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No Redemption in “Angels in America” (Guest Post) 30 August 2010

Posted by Todd in Culture, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Culture, Literature, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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In a conversation with some friends last week about the brilliance and shortcomings of Kushner’s play cycle Angels in America, a friend of mine, Caroline Udall, wrote this piercing critique of Kushner’s choice to redeem every character except the gay Mormon. Her comment is in medias rex, as it were, but I think it stands on its own as an example of excellent literary criticism. The first paragraph is my comment to which Caroline is responding.

Even today, however, I find that it stings me to the core that the only character who doesn’t find forgiveness in the play is the gay mormon character. Everyone else, even Roy Cohn the evil monster proto-typical self-hating Himmler of American gay life from HUAC to AIDS, even *he* finds redemption. But the gay mormon character is simply lost, refusing redemption at the end of the play, a poison to his wife, his mother, and to the boyfriend he beats up.

This is the exact bone I have to pick with Angels in America as well (I mean the HBO version; I’ve never seen it on stage). To me Joe was a heartbreaking character–absolutely trapped and warped by his family, his religion, his whole right-wing mormon milieu. And I thought Kushner deeply, deeply betrayed that character.

I read a bit of an interview with Kushner once. I can’t remember where I read it, but it was shortly after I saw the DVD. Kushner said, essentially, that he didn’t want Joe to come away with ANYTHING. He wanted him to lose EVERYTHING—that he saw him as some kind of completely hypocritical closet case and wanted to set it up to punish that kind of figure. But the problem is, he didn’t set him up as a Ted Haggard type, or even as a Roy Cohn type. He set the character up as this lost soul who is deeply naive, believes in his religion and consequently hates himself, is really just as much a victim of the patriarchs and their patriarchal homophobia as Harper or his mother are victims of patriarchal misogyny. He develops Joe as having been wounded and rejected by a homophobic, unloving father and thus vulnerable to the warped father-figure of Cohn. That scene where Cohn puts his hands on Joe’s head and blesses him in this really twisted playing out of a mormon father’s blessing was absolutely seething with evil to me. And Joe absorbs it with really no awareness that he is under the hands of the devil. He even tells Cohn that he loves him in that scene–and he clearly means it in a son-to-father sense, not in an erotic way. So here he is getting the devil’s blessing and receiving it, in all innocence, as if it were something holy.

Joe doesn’t share Cohn’s values, but is sort of hypnotized into thinking that Cohn shares his values. That scene where he confronts Cohn about federal witness tampering (or whatever it was) demonstrates clearly that Joe was not inherently a dishonest man.

I fucking hated the character of Louis (which, I suppose may have been the point, lol) for partly this reason. Joe is clearly, CLEARLY ignorant about who Roy Cohn is and what part he has played in history. Yet when Louis finds out that Joe works for Cohn, that’s it. Knowing nothing more than that, he sobbingly rejects Joe in absolutely cruel, arrogant, judgmental terms. It’s not Cohn that’s the villain here–it’s Joe—simply for his proximity to Cohn. Louis even quotes that whole “Have you no decency, sir?” stuff at Joe, as if Joe were the one who had done all that shit during the HUAC hearings. And this is from a man who abandons his AIDS-stricken lover bleeding on the floor because he himself is too physically squeamish to deal with it. He doesn’t even bother to call the ambulance before he goes. It’s like Cohn’s sins have been pronounced on Joe’s head and JOE gets sent off into the desert to die. Joe’s been the innocent scapegoat and so enables everybody else to have basically a warm, lovely happy ending. (Hmm. D’ya think? It works for me. But maybe it’s too much of a stretch. Then again, considering the scene in the hospital where he gets Cohn’s blood all over him after Cohn lays hands on him–maybe it’s not such a stretch.)

If Kushner wanted to punish evil, self-hating, hypocritical closet cases who make life worse for other gays, then why does Cohn get to have Kaddish said for him (in the movie, by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, no less–a woman he participated in essentially murdering), but Joe loses everything, gets no comfort, no redemption of any kind? Joe was in no way a conscious betrayer, a conscious evil presence, in the way that Cohn was. In Joe, Kushner created what I thought was a beautiful, tragic, wounded, and essentially innocent character that was very, very true to what it means to be a victim of mormonism–gay or otherwise. And then he betrays him and psychically kills him off, while giving the TRUE villain of the piece on every. single. level. one of the most redemptive scenes in the play.

Yeah, lol. It clearly bugged me. Joe’s character broke my heart as much as any character in that play and I thought Kushner absolutely betrayed him. I’m still gnawing on it, five years after I saw the thing.

Mumbai 29 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Islam, Modernity and Modernism, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
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Note: I am no expert in Indian history or politics, so this is just a casual reaction from an outside observer. I would love to hear from readers who are better informed or have deeper analyses to offer.

