Friday, September 26, 2008

The masters of science fiction

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -Arthur C. Clarke
I think I've finally figured out the problem with science. That is to say, I think I know what the real issue is with the public perception of science, and what it is about it that makes the average layman surprisingly loath to trust it. Let's face it; every day we're going to open the newspaper and find another story along the lines of some school board refusing to teach evolution, and the more "enlightened" among us will shake their heads and mumble something along the lines of, "Are we living in the dark ages or something?" Well, I've decided that in the end, the problem surprisingly lies with science itself, and the manner in which science by its very nature generates its own bad press.

I don't remember what it was that was simmering somewhere on the back-burners of my mind the other day as I was perusing some essays by Isaac Asimov, but maybe it will come back to me, as it had become a thought suddenly boiled over when I hit a particular sentence in one of his essays. Just in case you're not familiar with Asimov--and actually, you're probably not as familiar as you think you are even if you do know something about him--he's probably best known as a science fiction writer, but also carried on his resume a number of works of fiction in the genres of mystery and fantasy, as well as a certain amount of writing on science fact, history, and Biblical commentary. Asimov was probably my favorite author as a child, and I'd always wanted to write as well as he did, but never thought it likely. Turns out my wish may have come true: while his storytelling is superb, his essays are pretty crappy. I am in good company after all.

It's probably actually not his essay writing overall, but this particular subset. I picked up a copy of Magic: The final fantasy collection, which is a gathering together of all Asimov's "fantasy stories that have never before appeared in book form." Truth be told, even the fiction is not quite as good as his sci-fi works elsewhere, but the section of essays dissecting the nature of the fantasy genre seem to really fall short. Maybe it's just me. Actually, one of the hard things in evaluating the fiction is that not too much of it falls into the standard sort of format that one thinks of as "fantasy"; one story, a mystery involving Batman, actually has no supernatural element to it at all, so go figure.

What does all of this have to do with science, though? Well, as Asimov works his way through essay after essay of reflection on the subject of magic, faeries, mythical creatures and dashing knights riding off to slay dragons, he ends up--as a firm believer in science, and an author with a strong preference for science fiction over fantasy--taking many of these thematic concepts and relating them back to scientific principles. Science fiction and fantasy both generally involve the use of extraordinary means of meeting the protagonist's ends, but there tends to be a divergence in the nature of the means that is sometimes hard to describe precisely due to the fact that, as Clarke has said, technology can sometimes appear to be magical. Asimov points out that the real difference is that technology is something that always comes with limits, but magic much less so.

An excellent example is to think about the worlds of "Star Trek" vs. "Harry Potter". Both involve fictional means of teleportation, but there are few similarities in the workings of each. In the Trek world, teleportation is made possible through the employment of technology that requires a very large amount of energy and powerful supercomputers. Those attempting to teleport with these devices need to program these powerful computers with the particular coordinates of departure and arrival, the subjects of teleportation cannot be in motion, the teleportation device must be fully-powered and within a certain distance, and (for some unstated reason that has never made much sense to me) the operator of the device needs to know the number of people being teleported. In Potter's world on the other hand, all one needs to teleport is to be a wizard who really wants to go to a location in mind. I'm sure there are Potter fans who would take issue with such a simplification of the process, but really, I've simplified the process from both worlds.

So who is the winner? Maybe it seems like Potter is, as he needs no power source or help from a computer, has no limits on distance of travel, and can disappear at will in mid-stride while running from the hot pursuit of Voldemort. Not so, however. There are, and will always be, people who have a preference for the theoretically possible over the fantastic. After all, what good is Potter-style teleportation to "muggles" like you and me? Computers and technology, on the other hand, make amazing strides daily, and who knows? While physicists haven't yet invented the warp drive, it has been suspected that the principles of relativity actually do allow for travel faster than light speed if we could find a way to manipulate the space-time continuum. Sci-fi has a lot of big "ifs", but they're not the ridiculous imaginings of magic and fantasy, at least.

That sort of thinking is actually the smaller part of the problem of science: it's sort of a killjoy. On page 143 of "Magic", Asimov points out that the old fairy tale staple of "seven-league boots" are something for which science can't really produce an analogue. Seven-league boots are magical pieces of footwear that allow the wearer to move seven leagues (21 miles) in a single step. Asimov points out that such boots would cause the wearer to, at the pace of a brisk walk, achieve escape velocity and therefore be launched into space in a stride or two. Sheesh, Asimov, you're no fun. I'm not personally a big fan of the fantasy genre, but I think it's clear enough that we're meant to understand that magic boots, by the very fact of their being magic, don't have to concern the wearer with mundane factors such as escape velocity and wind resistance (I'm sure someone could give some very good reason why travelling at escape velocity with no protective gear would cause air friction enough to vaporize you, or at least severely chap your skin). Asimov is only trying to point out that science, unlike magic, has limits, but really the depressing thing about science is that really on the whole, science is all about telling us repeatedly that we are limited.

