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Neo-Puritanism

Obsession with moral purity as defined by certain reactionary semitic cults (e.g., evangelical protestantism). Characterized by pompous self-righteousness and a conviction in your opponent's utter lack of moral worth. Usually characterized by a sense of being a member of an "Elect." Usually accompanied by an obsession with sex and sexuality.
(See Neo-Calvinism.)

Bruce Fein: Snobby Conservative Elitists Like Me Are The Only True Judges Of Exceptionality

Bruce Fein is getting his ducks in order to say "I-told-you-so":

None of the presidential or vice presidential candidates would have been worthy of the constitutional convention of 1787 or the Federalist Papers, the high-water mark of political erudition and profundity in more than a thousand years. Among other things, they all subscribe to the delusions that the government can outfox the efficiencies of free markets; that the United States can be made safer and freer by sacrificing the lives and limbs of tens of thousands of American soldiers abroad and squandering hundreds of billions of dollars in quixotic adventures to transform incorrigibly tribal or feudal societies into friendly secular democracies; and, that international terrorism justifies a permanent global war crowning the president with perpetual war powers, including the authority to detain American citizens as "enemy combatants" for life without accusation or charge; to spy on Americans without warrants in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; and, to employ waterboarding against detainees with impunity.

Translation #1: "Those Founding Father guys were, like, total gods, dude. Like, I read that their shit didn't even smell bad!"

Alternate Translation: "Don't blame me -- I voted for Kodos!"

Anyway, those are all strong statements Fein's making. Mostly false, and obviously so, and where not false, off the point:

  • The people who were there at the constitutional Convention of 1787 weren't "worthy" of it; and in any case, would certainly not be "worthy" to face the challenges we face now. We face our challenges with what we have, not with what we wish we had. (Don Rumsfeld got that much right.)
  • The Free Market is not a god, and it's not a law of nature, Fein and the Marketistas contentions to the contrary notwithstanding. We make choices about how our society is to be structured, and right now, the dominant choices are favoring Marketism. That was not always the case and there is no reason to suppose it will always continue to be in the future.
  • At least Obama, and arguably also Biden, have been quite clear in their belief that sacrificing the lives and limbs of Americans overseas does not make us safer, and if Fein were being honest he'd admit that he knows that.
  • Similarly, it's not at all clear that Obama and Biden support the continuation of Presidential war powers. But I'll just argue that Fein is too strong on this point, since neither Obama nor Biden has explicitly said they'll roll them back.
  • Both Obama and Biden have, though, been clear that the FISA must be honored by the next President, and ought to be honored by the current one.
  • Finally, Obama for his part has been quite clear (and I actually believe McCain would probably backtrack to his older, more ethically-grounded position on this once he was in office) that torture is simply not acceptable.

Moreover, this is all stuff that Fein should know if he's been paying attention, and if he's not been paying attention, there's absolutely no reason anybody should listen to his opinon on anything of consequence. So, what's the point of this exercise in late-term sour grapes?

It has to be so that Fein claim blamelessness and moral high-ground. He's pretending this is really about "mediocrity", it's really about America not turning to its elites anymore. There may actually be some wisdom in such a view -- but Fein's got no ground to stand on, since he doesn't actually know what the real capabilities of the candidates actually are. He hasn't allowed himself to see them. Other discerning people have looked at Obama, for example, and seen a confident, capable politician -- as qualified to lead America as, say, John Adams or Abraham Lincoln at the time of their ascension. What had they "run"? What could we look at in their records to say that they had the "experience" required?

The answers are all questions of either the good fortunate to participate in momentous decisions (in Adams' case), or in a judgement of character based on reputation and rhetoric (in the case of Lincoln). Neither had "executive experience" of any kind prior to assuming office. But in Fein's worldview, they're unassailable giants. What he's blind to is the fact that their stature is a matter of hindsight (and what I like about these examples is that either one would readily admit as much -- well, maybe not Adams, since his stature is really only now being so elevated). 

What this is really all about is that Fein's not getting to specify who's "exceptional." (Which is a damn good thing, since he's clearly got some problems with seeing what's actually going on in the world.) What this is really all about is that Fein's opinion isn't coinciding with the direction the electorate wants to go.

