Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Steel Pennies

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I remember seeing my first steel penny. At first I didn’t think it was real. Like many poor kids, I was a collector. I collected anything cheap: cancelled stamps, bottle tops from glass pop bottles, fossils, just to name a few free trinkets. And I’d started coin collecting, with pennies. I’d noticed the difference between wheat backs and Lincoln Memorial pennies, and I knew that the former might be worth something some day. There was a hobby store in town and by thumbing through the collectors’ books, before being shooed out, I’d learned that keeping an eye out for wheaties was a kind of investment. Just hold onto it long enough, and it’ll grow in value. I never saw a 1943 penny, though, until a fellow collector traded me one. During the war, he explained, copper was too valuable to use for pennies. Wartime, it turns out, changes lots of things. About the same time as these steel pennies were being minted, Casablanca was still showing in theaters.

As I sat down to watch Casablanca again last night, some new thoughts occurred to me. A wary eye can spot the cost-cutting measures of a wartime movie. Somethings never change. Nazis were bad guys, obviously, but we still didn’t know who’d win the war by then. And refugees flooded to Casablanca to try to escape Europe for America. The movie makes quite a lot of this endless waiting. It’s hot in the desert. People are waiting to go somewhere better. And there are elements of torture there as corrupt officials cooperate with Nazis, even though this is Free France. It occurred to me that this is an allegory of Purgatory. I’m pretty sure it’s not intentional, but here are lost souls waiting for deliverance. The plane to Lisbon is the soul’s escape to Heaven. Meanwhile the relentless waiting.

For a movie approaching 75 years old, Casablanca holds up remarkably well. The extras on our DVD tell us the plane in the final scenes is a cheap cutout just a few feet away on a sound stage. The mechanics attending it are little people to bring it into perspective. Tucked away in some box somewhere I’ve got a few steel pennies. These days coins change so frequently that I wonder just how stable this world really is. While the “Middle East” still has us as worried as ever, our money is, for all practical purposes, only virtual. Paychecks are mere electrons and I’m just a temporary repository between my employer and those who claim increasingly more of my pretend money. We seem to be caught between two worlds. In one nothing is really real at all. Rick’s Café Americain feels somehow very familiar, as we spend our time waiting for passage on a plane to Lisbon.

Gallows Hill

Over the past couple of weeks it has been in the news that the site of the “witch” hangings in Salem, Massachusetts has been identified. The actual site had long been suspected, and it was only recently confirmed by a group of historians using the empirical evidence available to historians. Although my interest in the Salem trials pre-dated my wife, nothing brings you so close to history as being a part of it. Descended from the brother of three of the women accused of being witches at Salem, my wife brings a sense of reality to the tragic accusations of three centuries ago. Although toyed about in the media (an episode of Sleepy Hollow, “Spellcaster,” in season two, featured an actual Salem witch) the fact is that nineteen innocent people were executed for a fanciful belief that the Devil was roaming about New England, and when you can’t catch the Devil, you have to use a scapegoat.

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One of those investigating the location of Gallows Hill was Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia. I’m sure Professor Ray wouldn’t remember me, but one day as I was doing a campus visit for Routledge, I had taken AmTrak to Charlottesville to visit the religion department. Many of the faculty declined to see me, and as I sat on a bench in the hall (one of my academic dates had stood me up), Dr. Ray walked up to me and asked me if he could help. I explained who I was and he invited me to his office where we talked about Salem. I told him was wife was related to Rebecca Nurse, Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyce, the two former, as he knew, executed for an imaginary crime, and the third accused. A strange quiet settled over the office. He told me his interest began because he too had descended from a Salem family. His ancestor, however, had been an accuser rather than a victim. It was a strange rapprochement. Opposite sides brought together in scholarship.

What truly frightens me about Salem is that we have not outgrown it. Presidential hopefuls spew the same fear and hatred toward Muslims, the hispanic immigrants who make our economy possible, and women (this should sound familiar) trying to “take the place of” men. And the crowds cheer, as crowds will do. Even though Donald Trump cussed twice in his Liberty University speech (an infraction for which a student would have to pay), President Jerry Falwell, Jr. (typing that makes me shudder) shrugged it off saying that we’re all sinners. Some sinners, however, carry a wicked, knotted rope with them while other sinners try to eke out a living in a nation where some can get rich by owning casinos while others frantically spend their inadequate cash hoping to win Powerball. We now know where innocent people accused of witchcraft died, but have we learned anything from it over these past three centuries?

What Do Sheep Know?

