Monday, May 15, 2017

Religion and "Mending Wall" Thinking: Part One

The kids in the high school in which I teach think it is very, very funny to push the button on their car remotes and make horns beep during class. Then they snicker among themselves as if they have pulled of the most clever -- the most groundbreaking -- of pranks.

My reaction to this is to conjure an obviously fake laugh and to declare -- with painfully evident sarcasm -- how, even after twenty years or teaching high school, this is still funny, peppered in comments about how I can't imagine it ever not being funny and fresh. "Ha, ha, ha!" I intone with the drama of a Puccini tenor... "The car alarm...never, ever gets old..." (At which point the alarms usually shut off and [I could swear this is the case] one or two students seem to turn a little ruddy in the cheeks.)

I can't help feeling the same way when people join the boring chant that condemns "organized religion." I wonder how they can regurgitate the same old cliches as myriad part-time philosophers before them have, and not be embarrassed about it. Yeah, yeah...blah, blah, blah..."organized religion" is awful..."organized religion" causes wars...the world would be better off without "organized religion."

Yep -- it just never gets old. Keep pressing the button...keep making the noise. But how about we really think about this, instead of just chirping the cliches we heard and glommed onto when we were fifteen, as did the fellow in Frost's "Mending Wall":

He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well, 
He says again, "Good Fences make good neighbors."

In the poem, the man insists that fences are necessary, even when  they have no discernible purpose. He insists this because he has been instilled with the idea: "Good fences make good neighbors." No other reason. This is what he was told. 

If a farmer keeps goats next to another farmer who grows crops, a fence is a good -- even a necessary -- idea. But...what if both farmers keep sheep? What if, as in the poem, one one neighbor is "all pine and [the other] apple orchard"? What is the sense of the fence, then? 

So, even as there is some validity to the fact that fences can keep neighbors happy, it does not mean that fences are either universally good or bad. In order to see this, one must actually think things through. But...who wants to work that hard?

With religion, it is easier to look at, for a few examples, The Crusades or at ISIS or at the Inquisition and say: "See! Religion is bad!" These were/are bad things, indisputably. 

But, how about other things? Is organized government bad? Is finding like-minded colleagues bad? Are universities bad? Are all of these things not cradles of the monstrous babies who can grow up into the breakers of worlds and the takers of rights?

Of course not. Religion is just the easier target, because it has become the mantra of the pseudo-intellectual; of the seeker of the ready-made, controversially pre-packaged powerful statement: "Religion is bad..." 

And if we are calling things that cause problems like wars and persecution bad, why don't people call for an end to government? Haven't disputes over borders caused at least as many wars and atrocities as religion? How about money? Money causes wars and cruelty. Why haven't we eliminated money? What about philosophy, in general? Should we call for an end to discussion groups? -- universities?  -- web pages about a particular philosophical premise? -- deep discussions in bars? (Rumor has it, revolutions have begun in bars. And revolutions cause death and suffering...) 

The answer is that they don't call for a ban of these things because the perception is that the benefits of these thing outweigh the problems. In essence, people think that sometimes war is necessary to maintain quality of life; sometimes it is okay to ban immigrants; sometimes it is okay to tell everyone that homosexuality is perfectly normal, or a perfect abomination, depending on the philosophical trends of the time; that it's okay to be filthy rich and not help others...etc... 

But, with religion, we don't seem to want to do this. The hordes of "Mending Wall" philosophers just carry the boilerplate idea into the future: religion is bad. 

Obviously, my point is that this is a foolish generalization. So, as to not bore you with an even longer post, I will do a little question-raising in the next post: Is organized religion really guilty of more bad than good? 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Gay Man vs. Great Man

I am pretty sure I lost the respect of a professor in graduate school when I wrote a reaction paper in which I mentioned that, in that class, I wished we could read poetry that was not about what the poets were; about being a woman; about being a man; about being African American; about being Jewish; about being native American...

In my head, I was just thinking that, while these subjects are always valid and usually interesting (and necessary) for literary exploration, there really are other quite worthy (and equally important) topics in literature. Again: it is not the topic of one's place in society based on race, gender, etc. is not worthy as a topic; it is just that there is a world of other things to write about, as well.

I thought of this today because of someone I follow on social media who daily -- multiple times per day -- posts about being gay or about the struggles of LGBT people. I really fail to find any posts from her that are about anything else. I actually don't know if I ever have. you have a dog? What else did you think about today; do you and I both like baseball; maybe you saw a funny road sign or came up with an idea for how to better organize your sock drawer? Did you read a book that got you thinking about mortality?

No callousness is intended here. I consider myself lucky by the roll of the cosmic dice, in a sense, that I am a white, male, middle class straight guy. I have not had to deal with the adversity that minorities and women and various other marginalized groups have. Their daily situation in the mosaic of society must often be foremost on their minds. I do, conceptually, if not personally, understand that it must be cathartic to express their thoughts and feelings and that it must seem the most worthy thing that they can do to fight for their respective causes...

...but, I still think that a constant adherence to these things as topics might, in the end, do more harm than good. At what point does "my love is as worthy as anyone's" and "we are misjudged" and "my Italian family is always eating" become "blah, blah, blah, blah..." in the ear of the reading world? -- whether that reading world is justified or not in its reaction?