There is a lot of really good commentary floating around the interwebs about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, this past week, and I have been trying to sort out all the intricacies of what happened. The social scientist in me (and my base personality) goes quickly to trying to understand such an event, the structures, attitudes, and practices that would lead us to such a show of violence. Unfortunately, much of the early analysis drew facile parallels with Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism(s), but I really don’t think that works. Although global Islam is (loosely) connected, it seems that this Indian event is much more deeply tied to a particularly Indian inter-communal conflict, one that has been brewing and boiling over for decades, if not centuries. Whereas terrorism born of Saudi malcontents is anchored in an anti-modernity and anti-Americanism, that is, a long post-colonial history, it seems that the Mumbai violence, while certainly connected to British imperialism, has as much to do with internal inequalities. It looks to be a domestic terrorism only loosely (perhaps even ideologically) connected to global interactions. Although Pakistan and India are separate countries, which makes it look like an “international” affair, I think that the partition of Pakistan from India in the late 1940s is evidence of internal divisions within the subcontinent more than of an international conflict. 

To me, then, the terrorism in Mumbai looks far more like a failure of pluralism, or more pointedly, a failure of plural democracy. One of the key weaknesses at the origins of the modern state of India, which Ghandi warned of, was the imagination of India as hindu, and all others as Others. The national imagination of the Indian state wove into it the pre-existing communal conflicts between Indian muslims and Indian hindus, and really hasn’t ever allowed for a true and equal pluralism to develop. See “India’s Muslims in Crisis” by Aryn Baker for a brief primer on the status of Muslims in India.

Unfortunately, the global Ummah is made up, partially now, of a culture of terrorism, where injustices (perceived or real) are dealt with through direct violence against anyone perceived as benefiting from or participating in the oppression of muslims. It is perhaps far beyond this now, but maybe not: Is there no Ghandi for Indian Muslims? Are there no other ways for Indians to demand their full equality within the modern Indian state without resorting to violence of this kind? Or am I just naive and idealistic?

Time for the Movement to Spread Its Protests Around 13 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Religion.
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Just a quick thought: Although I’m supportive of the many protests of the Mormon church over the past week, and I think they are totally justified given the church’s prominent role in the Yes on 8 campaign, I think it’s time to expand our scope. We need to continue the peaceful, but pointed protesting, at other churches who were deeply involved in this issue, and we need to include churches across race lines as well. If the exit polling was correct, the religious vote generally, which in this case included Catholic and evangelical churches, voted roughly 80% in favor. Spread the love, my people!  I also thought of suggesting the protests move to retirement communities, but for some reason that thought just made me giggle.

Free Speech 101: Mormon Edition 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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Please read Chanson’s great post at Mainstreet Plaza explaining to Mormons why protesting at their temples does not violate their rights. My favorite paragraph:

But seriously folks, free expression 101: your right of free speech doesn’t guarantee you protection from having other people tell you that what you freely said was wrong. You know it, and I know you know it, so please cut the B.S.

Here’s my post from a couple years ago on American Christianity’s basic misunderstanding of free speech, “Free Speech, and Insulting Religion.”

Clarification on Mormons and Prop 8 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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Just to clarify: I’m completely supportive and in favor of the ongoing protests and civil disobedience to bring to light the wrong-headed, unscientific beliefs in fairy tales, and the undemocratic efforts of the Mormon church and its adherents to enshrine their *religious* beliefs regarding homosexuality and marriage into the *secular* Constitution of California. In fact, I’m especially thrilled by the prospect of protestors disrupting Mormons’ efforts to marry in their temples. The irony is rich, no?

And especially in reference to my post about the Mormon church’s tax-exempt status, I’m in favor of all churches losing their tax exempt status. There is no reason at all that churches should be able to keep their finances secret and that they should be able to control billions of dollars in assets without contributing back to the society. And they certainly should be paying taxes if they are going to step into the public sphere to make their particular biases and bigotries enforced by law.

Unlike Seth, the Mormon commenter to the previous post, I see no difference between the protests in Salt Lake City and in Los Angeles. Both were direct responses to the Church’s efforts to impose its religion on the people of California; both were lawful; and both were filled with the frustration of a people denied. The protestors in Salt Lake City gathered at one of the gates to Temple Square and chanted “You’re Sexist! You’re Racist! And you’re Homophobic!” The protestors in Los Angeles bore signs that read, “You have two wives. I want one husband!” I marched in the protest in San Francisco on Friday night and felt the power of a people galvanized against those who would make them second class citizens. Separate is never equal, and this is but one stop along the route to full equality under the law for the gay and lesbian citizens of Californa. Next stop: The United States.

