Friday evening. 6:50 p.m. 37 degrees. On 17K. Passing the airport. Fog. The red and blue runway lights refracted, vivid in color as gemstones. No other colors but black and gray and the ghastly yellow of far off halogens left in the world. Three Canada geese come out of there and fly across the road, looking as they do in flight as they are pulling themselves along by their necks. Black as bats.
Not all Christians worship a God who commands them to be homophobic bigots. The Presbyterians just discovered that their God not only doesn’t object to same-sex marriages, he wants to attend them. Actually, given the “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder” idea that’s a feature of most Christian weddings, this means in effect that he doesn’t just plan to attend, he plans to officiate.
NEW YORK -- The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved redefining marriage in the church constitution Tuesday to include a "commitment between two people," becoming the largest Protestant group to formally recognize gay marriage as Christian and allow same-sex weddings in every congregation.
The new definition was endorsed last year by the church General Assembly, or top legislative body, but required approval from a majority of the denomination's 171 regional districts, or presbyteries. The critical 86th "yes" vote came Tuesday night from the Palisades Presbytery in New Jersey.
After all regional bodies vote and top Presbyterian leaders officially accept the results, the change will take effect June 21.
Sadly, the old angry, violent, and malicious sky demon is still out there. Not all the Christians who worship him believe he commands them to blow up churches, but that’s the problem with letting people decide they know what God wants.
I don’t believe in God but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe he exists. He’s just not a felt presence for me.
He’s gone for me and I can’t get him back.
I can’t even as an intellectual exercise think my way to considering him as a plausibility.
But in no way do I think you’re wrong if you believe he does exist. I just wonder what you believe he is and what you think he’s up to.
Looking around for signs that he’s there and clues to who he is and what he’s up to, I don’t like what I see.
When asked what he deduced about the character of the Creator based on his studies of God’s creations, the British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane liked to say that from what he could tell God, if he exists, seems to have “an inordinate fondness for beetles” since he made so many of them.
Sometimes he added “and stars.” God made a lot of stars too.
I’m apparently of a less cheerful and good-humored disposition than Haldane. From what I can tell, God, if he exists, seems to have a fondness for letting people suffer and die because he allows so much of both to happen.
That’s not a God I want to exist.
As a Catholic growing up, I wasn’t taught that that God exists. I was taught God was an all-loving God who made the world good and for our good but, because he gave us free will, either out of weakness or foolishness or to serve our own selfish ends, we choose to make a mess of it for ourselves and everyone else. That would mean we’re the ones with the fondness for letting people suffer and die.
Haldane was being witty anyway. “An inordinate fondness for beetles” was his sly way of pointing out that whatever any God who might exist is up to, human beings and their needs and interests don’t appear to be his primary focus or concern.
That’s something I suspected about God even back when I was a kid and a devout young believer.
There’s an episode of M*A*S*H in which a bombardier whose B-52 was shot down is brought in to the 4077th with a severe case of what Hawkeye and B.J. think is combat fatigue but is actually a crisis of conscience. He’s decided he’s not who he was. He’s Jesus Christ. As Army psychiatrist Sidney Freedman explains, “some men lose an arm, or a hand or a leg. Chandler lost himself. He's not playing a game. He spent two years dropping bombs on people who never did anything to him, until finally something inside this kid from Idaho said, 'Enough! You're Christ, you're not a killer. The next bomb you drop, you drop on yourself.”
Trying to get a handle on what’s going on inside the bombardier’s head, Sidney questions him as if he is Jesus.
“Is it true,” Sidney asks, “that God answers all prayers?”
“Yes,” says the bombadier, with a heartbroken look in eyes and tears beginning to run down his cheeks, perhaps thinking of the people he killed who must have prayed to be spared when they saw his plane overhead, “Sometimes the answer is no.”
That the answer can be no is something that even the slowest grade school believer comes to terms with the first time he prays for a Tom Seaver to turn up in his next pack of baseball cards and finds five utility infielders in there instead. But it becomes a problem to wrestle with when an entire schoolroom full of good Catholic boys and girls led by a nun pray for the starving children in Biafra and those children still starve by the thousands.
For a while I was able to console myself with the thought that the answer wasn’t actually a flat out no. It was, “It’s up to you to make sure they don’t starve.”
But over time it became clear that the answer is so often no that when somebody gets what looks like a yes you have to wonder if God made a mistake…or if it was simply coincidence and God had nothing to do with it.
This isn’t how I lost my faith. I didn’t reason my way to disbelief any more than I could reason my way back into believing.
But as I was saying above, even when I believed I didn’t believe he involved himself much in our affairs. He had other and larger things on his mind. We literally weren’t at the center of his universe. We were a late addition to his Creation and will in all likelihood have been long gone by the time he’s through with it.
And when I concluded that this detached, disinterested, and largely absent God was the God I believed in, it wasn’t any sort of a leap to realize that this wasn’t exactly the same God the nuns and the priests and the Pope and my parents believed in. Thinking more about it, I realized that they didn’t believe in the exact same God as Protestants believed in. (The Catholic and Protestant Gods are at odds over questions of transubstantiation, good works, and predestination, to list just a few examples.) Still later, when I learned that there are Christians and there are Christians! it became abundantly clear that, although they had points of similarities, the God of one sort of Christian wasn’t the God of all the other sorts.
Now, leaving aside the many Americans who don’t believe in any God, there are millions of Americans who believe in a God who is not the same God as any of the different Christian Gods.
This poses a problem for a self-governing people supposedly living in one nation under God and putting their trust in him.
One irksome trait these different Gods have in common is they’re constantly meddling.
God’s supposed meddlesomeness has always been a sticking point for me.
God has a plan.
He does, does he?
Yours? Mine? His? Hers? Theirs?
Let’s say yours. What’s his plan? How do you know what it is?
And why should I or any of the millions of other Americans who don’t believe in your version of God consent to being governed according to your interpretation of his plan? Why should we take your word for it? Why should you take ours, for that matter?
The fairest, least complicated, least troublesome, and most effective way to avoid having this debate every time we set out to pass a law is to govern ourselves as if God has nothing to do with it.
We work this out as something between ourselves trying to do what’s best for the most number of people while doing the least harm to everyone and anyone. We reason our way together to self-government without resorting to appeals to a divine arbitrator, whose character and even existence is debatable, to over-rule each other’s arguments.
This doesn’t mean individual lawmakers can’t or shouldn’t consult their consciences, pray for guidance, and make decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong according to the teachings of their faith. Nor does it mean they shouldn’t talk about how their faith figured in their thinking, although it would be polite of them to keep it to themselves. It means that when they sit down to write and pass laws they expect the rest of us to accept and abide by they better present other and more persuasive arguments than “Because God told me so.”
The problem is that there are an awful lot of people who think “Because God told me so” is all the argument they need or the rest of us need to hear. And they know the answer to Whose God? Their God! Because they know he’s the only God. And they know what his plan is. How do they know? Well, they know because they know, and they know because they know.
They feel his existence to same degree that I don’t.
They, of course, are the Christian Right and the Republicans who represent them in Congress and the state legislatures. And they are perfectly fine with the idea of governing the rest of us according to the dictates of their God.
Who is a demon.
The God of the Christian Right is capricious, cruel, vindictive, and violent. He hates the poor and wants them punished. He wants us to burn up the planet, poison its waters, foul its air, slaughter every beast of the earth and every bird of the heavens and every thing that creeps upon the earth in order to make ourselves rich. He likes war. He demands it. He crashes airplanes into buildings and wipes out 3000 people in a flash, sends tornadoes and floods to flatten and drown whole towns and cities killing and destroying the lives of many innocents as a warning to millions of sinners who are allowed to go on sinning as long as they acknowledge they’re sinners and God could punish them for it if he chooses to. For over twenty years he wanted thousands and thousands of young men to die slowly and horribly for the sin of loving other men. Apparently he’s either changed his mind on that one or medical science is the devil’s work. These days he doesn’t seem to go out of his way to punish homosexuals with agonizing deaths but he doesn’t want them to be happy and expects believers to do what they can to deny them happiness. He flat out doesn’t like women, doesn’t care about their health, wants men to make decisions about their health and well-being for them, has put them here only to be babymakers and wives, and has arranged things so that their only route to happiness in this life is through marriage and motherhood. And he really, really hates education or at least any education that undermines his authority as exercised through tyrannical parents and self-serving preachers.
And this is the God the Christian Right wants us to swear allegiance to. This is the God they want us all to believe in. This is the God they think every Christian who believes in God believes in.
On top of all this, he’s meddlesome. He’s constantly busy working his will, using individuals and whole nations as his tools and pawns. Everything that happens happens according to his plan. We have no say and no control. We’re here to do what he wants us to do. And how do we know what he wants us to do? It’s in the bible, of course.
Which is a very strange God for people who purport to believe in self-government to put their faith in.
