Friday, April 09, 2004
What does Iraq have in common with Jesus Christ -- other than that either one can be a hideous, bleeding mess?
Andrew Sullivan has the answer, or thinks he does.
Thursday, April 08, 2004
This week's DVD releases include an overpriced 3-disc set of Philip Saville's Gospel of John, and a cheap two-disc edition of the Wachowskis' Matrix: Revolutions.
For my part, I saw both films in theaters, and would be quite happy never to see them again.
Yesterday John Kerry referred to the federal deficit as a "fiscal cancer."
Good thing he didn't call it a "parasite," eh?
Update: Was Kerry's remark plagiarized from Representative Chet Edwards? Check out the second paragraph, final sentence: "It is the only way we can begin to cure this fiscal cancer ...."
Comrades, arise! It's time to oppose violence against women!
Charlottesville's annual "Take Back the Night" march occurs tonight. Or rather, it occurs later today, since the proceedings will begin long before sunset. (Apparently the last thing you want to do at a "Take Back the Night" march is walk around in the dark.)
I wrote a short piece about last year's event. It's still current, so I'll just link.
Wednesday, April 07, 2004
Lone Star Republicans must lead interesting lives. First there was Gov. Rick "Pretty Boy" Perry and his rumored dalliance with a cabinet member's male member. The story was untrue (and highly implausible to boot), but it made a Texas-sized stink nonetheless. Now blogger Cowtown Pattie has found a nifty little item on the latest gender-bending scandal to hit the GOP. It seems that Sam Walls, a Republican nominee for state representative, used to dress in women's clothes!
Naturally, the media jumped on this story quicker than you can say "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Photos of Sam Walls in drag were promptly distributed to local newspapers and county GOP leaders, though to my knowledge none have appeared in print. The picture on Cowtown Pattie's blog, alas, is a transparent fake; I doubt the cadaverous candidate ever looked this good in hose and heels.
Walls claims that "my opponent is using the private information in an attempt to intimate that I am a homosexual, which I am not." Still, the intimations are working: Former supporters are shunning the former front-runner, and the local sheriff has publicly requested that Walls withdraw from the race. GOP treasurer Roy Giddens, Jr., has tried a little damage control: "I don't have a problem with cross-dressing .... There are lots of them. People think J. Edgar Hoover was one of the greatest Americans that ever lived. He was a cross-dresser." With friends like that, Walls is surely doomed.
Gentle reader, do you think it's mere coincidence that such shocking Ed Wood-style immorality is occurring in Johnson County? Me neither. A guy just can't live up to a name like that.
Andrew Sullivan finds himself wondering precisely what fundamentalism might be these days. The inspiration comes from a recent article by evangelical scholar Alan Jacobs.
Jacobs's article attempts to defuse any fear of our president's theocratic leanings, and in this respect it is partially successful. If you're wondering whether Bush will use his belief in end-times prophecy to start a massive holy war in the Middle East, this article may assuage your concerns; it is at least free from overblown and hysterical rhetoric. Jacobs's explanation of "evangelicalism" (a clunky term, to be sure) is right on the money: Evangelicals of any faith may be distinguished, though not defined, by a desire to share their own faith with others. Moonies and Mormons, for example, are some of the most evangelical people you'll ever meet; their faith makes them happy, they claim, and they want you to be just as happy as they are. Liberal Christians like me can also be quite evangelical if the spirit moves.
When Jacobs defines "fundamentalism" as a "subset" of evangelical belief, his argument goes awry. Granted, his view of fundamentalism is limited to Christianity, and he would be correct to note that most Christian fundamentalists claim to be evangelical in their outlook, whether or not they really are. But as anyone who remembers the events of September 11th -- or March 11th, for that matter -- must have realized by now, the Christian religion has no monopoly on fundamentalism per se. The terrorists who flew their planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were also fundamentalists, as were (it appears) those members of Al Qaeda who recently blew up commuter trains in Madrid. These fundamentalists didn't seem particularly interested in sharing their belief systems with others, or making converts one at a time, as evangelicals usually do. If they had, they would have stayed at the airport and passed out flowers and religious tracts, instead of crashing planes and blowing up cities. So much for the idea that fundamentalism and "evangelicalism" necessarily go hand in hand. Indeed, the two may involve quite contradictory and perhaps mutually exclusive world views.