Going After the Mormon Church’s Tax Exempt Status Is the Wrong Strategy 8 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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I’ve been getting a lot of people directing me to the Mormons Stole Our Rights web site, starting a campaign to take away the LDS Church’s tax-exempt status for the participation in the Proposition 8 battle. This is the wrong approach. Let me explain:

I’m especially pissed at the Mormons for two reasons: 1) it was the religion of my childhood and I feel betrayed and shunned all over again; 2) because they financed at least 1/2 of the campaign and provided the lion’s share of the ground forces for prop 8. So I get the rage and the need to strike back.

However, I’m a stickler for free speech and free expression: As the law now stands, the Mormon church did NOT break the law; neither did the catholic church; nor the evangelical churches who campaigned (and who held that horrifying rally in San Diego a few days before the election).

There is a legal problem here that we realistically need to account for if we are to hold the LDS Church accountable (as well as the Catholics and all those Evangelical churches): The Mormon church did not break any law. It’s within their rights according to the IRS code to advocate publicly and spend money to advocate for political issues. Like all churches/non-profits, they are only barred from campaigning for candidates.  The website “Mormons Stole Our Rights” is wrong on the legal facts (it ignores subsection (h) of the tax code they site) and this will lose in any court in America. Ask any tax attorney and they’ll spell it out for you.  Even more problematically, the Mormon church itself donated exactly ZERO funds to this campaign anyway and asked its members to donate money; this is also completely within its rights as the law now stands.

The more legally sound approach is to begin a campaign consisting of one of the two of the following:

a) demand that churches not be considered special kinds of non-profits and that their finances must be made public, just like non-religious non-profits must.

b) remove nonprofit status from all religious organizations. Make them all pay taxes on the money they use to advocate for issues, just like all private citizens must (we have to pay taxes on the money we donate to political causes).  Religions have only had nonprofit status since the 1950s. This isn’t enshrined anywhere in stone.

There is also a third issue to consider:

c) another way to go might be to see if it could be made illegal for California propositions to be funded by out of state interests (see prop 10 as another example); I suspect that may come into conflict with the interstate commerce clause, however, and would require federal legislation.

In some ways, this nascent campaign seems to seek to punish the Mormons for expressing their beliefs and campaigning for them. That is, on its face, anti-democratic and the precise wrong way to go about addressing our the role of the LDS Church in this past election. I’m all in favor of the protests at the Mormon temples, the intense criticism in the public sphere that Mormonism has been getting over this issue, etc. That is what free speech is for: Engaging against wrong-headed and harmful speech and countering it. But rather than seeking to punish an individual or organization for doing what is most fundamental to a democracy, we should be seeking to change people’s minds and convincing the majority of Californians that they are wrong ethically and democratically to enshrine a second class citenzhip for homosexuals in their constitution.

Let’s face it: The No on 8 campaign was completely unprepared for this battle, and the homos of California were complacent and assumed that there was no way this could pass. By the time No on 8 made the staffing change in the campaign, it was too little too late.  There is much work to be done to overcome the homophobia and no institutionalized inequality in our Constitution. I fear that this specific line of attack is the wrong one, unless done very carefully and with full understanding and respect for the law and for the right to free speech and expression.

The Happiness Hypothesis 22 July 2008

Posted by Todd in Buddhism, Microsociology/Social Psychology.
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As I’ve mentioned several times recently, I’m slowly working my way through Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding MOdern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Haidt is a “positive psychologist”, a new subfield of psychology that arose in the late 1990s following a couple decades of sort of groundbreaking research in psychology. The subtitle is a little misleading, however. What he’s actually doing in the book is evaluating human ideas about happiness based on the last 30 years of research; the book is a description of what we know right now about baseline happiness, written for a lay audience. This is my pleasure reading, so it’s going slow; but it’s really worth it.

To understand the book, you have to know that psychologists differentiate between baseline happiness (life satisfaction) and moments or events of extreme emotional pleasure. So happiness is a state of being distinguishible from moments of excitement or joy or pleasure that are fleeting. (The way they started measuring this is fascinating and I’m really glad I wasn’t in the experiment because I would have found it intolerably irritating.)

 

In Ch. 5, “The Pursuit of Happiness”, Haidt talks about Buddhist ideas of non-attachment. I won’t rehearse the whole thing here, but here’s the formula that positive psych has put on baseline happiness:

H=S+C+V

Happiness is an interaction between genetic Set point, life Conditions, and Voluntary activities. S=Briefly, about 20 years ago, the research started showing a strong genetic component to baseline happiness, which has since been refined; that is, happiness turns out to be extremely heritable. Recent research has shown that this is a range for each individual, rather than a set level of satisfaction. Where you are in that range is highly influenced by other factors.

