Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

O My Stars

I know many conservative religious believers. I also know a lot of nones and atheists. One thing they all have in common is that they want to believe the truth. They want to do what is right. Enter the media. A day of peace and prosperity for all is a slow news day. To keep the pot boiling, differences need to be emphasized and people’s fears and frustrations must be highlighted. Nowhere is this better on display than in party politics. Do people really not get along at all? Are we really so polarized? A friend recently sent me an internet story about the Republican elephant. Honestly, I’ve never paid much attention to the posturing of the GOP since so much of it is obviously show. The coalition, cynical at best, between the evangelical camp and the fiscal conservatives has created a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of the party which began out of an anti-slavery movement and was represented in the politics of Abraham Lincoln. I have trouble seeing him approve of Reaganomics or some of evils that have flowed from it. We are more deeply divided now than we ever were during the Civil War. And better armed too.

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So, what about the Republican elephant? The stars on the blue top half are upside-down. I’m not sure if this represents a change or not. The problem, of course, is that the upside-down star is a “pentagram” associated with Satanism (which is not what most people think it is). The insinuation is that the symbol was subtly changed to reflect the true values of the party. I don’t know if the stars on the elephant were ever right-side up. As long as I’ve been politically aware, the Republican party has been the one that supports the wealthy while trying to cut the poor and working class from the budget in any way possible in order to build an ever stronger military to protect the plutocracy for which it stands. One nation, under Mammon, with surveillance and distrust for all. Principles, in my opinion, far worse than Satanism.

Ironically, in this media fueled division of the nation, conservatives know and hate Satanism. In fact, seeing a pentagram pattern in school bus taillights can send the internet into a tizzy. We’re afraid, but of what we don’t properly know. Must be those liberals with their radical ideas of liberty and justice for all. On the street things haven’t felt like they’re getting better for a very long time. Each year since the overspending Bush decade the economy has found inventive ways to get worse and worse. One thing remains constant—the ultra-wealthy flock to the political party that once stood for freeing of slaves and uniting a deeply divided nation. The best way to keep us together is to keep us afraid. That’s easily done when economists tell us you can’t hope to retire with the medical benefits and living standards of the middle class without at least a million dollars in the bank. Something’s upside-down alright, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what.

Too Much Stuff

The informal name for economics, rightly, is “the dismal science.” When I recently learned about The Story of Stuff (storyofstuff.org), I found myself again shaking my head in dismay. I have no problem admitting that I’m a liberal pretty much through and through. I believe what I believe is right. Statistics show that the older we grow the more conservative we become, but in my case the opposite trend seems to be in effect. I grew up in a conservative backwater and I saw first-hand what it did to those who adhere to it most religiously. Rouseville, the town where I spent my teens, was an industrial armpit, dominated by a large Pennzoil refinery, now derelict. The town smelled bad despite the pristine woods that surrounded it, and pollution was everywhere evident. People didn’t move away because they couldn’t. Drugs were a rampant problem and I never felt safe going out at night, even though it was a town of less than a thousand souls.

Growing up I often wondered about this. When you live close to the edge, you hang on. The existence of the working class is precarious. Living in a cancer factory like that, you needed your job more than you needed food. If you were to survive, you had to work. Pennzoil was the only game in town. Local pride at being near the fountain head of the oil industry helped only a little. I turned to spirituality to cope. I’m now told that’s naive. I’m told that meaning is found in consuming. The most disheartening part of The Story of Stuff was learning that this was all intentional. Victor Lebow’s 1955 assessment of where our dismal science must go chills me:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms.”

Our spiritual satisfaction in buying? And what is more, this advice has been heeded as gospel by the government. Is it any wonder that one percent tell the rest of us what to do? It is time for civilization to grow up. Our infantile need for more stuff has poisoned the very well from which we drink. It may cost you some sleep, but take a look at the Story of Stuff. What you lose in sleep you may gain in peace of mind. And soul.

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The Reveal

SmallScreenRevelationsThe end of the world as we know it is far more common than reason might suggest. As I’ve been researching the way the apocalypse is represented in popular culture, I’ve been impressed at just how prevalent it is. James Aston and John Walliss have brought together some intriguing essays on the topic in Small screen Revelations: Apocalypse in Contemporary Television. As one contributor notes, it is far more common to find the apocalypse in science fiction, horror, and fantasy programs, but it clearly visible in other genres as well. It is primarily an American phenomenon, although it may also be found elsewhere. It’s pretty hard to pin down the end of the world. On television it comes in both fiction and non-fiction varieties. The constant here is that we know it’s out there.