One of the best-known limits in science is the speed of light, but it's odd that it's so well-known. That is to say, it's not that people know what the speed of light is (I can seldom remember it off the top of my head), but they know it exists, and the one thing they really know about relativity theory is that things in the real world can't go faster than light. What does this really do for the layman, though? What possible purpose does it serve the non-physicist to know that the universe has a speed limit, especially since not a one of us will likely ever travel so much as 0.01% of that limit? It only reminds us that we do not have unlimited ability, and while this is true, it adds nothing to the human condition to know it to be so. Science doesn't care, nor should it, as it exists in a world of facts and not fantasy or feelings.

I've written before that science is not in the business of making people feel good or have a sense of self-worth, and that's why it makes for a lousy religion. "But wait," most readers will object, "science isn't a religion!" No, it's not. The bigger part of the problem of science is that despite that fact that it isn't a religion, there are an awful lot of people who treat it like one. Something else that I know I have written about many, many times is the fact that the world is full of skeptics who are more than happy to puff out their chests and declare, "We don't need God and religion to give us the answers, for science has all the answers we need!" But whatever you may feel about religion, the second part of that sentence is dreadfully wrong: science doesn't have answers, it only has theories. Wait! I'm probably not saying what you think I'm saying...

My imagination makes it hard to write this, as I know with almost every sentence I write, there is someone out there who will be reading this and saying, "What an idiot!" Maybe, but can you wait until I've had my say? I know there are a lot of creationists that love the catch phrase, "Evolution is just a theory," and of course, they're missing that in the realm of science, that word tends to mean something deeper than they give it credit. Granted. What I'm saying is that even giving it all the credit it truly deserves, it's still not the end-all and be-all of truth, because science is not a religion in very important ways that are actually its strength, but unfortunately its lesser-known strength.

The Asimov essay that boiled over that thought was one titled "Giants in the Earth", an essay on why he thinks so many cultures (including the Bible) have had myths concerning giants and other fantastic larger-than-life creatures. He gives a number of theories about why people would imagine giants, mainly focusing on people of lesser technology who marveled at achievements of more advanced societies such as the massive walls of Mycenae and the pyramids of Egypt and, not being able to fathom technology that could move such massive stones, imagine the employment of giant men or sorcerers for the purpose. In general, this is not an unreasonable theory, but I do have some issues with it, the main one being the assumption that every single example of stories about giants surely could not have simply been the result of actual, living giants. After all, Goliath was only said to be nine feet tall, and while that sounds pretty fantastical, I fail to see why there could not exist a man of that stature, or at least near that stature helped with a dash of exaggeration or rounding off to the nearest cubit. I think I may have made this exact analogy in a former piece of writing, but if a person who had never been to China or known anything about it ran into Yao Ming, he might be tempted to tell friends that China was a land populated with giants, and he would be sort of right, since there are at least a few of them.

Now, just shortly after denying that tales of mythical giants had anything to do with actual giants, and denying that tales of dragons could have anything to do with actual oversized lizards such as dinosaurs or who knows what, Asimov makes this startling statement:
"The elephant bird, or aepyornis, of Madagascar still survived in medieval times. It weighed half a ton and was the largest bird that ever existed. It must surely have been the inspiration for the flying bird-monster, the 'roc,' that we find in the Sinbad tales of The Arabian Nights."
"Surely"? Maybe Asimov had some backing for this statement, but from what I see here, it seems to be pure speculation. Why does one need to go to Madagascar to find such a large bird when fairly large birds such as ostriches and crowned eagles exist on the African mainland? The apparent assertion of a matter of speculation as bare fact is what disturbed me, and surprised me from Asimov as a supposed man of science.

Maybe it's a particular problem of Asimov's, being a writer of sci-fi and mystery, that he feels a need to see to it that loose ends are tied up into a neat little bundle. Fiction does that quite often, especially in the mystery genre. We expect when we close the book after reading the last page that even if the ending is not a happy one, we at least will have had everything explained to us, and everything will be understood. Religion (which atheists will gladly relegate to fictional status) also tends toward this sort of resolution. It tends to try to answer as many of the key philosophical questions of life as it can, and then blankets anything that wasn't covered with some panacea such as, "Well, God is working all things to the good, and He will triumph in the end." Everybody likes a happy ending.

Science may like to define limits, but has no end in itself, and never completely ties up all the loose ends. This is the true strength and power of science, but it's not a savory one. Those so-called skeptics who claim that science has all the answers are missing the true point of science: that it has no answers, only a better class of questions. The real problem of science is that people are looking for final answers, and science's disciples are more than happy to claim that they have them, despite the fact that they are (unintentionally, granted) misleading people with such a claim.

It is the nature of science's never-ending quest to question reality that what are today's scientific truths will be tomorrow's scientific misconceptions. We had nine planets, but then we only had eight. We were descended from homo erectus, but then we weren't. The smallest indivisible units in the universe were atoms, but then they were found to be made of protons, neutrons and electrons, which were later found to be made of quarks, which in turn are made of...what? To the average person, all of this sort of stuff looks like indecision: can't science make up its mind? I thought you said science had the answers? To the non-technical mind, the answers that science give look like so much magical hocus-pocus, and when Rowling tells us in book seven that wands only properly work for their true owners, yet book four is full of magicians getting along just fine with borrowed and/or stolen wands, we start to think it may all be a bunch of crap.

