Brainwashing: Children and Religion 6 May 2007Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Documentary Film, Teaching.
After watching the documentary Jesus Camp this afternoon, I was thinking about my strong emotional reaction to what I saw. Given what I’d read about the film and friends’ reactions, I had expected to be offended and disgusted. And indeed, I was actually embarassed by the weirdness of some of these people (the older woman with the cutout of Pres. Bush speaking in tongues was beyond freakish). But mostly I felt violated.
There’s a scene early in the movie with a young girl, around 7 or 8 years old, who is bowling with friends and family. As she tries to hit the pins, she prays to god to make it a good strike, and she “commands” the ball to do her will. Seeing this twisted my stomach in nots. I have vivid memories of believing that I had that kind of power, because I had faith.
The teachers used likely techniques to indoctrinate the children and to get them to believe: emotional activities designed to excite feelings, music and dancing, object lessons, rhythmic chanting, telling the kids that they are chosen and important, encouraging the children to profess their faith (not to mention to speak in tongues and heal), showing the kids models (inaccurate ones) of fetuses. But mostly it was the content of the teachings that disturbed me–a blatant manipulation of the emotions of a child.
Richard Dawkins has taken a lot of heat over the past year about the claim in his book The God Delusion that indoctrinating children into religion is a form of child abuse. It is hard to watch these kids talk about Americans as sinners who need chastening, or about how they are sinful for wanting to watch Harry Potter, just because it’s so silly. Or even more, the little bowling girl goes up to evangelize a woman at the bowling lanes, it’s painful to see the brainwashing in practice. But taken as a whole, the kids taling about why evolution is evil, and global warming isn’t true, and how they have to redeem america from Satan…it’s hard not to see this is child abuse.
I suppose it is my own discomfort with my own childhood, and the degree to which I had believed what I was taught. I realize mormonism is a different kind of religion from Evangelicalism, but many of the processes were the same. I have to wonder if my long, difficult journey to reshape my own world view and perspective would have taken so long had I not been indoctrinated in the way I was.
For me, the film raises again the question that may very well be at the center of democratic freedom: what rights do children have? Do they have the right to be raised free from their parents’ superstition? Is the kind of emotional, pyschological, and intellectual damage inflicted on children not a form of abuse? I believe that these parents are sincere in their beliefs and they truly want what is best for their kids. But is sincerity enough to justify what religion does to children?
‘Hometown Baghdad’ Web Documentaries 29 March 2007Posted by Todd in Documentary Film, War & Terrorism.
I just spent a half hour watching the mini-documentaries about three men — Adel, Aussama, and Saif — living in Baghdad. The filmmakers followed them around over the past year in an effort to break through the banality and machine-like rhythm of news reporting on the Iraq War. For me, watching the lives of people in a war zone, trying to be “normal” and to still believe in their lives’ dreams snapped me out of a low-level anger and irritation over the war. I realized how, even though my objections to the war include its human cost, my primary objections have been political and intellectual. Here you cannot help but confront the day-to-day impact our ill-conceived invasion has on people whom, under normal circumstances, we would sit around in a coffee house and debate literature, talk about our lives, and enjoy the company of a friend.
The mini-documentaries are up on Hometown Bagdad and also on Salon.com. They have started distributing them through YouTube, through it’s New York based producers Chat the Planet, for maximum publicity. And they are available in vid-cast form through iTunes.
Watch them and spread the word. Here’s the most recent episode, “Symphony of Bullets.”
From Hometown Baghdad‘s description:
A documentary web series following the lives of a few Iraqi 20-somethings trying to survive in Baghdad.
The everyday life of the Iraqi citizen has been the great untold story of the Iraq war.
The brave Iraqi subjects and crew risked their lives every time they turned on a camera to make this series. They want to show the world what life is like when your hometown is a war-zone. We believe that people who see their stories will want to share them with others. That’s why we’re distributing the series online. So please – watch the videos, rewatch them, tell friends about them, comment on them, and link to them.
The intention of the Iraqi filmmakers and subjects was to show the world what Baghdad is truly like. That’s why they usually speak English and not Arabic.
It is a co-production between NY-based Chat the Planet and a group of Iraqi filmmakers in Baghdad. The subjects also turned the cameras on themselves when it became too dangerous for our crew to travel through Baghdad.