It's impossible to imagine fundamentalism without the written word, apparently unchanging and immutable over the centuries. Fundamentalism takes the written word and makes a fetish of it, requiring followers to take a text, or collection of texts, as always and everywhere perfectly true. For a text to be worthy of absolute belief, it must be free from any vestige of human error, if only so that its followers can know they are free from error as well. (This is why fundamentalist Christians frequently get upset if you point out obvious discrepancies in the Bible -- two contradictory myths of the Creation, three different stories of the Red Sea crossing, four conflicting accounts of the Crucifixion, and so forth.) The holy text or texts serve as a single, fixed point of reference within a universe that is not always fixed, that changes and flows, that embraces paradox and contradiction. Fundamentalists are defined, then, not by any willingness to share faith with others, but by their own driving need to see their textually driven structure of belief always and everywhere confirmed.
Whether the fetishized text is the Qu'ran, the Bible, Das Kapital, Justice Scalia's "Constitution" or the collected works of Ayn Rand, fundamentalists always claim to hew to its "truest," most literal meaning. They claim they have no freedom to deviate from the text (or at least from their sense of it), because the word says what it means and means what it says. If their holy writ says they must bury homosexuals beneath stone walls, then that's what they have to do. If their text says women can't have the priesthood, well, some animas are more equal than others. It's no one's fault if the text tells them to murder tens of millions of people in God's (or for that matter, Karl Marx's) name. After all, it was written.
Of course, the assumption that texts are completely static is false. It's more accurate to say that texts are meaningless unless human beings read them, and that's why they manage to be every bit as slippery as people are. If you want to fix the texts, you have to fix the readers, too. So the absolutist fetish of text begets an equally absolutist taxonomy of humankind: People (or, in particularly extreme cases, peoples) may be classified as "with us" (saved) or "against us" (damned). There can be no gray area, no neutrality, in such a conflict.
Seeking physical confirmation of the physical text, and attempting to make absolute sense of a world that resists every attempt to impose absolute order, the fundamentalist enters a deep cultural pessimism, and spins into ever-wilder theories about the way things once were, and therefore ought to be again. Islamist grievances against the Crusades, or for that matter the reconquista of Spain, are acute manifestations of basic fundamentalist anguish; "creation science" among American paleoconservatives is another. Thus fundamentalist belief turns to acute mauvaise foi.
By now you can probably see a contrast between fundamentalism and evangelism. Just as it's impossible to imagine fundamentalism without writing, it's impossible to imagine evangelism without speech. Go, tell it on the mountain, the old hymn says. With speech, of course, comes dialogue; with dialogue comes interaction with other human beings, who are never fixed to a single position for long. So the act of evangelizing brings an awareness of flux and dynamic change, which is anathema to a fixed, fundamentalist world view. When salvation is viewed as a choice rather than an identity, the old taxonomy of "saved" and "damned" cannot hold. Gray areas emerge in the black-white taxonomy, and inflexible structures of belief are disrupted. Jacobs's "evangelicalism" thus provides a potential antidote to the anguish of fundamentalism: Engaging with the world as it is makes hard-line absolutism untenable at best.
Most fundamentalist systems don't contain an evangelical imperative, so it's not surprising to find that they usually mandate a retreat from other human beings, rather than engagement with them. Alas, Christianity is the apparent exception that ultimately proves the rule. Since evangelism and fundamentalism coexist so uneasily, it's no surprise that many evangelical fundamentalists are gradually retreating from evangelical activity. By this I don't mean that they refuse to send missionaries abroad, that they don't try to turn their religious views into official government policy, or that they're not funding institutional outreach efforts within their own communities. I mean that many rank-and-file Christian fundamentalists do not socialize with people who might disagree with them in a substantial way. They don't read books they might disagree with, they don't talk to people who are different -- they simply don't engage with people from outside their particular demographic. So you end up with fundamentalist Christians who call themselves "evangelical", yet can honestly say they don't know any Muslims, Catholics or Jews personally, and have never met any Gay people. They have nothing against these people, of course, other than that they're all probably going to Hell. But they've screened their society to exclude heterogeneous elements, the better to keep their own dichotomy of "saved" and "damned" undisturbed.