What's really going on is that there are these kids playing on (what Fein thinks is) his lawn, and he wants them to pull up their pants and show him some deference, dammit.

Which they might be willing do, if it wasn't clear that he isn't interested in actually listening to anyone else's opinions.

Before Bruce Fein expects anyone to take him seriously as a credible arbiter of who's exceptional and who's not, he should first demonstrate that we ought to listen to him (by showing he's been paying attention), and that he's got some  awareness of actual history (by recognizing that people were often as small, petty and unprepared in the past as they are now). Until then, he's just a snobby, snooty conservative elitist.

Schizoid Conservative Moralism

I've always found it both ironic and unsurprising that American Conservatives are simultaneously raunchier and more puritanical than liberals. Cases in point? Sarah Palin sells herself on sex and motherhood, combining a tailored suit with fuck-me boots and winking like a Hooters hostess at all the horny little conservative boys out in TV land. Meanwhile, Fox news appeals to the Supreme Court for the right to use obscenity and consistently pushes out the most violent and sexually suggestive shows on broadcast TV, while simultaneously bankrolling harradins of culture war like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

If you were raised in a moderately conservative church, there's a good chance that you encountered some variation of the Preacher's Kid. On the face, they're perfect Christian sons and daughters, in the pew with straight back and perfect grooming and butter wouldn't melt in their mouth -- it's all "yes, ma'am," and "no, sir," and "what would Jesus do?"

But once the adults are out of sight, they're grabbing the bottle and giving out a big fat wink before they take a long, hard pull and beckon for a hit off the joint. Then it's off to deflower a virgin or get nasty with that smoker-boy in the leather jacket.

Any convention-city prostitute can tell you that the Republicans are the kinky ones, and they can also tell you why: It's the repression. They want to both please and resist mommy and daddy at the same time. They want to be both bad and good. They're the Preacher's Kid writ on grand scale.

On moral culpability for the killing of civilians

John McCain, February 15, 2000:

"In the most obscene chapter in recent American history is the conduct of the Kosovo conflict when the president of the United States refused to prepare for ground operations, refused to have air power used effectively because he wanted them flying -- he had them flying at 15,000 feet where they killed innocent civilians because they were dropping bombs from such -- in high altitude."

Barack Obama, 2008:

 "We've got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there."

The difference is obvious, really: The President that McCain's talking about is Bill Clinton, who on top of being a Democrat and a draft dodger is a moral degenerate. The President Obama's talking about is a Republican and a staunch lip-service defender of morality. Puritan that he is, McCain of course would and could see no equivalence between these statements.

At a more subtle level, look at the language that's being deployed. In McCain's version, it's all about obscenity and moral condemnation. In Obama's version, it's all about pragmatism. When you start to look at it that way, Obama can look kind of cold and calculating. It's interesting that instead of pursuing that angle (which Democratic competitors found very fruitful during the primaries), McCain projects into it his own passionate moral condemnation. Couldn't have anything to do with his personal history behind the stick of an attack bomber in Vietnam.

[Via the Washington Times, of all places.]

At 4,800 female residents, that's how many rapes per year?

From the Boston Globe story about the idea that the town of Wasilla made rape victims pay to report a rape, this paragraph caught my attention:

After the Alaska Legislature banned the fees, Palin's handpicked police chief, Charlie Fannon, complained that the state's action would force the town to spend $5,000 to $14,000 a year to cover the costs. "I just don't want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer," Fannon said.

Now, supposedly the town didn't actually charge people to report rapes (by billing them for the rape kit that you'd have to use in order to actually get a rape charge to stick). That's actually not what I'm interested in, here: What I'm interested in are the rape statistics implicit in Charlie Fannon's statement.

Let's do some math. Now, I know that medical supplies and procedures are expensive under the current American medical system, so let's be conservative and assume that the real cost to the town for the billable parts of a rape kit are $200 each. That works out to between 25 and 70 reported rapes per year in the town of Wasilla, based on Fannon's cost estimates. That's in a town which might possibly have as many as 4,800 female residents, depending on whose demographic data you accept.

How does that compare with national averages?