We trust those we see in the media. You see, those who have the longest reach can bring in the most advertising dollars and therefore must have a wisdom the rest of us lack. The cult of celebrity is perhaps the truest cult of all. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading books by bestselling authors once in a while, and I like movies by talented directors and writers. The problem with the cult of celebrity that it often confuses fame with knowledge. If someone knows how to get you to pull your wallet out, they must know about all kinds of things, right? It stands to reason. A recent article in The Guardian features an interview with Ridley Scott. Forever in my mind typecast as the director of Blade Runner and Alien, I think of Scott as one who understands science fiction. He, of course, gave us a version of Exodus that many didn’t buy, and now that The Martian has been gaining attention, people are once again wondering what they might learn from the director.

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Ironically, like the recently late David Bowie, Scott considers himself an agnostic. As the Guardian article says, that doesn’t stop him from having a lot to say about God. Catherine Shoard notes that religious questioning runs throughout Scott’s movies. The big issues, it seems, still matter. People will crowd to his movies and perhaps not even know that they were facing the questions that motivate people like Scott. Taking up such questions in the hopes of making a career out of it all is still not a wise choice, but if you can put it in fiction without people knowing it, you might become famous.

I’ve always been of the opinion that everyone is an expert when it comes to religion. Believer or not, everyone knows what to believe and is pretty certain about it. The people I find most fascinating in this mix are those who dare to question. While many doctrinaire religions call questioners “doubters” and suggest curiosity is some kind of sin, there are both religious and non who face the world with questions rather than answers. To me, this seems a more honest approach to things. The funny thing about this appreciation is that it is seldom reciprocal. Of course, people might be interested if I’d directed a block-buster movie or if I were a star. Until that happens, I’m an expert just like everybody else.

Not Your Father’s Demon

AmericanPossRegan MacNeil is a name that can still send shudders up and down stout spines. Despite advances in CGI and special effects, The Exorcist is consistently rated among the scariest movies of all time. Demon possession, clearly, is a very troubling thing. American Possessions, by Sean McCloud, is not a place to go to find Catholic priests expelling the forces of darkness. Subtitled Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, the book, one might suspect, is saying more than it seems to be letting on. This is a book about Third Wave evangelicalism and its demon-fighting manuals. Although the term “Third Wave” may be unfamiliar, the next time you go to a Tea Party you’ll know you’re among them. These born again uber-capitalists believe in a literal demonic world. In fact, demons are so common that Jesus would’ve had a hard time keeping up with their exponential economic growth. These demons are more frightening than those that possessed Regan. The are more akin to a different Reagan.

Especially popular among Pentecostals (the fastest growing form of Christianity) this modern day belief in demons sees them in places Jesus didn’t think to look. Family curses (at places ruled out in the Bible, but still, apparently, possible), addiction, depression, sexual urges—these are all demonic. And once these modern demons are cast out, unlike that of Regan, they can come back. And if they don’t possess you they will oppress you. And they can live in your material goods, your house, and even the land it is built upon. They are everywhere, and they have to be fought against constantly. They also, apparently, vote Republican.

This view of the world, strange as it is to many people with a basic education in science, motivates a large sector of the United States population. Expelling these demons requires a specific view of Christianity—a view that absolutely excludes Catholics. And it is a view that promotes free market economics, blaming the victims of poverty for allowing themselves to be oppressed by demons. Many aspects to this belief system will strike the reader as completely unbelievable, all the more for being so seriously believed. At the same time, we are told, we should pay no attention to religion, at least as educated people. The problem with this is that these true believers vote. And the kingdom they would have come on earth is, in a way they would certainly deny, possessed.

Hamilton

Religion and politics. It’s difficult to get over the wisdom instilled in your earliest years, and I was one of those who learned that religion and politics always cause potential friction in polite conversation. They are both, however, very important to people and knowing how to communicate about them irenically is a sign of maturity. While I can’t afford Broadway shows, I have read reports about the brilliance of a couple shows that feature—what else?—religion and politics. “Book of Mormon” has continued to be a success in the theater district, and, starting this summer, “Hamilton” joined the ranks of most popular Broadway shows. A hip-hop-inspired version of the story of Alexander Hamilton, the show offers history to audiences traditionally just out for a good time. I haven’t seen the show, but on a recent long car ride, I listened to the soundtrack and I have to admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Part of the reason is the sadness of the story—the dual between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton ended up with one of the “forgotten founding fathers” dead, and another cast forever as a criminal.

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Although my interest in history has defined my career (such as it is), I don’t pretend to know much about the revolutionary period. One of the reasons is that I’m more than a bit ashamed by the treatment of American Indians by the colonials. It is hard to celebrate when you feel like a criminal yourself. Another reason has been that ancient history has always captivated me, and events two-to-two-and-a-half centuries ago feel too recent. Nevertheless, I find myself in New Jersey where much of the Revolution played out: Washington crossing the Delaware, the Battle of Princeton, the Battle of Monmouth, and many other famous episodes. The British of that time enjoyed the power of empire—keeping others down so that the privileged might see themselves entitled. In the musical, King George has a role, in my mind, similar to Pontus Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar.

