Friday, January 29, 2016

Casting Moses and Michael (Jackson): Eye on the Prize of Not Needing to Care

            The Internet Movie Database logline for The Woman in Gold (2015), reads, correctly "Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the Austrian government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family." Helping her is attorney Randol (Randy) Schoenberg, a grandson of the Schoenberg: Arnold, the composer, plus, for a second grandfather, the historical Randy had Erich Zeisl, another Jewish composer. In the film, Maria Altmann is played by Helen Mirren and Randy Schoenberg by Ryan Reynolds: both did quite well in their roles, neither is Jewish.
            Edward Zwick's Defiance (2008), in IMDb's serviceable summary, tells how four "Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarusian forests, where they join Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 Jewish non-combatants." The older three brothers have major roles, played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell; the traumatized and mostly silent youngest brother is played by George MacKay. The performances are good; of the four heroes of Jewish Resistance, Liev Schreiber is Jewish, while the others are not.
            Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) has Moses played by Christian Bale, Miriam played by Tara Fitzgerald, and Joshua played by Aaron Paul, with Ben Kingsley playing Nun, father of Joshua. There was controversy over the Whiteness of the cast; nothing much over having major Hebrews played by non-Jews, with the Quaker Ben Kingsley coming closest with a mother just possibly of Jewish descent.
            My immediate point here, as of 29 January 2016, is that I don't give the once-cliché rat's ass about such casting.
            I mention the date first because of the current controversy over the announcement made with impeccably bad timing of casting Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in a half-hour Sky Arts comedy telling "the tale of an alleged road trip taken by Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001." More specifically, the show is described as “a one-off, half-hour comedy," providing “a light-hearted look at a reportedly true event” as “part of a series of comedies about unlikely stories from arts and cultural history.”
            The date — 2016, not 2001 — is significant secondly because it precedes the voting in US primary elections that may result in a presidential race between or among Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and just possibly Michael Bloomberg.
            My larger point here is that as of today, I don't have to care about casting gentiles for Jewish roles because Jews are doing nicely, thank you, in the entertainment business and have clout in the US political system. And that, fellow members of minorities, should be one's goal.
            It's not so much if you're occasionally "disrespected" or distrusted, disliked, or even hated; what is crucial is whether or not you have to care.
            Power-privilege allows noting that there is a whole lot to question with a comedy about a road-trip by three now-dead stars following the massacre of 11 September 2001, to which we can add the perverse technical question of what sort of whiteface makeup most African-American actors would have to use to look like Michael Jackson in 2001.
            The Latin phrase "Nēmo me impune lacessit" translates formally as "No one harms me and remains unpunished" and more colloquially, "Don't fuck with us." It was the motto of the Stuart Dynasty of Scotland and has remained big among Scots, and the Scotch-Irish in America. Significantly, the Scots and Scotch-Irish in the course of their histories have been frequently fucked with and thoroughly fucked over.
            The ideal is to get past the warning/plea "Don't Tread on Me" and get to the condition of the confident Roman — okay, a snooty, arrogant, asshole Roman — who could dismiss an affront with "Aquila non capit muscam" (or muscas): in idiomatic English, "An eagle doesn't hunt flies." Or, if you like, there's the alternative put-down I'll translate, "An elephant doesn't trample mice."
            American Blacks need to protest even put-downs; having done that, guys, keep your eyes on the prize and go for systemic changes that will give you enough power that you don't have to care.
            But do be careful.
            It's been over three generations since the German annexation of Austria in the background of The Woman In Gold — with the accompanying despoiling, humiliation, and eventual murder of Jews — and it's been my lifetime since the hunting down and slaughter of Jews in the forests and towns of the Belarus of the Bielski brothers in Defiance. There are currently great strains in Europe in dealing with Semitic refugees (mainly Muslims this time around) from Syria and other parts of the Islamic world. And in the USA we may find a secular Jew as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, with maybe Michael Bloomberg as a mildly observant Reform Jew as candidate of … well Michael Bloomberg. And on the other side a good chance of born-again Ted Cruz, or born again, and again, Marco Rubio: "Catholicism to Mormonism back to Catholicism to a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated evangelical megachurch and finally back to Catholicism," a very much Church-militant Catholicism, with Rubio claiming to be "fully, theologically, doctrinally aligned with the Roman Catholic Church," except — I'll add — maybe for some of that peace-love-dove, serve-the-poor stuff.
            We may also see running as Republican nominee or an Independent Donald Trump, billionaire populist, giving voice to the Howard Bealean, "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!" where the "this" in part refers to migrants and the changing complexion of America.
            For whatever their love for the Israel of Likud and "revisionist Zionism," whatever their love for the Jews in our role of bringing on the End Times, Cruz and Trump et al. are appealing to those who define America not as the republican State but as the American Nation. Not long ago, that was "America as a White, Christian Nation," now mostly just Christian but still largely Christian in the sense of the Church of the saved, people who have experienced Christ, been reborn in Christ, and have given their love and loyalty to Christ.
            And if you're outside the Saved and not a member of the American Nation, what is your place in the American State?
            Maybe not as President, and there's a fair chance that we will see over the next year a vicious cycle of European and American hatred of the Other, with the Other as those outside and threatening Christendom. In Europe, we'll undoubtedly be seeing more openly Fascist parties; in the USA open Fascism is unlikely, but dangerous ideas such as citizenship by "blood" have already been floated: that one explicitly by Donald Trump. A serious possibility of a Jewish President will get a fair number of anti-Semites out from under their rocks, lumping together Jews and Muslims, especially Muslims of the Middle Eastern, more-Semitic-than-the-Ashkenazi variety.
            And given the Nazi ability to lump together under the Jewish conspiracy Jews, Communists, liberals, and moralists — there's no reason Americans as talented as Joseph Goebbels can't lump together Jews, Muslims, and migrants.

