Frozen Over

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For reasons that may eventually become clear, I was watching The Blob. It seems that each generation’s fears are unique to its time—let the reader understand. For whatever reasons, star-appeal I expect, Steve McQueen was cast as the teenage Steve Andrews. A little unbelievable as a twenty-eight-year-old teen (Sissy Spacek was a more convincing teenage Carrie at twenty-six) Steve drives around his small town trying to find and stop the Blob. What is the Blob? Nobody really knows. Emerging from a meteorite, it seems to be an EBE (Extraterrestrial Biological Entity) that encompasses, dissolves, and assimilates animal life forms, getting bigger all the time. In a day when the Russians were actual enemies, this is hardly an intentional vision of capitalism but an apt description nevertheless. If it touches you, you’re dead. Since it can ooze through air vents, there aren’t too many places at hide. It forces itself upon you.

Steve’s love interest, Jane Martin, has a lisping little brother named Danny. While big sister is out on a date battling the jello-monster, Danny—a future NRA member—charges outside in his pajamas shooting at the thing with his cap gun. Can this be? One capitalist shooting at another? Don’t be fooled. This is the nature of the free market. Either the Blob ends up on a dinner plate, or Danny does. We know that prior to 1960s monsters seldom kill little children (but don’t get me started on Frankenstein), so it is the Blob that will succumb. As the town’s teens combat the goo with fire extinguishers, freezing it, Jane, Danny, and Steve escape to go hunting another day.

Those of you who’ve read my blog for any time know that subtext is often the point. I’m counting on you following along with me here—think of what day it is. The small town police chief, Dave, calls in the Feds. No wall will keep this alien out. It has to be deported. To some place that will never thaw. Like all good monsters, the Blob never really finally dies. It must be kept frozen to keep humanity safe. The final words Steve utters are indeed chilling, “As long as the Arctic stays cold.” Getting on sixty years later our “industriousness” has begun to melt the ice caps and the friends of the Blob deny global warming. I’ve seen The Thing from Outer Space too, and I know the last thing you want to do is thaw the Arctic. Remember what day it is, and do the right thing.

Under Who?

Who is God anyway? The question occurred to me as I read about the current Superior Court decision in New Jersey that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance remains constitutional. The American Humanist Association had sued to have the offending prepositional phrase removed, based on first amendment rights to religious freedom. I’ve always found the whole indoctrination of swearing to a flag somewhat provincial and perhaps even damaging to the unity of humankind. Nations, after all, are about keeping things for ourselves, something that the God of the Bible seems to find naughty. During the Cold War, waged against the “godless Communists,” the questionable phrase was added in 1954, only after we’d secured nuclear weapons. Does any nation that has the bomb have the right to declare divine sanction? I guess so, on second thought.

IMG_0962In his decision Judge David Bauman said that God, in this context, is not about religion, but about the state’s history. Granted, one of the New Jersey delegates to sign the constitution was a clergyman, and president of Princeton College. The same Princeton that became the home of the man who would open physics enough to let us begin a nuclear reaction. But I’m getting ahead of my story. This concept of God being an arcane aspect of history as opposed to a present and active force motivating people’s lives is a curious one. In order to keep the deity, he (and the historical God is male) must be demoted to an historical relic. If that is true of divinity, what does it say about the concept of nationhood itself? Have we come to admit that it is all a fiction to keep status quo ante?

Humanist and atheist groups have argued for years that public school (which no government takes that seriously) should not be a forum for religious indoctrination. Some religious groups (such as Creationists) clearly see such schools as a mission field ripe for proselytizing young minds. Such was clearly the case in 1954. Today we see the Russian Orthodox Church becoming a supporter of the government in Russia, where godlessness might be more a factor on the ground than on paper. In the United States we have a culture that provides lip-service to the almighty while the true god is secreted away in the shrines of bank vaults and expense accounts. It is really about a way of life, after all. Should we keep or remove “under God” from a pledge to personal gain? It is all a matter of how you define “God.”

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In honor of the fifty-year anniversary of the release of Dr. Strangelove this past week, my wife and I sat down to rewatch the movie this weekend. Psychologically, as Kubrick found out, dark humor was the only way to deal with the sense of doom that pervaded the world into which those of my generation were born. Nuclear weapons had been developed and the Cold War was in full swing. Somehow, even in small-town America, I didn’t find Communism to seem so awful. After all, I grew up reading the Bible and it sounded quite a bit—at least in theory—like the arrangement the apostles had made in the book of Acts. The idea of private property, the very spine and muscular system of capitalism, was considered a sure way to lead to God’s kingdom not being established on earth. Nevertheless, that is the way, as the phrase goes, that the money went. And Communism threatened the right of one percent to horde all the money, so we were ready to annihilate all human life for it. Talk about taking your marbles and going home! No child should grow up knowing the meaning of the phrase “mutually assured destruction.”