And from Salon.com’s description:
What we immediately found absorbing in “Hometown Baghdad” is not the fear, confusion or carnage we’ve grown to expect from documentary reports out of Iraq. It’s the three men central to this series — Adel, Ausama and Saif — whose lives we see unfold in short, telling vignettes. We see them eat dinner and go to school, watch them go swimming and practice in their rock band. But in a war-torn, religiously divided city, even these simple actions are fraught.
On the fourth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, when many of us have become hopelessly inured to reports of yet another bombing, the simple struggles of regular people take on a greater, more chilling power; we watch a way of life deteriorate before our eyes, and come to recognize the horrors of war in a way that the bold headlines or CNN news alerts no longer convey. We think you’ll find them compelling and thought-provoking, and hope you’ll write in to the Letters section to tell us what you think. The first three episodes appear in the left-hand column (and here). Additional installments will appear every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next few months.
The shooting of “Hometown Baghdad” was led by directors and producers Ziad Turkey and Fady Hadid over the course of the past year; the series was co-produced by New York-based Chat the Planet, which will distribute these videos, after a short period of exclusivity on Salon, to a variety of online outlets (including YouTube.com, Joost and the series’ own Web site) for maximum exposure.
Hitchens on Free Speech 15 March 2007Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, History, Islam, Judaism, Law/Courts, Religion.
I have a love-hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens, whose columns in the Nation I used to love to read, but who continues to baffle me with an almost irrational support of the war in Iraq. But lately he has emerged as a modern-day Voltaire (at the risk of overstating), poking at sacred cows (i.e., religion) and insisting on the necessity and ultimate Good of radical free speech. Like Voltaire, he seeks purposefully to offend his reader-listener precisely because he can and believes he should be able to do so.
In Canada, hate-speech is against the law and several European countries are leaning toward outlawing “offensive” speech. This is a dangerous gigantic leap backward to Voltaire’s day, when people who said things offensive to the powers-that-were (i.e., the king and the church) were imprisoned, tortured, fined, or killed for speaking their minds. Here, Hitchens speaks at Hart House at the University of Toronto during a debate about the possible decriminalization of hate speech in the frosty country to our north.* Hitchens offends everyone from Canadians, to gays, to muslims and christians, to women, Austrians and people from Yorkshire. But he does so to make his point: Free speech must remain inviolate. Watch it knowing you’ll be offended at least once, and then listen for its core argument.
Thanks be to One Good Move for posting the speech. Here are a couple of excerpts on Youtube.
*Canadian multiculturalism is in some ways extreme in its niceness and its fear of offence, but rises to the level of anti-democratic principle as the government reifies racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities by funding them merely to exist. I love Canada, and was probably a black jewish lesbian from the Northwestern Territories in my last life; but I fear their efforts to create a pluralist utopia may actually end up destroying some basic freedoms.
John F. Kennedy on Secrecy and Security 8 September 2006Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, History, Journalism, Politics, War & Terrorism.
Although he had his faults, like all men and women, he was a believer in democracy and freedom. His words stand in stark and alarming contrast to the cynics who run our country today. Thanks to whoever posted this speech to YouTube and to Mike the Mad Biologist for spreading the word.
Political Fervor 4 September 2006Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Democratic Theory, History, Politics.
[On a post-mormon forum I participate on, there’s been some discussion about why Mormonism breeds such intense political feelings in addition to the religious identity one would expect, so much so that it is often impossible to have a rational discussion about politics with a mormon (or any religious person, for that matter. Here are some of my thoughts:]
Cognitive Scientists have done a series of studies on people’s reactions to political discussions (not ideas) and here’s the thing: people have to make a concerted effort to stay in a ‘rational’ mode. If they don’t, emotions take over, so that the emotional brain controls the discourse. I’ve found this to be true here in the Bay Area as well, even among secular, left-wing people. I thought when I left Kansas for San Francisco, I’d be politically free; but I find that the political culture here is just as reactionary and normative as it was in Kansas, only from the other side of the political spectrum. I’ve been scolded in a Berkeley parking lot by complete strangers for throwing away a plastic bottle (instead of recycling it) and have been called a Republican and a fascist (in tones approaching religious fervor) because I questioned the city’s policies on homelessness and, more recently, school busing. In short, people seem to hold political positions uncritically, in general, and emotionally; and they are usually identities as much as or more than they are political positions.
