Monday, February 25, 2008

Lex Luthor was a good person

Every time a public figure says something that causes a stir, he will claim to have been misquoted. The trouble is, in many cases he'll be right.

One of the silliest instances of this has to be the recent flap over Will Smith's "Hitler" remark. For those who haven't been following the story, here is the quote: "Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'Let me do the most evil thing I can do today.' I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good.'" The headline to the article falsely claimed Smith had said that "Hitler was a good person." Just this week, Smith won damages and an apology for this idiotic mistake.

But I get the strange feeling Smith's comment would have passed unnoticed if he had replaced "Hitler" with "Bin Laden." For some reason, people tend to think of Hitler as a psychopath but Bin Laden as a true believer. I'm not sure either assumption is correct.

Everyone knows Bin Laden is an Islamic extremist, but many people are confused about what Hitler believed. I saw a debate between Bill O'Reilly and Richard Dawkins over the existence of God. In the course of the debate, O'Reilly claimed that Hitler was a "confirmed atheist," while Dawkins insisted that Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Both were wrong. Hitler rejected the Catholicism of his childhood (despite public pronouncements to the contrary) but continued to say he was doing the will of God.

In any case, his religious beliefs were almost irrelevant. The Nazis had Protestants, Catholics, and atheists in their ranks. Nazi ideology was a hodgepodge of Christian anti-Semitism, Enlightenment racism, neo-pagan Nordic mythology, Darwinism, and Nietzscheism.

The only two things consistent about Hitler were his desire to rule the world, and his abiding hatred of Jews. Did he really "believe" Jews were that terrible, or did he simply concoct a giant excuse for his murderous tendencies? I wouldn't claim to know the answer.

Comic-book villains, unlike real-life ones, always wear their motives on their sleeves. Lex Luthor knows he's evil and is proud of it. He has no delusional belief system. Indeed, he seems like a clearer thinker than Superman.

You could search the world over before finding someone that transparently evil. Most bad guys in our world espouse an ideology that casts them as the good guys and us as the villains. Whether they believe in it themselves is less important than the fact that they're able to persuade others to believe.

It's scary to admit that people can have such warped perceptions, because it means there's no universal agreement on what's right and wrong. Maybe that's why children like comic books. There's a certain comfort in believing that the world is only threatened by self-aware baddies.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sacred and mundane

Faye Kellerman's bestselling series of murder mysteries concerns an L.A. police detective named Peter Decker. He stands 6'4" with a muscular build, a shock of red hair and a ginger mustache. He has a tough, no-nonsense personality, and his conversations are laden with profanity.

He is also a practicing Orthodox Jew.

I was first exposed to these books in the early '90s. Several years later I took it upon myself to read the entire series in order, and I have kept up with it ever since. They aren't the type of books I normally read. I like prose that crackles. Kellerman's prose just sits there, except for her dialogue. She has a fine ear for dialogue.

If there is any reason I'm attracted to the series, it's because of its depiction of Orthodox Jews. Kellerman (wife of novelist Jonathan) is not the only writer of modern secular fiction to tackle that subject, but she may be the most accurate, being Orthodox herself. She patterns her style after Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and other writers who incorporate ethnic details into their crime fiction.

I know little about the mystery genre. Most of my experience comes from reading the old private eye stories which center on logical deduction. Modern police procedurals like Kellerman's are handled differently. The solution to the mystery is usually somewhat arbitrary, arrived at through trial and error rather than through sudden revelation. I do not find her plots especially memorable. What interests me is how she blends the material with Jewish themes.

Most movies and novels featuring Orthodox Jews are way off. Even a film like The Frisco Kid--which many Orthodox Jews love--is full of inaccuracies. Other books and films are often downright offensive. Kellerman takes pains to get the details right. Her Orthodox characters feel like people I've known, something I've never said about any other work of fiction I've read, apart from overtly religious works like Chaim Potok's The Chosen.