The most recent data I could quickly find is from 1998, for a sexual assault rate (incidence of actual penetrative rape would be lower) of 34.4 per 100,000 persons. Roughly estimating, that's about .03% (math corrections welcome). With a total population of about 9,600, given 25 to 70 reported rapes per year, the town of Wasilla has a rape-rate of between about .3% and .7% -- that makes Wasilla's rape rate between 10 and 20 times higher than the national average for 1998, or about 260 to 730 per 100,000 persons.

What the hell are they smoking up there?

[Correcting my math.]

Mature Content Warning: This Program Might Make You Think

Before Nova this evening, there was a "mature content" warning.

Nova tonight discussed an ongoing controversy regarding the origin of the original human inhabitants of the Americas. In brief, it discussed the long-standard "Clovis-first" theory in the light of new archaeological finds, conjectures based on analysis of tools from ice age Europe, and evidence from analysis of mitochondrial DNA.

In short: About as hard-science as archaeology gets. Finding the bones, finding the tools, big-time.

During the entire program, there wasn't a single bare breast, not a single blue word or phrase, not one mention of gay marriage or even a hint of sexual liaison (aside from the implication that the ancestors of modern native americans might have, you know, reproduced).

So why the mature content? Is it, perhaps, that they're scared that some religious fanatic might point out that when you're talking about things that happened 15,000-20,000 years ago, you're pretty much assuming that the world is older than 4,000 years -- hence insulting all the KJV Baptists in the Nova audience?

By contrast, consider any random episode of Law & Order: Elevator Inspectors Unit, or CSI: Sheboygan, wherein you're likely to find references to "last meals" of semen or violent sexual deviance. I don't recall ever seeing a "mature content warning" before either of those shows. Ever. But then, they don't challenge the Dog-given age o' the universe....

Land of the Sterile Storm Troopers

When George Lucas first deigned to underwhelm us with his vision of the last days of the Galactic Empire in the summer of 1999, SF writer David Brin responded with a thoughtful essay on Salon.com describing in some detail why the idea of life in the Star Wars universe left him depressed, and the idea of life in Roddenberry's "Next Generation"-era Trek universe didn't.

The short version is that George Lucas is a closet fascist.

That's putting a few words into Brin's mouth, but not many. I found his arguments very appealing, and still do. So I'm tittilated by Anthony Lane's review of Star Wars Episode III in The New Yorker:

... Mind you, how Padmé got pregnant is anybody's guess, although I'm prepared to wager that it involved Anakin nipping into a broom closet with a warm glass jar and a copy of Ewok Babes. After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn't go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from "Alien" and "Blade Runner"—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence. Judging from the whoops and crowings that greeted the opening credits, this is the only dream we are good for. We get the films we deserve.

Come to think of it, I don't recall seeing a toilet in any of those immaculate Death Star prison cells... Geez. Thanks a lot. Now (on the off chance I do go to see it in the theaters), I'll keep looking for the door to the bathroom the whole time.

Most Of The People, Some Of The Time, Redux, Etc.

"Judicial activism" is a funny term. It seems that now, when Judges behave conservatively (as in, conserving clearly delineated constitutional rights), that's "activism" -- especially if it requires that the judge point out the simple Lincolnesque truth, that it's possible to fool most of the people for long enough to get a really dangerously sweeping proposition passed into law.

Case in point: Nebraska's version of the boilerplate "Defense of Marriage" act has been struck down as federally unconstitutional in two distinct and sufficient ways: It "creates a significant barrier to the plaintiffs' right to petition or to participate in the political process" and "imposes significant burdens on both the expressive and intimate associational rights" of gays, lesbians, and potentially anyone who wants to form a legally binding association that's not a state-sanctioned "marriage" between a "man" and a "woman."

Like, say, shacking up. Or signing a palimony agreement. Between straights.

The Neo-Calvinists and their fellow-travellers keep talking about the fact that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support the measure "defining marriage as between a man and a woman" after being barraged with highly charged advertisements and exhortations from the (real or virtual) pulpit for weeks to months. What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support a measure that they clearly did not understand. They didn't understand, for example, that it would radically restrict the rights of foster parents, unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners, persons in power-of-attorney relationships, non-custodial parents, and so on.

What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" got conned.