The God of the Christian Right is inimical to democracy. You don’t have a democracy if everybody must conform to laws and traditions dictated by an unquestionable tyrant in the sky whose will is interpreted and imposed by a select few basing decisions on their reading of a two-thousand year old collection of fables, fairy tales, legends, and just-so stories.
There is some nice poetry in the bible and there’s that little section devoted to the doings of an itinerant preacher who wandered around the Imperial Roman province of Judea for a few years trying to convince people that, as Douglas Adams put it, the world would be a better place if we’d all be a bit nicer to one another and got nailed to a tree for it, but nothing he said is meant to figure in the governing of the Christian Right’s idea of a “Christian” nation.
Right Wing Christians would probably object to my characterization of their God. They’d say, “We don’t recognize the God you’re describing or ourselves through him. That’s not what we believe at all!”
Know what? It doesn’t matter what you tell yourselves you believe. It doesn’t matter what pieties you exchange with each other at the church picnic. It doesn’t matter how nice you sound to yourself. I’m going by how you put your religion into practice in the public sphere. I’m going by how you vote. I’m going by what your preachers and leaders say that have you giving your enthusiastic Amen with your votes and campaign donations. I’m going by the politicians you elect and the laws they pass and try to pass with your approval.
Here’s something else. I’m sure you don’t recognize your own God, because I don’t believe you think about him very deeply. If you did, you might realize that he’s really two Gods. The loving, merciful, protective God you hope is looking out for you and the cruel and punishing tyrannical God you propitiate, obey, and try to sic on the rest of us through your politics.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it was the first God’s plan the Right wanted us to govern ourselves by. But it’s the second God who’s the more important to them and whom they want us to worship and obey.
Obviously this post was inspired by what’s been going on in Indiana but it’s important to note that that hateful law is part and parcel with just about everything else Republicans in every state where they control the legislatures have been doing. The law privileges believers in that second God over the rights of everyone and anyone else, and it does it because the people who wrote it and passed it and the governor who signed it believe that second God is the only God and the rest of us are obliged to live according to his plan.
You can look to just about every state capital where they’re in charge and find examples of their attempts to punish gay people, punish women, punish the poor, punish immigrants, punish the sick and disabled, punish working people just asking to make a decent living, punish anybody who isn’t white like them all in the name of their demon God. There are too many to get into here, but I’ll finish with this.
"This is the curse of God upon America for our sin of not protecting innocent children in the womb, and part of that curse for our rebellion against God as a nation is that our pregnant women are ripped open."
Slowly but surely we're climbing out of the hole last year's hard times put us in, very much due to the generosity of readers like you. But it's often been a case of two steps forward, one step back. This week has brought another step back. An unxpected bill's come due on top of a bunch of other things, and we're coming up short. So we could use some more help. If you like what goes on around here and you can swing it, please consider making a donation. It'd be much appreciated. Thank you.
Thank you for reading the blog. And thank you to all who've donated. I think I'm caught up on my email thank yous. Post card follow ups are addressed and stamped and going out today. .
Stopped at a long red light the other morning I had plenty of time to read the bumper stickers on the back of the aging and battered Chevy SUV in front of me. Not that it was deep reading.
“Obama: The Quicker Fucker-Upper”.
“Gun Control Means Using Both Hands”
“LIfe’s A Bitch. Might As Well Vote For One.” This one featured a caricature of Hillary Clinton.
And of course there was a Gadsden flag decal.
My second thought---you can imagine my first one---was, “What’s it like to be married to this guy? Who would marry this guy?”
Notice the two assumptions there? That the driver, whom I couldn’t make out through the SUV’s rear window, was a guy and that he’s married.
With the first assumption I was just going with the odds. I don’t know where the second came from or, rather, I don’t know why my thoughts went in that direction. I might as easily have wondered about what he does for a living---which would have followed more naturally. That time of day he was probably on his way to work and now that I’ve brought it up, I am wondering what kind of work he does. I’d guess his marital status came to mind because of the Hillary sticker. Marriage is a subtext of any consideration of either Clinton.
I’m only mildly curious about what compels people, liberal or conservative, to plaster their cars with bumper stickers. People who do it must see something in it I don’t. To me it just looks messy. There are probably interesting stories behind even the dullest and most innocuous stickers---“Vote for So and So”, “My Child is an Honors Student at His or Her School”, “I Love My Lhasa Apso”. –--but those stickers aren’t there to tell those stories. They’re probably slapped on reflexively by people thinking they have to because that’s what proud parents, loyal fans, and good Democrats and Republicans do. Many others represent moments of impulse buying. The owners see them in the store and think they’re funny or right on target, snap them up, stick them on, and forget about them until the next time they go to unload the groceries. Then they laugh or nod their heads approvingly or think, What possessed me? I’m going to peel that off, and don’t ever get around to it. Many appear from a sincere desire to share---a laugh, a message, a bit of wisdom---and are expressive of a hope against hope that someone reading them will be moved or motivated or comforted or consoled. And many are there as statements of vanity or pride. The point is simply self-encouragement and the act of applying the sticker is the accomplishment in itself.
With guys like the driver of the SUV, however, it’s easy to assume the point is to annoy other drivers. Of course I’m assuming it because I was annoyed. And that’s my vanity at work. But there are plenty of people who live to be annoying. And not just Tea Party Types. They seem to feel they’ve accomplished something just by pissing others off.
What I would like to know is who it is they want to piss off. Is their target general or specific? To they have a particular person or type of person they imagine turning purple with rage?
I’d ask but it’d have to be someone I happened to park next to at the time he was getting into his car or getting out and I’d have to be in a mood to risk ruining both our days.
I don’t know any guys like I’m imagining the driver of the SUV to be. I generalize often here about Tea Party Types, Right Wingers, conservatives, Republicans, “Christians.” But it’s all based on observation at a considerable distance. Given the work I do and the places I’ve worked, I’ve not been likely to meet up with many Right Wingers at the office. Political discussions have been rare in my classrooms because I don’t open things up to them so I never know exactly how conservative---or liberal---any of my students really are. I have some Right Wing relatives but they’re second and third cousins and we never get together at the holidays. My brother Larry deals with them on Facebook---with admirable patience and good humor---but I’ve adamantly refused to friend any of them. The last extended conversations I had with guys I knew were far to my right politically took place back in college and we rarely talked about politics. Too much guy stuff on our minds to waste the time. The only heated discussion I remember having that would have sounded like a liberal versus conservative argument was over gun control and that guy was a Democrat. Most of my bull session debates were with friends who were politically far to my left. So everything I “know” about guys like the driver of the SUV are things I’ve deduced from reading about them and watching them on TV and paying attention to the rhetoric and actions of the politicians they rally around. But I’ve never gotten close enough to any individual guys like him to get inside their heads or even get a sense of their day to day lives.
Of course I come in contact with guys I suspect are like the SUV driver all the time. But it’s under circumstances in which politics isn’t the main thing on anybody’s mind and so it doesn’t come up. In fact, the circumstances that bring us together arise out of our commonalities. Casual conversations are likely to be about the best type of paint for the window trim, what looks good on the dessert menu, thank God for flu shots, and how about those Mets. Politics---partisan politics---rarely play an important role in most people’s day to day lives and liberal versus conservative is not a useful way for sorting ourselves out and generally people don’t even try it. I’ve noticed that most strangers who make assumptions about my politics in conversations in which to that point politics hasn’t come up do it defensively. It’s not my politics that concerns them. It’s their own. They know from experience that their views and attitudes tend to get them in trouble one way or another. They can’t necessarily tell from looking at me that I’m a liberal. They just know that most people, including many Republicans, are more liberal than they are and they’re either reminding themselves to watch their step or trying to figure out just how far they can go. I’m pretty good at not giving them an opening, if that’s what they’re looking for.
Anyway, it’s not guys like that driver who interest me. Not them alone, at any rate, or as representatives of their type. I’m interested in them in relation to others who have to spend time around them and their effect of them, particularly the women in their lives. I’m curious about the person who has to look at that Hillary sticker in her driveway every day. I wonder what she thinks about when she drives it to store. If she ever drives it. Maybe that’s his car and she has her car, and what does that say about their marriage? Anything? Everything? I’m curious to know if she married him despite whatever personality traits his bumper stickers represent or because of them or if she was even aware of them---if they were there to be aware of. Did she know she was falling in love with someone who liked to annoy people or did that come as a surprise later?
I want to know her story although that would include his and could even be told from his point of view.
And here’s an even more intriguing question.
What if that was her car?
Update: Mannionville’s regular visiting psychologist Dr X wandered through the parking lot of the Mannionville Daily Gazette this morning and slapped this on the Mannionmobile’s tailgate: Bumper Stickers, Road Rage and Narcissism.