What I found most revelatory about the subject was a persistent question: why? Why are we so fascinated by the end of the world? I’m no sociologist, so I can’t give any kind of statistical answer. As the owner of a gut, however, I can offer a feeling. It seems to me that a culture of privilege ought to have a measure of guilt. While apocalyptic belief is most common among the poor (sorry, no statistics to back me up here) it also commonly occurs among the affluent as well. At the same time, we know that, as a society, we have far more than our share of the world’s goods. We have a massive military to make sure nobody else shares those goods. We must know, at some level, this is wrong.

At the same time, how can we give up what we’re so used to? An apocalypse wipes the slate clean. The essays in Small Screen Revelations offer more sophisticated theory than my simple observation, but academics have an obligation to muddy the waters. Considering the sheer number of shows cited: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Simpsons, Supernatural, Angel, The Walking Dead, Jericho, Doctor Who, Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, in addition to television news anchors and televangelists, the apocalypse is very easily found. So easily found, in fact, that one can become inured to what is supposed to be the ultimate end of everything. It’s related to what I’ve called elsewhere the crisis of superlatives. The fact that it’s television, however, provides a ready answer for what happens next. After the apocalypse we simply wait until the next season. After all, there’s a market for post-apocalyptic entertainment as well.

Watchers and the Holy One

WatchersI’m not really a fan of Dean R. Koontz’s thrillers, but I do find myself turning to them from time to time. Like Stephen King’s, Koontz’s books are easily found at book sales, but you don’t always have your choice of which titles. I picked up Watchers because it had a vaguely biblical sound to it. The title seems to fit the story only loosely, but there are a number of points where God is invoked in the tale. Watchers is a book about genetic engineering, both the good and the bad aspects of it. Scientists have produced a dog as intelligent as a human being, and a monster that kills indiscriminately; a Cain and Abel. As this is being explained to one of the characters, he says “If we can do this, we have the power and, potentially, the wisdom of God.” Here, in a nutshell, is the debate about intentional genetic modification. We don’t have the ability to see ahead very far, and although we like to think ourselves god-like, we could very well be creating catastrophes. At least, in this story, God is deemed wise.

Some time later another character in the story opines that when humanity can create an intelligent species, it is our responsibility to act, in a sense, as its deity. “If we’ve come so far that we can create as God creates, then we have to learn to act with the justice and mercy of God.” Interestingly, there is no question of theodicy here. The justice and mercy of God are assumed, despite the many wakeful nights and unsettled days of the theologians. Casting God as the “good guy” is not as easy as it used to be, and our own “engineering” isn’t always assumed to be for the good of our own planet.

Finally, as some of the characters are discussing who has the right to own this super-intelligent dog, God is invoked once again. The qualities of the dog (a golden retriever, since, one presumes, a Rotweiler, for instance, might have different qualities), its courage, ability to distinguish right from wrong, ability to love, and selflessness, make it more in the image of God than human beings. Again, God here is unquestioningly assumed to be the great good, the advocate of humankind. I realize novelists are under no obligation to be theologians, yet it is difficult to tell a tale of genetic tampering without invoking the Almighty. What I find so interesting here in Koontz is that despite the evil of some of the characters, the goodness of God is never called into question. It is assumed that the evil we create is our own while the good in the world belongs to God. It’s a view of the world that could be called almost biblical. Those who professionally reflect on these things, however, often come to a different conclusion.

Cheesy History

It has been a few years since I’ve taken any courses on ancient history, but I took quite a number of them while preparing for my doctorate. Staring at my Dominos pizza box, I wonder if I must have missed class they day we covered ancient pizza. Actually, Dominos has been emphasizing cheese of late. Perhaps the least healthy ingredient in your typical pie, when you order you can “cheese it up,” and if you want breadsticks on the side, you can add cheese to those too. The box is whimsically decorated to sing the praises of cheese. Don’t get me wrong; I spent nearly a decade and a half in Wisconsin and I do like cheese. But perhaps this is just a little, well, too cheesy?

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The side panel suggests (to an increasingly gullible population) that “Ancient Egyptians might have been the original cheese experts.” The iconography depicts a man milking a cow, a man churning butter, and a man holding aloft a piece of what seems to be Swiss cheese. Maybe it’s Emmental. There are no women involved in this scene of making holy cheese. The man milking the cow has a distinctly European look. The man churning or stirring the cheese looks to my eye like a native American—are those feathers on his head? A Wisconsin Egyptian? The Egyptian holding the cheese aloft looks to be a priest or perhaps the Pharaoh. His uraeus is clearly visible. Rays emanate from the cheese like the life-giving solar disc of Egyptian myth.