In social psychology (i.e., microsociology), it’s been pretty well demonstrated that, at least in democracies, political affiliation is rarely a mere alignment of parties and even rarer of intellectually substantiated argument; rather, it is almost always an alignment of values and group boundary drawing of peoplep who share those values. Values can (and should!) be discussed and arrived at rationally whenever possible (we should have reasons for taking the value positions we do), but the reality is that most often we *feel* our value positions, rather than think about them. And thus, our political affiliations, which are value affiliations, are emotional attachments, not rational choices.
American politics’ two-party steaming pile of fresh bullshit has the frustrating cultural effect of making Americans think that all issues only have two sides and two possible solutions, and one is evil and one is good. I cannot see how American politics could possible ever get better until we have a multi party, proportional representational system, and publicly funded proportional campaign financing. But I digress. My point here is that the emotional nature of political affiliation is then exacerbated by the fact that we have a political culture based in a duality that forecloses our ability to see the complexity of issues and possible solutions to problems.
All this historically is actually connected to the way Americans do/have done religion. Where disestablishment had the unintended effect of imbricating religious participation and political participation completely by the 1830s. My small point is simply that it is deeply American to have inextricable relationships between faith and politics. Even during the long 100 year long period where ostensibly evangelicals believed that religion was incompatible with secular politics, they framed religious issues as political issues (think: Scopes trial; temperance movement; etc.). And so people’s religious identities and political affiliations are woven together in vexing and vexed ways.
PBS’s new series How Art Made the World has really captivated me over the past couple weeks. The first two episodes combine art history with cognitive science and neurobiology, archaelogy, human evolution, and anthropology—interdisciplinary inquiry at its best. Dr. Michael Spivey (Art Historian, Cambridge University) narrates, easily moving back and forth between between various disciplines to explain the human need for and ability to create representation in two-dimensional images and three-dimensional sculpture. The questions asked move beyond art criticism to explore why humans create certain kinds of images and why certain kinds of representations seem to produce heightened pleasure in our consumption of art. My inner Deweyan loves the way Spivey’s explanations seamlessly blend scientific knowledge with interpretive discussions of art’s meaning. My only quibble, especially in the 2nd episode, was that the narrative is a kind of triumphal progression: each episode begins with a mystery and ends with The Answer. Although it makes for great educational television, the social scientist in me would blanched at Dr. Spivey’s certainty about his answers; I would have prefered a more open ended, provisional answer (especially where archaelogical speculation is concerned!).
Episode One, “More Human than Human” begins with the Venus of Willendorf and asks why human artists seem to have an inexplicable tendency, cross culturally, to create images of the human body that are exagerated in proportions. Spivey gives examples from ancient Egypt and Greece and from around the world to illustrate. Interestingly, Greek sculpture went through a brief period where it created realistic images of young men (kore), standing statically upright, and accurately proportionate. But it wasn’t long before the sculptors began to produce what we now think of as “classical” greek bodies were born. What is so fascinating about the statues is that they aren’t proportioned naturally; rather, they are exaggerated proportionally (i.e., real human beings don’t look like that!). Anyway, in comes neurologist V.S. Ramachadran to explain how our brains respond to certain stimuli with pleasure. Spivey illustrates with a species of seagull from the west coast of Spain, whose chicks respond to a red stripe on their mother’s bill during feeding. The chicks respond more vigorously if presented with a dummy-head with three red stripes! In other words, it seems that our brains respond to certain aspects of our bodies, and they REALLY respond to those same aspects when exaggerated. And so around the world, human beings produce art that is “more human than human.” Cool.
Episode Two: “The Day Pictures Were Born”: There are two big questions in the second episode. One is why homo sapiens, who have been around for over 150,000 years, only began creating representational art about 35,000 years ago. The debates among biologists, evolutionary linguists, paleo-anthropologists, etc., wage on about what has been called “The Great Leap Forward,” or in Dr. Spivey’s words, “The Creative Explosion”, which includes the development of language (around 50,000 years ago). That question is left a mystery, and the second big question is, what do these 35,000 year old paintings mean and why did humans start making them? The episode leads us through the discovery of Altamira and Lascaux and then through several theories regarding the origins of cave painting. The most famous of these proposed that they were hunting rituals preceding the hunt; problematically, people around the world seemed to eat different animals than they painted.