Narcissists feel a heightened need to be seen and recognized for their uniqueness and superiority. Bumper stickers afford a narcissistic car owner just such an opportunity. Narcissists may invest in the specialness of their tastes, their moral sensibilities, their group affiliations, their intellect, their politics, their humor, their children, their school or their team -- anything that they believe marks them as superior to others. But for the narcissist, it is not enough to merely feel this way. Others must recognize the narcissist's superiority. While bumper stickers generally fail to impress the average person, they are, potentially, markers and badges of personal superiority for narcissists who display them.
But what if you just really love your Lhasa apso or believe the world would be a better place if people visualized whirled peas? You’ll have to read Dr X’s whole post at Dr X’s Free Associations.
Sunday. 8:07 A.M. 21 degrees. Heading off to Lowes. Voluble cardinal high up at the end of one topmost branches of the big maple behind the garage. Mostly silhouetted against the still rising sun but lit underneath, a ruby curve of breast and belly like a piece of hard candy.
Following up on a post the other day, The most romantic writer I know and the sexiest train ride of my life, reading a lot of fiction does mean reading a lot about love and sex, along with money and death. But reading the fiction I’ve been reading has meant reading a lot about the weather, which is fine---Hemingway liked to say it was important for a writer to get right how the weather was, and that’s something he always got right---and reading a lot of descriptions of landscapes. Jim Harrison, Peter Heller, and Thomas McGuane particularly are all very good weathermen and geographers. McGuane’s the best of the three on both counts, I think. He doesn’t just get the weather and the lay of the land right and put you in it. He puts it in his characters’ heads and then puts his characters’ heads---and hearts---out into it. The weather and landscape aren’t only settings. They’re exposition. And that’s a reason for calling him the most romantic writer I know beyond the coincidental association with my own romantic adventures. Like the Romantic poets, he’s a practitioner of the misnamed and maligned pathetic fallacy. Here’s the opening of one of the stories in his new book, Crow Fair, “A Long View to the West”:
The wind funneled down the river valley between the two mountain ranges, picking up speed where the interstate hit its first long straightaway in thirty miles. Clay’s car lot was right on the frontage road, where land was cheap and the wind made its uninterrupted rush whatever the season of the year. Before the winter had quite arrived to thicken his blood, while the cattle trucks were still throwing up whirlwinds of cottonwood leaves, the wait between customers seemed endless. He couldn’t even listen to the radio anymore. In the snowy dead of winter it was easier somehow. Now, face close to the window, and one hand leaning against the recycled acoustic tile that lined the walls, he stared down at the roofs and hoods of used vehicles in search of a human form.
Like I said, a romantic. Or a Romantic.
In case you want to read the rest of the story this morning and can’t rush right out to the bookstore, Crow Fair is available for kindle at Amazon. If you’re more patient, you can order it in hardcover.
Ted Cruz is not a joke. He’s not a clown. He’s not going to laughed, snarked, Daily Showed, or hashtagged away. He’s a serious and dangerous demagogue. He may never be President but he’s trouble. He makes trouble. He likes making trouble. That’s his path to power.
You probably recall how back in December Cruz’s troublemaking prevented the Senate from adjourning for the holidays when it should have and created an unlooked for opportunity for the Democrats. Cruz and fellow Republican Mike Lee of Utah wanted to introduce some symbolic gesture against the President’s plan to halt deportations of millions of immigrants. Cruz loves immigrants because they’re so much fun to hate on. The move, however, gave Harry Reid and the Democrats time to confirm a whole batch of the President’s nominees for various offices in a rush, including now---thanks to Cruz---Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a monster in the eyes of the NRA and other Right Wing pressure groups because he has the temerity to point out that guns kill people and that’s bad for their health. Angry Conservatives howled and smug Democrats snarked up one side of the internet and down the other. Ted Cruz Shoots Self in Foot, Declares Victory was the headline on a post by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. Cute, but he hadn’t shot himself in the foot. He’d stabbed his fellow Republicans in the back. But he’d done himself a favor. Something he’s very good at, along with making trouble.
In fact, like I said, making trouble is how he does himself favors.
Cruz isn’t running for President. Not in the sense that he’s running with the expectation of winning even the nomination. He’s running to get ratified a position he already holds, leader of the most angry, frightened, and hate-filled and fueled segment of the Republican’s angry, frightened, and hate-filled and –fueled base. And they don’t care about the fallout of any trouble Cruz makes. They’re just happy to see him making trouble.
Trouble for the President. And trouble for the Republican Party leadership whom they loathe and despises as much as any liberals and for many of the same reasons.
A thing to keep in mind about the Republican Right. They’re often right about what’s wrong with the country. They’re just almost always wrong about whom to blame and how to fix it.
At any rate, they love Cruz’s troublemaking.
They might not like it that what Cruz did got Murthy confirmed. Well, they like it in that it gives them something else to be angry and resentful about. They’re anger and resentment junkies and the need a regular fix. And it allows them to feel persecuted and indulge their paranoia---Obama’s coming for our guns! But what they really like, what they love, is that Cruz is in the Senate doing his utmost to stop any more of the ravening and pestilential hordes from crossing the borders and to get the hordes already here chased back. Surgeon Generals come and go, but once you let THEM in, THEY’RE here to stay!
So after he announced he was running for President---first candidate officially in the race---my online reading filled with laughter and snide-ery at how Cruz had somehow showed himself up for a fool again. He’d demonstrated incompetence in using social media. What a joke! What a clown! And this boob thinks he can be President?
Showed himself up for a fool? In whose eyes? Nobody who’s at all likely to vote for him in the primaries or who will turn out enthusiastically to vote for his re-election to Senate in 2018. In their eyes, Cruz is a hero.
The boob thinks he can President? No. Not in 2016. He thinks he can influence whichever candidate the Republicans run for President. He thinks he can write whole planks of the Party platform. He might think he can be the nominee for Vice-President. But that would be gravy. He doesn’t need that to position himself for a strong run in 2020. What he knows, though, is that he’s doing what he needs to do to make himself to the Republican Right what Elizabeth Warren is to the Democratic Left. The champion and voice of the hardcore base in the Senate. It doesn’t matter that he’s not getting anything of substance done. It matters that he’s making trouble on their behalf.
By the way, it’s the same for many of Warren’s most ardent fans. It’s enough for them that she’s causing trouble on their behalf. That’s what they want her to do in the run for President they’re trying to force her into. That running for President would get in the way of her being able to make trouble in the Senate and that if she somehow won the nomination and then was elected President she wouldn’t be as able to make as much trouble as she is in the Senate doesn’t seem to occur to them. They want her to make trouble now for trouble’s sake. To them making trouble is an accomplishment. And that’s how it is for Cruz’s supporters. What they really want is a spokesman for their rage.
Gail Collins used her op-ed column in the Times today to give an interactive quiz on Cruz that makes fun of Cruz generally and of his disingenuous portrayal of himself as a man of the people who came up the hard way in life particularly. It’s a funny piece. It does nothing but make liberals feel superior.
Cruz’s supporters don’t read the New York Times. They don’t need to. They know it’s a pack of lies. To them, the fact that a Times columnist is making fun of their hero is more proof he’s doing the right things. They don’t care that his resume seems to show he’s not really one of them. His troublemaking is all they need to know whose side he’s on.
Besides, they don’t want their leaders to be one of them. They want their leaders to assure them they are among the elect. Scott Brown’s wearing a barn coat and driving a pickup wasn’t done to show he’s a regular working class Joe. It was done to show that working class Joes who drive pickups and wear Carhart jackets and overalls to work are like Scott Brown, better than their neighbors. It’s snob appeal by stealth. It doesn’t signify that Ted Cruz didn’t really come up the hard way. It signifies that having come up the hard way doesn’t disqualify you from being in the same league as Ted Cruz,
You still get to lord it over those others and boss and bully them to your heart’s content.
It’s your country, after all.
Among the many important lessons to be gleaned from Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge is not to underestimate the Right’s chosen heroes. Before he became President and for a long time after and still to many incredulous and self-deluded liberals today Ronald Reagan was and is a clown and a joke. As late as 1972, nobody in the know was taking Reagan seriously as a possible future contender for the nomination, never mind President. But Reagan was doing what he had to do, making himself the champion and voice of the angry, frightened, hate-filled and –fueled Republican Right.
Another lesson is that anger, fear, and hate are infectious.
Democrats take comfort in demographic trends that seem to show the Republican Party is on its way to irrelevance. The party’s base is too old, too white, too reactionary to sustain itself into the future.
In the 70s, polls showed the country was generally liberal.
Things flipped all at once.
The infection took hold. We’ve been trying to fight it off ever since.
Ted Cruz is the opposite of a cure. He’s an agent of re-infection.
