Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dogma and Catalysts

I grew up during the Cold War, when we had nightmares about nukes at night and garbage like Red Dawn in the theatres. Back then France was where we looked to see what was beautiful, England was the cradle of Democracy while we thought ourselves Democracy's exemplars, Germany no longer deserved its divisive fate, and we all hoped Sting had it right with Russians. It was a time when Thatcher and Reagan worked. It was all so deceptively simple.

I turned 18 in time to cast my vote for Bush, Sr., and I did so without regret and with very little consideration. Democrats were failures like Carter while Reagan and Bush had carried us with more than middling success. Bush was a bomber pilot from World War 2, to boot. It was all so neat and tidy in a world I was sure could turn to ash with a single misstep.

In 1989 I joined the USAF. I watched the Wall come down and students die at Tienanmen Square, we invaded Panama and liberated (yes, liberated - suck on it) Kuwait and then watched things unfold in bloody time in the dusty streets of Mogadishu. Yugoslavia tore itself apart. Russia changed forever and suddenly the world wasn't as black and white as I'd always thought.

The world I was raised in was very polarized, divided along ideological and dogmatic lines. There was religion and there was the secular world; NATO and the Warsaw Pact; Republicans and Democrats; villains and heroes.

I was taught to identify with one segment and reject the other. Looking back, I can see this sort of exaggerated self-identification as a survival mechanism*. In the face of the missiles we all thought could end the world overnight, it was comforting to think of ourselves as the heroes, the ones with all the answers, the morally and ethically superior.

I left the military in 1993. The world was either crazier than it had been previously, or I was paying more attention. I'm fairly sure it was the latter. Regardless, my world had changed and I wasn't sure what to do with myself anymore. Russian states were undergoing their so-called Velvet Revolutions and if someone decided to end the United States, it wouldn't be them.

It wasn't just the Post-Cold War world that did it, though in some ways it was a catalyst. I suppose I started this process of self-evaluation before the wall fell, before I joined the military, before the world as I knew it had changed.

As a child, I was always taught that I was supposed to love God more than my family. I was supposed to have a sort of child-parent relationship with Him and know that He loved me implicitly because He was the God of Love. I was never able to do this. Even when I was little, I knew I didn't love God in any quantifiable way, but that to say so was tantamount to breaking my family's heart. I didn't even want to love Him because I could never pin down anything He did for me, and I knew that people who loved each other did things for each other.

Over the years, the Atonement of Christ and the gift of our physical bodies and the advancement of our souls were all trotted out as things God had done for us and why I should love Him. What I couldn't shake were all the times God ordered genocide or committed it Himself upon His own children (though the language used rarely indicates any affection for those He destroys). I couldn't escape the intolerance He displayed and the hate that was often preached in His name.

In the end, it never made any difference and rather than fostering love, it fostered resentment in me. More importantly, it paved the way for me to begin critical self-examination. Though I clung desperately to the appearance of piety, I have never really believed so much as I wanted to believe. After all, things are much easier when someone hands you all the answers and you never have to think too deeply about it. But what this process of trying to find God's love has done for me is illustrate how to find answers myself.

Growing up religious means you have a whole extra world of pressure to conform to. If you rebel against the religion it isn't about you deciding the religion isn't for you, it reflects directly on those who continue to believe. In dysfunctional fashion, they make the entire situation more about them than you. They get angry, aggressive, offended and self-conscious around you. In the end, there are social and familial pressures brought to bear as weapons to enforce conformity. You are not allowed to dissent because that then becomes a direct threat to the absolutism of religion.

Many of us, as a result, don't break away until we are adults. We fight our disbelief because we want peace or because it's all we've ever known and to just toss it away is like giving up a beloved stuffed animal. It is uncomfortable and distressing.

The thing is, we haven't really changed, we've just acknowledged what we've thought all along. Sometimes this acceptance of what we really are and what we really believe is the hardest part of all.

Politics and religion are the same in this way. Political ideology, like religion, provides easy answers if you let it. You don't have to think about anything and can go about comfortably in the knowledge that multitudes believe as you do and have done all the thinking and postulating for you and have worked out the best way. After all, all Republicans and Democrats think alike, right?

We can all see that statement as preposterous, yet few of us do anything about it.

As my world changed and I watched the altered political landscape unfold around the world, I realized I had supported the last 12 years of Republican control out of habit and expectation more than actual belief. I supported them out of a survival mechanism and the beliefs I held in connection with that. The US war machine, the Cold War, the church...none of it was quite what I'd believed it was and it was, in fact, sometimes very hypocritical.