Update (4/8): The last four paragraphs of this Wall Street Journal article describe the inevitable result of unchecked fundamentalism. In this case, the fundamentalism is Islamist.
Dismissals, insults, and gratuitous attacks: Bush really knows how to run down his supporters, doesn't he?
Read a full transcript of the GOP's latest public-relations debacle here.
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
Today's issue of Salon has a fascinating article on the reception Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ is receiving in the Islamic world. Although Islam accepts Jesus as a prophet, the Qu'ran specifically states that he was never actually crucified or killed. Why, then, are Muslims throughout the Middle East flocking to see this film?
As if you didn't already know, gentle reader.
Money quote: Outside the theater on Sunday night, Yaquob Hamdan, a 23-year-old Muslim salesman, called the film "beautiful and interesting." But doesn't it contradict the Quran? Yes, he allowed, but "it has some truth in it. The Jews are responsible for his killing. They're the ones who accuse him and spread chaos."
Do tell, Yacquob. At least now we know what Yassir Arafat meant, when he informed us that Gibson's film was not anti-Semitic, but "moving and historical." It's not bigotry to imply that certain people are evil when they're literally the spawn of Satan. If anything, it's kind of generous, right?
For my part, despite such compelling testimony on the film's behalf, I still hold to my original appraisal of Passion of the Christ as "the most anti-Semitic film to come down the pike since Die Ewige Jude." Yecch.
(Caution: This essay-review contains many, many spoilers.)
Update (4/9): I've revised this essay considerably since Terry Teachout posted a link last night. It's still all over the map, but at least some of the transitions are smoother.
Most critics who discuss Tony Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul describe it as either "prescient" or "prophetic," if only because it's set in Afghanistan under the Taliban. In a much-quoted, self-congratulatory 2002 afterword, Kushner notes, "If you choose to write about current events there's a good chance you will find the events you've written about to be ... well, current." Of course, by December of 2001, when this play was first performed, the Taliban had been forcibly ousted, and most of Kushner's concerns were moot.
So much for prescience or prophecy. This "Afghanistan play" is very much a pre-9/11 work, and therefore best appreciated as a period piece, not a commentary on current events. But at least it's an interesting piece of theater, one that transcends Kushner's obvious artistic limitations to become something like a Shavian tragicomedy of ideas.
First, a word on those limitations: Homebody/Kabul runs for over three hours, not counting intermissions -- and that in the play's current, slightly truncated "performance" version, which incorporates several minor revisions from the original script. It is cobbled together (pardon the pun) from two separate works: "Homebody," the opening monologue, and "Kabul," the play proper which follows it. As such it is structurally unwieldy. Several one-off characters, such as the eccentric Kai Garshi (an unemployed Pashtuni actor who alternately recites Frank Sinatra lyrics and mourns the destruction of his city), fall flat: They seem too deliberately theatrical, or too campy, to have much effect. Subtlety, concision and control have never been Kushner's strong suits, and they are certainly not in evidence here.
Although many critics have admired Kushner's "expansive scope" in Homebody/Kabul, the play itself features a small cast: One actress for the opening "Homebody" section, and nine actors (seven male, two female) for "Kabul." Unlike Angels in America, which features a three-ring circus of shifting sets, flying actresses and glowing books, Homebody/Kabul is a restrained, even conservative, piece. The production I saw at Theatre J took place on a single generic set, with a few sliding scrims to indicate changes of venue.
The play may have an expansive length, but scope it has not. This is essentially a teeny-tiny chamber piece for ten actors, only half of whom need to be any good for the evening to work. Homebody/Kabul could be presented on a bare stage, with minimal lighting and no tech work to speak of. It would not play well in a large or even a medium-sized house. For community theater groups who want to stage a Kushner play, yet are intimidated by the budgetary demands of his other work, this one might fit the bill.