One of my favorite childhood memories---a general one, not a specific moment---is staying up late after my little brothers and sisters were sent to bed and sitting in the living room with Mom and Pop Mannion, usually watching a “grown-up” TV show but often listening to music on the stereo. Late, being until nine or so. Anyway, Mom and Pop’s musical tastes were on the square side, not the hippest side of the square---that would be Frank, a few of whose albums they owned but I don’t remember their playing them much---but not the unhippest---Pat Boone. They liked Perry Como, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, Herb Alpert, Glen Campbell. They also liked Broadway musical and movie soundtracks. Consequently, my tastes were on the square side too. And my favorite song on their playlist was from the soundtrack of How the West Was Won. “Shenandoah. Seems like a strange song for an eight year old to fall in love with but I did. Either it called to some sense of loss in my soul or it put that sense in me but ever since I’ve always had the feeling that there’s something “back there” I’m missing and need to return home to. Maybe that’s just human nature. I don’t know. I do know the song has always broken my heart and here I am tonight, at Barnes & Noble, and it’s playing on the p.a. Peter Hollens doing it a cappella. I’m hoping no one in the cafe’s noticing the tears in my eyes.
To those of you who’ll be there: Will you make sure this is sung at my funeral?
Been reading a lot of fiction these days which means I’ve been reading a lot about love and sex. That’s what all fiction’s about, love and sex. Sometimes death. Sometimes money. But mainly love and sex with money and sex figuring into both of them or both of them figuring into the money and the death. And I’ve been trying to decide what are the sexiest and most romantic stories and passages I’ve read recently.
Certainly not the scenes of Sunderson the retired state police detective spying on his sixteen year old neighbor in her bedroom as she does yoga in the nude in Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader. But Sophie the artist’s model undressing but not to pose for the hero of Peter Heller’s The Painter? The spanking scene in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice? Any of the several bondage scenes in Robert Stone’s Bay of Souls or the scene of the student giving her professor a blow job in his office in Stone’s Death of the Black-Haired Girl?
“…he could only think of those long lips and those all-at-once---on a single day it seemed---suddenly knowing eyes.”
I always say it’s all in the eyes.
There isn’t much in the way of explicit sex in any of the stories in Paul Theroux’s collection Mister Bones but many of the stories revolve around love and romance. Most of them are sad though. Sharma Shields is very good on marriage in The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac but fortunately she doesn’t dwell on the love and sex because the central romance of the novel involves a runaway wife and mother and Bigfoot. And all the love and sex in Dostoevsky’s Devils is presented indirectly and is between neurotics and hysterics whose love lives are accordingly complicated and frustrating. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is one long love story, every page full of romance even the ones about motorcycles and violent strikes by factory workers in Rome.
But it’s not by default that I think this passage from Thomas McGuane’s short story “Weight Watchers” is the most romantic:
My mother comes from a Southern family, though she’s always lived in the North, and she has a tiny private income that has conditioned the dialogue since my childhood. Like a bazillion others of Southern origin, she is a remote beneficiary of some Atlanta pharmacist’s ingenuity, Coca-Cola---not a big remittance but enough to fuel Dad’s rage against entitlement. That money had much to do with his determination to keep my mother within sight of smokestacks all her life. As did his belief that everything outside the Rust Belt was fake. To him, the American Dream was a three-hundred-and-fifty-pound interior lineman from a bankrupt factory town with five-second forties, a long contract with the Colts, and a bonus for making the Pro Bowl.
Made your heart leap, didn’t it?
“Weight Watchers” is a love story and, as you can see, money figures.
McGuane is one of the most romantic writers I know. But I’m not sure that’s all his doing. My memories have a lot to do with it. There’s an association. Reading Thomas McGuane always reminds me of reading…Thomas McGuane.
This was way back when. It’d just come out. I borrowed a copy from the bookstore in Boston where I was working to read on the train ride to visit my girlfriend’s parents in Philadelphia for Easter. Didn’t get much reading done. The train was crowded. We couldn’t find two seats together. The conductor came to our rescue. He thought we were young marrieds. We’d lied at the station and bought family tickets to save money. It was a planned crime. She wore a ring. The conductor showed us to an unoccupied sleeping car. We closed and locked the door.
Sexiest train ride of my life.
There’s probably a short story in that story. And I’d write it. If only I was as romantic a writer as Thomas McGuane.
My father believed that anything done for pleasure was escapism, except, of course, when it came to seducing his secretaries and most of my mother’s friends. He and my mother had been a glamorous couple early in their marriage: good looks, combined with assertive tastemaking, had put them on top in our shabby little city. Then I came along, and Mother thought I’d hung the moon. In Dad’s view, I put an end to the big romance. When I was a toddler, Dad caught Mom in the arms of our doctor on the screened back porch of the doctor’s fish camp. (Though there must have been some ambivalence about the event, because we continued to accept perch fillets from Dr. Hudson’s pond.) A few years later, when the high-school PE teacher caught the doctor atop his bride and shot him, Mother cried while Dad tilted his head to the side, elevated his eyebrows, and remarked, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
We sat in silence while Johnson formulated an answer. He had the sympathetic look on his face that teachers use when they don’t want to discourage classroom discussion, even though the students obviously haven’t understood the assigned reading.
It’s hard enough to persuade people they’re wrong about something when how they make their money depends on their being right. It’s damn near impossible when, never mind their net worth, their sense of self-worth is tied up in it. Vanity, ego, and pride make people impervious to reason. An argument against something they believe to be true strikes them as an argument that they should stop believing in themselves, as if, if what they believe isn’t real, then they aren’t real.
We all react like this from time to time. Try convincing a friend his favorite movie stinks. It’s why people kill each other over parking spaces. It’s human.
And Republicans are only human.
I know. They don’t often act it these days.
Tom Toles captures the cynicism of many Republican politicians whose greatest fear about Obamacare is being realized---it’s working. They’ve never wanted to work, they’ve done their utmost to sabotage it, and they’ve been pretty honest about why.
They don’t need it and neither do the rich people they work for and they don’t want to pay for something that doesn’t put money in their pockets.
They don’t want to pay for anything, not even the wars they like to start for fun and profit. But they especially don’t like paying for anything the helps THEM.
THEM being the rest of us.
If people get to like it, get to like not having to worry about not having health insurance, like being able to go to the doctor and being able to take their kids to the doctor, like not being terrified that illness or injury will bankrupt them, then it will be as near impossible to repeal the ACA as it is Social Security and Medicare.
They’re not quite so honest about the other reason they hate Obamacare and want to repeal it.
It takes some of the power to terrify and bully employees away from the owners and bosses.
Oh, they make noises about the evils of fostering a culture of dependency. But what they’re really afraid of is independency.
Workers who aren’t afraid of losing their health insurance aren’t as afraid of losing their jobs.
But most Republicans in Congress and in the state houses and legislatures as well as a critical mass of the base are true believers. They simply have a near religious faith that Obamacare doesn’t work. It can’t work because no government programs work. No evidence or logic will convince them otherwise. You might as well argue that there is no God.
The government is incompetent. Look at the DMV. Look at the Post Office.
Both of which work, actually, but never mind. Look at Medicare. Look at Social Security.
Those don’t work either. They’re going bankrupt!
This is a very convenient belief. It gets them out of having to admit that what they really hate about government programs is they’re based on the idea that we’re all in this together and so it’s our job to help each other out by, at the very least, chipping in to pay for things.
This is beyond a fundamental conservative belief. It is a defining trait of the conservative soul. At its least heartless it’s best expressed as “I got my own problems, bub.” Mainly, though, it’s “I got mine, you go suff.”
To the degree the conservative argument isn’t based on heartlessness and greed---“I don’t give a damn about your troubles and I’m certainly not going to fork over any of my money to help you out of them.”---it’s based on vanity.
Never mind the evidence, Obamacare isn’t working. It isn’t working because they know it can’t work. And they know it because they know it. If they know something, it must be true, because they are good people and good people are never wrong. If Obamacare works, then they’re wrong, and if they’re wrong about that, then maybe they’re wrong about other things too, and if they’re wrong about all those things, then maybe they’re wrong about everything. Maybe they’re wrong, not as in thinking something that’s incorrect is correct, but as in they are in the wrong, that is, guilty of moral errors and not good people. That can’t be! They know they’re good. And being good they must be right, therefore Obamacare isn’t working.
The argument in their heads keeps circling around that point. It’s existential. Obamacare’s success is a negation of their sense of self.
They’re that way about every progressive cause and success. Civil Rights, women’s liberation, abortion, birth control, the sexual revolution, environmental protection, taxes, the regulation of businesses, marriage equality. The past fifty years have been one long argument that the world doesn’t work the way they believe it should work---by revolving around them and reflecting their self-image and going on from day to day as if they are as good and wonderful and right as they believe themselves to be. Instead it’s been going on from day to day not only as if they’re wrong but as if they don’t matter. As if they might as well not exist. As if they don’t exist.
Obamacare is one more nail in the coffin of their murdered vanity.
And that’s why they would rather people let die rather than admit the ACA is succeeding.