I’m probably a fool for looking for footnotes on a pizza box, but I wonder whence this information comes. The mind of some ill-informed marketer? An opiate, or cheese-induced, dream of historic proportions? Perhaps those of us with training in these areas have not done due diligence in our teaching of the facts. Or perhaps I’m making a mound of cheese out of a mere crumb. It’s all in good fun, but I know that eventually it will make its way into term papers and other fast-food inspired versions of reality. We all know what to expect from the owners of the leaning tower of pizza.

Driving the Point

“I drive my car, it is a witness. My license plate, it states my business.” The words are from a song by one of the most creative Christian Rock groups ever, Daniel Amos. While I don’t listen to Christian Rock much anymore, I’ve always appreciated the fresh outlook of this particular band, which was, at least in the ‘80s, ahead of the curve. The lyrics came back to me when reading about a legal suit in New Jersey concerning vanity plates. Like many states, New Jersey has rules against offensive words being spelled out on license plates. When a woman applied for a license reading “8THEIST” it was rejected as “offensive to good taste and decency,” according to a story in NJ.com by Thomas Zambito. Trying the application with “BAPTIST” led to no objections. Others have tried other variations on the word “atheist” and have come up with rejections as well. In a country that prides itself on religious freedom, this is ironic, to say the least.

I’m a bit too pragmatic for vanity plates, or even bumper stickers. Having had to commute long distances after being dismissed from my post at Nashotah House, I often thought that I didn’t want people to know too much about me by the decoration of my car. The culture wars, played out a few years ago by Jesus fish, Darwin fish, Jesus sharks eating Darwin fish, and so on, seemed an opportunity for aggression to me. Already when I’m driving and someone cuts me off or does some dangerous maneuver in traffic, they frequently bear some paraphernalia advertising Jesus on their bumper. Maybe it’s a prayer for protection that allows for stupid driving. It certainly isn’t a witness to the “others first” theology that characterized Jesus’ teaching.

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Is it an affront to decency to be an atheist, or only to advertise being one? The culture wars that plague the United States are based on instant prejudices that make decisions about a person without bothering to witness their behavior. Behavior, after all, is the true measure of goodness. Even higher education is not immune to this system, especially in religion departments. We only want to be surrounded by those who believe like us. Somewhere in this unholy mix is the neglected idea of doing the right thing. Ours is a culture in love with appearances. We object when Muslims want to build a mosque. We object when Roman Catholics run for President. Weren’t not even sure that we really trust the Presbyterian next door. Our differences, one of the historic strengths of this country, have become a liability. Especially when behind the wheel. How different driving would be if we’d just assume that no what the vehicle says, it is piloted by a human being just like us, no matter who they believe the co-pilot might be.

DOA

Wormhole3Perhaps it’s just me, but the third season of Through the Wormhole has taken a dramatically metaphysical turn. I always run behind the time when it comes to media; I know that the season is long passed. I started watching Through the Wormhole shortly after the first season became available on DVD. Science has always been an abiding interest of mine, and I face it as someone raised religious and wondering whence lies the truth. (“Through the wormhole,” for the record, is where it might be found according to Morgan Freeman in the opening voiceover.) The third season, through which I’m currently making my way, has begun to raise disturbing questions about life and mortality that start to highlight some of the more Frankensteinian aspects to human curiosity. I recently watched the episode “Can We Resurrect the Dead?”

In the world with which I am familiar, resurrection has always been a religious issue. I grew up with a strong notion of the afterlife, and it was suggested to me that survival beyond death was assured. But the resurrection that various scientists are now exploring is of a different order. For those who can afford the increasingly astronomical costs of top medical care, resurrection is not such an unusual thing. Only, when your body is resuscitated, you wake up the the same weary body that just died. So some of the scientists interviewed suggest that if we can reverse the death “mechanism” that is apparently built into our own mitochondria, we might be able to bring back the dead. Even more bizarre are those called “life loggers” who wear devices to record their experiences in life so that they can be uploaded and preserved. A consciousness digitized and stored on a hard drive heaven for all eternity. Meanwhile a scientist smoking a cigarette in Japan shows us a robot straight from the uncanny valley that looks almost like him and is sent to do some of his lectures in his place.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that resurrection used to be somewhat simpler. It was a matter of following the right doctrine and living a life worthy of being continued after this one ends. Now it is a matter of peering through a microscope, or trying to capture on mere devices the multitude of experiences that flood us daily, making us human. Can our future, digital selves really experience human emotion? All those pictures taken while riding a bike—will they convey the effort of balance learned as a child, the sensation of a self-generated breeze on my face, the wonderful weary sensation in my legs upon stepping off? What of that hint of lilac in the air that I picked up momentarily on the wind? Will eternal life, missing the actual life be worth it? I think Victor Frankenstein discovered the answer to that almost two centuries ago.