But her depiction of the Orthodox community is not a whitewash. She touches upon the problems, the scandals, the extremism. The biggest irony of her books, which feature graphic violence and lurid sexual encounters, is that the types of people she writes about may be the least likely to read them.

Her first book, The Ritual Bath (1986), takes place at a yeshiva. A woman is raped on her way out of a mikvah (the "ritual bath" of the title). Peter Decker comes to investigate the crime and begins to fall in love with Rina Lazarus, a young widow whose late husband was a Talmudic scholar there. The trouble is, she doesn't know Decker is Jewish.

Actually, he didn't know either until he turned eighteen. His biological mother was an Orthodox Jew who gave birth to him in her mid-teens. He was sent to an adoption agency and ended up being raised by Southern Baptists. He served in Vietnam, has a Jewish but nonobservant ex-wife, and is in his late thirties when the series begins. His romance with Rina draws him to the Jewish faith.

And no wonder. Rina is drop-dead gorgeous, sharply intelligent, religious but worldly, and a fine housewife. She's something of a Mary Sue, possibly an idealized version of Kellerman herself. She fades into the background later in the series.

The second book, Sacred and Profane, deals with Decker's theological struggles as he explores Judaism. The title is a quote from the havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbos. A more proper translation would be "sacred and mundane," since profane has connotations not found in the original Hebrew word. Kellerman, however, takes the traditional English translation of the phrase rather literally. The book is about snuff films (which appear in fiction a lot but have never been confirmed to exist in the real world), and it poses the question of how a cop who deals with this kind of stuff daily can possibly be religious.

In a moment of anger, Decker tells Rina that the rabbi who heads the yeshiva (a wonderful character) is living in an ivory tower and maintains his faith only because he hasn't seen the horrors that Decker has seen. Rina promptly informs Decker that the rabbi lost his entire family at Auschwitz. Later, Decker talks to the rabbi himself:
"...there are times when I feel God is omnipresent. I feel Him everywhere I go, in everything I do. And there are times I think there's nothing in the skies but an ozone layer. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not waiting for God to come down and prove His existence to me, because sometimes I just know He's out there. I can't explain why I feel so strongly one minute and like a total atheist the next. In short, sometimes I have doubts."

The old man looked at him impassively and extended his hand across the desktop.

"Join the club, Peter." (pp. 253-4)
I've heard members of many faiths report similar feelings. Recently I was reading The Conservative Soul, a book by journalist Andrew Sullivan, an openly gay Catholic. His take on religion reminded me of Decker's:
There have been periods when I have felt the truth of my faith as powerfully as I have felt a warm current in a cool bay, or the stifling heat of a Washington August. And there have been periods when it has seemed utterly empty, drained, arid, and without passion. (p. 50)
One of my favorite books in the series is the fourth, Day of Atonement. Decker and Rina are newly married, and Decker runs into members of his biological family. Meanwhile, they face one of the fiercest villains in the series, a teenage monster from a yeshiva background. Another favorite, later in the series, is Jupiter's Bones, in which Decker is sent to investigate the death of a man who headed a small science-based cult. This gives Kellerman a chance to explore the elusive boundary between cults and mainstream religions.

Generally, I have preferred the earlier books to the later ones. From the start, I would often skim past the sections that didn't have Jewish content. The trouble is, that content figures considerably less in the later books.

Decker is now middle-aged. (I think Kellerman has done a little sleight of hand to keep Decker relatively young while keeping the series in line with current events, but I'm not sure--I haven't done the math.) Recent books have focused on his daughter from his first marriage. She's not especially religious, and she is simply not that interesting a character. But in the book Street Dreams, she gets into a relationship with an Israeli-born Ethiopian Jew. This plot twist gives Kellerman a convenient way to address the frequent charge that the Jewish ban on intermarriage is racist.

In one scene, Decker's daughter serves him breakfast at her apartment. Since he keeps kosher and she doesn't, we would expect her to make certain accommodations, but the book doesn't mention any. This oversight wouldn't bother me in an ordinary book, and certainly non-Jewish readers won't care. But it's a lapse from what Kellerman achieved earlier in the series. I get the feeling she finds the religious elements of the story increasingly distracting.