You’re sick? You’re out of work or your employer doesn’t offer health insurance? You’ve been able to see the doctor, get treatment, buy medicine thanks to Obamacare? You’re the enemy.
Your surviving is their existential undoing. They die a little to themselves every day you live.
That’s why Obamacare care has to go and you along with it.
There’s an idea floating around that contested presidential primaries are good for the candidates and good for the party.
Just like it was for the Democrats in 1988.
And the Republicans in 2008 and 2012.
Oh, that’s right…
Go ahead, tell me the Democrats would have been worse off in ‘88 if the guy who was the presumptive nominee going into the campaign season, Gary Hart, hadn’t dropped out before just about all the seven dwarfs got it. Tell me that they’d have been worse off if the guy everybody wanted to run once Hart was out, Mario Cuomo, had run. Tell me that those contested primaries produced the best candidate and that’s why we all remember President Michael Dukakis so fondly.
Tell me Mitt would have lost by an even bigger margin had he coasted to the nomination in 2012 and the same for McCain in 2008.
Tell me Jeb Bush is going to be a stronger, more popular nominee after he spends the next year and a half getting beat up by the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
The idea that contested primaries are good things is based on the fun we Democrats had in 2008. That was a fun and exciting campaign and it did the job contested primaries supposedly do of energizing the party faithful. But know why that happened.
Because we had two strong and exciting candidates.
At the moment we have one.
Will you MoveOn types (and now the Boston Globe editorial writers) please give it up about Elizabeth Warren? She’s not going to run. She says she’s not running every other day. You folks have a very weird notion of her character. You believe she’s a saint and a heroine and a cynical liar.
The people who most want Hillary Clinton to face a contested primary are people who hate Hillary Clinton---a very small percentage of Democrats---and people who adore---not admire, not respect, not like, not even love---adore Elizabeth Warren---another very small percentage of Democrats. And there’s a lot of overlap between the two groups.
Know who else wants a contested primary though?
The Political Press Corps.
They think it will be fun.
Plus they really hate Hillary Clinton.
Photo: “Michael Dukakis at a campaign rally in UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, the night before the US presidential election of 1988 (Mon, 7 Nov 1988).” by Hal O’Brien via Wikipedia.
Started a post this morning with, “The only hope most Americans have these days of climbing back up to solid footing in the middle class, paying off their debts, avoiding taking on more debt, and securing for themselves a halfway comfortable retirement is winning the lottery.”
I stopped there.
I thought, “Well, that’s a cheerful way to begin a Sunday morning.”
And what good would it do? You don’t need to be told that. The people who need to be told it don’t read the blog and wouldn’t care anyway because they’re the ones who’ve arranged the situation for their own advantage. They only want to make it worse for the rest of us. As far as they’re concerned, the problem isn’t that so many Americans are slipping downwards out of the middle class, it’s that not enough of us have slipped out of it yet. What this country needs in their opinion are more poor people desperate to hold onto the little they have. So, I decided, to give it up in favor of something more cheering.
And what, I ask you, is more cheering than a happy dog?
This is my pal Harley, one of my hosts when I stay over in Syracuse.
Now, don’t you feel better?
Photo by Steve Kuusisto who won’t let me take Harley home with me even though he knows Harley wants to come.
Kevin M. Kruse’s op-ed in the New York Times---A Christian Nation? Since When?---is interesting but I’m not sure I buy it. I think the idea this is a Christian nation was introduced a little before the end of World War II. Somewhere around 1620, in fact.
And it wasn’t the brainstorm of desperate capitalists. The Pilgrims weren’t capitalists, at least not at the start.
The Founding Fathers did not found the United States. The United States wasn’t founded in 1776. It existed long before that, people just didn’t know exactly what to call it. But Benjamin Franklin, among many others, made the case for Independence based on the idea that we were already a nation unto ourselves, separated from England by our character and our culture and by traditions and ideals that grew out of those and by political practicalities made necessary by the physical facts of the country itself---the distance between here and England, the distances between one locality and another. It was a big place and a faraway land and the people living here developed a habit of self-government that taught them to think of themselves as if they inhabited their own country. And they took it for granted that they were living in a Christian nation basically because almost all of them were Christians. The legal arguments of a group of lawyers and intellectuals trying to put together a government that most of these people would accept carry weight but they don’t by themselves define us as a nation.
Constitutionally we’re not a Christian nation. Culturally, historically, and traditionally we are.
The question from the start wasn’t whether or not we were a Christian nation but what did it mean to be a Christian nation? What did that entail?
The argument began when the Puritans about to set sail for the New World decided to let non-Puritans join their company.
We’ve been arguing over it ever since.
Slavery was both condemned and defended on Christian principles.
Prohibition grew out of a temperance movement that was dominated by Christians and Christian ideals.
The Civil Rights movement was based to a great degree on the idea that we are a Christian nation and it was time we started acting like one.
It’s only lately that the argument has changed from what kind of Christian nation are we to are we a Christian nation at all.
Right Wing Christians and other conservatives and Republicans pushing their belief that the United States is or ought to be a Christian nation want to impose a very specific sort of Christianity on the rest of us: authoritarian, patriarchal, joyless, unforgiving, without charity or mercy. apocalyptic, and exclusionary---if you aren’t their idea of Christian, you aren’t a Christian, and if you aren’t a Christian, you aren’t American.
If they wanted this to be a Christian nation based on what Christ actually said and taught, I might have no objection to that. Or I might if even that didn’t exclude the growing number of Americans who aren’t Christian.
But to get back to Kruse’s op-ed, which seems to have been adapted from his forthcoming bookOne Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian Americaand so it’s necessarily reductive and probably doesn’t do justice to the whole of his argument: the desperate capitalists who started making the case that Christianity and Capitalism went hand in hand and therefore good Christians were opposed to the New Deal weren’t inventing the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, they were exploiting it. And perverting it.
There’s not much to be gained by lumping the Founders together on this or any question, something the Right and the Left need to keep in mind. Jefferson wasn’t exactly Christian, John Adams and George Washington were. But it doesn’t matter what they believed as individuals. It matters how they thought the country was to be governed, and they deliberately left explicit references to Christianity out of the document establishing that. That didn’t mean they didn’t still think of this as a Christian nation. Washington defended the rights and liberties of non-Christians but not on the grounds that this wasn’t a Christian nation but that it was meant to be an inclusive one.
As for Franklin, he wrote this in a letter near the end of his life:
Here is my creed. I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do…in whatever sect I meet with them.
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the Dissenters of England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needles to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displease.
“Manners Maketh Man”: Colin Firth (center) as the super spy known as Galahad prepares to demonstrate that one can be polite, refined, and extremely well-dressed and still be deadly in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a heartless homage to James Bond and other light-hearted spy movies and TV shows of the 1960s that pretty much misses the point.
Early in Kingsman: The Secret Service, when Colin Firth as the movie’s super-secret agent hero, strolls into a pub where danger awaits, dapper, well-tailored, obviously possessed of impeccable manners and taste, his grip light but ready on his furled umbrella, I applauded inwardly. Firth plays Harry Hart, known by his aptly bestowed code name Galahad, the top agent of Kingsman, an elite and private organization of modern self-styled knights devoted to counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, and excellence in haberdashery. Firth doesn’t lean on the umbrella with one leg crossed in front at the ankle but the nod to Patrick Macnee as John Steed and the 1960s British TV spy series The Avengers was unmissable.
A little further on, I thought, “You know, someone really should cast Firth as Steed in a remake of The Avengers. Maybe with Emily Blunt as Mrs Peel.”
A little further on from that I thought, “Damn. Now they don’t need to do the remake. They’re doing it here.”
A little further on from that I began to wonder why it was taking so long for director Matthew Vaughn to introduce his nod to Diana Rigg and Mrs Peel.
And then, a little further on from that, about a third of the way through the movie when I realized there wasn’t going to be a Mrs Peel and that Firth’s nod to John Steed was amounting to that, no more than a nod, I thought, Ok, so we can still have an Avengers movie. Emily Blunt will look terrific in the cat suit she didn’t get to wear in the other Avengers franchise because she turned down the role of Black Widow and Firth can probably pull off wearing the bowler.
And about five minutes after that, I gave up imagining that Avengers movie and started thinking I couldn’t wait to get home to binge-watch a full season of the TV show just to wash this vulgar, witless, pointless mess of a movie out of my memory.
Kingsman sells itself as a homage to those spy caper movies and TV shows of the 1960s and early 70s and their heroes, Bond and his big and small screen imitators, Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Napoleon Solo of The Man From U.N.C.L.E, John Drake of Secret Agent and, some would argue, its weird we’re-not-quite-sure-it’s-a-sequel sequel The Prisoner, and John Steed. But mainly Bond. I’m not sure who it’s selling itself to since the Bond movies Kingsman seems to be riffing on are Roger Moore’s and the movie’s target audience appears to be fifteen to thirty year old readers of comic books and players of video games who, if they know Bond, know him in a very different way than Galahad and Valentine, either as Daniel Craig or, either through Craig, their parents, or serendipity, as Sean Connery, the definer of the role whose Bond contained all the various aspects of the character emphasized by his successors, including the deadly earnestness of Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig.
