Obsession Point

I have a friend who likes to engage me on our points of departure.  He’s a self-admitted conservative, I am not.  He’s a sincere Christian, I’m an atheist.  Looking around at the current culture, you would think that should make any conversation we might have problematic at best, impossible at worst.

Yet we carry on the occasional hour, two-hour, sometimes three hour conversation and never once descend into anger or dismissive rhetoric.  And yes, we talk about religion regularly.  We talk about politics.  We talk about meaningful living.  It’s the kind of exchange of ideas from different perspectives that seems both rare and uniquely pleasurable.  Would that we taught kids growing up how to appreciate this kind of conversation as, at the very least, an æsthetic pleasure.

Consequently, when he questions me on priorities, I tend to listen.

A couple weeks ago, after the monthly jam session (he runs a church basement coffeehouse to which I’ve been going and participating for more than a few years now) we hung around and started talking about current subjects.  My opening statement concerned the new movie Noah and the absurd fact that the studio has decided to put a disclaimer on it to appease religious reactionaries who are bothered by “historical inaccuracies.”  I expected a laugh over the ridiculousness of this—these are not people who have much patience for that kind of shallow literalism—but instead what followed was a discussion of my obsessive attention to people like Ken Ham and the anti-evolution crowd and biblical literalists in general.

“Why do you pay any attention to them?”

Well, I replied, somewhat glibly, stupidity is fascinating.

Patiently, though, my friend worked at that.  Really?  Aren’t there better things to focus your attention on than the obdurate intractability of intellectual ostriches?  Don’t you have, like, books to write?

At the end of the conversation (which is not to say that it’s over) I had to concede that I spent far too much time and mental energy worrying over the misreadings, misinterpretations, manglings, and malignancies of what is a minority example of entrenched ignorance.  Like watching a neighbor gradually destroy his property (and being unable to do much about it), or watching a slow-motion train wreck, or even repeatedly viewing and complaining about a very expensive yet utterly brainless film, it is both attractive and repellant to observe this particular bit of cultural shadow-play.

The answer to the question has occupied me now since.  Why do I give them so much of myself?

The glib answer is that they draw attention to themselves in such a way as to seem important and relevant.  Paying attention to them feels, on a shallow level, like being engaged.  Noticing them, knowing what they’ve been saying and seeing what they’re doing, seems like being a responsible agent in my own culture.  Every time they manage to censor discussions in schools about evolution or try to force prayer into the classroom or some other culture-war battleground is pushed into the news, being aware of it just seems the thing to do.

A somewhat less glib answer is that the very real political power such groups seem to enjoy worries me.  I don’t want to live in a country designed by biblical literalists.  And determining how they’re wrong and why is basic to any kind of pushback.

And of course, since this conversation took place, we have the incident of the FOX television affiliate in Oklahoma blocking fifteen seconds of the new Cosmos program, the 15 seconds dealing with evolution, and my blood boils.  I react.  I become insensed.   And I immediately go to write a new blog post about how stupid this is and how malevolent this kind of nonsense is and how—

Which is, actually, a waste of my time.  Really, there are better-qualified people doing exactly that.  You can find links to some of them on the sidebar over to the right.  You want to read a better-informed and more current tirade against this kind of thing, go to Freethought Pharyngula—P. Z. Myer is an evolutionary biologist and apparently has more time, energy, and inclination than I do to keep abreast of all this nonsense—or check the science blogs to which I maintain links.

I don’t have to do this.

And yet…and yet…I keep doing it.  Even here,  in addressing a different kind of question, I’m thrashing about and striking back.  Willful ignorance, asserted as if it is a positive attribute, with an insistence that it is Right and Truth and we should all bow to its inevitable godlines MAKES—ME—CRAZY.

Why?

Because, at base, I loathe my own ignorance.  I loathe that part of me that desperately wants to be right, whether I am or not.  Because I am aware of my ignorance and strive to correct it and because I see that as an important fight it disturbs me—more, it frightens me—when others not only don’t see the worth in that fight but are dedicated to preventing the triumph of knowledge.

So, I suppose the simple answer to my friend’s question is—fear.  Those people scare me.  They are the ideological descendents of Inquisitors, witchfinders, book-burners, imperialists of dogma, stone-throwers, and censors.  Because I read Lest Darkness Fall and Fahrenheit 451 and my imagination is such that I can see what a victory for them would mean for people like me.

And because I honestly lack any kind of faith in those who are my intellectual and cultural kindred that we will win this fight.

But that still doesn’t fully address the challenge he laid at me feet.  Why do I  pay so much attention to all this when I could better serve my own purpose and the purpose of the civilization I support in so many other ways?

Because, when combined with all of the above, this has become a rut.  It is easy.  And it feeds my sense of relevance.  But really it’s a paltry diet.  There are richer meals to be had, that would be more beneficial, to me and to others.  So it is an itch which has become easy and habitual for me to scratch.  And in certain company, it’s a sign that I am part of a certain group of like-minded.

It’s a poor excuse.  I could be doing better things with my time and frankly getting more out of my intellectual life.  Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change their minds, and those who nod along with me when I dive into one of my tirades don’t need me to tell them about this.

I think it is worth paying attention to when tax money goes to something like Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.  That’s an abuse of public trust and a violation of the law, frankly, and should be made public and stopped.

But I don’t need to go on about Ken Ham’s idiocy.

The spot that itches has grown raw and inflamed from repeated scratching and no salve is in sight.  I need to leave it alone.  I have a book on mathematics to hand, another about the history of science fiction, and still another about World War I.  Yes, I have a couple of books dealing with the assault of reason, which is not only from a religious reactionary quarter—reason is under assault from many quarters—but I’m a fiction writer.  My job is to tell stories about the world and because I write science fiction I can do a little prognosticating.  I have to stop pissing away time on pointless subjects.

Besides, I really do think they’ll fade.  When I sit myself down and really examine it, the world view we define as that of Reason will maintain and eventually the nattering naysayers will diminish.  It’s just difficult to see that day to day and believe it when there are people worrying over the “historical” inaccuracies in a Hollywood film about a mythical event.

So I wish to thank my friend for opening a door and pointing out that I’ve been perhaps wandering the wrong hallway for a time.

This is why we must cultivate relationships with people we disagree with.

Blind Mouthings

I suppose I should link to some of the news feeds about this, but I think it’s been sufficiently covered among those who give a damn that I don’t need to.

My people—what I used to think of as my people—have once more led with their chins and embarrassed the lot of us.  Recently a mini-catastrophe, relevant to the exalted standards and reputation in which certain folks would like to believe the SF community maintains, explode-a-pated all over everyone in the carnival reaction to Jonathan Ross, a person of some note on the BBC and in England, being selected to host the Hugo Awards at the next worldcon in London.  Seems Mr. Ross has a less than tarnishless reputation in popular circles as a comedic curmudgeon who likes to belittle people of various types, most notably women, and makes fun of everyone whom he considers targettable. I’m taking this on faith here as until this happened I had no clue who the man is.