On a dramatic level, the series lags in certain places. Occasionally, characters act in ways we can't possibly believe. Sometimes Decker, while scrupulously moral in general, displays questionable ethics. In the eighth book, Justice, he gets promoted to lieutenant after he blackmails his boss, an incompetent bigot, into resigning. Moments like this, while troubling, contribute to Decker's complex characterization--probably the second most important reason I like the series.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Return to the source

I have a habit of reading the same books over and over instead of moving on to new ones. Last week I wrote a post on Piers Anthony's Killobyte, which I reread recently and enjoyed as much as the first time I read it 13 years ago. In that post, I offhandedly mentioned Jack, the Giant Killer, the first Charles De Lint book I ever read, back in fifth grade. Over the years I've gone on to several other books and stories of his, but this one stayed in my memory as his greatest work. Rereading it now, I'm rethinking that judgment. It isn't as good as I remember.

The book was his contribution to a series of modernized fairy tales by various fantasy writers. The classic tale he chose to update was "Jack the Giant Killer," but he threw in elements of various other stories (including the related and better known "Jack and the Beanstalk") as well as some folkloric material.

De Lint was ideal for this project, since his specialty is incorporating traditional fantasy into a contemporary urban setting. He could easily write mainstream fiction if he wanted. His books always begin in the real world, and he has a reputation for drawing believable female characters. But he also has a lifelong interest in mythology and folklore. His passion for the subject always comes through in his fiction.

The "Jack" of the book's title turns out to be a young woman named Jacky, who lives in modern-day Canada and has no belief in fairies, elves, or sorcerers. Depressed after her boyfriend walks out on her, she is walking down the street drunk one night when she witnesses a bizarre sight. A biker gang chase down and kill a strange little man by shooting lightning at him through a staff. The dwarf's corpse soon disappears, as does a mysterious man who was watching from a nearby house.

Naturally, she thinks she hallucinated the incident, but one item from the scene remains: the dwarf's red cap. When she returns to the spot a few days later, she discovers that donning the cap allows her to see into the land of Faerie, a world of gnomes, giants, and other mythical races. They all live right in the modern world, occupying the same space and traveling on the same roads. They've always been there, and always will be there, but most mortals are unable to see them.

This intriguing premise is part of what I remember loving about the book. I especially enjoyed the names of the creatures, which include the Gruagagh, the hobs, and the bogans, a race of pirate-like ghouls with a penchant for the phrase "Hot damn!"

The book also has an element of female empowerment, as a tiny woman from the contemporary world becomes a fighter and learns to kick Giant butt. (I have a theory that this book, published in 1987, inspired Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.)

Unfortunately, the novel soon gets bogged down in plot details that aren't quite as compelling as the early scenes promise. Jacky is called upon to rescue some enchanted princess (or something) and restore order to the land. There's a lot of names and places to remember, and my eyes soon glazed over.

De Lint wrote in the introduction that what attracted him to the character of Jack, who shows up in at least three classic fairy tales, was his mixture of luck and pluck; he is, according to De Lint, "both foolish and clever."

But it isn't until a while into the novel that we get a sense of this character in Jacky. The book doesn't feel much like a fairy tale. It seems to owe more to Tolkien than to Grimm. There is even an enchanted object that corrupts the one who wields it, just like in Lord of the Rings.

This weekend, I read the 1990 sequel Drink Down the Moon for the first time. In some ways, I enjoyed it more than the first book, even though it departs even farther from its fairy tale origin, with scarcely any giants in the plot. It is more of a typical De Lint novel.

It continues the adventures of Jacky, now a permanent resident of Faerie. She's forced to confront a powerful villain called the droichan, who is considerably smarter and scarier than the rather witless giants and bogans from the first novel.

The book contains much joy and humor, but the scene I will probably remember for the longest is riveting. The droichan captures Jacky and uses magic to torture her. I will end this post with an excerpt from this scene. Do not read further if you aren't interested in getting nightmares.
"When my kind dies," the droichan said, "truly dies, this is where we go."