In case we’ve been missing the obvious, about midway through Kingsman, long after I stopped caring, there’s a scene between Galahad and the villain, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson having a high old time not being Nick Fury of that other Avengers franchise), in which the two push hard against the fourth wall discussing the spy movies they both loved as kids and in the process tell us what kind of spy movie we’re meant to be watching.
Valentine and Galahad agree that what made those movie enjoyable was their light-heartedness. Their heroes always seemed to be in on the joke and didn’t take themselves or their movies’ outrageous plots and stunts too seriously, unlike the more earnest and, to them, boring heroes that came along later---presumably Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, and Daniel Craig’s Bond.
But that’s where director Galahad and Valentine and Matthew Vaughn make their bloomer.
The light-heartedness of even Roger Moore’s Bond movies (At least, the best of Moore’s Bonds) covered Bond’s essential seriousness, his coldhearted commitment to doing his job as a spy with a license to kill. To parody Bond---as opposed to lampooning him---you have to understand what made him serious and take himand his movies seriously.
The weakest of the Bond movies, which happen to be ones starring Roger Moore---Moonraker, Octopussy, and A View to a Kill---are the ones that are most mechanically imitative of previous Bond movies and least interested in Bond as a character. They reduce Moore to self-parody and treat his current adventure as merely providing bridges from one overly-elaborate stunt to the next.
There are high-concept movies. Then there are all-concept movies. Those bad Bond movies are all concept. And those are the Bond movies Kingsman is most like, except in not being as good or as fun.
In fact, next to Kingsman,Moonraker, which is basically Thunderball in space, isThunderball.
Kingsman isn’t either lighthearted or coldhearted. It’s heartless. It doesn’t take itself too seriously because it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. If Vaughn had any fun making the movie or cared about the story or his characters it you can’t tell it from what’s up on the screen. The only aspect of making the movie that seems to have focused his attention and energies is the staging and editing of the very long and very brutal fight sequences. And the staging and editing are brilliant. It’s just that they owe more to Vaughn’s own Kick-Ass than to any Bond movie. As for that, you’d never know from Kingsman that Vaughn has directed any other movies besides Kick-Ass. Whatever heart and humor he was able to put in the making of X-Men: First Class appear to have been lost to him on the set of Kingsman.
That should be all I need to say about Kingsman---No heart. Some good jokes but no real wit or humor. Lots of concept. Not much suspense. Fairly routine adventure movie stunt work, except for the fight scenes which are mainly not routine in their appalling brutality. And barely enough plot to provide bridges between the stunts and the fights---but as regular readers know, it’s not like me to be content with saying all I need to say. I always need to say more than I need to say. This is why I warn my students not to use my reviews as models for their writing.
The minimal plot of Kingsman: The Secret Service, such as it is has the typically megalomaniacal billionaire villain Valentine atypically not trying to take over the world but actually save it. Unfortunately, it is the world he wants to save, the planetary entity, not the human beings who live on it, and the plan requires the deaths of a few billion or so people. Galahad’s mission is to expose and thwart this evil scheme, but first…
Kingsman is short-handed these days, due to the villain’s evil scheme requiring the kidnapping of scientist who fails to get rescued the way he should, and Galahad has to recruit a new knight.
Kingsman knights are more suave and sophisticated than James Bond at his most debonair and more efficiently and ruthlessly and over-the-top violent than Bond at his most deadly, and the aptly code-named Galahad is the best dressed, most well-mannered, and deadliest of the knights. Galahad is the ultimate gentleman and a gentleman is always in control of himself and a situation. He never loses his cool or his head or his temper or lets his manners slip. When it comes to matters of manners and taste, next to Galahad Bond is a vulgar slob and, when it comes to killing, next to Galahad Bond’s a pacifist.
Galahad’s choice for a new Kingsman comes as an unpleasant surprise to Kingsman’s snobbish director (played by an ironically cast Michael Caine) who is committed to the principle that the best gentlemen make the best spies and believes gentleman are born not made. Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a working class twenty-something and an apparent ne-er-do-well with lots of potential but no direction, no ambition, and no purpose but to be on hand to get in the way when his abusive father-in-law gets in the mood to beat his mother. This last item on Eggsy’s short resume shows an inherent chivalrousness that Galahad recognizes and sets out to reward.
Told that his training as a secret agent will involve not just a change in direction but a character make-over, Eggsy professes bafflement. What does a spy need to know besides how to sneak in and out of places and occasionally kill people who try to stop him on his way in or out? How to walk, talk, and think like gentleman, Galahad informs him. How to double-knot a tie, not to drop his aitches, and what color and vintage of wine to order with what dish. Eggsy is still confused. Galahad tries to explain with references to movies. Has Eggsy seen Trading Places?Pretty Woman? No. But then a light dawns.
“Like My Fair Lady!”
And that’s it: Our first and last hope that Eggsy will turn out to be an interesting character and not just a trope---the sorcerer’s apprentice---and a part of the concept.
From there, the story continues along two threads, Galahad’s chasing after the villain and Eggsy’s training, which, disappointingly involves some perfunctory stuntwork, very little of Colin Firth acting as Henry Higgins to Egerton’s Eliza Dolittle, and an adorable little dog. Don’t ask.
The thing is, that side of Bond’s character, suave and sophisticated jetsetter and playboy, which gives him the ability to pass as a gentleman, is not just part of the concept or a conceit. And it isn’t simply his cover or a disguise. It’s intrinsic to his character because it’s the basis for his success as a spy. His epicureanism, his love for fast and expensive cars, his talent for picking up and speaking languages fluently, his instinctive grasp of local manners and customs, his appreciation for and ability to charm a certain type of aristocratic woman are all part of the same general and essential skill---infiltration.
Of course his job is to infiltrate bad guys’ hangouts and the evil mastermind’s lair and other places he needs to sneak into to look for clues. But he’s also an infiltrator of the exotic locales his adventures take him to. Bond’s not only an action hero on our behalf, he’s our surrogate traveler and explorer, at home and at ease the way we’d like to be in a Paris cafe, a Tokyo bathhouse, the bazaar in Istanbul, at a beach resort in the Caribbean, on a ski slope in Austria, at the baccarat table in a casino in Monte Carlo---whatever picture post card we might dream of entering Bond gets into and survives there in style.
Eggsy’s newly-acquired sophistication doesn’t get him into or out of anything except out from under the ridiculous baseball cap he wears at a stupid angle in imitation of British white kids imitating other British white kids imitating American white kids imitating black kids imitating rap artists.
The conceit that a Kingsman knows his wines the way he knows his weapons is there because it’s a convention of the spy movies and shows being parodied. It’s homage that misses the point.
Eggsy’s newly-acquired sophistication doesn’t get him into or out of anything except out from under the ridiculous baseball cap he wears at a stupid angle in imitation of British white kids imitating other British white kids imitating American white kids imitating black kids imitating rap artists.
There’s another aspect of the Bond movies and their imitations and knock-offs that Kingsman doesn’t just get wrong but, weirdly, when you consider how important it is to those movies’ appeal, leaves out.
Actually, for all they matter to the plot or to the heroes, women.
It’s not simply that Kingsman, the organization, despite having two female recruits, appears to be even more of a boys club than MI-6 was before Judi Dench took over as M. It’s that Kingsman, the movie, and its heroes along with it are as oblivious to women, either as persons in their own right or as objects of desire, as an old-fashioned boys’ own adventure story like Treasure Island, in which the only female character is Jim Hawkins’ mother. In fact, the only girl in Eggsy’s life is his mother.
And Galahad appears to be celibate.
Like I said, this is weird considering how important his effect on women is to Bond’s mystique. But it’s also weird to be paying tribute to John Steed without even a glancing reference to Emma Peel.
Part of the joke behind The Avengers is the same one Kingsman draws on with Galahad, that Steed’s elegance, polish, and charm served him as well or better than Bond’s PPK served him, and in fact Steed was often at his most dangerous when he was at his most gentlemanly. But the other part of the joke was that the reason Steed could keep his head while all around were losing theirs and remain dispassionate, level-headed, detached, unperturbed and unruffled---and his suits unwrinkled---was that he had Mrs Peel by his side to handle the dirty work.
Steed couldn’t do his job without Mrs Peel which is a way of saying Steed couldn’t be Steed without Mrs Peel. It worked the other way round too. They were true partners. Equal partners. Complements. The perfect couple. The show regularly teased viewers with the possibility that the couple would couple. What kept them apart, ostensibly, was Mrs Peel’s missing husband. What really kept them apart was that they enjoyed working together more than they would have enjoyed sleeping together. This meant there was an essential seriousness to them and the show.