He has withdrawn himself as host to the awards in the wake of what by all accounts has been a savage twitter attack on him and his family from, ahem, Certain Elements within the SFnal community.  Or maybe not.  It’s hard to tell with these things, since everyone can hide so neatly behind hashtags and handles and alternate personae.  For all anyone knows, the whole assault may have been two or three exceptionally small-concerned misanthropes in a basement somewhere with too much time, a live feed, and no clue what it means to live in a community.

Neil Gaiman has written rather well on the subject. (So, yeah, I guess I’m linking to some of it.)

A couple of things occur to me about this, one from some personal experience.  I’ve done time serving with an organization that had as part of its mandate the selection of Notables for certain public events.  I’ve been in the proverbial “back room” while such things have been deliberated.  My first reaction to this was “Didn’t the people who chose him have a clue what might happen?”  And I thought, “it’s possible for enthusiasm to overwhelm common sense in these things, the whole idea of Getting Someone Important to appear can seem so rarefied as to pump nitrous oxide into any discussion and lobotomize a committee.”  On that score, it seems to me, SF fans, even those in positions of authority, are often still just 12 years old.  Even so, when some one among them says “This is not a good idea” it is incumbent on the others to listen and at least have a damn good reason for going ahead anyway.  From what it looks like on the outside, this didn’t happen.  Someone threw what weight they had around and stamped their feet and got what they wanted…and reaped a minor whirlwind.

This is why such things take time, or should, and why we need to get over the whole Big Name Personality Syndrome that affects too many of us.  SF wants to be taken seriously, SF should grow up and take the world seriously.  None of this should ever have gotten out of that Back Room.  If Mr. Ross came with that kind of baggage, the issue should have died a quiet death long before invitations had been made and resignations proffered.  That is called professionalism.

Still, no one is psychic.  Mistakes get made.

But the second thing that occurred to me was what Neil said.  Whoever, whichever segment of My People, decided to take it upon themselves to tell Mr. Ross what they thought of him and his family—you have acted the Ass.

Before the internet, before FB and Twitter, people got exercised about this stuff, talked trash among themselves, and maybe a few would write letters.  Nasty fan mail has always been with us.  But our technology has enabled us to show our true selves faster and more publicly than ever before possible and it is, in instances like these, ugliness incarnate.

Just what difference do you think letting someone know you think he’s on your “never invite for cocktails” list makes to either him/her or to the world at large?  No, don’t overthink it, I’ll tell you.  None.  All it does is add a bit more vile to an already questionable brew. This is the snickering prankishness of chickenshit adolescents who think it’s cool to let everyone who already doesn’t know they exist know that they care very much about being ignored by making themselves even less pleasant than anyone realized before.

The ability to add your two-cents at a keystroke has enabled some of us to ramp up the ugly faster than their minds could possibly intervene with a cautionary “Maybe you should think this through before you Send.”  In this instance, they have let Mr. Ross know how much they dislike him by demonstrating how much worse they can be than he.

Or, even sadder, these are people who do this habitually, without any stake in the debate, simply because they’ve become intoxicated by the sound of their own ignorance flashed across the world.  “Oh, look!  An Issue!  Let me let let me, I can come up with a really cool insult, too!”

People who lead with their mouths and have nothing to say, who walk into any room, any party, often uninvited, with no clue how to behave or, apparently, even how to think.  There is an arcane term for them—boors.  They indulge boorishness.

It’s not just science fiction where this has been on display, its even worse in political fora.  We scratch our heads and wonder why such third-rate politicians are the only ones who run for office anymore.  It’s bad enough to be challenged by the marginally thoughtful, but to have to deal daily with sport pissers would drive anyone with any self-respect to question the value of running for office.

Finally,  though, it is the anonymity afforded by the technology that exacerbates.  The ignorant, the boorish, the cowardly can lob  this shit from the presumed comfort of no one knowing who they are.

It accomplishes nothing.

I think it’s sad what has happened to Mr. Ross.  There are ways of dealing with these sorts of things that spare feelings and have the benefit of not making everyone involved look like a fool.

I suppose we should be grateful that this is how it’s done, though.  Tarring and feathering used to be the preferred manner and it could actually kill.

Assholes For Jesus

I waited to see the outcome of the Arizona anti-gay bill before writing this.  I wanted to use that title for a post since I saw that whole insane debacle over Ted Nugent (and then got into a truly implausible argument with someone who insisted that there is nothing racist in the term “mongrel” not even when modified with “subhuman”), but since Nugent didn’t actually say anything of a religious nature it was a stretch to make it fit.

On the other hand, it would seem all of a piece with that insane bit of hate-mongering going on in the Arizona legislature.  Of course, here in Missouri—my home state, yay—something similar is wending its way through the committees.

I once had an unnerving conversation with a practicing Muslim who explained to me in very reasonable tones and with more than a dollop of sadness that while she had many gay friends and felt no personal animosity toward any of them, if she lived in a Muslim state then she would have to support the death penalty for them since that is what Allah decreed.  She even allowed that perhaps this would be wrong, but she could not deny the words of Allah.

Need I go into an explanation about compartmentalization?  People create rooms within themselves and put contradictory things in separate places.  So the Mafia enforcer can, in fact, appear to be a loving husband and father and even give generously to the poor, but when the boss says “kill this one” that room opens and a different set of ethical protocols comes into play.

Let me here offer a disclaimer:  in answer to a hypothetical WWJD question, I don’t for a minute think Jesus would give his blessing to any of this stuff.  This isn’t about him or even really about Christianity, which surely is being thoroughly mangled in all this.  Much of this nonsense would make it appear as though Jesus is the above-mentioned mob boss sitting in a dark, heavily leather-appointed office somewhere, pointing and saying “kill that one.”

What this is about is people taking advantage of some very old (presumed) sayings in an allegorical book in order to foist their own intolerance onto a world they see changing in ways that make them very uncomfortable.  It’s obvious that the general ethical direction of the country, possibly the world, is moving away from the limited and limiting strictures of a worldview that is no longer viable.

In Uganda a law has been enacted that will criminalize homosexuality in the extreme.  Even a cursory look at it shows that it has been written and enacted out of fear. Abject fear.  The fear of someone who may well have nightmares about being forced to engage in homosexual activities.  The sheer terror evident in the law should cause anyone with a modicum of rationality to back up and look at the fear rather than what it’s about.

Insofar as this has anything to do with Christianity as we find it in the New Testament, this is about fear of losing power.  It’s fear of sex in its most inappropriate manifestation, as an exercise of power.  In the case of Uganda, all one need do is look at its history since Idi Amin to see that it has suffered terribly through practices of warfare that include rape as a normal tool of state oppression and more than a little child abuse in the form of child soldiers.  Idi Amin himself died of syphilis.  Sexual abuse would seem to have been institutional in Uganda.  Fear must be rampant.

So they pick a representative victim onto which all this fear can be projected and try to vitiate their pain by inflicting even more.

What’s our excuse?

Governor Brewer, yielding to pressure from within and without Arizona, has vetoed senate bill 1062.  Even if her sentiments inclined her to support it in essence she must realize the damage such a thing would do to her state.