If it weren't for the fact that it would require abrogating the US Constitution, I'd be inclined to let Nebraska, Kansas and the rest of the virtual bible-belt just slide back into the dark ages. Politicized evangelism has far, far greater potential to destroy this nation than racial issues have had at any time in the last 40 years. Racial issues have at least been constrained: By notions of decency (no mainstream white could use the "N" word without censure), and by commonly-held economic desires (almost everybody wants the American Dream, and almost everybody is willing to see that, even about classes of people for whom they have contempt). Religious issues are not so constrained: When it's a religious issue, your opposition is evil, pure and simple -- believe that, or be damned. End of discussion. Please leave the church by the side door, so you don't soil the earth your neighbors have to walk on.

But [un?]fortunately, we do all have to live together in this country. We don't get to let them live in the mediaeval hell they seem determined to create. Not the least reason being that the virtual belt isn't limited to big square red states -- it harms people in places like Michigan and Connecticut who've never done any harm to anyone by being so immoral (or so unfortunate in their sexual orientation) as to dare to co-habitate without the benefit of state-sanctioned marriage.

So we don't get to let them sleep in the bed they've made. But we don't have to let them make us sleep in it, either.

Keeping America Safe From British Novelists

There's a perfectly good explanation for why US Customs refused Ian MacEwan entry to the country. It wasn't because he was dangerous; nor was it because he was deemed to pose some kind of terror threat. Nor was it because someone thought he might be a journalist instead of a tourist. It apparently wasn't even because he disagrees with US climate policy and doesn't mind saying so in public.

It was because he was going to make too much money. It seems the honoraria for his series of Seattle-area speaking ingagements totaled a wee bit too much. So he needed to have a work visa, not a tourist visa.

So they stamped his passport "Refused Entry." "Once that stamp gets in a passport, it's difficult to get it out," said Britain's Consul General for Vancouver, James Rawlinson. "The process of reversing that is not merely a matter of crossing that out. Reversing that requires referrals to Washington, D.C., and the headquarters of the State Department and Homeland Security. It gets rather heavy."

Oh, well -- at least when you're a well-known novelist like Ian McEwan, people [who matter] might miss you.

[via Bruce Sterling's Viridian Note 00440]

Small Choices Moving Fast

It's a truism: You can't use the system to really fight the system. If you use a record label to sell songs about smashing capitalism, you're not doing anything substantial to smash capitalism.

So what do you do? Opt out of everything? Or act in small ways? Small ways are unsatisfying; and in any case, how do you know that the soap or chips you buy are really doing anything like what your conscience would have you hope?

Seminal straight-edger Ian MacKaye noticed these contradictions years ago [RealAudio], and they played a role in his move to a lower-volume sound:

"Volume had relegated bands to playing largely commercial venues. Most of the places that had sound systems were commercial venues; their economy is based on their bar sales. It cements this really insidious link between rock and roll and the alcohol industry. The idea that the people who music epseaks to in some ways the most deeply -- and by that I'm talking about kids, teenagers -- are by and large not allowed to see bands play because they're not old enough to drink."

And in turn, it cements the role of rock and roll as a gateway to the bar life. Not the connection someone like Ian MacKaye would miss. I don't doubt that awareness of that contributed to his desire to play in "non-traditional" venues like family restaurants, public places, and repurposed rented spaces like boathouses.

Small choices can make a difference. They might not overthrow the order of things, but then, revolutions are messy things that often do more harm than good.

Who Needs A Majority When You've Got Righteousness?

Forget about resisting the tyranny of the majority. We're past that. Right-wing Republicans are looking to lock in the tyranny of a minority.

People in both parties, but most notably currently prominent Republicans, are saying there's still hay to be made on the Schiavo case. Democrats say that it can be used to galvanize opposition to the planned Republican takeover of the judiciary branch. Republicans say that it 'energizes the base' -- where the definition of "base" seems to be "hard-core right-to-life Evangelical Christian Republicans." The most wildly exaggerated numbers I know of put that at about 25% of the American population.

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, on Morning Edition this morning [RealAudio], says they're both wrong: That if there had really been an opportunity there, smart Democratic legislators would have jumped on it; and that, furthermore, Republicans had gone too far. "You know, there is a difference between energizing your base, and having your base push you off the edge.... Was it that we needed to prove to the middle, the middle of American politics, that we were willing to go someplace place that they didn't want us to go? How many times can you do that and still be successful politically?"