C=Life conditions are mostly things you can’t change (sex, age, race, etc.) and some things that change very slowly under normal circumstances (wealth, occupation, education, residence, marital status). It turns out that people in general adapt to their conditions and return to a baseline happiness rather quickly (surveys of quadripelegics and lottery winners show both returning to their pre-accident, pre-windfall levels within a year). There are, however, six life conditions that people seem not to adapt to: noisy environments, commuting, lack of control, shame, conflict in relationships.

V=There are then things that we do that change our affect with more or less permanence. Haidt divides these into two categories: pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures are usually physical, namely sex and food; they give real emotional impact, but they can be overdone and become banal. They are real forms of happiness in human life but cannot be depended on for lasting change in our baseline happiness.

Gratifications are activities that we engage in that last for hours or days or weeks afterwards. They come from engaging in activities where we feel confident in our abilities but where we are slightly challenged, so we are fully engaged in what we are doing. Researchers call the affective state “flow” and people remember the state long after and get real emotional pleasure long after the activity is completed. 

The chapter contains lots of different examples and research about what kinds of voluntary activities fit the bill, but there is one thing that stands out for everyone regardless of their strengths: pursuing objects that enhance your status, while humanly normal, do not bring happiness because socially, status is a zero sum game. Pursuing activities that you find personally, emotionally satisfying, especially when you share it with other people, bring the longest, most enduring affective response. In short, psychologically speaking, it is better to spend 100 dollars on a really good dinner with a loved one than to spend it on a luxury item or an object. Doing seems to always be better than an object.

Haidt suggests trying to incorporate at least one activity per day that is in your strengths, where you can experience “flow” to gradually (it takes time) increase your baseline happiness. The psychologist who coined the phrase “positive psychology” at Penn has a web site with a (rather long) test to determine your current strengths (these change over time as your life and you grow and evolve). [url]http://www.authentichappiness.org/[/url]

75th Anniversary of “A Humanist Manifesto” 21 June 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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I picked up a copy of the May/June 2008 issue of The Humanist magazine this week to read a special about the 75th Anniversary of “A Humanist Manifesto,” which I have known about vaguely because of my studies of John Dewey. Reading the 1933 document in its entirety, I can somewhat see why it has been called naïve by some, but I read it as a statement of values, not a prediction of the future. The horrors of the 20th century more than anything seem to support the manifesto’s fundamental principle, that old ways of thinking no longer work given what we know, and that something new is in order. Science, technology, and global economics have transformed us far beyond a world where traditional cultural and religious systems can be adequate to explain and guide a meaningful life.

The manifesto sees itself in its 1933 context as creating a new kind of religion, so it calls itself “religious humanism,” but if you read it carefully, you find an amazing set of approaches to religion, that human life in all its diversity and range of good and evil is coextensive with ‘nature’ and that there can no longer be any meaningful division of the sacred from the profane. Human life is all we have and our purpose as humans should be both to seek to fully realize our humanness as our individual consciousnesses lead us and to create and maintain a society that supports all of our realization-processes.

The 15th article of the manifesto resonnates with my most dearly held values:

We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely the few. … Man [sic] is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement. He must set his intelligence and will to the task.

Canadian “Human Rights” Tribunal 14 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Islam, Journalism, Judaism.
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The more I read the opinions of Ezra Levant, former editor of Canada’s conservative magazine Western Standard (à la Weekly Standard…get it?), the more I disagree with him and nearly all of his wrong-headed politics. However, I stand with him on the issue of freedom of speech, expression, and conscience as foundational to a liberal society and to a functioning cultural democracy. Even if I conclude that he had unethical motives for publishing the cartoons of Muhammed from the Danish magazine, his intention should have no bearing on whether or not he should be free to publish them. The more I see Canada’s ridiculous “hate speech laws” in action (not to mention England’s and Denmark’s and Holland’s), the more convinced than ever I am that this kind of  multiculturalism, although perhaps well-intentioned, when taken in the wrong direction can be a grave threat to liberal democratic values and, ironically enough, cultural diversity itself. Here’s Levant’s opening statement to Canada’s sham of a “human rights” commission in Alberta Canada from last week. Hear! Hear!

Freedom from offense a human right? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Islam, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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[Sorry for the second question-form post title in less than 30 minutes.]

Last month, the UN’s 3rd committee passed a resolution against the ‘defamation’ of religion. Not surprisingly, the resolution was written and sponsored by Organization of the Islamic Conference, and names Islam as a besieged religion. Regardless, the resolution makes the classic illiberal mistake of thinking that freedom of religion means that no one can criticize you; that if you’re offended your rights have been violated; and that you have the right to do whatever you want to without scrutiny as long as you do it in the name of religion. I’ve waxed long and hard against this issue before, so I won’t belabor the point. I will, however, point you to a great rebuttal of the UN resolution from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (an international consortium of humanist organizations):

Universality of Human Rights under Attack at the UN