But what about the sponsors of it and all those in the state legislature who voted for it?

The freedom to refuse service to gays due to religious conviction.

Why this should have to be explained to anyone, that it is wrong, astonishes me.  Why anyone thinks this has anything to do with religion dismays me.  Why anyone would adhere to a set of beliefs that promoted this kind of hatred and bigotry saddens me.  Why other people keep putting these hatemongers into office baffles me.

I wrote about this several years ago during Missouri’s attempt to establish a constitutional amendment regarding gay marriage.  I won’t rehash my arguments here, but if you wish, they’re here.  Cherry-picking the Old Testament is common enough and automatically discredits any argument based on biblical principles that asserts literalness and infallibility.  It just does.  For those of you who think otherwise, think harder.  It’s hypocrisy.  Plus, as I’ve said before, we live in a Post Levitical world.  Most of the people supporting Bill 1062 wouldn’t for a second consider selling their daughters or charging someone for deflowering them.  Nor would they stone them or any woman for the “crime” of being raped.

But some might.

This is an example of trying to do something odious and making it seem moral by wrapping it in a shroud of piety.  Change the parameters and ask these folks if they would support a law that allowed them to discriminate against blacks or Hispanics on religious grounds.  If they look at you funny, you can point out that most hate groups who regularly refer to minorities as “mud people” and, ahem, subhuman mongrels do so based on a notion of racial purity proferred by god.  They take the whole notion of “chosen people” very seriously, while of course completely failing to understand anything at all about the history, the mythology, or the use of that term.  They are generally very vocally pious and think because of their devotion to a crack-brained notion of WWJD they have a good bead on what is or is not morally acceptable.

I suspect a great deal of the fear expressed in all this goes directly to an erroneous yet powerful concept of ownership.  They’re afraid something they think belongs to them is about to be taken away.  Maybe not even the same thing, but I’m willing to wager that it is something within the same compartmentalized space of preconceived and misconstrued assumptions about what is “naturally” theirs.

But maybe it’s something simpler.  Maybe it’s just a consequence of exhaustion.  Thinking back, I can tell you that the world in which I came of age is in so many ways just not here anymore.  Every year, every decade has brought massive changes that for many people seem utterly confusing, destabilizing…frightening.  Maybe their only defense, in their view, is to build a wall and shout “No more! I can’t handle anything else!”  After dealing with being told to think differently than their parents and their grandparents for all this time, they’ve latched onto anyone or anything that tells them they don’t have to change.

However.

If Jesus were going about today, preaching, and he encountered the young man who kept nagging him about what more he could do to serve, I doubt Jesus would tell him to give up his wealth.  Not today.  Today, I think he would turn to him finally and say “Give up your fear and hatred.  Stop being afraid of people who are different.”  “Wait—can’t I just write you a check?”  “No.  You have to change.”  And that young man would step back, eyes wide, and for a few moments look at the vast store of things he has grown afraid of.  He would then lower his head and walk away.  He might give away his wealth then—to a group working to ban gays (or minorities, or women) from equal rights.

But he might cling to the forms he had been following all along which had brought him to tag along after the coattails of the Man from Galilee.  He’d become an asshole for Jesus.  Because giving up wealth would be easier than facing fear and defeating it.

It Hurts

By now, I’m sure, many people know about the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  Bill Nye, he of the bow tie, the science guy, stepped up to the podium to have it out, toe-to-toe, with Ken Ham, erstwhile champion of creationism, founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky which has been the subject of continual mirthful derision by anyone with even a scintilla of understanding about science.  They were to debate evolution versus creationism, which in my mind is like debating the similarities between Einstein and Sasquatch.  Other than the assertion by certain folks that they are somehow (a) equivalent and (b)…well, really, there is no “b” in this formulation.

Apparently even a poll conducted on Christian Today shows that Bill Nye pretty much mopped the floor with Ken Ham, who answered not one single question put to him by Nye in any useful way. Only 9% of respondents apparently saw Ham as the winner.  Of course that won’t be the end of it.  After the debate, a number of self-styled Christians presented questions for Nye which they, presumably, thought would stump him.  Buzzfeed posted several.  Go take a look, then come on back.  (You can also see the entire debate there.)

What’s that phrase? “The stupid…it hurts.”

Was that unkind?  Sorry.  (Not really.)   But while any single one of these can be dismissed as, oh, lack of attention, missed something in biology class (or astronomy), didn’t see that special on NOVA, collectively this amounts to willful ignorance at best.

“If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”  Seriously?  Do you really not know how dumb that is?  You came from your parents—we all did—so why are there still parents?  Sorry, that was flip, but it does, actually, point up the problem, albeit in a rather crude and simplistic way.

And noetics?  That isn’t part of any segment of this debate, so…?

There was a time I would get mightily energized by this kind of thing.  I admit I had a deep-seated interest in being on the “right” side of this debate.  I still do, but it hardly gets me out the door anymore because I realized somewhere along the way that what we’ve been witnessing in the efforts of people like Ken Ham, as strenuous and perhaps sincere as they are, is the death spasm of a world view that doesn’t work.  It never did, but there was a time that understanding that didn’t make much difference, except to a few intellectual outliers here and there.  The fever pitch of condemnation coming from them is the sound of panic as the world prepares to leave them behind.

No, I’m not talking about the death of religion.  I do not believe that is possible.  I’m only talking about a very public formulation of a view of religion that has as its primary purpose nothing more than the regimentation of the faithful and the casting out of the new.  I’m talking about a narrative that seeks to impose and deny.  Impose its substance and form and deny any countervailing view.  I’m talking, really, about style.

Style is about identity.  When we talk about it that way, as style, it seems insignificant in the larger scheme of things.  Fashion.  And much of it is ephemeral.  But shift it to something else, as in artistic expression, and it takes on a bit more meaning.  The style of a writer is that writer’s voice, personality—identity.  There is something so deeply personal about style in this sense and we all recognize it.  We instantly recognize a musician with whom we are familiar by the style of playing.  Unknown canvases by painters declare identity in the manner of brushstroke or photographs betray their creators by the particular angle, frame, contrast.  Style at this level is inextricably linked to identity and when that style is declared no longer valid, a kind of death attends.

Because this is æsthetics, something utterly vital and intrinsic to our sense of self, yet so rarely discussed when any list of what makes us human gets trotted out for debate.  How we see the world and how we react to what we see, this is æsthetics in action and it defines us.  It defines us culturally, historically, and individually.  You can see it in that list of questions, in many ways so pathetic, when the question is framed in terms of awe and wonder.  A sunset, the amazingness of the world—even that fey reference to noetics—these are questions of reaction and interpretation to sensory experience, filtered through a value system that provides us with a quality of self grounded in our relation to the matrix of reality through which we move:  æsthetics.