* * *
Kushner begins with the "Homebody" section, a fifty-five minute monologue that feels, alas, like business as usual. The title character, who plans to visit Afghanistan, is fed up with what a good Marxist would recognize as capitalist ennui, capitalist anomie, and capitalist decadence. Toward the end of this first scene the Homebody states, "The touch which does not understand is the touch which corrupts, the touch which does not understand that which it touches is the touch that corrupts that which it touches, and which corrupts itself." Trust me, her words are much clearer in performance than in print. Basically, they reveal that the Homebody's trip abroad is motivated by those two great leftist bugbears, class consciousness and Western imperialism. This particular housewife wants to redeem herself from the burden of collective Western guilt, by providing a touch that does not corrupt the beauty and history of Afghanistan.
So far, it's ho-hum. But in the next scene, an Afghani doctor named Qari Shah, informs us that the Homebody has been beaten to death, a fitting reward for her anti-Western diatribe. This opens the "Kabul" section of the evening, which is emphatically not business as usual. As the Homebody's husband mourns her death (and discovers the dubious joys of opium), her daughter comes to believe she might still be alive. What the daughter finds on the streets of Kabul is not what she expects -- or, for that matter, what we expect.
Naturally, Kushner's depiction of life under the Taliban is an unbelievable whitewash. He hints at the regime's brutality, but on the whole portrays them as victims of Western agression. The people of Afghanistan, he tells us, are casualties of the Cold War, more sinned against than sinning. It's no surprise, then, that his Taliban thugs are relatively polite to women: When Priscilla removes her burqa in public, she is mildly threatened, and no more. Yet as we know today, any young woman in Taliban Country who ventured out of doors alone (especially without a burqa) would be promptly murdered -- or perhaps raped, then murdered. Only the character of Mahala, a former librarian, dares to catalog some of the Taliban's lesser horrors. She is angry, you see, because the Taliban has closed all libraries and forbidden reading. The score, in case you're counting: Banned books one, slaughtered women zero.
Kushner implies that the Homebody might actually have married the doctor Qari Shah, choosing the life of an oppressed Afghan woman over that of a pampered British subject. He is much more forthright about the fate of Shah's discarded wife Mahala, whom the Homebody's abandoned husband gradually accepts as a personal (and sexual) companion. But as a resolution to all the problems posed during the evening, this cultural exchange seems too facile; for all its alleged insight into international politics, in the end Homebody/Kabul comes down to little more than wife-swapping.
* * *
I once noted that "Kushner's characters don't change or progress much over time," and now at last I must qualify that statement: Two female characters in Homebody/Kabul change considerably during the play. In the final scene, we learn that aimless daughter Priscilla has taken a job to support herself, thus becoming part of bourgeois British society. She is not seen as "decadent" or "depraved" for getting a real job; instead, it seems that at last she's managing to take responsibility for her life and her actions. (This is a conservative desideratum, by the way.) Meanwhile, Mahala's rage at Islamist oppression has lessened somewhat, now that she lives in a Western society where basic human rights are protected by law. Not surprisingly, Mahala provides the play with its single most provocative moment, stating that "They're like the communists, the Taliban. One idea for the whole world." It would seem that these two characters are leftists no longer.
I might have expected The New Republic or National Review to compare Communism with Islamic fundamentalism, but I never thought I would hear anything of the sort in a Tony Kushner play. Yet the analogy between Communism and fundamentalism is remarkably apt, at least insofar as it applies to Kushner himself. Prior to Homebody/Kabul, his entire oeuvre could be considered an extended exercise in red-diaper fundamentalism. The wild moments, like the physical manifestation of the Devil in Bright Room Called Day, the character of Thomas Browne's Soul in Hydriotaphia, or the postmortem appearance of the Rosenbergs in Angels in America: Perestroika, aren't crass attempts to perk up an otherwise dull evening by invoking the supernatural. In these scenes, Kushner concretizes his belief system, and tries to will its falsehoods and inconsistencies into objective, unquestioned truth. As spectators, we cannot object that Marxism doesn't work, that whenever these ideas are put into practice the result is always repression and genocide. For Kushner, like a good illusionist (or con artist), has placed the strange, the unusual, the unverifiable before our very eyes, and told us to accept it as fact or else.