Republican lion and Episcopelian minister John Danforth agrees. He notes that "traditional Republicans" have complained about the courts going too far. "Most republicans would have said, 'We think that the courts go too far.' Now, it turns out that it's Republicans who are saying that we want the courts to go very far, but in our direction, and I just think that's wrong."

I'd like to think that both Danforth and Fabrizio are right, in their own ways. Danforth's view implies a basic belief that people ought to be morally consistent: That means ought to be consistent with the end, not merely contributory to it. Further, he's clearly a real believer in a pluralistic society. Fabrizio states his view in pragmatic terms, with the clear underlying assumption that it's normal for a nation to be comprised of people with differing views. (If you can dictate people's views, you don't need to worry about being "successful politically.")

But they're both wrong, at least in pragmatic terms. The Republican train is being driven by people who don't see a problem with means that are contrary to the end, or with the idea that the nation ought to bend to their will. Voices of moderation, even when conservative, are no longer welcome. They get in the way of the program, which is to let the Republican Party (by which they mean the intensely activist religious right component) install hegemonic control over American discourse.

Their will is a holy will, after all. Whether it's all the same religion is another question; all that really matters is that one (the religion of power and capital) can be translated into the ends of the other (semitic absolutism, as manifest in right-wing American Christianity).

What Is Neo-Calvinism?

In a nutshell: Neo-Calvinism is Smith's and Weber's Iron Cage. Except that instead of holding the Neo-Calvinists, it restrains the lesser beings that would trouble them -- namely, the poor.

More prosaically, "Neo-Calvinism" is the idea that the rich are more morally worthy than the poor. Their wealth does not confer virtue -- rather, it signifies it. It is the most potent and dangerous of several modern Capitalist sects, because it unifies moral righteousness with an ideology of power.

Calvin, along with notable reformation successors like Martin Luther, believed that a person's salvation was predestined: God (being infallible, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.) had determined in His own time that you or I should be saved or damned. Nothing that we do in our lives can affect that; the decision is already made. In pure Calvinism, this doesn't let you off the hook for moral behavior, because moral behavior is said to be an indicator of your fate.

So good people are good not because they do good things, but because God said they were. "Goodness" is merely an indicator.

As is prosperity. Wesley once famously lamented that as Methodists lived good lives (rising early, working hard, practicing thrift and sobriety), they tended to prosper -- which had the unfortunate side effect of causing them to focus on that worldly prosperity.

Neo-calvinism essentially forgets about God, and makes commerce itself the religion. Prosperity is still a signifier of moral worth -- but instead of being a secondary signifier, it's primary. It indicates stronger character, superior "fitness." It's a close kin to Greedism, but it's more powerful because it marshalls concepts like virtue and fairness to its service. It's related to Objectivism -- and I daresay most Objectivists are Neo-Calvinists -- but it permits a spiritual dimension that can be lacking amongst Randians.

Neo-calvinists are everywhere, all around us. Wherever you find someone who cries "It's not fair!" when they notice that the wealthy pay proportionally greater taxes than the poor, you have found a Neo-Calvinist or one of his fellow-travellers.

The Imaginary Terri Schiavo

Imaginary people make much better martyrs.

Case in point: Terri Schiavo. The appeals are finally exhausted; Terri Schiavo is dead, unequivocally, unappealably. And we've just begun to see the consequences. Quite aside from the impending wrongful-death suit (which will be brought regardless of the results from the forthcoming autopsy, to be performed by a Jeb Bush appointee), the fight has catalyzed a constituency. It's given bullshit artists like Tom Delay (that old exterminator) a soapbox to stand on. Note, as we go forward, the endless repetition of their Big Lies: That the "American People" are behind the reckless Conservative-Republican adventurism; that the case shows improper involvement by the courts, instead of the courts doing their jobs by (perish the thought!) making judgements.

What was this case about? It certainly wasn't about whether one person would have preferred to have her body die; it passed beyond that threshold years ago. It passed beyond that when Bob and Mary Schindler concocted a "person" they called "Terri Schiavo", and identified her with their daughter, and pasted her face over their daughter's face whenever they saw her limbic-brained body in that bed. The "Terri Schiavo" that Bob and Mary struggled so hard to defend was not their daughter, but their dream of their daughter, or at least the best dream they could muster under the circumstances.