Then there’s the problem that cave art is not only of animals, but of humans, human body parts, humans morphed with animals, geometric patterns, spots, webs, and even abstract images (who knew?). Using anthropology from South Africa and the San people, Spivey and a couple experts theorize, rather plausibly given their evidence, that these early cave paintings were part of solitary shamanistic rituals, and very likely were produced after trance states. A neurologist at London’s Institute of Psychiatry demonstrates a really cool machine that produces trance-like responses in the brain through the visual cortex, and show that our brains are hardwired to receive certain kinds of geometric patterns and that trance states actually turn those into hyper drive. Finally, as trance states get deeper and deeper, the entranced begins to see images of things that are emotionally resonant with the individual. Spivey hypothesizes that for this reason, different cultures around the world had trance-visions of different objects and animals. As I mentioned, it is here that I had reservations with the surety with which Spivey declared that the mystery is solved.
Regardless, in both the representation of human bodies and in the cave paintings, I find it fascinating that our brains respond with such intense pleasure to representations of the world wrought by our own hands. And I find it interesting as well that some representations are pleasurable and others aren’t — and that which images produce pleasure is a complex interaction of the biological wiring of our brains and the cultural contexts within which we have developed our aesthetic values and sensibilities.
I have Episode Three, “The Art of Persuasion”, about political art and propaganda recorded on TiVo, but haven’t watched it yet. I’ll return and report after I watch it.
The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green (Review), Gay Cinema (Choke), and What’s Film Criticism For (Anyway)? 8 July 2006Posted by Todd in Cinema, Culture, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Pop Culture, Reviews.
Ugh. After reading a couple positive reviews in the gay press, followed by the interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle, I was all ready for a light, funny, gay romantic comedy. Instead I got “The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green.” (By the way, this is the second horrible film I’ve seen from Here! productions in the past month; the first was the painful lesbian dramedy April’s Shower, which was so bad I couldn’t bear to review it.)
I know, I know. It’s based on a comic strip (a rather funny one, at that) by Eric Orner, which incidentally is a key piece of gay history since he first began drawing it in 1989. The San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum included Orner’s strip in its 2006 special show on gay and lesbian cartoons. I’m not saying a comic strip can’t be translated into film, or that this couldn’t have been done well; but it did feel like the gags just didn’t translate somehow. When you see Ethan Green in a comic strip, his flaws and stupidity seem funny. But when you watch a warm-blooded human being making the same bad choices it is god-damned painful.
Basically, Ethan is highly judgmental of every man he dates and ends up breaking up with every one because they aren’t good enough–a relatively common and relatively serious problem among humans in general in our consumer-cum-dating culture. This is mixed with a series of stereotypical gay inside jokes. Again, these play funny in print, but come off as ham-handed on screen. From recently out athletes, to log cabin republicans, to middle-aged gay aunties, to teenaged oversexed newbies, this is a veritable dramatis personae of gay male stereotypes. Comedies made from within minority communities can make great use of such images, both as gentle prodding to get us to see what’s there inside of our own lives and communities and as ways to simply see ourselves represented and laugh. So although I laugh when I read Ethan Green in comic strip form, I cringed and felt self-hating when watching the film.
Top this all off with bad pacing (sometimes it drags in the middle of hijinx…hello, editing? direction?) and bad acting (watching a straight guy act gay, like, look at me ma, I’m acting!), and you have an evening of disappointment. No matter how cute the lead is or how hot the sex scenes.
We use the arts (from high-brow to low), as people, to express our ideas of ourselves and to explore our experiences in the lives that we lead. Cinema (and television) probably have more power to accomplish this end than other forms of art, because we can see real human beings moving, acting and reacting within situations we may find ourselves in; cinema allows identification in a way that is fundamentally different from other art forms. And for that reason, its power to represent and produce meaning, I believe, outstrips other forms. For subordinated communities, where the meaning of their lives is always in opposition to (or in competition with) the meanings ascribed to them by the dominant culture, the representations in film and television can be devastating. Whole shelves in libraries are devoted to the research done on representations of subordinate peoples and the effects these representations have on bolstering systems of oppression and producing dominated personalities in the minorities. For gay men and women, the production of representations by, for, and of ourselves has been key to our ability to emerge from the homophobic and heterosexist norms of American society and create full lives for ourselves despite the dominant culture.