Ken Ham’s museum displays exhibits showing humans coexisting with dinosaurs.  At some level, this is a world he wishes to have as real.  What kid doesn’t love dinosaurs at some point?  It’s inexplicable.  I’m continually amazed at what seems to be a persistent fascination across generations.  Part of us really wants there to be dinosaurs.  Not only that, but dinosaurs in our midst, at least at some point.

Dinosaurs aren’t in the Bible.  In fact, I know of no holy book in any culture that mentions them unless you want to see dragons as some neolithic abstraction of dinosaurs.   (They’re not, they emerge out of very different pools of myth, namely serpents, the Worm, but after the discovery and ultimate understanding of fossil dinosaurs dragons became more and more visually conforming to them.)  Yet even the most ardent of creationists are fascinated.  There is no mention of them in Genesis, they would never have fit on the ark, and there’s no mention in that story of any animals left behind (the song about the unicorn notwithstanding).  Had they been, we would have found much, much fresher bones, not buried nearly so deep.

At some point people like Ken Ham came to accept the reality of dinosaurs, not as deceptive deposits from Satan to worry our overly-curious intellects, but as species in their own right.  Intentionally or not, they had to accept science in order to make the effort to write them into their stunted history of the universe, which has opened them to eventual extinction as examples of mainstream thought, much less champions of any kind of reality.

In a way, the debate just passed was totally unfair.  Ken Ham kept pointing to his narrative as its own evidence, offering nothing beyond it to answer the evidence-laden arguments of his opponent.  He wasn’t even in the same debate, really.  He was there to insist that all these things Bill Nye represents should be ignored in favor of a story.  He insists that the story is sufficient and this other thing, this science thing, is nothing but an evil distraction from what he thinks is important.  The sad part is he probably doesn’t even know why that story is important.

It’s important because all wonder-based growth begins as a story.  We’re fascinated, entranced, and there’s magic in the narrative.  So much magic that we want to know more.  And so we go looking and if we look honestly we find so much else that transcends the modest confines of that first story.  We find universes of wonder, which we might never have looked for without first having been delighted by a story.  Ken Ham found a story that amazed him.

But then he stopped.  He stopped looking, because, it seems, he never wanted to leave that first moment of childlike wonder, wanting it to be everything.  It’s sad because while we can revisit it and we can experience the same sensation again and again and again, with new discoveries, if we try to freeze that moment and keep it, unchanging, it either fades…or rots…all on its own.  What some folks do then is build a museum in their hearts to preserve a memory that is no longer there, leaving us with the surrounding edifice and an echo.  Without new sounds, new sights, new growth, the museum calcifies and eventually becomes a fossil, never buried, bleached and empty.

At some point, Ken Ham built that museum out in the open for everyone to visit.

Apparently, fewer and fewer go.  It possesses novelty, but no genuine wonder.  And without wonder, what is there?

 

Riding A Hobby Horse

Hobby Lobby is suing to be exempted from certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

Hobby Lobby is a privately-held company with 500 some stores in 41 states and over 13,000 employees.  The issue here is quite different than with small businesses (50 employees or less), which can opt out and urge their employees to get their own health insurance on the exchanges.  Companies of this size are required to cover their employees, so Hobby Lobby has less wiggle room than much smaller concerns.

The question at the heart of this is, should a company be forced to pay for things with which it has a moral objection?  Here’s Hobby Lobby’s argument.  Seems fairly straightforward, and as far as it goes, believe it or not, I have some sympathy.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could opt out of paying for things we don’t like?  There are any number of government programs I would like to refuse to fund, most especially tax credits for large companies.  Back when I had cable, I would dearly loved to have opted out of paying for all the sports channels I never watched, but the deal was, it’s a package and, so I was told, everybody gets them, you have the remote, change the channel.

We could go down a very long list of things we are all overtly or covertly made to pay for that we’d rather not, some just because we don’t like them, others because we strenuously object.  There are times I would truly enjoy having a more direct input into how my money gets spent.

It would seem possible to accomplish something like that in the not-too-distant future, with things like crowdfunding.  A similar protocol might be established for tax-funded programs so people could have a more direct say.  I’d be all for it.  As I say, there are lots of things I pay for in the course of umbrella payments that I don’t like (like, for instance, the NSA).

On the other hand, I’m not so arrogant as to believe I have the right to determine what should be available for other people.

There are a couple of things about the Hobby Lobby suit that run a bit deeper than the surface complaint.  Okay, they don’t want to pay for birth control coverage for their employees—and to be clear, this is not, apparently, a blanket objection, they have very specific products in mind which would seem to conflict with their religious convictions—and they’re making a moral stand on the issue.  If this is, in fact, such an important thing for them, one wonders why they continue to buy products from China, where state-mandated abortions have been the norm for some time, but maybe this is just being overly-critical.  Business is business, after all, and should not be confused with morality.

What they’re threatening to do is close up shop if they lose this case.  Throwing 13,000 people out of work.  This looks for all the world like the Greens are saying to the government “If you make us do this, we’ll hurt 13,000 people to get even.”  Or make a statement.  The Greens will be fine, they’re worth about two billion, and I rather doubt they’ll just close everything down, they’ll sell it.

This won’t cost them a thing, materially.

But it will cost their employees.  Just the suggestion of this would seem antithetical to a christian view.  It’s not the employees fault, why punish them?  (Of course, the employees, many of them, may well blame Obama, which might be a consideration here.)

Here’s an idea:  trust your employees.  The coverage in question is a tiny part of an overall benefits package.  The company isn’t required to force their employees to make use of it.  Why not just trust the basic moral conviction of the employees that they won’t utilize it?

But that’s not the issue.  The issue is the tacit support of practices with which one disagrees.

(Hobby Lobby has offered health care to their employees for some time.  I have to wonder if they ever objected to insurance coverage of Viagra.  The Greens object to alcohol consumption as well, so would they be chary of medical coverage for cirrhosis of the liver?)

As I said, I have some sympathy for the Greens.  You go along, abiding by the law, doing the necessary things in order to make your way in the world and be part of your community, while maintaining your own identity and values.  Everyone compromises, but you like to think that either you will never have to face a truly unacceptable choice or that you will have the strength of character to refuse to go further.  The only thing that complicates the question in this case is simple: it’s not all about the Greens and Hobby Lobby.

Nor has it been since they opened their doors for business.  Because one of the sets of compromises a business makes is that the more successful it becomes the less it is about the founder’s priorities and the more it is about that fuzzy (but very broad) zone where your company becomes part of the larger community.

I have heard it argued by people of a more libertarian bent that if they own a company they have the right to say what goes on within it.  That no one has a right to come in and dictate to them how to run things.  Like just about everything else, this sounds plausible in principle but in practice it is wrong because it overlooks that interface.  Once you accept a relationship with a community, that level of determination ends and community priorities encroach.  Which is why you can dictate the color your company will paint its walls but not the standards of the paint you use.  OSHA gets to come in and determine worker safety because it’s not about you but about your employees—or, more simply, because you live in a community and it is their welfare that trumps your claims of owner rights.

It really ends the first time you take tax money to operate, in the form of credits or tax increment financing, because that makes the community part owner and definitely a shareholder, even though we tend not to talk about such things that way.  Because you have tacitly accepted a position within that larger community and they get a say.