Science is suffering from bad press, and it's not bad press from those fools who do things like ban the teaching of evolution in schools, but from those people who say things like, "Science has given us the answer, and the answer is evolution." Such an attitude falls prey to those who object, "What happened to us being evolved from homo erectus?" or "Why do you think it is that Piltdown Man turned out to just be a hoax?" If "evolution is the answer", then like dogmatic religious zealots, the disciples of the religion of science will demand that asking more questions is inappropriate, never realizing that like Pharisees berating Christ for healing on the Sabbath, they're elevating tradition over deeper, more fundamental truths. Yes, science embraces evolutionary theory, among other theories, and as a "theory" it's actually something deeper and more well-established than just an idea of how the world might happen to work, but just as Christianity holds as an underlying tenet that "Love thy neighbor" is more important than any rules about how you run your church, science holds to an underlying tenet that above all, we must keep asking questions of our universe.

Evolutionary theory is a better theory than its detractors give it credit, and I expect it to be a part of science for quite some time, despite the fact that simpler concepts, like the number of planets we have, lasted for much shorter time than evolution has already enjoyed. But it is the nature of science that all theories are potentially only here for today, waiting for the time that they will be replaced by a better theory and discarded. The real failure of our educational system is not a failing to convince everyone that evolution or any other theory is true; after all, the greatest scientists have always been the ones who were willing to be the first to discard the failed theories of the past. No, the real failure is not teaching our children that the real strength of science and greatness of scientists was not in their determined acceptance of the status quo, but in the very willingness to go against it. Mendeleyev wasn't the first person to think of the concept of the periodic table of elements (a crude approach to modern understanding of the behavior of subatomic particles before anyone had even thought of subatomic particles), but he was one of the first people to be willing to keep pushing and questioning until scientists decided to take it seriously.

Yes, the problem with science is that we haughtily insist that people accept it as it is, forgetting that the state of science is always evolving. Religion is the one that often strives to be right without being questioned. Science? It only strives to be a little less wrong than it was yesterday, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Who wants strident?

I've started to realize that while I am often loath to comment directly on political issues, I revel in the chance to comment on political commentary. That being said, just because I carefully tread a line along the edge of a minefield doesn't mean lack of careful choosing of my words and who to share them with won't cause me to stumble and fall right in.

Yesterday, as I was sitting and enjoying my coffee and tapping out the beginnings of my previous rant not on Proposition 8, but on the manner in which others had shared and hidden their own views on Proposition 8, I happened to have a run-in with a Christian acquaintance of mine who has no qualms about freely expressing his views. Now, as I was writing about that very subject, I was hoping to confide in him what it was I found silly about the vague positioning of those on both sides of the debate, and not express my own views on the matter. (If you did read that piece carefully, you might have noticed that nowhere in the essay did I give my personal opinion on same-sex marriage; partially because that wasn't really what the piece is about, and partially because my view is complicated and nuanced, i.e. completely confused.) No matter; to him, this was a clearly "cut-and-dry thing". He rattled off factoids about biological differences between procreative and non-procreative sexual activity and the archaeological evidence for the destruction of Sodom in a much louder voice than I would have used in a public place (unless I was there to give some sort of performance, I suppose), albeit not in an outright rude manner.

It's a paradox that I inwardly wince when put in such a situation. It's a paradox because I wince for two (perhaps) completely opposing reasons: I simply don't feel strongly enough about most matters to speak out concerning them in such a fashion, and yet I'm not sure if I'm more embarrassed because I don't feel that way. Does that make any sense? What I'm saying is that when I'm sitting at the coffee shop I frequent on an almost daily basis, and the man next to me is expounding on how "two men in bed together begets nothing but carnal lust!" I'm wondering if some people I know will look over at me and think, "Why is he just sitting and listening to that hateful talk?" but I'm also wondering if others will think, "Why doesn't Brucker ever say things like that?" After all, I'm a Christian, so I'm supposed to be loving, accepting and non-judgmental, but I'm also supposed to stand up to immorality, which "everyone" knows Christians consider homosexuality to be. Where's your strident expression of moral outrage, huh, Brucker? If not on this, then on something.

Once again, I've let my intro hijack the original intent of my writing, but I think I'll let it go, because it's just as good as my original intent anyway. I was going to write on the interplay between religious belief and political belief, but that's really what this is about, isn't it? I am inclined to believe, from reading the Bible (and isn't that where a fundie Christian like myself is to get my beliefs from?), that homosexuality is in some manner not wholly acceptable to God. Yet I am also inclined, nearly if not more strongly, to believe that the government has no right to tell people how they can live their lives behind closed doors.

As I'm sure I've said before, Christians ought to give some serious thought to this, as it goes beyond the topic of sexual preference. If the government can step in and say who I can or can't sleep with, can't they also decide how I raise my children? My kids get read a Bible story every night before bed, but what if the government decided that the Bible was hate speech, and I couldn't do this? If we can't keep the government out of a same-sex couple's bedroom, how are we going to keep them out of my children's bedroom? Granted, in talking about same-sex marriage, we're talking about something public, but it's really about giving approval or disapproval of something that goes on in private. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what the supporters of Proposition 8 believe, whether they openly say it or not.

