I Pledge Allegiance

It would only be with the most tentative and hesitant of reservations that a person might call her or himself an intellectual. The denotation carries with it such possibilities and potentialities of arrogance that even being seen reading Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in public could be cause for considerable timidity. The end result, however, is so rewarding that it is worth the risk. Seldom have I read a single book that explained so much of what continues to define our society. As an historian, Hofstadter was acutely aware of American self-perception—so much so that it seems foolhardy to distrust him. Although the book was published in 1962, it seems as though the five decades of my life haven’t had time to transpire—things are shockingly similar to the myth of the 1950s that still drives the Religious Right. Hofstadter could be lurking in the corner with his pen even now. I turned to this book because I had grown weary of having felt set upon by a society I have only ever wanted to improve. In tracing the roots of anti-intellectualism Hofstadter clearly demonstrates that the distrust is felt on both sides of the divide. Having not had the dubious benefits of an affluent rearing, I simply followed where my limited talents led. What future is there for a poor boy who likes to read and write? My earliest and most honest aspirations were to become a janitor. At least in that job you can see the filth being scrubbed away.

Expecting an objective historical account of intellectual history, I was surprised to discover that the first section of the book dealt with the privileged place of evangelicalism in early America. I’m not so obtuse as to have overlooked the obvious mockery that the intellect receives so freely from the coffers of Christendom; one need only glimpse the headlines or listen to street-corner evangelists for a fraction of a minute to learn that. I had supposed that my limited experience had made me naïve in assuming religion stonewalls free inquiry. The problem, it seems, is endemic. Those who would suggest that brains are actually meant to be taken out of the box and played with incur the wrath of the almighty.

Hofstadter resisted keeping the gaze too long upon the faithful, for there are clearly other forces at work. The rugged, self-made individualism of a nation that consisted of frontier until comparatively recent times also plays into this suspicion against the self-proclaimed sages. We have all had the displeasure of knowing the self-impressed, and their sticky indulgence in immodesty clings to many who simply can’t turn off the motor in their heads. Instead of walking away from the book feeling justified, I instead felt reflective. My own perceptions have led me down the path of trusting the guidance of the soul (whatever it may be), but the perceptions of others raised in different circumstances lead to materialistic assumptions, or the hunger for power. Deep down inside, though, I know that I shifted perceptions by the slow, steady influence of education. There is no unlearning that. And education has brought us this far. And a little intemperance in appreciating intellectual life may be the most venial of sins.

Brain Death

The computer revolution has spoiled some of the wonder associated with old films that had been formerly staged with cheap props and poorly written dialogue. (Well, computer literacy has not always improved the dialogue, in all fairness.) Nowhere is this more apparent in the science-fiction/horror genre where CGI has made the impossible pedestrian. There’s little we’re not capable of believing. Back in the fifties and early sixties when even color film often went over budget, some real groaners emerged. Over the weekend I watched one of the movies at the front of the class for poorly executed. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, is experiencing something of a renaissance with a stage musical coming out next month in New York based on this campy classic. Most horror movies don’t really scare me much, probably due to overexposure. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, creeped me out in an unexpected way. Daring toward exploitation status (the movie was shot in 1959 but not released for three years), the “protagonist” is Dr. Bill Cortner who specializes in transplants. When his girlfriend Jan is decapitated in an automobile accident, Cortner keeps her head alive while seeking a body onto which to transplant it. Ogling over girls in a strip club, or even stalking them from his car while they’re walking down the street, the doctor imagines what features he’d like grafted onto his girlfriend’s still living head.

Campy to a nearly fatal degree, the film is nevertheless disturbing on many levels simultaneously. Although I was born the year the film was released, I was raised to consider both genders as equal. The unadulterated sexism of a man grocery shopping for the body he wants stuck onto his girlfriend’s head was so repellant that I reached for the remote more than once. A bit of overwritten dialogue, however, stayed my hand. Kurt, the obligatorily deformed lab assistant, while arguing with Cortner declares that the human soul is part in the head, yet partially in the heart. By placing a head on another body, the soul is fractured. Now here was a piece of theological finesse unexpected in such a poverty of prose. The question of the location of the soul has long troubled theologians, an inquiry complicated by the growth of biological science. Heart transplants are common today, but the resulting people are in no way monstrous. The amorphous soul, theologians aver, is non-material yet resides within a specific biological entity. Some have even suggested that you can capture its departure by weighing a dying body at the moment of death. Others suggest no soul exists—it is a mere projection of consciousness. Cortner, however, once his eyes have opened the possibilities, can’t look back.