And she was a perfect daughter, in many ways: She didn't talk back, never contradicted their version of her life's narrative, never corrected their inventions about what she might be thinking at that moment. Or have thought when she was eight, for that matter.

It certainly wasn't about what the real Terri Schiavo's wishes might have been. What they are, I can't know, and I daresay Michael Schiavo can't know for sure. But judges have been evaluating the matter for seven years and not found a reason to suspect that she wanted her body to remain alive long after she'd lost the capacity to engage in detectable interactions with other people.

True, Michael can't have known for sure; but her parents -- surely they must have known?

Why? Why would we suppose that? My own parents wouldn't have the faintest idea what I'd want in such a situation. For practical purposes, they know nothing of real substance about me that they didn't know before I was eight. I could name four or five close friends, a handful of ex-lovers and seven or eight not-so-close friends who'd have a better idea.

So, no, it's got nothing to do with Terri's wishes. But it's got a great deal to do with how her parents imagine her wishes -- with the wishes of their fictional Terri, as it were.

And Jeb and George Bush's and Randall Terry's and Tom Delay's fictional Terri. Which is the real obscenity, here, of course. If it were just Bob and Mary, it would be a tragedy. And anyway, their version of Terri is at least based on something real. But with Jeb & George & Randall & Tom in the game, any hope of the real Terry S. being remembered are completely gone. She's doomed to be immortalized as an abstracted martyr for the cause of eliminating secular justice.

Bloody Amarillo

It's as though only blood will satisfy Texans. They seem to be largely outraged at the Supreme Court's recent decision regarding the execution of minors. From Morning Edition this morning [RealAudio], I heard again and again that these convicted murderers are somehow not being punished because they won't be executed.

As though they're getting let out of jail, instead of having their sentences commuted to life in prison. Justin Wiley Dickens, convicted of murduring a man in an Amarillo pawn shop robbery when he was 17, is puzzled by the outrage at the ruling. "This is hell. It really is. I can't understand the outrage of them saying we don't be executed, we're just goin' to another life of hell. They ain't never gonna let any of us out. Life sentence means a life sentence. And I pray for Jim Jacobs and Francis Carter's families, I just live every day with regret, I really do. Just tell them I'm sorry. If you would."

Justin Wiley Dickens's case is an interesting illustration of this bloodthirstiness: The shooting happened during a struggle over the weapon, under circumstances where it's unclear that Dickens engaged in any meaningful premedidation. In other states, this might have been second-degree murder, or even manslaughter.

But not in Amarillo, because in Amarillo, the District Attorney knows what's in the criminal's heart: "I got to know Justin Wiley Dickens very well, in that trial", says Amarillo DA James Farron. "If you have something he wants, and he has to kill you to get it, he'll kill you in a heartbeat, I assure you. You, me, anybody else." That's not a particularly Texan attitude for a DA, of course, but it is a particularly DA attitude. Criminal DAs generally take the line (at least publicly) that everyone they've ever prosecuted was guilty, regardless of the verdict (or the evidence, for that matter).

(For what it's worth, Amarillo attorney and adult death penalty supporter Russ Bailey, who was assigned to defend Dickens, disagrees strongly with Farron's assessment: "Justin in my opinion did not have the requisite intent. He was not an adult for any purpose in my opinion at that time. He was a nice kid....Most of these kids don't have any control over their lives. Justin didn't have any. He never stood a chance. And to throw away a life before they've even tried to live their own is a real tough thing to accept. It was for me for Justin. ")

People can be great at missing the point, though, especially when it's in their interest to do so. Farron, for example, sees the Surpreme Court ruling as a statement that "all 17 year olds" are decision-impaired: "It is simplistic and sophomoric to suggest that we can draw a line in the sand and announce that everyvbody younger than this many days is immature, unable to make decisions the same way that you and I do -- is that true of some 17 year olds? Absolutely. Is it true of most 17 year olds? Probably. Is it true of all 17 year olds? Absolutely not." Farron, for his part, seems to think that "it's true" of at least a third of 17 year olds: one third of Farron's own death row convictions are under 18.