This is where I really have to laugh at myself and my socio-political schizophrenia. I'm a life-long Democrat who holds the religious views of a stereotypical Republican, often expressing a longing for communist ideals, but maybe being a Libertarian at heart. Is it confusion? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I'm just an anarchist or something, I really don't know.

The thing that I had been intending to use as a backdrop for this piece of writing was actually once again an editorial published in Newsweek, this time written by Sam Harris. (You really ought to know who Sam Harris is, I think, so if you don't, look him up. I'll tell you this: he's an atheist that I feel a lot of respect towards.) I'm sure it's in no small way partly due to the fact that I am, after all, a Democrat, but I'm finding myself largely agreeing with his views about Sarah Palin, even some of the things he says about how it's scary to think about the country being run by someone with her religious views, despite the fact that that's the one area where I probably come closest to being in synch with Palin.

It's something I understand, and yet don't understand as fully as Harris appears to feel I should. Why is it scary that Palin has a "conviction that the Biblical God consciously directs world events"? As a Christian, it would probably be weird if she didn't think that, and really, while we're not officially a Christian nation, it's a fact of life that our country has been run and inhabited by mostly Christians throughout its history. Abraham Lincoln probably thought he was an instrument of God's will when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and is that so bad? Believing that God is on control of world events doesn't imply that individuals can't act on their own conscience. If that's what Harris is implying, then I don't understand why, and if not, then I guess I don't understand what. I also don't follow what is wrong with Palin asking people to pray concerning Iraq, "that there is a plan, and that plan is God's plan." Most of us Christians believe that the Biblical God is a God of peace (yes, despite detractors who point out the bloodiness of so much of the Bible and church history), and seeing that there rarely seems to be evidence for any sort of plan in Iraq, such a prayer request makes almost too much sense.

The thing of it is, our religious views are part and parcel of who we are as individuals. That goes for atheists too, who have religious views despite not having religion. If religious views are a part of individuals, then living as we do in a representative democracy made up of elected individuals, religious views are a part of our government. Now of course that means that indeed we should be interested in the religious views of the candidates we elect, but sometimes it seems like so many of us are far too interested, and place undue emphasis on the bare fact of having a view, rather than asking what the implication, if any, of that view may be. When John McCain made the announcement that Palin was to be his running mate, my initial thought was that he was trying to pick someone that would attract disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, this view not being mine alone, and also not being completely ridiculous, as indeed it seems to have worked on a few people. In time, I came to realize that what Palin really represents is that she is the anti-Obama. In a very odd turn of events, (to my mind at least) rather than attempting to position himself as a centrist, he's chosen a running mate that further accentuates the differences between himself and the left.

The weird thing about this is, despite being the polar opposite of Barack Obama, I truly believe that both Palin and Obama have formed their political views in no small part due to their individual faiths: and both of them are Christians! What does it really mean that this sort of thing can happen? How is it, jumping back again to Lincoln, that in the heyday of American slavery, most slave owners were Christians who used the Bible to justify slavery, while at the same time most abolitionists were also Christians who used the Bible to justify abolition of slavery? It would almost seem that either we Christians are suffering from the same sort of schizophrenia that I attributed to myself, or maybe it's just our country, which happens coincidentally to be run by Christians. Either way, there's a bit of an identity crisis at work here, and various people have various ways of dealing with it.

While Harris is pretty generous, it's not in my experience the usual case that atheists can separate out political views from religious ones. Like many Christians I know who are convinced that only the most dedicated Christians are truly fit for running out country, many atheists seem drawn to the candidate who does his or her best at taking their religious views and stuffing them down out of sight. As our national politicians do seem to be almost invariably Christians, the best they can hope for tends to be whoever is the least overtly Christian. In the meantime, those who are more outspoken about religious issues in particular over the political can use the fact of this wide diversity of ideals to argue the emptiness of Christian values. After all, if the Bible is clear in what separates right from wrong, then there ought to be no difference of opinion on what constitutes proper behavior for a Christian, even in the political arena.

While such a view may seem incharitable, it's unfortunately one that also exists within the church, perhaps most often among those I briefly mentioned in the previous paragraph. Earlier this year, I had been discussing with someone from my church the matter of Mitt Romney, and whether a Mormon (not necessarily Romney in particular) could be a suitable President. He argued strongly that no, it would be unconscionable for a Christian to vote for a Mormon. I asked him if he felt so strongly about this that he would, say, consider voting for Hillary Clinton a preferable option over Mitt Romney. He said that he hardly considered Clinton to be a Christian, so that was apparently a false dilemma. But why? What would make him believe that Clinton was not a Christian? As far as I am aware, she was raised in a Christian home, regularly attends church, and essentially does all the sorts of things that Christians are supposed to do. I never asked, so I could be wrong, but I'd be willing to guess that it essentially boils down to the fact that she's a Democrat. The "Religious Right" in the Reagan era seems to have burned into the minds of Christians and non-Christians, liberals and conservatives, Republicans, Democrats and independents that the terms "Christian" and "Republican" are all but synonymous.