Our social consciousness has grown considerably since the late 1950s. Politicians and Tea Partiers who hold that era up as a paradigm of sanity do so at the price of half the human race. On the outside with the oiled hair, polished shoes, spotless automobiles, society seemed clean cut and orderly. Women, however, were relegated to inferior roles while men made the rules. Life was less complicated then. We knew who was in charge. Or did we? As a species that has evolved via sexual reproduction, it has taken us surprisingly long to realize that both genders are essential to humanity. We still tolerate gender disparity in pay scales, often shored up with the tired excuse that pregnancy and childbirth disrupt “productivity” and therefore female efforts are worth less than male—never changing due to biology. Such trumped-up excuses ring as hollow as a head without a body. Many Neo-Cons will even use the Bible to support it. John Q. Public (always male, please note), they insist, yearns for the “good old days.” The days they desire, however, were days of cheap horror and unrealistic dialogue. If they can watch The Brain that Wouldn’t Die without flinching, our future is bleak indeed.

Dreams of Equality

Shortly after my wife and I married, over twenty years ago, while living in Scotland we needed cheap entertainment. Growing up one of my chores had been washing the dishes. I continued this calling all through college, working in the dishroom to pay my way through. My wife was pleased with this trait and offered to read to me while I scrubbed away. This was our cheap entertainment, but now, after more than twenty years of the practice, we have read over 100 books together. Last night the book we finished was Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13. Most Americans do not realize that during the space race, thirteen women received non-official tests to qualify as astronauts, many of the tests more extreme than those undertaken by the Mercury 7 crew. Because of social prejudices of the 1950s and ‘60s, the women were never given the opportunity to actually achieve space flight.

Apart from the moving account of how these women strove for the stars, this account also chronicles a social prejudice that remains today. Ackmann reveals that during the ‘50s and ‘60s, scientists and physicians had never really taken an interest in women’s physiology. They were, in this McCarthyian era, considered to be an inferior version of males, the dominant social gender. Although the Mercury 13 were accomplished pilots – some with more flight hours than the chosen astronauts – many political and military decision-makers feared that social fabric would fray should women prove as adept as men. It wasn’t until 1983 that an American woman was allowed to enter space.

Here in the 21st century, many religions throughout the world still staunchly hold to the myth of female inferiority. In a monotheistic worldview where non-gendered deities need not apply, one sex will always be somehow less god-like than the other. In a world where men still pay women less, they are reminded daily that God is a white man and that the mythology declares man was created first. Religion is as often used to repress as it is to liberate. The women who sacrificed careers without personal reward to demonstrate that space belongs not only to men deserve our gratitude. And even that old white man, sitting up there beyond the dome that surrounds our flat earth, must be smiling.

Gila’s Got the Whole World

Singing pretty-boys and colossal lizards – it must be time for The Giant Gila Monster. A horror film that portrays all the innocence of the 1950s before the Beat Generation led us down the path to reality, the film has earned cult status in recent years. More accurately titled, “A Regular-Sized Gila Monster Filmed in Close-Up,” the sub-mediocrity of the movie has probably done more for preserving it in popular culture than any other aspect. The film stars the relatively unknown Don Sullivan as a great teen role model who writes and performs his own songs. The number that receives the most Internet attention, and the one that makes this movie of interest to this blog is “The Mushroom Song.” Chase Winstead (Sullivan’s character) has a young sister who is just learning to walk with leg braces. To cheer her, he picks up a ukulele and sings: “And the Lord he said I created for you/A world of joy from out of the blue/And all that is left to complete the joy–/Just the laugh of a girl and boy/And there was a garden, a beautiful garden/Held in the arms of a world without joy/Then there was laughter, wonderful laughter/For he created, a girl and a boy/And the Lord said, laugh, children, laugh/The Lord said, laugh, children, laugh” with the final line repeated numerous times.

Laugh, children, laugh

Perhaps intended to underscore the societal norms of a time when “the Lord” made frequent appearances as an unseen supporting actor in many movies, this song is oddly out of place. The disability of Missy Winstead is obviously a device to raise tension: how will a disabled girl run from a giant lizard? The song, however, provides the resolution – the Lord will take care of all good people. Their response should be to laugh. The reference to Adam and Eve, fitting for teen fantasies of all generations, also belies the evolution of this monster. The gila grows to its great size because of chemicals in the water that wash to the delta somewhere in Texas. This creature did not evolve. The Lord will take care of it. The Lord and nitroglycerin.

Respectful teenagers with predictable haircuts and a society that believes a missing teenage couple could be doing nothing but eloping fits the world of the Religious Right exceptionally well. Even though they may not be perfect, these kids know right from wrong for they live in a black-and-white world with no ambiguity or ambivalence. Children of subsequent generations have grown up with shades of gray or psychedelic colors. The older generation is frightened by new developments, claiming that the world they know is about to end. In fact, an evolution is occurring. Those who try to hold society to the norms of the 1950s would do well to move ahead a decade and at least listen to Bob Dylan. No matter how far we progress, however, it seems that Texas will always delight in producing Lord-loving, bloated threats to rational civilization.