This is difficult to talk about, because I hate the whole dynamic where minority artists have to “represent” their people (as if that were possible); yet, the continued production of meaningful art that you can at least sit through without throwing empty popcorn buckets at the screen is of utmost importance at this turning point in gay history. We are on the verge of having de facto ‘acceptance’ into America. But that will not eliminate our need as a group to continue to have discussions about what our lives and loves and communities should mean. And we will need to do better than this film.
Having said that, I’m not a film snob by any stretch (really, I’m not!). In fact, I’m a bit of a social outcast in San Francisco, where cultural posing is de rigeur, from local hip-hop among the kids, to only the right electronia among the clubbers, to only the right restaurant for the bourgeois; and everyone in the city seems to be a movie snob. Now I like movies ranging from blockbuster action, to teen dramas, to historical epics, to impressionist films from Siberia. I like film for the masses and cinema for the elite. In short, I like film. I’ve never studied film history or film making, so mostly my reviews are just my viceral response to them (although sometimes my cultural-sociologist brain will kick in and I’ll have a fit analyzing the cultural production and circulation of meanings in particular contexts. See above.).
After talking extensively with my good friend Matt about movies, I finally admitted to him that I actually like Roger Ebert. Most people know him only from the television review program, which is of a necessity abbreviated and simplistic (thumbs up or down? please). But when you read his published film criticism, you get to understand not only how much he loves cinema, but how much he gets it. Often, the role of critics is poo-poo’ed in our anti-intellectual American culture, our own backwards form of cultural populism. But critics can serve a vital role of interpreting works of art and engaging us in the meaningful conversations that they evoke. Camille Paglia’s recent collection of poetry explication/criticism, Break, Blow, Burn, demonstrates the role of critic beautifully, showing us that criticism at its best makes us stop and reconsider, moves forward our understanding, contextualizes pieces, and finally may actually inspire us. I have discovered the Ebert is one of those cultural critics.
In the introduction to his 2002 collection of essays about 100 of his favorite movies, The Greatest Movies, Ebert says this of film:
Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people. Noot many of them are very good, however. Yes, there are the passable Friday night specials, measured by critics including myself in terms of their value in entertaining us for two hours. We buy our tickets and hope for a diversion, and usually we get it, but we so rarely get anything more.
I suppose that I just want something more from Gay Cinema.
Random Food for Thought at 1 a.m. 7 July 2006Posted by Todd in Political Commentary, Pop Culture, Religion, Secular Humanism.
It may sound paradoxical but it’s not. I’m advocating a kind of conversational intolerance. It’s really the same intolerance we express everywhere in our society when someone claims that Elvis is still alive, or that aliens are abducting ranchers and molesting them. These are beliefs that many people have. But these beliefs systematically exclude them from holding positions of responsibility. The person who’s sure that Elvis is still alive and expresses this belief candidly does not wind up in the Oval Office or in our nation’s boardrooms. And that’s a very good thing. But when the conversation changes to Jesus being born of a virgin or Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, then these beliefs not only do not exclude you from holding power in society; you could not possibly hold power, in a political sense, without endorsing this kind of thinking.
It should be terrifying to us because many of these beliefs are not just quaint and curious, like beliefs in Elvis. These are beliefs about the end of history, about the utility of trying to create a sustainable civilization for ourselves — specifically, beliefs in eschatology. These are maladaptive. For instance, if a mushroom cloud replaced the city of New York tomorrow morning, something like half the American people would see a silver lining in that cloud because it would presage to them that the end of days are upon us.
It is like some sort of virus. It is like some sort of weird and painful rash on your face that makes you embarrassed to walk out the door and so you sit there day after day, waiting for it to go away, slathering on ointment and Bactine and scotch. And yet still it lingers.
Some days the pain is so searing and hot you want to cut off your own head with a nail file. Other days it is numb and pain-free and seemingly OK, to the point where you think it might finally be all gone and you allow yourself a hint of a whisper of a positive feeling, right up until you look in the mirror, and scream.
George W. Bush is just like that.
Can you tell I’m having trouble sleeping? Thank god for reading and blogging.