Of course, it's simplistic and sophistic (and most likely Frankfurtian bullshit, to boot) for Farron to suggest that's what the Supreme Court ruling was meant to establish. As legal language goes, the decision is really quite plainly worded; if Farron really believes that's what they meant, he should be disbarred for incompetence. To quote Justice Kennedy's opinion [pdf]:

.... An unacceptable likelihood exists that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a matter of course, even where the juvenile offenderâ??s objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe than death. When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity. While drawing the line at 18 is subject to the objections always raised against categorical rules, that is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood and the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest. ....

Which means that yes, they understand 18 years (or 6574 days, if DA Farron prefers) is an arbitrary cut-off date; but then, arbitration is their job. Part of that job means that they have to act, sometimes, when the demagoguery of some local politicians, or the particular popularity of some victim (as in the case of Justin Dickens) exacerbates local bloodlust.

Put another way, the point of the ruling was that elected or politically-appointed operatives like Farron ought not be trusted to turn American civil society into a cruel myth, ever-invoked but seldom obtained to. We've already let federal demagogues do that with anti-terror statutes that effectively permit the abrogation of basic constitutional rights to free speech, habeus corpus, and freedom of association.

Chris Rock, the Red-State Conservative

While I can't say it surprises me, it's amused me for a long time that people like Matt Drudge think Chris Rock is "dangerous." Dangerous to what, I wonder. Perhaps to their complacency. Certainly not to "family values" or "common mores" -- not if you're paying attention. I am a bit surprised, though, to hear him referred to as a 'William F***ing Buckley Conservative'.

Years ago, I saw Chris Rock on television -- probably HBO, probably "Bring the Pain", but I don't remember exactly. I do remember a bit he did about men cheating on their girlfriends. He started by signalling his intent -- showing the club, as it were: "Men are stupid. Because you know you're gonna get caught." He does it to be fair, maybe, or maybe to prove that even after he's signalled that he's going to drop a hammer on them, he'll still sucker the men in the audience in. Which he proceeded to do, describing how natural it was to want to cheat, how easy it should be to lie -- if, of course, men weren't stupid. And, more important, if they didn't know damn well they deserved to get caught.

Rock is a stealth moralist. He's a preacher to the pop-cultural -- a wandering rabbi or imam, ministering to the barflies by telling stories in terms they can understand and that will elicit enough of their empathy to make them stretch their minds and consider their world. It's an old and proud tradition (as old probably as storytelling), realized with a wide array of techniques. My favorite contemporary example is Matt Groening's marvellous creation, The Simpsons, which panders to our baser instincts and then springs the trap on us by making its characters renounce their ill-gotten gains in the service of What's Right. Rock's technique is similar: He lulls his audience into a false sense of security, and then explains in quick, brutal strokes that anyone he's suckered is a fool. And a morally depraved fool, at that.

What Rock's not is a 'William F***ing Buckley Conservative', as John Swansburg seems to think he is. Raising your daughters to not be strippers, or suggesting that single mothers ought to put their children before Girls Night at least most of the time, or suggesting that abortion might be a little too cavalierly chosen, are not "Red State Red" conservative positions: They're mainstream moderate American moral positions, shared by the vast majority of adult "Blue" and "Red" state residents, and anyone who suggests otherwise is buying into the Republican framing myth that holds that True American Values are right-wing religious conservative values. They're not actually religious values at all, and what's more, they're not communicated via religion -- at least, not in a healthy, functioning society they're not. In a healthy family, they're communicated by example. Children learn responsible and moral behavior by watching their parents, their extended family, their neighbors, and the people they meet in daily life.

What Rock is, is Lenny Bruce with tamed demons, or George Carlin with more integrity. Any good comic keeps a few demons in the closet to feed him material; but if they're smart (and probably a little lucky), then sometimes, just sometimes, they learn to tame them without losing the energy the demons feed them.

Chris Rock is also another important thing: He's a professional, just like Whoopee Goldberg or Billy Crystal. Personally, I expect his impact on the quality (moral or otherwise) of the show to be positive.

Love, Pain, and Story Logic

One of the most egregious failures of imagination that I see every day is what looks very much like an inability (or more likely an unwillingness) to stretch the mind to understand what a story is trying to tell you.