Dr. Strangelove has held up well for the half-century since its release. Despite the thawing of the Cold War, the big chill isn’t over yet. And humor still seems the only way to keep sanity and deal with the state of the world. There are still many General Turgidsons out there (some of whom have held very high government offices, and this is no joke). There are at least, as far as we know, fewer General Rippers. So we hope. As the bomber crew nears its target, Major Kong goes over the contents of the government issued survival kit, among which is a comically small Russian Phrase Book and Bible combined. Kubrick, a master of satire, has the godlessness of Communism thrown time and again across the lips of the hawks. It is better to kill everyone than to allow the godless to rule. Even the Bible, however, shares space with the Russian phrasebook, making us wonder whether it is a tool of conversion or an admission of inevitability. Still the bomber, piloted by a Texan, flies on.

Perhaps the biggest moral dilemma we face is our ability to destroy hope. Capitalism promises opportunity to all. Like many who grew up poor, however, I have found lies hidden in plain sight. It is not easy to move ahead if you choose to mire yourself in debt to get an education. In fact, if you lose a job in higher education you can easily find yourself adrift for a decade or more, not earning any retirement money and being frequenly sought out by your local universities as an adjunct instructor. In fact, at many points your career might look like the end of the world. So it is that I take great comfort in settling down to watch Dr. Strangelove again. At least it is an honest movie, and that hasn’t changed in the past half-century. And I think I may have been wrong about how few General Rippers there really are.

Parable of Jericho

It had been there my entire life. I hadn’t really noticed it, but it was a powerful symbol—not in the way that it was intended to be. Given the Teutonic nature of many of my musings, it probably occasions little surprise that much of my ancestry is German. I first heard about the Berlin Wall in German class in junior high school. It was a wall to ensure inequality. Then, while studying in Edinburgh, my wife and I came across a friend from Germany. He was standing outside a window, staring in at a television showing the Berlin Wall coming down. Younger than me, he couldn’t believe that this obstacle that seemed so permanent was finally, and suddenly gone. The next summer when we visited him in Germany, he took us to the former border between east and west. Bridges eerily stopped half-way across rivers. Sudden changes in affluence and outlook once you drove across an invisible line that separated us from them. It was all so surreal.

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

This week heralds the quarter-century mark on the fall of one of the starkest symbols of the Cold War. People hating people. And as the wall in Berlin came down, walls were about to be erected in other states around the world. Not-so-Great walls intended to keep them from getting to us. We stubbornly refuse to learn from history. Those who have have little patience with those who have not. The borders are all only in our minds. Even as the wealthy elites within our system refuse to admit that crime largely comes from unequal distribution of resources, our own nation looks at others and makes the same tacit refusal to acknowledge the obvious. If wealth is so good, why not share it?

Of course, you can buy a piece of the Berlin Wall. Anything from a fist-sized chunk to several tons. The websites say that the wall is of limited quantity. Buy your piece before it’s all gone. I’m afraid their fears are misplaced. The wall pieces may not come from Berlin, but there will always be pieces available, some day, from the West Bank Barrier, or the Peace Walls of Belfast, or the Green Line in Cyprus, or Operation-Hold-the-Line in the Lone Star State. There are many walls that eventually must tumble. Ironically the prophets of the biblical world declare that every hill will be brought down and every valley lifted up to ease the way back home. Of course, once you arrive at home you naturally lock the door to keep the other out. And now, a quarter century after the embarrassment of Berlin faltered, we continue to erect new follies rather than trying to learn to get along.

Romney Wordsworth

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The Twilight Zone, one of my favorite fallbacks when I’m alone, doesn’t shy away from religion. I remember watching some of these moody tales in my childhood, already in reruns by the time I was old enough to appreciate them, and occasionally having my young mind shaken as a result. The frisson of having reality not being as it appeared kept me wanting to see more of Rod Serling’s universe, evaluating, re-evaluating, speculating. Often heavy with psychological realism, despite the obviously outlandish premises, these half-hour plays in black-and-white still have a strange power to alter a mood. I recently viewed the episode “The Obsolete Man,” which closed season two. Having been declared obsolete myself, more than once, I found this story particularly chilling. A totalitarian state declares what worthwhile occupations might be, and Romney Wordsworth, as a librarian, doesn’t hold one of them. With shades of both Orwell and Bradbury, Wordsworth is sentenced to death.

In startlingly strong language, Serling has Wordsworth declare that, despite the decision of the state, there is a God. He wants his death televised, to which the Chancellor is happy to acquiesce. Locking the Chancellor into his room where, Wordsworth reveals, a bomb is about to go off, he tests the steel of the state by accepting his fate. Wordsworth spends his last hour reading the Bible. The Chancellor sweats and chain smokes himself frantic, finally calling out, “In the name of God let me go!” Wordsworth, of course, does. Rod Serling was not known as a particularly religious man. Many of his characters are hard-bitten, tough-talking caricatures whose bravado masks a profound uncertainty about life. The writing may not be stellar, but the ideas are beyond the stars. Religion is very human.