On an even more basic level, a company that is for profit asks the indulgence of the community in which it exists in order to be allowed to make a profit from it.  Just as it’s a matter of customer relations that you the owner have less say in how you do business, you are also inviting members of that community in to help you make that profit.  Sure, you pay them, but it’s a much more complicated relationship than the one you have with the kid who shovels your sidewalk, because the community doesn’t depend in any crippling degree on whether or not you pay that kid, but the well being of the community becomes more and more dependent on your business as it grows and it bases everything from real estate values to street cleaning schedules to school funding on your presence.

So the question of an ability to opt out of certain things because you as a business find fault with them is not a question of one single moral principle, but of multiple moral principles, some of which can come into conflict with each other.

This is complicated further by the religious component.  Long ago this country determined to exempt religious institutions from certain requirements, even though the rationale was a bit slippery.  We viewed taxing churches as a tax on conscience, and as far as it goes I agree with the exemption.  But like any other large concern, churches are much more than simple places of worship.  Some of them are landlords, property owners, investors, publishers, even bankers.  Their tax exempt status is so much more problematic today than two hundred years ago, but we have maintained our tradition of exempting them from taxes and certain other requirements primarily because we do not wish to have a prolonged and divisive court war over the matter.

But Hobby Lobby is not a church.   The precedent here is tricky.  Just as one example, let’s assume a business of comparable size is owned by a Christian Scientist who wishes to provide no medical insurance for its employees whatsoever on religious grounds.   It’s not the business that suffers or its owner, but the employees.  Which is the community.  In which the business exists and operates

This is where single-issue politics runs into its own slippery slope of impracticality, because precedent doesn’t act in a vacuum.  The law of unintended consequences spreads like virus in these instances and suddenly you find that what you thought was a simple, one item complaint has blown up into a crippling confusion of attempts by people to isolate themselves from the community in which they live at the expense of everyone else.

Hobby Lobby’s owners say they don’t wish to pay for contraception (of certain kinds) for their employees.  It seems to me they’ve made an issue out of something which hasn’t been for them before in any other way.  They aren’t.  They’re paying for medical insurance.  For health care.  Which their employees may use as each chooses.  That this coverage is bundled into the coverage by law takes it pretty much out of their hands.  They can’t even turn around and change their minds and say they want to because they don’t have that say.  What their employees do with the coverage is, at the end of the day, none of their concern, at least insofar as direct responsibility is involved.  That’s why it’s lumped together in a single package.  If you could divide it up like that, it would very quickly become the same problem that brought us to where we needed healthcare reform in the first place.

But I repeat, I have sympathy for their view.  As I said, I have a laundry list of things I would dearly love to not fund.  But I recognize why it works the way it does.I would like to know, though, what difference there is between having the government tell us how we should live and letting the owners of corporations tell us.  Just what do you do if they’re both wrong?

 

Controversial Common Sense

So Virginia’s new attorney general, Mark Herring, has announced he will not defend his state’s ban on gay marriage.  He has made a personal journey and concluded that doing so would be inconsistent with constitutional guarantees and common decency.  He cited Loving v Virginia as precedent, saying basically that the Supreme Court did not  declare that blacks and whites had the freedom to marry, but that people do.  As far as Mr. Herring is concerned, gays are people.  First.

Good for him.  I suspect this is an issue that has arrived.  More and more states are reviewing the legality of such bans and finding that, ethically and morally, they do not stand up, personal prejudice notwithstanding.  You have to designate certain folks as Not People for the purposes of maintaining such restraints and the problem with that—philosophy 101—is the lack of any kind of nonsubjective criteria.  In other words, just ’cause you don’t like somethin’ don’t mean you get to outlaw it.

You would think this would just be common sense, not controversial, but the problem for some folks is that they can’t separate personal reaction from public policy.  They look at something that bothers them and never once question the fact that maybe the problem is theirs, not the thing they find objectionable.  It seems silly to have to point this out to supposedly grown people, but if I’ve come to any realization about so-called Adulthood it’s that it also has no basis in objective reality.  Many adults are just kids with a little power and “rights.”  Somewhere along the way, maturity eluded them.  They insist publicly that “those people” should take responsibility for their own lives (over whatever issue happens to be at hand) and then impose laws, if they can, to make it harder if not impossible for such an outcome.  What they really mean is that “those people” should conform to expectations—their expectations—and change to suit common sensibilities.

Which clearly, in this case, are not so common anymore.  I think it’s fair to say that public opinion has turned and those who are still acting under the assumption that the majority of their fellow citizens agree with them that homosexuality is a “sin” and gay marriage will damage the country are increasingly in the minority.  As their numbers shrink, though, they get louder.  Judging by the decibel level one might think they still represent the majority.

It fascinates me, though, how certain folks insist on freedom to live as they choose and then try to deny others the same right, as if freedom is a small pie that has to be sliced carefully.  Give too much to one, it leaves less for others.  This has always been a common belief, evidently, judging by the way people act and talk, and has always been a lie.  But then, they aren’t insisting on freedom—not really.  They’re insisting on preferred form.  (It has always puzzled me how someone in, say, a small country far away can look the camera in the eye and declare that he is fighting for freedom and then turn around and deny freedom to half the population of his  country—women.  Clearly this is not freedom being defended but a presumed right to observe lifestyle choices which include oppression.  Freedom is a much misused term.)  Such folks, when pressed, will deny reality like a mental contortionist in order to have their way.

Well, good for Mr. Herring, and good luck.  Virginia is the seat of paradox, the home of Jefferson and Madison and yet at one time the state with the largest number of slaves.  Few places represent such extremes so vividly, between ideals and practice.  It’s nice to see a move toward bringing the two closer in line.

Upgrading Myths

I saw Man of Steel this past weekend and while I enjoyed much of it, some of it was troubling, and I’ve been pondering ever since.  To be sure, taking up so much brain time with a cinematic version of a comic book seems absurd, but only until you realize how much this stuff means to us as a culture.

Superman is a 20th Century American Myth and it has, whether we like it or not, supplied a good deal of workaday philosophical grist for our collective mills.  We keep revisiting it (and revising it and rebooting it and returning to it) for reasons that have nothing to do with common sense and everything to do with how we see—or would like to see—the world.

Disclaimer:  I grew up watching George Reeves as Superman on tv.  I didn’t collect the comics so much.  Some, sure, but not like friends of mine who had stacks of them encompassing years, even decades.  As a kid, I was certainly enamored of the idea of being super strong.  (I was bullied, you bet I fantasized being able to fly, see through solid objects, and take a punch that might result in my attacker breaking his hand.)  But as I grew older I just couldn’t relate to the guy from Krypton as much as I could with Batman.  Superman was never top of the heap for me.  Just so you know.