Usually we associate such desperate rhetorical strategies with the Far Right. Take, for example, Tim LaHaye's Left Behind novels, which espouse the Rapture and dispensationalist eschatology as fervently as Kushner embraces Marxist-Leninist politics. None of LaHaye's books are concerned with human realities of growth, change, and moral ambiguity. Instead, they relentlessly sort characters into categories of "saved" and "damned" according to whether they accept a specific set of beliefs. People who don't believe in the Rapture get "left behind" when all "true" Christians disappear. If these people don't come to accept his version of Christianity in every particular before time runs out, they become pawns of Satan and go to Hell. Disagreement among people of good will -- a necessary condition for reasonable dialogue and debate -- is rendered impossible in the face of absolute Right and Wrong.
In the Angels in America cycle (which by my reckoning includes Millennium Approaches, Perestroika, Slavs! and a truly nasty short play, "G. David Schine in Hell"), Kushner places similar restrictions on his characters: If they believe in Marxism, they are saved; if not, damned. The scenes in Heaven and Hell are not campy, cosmological distractions from grim, essentially realistic political theater; they establish and reinforce the inflexible dualism at the heart of Kushner's moral vision. The playwright needs Heaven and Hell to exist in a very literal sense, so that he can bring characters he deems "good" to the Good Place, and send bad characters to the Bad Place. But since God has absented himself from Heaven in the Angels cycle, the task of separating wheat from chaff has been left entirely to him. Fortunately, Kushner's authority is equal to the most judgmental and imperious of deities.
As, for a similar reason, is LaHaye's. Even though these works present Good and Evil as concrete realities endorsed by God himself, divine support of "The Good" in no way assures its earthly victory in the here and now. Kushner openly laments this state of affairs, even proposing a lawsuit against God for negligence of His creation. Religious-right conservatives, on the other hand, assert God's role in human politics by imposing their teleological models on recent history. Both end up wallowing in cultural pessimism. Religious conservatives' prayers for the end of the world, and Kushner's paleoliberal insistence on divine judgment, both express a hope that God will eventually step in and set the sorry world to rights. If the respective ends differ somewhat, the means do not.
Yet Kushner's own position has changed with Homebody/Kabul, his most secular, humanistic effort to date: One can't help suspecting that when Kushner began to explore the Taliban's dogmatic certainty, he reacted against it. Whatever the cause, this play stands apart from the others in tone and content. It is his sole full-length work not to depict Heaven, Hell, angels or demons in concrete terms. It contains a dialogue of ideas in which the outcome has not been predetermined by moral absolutism. It is his only play, short or long, to feature individual characters who change over time, and therefore it's the one play of his I can honestly recommend.
* * *
Humanism is a sure antidote to fundamentalism of any stripe, which may explain why fundamentalists of all stripes fear it so. Alas, Kushner's humanism didn't last long. His 2002 afterword to Homebody/Kabul roundly condemns Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, and Ariel Sharon for terrorism, while refusing to breathe so much as a word against actual terrorists like Osama bin Laden, or members of Hamas and Al Qaeda. He even returns to his tired old mantra: Republicans (and now, Israelis) are the moral equivalent of Nazis. For Kushner, the "war on terror" and terrorism don't really exist, which means that everything is clearly All Our Fault, at least as long as Republicans hold the presidency.
The most important thing for Kushner is that he not be seen empathizing with the Enemy. Even at the expense of intellectual honesty he must keep his vision clear, his Marxism pure, his leftist credentials unsullied. And so he writes:
People change, I believe deeply in the possibility of people changing, but Bush? Sharon? Eight months have passed and look at the godforsaken mess the feckless blood-spattered plutocrat and the unindicted war criminal have wrought in the Mideast. Change requires as its catalysts and fuel both good faith and decent intention, as well as deep need. Need, not greed; decent intention, not oil profiteering; good faith, not ethnic cleansing and military occupation cloaked in fundamentalist misreading of Scripture. As Margo Channing reminds us, "Everybody has a heart. Except some people."
It looks like Tony Kushner's personal Hell is back in business after all. The Great Work begins, and peace be upon him.
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