It's a dangerous place to be, I think. The country seems so badly divided these days that I don't like the idea of trying to find more and more ways to pull us apart. Can't I stand together with my fellow Christians, even if many of them are Republicans and I am a Democrat? Can't I stand together with my fellow Democrats, even if I'm not quite as strongly "pro-choice" or "pro-gay rights" as most of them? Can't I stand together with my fellow Americans, even if many of them are atheists, Republicans, or even just people who don't like my taste in music? Regardless of the religious and political affiliations of our next President, regardless of the legality and morality of gay marriage, regardless of whether you believe God guides all things in every way on a day-by-day basis or you believe he's just a myth dreamed up by an ancient tribe of nomadic shepherds, we still all have to live together and share this country. We have to share the whole damned world. If we can't even talk about talking about it, how will we ever actually do it?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A: Lipstick! Get it?

I suppose after having spent so much time and energy expounding on the state of legalization of same-sex marriage in Colorado, I ought to at least take a moment out of my busy schedule of doing nothing of value to give my thoughts on the state of the legality of same-sex marriage here in my own state of California. I was actually thinking I'd put in a longer rant covering all of the full dozen initiatives set to appear on our ballot come November, and maybe I still will, but experience has taught me that it doesn't matter much what I write, nobody seems to be reading.

Speaking of nobody reading, every time I receive my official Voter Information Guide, I take some time to sit down and read through the thing, wondering as I do what segment of the population I fit into by doing so. I find it hard to believe that many people actually do take the time to read the thing, partially because nobody I've ever asked about it has said to me, "Oh yeah, I totally read that thing, too." Of course, maybe it's not apathy; it could be a form of mental self-defense. The guide is confusing and often self-contradictory because there is no requirement that the pro and con statements contained within it be checked for accuracy. Also, there's the annoying fact that since the arguments for and against the propositions are not given the option of using boldface type, virtually every argument writer opts for the (annoying long before the advent of the WWW) use of ALL-CAPITALS STATEMENTS so that they can scream from the page about how much this proposition will COST TAXPAYERS, and how they URGE YOU TO JOIN US IN OPPOSING THIS FLAWED PIECE OF LEGISLATION. But that's a more generalized rant, and I was intending to focus on the single issue of Proposition 8, the "California Marriage Protection Act". (Although the issue of SHOUTING TEXT will come up.)

It's funny, because for myself, as well as a number of other Californians, this proposition comes with a sense of déjà vu. As is said repeatedly in the guide, this is essentially the exact same law that was passed by California voters in March of 2000 (then Proposition 22). As the supporters of the law love to point out, it's just 14 words, which allows me the easy luxury of giving the whole text right here: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." Before I try to dissect that in any way, let me give the history supplied in the guide just in case you're not familiar. This law, having passed in March 2000, stayed on the books for about eight years until the California Supreme Court said in May of this year that the law violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

Law is a fascinating thing to me for various reasons, one of which is the fact that it has the tendency as it grows to become self-contradictory. We try to build systems that deal with such problems, one such system being the various courts of the land, which--despite the way it makes some feel--are in many ways the final authority on all things legal. When the courts make a controversial ruling like overturning Proposition 22, they're either "activist judges" or "doing their job", depending on how you feel about it. Yes, how dare the California Supreme Court interpret law? Who do they think they are? It's all part of that "checks and balances" thing we hear about now and again, but it works both ways: the Supreme Court can overturn laws, but since they answer to the Constitution, it's possible to go over their heads, which is why Proposition 8 is a Constitutional Amendment. (As far as I can tell, the difference between an "initiative statute" and an "initiative constitutional amendment" is the number of signatures needed on your petition.) If this passes, the Court pretty much just has to accept it.

I find it interesting that we're going this route for various reasons. I mean, on some level it's certainly no surprise that people who feel very strongly about those 14 words are miffed that they got shot down, and so are trying to push them just a little bit harder. I'm sure more than a few people are of the feeling that it's a little unfair that when we pass a law it doesn't just stay passed, but hey, when we vote in a Governor, he doesn't just stay Governor (even if the debate over this amendment trots out the gay penguins, I seriously doubt it will halfway meet the level of bizarre that the 2003 recall election gave us), so it shouldn't really be a surprise. The thing that's so odd about this path is that while I suspect it has a lot to do with indignation and moral outrage that surely Proposition 22 was right and the will of the people, the supporters of Proposition 8 seem to be giving a pretty soft sell for this one. The argument for it seems to be taking the confusing position that Proposition 8 will essentially change nothing, and yet in changing nothing, it is still of supreme importance. I quote:

"Proposition 8 is about preserving marriage; it's not an attack on the gay lifestyle. Proposition 8 doesn't take away any rights or benefits of gay or lesbian domestic partnerships."
So essentially, same-sex couples get everything except the word "marriage", and that's of supreme importance as it somehow "protects our children". Maybe more on that later if I can make any sense of it.

Now the thing I find interesting in particular about those who stand against Proposition 8 is a single statement in their rebuttal to the argument for the proposition--a statement that stands in direct opposition to the point above--that was apparently worth putting into caps:
Wow. I mean, that's significant, isn't it? You might wonder what these nine differences are. I know I do, because nowhere in their rebuttal do they list a single one. Really, I was curious enough to visit, feeling surely such a list would be posted there prominently. If it's there, I can't find it, nor did any Google search terms I could think of turn up such a list. (Maybe if there is someone who actually reads this who knows something I don't about these "NINE REAL DIFFERENCES", they could give me a heads-up. [EDIT: Found them!]) Really, if such a list exists, I think it would be excellent ammunition in this debate, so why hold it back? Even Republicans can list at least one real difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull, and I wasn't aware that anyone was even asking.