I began to look at the world and consider the values I held personally and how it all fit in with the world. I came to the realization that I wasn't a card-carrying Republican any more than I was a pious Christian. I came to the realization that I wanted to think about the issues I saw killing and oppressing people the world over, that I was concerned with the ideals of democracy and human rights, and that I didn't want anyone to hand me an answer. The strongest realization was that these were things I'd always thought, that I hadn't changed so much as I woke up and acknowledged myself.

I'm still working out what I think. Right now I just need to get thoughts out of my head, to try and pin down what's there. Issues in this world are too complex for anyone to tell you what to think, feel, and believe. Certainly it's easy, and certainly it's comfortable, but in the end it isn't me and I'm willing to bet it isn't you.

*For a fantastic read on Identity, it's benefits and the dangers inherent in it see In the Name of Identity. It's less scholarly and more personally insightful, but I highly recommend it.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Death and God

Abdul Rahman, not to be confused with the terrorist or former Iraqi president, faces impending execution or church-instigated populist violence for his decision to convert from Islam to Christianity.


The world over, people try to make a case for Islam being a tolerant, peaceful religion of love. We cite that only an estimated 15% of Muslim sects are extremist and/or violent and that most others are more moderate or at least less violent. We talk about the similarities of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in that they worship the same entity and espouse many of the same virtues when you flip through their scripture.

Then we see things like this. Yes, yes, I know I'm viewing this through the lens of western secular education and philosophical tradition. I realize that this behavior is predicated on their upbringing and predispositions, but how could any rational human being with any compassion at all in their heart call for the death of a man who simply disagrees with them?

I can understand anger, disappointment, even resentment...but murder? Isn't the God of Abraham supposed to be all about love? No, given the prevalence of God-instigated genocide in the Old Testament that's not entirely true, is it?

Regardless, at some point every human being begins to ask questions about the fundamental nature of their beliefs. This questioning varies in depth from person to person, to be sure, but every one of us goes through this process at some point and to some degree. During this process we wonder about the things we've been taught, we question and deconstruct them.

Some people analyze and reconsider their beliefs and come to accept them based on new criteria such as a change in piety, education, or experience. Others turn back to the institution that provides the answers for them, subverting their desire to validate their beliefs themselves to an outside entity purporting to provide the answers, the Truth, or something similar (in this regard religion and partisan politics are nearly identical). Others come to find that what they thought they believed both dogmatically and personally isn't resonating for them anymore and they seek out new modes of thought.

That's what this man did, and in the process decided that he did not believe as a Muslim anymore. His family has rejected him, his nation has rejected him, the religion he once loved has rejected him, and all any of them want to do is see his blood...because he changed his mind.

The most absurd part is this statement by trial judge Ansarullah Mawlazezadah:

"We will invite him again because the religion of Islam is one of tolerance. We will ask him if he has changed his mind. If so we will forgive him."


Exactly what part of this entire setup is tolerant? It's bullying, extortion, and intolerance at its finest.

I'm amazed and glad of the fact that the US is not currently demanding a specific resolution to the matter, that my government is simply stating its position and that it will be highly disappointed if this man is executed or murdered by the mobs. Ms. Rice has said that it is important for them to observe freedom of religion.

Sadly, the Afghan constitution is based on Sharia Law, which makes these actions acceptable and legal. While they allow Christians in their communities (People of the Book), they still reserve the right to destroy anyone who rejects Islam if they have accepted it at any point.

Ultimately, this makes the actions against this man constitutional and legal in Afghanistan.

Now before you run off thinking I'm anti-Muslim, let me tell you a secret: I don't think this ultimately has anything to do with religion. I think it has everything to do with power.

As far back as I can recall, religion has been used by men in power to validate and embolden their lust for more. We see it in Shrub's insistence that God wants him where he is and to wage the wars he does and we see it in the Afghani clerics calling for the blood of Abdul Rahman in the world today.

I don't really have a big point to make with this (except, perhaps, the insinuation that these Clerics and their establishment simply want to retain control through any means necessary), I just wanted to express my outrage at the treatment of this man. He's by no means unique, but the situation he's in is casting extraordinary attention on his plight.

People like me will be disgusted and disappointed, and the already anti-Muslim people of the world will simply catalogue this as further ammunition in their bigoted crusades. I'd like to hope that if his death results in nothing else, it causes not only Afganis to question the value of this law and the value of a human life, but that it causes the rest of us to look to our own societies, at the injustices and intolerance we all practice to some degree as cultures and societies. None of us are free from culpability, and I hope that the lessons we learn from this enlighten rather than embitter us.

CNN Story

BBC Story

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

V for..Something Witty

Sorry. Everyone else is doing it!

First of all, let me state for the record how miserable the life of a critic must be. I read the reviews of this film and they are filled with expressions of boredom for the Matrix films, comic books and staples of storytelling. I am made to wonder if they enjoy much of anything. More than that, it leads me to wonder what bias they operate from when they approach a given film, especially one as blatantly cautionary as V for Vendetta.