There’s no Mrs Peel in Kingsman.
There’s no female lead in any form at all, not even in the sexist form of one of the types of Bond Girls.
There are three popular types of Bond Girl. The damsel in distress, the evil temptress and assassin, and the cool but seducible aristocrat I mentioned above.
There’s a fourth. The independent and active heroine in her own right who’s able to fight alongside Bond, like Honey Ryder, Kissy Suzuki, and now, if Spectre continues what Skyfall started, Moneypenny. Her most fully-fledged incarnation, however, is Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, who, by the way, was played by Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg’s predecessor on The Avengers and first-wearer of the catsuit. But it’s mainly the first three types who dominate our imaginations when we think of Bond and his women.
And while the aristocrat is usually the dullest of the Bond Girls, she is equally important to the concept of Bond as the other three because what she is, basically, is a princess and Bond---the movie Bond, not Ian Fleming’s original---is the commoner of myth and fairy tale, like Aladdin, Simple, Jack, or the third brother, who by guile and pluck sneaks into the castle and finds himself at home. Winning the heart of the princess or at least her temporary sexual favors proves he belongs there. That the princess often ends up dead or, if she’s lucky, loved and left, is necessary to there being another movie. She doesn’t matter, anyway. Her role is symbolic. She’s there to to establish Bond as a born prince among men. He is natural royalty lifted above his station by talent, skill, grace, and virtue (not to be confused in Bond’s case with goodness and niceness).
There’s an actual princess in Kingsman but she’s quickly locked away in an actual dudgeon guarded by expendable henchmen who might as well be trolls or stormtroopers before she and Eggsy catch even a glimpse of each other. When they’re finally brought together it’s for an anal sex joke that isn’t funnier or less vulgar and debasing for its being delivered in a cute Swedish accent and Hanna Alström who plays the princess presenting the camera with one of the prettiest naked behinds in movie history.
Like I said, there’s no Mrs Peel in Kingsman, no female lead in any form at all, no truly significant female characters at all in that removing her from the story would leave a hole in the plot. Valentine’s chief assistant and bodyguard Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is a henchperson, pure and simple, a female Odd Job or Jaws except articulate and obviously smarter than her boss and allowed to demonstrate it. There’s Roxy (Sophie Cookson) a female Kingsman---not called a Kingswoman, for what that’s worth---but although she’s shown to be if not as good an agent as Eggsy then at least able to keep up, she’s basically a sidekick and not a particularly useful one. She’s barely on the scene for the final battle, relegated to a job that could have been done by a low-level technician back at headquarters pushing a button at Eggsy’s command. To the movie’s credit, I suppose, she and Eggsy aren’t made lovers or friends with benefits. They’re pals. But that serves to emphasize the fact that Eggsy’s only serious romantic attachments are to Galahad and his mother.
Vaughn, who wrote the screenplay with Jane Goldman, adapted Kingsman: The Secret Service from an ugly and disturbing mess of a comic book originally titled just The Secret Service by writer Mark Millar and artist Dave Gibbons. I read it. Don’t bother. Gazelle, Roxy, and the Princess are additions to the source material and represent a net gain of two female characters with something to do. The Princess is original. Gazelle and Roxy replace male characters with similar roles---in Gazelle’s case with the same name. Vaughn and Goldman have eliminated the villain’s girlfriend and replaced her with no one. They pretty much eliminated the villain too, but I’ll get to him in a minute. The point here is that the comic book, which is even more of an homage to Bond---although it’s hard to say which Bond. The grittier, bloodthirstier, more psychopathic aspects of all of them, maybe.---is weirdly even more male-centric. Slight and as nearly irrelevant as they are, the additions of Roxy, a female Gazelle, and the Princess are an improvement over the book by the movie.
Vaughn and Goldman have made many other significant changes, almost all of which are also improvements---although that’s not saying much. One of my favorites is the difference in cameos by Mark Hamill. Yes, he appears in the comic book too. And replacing the comic book’s bland villain with a character Samuel L. Jackson could have fun with was a smart decision. Jackson plays Valentine as an overgrown little boy with a childish lisp and an almost innocent certainty that his plan to save the world by arranging the deaths of billions of people is something all the grownups will approve of, as if he’s come up with a first prize winning project for the science fair. In some of his scenes he seems to have slipped into Kingsman through Dexter’s Laboratory rather than by way of Dr. No’sisland, if you ignore the depraved indifference to pain and death shown both by Valentine and in Vaughn’s staging of the violent outcomes of Valentine’s scheming. But the most improving change, the one that could have made Kingsman a good movie if Vaughn had made more of it and that does give it something worth watching is the transformation of the hero from a stand-in for James Bond into a tribute to John Steed, allowing him to be played by Colin Firth, who is absolutely smashing in the part.
Too bad “smashing” doesn’t describe just his performance but also what he’s required to do too much of in his fight scenes.
Taron Egerton is likeable enough as Eggsy and when the time comes he wears his tailored suit well. Mark Strong as Merlin, who is sort of the Q of Kingsman and also its chief drill instructor, delivers another variation of what is becoming his expectation-subverting trademark shtick of playing good guys as if they’re bad guys and bad guys as if they’re good guys. I was thinking of saying Micheal Caine is wasted in the role of Kingman’s stodgy and snobbish spymaster but Michael Caine is never wasted in any movie because he won’t allow it. I read there were plans to do more with his character possibly based on his having starred in his own series of spy movies back in the day. The black plastic frame glasses Firth wears as Galahad instead of a Steed-esque bowler might be a tribute to Caine’s character in The Ipcress Fileand its sequels, the thinking-man and woman’s secret agent and anti-Bond Harry Palmer. That subplot was dropped. Probably for the best, considering how Kingsman misses the point of every other spy hero it pays tribute to.
And even though she has almost no character to play, Sofia Boutella has a ferociously compelling screen presence that has me convinced she can really act and wishing to see her in a movie that lets her prove it.
Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.
Kingsman: The Secret Service, directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sofia Boutella, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, and Mark Hamill. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Meanwhile, north of Boston, another sign spring is coming. The weather has been warm enough the snow has melted enough that Uncle Merlin has finally been able to make progress clearing his walk and steps. The tenant is saved! He’s a superhero of a landlord.
I don’t believe the Republicans, particularly the ringleader on this one, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, are stupid enough to think the Iranians are as stupid as the letter makes them out to be.
They think their own voters are stupid.
And that’s who the letter’s meant for.
The suckers back home.
Always keep in mind: Everything the Republicans say is aimed at riling up the base. This is always the goal: Keep them mad, keep them afraid, keep them from thinking, keep them writing checks and coming out to vote.
Boiled down, the letter says, “Dear Islamofacscists, it doesn’t matter what you work out with the weakling in the White House. Whatever deal you make with him has to be approved by us and we’re not going to approve any deal. We hold the real power here. And even if Obama does slip one by us, he’s a lame duck. Come 2017 he’s gone so your deal with him’s off. On the other hand, we’re here to stay. Get that through your turbans and live with it!”
This amused Javad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister, who with his smile showing through the official prose responded that people in his government are aware of how the American political system works. Since the Revolution, they’ve seen a few American Presidents come and go---five before President Obama. But, he went on, the Iranians aren’t negotiating with just the Americans and the President isn’t negotiating on his own. Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China are also at the table. Whatever deal is worked out, it will be an international agreement and, Zarif’s statement implicitly asks, are the Senators as ignorant about the United States’ obligations under international law as they’re assuming Iranians are about American politics?
The answer to that question is quite possibly yes. Never underestimate the ignorance of even the smartest Republicans these days because their thinking is governed entirely by their self-righteousness. “We’re the good guys! Whatever we think must be right! If we think two plus two make five, then two and two must make five. God is on our side and God wouldn’t let us be wrong.”
The honest Republican answer is more likely, “So what? Who cares? Not us. We got other fish to fry.”
Read as it should be, as of a piece with everything else Republicans do and say, the letter says this:
“Dear Real Americans, the weakling apologist Kenyan-Marxist-Commie-Socialist-Fascist-Muslim-You Know What Color-Not Really One of Us fool in the White House is about to cave, again, to the enemies of freedom and bring down doom upon all our heads. But don’t worry. We’re not about to let him get away with it. Anyway, he’s out of here in two years. We’re here to stay. Whatever he’s done we’ll undo as soon as he’s out the door. So for all he’ll matter, you don’t need to even think of him as President. Just remember to vote for us again come next election day and make your checks payable to [insert your Senator’s PAC’s name here].”
There’s a P.S.
“Hey, Obama, fuck you!”
The point of the letter is telling the base what they want to hear. What they need to hear.
They need to hear the world is coming to an end and we’re all going to die.
They need to hear there’s an outside cause, that it’s not their doing or through any fault of their own we’re doomed. It’s those Others!