What are we asking? We're asking for the law to protect us, aren't we? But from what? Those in favor claim that if Proposition 8 fails to pass, the public school system will start "to teach young children that there is no difference between gay marriage and traditional marriage." The detractors deny this, but neither side says why this is significant. Maybe to you, my theoretical reader, the answer is obvious, but I suspect that if you're a person who finds the answer obvious, you're not a person who needs to be convinced that same-sex marriage should be disallowed. Aren't both arguments here really "preaching to the choir"? It's weird, because while I do feel it's the case, at the same time I wonder why if it's so, it's done so subtly.

Contrary to popular opinion concerning the fervently rabid homophobia that runs through evangelical churches, homosexuality is not a topic that's talked about much in church as far as I've experienced. I've been a Christian for over 13 years, and in all that time, I think I've experienced less than five sermons on the specific topic of homosexuality, and the topic has come up tangentially at most maybe a dozen times, but I doubt it's even that much. That being said, within the confines of the church walls, you won't find pastors pulling punches on the subject when it does come up. Sure, all sermons are (rightly) tempered with the admonition to remember that God loves everyone, regardless of sexual preference or any other characteristic, but most pastors will come right out and say that same-gender sexual relations are sinful, period. Meeting up with the average congregant on the street, ask their view on the matter and they will probably say likewise without reservation. Does anyone really believe that Proposition 8 is about anything else but moral indignation? Aren't there really only two types of people who oppose same-sex marriage? There are people who feel that God has said "no" to it, and people who just personally think it's gross, I guess. (Yes, there's overlap between the two groups, but in my opinion, it's a long way from total.) Yet nowhere in the arguments (for or against) will you find the words "morality" or "sin".

Do the supporters think that if they don't put the thought into words, that people won't know it's there? On the other hand, if it's not there, then what's the point of the argument at all? Aren't we left with the nonsensical line of "reasoning" that since things have never been the way they've been since the Supreme Court ruling in May, then they should continue not being that way? The "for" argument mostly stays away from using all caps, but does have one sentence, "CALIFORNIANS HAVE NEVER VOTED FOR SAME-SEX MARRIAGE." See, it's not about morality, it's about how since we never voted FOR same-sex marriage, we therefore obviously ought to vote AGAINST it.

It was very entertaining for me to try and put myself in the fantasy neutral mindset of someone who's been living in a cave* and has no opinion whatsoever on gay marriage, but now finds himself beset with the task of sorting out how to vote on this proposition. (After all, I can't imagine who else is supposed to be swayed by these arguments.) PRO: Apparently, this law was considered to be a good idea by most people, but the courts said that it wasn't, so we have to make it a good idea, or else our children will suffer the consequences: being taught that same-sex relationships are okay, not that we're saying that they aren't okay. Basically, gays don't have the right to redefine marriage, so we're going to instead, and if they wanted that right, they should have excercised it. CON: Everyone should be treated the same, but if this passes, everyone won't be treated the same, because this treats people differently, in different ways. Domestic partnerships are different in many ways; many, many ways indeed. Different people are different, but that doesn't mean they're different and should be treated like they're different, which this law does, and that's not what we need.

Who knew 14 words could say so much and yet say nothing of substance whatsoever? You'd think the California Constitution was written by bloggers.

(*Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart said, "For anybody who has been living in a cave, let me just say this: congratulations! You've apparently made the soundest real estate investment possible. Once again, bin Laden wins.")

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lord of Atlantis

The thought should have comforted Bobby but it didn't. He found himself thinking of what William Golding had said, that the boys on the island were rescued by the crew of a battle-cruiser and good for them...but who would rescue the crew? ...[T]he words still haunted Bobby. What if there were no grownups? Suppose the whole idea of grownups was an illusion? What if their money was really just playground marbles, their business deals no more than baseball-card trades, their wars only games of guns in the park? What if they were all still snotty-nosed kids inside their suits and dresses? Christ that couldn't be, could it? It was too horrible to think about. -Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King, p. 153

Hearts in Atlantis may be one of the best books I've ever read, and perhaps the reason why may make me more than a bit of a cynic. Stephen King has written an awful lot of books, and they vary greatly in subject, tone and even genre. Generally, I think of him as a very good writer, someone who has the ability to show us the serious and dark side of things, often using metaphors of the supernatural. A lot of people see his work as being schlocky, but to me, that's part of the magic of it: Yes, he's schlocky, but there's still something powerful in what he has to say that both his casual fans and dismissive detractors will miss.

I remember as a high school freshman writing my first real essay on a book in response to The Shining. What I mean by "real essay on a book" is that this was something that went beyond elementary-school "book reports" in which you essentially wrote up a page synopsis of what happened on the surface of the plot of the book you had just read. You know, this would be the sort of thing like, "The Shining is a book about a writer who spends the winter in a haunted hotel and tries to kill his family." Throw in some descriptions of the main characters and evaluations such as, "I thought this book was awfully spooky, but good," to pad it out to 250 words and you'll pass seventh-grade English. I remember thinking with great satisfaction as I produced that essay that this was something much better than just a grouping of words set on paper to keep me from flunking out, just as The Shining was far more than a haunted house story.