It's this bias I'm interested in, though not - as my first paragraph leads you to believe - that of the professional critics. I'm interested in the people taking blatant offense at the film and why.

Anyone who has seen it is aware of the absence of sugar-coating. Where many films with an agenda or socio-political commentary place that message in a thematic metaphor, V for Vendetta beats you over the head with it. It eschews the elegance of allegory for the brutality of blatant representation. It makes no qualms at all about what it is and what it attempts to say (in spite of the director insisting it is no more - and no less - than a work of fiction).

Due in no small part to this brusk presentation, viewers of the film are typically falling into two camps: those that love it, and those who take issue with it to the point of frequently being offended by it. Unsurprisingly, this division is primarily along superficial political lines.

I am among those who enjoyed the film immensely. As such, I'm curious about those who disliked it and why. I take no issue with those who were just not entertained by it, but could appreciate and recognize the intent of it, but those people seem few and far between. The vast majority of those I encounter who do not like the movie don't like its message.

More accurately, they don't like what they saw in the film, not necessarily what was there. The major complaints about the film are outlined and discussed below. Bear in mind that I am addressing what I have experienced and I am in no way stating that these ideas are universal or categorical among those taking issue with V for Vendetta. All of this is anecdotal, from me*.

  • V's protagonists are terrorists.
  • The film promotes and endorses terrorism.
  • V's themes are anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-family.
  • V is pro-Muslim.

Both V and Evey are described as terrorists. This is not wholly incorrect. Given the actions they undertake they could be described as terrorists. They blow up buildings, assassinate people, and incite the populace to revolt.

The American Revolution undertook similar activities in destroying public property, killing officials, and taking up arms against their legal government. So what makes a terrorist?

According to the ICT (http://www.ict.org.il/Articles/define.htm), the largest gap in what differentiates a freedom fighter and a terrorist is their selection of targets. This definition sidesteps the idea that revolutionaries and terrorists are merely the same people labeled differently by their opponents. There are other differences, to be sure, but when your army is one guy in a mask, neither definition really works wholesale.

This article could be taken to mean the characters are or aren't terrorists, depending on how you classify their targets, but at no point in the film do any of the protagonists actively engage to harm civilians despite V insisting that the entire populace was culpable for the regime he fought.

The fact is that different countries and ideologies have different ideas about what constitutes a terrorist. Most of us, like the author of that article, define it in terms of targets. Because of that, I can't really consider V to be a terrorist, rather a man left with no other avenues for change. His opponents understood only control and violence, and so he sought to deprive them of control through the only vehicle available: violence.

Nowhere does the film insist that violence and terrorism is the only or even the best way to effect change. In fact, I'd argue that the resort of V to these activities is an expression of failure. All other methods of rousing the populace to action against those oppressing it had failed and his actions were as much personally driven revenge as a desire to effect real social and political change. It was, in short, the only method left to him in that situation. Nowhere was the option for discourse illustrated as feasible.

V for Vendetta is said to be anti-Christian, family, and America. I didn't see that. What I saw was a recrimination of intolerance. The example of the Qur'an as beautiful while no representation of the Bible was made was not a deliberate slight to Christians as is often claimed. Instead, it is a comment on how a religion so superficially different can become a bogeyman despite its merits.

Several characters are depicted as homosexual. This is, again, seen as an attack on an institution, the family in this case. The plight of the homosexual in this film is an allegorical illustration meant to evoke images of the Jews in Nazi Germany or the educated and religious in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power. They are people who are simply different in one way or other, and therefore deemed bad. They are labeled as inherently bad and linked with one or more societal ills, then made to pay for it with their lives.

The common theme is differences any neighbor could possess. People you enjoy and talk with every day become the enemy and everyone sits back and watches the terrible things happen.

I am reminded of Reverend Martin Niemoller's poem.

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out--because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out--because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out--because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak out for me.

That's the point of those illustrations.

The final and most entertaining objection to the film is the idea that 'liberals**' believe modern America is like this. Only the most screechingly out of touch believe we're to the point depicted in this film, but that doesn't make the message it sends unimportant.

V for Vendetta is ultimately a cautionary tale. It is an illustration of how a populace can willingly allow a government to oppress and abuse them and how it is up to that populace to effect change. A government maintains its power primarily through the consent of those governed whether that consent is based on fear or love being immaterial.

The government in the film changed not because V assassinated the key conspirators, but because the populace rose up and, in effect, woke up. They were presented with solid evidence that they had been enabling their government through abstinence from the political process and wallowing in manufactured fear.

Like most of us, I don't really know what I think until I start to talk about it. Once a thought becomes public, you must take responsibility for it, defend it or change it. You have to think about your thought. In like fashion, I may not have articulated some of this as well as I hope, and perhaps I can be brought to think differently on some points once I get the chance to mull it over, talk about it more, and educate myself further.