One by one, Jacky's senses deserted her. Sight went first--from a gauzy veil to nothingness. Her other senses compensated, becoming more acute.

She heard her own raspy breathing, the droichan's light breaths. In the Tower itself, the cries of the bogans and other creatures readying for war....

Then her hearing went.

Now she could smell the sharpness of her own fear, the earthy smell of the droichan. The open window of the Tower brought in the scents of autumn with a bog-reek of sluagh and bogans.

Smell went.

She could taste her fear now--a raw vomit sour in her throat. The salty sweat that beaded her lips.

Taste went.

There was nothing left but touch. The hard wall at her back. The vague kiss of a breeze on her skin. Then her nerve ends began to tingle and go numb. Limb by limb, feeling withdrew until she was devoid of all sensation.

No outside stimuli entered her. She might as well have been immersed in a sensory-deprivation tank. But there was no peace to be found in this. No rest. No solace. She hadn't chosen to withdraw from the world to capture some inner harmony. She'd had her senses stolen from her by a monster and been cast adrift in a bleak void of his making.

There was no way to measure time.

A moment could have passed and it could have been forever. An eternity slipped by in a scurry of seconds. Blank, utter panic came gibbering up from the back of her mind and flooded her brain....

She was here forever.

She might already have been here forever.

Escape was impossible. Without the droichan's help, she couldn't return to the world.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Macho Right

Cross-posted at DovBear's blog

In his book The Conservative Soul, bleeding-heart conservative Andrew Sullivan writes, "Even the most passionate of the [Bush] Administration's defenders cannot argue that [waterboarding] is not 'cruel, degrading and inhuman' treatment.... The notion that 'waterboarding' is not torture under the plain meaning of the word as well as its legal meaning is preposterous" (p. 169).

I contrast that with Rudy Giuliani's statement about being unsure whether waterboarding is torture. How do you possibly resolve a disagreement like this? Unless you go to the extreme of testing waterboarding on yourself, as Daniel Levin did, it's basically one person's opinion against another's. Frankly, I doubt the former New York mayor, who built his reputation on dogged machismo, is likely to be swayed by, let's face it, a prissy gay Englishman.

Sullivan attributes the Bush view of torture to "the fundamentalist psyche," which holds that "what matters is his intent, not the empirical analysis" (p. 170). This forms part of Sullivan's larger theory that the world is divided into two types of people, fundamentalists and...well, everyone else, I guess. Into the first category he includes various Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Zionists, Islamists, Nazis, and Communists. He characterizes fundamentalism as hostile toward reason, and among the unreasonable qualities he lists are, oh, a black-and-white "us vs. them" mentality. Hmmmmmmm.

The chip in his theory is that Giuliani is no fundamentalist, by the plain meaning of the word as well as its legal meaning. I therefore propose an alternative theory that is equally simplistic, but at least it knows it is. The assault on reason here is coming not from the Religious Right, but from the Macho Right.

Contrary to popular belief, members of the Religious Right are quite capable of reasoned thought, at least when it suits their purposes. Reason is absolutely irrelevant to members of the Macho Right, who are driven not by reason, but by testosterone.

Even if you've never heard the term, you surely are familiar with the right-wingers who seem to build their whole outlook on machismo. "We gotta be tough on crime. We gotta bomb the commies/Muslims/insert-your-own-enemy back to the Stone Age. We gotta stop the liberals who want to take guns away from the real men who own them."

It's no wonder all those tough-guy movie stars, at least the ones who aren't into martial arts, vote Republican: Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Eastwood, and Willis.

Schwarzenegger, who has never clearly explained why he's a Republican, is a perfect example. You remember when he characterized his Democratic opponents as "economic girlie men" (never mind that he supports universal health care). Then some gay rights organizations, eager to play Charlie Brown to Lucy's football, complained that his remarks were insulting to homosexuals. Uh-huh.