Music is the foremost thing on my mind, most days. Often, I will talk my wife nearly into a coma with stuff she is not able to relate to. She listens, politely, and she sometimes even musters some real enthusiasm when I am prattling on about how I would be able to make my sampled string sounds more expressive if I had a long-throw MIDI fader controller...but, at some point, as important as music is to me, I have to realize that if I want to get her attention when it is really important, I need to administer my enthusiasm in small doses.

The teacher who yells all of the time gets ignored. The one who yells once a year gets undivided attention when he needs it.

I care about the suffering of individuals, but it is hard not to be desensitized by repetition. If I read Frost and Wordsworth and Eliot and Dickinson and then Langston Hughes, I am likely to be all the more moved by his "A Dream Deferred" as it stands out in relief against the other subjects.

I can see being challenged over this stance. As I said, I think a professor stopped liking me because of it. But, as I often do, I need to point out one thing: "Who the hell am I?" People can write about whatever they want, whenever they want, as often as they want. I would not dream of implying they have no  right to write whatever they feel. I can only relate the effect that repetition has on me.

I am not, despite having written a column under the name, the Emperor of the World. And, if I were, I would not decree that people are not allowed to talk every day and all day about their personal situation in life or about their most cherished causes. I just think, though, that I -- just this one cat and maybe a few others like him -- would be more moved, when they do talk about them, if it happened in a more strategically-timed manner. Saturation can be suffocating.

Sometimes, I think, less is truly more.

So, social media girl, I know you are gay and I know you support gay rights and I am right there with you. But perhaps the world wants to see you as more than a gay girl. Maybe we would like to see you as a woman. Maybe your cause would be better served if you, secure in the knowledge that everyone already knows you are gay, also showed the world you are a relatable and interesting person. It is possible to stereotype one's self. It is possible to turn one's self into a charicature.

It makes me think of an Elton John story. Everyone knows he is gay and he is admirably not shy about it, but this funny story about his 50th birthday costume is symbolic to me:

On the Parkinson Show, Parky once told [Elton] that his favourite costume was the Marie Antoinette one Elton wore in Australia. Elton had indeed donned a powdered wig and make-up to match, complete with beauty spot. But before he could get any further, Elton snapped back: "Marie Antoinette? That wasn't Marie Antoinette. It was bloody Chopin!"  They both roared with laughter, and Elton grinned ruefully: "To me, I thought I was Chopin. But everyone else in the world thinks I'm Marie Bloody Antoinette. That could be the story of my life!"

Maybe that is why Elton cut down on the costumes over the years; an echo of Emerson's old "what you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say." Elton is a role model for reasons even a dumb straight guy like me can relate to; for me it comes down to his competance as a piano player and the beauty in his heart that comes through much of his music. When think of Elton, the first thought I have is not, "Gay man;" the first thought I have is, "Great man." Somehow, I think that is better.

Worthy causes are worthy causes. But even I get tired of music after awhile and want to talk about something else.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Sound of Sincerity

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a performance of The Sound of Music at the high school in which I teach. It was a very good production by a very small school with very limited resources. I was proud of the kids.

But, in the end, driving home, I found myself feeling a little sad. It occurred to me that our contemporary society could would never produce a play like this. We the play, still, because it is a classic, but the conditions and the climate today are not ones in which such open, unashamed sincerity is tolerated

We don't do plays about upstanding resistors of oppression being saved by heroic nuns. We don't write Richard Rodgers melodies and Hammerstein lyrics about "brown paper packages tied up with strings" and "wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings." We don't do sincere piety. We, quite simply, don't do unapologetic beauty.

We do zombies. We do games of thrones where the rules are rape and war and deceit. We do drug dealers and prostitutes. Our pop songs (and even our country songs) are about infidelity and, sometimes, misogyny. We make TV shows about prime ministers having sex with pigs. We do dark and depraved like champs.

This is not to say that we don't produce intelligent shows. I even like the zombie shows. I'm watching a pirate show that is full of naughtiness and violence, so there is a place for it, in my mind.

It's just that I can imagine a play like The Sound of Music being written -- let alone, produced -- today. The soil is different, so the stuff that grows out of it simply cannot be the same and in the circle that exists, people don't want to consume the old crop. (I am tempted to go into an even more extended metaphor about organic crops and what we eat today...but...)

We can argue the particulars all day, but something had to be right about a world from which plays like The Sound of Music sprang. I don't mean this in a golden-age sense. I am not saying the world was, overall, better, because, God knows, from a lot of people's points of view -- especially minorities -- 1965 certainly was not a better time. I am just arguing that something was better; something fueled the production (and popularity) of such a play that does not seem to be there today.

I am not sure what has been added to the soil of artistic farming that has changed things. Cynicism? A desire for "coolness"? Whatever it is, it has made our productions slicker, faster and hipper...but, somehow, colder and bleaker.

Something made this old play about the Nazis focus on the beauty of human resolve and courage and not on the darkness of human nature. We all know both can come out of writing about such a turbulent time. What was it that made things seem to go the other way in 1965? What produced such sincerity and warmth?

I'd be grateful for anyone who can prove me wrong. Give me some examples of that kind of beauty, innocence and sincerity in something more recent.