I haven't touched on everything, just the most widespread things I've encountered. There's more and there are likely more articulate rebuttals to much of the offense some viewers are taking. In fact, most people acting offended, need not be as it is not an attack on them or their general views. The message here is rather more specific and less a general assault on conservative and American views as some reviewers imply.

In the end, V for Vendetta has the capacity to make you think. As one poster on an overwhelmingly conservative site said (I am paraphrasing), "Conservatives should have no problems with this film; partisan Republicans probably will."

* If you'd like to see some of what I've seen, go to sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Free Republic, and the like and check out the negative reviews of the film. Then talk to people you know that disliked it and find out why. It's interesting to me how polarizing it's been.

** I find it interesting that Liberal and Conservative are thrown about as insults. I suppose they always have, but it seems to have taken on added vitriol in the last 4.5 years.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

My First Rant

What's a 'blog without a good rant? So in that vein, here's my first.

* * * * *

I’m still not entirely sure what this guy is trying to say:


When I first started to read the article, I figured it would be simply and assuredly of the same vein as this article:
http://www.newswithviews.com/news_worthy/news_worthy.htm where the only message I can walk away with is, “Wah, wah, why won’t a man do it for me?”

However, the Claremont article starts off screeching, and by the time it’s over, I’m not sure what I’ve read. I had to read it more than once.

My gut reaction is that this guy is just another breed of bigot, labeling anything he doesn’t understand or agree with as wrong, but he goes on to say some rather insightful things amid the absurdist ramblings about ‘real men.’

He advocates shame as a viable method of discipline in spite of the psychological evidence that it is damaging to a child, leading to other self-destructive behaviors. Yet buried in this bizarre recrimination of both ‘barbarian’ and ‘wimp’ there are a few moments of understanding.

I’ve read enough pop psychology and been male long enough to realize that I see and experience things differently than most women, yet that same body of knowledge has shown me that gender tendencies are just that: tendencies.

There is a reason psychology uses the terms masculine and feminine rather than male and female.

In my opinion, his biggest mistake is stating categorically that men and boys need X, and women and girls need Y. This is patently and provably untrue, yet it IS true that masculine and feminine psyches develop differently and respond differently to stimulus and environment. The problem is that the issue isn’t binary and never was.

Ultimately his thesis implies that men are incapable of competing on a level playing field socially, academically, or fiscally, yet it is apparently a pro-male piece.

Gender roles, as I understand them, are mostly arbitrary these days. They are the product of our evolution and the progress of our civilization. Many of the things we regard as gender roles grew out of a biological imperative that no longer holds the power it once did.

Technology and advances in our understanding of psychology have made spaces for people once marginalized. Women warriors are more acceptable due to technological and societal advances and male caretakers have shown that women are not inherently better suited to providing emotional support to children.

What radical feminists and these chest-beaters seem to miss consistently is that there is common and middle ground to be explored that doesn’t trivialize gender or overly homogenize us.

Gender issues are things I think about regularly, and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but the attitude taken by many that we re-discover our gender identity all too frequently come with the added baggage of denigrating our counterparts. In the Claremont article, he advocates the use of such language as, “You throw like a girl.”

The implication of a statement like that should be clear: girls don’t throw well or more generally, you (as a boy) are expected to be better than a girl.

This is dangerous thinking because it sets in place divisions that are not governed by what is, but by what the speaker believes ought to be. It encourages the arbitrary gender division of activity and capacity making opponents of us. It demeans over half the race.

Research makes it clear that we have tendencies given our genders, and that methodology for dealing with each must vary, but it also makes clear that these tendencies scale and as human beings, we all reside at different points in the spectrum of potential. All men do not occupy a single coordinate any more than all women occupy another.

In any event, I don’t know it all and I won't claim to. Feel free to disagree. If you do it civilly and convincingly enough, I might even modify my stance.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Initial Drivel

I really don't know why I'm doing this, but like all good webloggers, I have an abundance of opinion and just enough arrogance to think someone might care. I like to tell myself that posting a 'blog isn't a cry for attention but let's face it, a 'blog says, "Look at me!" with the same intensity as reality television or a Dr. Phil guest.

So yeah.

I'm getting dinner ready and I look at the back of the Spam can I just opened (don't ask) and I find this little nugget of sheer brilliance under a 'Spam Quesadilla' recipe:

Do not be fooled by the simplicity of this recipe. Yes, it is easy to make, but the flavor is complicated and exotic. Like something that fills your senses and pulls at your heartstrings and then flies away, wanting to be chased. And you will chase it, oh yes, you will.

The absurdity of that just blows my mind. Genius. Pure genius. I'm saving that can.

I'll put up something worth reading next time...I hope.