I very much liked the Christopher Reeve film.  They hit that note perfect as far as I was concerned.  And should have left well enough alone as the subsequent films just got worse and worse.  (Superman Returns for me was an impressive-looking meh.)  I liked Lois & Clark a lot.  Not so much Superboy or Smallville.  The substance of the myth only goes so far, then it has a tendency to lend itself—badly—to soap opera (is Lois ever going to get this guy in the sack?  What about Lana? And Jimmy!), which even the estimable Lois & Clark fell into eventually.

But we’re talking about a 20th Century reboot of a Greek Myth—the god (or demigod) who comes to Earth, does amazing feats, and is wooed, sometimes seduced (or does the wooing, seducing, or, more commonly, just plain raping) by a mortal woman.  Resulting in…

Well, the thing about the Greek gods is, every time they came down from Olympus to meddle about with the mortals they left a mess behind.  They just didn’t know how to not break things.

I liked that Man of Steel went there.  When the film had been out for a time, I remember people complaining about how violent is was.  Well, yeah.  It would be, wouldn’t it?  Part of the implausibility of Superman is how tidily he fights crime.  Here, in this instance, he has to mix it up with his own kind, and to be true to its pretensions it was going to get ugly.

Where the film failed for me, thematically, was that it insisted that no new mythology could be concocted from these unlikely elements.  Christopher Nolan and company, who did a wonderful job with Batman, were clearly working toward dumping all the old stuff and coming up with a new approach, that is without changing the basic idea.  Kal-el is an alien.  He was sent here to avoid the fate of the rest of his people.  He grows up to become the ultimate Hero.  Obviously there are resonances to the Greeks and just about any other ancient pantheon you care to name.

Just as obviously, there’s no good reason to stick to the old template when trying to turn a fantasy construct into a piece of science fiction—which is what they tried to do.

Large doses of Factored Plausibility were injected into this film.  The scene of young Clark in grade school, suddenly having his X-Ray Vision come on line and c0mpletely freaking out was superb.  Yes, this would seem likely under these circumstances.  And the talk with Jonathan in the aftermath of his saving the bus of kids from the river.  This is not a Depression Era salt of the earth Jonathan Kent, but a man in the presence of something he can’t handle who is scared all the time.

And the whole backstory of Kryptonian exploration and outposts—it seems they were basing much of this on Imperial China, which was a civilization that at one time had a vast exploratory fleet and maybe even colonies and then decided not to bother with Outside and shut it all down. But of course, they left stuff all over the place.  This is good, solid extrapolitive retooling.  It made it all less Olympian and far more geopolitical.  Good, very good.

But then there is the Christ Imagery.

You know what I’m talking about.  Clark wandering the Earth, going out to the wildnerness, becoming Himself—for 33 years before coming out as an alien.  And if you didn’t get it with that, then the shot of him leaving the Kryptonian ship, arms extended, a human crucifix…

And Jor-el as the ephemeral father from heaven.

The battle with Zod and the others is obviously a war with demons—or perhaps only with those who would not give up an absolute adherence to tradition, the ultimate evangelists, that have to be tossed out of the temple.

The problem is, it was incomplete and mongrel.  They threw that stuff in there in order to play the audience, establish a mythic resonance with the familiar even as they were clearly trying to recast the myth into something more plausible in a science fiction context.  They didn’t actually do anything with those little bits.  And Jesus is really not the appropriate myth in the first place.  Moses was always the grounding myth of Superman, and they actually missed the boat on this one by severing his connection to “his people.”

It’s mix-and-match mythology, done slickly and cynically—the image will mean something, but we don’t actually have to have it inform the story with anything.  It’s just a hook.

And not a very satisfying one.

Part of the problem is that Superman is such an uncooperative idea with which to make good science fiction.  They tried mightily in this one, but they kept coming up against the parts that make no real sense other than as fantasy—or myth.  They tried for an upgrade but ended up with just a patch.  So it is neither the old familiar Superman (which Christopher Reeve portrayed so well) or a brand new, fully reimagined Superman that might suit the 21st Century.  This wouldn’t matter so much if not for the fact that Superman had been made and has always served to Mean Something.  We have long since realized he could never be A Savior, not in the sense perhaps implied by Nolan et al.  He’s one man, although incredibly gifted, and even he can’t be everywhere and do everything.  So overtly tying him to Christ is a cheat.  It’s also not what he was intended to represent.  Ever.

At best, Superman represented the idea that limits are intended to be superseded.

That’s my take, anyway.  What Man Of Steel was intended to mean, I’m not sure.  Maybe the makers weren’t, either.  But if they do another one, I would suggest trying to come up with new substance for new myths.  The old ones don’t work so good anymore.  If you’re going to upgrade something like this, leave the past behind.  At least that part of it that no longer answers any real needs.

Either that, or leave it as a comic book and don’t change anything.

Great special effects, though.  Cecil B. DeMille would be envious.

Pet Peeve

I don’t watch a lot of television.  Possibly more than I should, given everything I have on my plate, but I grew up with tv and have loved a lot of what’s been on it and it is, or can be, a great source of pleasure.

One of the shows I’ve been devoted to the last few years has been Castle.  From the first episode, I’ve been hooked.  Firstly, how could I not like a show about a writer?  And especially the writer as many of us dream of becoming.  Secondly, Nathan Fillion.  I mean, Firefly?  I was so happy to see him get a new show.  (And the fact is, if one pays attention, there are Firefly references sprinkled throughout the show.)  Thirdly, Stana Katic.  (I am hopelessly enamored of women with strong personalities and great brains—did you know Ms. Katic speaks five languages and often does her own stunts?  We don’t even have to talk about her looks, do we?)

The show started off with a smart script, tremendous wit, and immediate chemistry.  No one was talking down to anyone here and the ongoing back story involving Detective Beckett’s (Katic) murdered mother was written in just enough and brought to a satisfying resolution, if not conclusion.

It was obvious from the get-go that these two would fall in love eventually, which worried me, because so many shows have been ruined by consummation.  (Just look at Bones if you don’t believe me.  How sad.)  They wrote and played it marvelously.

When they finally decided to get them together, much to my surprise they didn’t ruin it.  Usually what happens is one of the two becomes submissive and suddenly we have “traditional male-female roles” playing out and it’s just so been-there-let’s-not-anymore.  Not so here.  They are different enough characters that they can remain equals without the kind of imbalance that might blow them apart.  Which still may happen.  They’re on their way to getting married now and the quality remains high.

So I feel a bit churlish about complaining, but I can’t help it.

Rick Castle is getting stupid as the show progresses.

Oh, he always pulls himself out of it by an episode’s end, but over five seasons he has gone from a very savvy, knowledgeable, well-informed, somewhat reckless amateur sleuth to someone who believes in woo-woo and is overly-cautious to the point of cowardly at times.  And after 30 bestselling crime novels, the rich pool of knowledge he had at the start of the show has sort of leaked out along the way.

The last show I watched, from last season, has him advancing with a STRAIGHT FACE the theory of a serial killer striking from beyond the grave.  Really?  Really?  This is as bad as people assuming because I write science fiction I believe in alien abduction.  It’s reinforcing a weird stereotype.