            So as of the end of January 2016, I'm happy that such excellent actors as Helen Mirren and Daniel Craig are playing Jews in the movies. Later in the year, such minor details may get me nervous and upset.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Abortion and Such Yet Again (January 2016)

            Once or twice a year I write on the abortion controversy, usually in a small-city newspaper or a blog post. Sometimes, I'm just pedantically correcting the question, "When does life begin?" That formulation is forgivable since common, but pretty useless: one thing the Bible and biology since the late 19th century agree on is that life doesn't begin, but began and has been transmitted ever since. So eggs and sperm are alive, as are zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. "There is always a death in an abortion" — and death with each menstruation and miscarriage and millions of deaths (over 100 million in humans) with each ejaculation. The relevant and crucial question is "What dies?" and following from that, "Is that what to be a human person under the law?"
            My most serious agenda (which I'll follow here in a short form) is to demonstrate that the set of issues surrounding abortion is unresolvable in any philosophically respectable way and recommend a messy, intellectually incoherent, vulgarly pragmatic political compromise. E.g., we may be able to get what looked like might follow from Roe v. Wade. Building upon the feeling of many ordinary Americans that early abortions are okay while late ones are not, and that contraception is a good idea, what we could get are strict restrictions on late-term abortions while contraceptive use by women — and fertile girls and men and boys — is encouraged, along with "Plan B's" of various sorts, plus readily available, safe and legal early abortion as needed, with the goal of making the need for any abortions increasingly rare.
            Meanwhile we'll engage in cycles of unresolvable arguments stemming from radically different premises and competing but complexly-related histories. On the one side, are the history of patriarchal oppression and the control of women's bodies, and the resistance to patriarchy and control. On the other side, this:

            If "People are the riches of a nation" and a large and growing population the source of a nation's strength and prosperity, then policies of "pronatalism" (also just called "natalism") are essential, and society and State must act aggressively to encourage live births, with the kids raised to where they can be militarily and economically useful, and ready to produce another generation. One obvious way to this goal: harness sex to reproduction by striving to prevent all sex outside of the reproductive and reproductive in a stable social unit (long-term families) in which the kids can get raised. Under this approach, the sexual "abominations in Leviticus" etc. make sense as do secular-based prohibitions on contraception.
                        (Whether pronatalism is a good idea in a world of over 7 billion people facing another and particularly serious period of climate change and resource depletion — that's something we need to discuss.) 

            If the goal (finis, telos) of sex is reproduction, it is unnatural to engage in sex that is nonreproductive. If Nature is part of God's plan, such unnaturalness is sinful. If the State should get involved in prohibiting unnatural acts and/or various kinds of sin, then laws against contraception make sense (and condoms when and where I was a kid were quite properly legally "SOLD FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE ONLY").

            If a human being is essentially a soul, and if that soul is of infinite value; if that soul enters a zygote at the moment of conception, then anything that destroys a zygote or embryo or fetus is a variety of murder. Worse — maybe infinitely worse — if/since the victims are unbaptized they will join the other unbaptized infants and miscarriages in damnation: perhaps in a Limbo, if that theology comes back into fashion, or in "the easiest room in hell," as in Michael Wigglesworth's teaching-poem, "The Day of Doom" (the Year of the Lord 1662 [the date for the poem, not the Apocalypse]).

            Given the US First Amendment and at least a fair amount of de facto separation of Church and State, we're not going to have much honest debate on the theology of contraception and abortion and the politics that debate implies. Nor are we going to have an open and vigorous debate on population policy and its implications for and involvement in climate change, resource allocation, immigration, who pays for old people, and tax breaks for families. (Some Americans who are all for population control in theory still want tax deductions for their children, even third and fourth and fifth kids.)

