike on MST3K have been a chick?” (to be flip) over here, and answered, “No.”  On the way to justifying that answer I looked at the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool.  Now let’s bring it back to pop culture and apply it.

I think the host/captive on MST3K is really just a specific example of an archetype that occurs very commonly in pop culture.  Two other exemplars are Pee Wee Herman and Weird Al Yankovic.  There are others that spring to mind–for example, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, and Ringo Starr have embodied aspects of the Trickster/Fool persona in movies and music–but the four I’m considering here are the best examples.  They are all about the same age and were at their peaks at approximately the same time.  More importantly, they all have embodied the archetypes more fully and consistently, and as a bigger part of their public persona, than the other actors and singers mentioned or for that matter than almost anyone else in pop culture.  There are also interesting parallels in their careers that I want to look at.

As one important proviso, I want to point out that when I speak of these worthies, I am speaking of their public personas, not their private lives, unless otherwise specified.  Thus, I’m not particularly interested in Paul Reubens or Joel Hodgson, but I’m very much interested in Pee Wee Herman and Joel Robinson, their on-screen characters.  Mike Nelson and Weird Al used their real names, but I am equally interested in their personas, not in them as individuals.

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Holy Fools

In my last post, which deals with the archetype of the Trickster in pop culture, having been prompted by a discussion of who should host MST3K, I mentioned, in addition to the Trickster, the Holy Fool.  I didn’t describe the Holy Fool beyond merely mentioning the term, so I’m using this post as a brief detour to discuss the Fool archetype.

The Holy Fool or Fool is in a sense the Trickster in a religious context.  What one might call the spiritual-but-not-religious form of the Holy Fool is the Fool.  We’ll distinguish the nuances soon.  In any case, the Holy Fool emerges from the very definition of religion.  Religion–from the Latin re-ligio, or “binding back” (to the Absolute)–ultimately seeks to connect us to the Absolute, however we may conceive of that (God, Brahman, the Universe, etc.).  In short, it seeks to take us beyond the realm of day-to-day existence; it seeks, in short, transcendence.  The question is, how does one describe transcendence in the language of the day-to-day world?  Mystics–those who claim to have had experience of that transcendent level of reality–are in an even more difficult position.  Having experienced the transcendent, how to you convey that experience to those who have not had it?  It’s like trying to describe color to the blind or music to the deaf.  It is like the man in the Plato’s cave who, having experienced the exterior world, is looked at as insane by his fellows still locked in darkness.   Not surprisingly, the mystic is indeed often looked at as insane by larger society.

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Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived As Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value

An excellent and thought-provoking post, especially for those of us who don’t consider feminist a dirty word.

Crates and Ribbons

Doctors

The gender wage gap has long been an issue of importance for feminists, and one that consistently finds itself on the UN and government agendas. Despite this, there is a persistent idea among many in mainstream society (mostly men, and some women) that the gender wage gap is simply a myth, that women are paid less on average because of the specific choices that women make in their careers. Everything, they claim, from the industry a woman chooses to establish herself in, to the hours she chooses to work, to her decision to take time off to spend with her children, and so on, leads to lower pay, for reasons, they confidently assure us, that have nothing at all to do with sexism. Now we could delve into, and rebut, these points at length, but in this post, I will focus only on the assertion that the wage gap…

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DAFOTV, part VII: By Your Command

891294-battlestar_galactica_cylon_centurion_1

Last time we looked at the changes in technology related to television in the 90’s and early 2000’s.  The sum total of these changes gave us much more control over what we watched.  This in turn had effects on the content itself.  How did this happen, exactly?  Read on.

The first increases in control were cable TV (more different channels serving more niche interests) and home video (VHS).  With the first, the content was still provider-driven–you had more channels, but each one decided what it was going to air.  The second gave more control–you could watch a video anywhere, anytime–but the content was even more limited.  This followed from the mechanism itself.

A VHS tape is relatively large and clunky.  It can record up to six hours of material, but at the speed that gives optimal picture quality and resolution, it can store only two hours.  This is the perfect length for most movies, but it is not good for TV series.  A VHS tape could hold two hour-long episodes (typical for dramas) or four half-hour episodes (as with sitcoms) at optimal resolution.  This means that a typical 22 episode season would require eleven tapes for an hour-long drama, or six for a half-hour sitcom.  A single season, therefore, would fill up nearly one entire row of a media center stand.  For long-running series, one’s available space would fill up rapidly.  Sufficiently avid videophiles could tape episodes themselves, but for most of us it’s not worth the effort.

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DAFOTV, Part VI: Enter the Internet

future_internet

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted in my “Decline and Fall of Television” series.  In the fourth installment, I had proposed to look individually at the various “junk genres”, as I called them, but ended up posting specifically only on reality television.   Upon rereading the posts and thinking about where I want to go with the series, I think I no longer want to examine the junk genres individually.  What I wrote regarding bandwidth, junk genres, and reality TV applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other genres.  It’s too depressing and boring to have to think about such things as infomercials, anyway, let alone to write about them.  I do have three final reflections with which to complete the DAFOTV series, though.  In this one I want to look at the technological changes that laid the groundwork for these changes.

In the third installment of this series, I discussed the radical difference in the programming schedule of a typical broadcast day in the 70’s of my youth as opposed to now.  In that vein, I want to look more broadly at the differences in the content thus delivered, and in how we watched it.  Some content hasn’t changed that much, of course–sports are sports, news is news, and so on.  Now there are networks completely dedicated to sports, news, and so on, but the delivery isn’t that much different:  baseball in the summer, football in the fall and winter, and so on.  The changes I’m interested in are in television drama and comedy series and general entertainment.

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