Maybe it was growing up with an alcoholic stepfather that made me see the story the way I did. (I suppose I should insert the disclaimer that I'm not playing the victim card here: I'm sure I had it much better than many children with alcoholic parents; my stepfather was a drunk, but not abusive.) I argued that The Shining was an allegory for the way that alcohol abuse can transform a person into something ugly that's not really who they should be, and thus destroy their family. Sure, the fictional Overlook Hotel was a place with a dark history and seemingly crowded with evil spirits, but it seemed clear to me that the "spirits" that were of the most concern were the ones that had caused the protagonist to lose control and break his three-year-old son's arm long before he ever even heard of the Overlook, and the ghost of that shame haunted his life in a far more terrifying way than any supernatural specter could ever manage.

The Shining was not a book I had been assigned to read, and I doubt it's a book that is often assigned to students as required reading, although it's pretty good. I read somewhere recently (I'm afraid I don't recall where it was) that there is usually nothing that will squash interest in a book for a reader more quickly than telling them they have to read it, and I think there's definitely truth to it. Had various middle and high school reading lists been different, I no doubt would have liked William Shakespeare considerably more and Stephen King considerably less, but there was one book that I was assigned to read in high school that instilled an excitement in me that even requirement to read could not dull. That book was Golding's Lord of the Flies, a book that King featured prominently in both Hearts in Atlantis and Cujo.

What I particularly remember about it was the discussions that took place in the class in which we were assigned Lord of the Flies. It seemed that few of my classmates found the story believable and saw the world and its people with far more of a rosy tint than I could allow myself. Surely, if children in real life were to act like the children in the book, it must be because they were somehow taught to act so. Violence and hatred don't come naturally, and most of us are much better than that, right? I didn't know why it was they thought so, but life had taught me otherwise. In first grade, waiting for the bus to school, a young man had been hit by a car, and fellow elementary school students had crowded the curbside shouting, "Cool, look at all the blood!" as we waited for an ambulance to arrive. In second grade, I'd seen classmates break into fistfights over someone cutting in line for the drinking fountain when another drinking fountain not four feet away had no line at all. In fourth grade, a playground bully realized he couldn't get at me in front of the teacher monitoring the playground at lunch, so he found out what route I used to walk home and met me there with five of his friends to help hold me down and beat me up. I remember a summer in junior high in which a tent mate at my summer camp thought that retaliating against someone who'd dumped a bucket of cold water on him by dumping a bucket of scalding-hot water on them was a neat idea. Besides all these overt physical acts of violence, there was the fact that there was hardly a single child in the world I knew that had not at some point in time engaged in some form of character assassination against a schoolmate.

Nobody has to teach children to be selfish, that's just natural and (God help us) even logical. It seems a fact of life that we have to be selfish in order to survive, at least to some degree. Yet in addition to that, nobody seems to need to teach us how to be petty, cruel and backbiting either. Every child wants to be well-liked, but for some reason I cannot fathom (although surely I've not been immune) most children seem to want to decrease the popularity, esteem and success of others. Our parents don't tell us to go to kindergarten and call some other kid a "poo-poo head"; we just do it...because. The school bully who shakes down smaller kids for their lunch money probably isn't hard up for cash; he just enjoys causing fear and humiliation and the ensuing sense of power it gives him. I have been made to understand, both from women who have had to live with it and from Hollywood, that girls engage in a subtle sort of social bullying that's far worse than anything we boys can imagine or even understand, and it seems to come as naturally and regularly as their monthly cycle.

That's what's really so engaging and chilling about Lord of the Flies: the fact that it's somehow more than a mere work of fiction. We live it. As children, we seem to be constantly a moment away from breaking down into complete anarchy and savagery. It's a cliché that has some great truth to it: that it only takes a minute for the teacher to step out of the classroom for the spitballs to come out. Sometimes, it's more than spitballs. Sometimes, it doesn't matter if the teacher has left the classroom. Years before the infamous tragedy at Columbine high school, King wrote a story called "Rage", in which a high school student walks into a classroom with a gun and shoots the teacher. What ensues in the story is not a massacre, but an afternoon in which this student, who has crossed over a line that most of us hopefully would never cross, shows how close to crossing over lines the others in the class have come themselves. Once again, King shows a side of horror that's not rooted in the supernatural at all, this time in a more straightforward fashion, allegories left by the wayside. In doing so he gives a story that's chilling not only in itself, but in the fact that recent years have shown us that so very dark tale is far lighter fare than the facts that the nightly news will bring. Many of us would rather have the fantasy, because the good guys so often win in the end.