To qualify for the Macho Right, you don't have to be religious. You don't even have to be conservative in a traditional sense. You certainly don't have to be genuinely tough. As we have seen, right-wingers are more than willing to paint true American heroes like John McCain and John Kerry as spineless sissies.

Some notable examples of Macho Rightists in the media are Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, and Bill O'Reilly. You remember Savage. He's the guy who got kicked off of MSNBC because he referred to a caller as a "sodomite" and told him to "get AIDS and die."

Savage, an irreligious Jew, can hardly be accused of Bible-thumping. Macho Rightists aren't fueled by the Bible, which may even provide them with some distractions, such as the admonition to love the sinner. They're the types of people who are given to saying things like, "Get your hands off me, you faggot!!!!"

When Hillary Clinton called Ann Coulter "heartless," referencing her book Godless, Coulter replied, "Oh, lighten up, girl." Apparently realizing the flaw in Hillary's approach, Joe Maguire titled his anti-Coulter book Brainless. That of course has more bite, but it still misses the point. Macho Rightists don't care about brains. They care about cojones.

After all, who else is the emblem of the Macho Right today than President George W. Bush, that tough, macho cowboy who's just like...well, certainly not like the folks from Brokeback Mountain. Those are just sissies who herd cows.

I was once listening to a Macho Right acquaintance of mine rail against bicycle helmets. He wasn't talking about government regulation. He simply hated seeing kids wear them, claiming that today's parents are raising a generation of wimps who can't handle the world.

I had a nasty bicycle spill when I was fifteen. I was wearing no helmet or kneepads. Luckily, I didn't land on my head, but what if I had? I might not be here now to talk about the incident.

The experience gives me a slight advantage when arguing with Macho Rightists. I wouldn't stand a chance against them if all I had were statistics and reasoned arguments. When a Macho Rightist talks, there is absolutely nothing you say, no reasoned argument, that can possibly sway them. On the contrary, the slightest appeal to reason makes you sound like the wuss they know you are. The only way to combat their rhetoric is through more macho rhetoric.

Bill O'Reilly has actually used Macho Right logic to argue against the death penalty. He says that we should give the convicts life in prison so that they can suffer more.

It's hard to say how many Macho Rightists there are, but you know them when you hear them. If you ask any of them whether they belong to the Macho Right, they aren't likely to admit it. The term probably reminds them too much of the Village People.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Democracy without freedom

Dialogue from the 2002 movie Spider-Man:

Peter Parker: Spider-Man wasn't trying to attack the city, he was trying to save it. That's slander.

J. Jonah Jameson: It is not. I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel.
I hate when people try to win an argument by appealing to a pedantic distinction with no relevance to the discussion. For example, how many times have you heard someone say, "The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy"?

I've heard that statement a lot from defenders of the Electoral College, as if to suggest that opponents are aiming to turn the U.S. into a direct democracy.

Let's review the distinction. In a pure democracy, people vote for policies; in a republic, for representatives who will enact policies.

What on earth does this distinction have to do with the Electoral College? If anything, having the president chosen directly by the people would bring this country closer to the standard definition of a republic. The president is a representative, not a policy.

People who pull this distinction out of the hat are simply showing off, making it sound as if the other person is ignorant of something we all learned in grade school.

The know-it-alls may be the entire reason we keep this distinction around. It's not a very useful distinction. Apart from specific initiatives, pure democracy is virtually nonexistent. It's almost impossible to implement in a country of any significant size. And it isn't even something that most people hold up as an ideal.

We admire the U.S. system because of the freedoms it gives us, which a pure democracy would have a hard time maintaining. It is in that sense only that we invest the word democracy with its glowing connotations. When President Bush talks about spreading democracy in the Middle East, he certainly doesn't mean the direct kind. When the know-it-alls have their backs turned, everyone uses the word this way. Indeed, the main synonym for republic is "representative democracy," so it's really silly to act like a republic is anything other than a form of democracy--probably, in fact, the best form.