            There has been some social progress on these issues, certainly with gay rights and, maybe more relevantly here, condoms: which are now advertised, required in LA-produced up-scale professional pornography, and apparently encouraged in some areas of amateur porn upload sites — uh, or so I have heard. On the other hand, there is the logic of abortion = murder, hence large-scale abortion = mass murder, hence … well, hence bombing an abortion clinic or shooting abortion providers can be admitted as an act of terrorism but then defended as a "lesser evil." On the other side, if one just rejects the whole idea of souls and ensoulment and follows a rigorous materialism, then it becomes fairly easy to justify even a late-term abortion but more difficult to condemn killing older human organisms, especially before or after they can talk rationally or after you've been forced to admit that there may be little justification in nature to put so much value on speech or reason or consciousness that "mind" become a kind of stand-in for "soul."

            I hope Americans will say on the abortion debate and other sex issues, "Screw ideology and intellectual rigor folks! Let's cut a political deal on abortion and sex stuff and move on." As much as Americans are generally anti-intellectual, though, I expect the opposing logics of the abortion debate to continue robust and dangerous — and we'll be cycling back to the topic for the rest of my life.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Religion, Atheism, Body Counts, "Foma," and a "Vital Lie"

         Among the comments on The Diane Rehm Show for Friday, 15 January 2016, one complains that Derek McGinty, the guest host, had much too quickly dismissed a call for (ultimately) eliminating religion to eliminate terrorism and other bad things. McGinty said the idea was — if I heard right — a "nonstarter."

         The commenter was right to resent the offhand dismissal, but McGinty had a point, given the numbers. Atheists are a small demographic, while believers' numbers are massive. The world may be moving toward the secular — and a recent book called Big Gods suggests that there is the possibility of an ethical, post-religious world — but currently the idea of large numbers of people giving up their beliefs and accepting a life of "Emptiness! Emptiness! All is empty" and futile is a nonstarter.

         A relatively objective, scientific, realistic assessment of the human condition is that the human species is trivial even in just our universe, to say nothing of a multiverse in which the vanishingly small significance of our galaxy approaches literal nothingness in what may be an infinity of worlds. Statistically normal people want significance for humanity and even individual human lives, and it's difficult to justify such ideas without some sort of leap into the absurd. Believing in God is a leap of faith; beginning that in The Big Picture some individual human is significant is just "counterfactual," what Kurt Vonnegut labels a "foma" in Cat's Cradle (1963): a comforting lie.

         Other numbers that need to be looked at are body counts, conveniently tabulated by Matthew White on line and in The Great Big Book Of Horrible Things. Religion (God knows ...) has produced an impressive number of human corpses and other atrocities, with the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions no slouches in slaughter. Still, humans are capable of killing humans in massive numbers for reasons less rationally elegant than religious fanaticism. Simple greed and arrogance led to the small-scale genocides of California Indians during the Gold Rush, and — unless you buy the Christianizing and "Civilizing Mission" bullshit propaganda — the large-scale murder in King Leopold's Congo and other places in colonized Africa. Genghis Khan felt the Mongol form of the Mandate of Heaven, but his conquests with their forty million dead were mostly nitty-gritty political. And, of course, Stalin was officially an atheist and didn't pay a whole lot of attention to spreading the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox Church.

         Certainly Idealists and Guys With Theories and Weapons are major threats, especially when they believe that the real human reality is in a soul separable from the body and of infinitely more value than the body. The Theory, though, doesn't have to be specifically religious, just idealistic enough to get fanatical about. Or, as with slave trades and slave economies, millions can suffer or die for other people's profit and joy in power. 

         It is probably a "foma" to believe that God exists and cares about human life and indirectly gives our lives meaning and purpose. To use an idea from Henrik Ibsen's Wild Duck (1884), that human life has value may be a kind of species "vital lie," or "life-lie": a necessity for survival.

         Ara Norenzayan observes in Big Gods that most psychological research has been done on the "weird brains" of people who are "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic." That's a minor point for me; the major one is that the great majority of people are not weirdly wired and part of such statistical normality is religious belief. That's about as close as you'll come to an objective fact, and atheists who want the world to "get real" need to deal with that fact. They also need to deal with the implications of a rigorously materialist view of the human condition. The "Emptiness! Emptiness" of Koheleth ("Ecclesiastes") is one starting point for that discussion; so is the rigorous philosophy amid the twisted pornography of the Marquis de Sade in the "Manners" pamphlet — "Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen …" — in Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). The mad but logical Marquis can argue that murdering someone doesn't really destroy life, on balance, since if you bury the body and dig it up later, what we'd call biomass has, if anything increased; and there's no particular reason in nature — only in humans' bias in favor of humans and human consciousness — to prefer the biomass of a living human to that of the organisms of putrefaction.

          Me, I am by temperament a vulgar Pragmatist — I check out where logical premises are going before accepting them — and one who read some Existentialism for Dummies at an impressionable age and took a fair number of courses in the life sciences. I'm also a Vonnegut fan. There's much bracing stuff in Koheleth and de Sade and Vonnegut and Jean-Paul Sartre in simplified translation. Still/So, as a practical matter, I'd prefer it if my fellow humans carefully follow beliefs that hold down body counts; and I'd prefer it if people who see themselves as tough-minded toughed it through the implications of their beliefs.