These days it’s the Muslims, mainly. Iran. ISIS. But immigrants too. The brown ones from you know where. It was Ebola. It’s always the gays and the women and the blacks and the browns. And even us! The white race is engaged in self-inflicted genocide through abortion, birth control, the end of marriage---all these young women choosing to pursue glamorous careers and enjoy sexy, swinging, sinful lifestyles without consequences instead of doing their biblical duty to be good wives and mothers---the conversion of our sons and daughters to homosexuality, and our own weakness in not standing up to those Godless, value-less Others undermining our sense of what’s right and wrong and enforcing the traditions and rules we were raised to cherish and obey by our good, noble, and strict God-fearing parents! Any one of those. All of those. It doesn’t matter. It changes but it doesn’t change. It’s all tied together because it’s all the work of those Others. Our enemies without and their agents and tools within.
That’s the first message and the bridge to the next.
The Iranians are our enemy and the President is on their side.
He’s not like us, you know. We don’t mean because he’s black because he isn’t, he’s only passing in order to get the black and guilty white liberal vote. But, you know, he’s black. And he wasn’t raised like us. He isn’t a real American. He’s a Muslim. He’s a socialist. He’s a Kenyan anti-colonialist and doesn’t that sound scary? He’s from Chicago. That means he’s ruthless and corrupt. He was a college professor and we all know what they’re like. He’s always apologizing for America. He doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. He wants to take away our guns. He wants to give all our tax money to THEM! Did we mention he’s black except he isn’t? He’s weak. He’s disloyal. He’s not someone we want as our President. He isn’t our President. Not really. Not legitimately.
They need to hear this because they need to hear they matter. President Obama is the embodiment of the fact that most Americans aren’t like them. We don’t look like them. We don’t think like them. We don’t believe what they believe. We think of this America going about the business of being itself as usual. We like it that we’re not all alike. Diversity, pluralism, and tolerance are intrinsic to our idea of a working democracy. They see our idea of a working democracy as a threat to their sense of self which is bound up in identification with the group. Family. Church. Town. State. Country. If the group isn’t what they think it is and need it to be, a perfect reflection of themselves, then they aren’t who they think they are. They don’t exist to themselves. This is why there must be Others. If you doubt who you are, at least you can comfort yourself with who you are not.
So they need to hear he doesn’t matter. That he can be discounted. That nothing he does will last. That everything he’s done will be undone. In two years it will be as if he was never here.
And then they need to hear that while he’s here he’s not the boss of them. They’re authoritarians. That’s how they see the President, as the boss of all of us. They like bosses. They like to boss and be bossed. It gives them a sense of order and security. Their lives are full of bosses. Not just politicians and actual on-the-job bosses. Preachers. Coaches. Parents---fathers more than mothers. They identify with the bosses. (For bosses read bullies and tyrants. They invest their bosses with far more authority than they need and that authority is unquestionable, coming as it does, directly or indirectly from God.) They boss others through this identification. Not being able to identify with the boss robs them of their sense of authority along with their identity. And there, in the White House, the boss of all bosses is “not one of us.” The reason they believe he’s taking away their freedom is he’s taken away their freedom to feel like bosses themselves.
They need to see him defied. They need to hear him told he’s not the boss of them. More than that they need him to feel what they feel by his being their boss. Humiliated. They need him insulted. They need him embarrassed. They need him put back in his place.
All these needs are addressed in the letter.
The letter isn’t sitting well with people outside the base, and it’s not just Democrats and liberals who are mad. The New York Daily News called the signers traitors. On the front page. There’s chatter that the Republicans are realizing they goofed. John McCain has tried to wash his hands of it. His excuse seems to be that he didn’t read it before signing because he was too busy worrying about the coming snowstorm. As for other Republicans claiming chagrin, I don’t buy it. I think it’s just the usual case of cynical Senate aides and lobbyists assuring their friends in the Political Press Corps that they aren’t on board with the Right Wing lunacy of the day---“Don’t worry. We smart and responsible Republicans know better and we’re really in charge.”---so journalists and pundits can continue to tell themselves that the real Republicans work on K Street and not on the floor of places like, say, the Oklahoma State House of Representatives of the governor’s office in Wisconsin. Most of the signers, I’m sure, are just fine with it. Proud of it, in fact. Probably congratulating themselves on what a smart move they’ve made. They don’t expect any of them to pay a political price for it. Far from it. The letter is right that most of them are going to be around for decades. Marco Rubio is already using it to raise money for his re-election bid or his Presidential run if finally gets up the nerve to make one.
Forty-seven traitors? Hard to make the case, but you won’t convince any of them they’re traitors. You can’t commit treason against yourself. They represent the real America, after all. They are the real America. It’s Obama who’s been busy betraying the country. The Republicans are saving the country from his cowardice and treachery. The letter is an act of patriotism.
So the job’s done. The letter says what it needs to say. It’s all in there. The fear-mongering, the Othering of the President, the self-aggrandizement and self-privileging of “us”, the defiance, the insult. It’s there the way it’s in everything the Republicans do and say. It’s there for the same reason it’s in everything they do or say.
Rile up the base. Keep them angry. Keep them afraid. Keep them from thinking by keeping them focused on their anger and their fear, Keep them coming out to vote and writing the checks.
Keep Obama from accomplishing anything however good the country it might be---in fact, the more good it might do, the more it must be opposed---because then people might think there’s a reason to vote for a Democrat. And nothing is more important then Republican politicians keeping their jobs, not even peace between the United States and our allies and Iran. Which, by the way, would be a help in containing and defeating ISIS, another supposed existential threat to the U.S. So even that goal is cast aside to advance the ambitions and careers of Republican politicians.
None dare call it that. Unless if everything else they do and say is treasonous. And maybe it is, in a way, since it puts money and self ahead of the good of the nation.
But really, treason?
Business as usual for them.
The end of the world is always nigh. It has to be for the whole scheme to work. If last week’s existential threat doesn’t seem as frightening this week, a new existential threat is always there to be identified and exploited. Gene Lyons: ISIS Panic is Ebola 2.0.
DEATH explains something important to his granddaughter Susan in the TV adaptation of the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, Hogfather. DEATH doesn’t say it, but humans need something else too. Humor. Pratchett gave us both. He helped readers be human more than any other contemporary writer I know.
As many of you know, there are times---plenty of times. Well, most times.---when I believe the only real good I’ve accomplished with this blog is introducing readers to the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett is one of my favorite authors of all time and I think the greatest novelist of at least the last fifteen years.
I’ll be a while getting my thoughts together to write about it. Meantime, everything I have written here about Sir Terry and Discworld is collected here: News from Discworld. Mostly it’s a collection of quotes from the novels, but that’s a sign of how great a writer is, when you’d rather quote him than talk about him and you can pick up any of his books, open to just about any page, and there’s something worth quoting. No. Not quoting. Reading.
Anyway, here’s one. I’m pretty sure Pratchett was looking ahead when he wrote it and imagining his own final conversation with DEATH who, in case you don’ know, is a major character in the novels and always speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS.
Windle didn’t look around.
Out of the corner of his eye Windle saw a pair of bony arms rest themselves on the parapet. There was a faint sound of a figure trying to make itself comfortable, then a restful silence.
“Ah,” said Windle. “I suppose you’ll want to be getting along?”
“I thought you were always so punctual.”
IN THE CIRCUMSTANCES, A FEW MINUTES MORE WILL NOT MAKE A LOT OF DIFFERENCE.
Windle nodded. They stood side by side in silence, while around them was the muted roar of the city.
“You know,” said Windle, “it’s a wonderful after-life. Where were you?”
I WAS BUSY.
Windle wasn’t really listening. “I’ve met people I never even knew existed. I’ve done all sorts of things. I’ve really got to know who Windle Poons is.”
WHO IS HE, THEN?
I CAN SEE WHERE THAT MUST HAVE COME AS A SHOCK.
ALL THESE YEARS AND YOU NEVER SUSPECTED.
Windle did know exactly what irony meant, and he could spot sarcasm too.
“It’s all very well for you,” he mumbled.
Windle looked down at the river again.
“It’s been great,” he said. “After all this time. Being needed is important.”
YES. BUT WHY?
Windle looked surprised.
“I don’t know. How should I know? Because we’re all in this together, I suppose. Because we don’t leave our people in there. Because you’re a long time dead. Because anything is better than being alone. Because humans are humans.”
AND SIXPENCE IS SIXPENCE. BUT CORN IS NOT JUST CORN.
Windle leaned back. The stone of the bridge was still warm from the day’s heat.
To his surprise, Death leaned back as well.
BECAUSE YOU’RE ALL YOU’VE GOT, said Death.
“What? Oh. Yes. That as well. It’s a great big cold universe out there.
YOU’D BE AMAZED.
“One lifetime just isn’t enough.”
OH, I DON’T KNOW.
THAT WAS YOUR LIFE.
And, with great relief, and general optimism, and a feeling that on the whole everything could have been much worse, Windle Poons died.