It's something that we tend to do to lighten the weight of evil. Both in fiction and in real life, we look to the supernatural to explain away evil. In Cujo (oddly enough, one of my least-favorite King novels), the story revolves around a rabid dog that directly and indirectly causes the deaths of many people in a town that a few years before had been victimized by a serial killer. More than once, characters from the book seem to be of the opinion that somehow the spirit of this serial killer is haunting the town, maybe even possessing the rabid dog in order to carry on the killing spree even in death. It's a work of fiction, but in real life, rational people don't think of serial killers that way, do they? It would be easier, though. Rather than think that a fellow human being would be capable of certain atrocities, there's almost a comfort in imagining that a demonic force drove him to kill, and that same force lingered around so we could place upon it the blame for the tragic accident of a rabid dog left to run free and kill some more.

Just a few years after my class read Lord of the Flies, in that same small rural high school where my classmates couldn't believe in the imagined atrocities of children left to their own devices, a student decided that breaking up with his girlfriend was too much trouble, and it would be easier to kill her and dump the body in a ravine. The story briefly made national news as it was announced his lawyer would actually plead before the court that the boy was possessed by Satan. Heck, I'm a Christian and actually believe that Satan is a real being, and yet I call this bullshit. I don't know how the case turned out, nor do I want to, but I do know this: we as human beings don't like to think that one of us is capable of killing simply to get out of a date, but from what I have seen, history shows that human beings are willing to kill just because we can.

Lord of the Flies is probably not a book that often gets pigeonholed into a specific genre, being left in that wide-open field of 'fiction' (or the more pretentious 'literature'), but really, it's 'horror' through and through. We've been conditioned by our culture to think of 'horror' as a genre to be a sort of sub-genre of 'sci-fi/fantasy', in which terrible, bloody things happen at the hand of fantastic subhuman or superhuman beings, but we forget that the true horror of life is that terrible things happen constantly in the natural world by the will of perfectly natural humans. Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden aren't "monsters", but regular people like you and me who used their influence over others to encourage acts of great evil. The boys on that island may be products of fiction, but their actions are tame compared to those of their non-fictional contemporaries in many parts of the world.

Bobby Garfield, the young protagonist of the first story in Hearts in Atlantis, comes into contact with some fearsome evil beings sprung from a fictional world in Stephen King's head: the "low men in yellow coats." (They're not much like the toned-down characters in the movie with Anthony Hopkins, for those who have seen it but not read the book.) Yet these strange characters–who we rational readers realize will never cross paths with us in the real world–are not nearly so frightening as a variety of other characters that he comes across whom he thinks of as also being "low men", but not at all in a supernatural sense. At a pivotal point in his story, his girlfriend is accosted by three older boys, who beat her with a baseball bat. (Another minor recurring theme of King's work is the use of mundane sports equipment for violent acts: In the movie version of The Shining, the father attacks his family with an ax, but in the novel, it was a mallet from a game like croquet. In 'Salem's Lot, the protagonist stakes the heart of a vampire with a broken baseball bat. Coincidentally, the real-life murder in my home town involved a baseball bat as well.) The story being set in 1960, many of the boys in the story grow up and are sent to fight in Vietnam where they, as adults, will perform acts perhaps far more gruesome than beating up an eleven-year-old girl with a baseball bat, and this time, they'll do it with the support of their government.

The characters in this book struggle with the issues of senseless violence in different ways: trying to atone for it, living in denial of it, and in several cases even responding in kind. These are very human reactions, ones that are often explored in the horror genre but here laid bare by lack of extreme measures of the supernatural. There's something extremely frightening about schoolboys that beat up a girl with a baseball bat that bogeymen and space aliens can't seem to match, because things like the former happen every day. Anne Rice vampires philosophically contemplating the morality of taking the blood of innocents in order to satisfy their lust for blood may make for good entertainment, but governments contemplating the same to satisfy the lust for petroleum and power? We have to live with that in the real world! The phrase "man's inhumanity to man" has always seemed a strange one to me, as "inhumanity" seems to be one of the hallmarks of humanity.

I had been working on this piece of writing off and on for some time, at one point thinking it would be an appropriate piece for publishing on September 11th, a date most people today relate to the real-world reality of horror. (As it is, today, the 19th, is an appropriate anniversary as well, although even more mundane and less well-known.) There's a big part of me that is glad I waited, for a few reasons. I'm much less sentimental about anniversaries than most people, rarely seeing significance in a date just because it happens to be that same date that something else happened in the past; after all, calendars are largely arbitrary. As for arbitrariness, I remember for some time that conspiracy buffs were struggling to find meaning in why the attacks happened on September 11, but as far as I know, nobody ever forwarded a theory of substance. September 11th was really just a day like any other day before the first plane crashed, and the date may as well have been chosen by throwing a dart at a calendar. We look for higher meaning in tragedy, perhaps in the hope that if we can understand what "9/11" really means, we'll know when the next date will be. Of course, when (not if) that day comes, it will once again be just another day the morning before whatever tragedy it is occurs.

And as for the senseless violence we perpetrate in response to senseless violence? Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart made a sobering point about 9/11 and all the battles that have been waged over it. "Nineteen people flew into the towers. It seems hard for me to imagine that we could go to war enough to make the world safe enough that nineteen people wouldn’t want to do harm to us." Obviously, we can't. We won't stop violence by answering it with more violence, but we also won't stop it by ignoring it. The truth is, we simply won't stop it, period. All it takes for violence to occur is a single man with a gun, or even a kid with a baseball bat. And that is horror on a level that fiction can never reach.