Oh, I get it, he’s the writer, so he’s supposed to be the romantic as opposed to Beckett’s supreme rationalist.  But I liked it better when he was the one the wild (but credible) theories opposed to her thorough and dogged policeman.

It’s even borderline sappy now.

I still love the show, I still think it has some of the best writing on network television, but it would be nice if they’d push Rick back to where he started.  This hasn’t yet ruined the show for me, he is still mostly an asset in the police work, but from time to time he’s implausible.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the Joss Whedon-scripted episode.  You know one is on the way, don’t you?  ABC take note.  Whedon, a Castle script.  Please?

Reality, Real and Fake

By now those who don’t know about Phil Robertson and the debacle at A & E are most likely among those who have no access to any kind of media.  They have no idea what the world is doing, because they have no way of knowing what to pay attention to.  How can they possibly know anything about reality without the all-important medium of…well…media?

This isn’t really about Phil or Duck Dynasty or anything directly related to the people at the center of this.  Not really.  How can it be when what we see of them and hear them is simply not real?

How’s that?  Didn’t Mr. Robertson say those thing printed in GQ that got him suspended from his on-air presence in his own reality show?

Well, he did and he didn’t.  The man playing the part of Phil Robertson, in character as the patriarch of a television show, said some thing which were printed in a high fashion magazine that normally wouldn’t touch plaid shirts, bib overalls, and pump action shotguns or the beards sported by these folks.  They aren’t ZZ Top wailing about sharp dressed men with cheap sunglasses, so to begin with, the question is why were these words in GQ in the first place?

Well, because GQ wasn’t interviewing Philip Robertson, they were interviewing Phil from Duck Dynasty, which is not the same thing.

Again, how’s that?

In the past couple of decades we have become familiarized with the so-called “reality show.”  By now, we have, depending on which ones we’ve followed, which ones we like, and which ones we hate, have acquired the necessary distance to realize that these confections are shows about a particular reality.  Which is not the same as shows that are “real.”  That kind of show we understand to be a documentary.  Or, occasionally, the news.  We know this in our bones.  There is a difference between reality and a show.  We know it’s a fabrication and that the people displayed are not actually like that in—you know—real life.

Reality shows are manufactured product, which in turn makes the characters in them manufactured.  The Phil we see on Duck Dynasty is a caricature, a sketch, and to a large extent a fictional character based on a real person, but not the real person himself.  No more than the people on Survivor actually behave like that once the show is over.  At best, they are exaggerations, but in reality (there’s that word again) they are characterizations.

Novelists do this all the time.

The difference being that novelists (and other writers of fiction that pretends to be nothing else but fiction) seek the truth through the artifice of their creations while as best I can tell the main point of “reality shows” is to impose drama through an abstraction of reality that ends up giving us no truth whatsoever, because at the end of the show we know nothing about who these people really are, only what they do in front of a bunch of cameras filming them as they follow a loose script that sets up situations they would normally never experience.  Since the script itself has no thematic point, there’s no way to elicit truth out of what become nothing but a bunch of situational reactions with exaggerated responses.

In short, a reality show does exactly the opposite of what fiction is normally all about.  There’s no truth there, not even reality (how real can it be with a director giving directions and scenes being fed the actors?) but a farce designed to make us think we’re seeing what reality would be like if we all lived on a soundstage.

So when Phil Robertson gives an interview to a high profile fashion magazine that is highlighting his presence as the principle character of his show, everyone should know that this is not reality being engaged, but two fictions colliding.

(You don’t have this problem with actual fiction on tv because everyone knows the actors are not their characters—or should know—but the primary conceit of “reality shows” is that they are their characters.)

There are YouTube videos of Phil giving speeches and saying all kinds of things that are consistent with what he said in GQ and A & E never pulled him off the air for those.  Why now?

Well, because in GQ it’s the image talking—because it’s, you know, GQ—but all those other speeches are Mr. Robertson talking.

Mr. Robertson’s First Amendment rights were not violated by the disciplinary action taken by A & E because it wasn’t him giving the interview, but a character from a tv show.  That character—and you can tell it was the character because that’s how GQ packaged it—is pretty much fictional.  Are we going to defend the rights of a manufactured image that is owned by corporations?  And I don’t mean just A & E here, but the Robertson clan.

If it sounds like a tangle, that’s because we have entered upon a bizarre new scene in which fiction and reality have been mingled in such a way that it is genuinely confusing to some people which is which.  This isn’t cognitive dissonance in the classic sense, but cognitive estrangement in the sense that people are reduced to image and the image is empowered with more substance than our next door neighbor.  It’s as if people supporting Phil are suddenly aware that they can be removed from their show.  Maybe some of them even think that without a show, no one has any rights.  Certainly we’ve entered a new phase of only recognizing reality that ends up on television.

If that were not confusing enough, more has emerged about the Robertsons and how far they seem to be from their characters.  The yuppie lifestyles, the fashion sense, the cleanshaven condo-on-the-Gulf American Dream that has opted, for the sake of advertising and a larger market share, to don the garb and attitude of swamp-dwellers who’ve barely learned what a fork is for.  Which is the real Robertson Clan and which is the “reality” clan?

The net result has been a manufactured drama of civil rights that were never at risk.  (People have gotten so incensed at how Phil’s “rights” have been trodden upon but I can’t help but wonder where their ire is when some hapless minimum wage drudge loses his or her job because of something they posted on FaceBook. )  People have gotten pissed because a favorite character might have been taken away from them just for being himself.

And while that goes on we seem not to notice how this has cheapened the rights supposedly in peril.  What has been defended is the “right” of someone to misrepresent himself and say things he may or may not actually believe and then pretend that the misrepresentation is being oppressed.

Because nothing Mr. Robertson said has been censored.  He’s not serving jail time for what he said.  In fact, he didn’t even lose any income.  The censure—and that’s what it was, or should have been, censure, which is not the same thing as censor despite their similar appearance (and this is all about similar appearances, isn’t it?)—involved nothing that even prevented him from saying the same things again afterward.  The only people affected were his fans, but nobody said anything about their rights.

The Robertsons are in the business of making and selling decoys.

Reality Shows are very expensive, long-running decoys.

The people on reality shows are merely stand-ins for themselves.

The First Amendment is there to protect our right to speak truth to power.

Phil Robertson has made a great deal of money pretending to be someone based on himself and saying things and doing things that entertain people who get off on the image of that kind of lifestyle.

Even if he said something worth hearing, how would anyone, under these circumstances, know?  You hear the sound of the decoy, you fly in to find reality, and the substanceless fakery captures you and damages your right not be manipulated.

I really hope 2014 is better than this.