I can’t help but think that what Lin-Manuel Miranda has offered in “Hamilton” is an extended kind of parable. The show is noted for its multi-ethnic cast in a story that was almost entirely, historically speaking, one of white privilege. Who can hear the songs swirling around the shooting of Hamilton and not think of the equally insane shooting of young African Americans who, like Hamilton, have no intention of causing harm? There are writers and poets and lovers who still try to find their place in a country that bathes the uber-rich with adoration and tax breaks and far too much power. “Hamilton” may, if people actually pay attention, turn out to be revolutionary. Politics and religion share that feature in common.

Head of STEAM

The market producing doctorates in the humanities is showing no signs of slowing down. The fact is we’re all human, and many of us aren’t very technically inclined, unless we have to be. There are fewer and fewer jobs for these bright students who graduate with doctorates in the humanities, but the plight of the “privileged” is no concern to wider society. Let the eggheads figure it out. At the same time, wisdom in the job market is that careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM subjects) are growing and showing the most promise for future careers. The pace of technological change is so rapid that yes, obsolescence for new devices is six months or less. My iPhone 4 is a dinosaur, although when I first held it some three years ago it was so advanced that I was afraid of it. A moment’s reflection will reveal that the most advanced technology is already in use in the military since staying ahead of the enemy is always the bottom line.

This situation has led to some concern, and not just among those of us in the humanities. Some in the world of STEM are saying that quality of life suffers. To indulge a stereotype, try to imagine geeks without Star Trek. We know that Star Trek was as much fantasy as science fiction. My iPhone makes a communicator look just plain silly. Star Trek is, however, creative indulgence. While many would hesitate to raise it to the status of “art” it is part of the Arts: fine arts, literature, film, music, and some television. The stories it tells are the stories of human beings (and one alien) struggling against often more advanced civilizations. In the end, humanity always wins. If we exit the stereotype, scientists are often musicians and writers as well. Some become novelists or consultants on box-office busters. We are more than meat machines.

Recently voices have been heard suggesting that STEM should be STEAM. The Arts have an integral role to play in the scientific and technological fields. Even some numbers are imaginary. The basis for developing imagination is the Arts. Although we could have made it to this point in our development without Star Trek, the fact is that many of us growing up with it, as well as the more silly, but also influential Lost in Space, and what we now know is a most assured cash cow, Star Wars, know that these shows helped shaped the present we inhabit. Arts give us visions. There continue to be those who castigate the Arts as “soft” and “weak” and tangential to the cold hard facts. But they are wrong. Humans can’t survive without a source of warmth and energy. And the first great engines of advancing civilization still have much to teach us, for those engines ran on steam.

Creating English

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

The seventeenth century was a portentous time for the English language. Well, I suppose every day is portentous in some way, but in the year 1611 the King James translation of the Bible was published, and it still has considerable staying power in the English-speaking world. Quotes from it show up regularly among the modern media with many readers (and likely a few writers) having no idea of the origins of the phrases they use. Just five years after the King James Version made its debut, William Shakespeare died. Many languages can point to formative individuals or literatures that codified their forms of expression. In English the honor is shared by the forty-seven translators of the KJV and William Shakespeare. This four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is set to be a year of celebration among Anglophiles worldwide. We will gladly acknowledge that the words we write and speak owe much to the Bard and his lasting influence that still has high school students griping all the way through English class their senior year. I have read a Shakespeare play or two that I was never assigned in school, as many come to do. This year, among my reading goals, is at least one more of the works I’ve never read.

As with the text of the Bible, there is doubt about some of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars scrutinize. (That’s what we’re supposed to do.) And scrutiny raises doubts. The seventeenth century was a time of generally acknowledged authorship. Some great English epics, such as Beowulf, have no author we can cite by name. Over time, however, quality came to be associated with the person who produced the literature. Even today a name often sells a book far more readily than the contents do. Some of Shakespeare’s plays may not go back to William himself, but the English language wouldn’t be the same without them, in any case. We are heirs to this legacy. Spelling began to be standardized. Grammatical expressions were codified. Classic stories predating Shakespeare became endlessly replicated and copied by those who know there’s no replacing an original.

A story on NPR notes that the First Folio—the first bound copy of all of Shakespeare’s plays—is being sent around the country this year by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Each state will host the first edition during the course of the year. The article by Susan Stamberg notes that this folio is the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail. Shakespeare is nearly as canonical as the biblical canon itself. Even if the Bard’s authorship is in doubt, it is still holy writ. Those of us who’ve spent considerable time with religious texts recognize the hagiography readily. No, these aren’t signed editions. Some of the work may have been done by someone else. Nevertheless, four centuries ago, through a combination of Bible and what we would today call “fiction,” the English language as we know it, was itself becoming canonical.