And what stories are trying to tell you isn't some single, specific thing. If they are, they're bad stories -- maybe even false stories. Good stories -- "true" stories -- are like a thought-experiment: "What would happen if someone did this?" I am increasingly convinced that stories are how humans are wired to make sense of the world. Stories are why we have advanced language skills: Better language made for better stories, better stories made for a more survivable community, etc.

If a story has consistent, valid story logic and character logic -- if the characters behave in ways that makes sense for those characters, in that circumstance, to behave -- then we can safely say that there's at least some truth in it. If the story is powerfully told, so much the better: Without good telling, we won't stretch ourselves to find the empathy we'll need to make the narrative talk to us. This is what "great" makers of narrative (those folks we call "writers", but also film-makers, poets, songwriters, painters...) have always done.

So Medved is not only being reductionist on this point, he's being a bad critic, because he's approaching criticism without imagination. He's looking at the film as though it's some kind of a morality-machine, and any good film -- any good story -- is something more than that. It's a narrative, from which we can draw a deeper understanding (that is, if it's story-logic and character logic are true).

Anyway, I don't have high expectations for a review from anybody who's expecting to find a clear moral universe in an Eastwood film. Think of Unforgiven (endorses prostitution and lawless behavior), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (romanticizes gay sex and murder and promotes an anti-christian agenda through endorsing voudoun), Bridges of Madison County (glorifies adultery), or probably any of his other films from the past 15 years. There is a theme there, though, I think, and it's that Clint Eastwood lives in an increasingly vague moral universe these days. They only things that seem to be certain in Eastwood's moral universe are pain and love. (And there are worse absolutes to fixate on. Power, per se, for example, has no real moral endorsement in Eastwood's vision -- it's a fact, to be sure, but it's always in service of love or pain. But I digress...)

What these films can help us to understand is that a vague moral universe is not an amoral one. Every Eastwood picture that I can recall (aside from his forgettable late Dirty Harry outings, done to win studio backing for future projects) has been driven by its moral choices. His characters do not serve as moral models; rather, they model moral behavior. There's a crucial difference: The first means that they are merely shadows on the cave wall, cast by the contorted hands of a finger-puppeteer; the latter allows us to imagine ourselves in that world, and consider the choices we would make.

Please Just At Least Try To Imagine. That's All I Ask.

But be honest about it. Don't just pretend. That's cheating, and lying, and it makes Baby Jeebus cry.

I'm increasingly convinced that the greatest roadblock to human progress is lack of imagination. More particularly, the inability -- or unwillingness -- to imagine onesself in the position of another.

The problem can look like other things: Like (selective) literalism, as when someone like Michael Medved or Ted Kavanau can see nothing in Million Dollar Baby but a "pro-euthenasia" or "anti-christian" tract. Or it can look like lack of empathy, as when wannabe uber-geeks dismiss the problems of "lUsErS" as being of their own making, or knee-jerk free-will zealots (willfully?) ignore the benefits they accrue from being members of civil society to rip out one of that society's underpinnings.

That empathy requires imagination I regard as self-evident; that people who lack empathy literally lack imagination, I regard as open to question. As a friend remarked to me recently, "it's all about what's at your front door."

Tall Tails

An audition announcement for an upcoming production of Neil Simonâ??s Biloxi Blues in Alexandria, Virginia notes:

All men and the character of Rowena cast in the production will be required to appear on stage in underwear "or less."

With all the hoopla surrounding a Virginia bill aimed at cracking down on indecent underwear exposure, I couldnâ??t help but imagine a potential scenario if such a law were already on the books:

â??Oh, gosh, officer. I was just on my way to a dress rehearsal. I was running late and thought Iâ??d save time by arriving in full costume under my outerwear. And then, well, my car just died. Probably something to do with being gasoline-deprived.

"Anyway, I decided to start jogging the rest of the way, only a few blocks. I just had a hard time keeping my loose pants up, what with running and all. And, thatâ??s when I happened to catch your attention, I guess.

â??And well, officer, actually this isnâ??t the costume, but I thought Iâ??d run it by the director as a suggestion â??cuz, you see, I entirely support our State of Virginia. Just look at this pretty state flag emblem here.

â??Youâ??re asking me if theyâ??re worth a fifty buck fine...?"

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