Mary Poppins

There was a hardcover copy of a Mary Poppins book in my grade school library.  I remember finding it and being very excited.  Naturally, I’d seen the movie and I was already discovering how much better the books from which films were made could be.  So I checked it out and took it home and that night opened it up and—

Took it back the next day, unfinished.  To say it was nothing like the film is beside the point.  To say I found no magic in it would be closer.  But frankly, the Mary Poppins of P.L. Travers—of which we now are so vigorously concerned of late—I found to be a cold, humorless drudge who was obsessed with discipline.  She was more like Mr. Banks from the film, who had to be saved from his stern, business-before-all attitude before he let all of life pass him by.  I grant you, I was quite young—ten—and not, perhaps, the most patient of readers or the most perceptive, but the contrast was so sharp and jarring that I’ve never gone back.  Travers’ Mary Poppins was no one I would have wanted anything to do with.  That Walt Disney found something magical in these stories amazed me at the time.

Fast-forward to my erstwhile attempts at being a writer and the slight knowledge I’ve garnered about property rights and adaptations and so forth, and many things make much more sense now.  The books were popular—not Harry Potter popular, not even close, but they sold—and there was presumably a market that could be exploited.  It must have appeared to Uncle Walt to be an opportunity to do a little payback toward England, where his Peter Pan  was barred by the tidy little trust Barrie had put together that guaranteed revenues for the orphanage to which the playwright was dedicated.  Disney had gamed international copyright to make the film without cutting them in for anything and they successfully kept the product out of British markets (until only recently, when a new deal was cut, paving the way for, among other things, the wonderful Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry novels about Peter and the Lost Boys).  Walt was snatching another British property and this time nothing would keep the film from English audiences.

And he saw something my ten-year-old self didn’t—a way to extract a Disney production from the elements of the stories.

But the result was so different from the source material, one must wonder why he didn’t just come up with something completely new on his own.

Well, at a guess, that name.  Mary Poppins.  (Especially the way Dick Van Dyke said it, in that exaggerated cockney accent.)  And the setting.  And the back story.  Safer, maybe, to grab something whole from a long siege than risk opprobrium by cutting out a new set of characters and then being accused of plagiarism.  Uncle Walt, after all, had an image to protect—his was part of an America trinity that included Abraham Lincoln and Santa Claus, honest, uncorrupted, generous, and pathologically well-meaning.  In his calculus it must have seemed worthwhile only if he could show that everyone, from the creator to the audience, approved.

And he bloody well paid Travers enough for her work.  Sixty thousand pounds, which would have worked out to roughly  one hundred two thousand dollars, which, adjusted for inflation etc etc would be worth about three-quarters of a million today.  Plus she got five percent of the box office gross.

She was, as they say, set.

Yet from all accounts the new film, Saving Mr. Banks, portrays Travers as just as difficult, odious, and perpetually disapproving as her signature character, granting Disney an aura of magnificent patience in dealing with this woman he seemed intent on making rich just by making Mary Poppins even more famous.

Why?

Because the fact is Travers went to her grave hating the film Disney made.  He turned her work inside out, cut away large portions of it to leave in the bin, and concocted a musical mish-mash of mind-numbing magical mush which she reportedly loathed.  The serious points she wanted to make in her stories got short-shrift, the “proper British household”(which she rather admired, especially being the daughter of a man who struggled for the position of Mr. Banks but lost it, only to die prematurely when Travers was six) was held up to ridicule, and Mary herself came off closer to an Edwardian jet-setter than the nanny who could fix anything Travers intended.

Mary Poppins was a creation from her childhood.  She had grown up with this character, it was part of her DNA, so to speak.  Disney worked at getting the rights to make the film for 20 years.  Can anyone fault Travers for being protective?  Indeed, obsessively so?  This is something most writers understand in their bones—it is their work, no, it is their being which is, depending how you view it, either being praised or raped.

The success of the film did not hurt.  She published more Mary Poppins books after it came out, among other things, but she never agreed to another Disney adaptation.  At a guess, at a minimum, she must have thought Disney had trivialized her character.

(To understand what must have gone through her mind, imagine for a moment the idea of telling, say, Ibsen that one of his plays was going to be made into a new production by Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Turning things over to someone else’s control is hard.  It can wrench to see your work treated differently, with apparent disregard for what you envisioned.  Even if no ill intent is on hand (and surely Walt Disney had nothing nefarious in mind—he was first and foremost an entertainer, he wanted to make magic that sold well) it can be galling to watch what you have done…altered.

I find it ironic that the film has been titled Saving Mr. Banks.  Disney as an institution has had more than a hefty dose of bad luck since Walt died and is often criticized for a variety of business practices which, while perfectly normal in the Hollywood milieu seem horrid and crass given the “Uncle Walt” persona the company wishes to put forward.  I realize it’s a play on the Banks family from the books and that part of the story Disney put on the screen concerns saving Mr. Banks’ soul from the creeping corporatism that is stealing him from his family.  But the film is about Walt Disney and his company.  Saving Mr. Banks, then, is about saving an image, saving a corporation, saving…Walt?

I have met no writer of books who was ever satisfied with the job a film did with his or her work.  Not one.  It is a very different medium from the printed page.  Those few films that have successfully (however one defines success) translated book to screen are the exceptions, not the rule.  The film maker very often finds it easier or more workable to just dump large parts of a written work and start over.  If everyone knows this is going on up front, then the results can be artistically fine.  Take for instance Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  There is maybe 15% of the book in the movie, but it is a brilliant film for all that it has departed from Dick’s original story.

Be that as it may, one wonders at the reasons behind putting together a hagiographic film about a relationship, while certainly important, probably few people really cared about so long after the events.  Why now?  Why this?  And what use is there in misrepresenting so much of what happened?  (Which films do all the time, this is nothing new, but for those who know better it is nevertheless aggravating.)  I wasn’t aware that Walt Disney’s image needed a new coat of varnish.

For the record, I liked the film Mary Poppins.  I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews ever since.  I liked it.  I didn’t love it.  I disliked musicals then, rather intensely, and the story seemed somewhat removed, but there were moments, magic moments, that took me out of my young head and made me marvel.  Enough that I became excited when I found that book in the school library.  Enough that I was disappointed at what I found on the page.

And that’s a point.  It matters what we’re exposed to first.  It sets out expectations.  While it may not be cool to admit it among certain circles, if the film is the first thing to which we’re exposed, it sets a bar that the books then must meet or surpass, and that’s just as difficult if the relation is reversed.  For me, the film remains stubbornly primary, even though I “know” better.  In a time when copyright and corporate ownership of intellectual rights is coming under more and more sophisticated scrutiny, it might behoove Disney to put forth an additional bit of mythology suggesting that this primacy is the valid one, that through his almost saint-like patience and paternal good will Uncle Walt was the one with the preferred vision and Pamela Travers was just, you know, being difficult.

Even a cursory glance at Travers’ life belies this.  She was an unmarried woman who had been making her way in the world of the theater and publishing for some time, who was in no way the constitutional drudge apparently being portrayed.  To be successful in that kind of life at that time, she could not be without considerable experience and business savvy.  It’s likely she smelled snake oil in Disney’s wooing and she reflexively recoiled.  She knew well enough that such a project would make her material existence easier, even if her conscience bothered her.  To personify what was a pragmatic business decision as some kind of character defect—because she was repelled by the subsequent production—is unkind, unnecessary, and more than a bit nasty.

Something Disney is not supposed to be.