What's even more interesting is that the ancient Athenian government, which gave us the word democracy, would never be considered one in today's world. There, "the people" voted directly for policies, but the majority of the populace was excluded from this privileged group. That's where we got our concept of "pure democracy," even though it was nothing of the kind.

Maybe we ought to abandon the republic/democracy distinction entirely. It makes republics sound somehow defective. And it's unlike the way most people use the word in practice. In common parlance, a democracy is simply a country that grants every citizen some political power. Now there's a useful definition that may help us reclaim the term from the know-it-alls who only confuse the issue.

Monday, February 11, 2008

VR dreams

I've always been intrigued by how we refer to present-day technology using the names of far more advanced devices from science fiction. Real holograms do not look like solid objects, real robots do not have human-like personalities, and real spaceships do not visit faraway planets. Rarely is the human tendency toward hyperbole captured in science fiction itself, one exception being the "star destroyers" in Star Wars.

Virtual reality is an astounding example of the phenomenon. I first started hearing the term in the early 1990s, referring to machines placed over your entire head, sending imagery to the inner walls to make you feel like you're in a different world. I'm surprised this technology never caught on, and I'm disappointed that I've never had a chance to try it. Nowadays, the Internet has produced computer-generated alternate worlds like Second Life, but they're still presented through the flat screen of a monitor. They aren't like the VR that has been invented, let alone the VR in science fiction, where you enter a three-dimensional, fully sensory environment that feels the same as traversing the real world, even though you may be lying on a chair in your basement the whole time.

I was having those thoughts the other day as I reread Piers Anthony's 1993 novel Killobyte. It's the best of the dozen or so novels I've read by Anthony, though that isn't saying much, considering he's written over a hundred more. His books, while wickedly imaginative, have not generally had a lasting impact on me. I recognized in Killobyte many of the elements from his other books, including bizarre sexual scenarios, and the incorporation of medieval fantasy into a futuristic setting. (The sex scenes in his books have generated controversy, since children constitute a large chunk of his audience. In fifth grade, I almost did a book report on an Anthony novel in which an android has an affair with a female unicorn who can shape-shift into human form but still has heat cycles. I chose Charles De Lint's Jack the Giant Killer instead.)

The creativity of this book is accompanied by a page-turning quality that he claims he got from Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters. There are also some astonishingly realistic chapters, including a painfully vivid depiction of a girl suffering from diabetes. These qualities are important, because virtual-world stories often get so caught up in world creation that the story just sits there. (That was a problem with the dreadfully dull 2000 movie The Cell.) Not so with Killobyte: the complex VR game conceived in the book is intriguing enough to keep us reading, before the book turns into a slam-bang thriller.

In Killobyte, players are hooked up to a machine that not only simulates a range of sensations, from pain to sex, but also responds to brain signals to move a player's character in the virtual world. The only way to exit the game and return to the real world is by selecting that option from a menu that appears within the virtual world. Otherwise, you're stuck, like someone unable to wake up from a dream. (I doubt I'm giving away too much of the plot, since virtually all stories of this kind have the characters getting trapped inside the virtual world.) The game itself is pretty much traditional RPG, but it involves sophisticated voice recognition, artificial intelligence, and simulated sex so convincing it can work for a paraplegic who has lost that function in the real world.

It's amusing to read the book now, for there's no direct mention of the Internet, and all the players connect to the game's network using telephone modems. That's hardly surprising. Anthony apparently wrote the book in 1991, when the World Wide Web had only just been invented, and when the term "Internet" was still techno-jargon. He did not specify when the book was supposed to take place, and for all intents and purposes it felt very much like the present. He was optimistic that the technology described in the book was not far off: "I suspect we shall have games very like this in the next decade or so" (p. 308).

That this hasn't happened should give us pause. Science fiction hasn't forgotten: the popularity of The Matrix and its sequels proves that it's still in the public mind. And I have heard that inventors are on the brink of creating machines that respond to brain signals. But we aren't close to inventing virtual-world machines that effectively trap a user inside them, like an electronically simulated dream. The question is whether we will create such machines--or, more importantly, why.