Many of these Twilight Zone episodes I have never seen. Still, they do reveal a world of imagination that had a tremendous impact on Cold War America. Bomb shelters, revolutionaries, and invaders haunt the minds of not just those born in the fifties, but of every generation since. The state that protects us is the very one that breaks open our luggage to look at our unmentionables when we want to fly. To keep us safe from ourselves. A decade before Serling’s series, George Orwell was looking a quarter century ahead, calculating the trajectory. The good guys, it turns out, have the wherewithal to decide who is obsolete and what is subversive. And if you don’t see things their way, they’ll start talking impeachment or perhaps worse. Your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

Irrational Reform State

Since 1954, after the cut-off date for new religions (see yesterday’s post), American children have been making a pledge to an inanimate object with the words, “under God.” Despite the fact that all parents know that children take liberties, the reality is that conformity is deeply embedded in young people. Totalitarian states everywhere have recognized that indoctrinated children are difficult to deprogram. In the chilly heart of the great panic known as the Cold War, the pledge of allegiance was emended to declare America a nation under God. And the American Humanist Association is backing a New Jersey family in suing to have a castrated pledge on offer. I always felt swearing fealty to a flag was a decidedly pagan activity anyway. Did not Jesus say, “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”? Good Christians aren’t supposed to swear. In a land where the IRS controls what counts as a religion, we might consider substituting “under capitalism.” Isn’t that what we really mean anyway?

Nobody has control over where s/he is born. I’m not sure that many people would want to have the burden of making that decision. Still, we have to learn to adjust. Religion is a matter of where you’re born. We may grow to believe, but what we believe depends on what our guardians teach us. In my case, being born into a Fundamentalist family in Pennsylvania led me to nearly a decade-and-a-half teaching stint in an Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin. Who knew? My religion also taught me that swearing—i.e., “pledging” allegiance—was vaguely suspect. I was never discouraged from the pledge of allegiance, however. After all, it said “under God.”

When my daughter was very young, we were in a store in Wisconsin (where she did not choose to be born) when a couple of guys, being guys, let a few choice adjectives slip. One of them looked over, saw us there (my daughter too young to comprehend what was said), and said, “Oh, sorry! I didn’t see her there.” I found his chivalry admirable, but misplaced. We hear what we hear. So I’ve always found it odd when people want to sue if their children are forced to hear the words, “under God.” How does that threaten an atheist’s home teaching any more than swearing to a piece of cloth undermines a Fundamentalist’s? And aren’t we all taught that globalization is the way of the future? Under those multitude of young hands beat the hearts of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Atheists, and any number of other faiths. We’re told the Cold War is over. Maybe the government should consider turning down the thermostat.

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Star Tracks

Star_Trek_The_Motion_Picture_posterLong ago in a galaxy far away—1979 in rural western Pennsylvania, to be precise—the local inhabitants were surprised to learn that James T. Kirk was now an admiral. Two years earlier Star Wars had thrilled us with special effects first mastered in 2001: A Space Odyssey but a more accessible plot. Robert Wise, who had not only given the world The Sound of Music, but also The Day the Earth Stood Still, took the helm for the new Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek geeks, of which crowd I do not count myself, hadn’t really taken their cliched role in the emerging high tech society, and CGI was still a few years off. Nevertheless, rumors in school had it that the movie featured a bald woman and had boldly gone where no man had gone before. The original crew was all there. So on a Friday night I dutifully made my way to the Drake Theater to watch and left saying, “is that all?” Star Wars was action-packed and fun, filled with archetypes and wise-cracking robots. Star Trek had Voyager 6, like E.T., trying to phone home. In a word, the movie was forgettable.

On a tour of the original Star Trek world, I finally sat down to watch The Motion Picture, with its grandly archaic-sounding name, last night. I shuddered to think I’d last seen it 35 years ago—that makes me as old as the crew was starting to look—but this time I was able to see things I hadn’t before. Spoiler alert! Voyager 6 is looking for God. The original Voyager 1 reached the end of our solar system a couple years back, but in 1979 there was no reason to suppose that we wouldn’t try again and again to reach out to parts unknown. We were rapidly become materialistic, and the universe could be a known quantity. Three centuries in the future, Voyager 6 is headed home, having been rebuilt into an unstoppable living machine. When the creator—humanity—doesn’t pick up the phone V’ger poises to wipe out the carbon-based infestation until it learns how to physically, biologically merge with a human being (cue the bald lady and otherwise superfluous Captain Decker). Lots of colorful lights and we can all go home.

Even now I can’t muster the courage to say the movie is profound, but it does touch on an issue that has only grown over time—we have voluntarily left our deities behind. In our rush to reduce the world to the least common denominator, we have pulled the plug on the cosmic phone. The Voyager program ran out of steam as the Cold War was heating up down here on earth and we were being told we were all just a bunch of atoms fooling around anyway. The machines, in the meantime, had come to believe. I probably won’t survive another 35 years to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture again, but I do hope that in that time we may become more aware of our humanity. And I do hope that if someone divine does happen to call, that we’ll at least pick up the phone.