Bug Eyes

Science fiction and horror are close kin.  Once relegated to the cheap rack of “genre fiction,” both have now developed considerable literary sophistication, perhaps in the wake of their ability to bring in money.  I used to attend used book sales.  Two of the big ones in central Jersey were the Bryn Mawr sale, held just outside Princeton, and the even larger Hunterdon County Friends of the Library sale.  Both were springtime events and highlights on my calendar.  I always had a list with me when I went, but there were also so many books I’d never heard of and that looked fascinating.  One such book was the science fiction anthology, Bug-Eyed Monsters, edited by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg.  The garish cover was half the appeal, and, well, monsters go without saying.

Although I’ve mostly moved to the horror end of the spectrum, there were some good stories here.  Bug-eyed monsters were a staple of 1950’s sci-fi, gracing the covers of pulps, often menacing women with their tentacles.  Some of the tales here share that kind of wide-eyed wonder at the sheer power of imagination, while others are much more subtle.  Monsters, of course, lurk between genres, bursting into consciousness when something unexpected is discovered.  They also have strains of religious awe associated with them.  That’s obvious in a couple of the stories as well.  Since I’m trying to read through my own books while stores are closed, I decided to spend some time with my monsters.  The problem with story collections, however, is you can’t discuss them all in the short format to which I limit myself here.  Besides, some of them I didn’t like.

Monsters deserve to be treated with respect.  In the “golden age” of sci-fi they were often played for titillation.  Most of the monsters in this collection are from outer space.  Some are homegrown, generally in the scarier tales.  We are afraid of those who are different.  Monsters, as more than one of these stories indicate, can be more humane than humans often are.  It’s no surprise that they tend to represent the foreigner, the person whose culture and appearance are different than our own.  Titillation apart, these narratives often ask us to stop and consider what might happen if we really did listen.  Would we not improve ourselves if we could learn from those we fear?  In these days of government-approved xenophobia, perhaps we should dust off our copies of the old genre fiction.  Even in those days we were encouraged to be open minded like our monsters.


Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.


Human HU

In these times of extreme xenophobia, we desperately need to understand those who are different.  When my brother recently shared his discovery of The HU’s album The Gereg, I was at first a little concerned.  That deep-seated childhood evangelicalism suggests anything that unfamiliar is bound to be satanic.  How unfamiliar?  Mongolian throat-singing unfamiliar.  Songs sung in Mongolian, unfamiliar.  Album art that could be heavy metal.  I’d never come across anything like it.  I suppose it’s a natural, knee-jerk reaction to say anything so unfamiliar is potentially demonic, and it shows just how paranoid a culture can be.  We think of 1950’s America as “the norm.”  I wasn’t alive then, but I’ve seen pictures.  Buzz cuts still give me the willies.  I trust Mongolians more.

I don’t know if The HU is a deliberate play on The Who or not, but the word roughly translates to “human.”  Like many ancient practices, nobody thought to write down the origins of throat singing.  Traditionally it was what Inuit women did when men were out on the hunt.  Like many aspects of hunter-gatherer society, it fascinates.  Some cultures reported that when Christian missionaries came, with their cultural imperialism in tow, they suppressed throat singing.  It looks like I wasn’t the only one raised to be suspicious of that which is different.  I learned, however, of my own cultural biases.  I learned that ones’ own assumptions must be interrogated.  If humanity is to survive, we must learn to try to understand one another.

Although the actual roots of throat singing are lost in unwritten times, I strongly suspect it has a religious, or if you prefer, spiritual, origin.  When women gather it isn’t the same as when men consolidate power and institutionalize violence.  I’ve read that when women rule there is a strong impulse to cooperate, to suppress aggression.  Men can learn this.  Indeed, as those white, male missionaries took up their positions in far-flung parts of the globe they spread the idea that men alone held the divine right of, if not kings, priests.  Conversion, you see, is seldom gentle.  Making the world in your own image, if you’re a man, runs into certain obvious problems right away.  HU means human.  When I feel the cold paranoia of my own government creeping up on me, I cue-up the soundtrack of my life.  I’m no longer a young man, and I don’t fear the different as much as I used to.  I need to hear something different, something human.


Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.


Now You Don’t

Quite some time ago I realized I should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  What put me off, as usual, was length.  Long books take a real time commitment, but since Black History month is coming up, and we’ve just celebrated Martin Luther King, I planned ahead and read.  A profound book, at several points I felt like a voyeur reading it.  The African-American experience of life is something I always feel uncomfortable approaching.  I’m afraid of appropriation, and I’m afraid of not paying attention.  I grew up not having a sense of racism, but nevertheless am implicated in the whole.  Maybe that was intentional.  As a story Invisible Man is often described as a picaresque, but having an unreliable narrator who was a victim of my own culture was difficult to countenance.  It was hard to know what to think.

We never understand another person’s experience of life.  We sympathize, we empathize, but we can’t really get inside the head of even our best friends.  I can’t help but think we’d all be better off we recognized that race is a social construct, and a potentially evil one at that.  We are all human beings and we should act that way.  But this novel left me wondering if it’s really possible.  Good novels will do that to you.  So I’m sitting here scratching my head and a little bit flummoxed by what I’ve just experienced.  Was it authentic or can I not help but project my own experience as an non-minority upon someone else’s writing?  Even questions like this are socially conditioned.  I too am trapped in my own mind.

You might think that by this time we would have evolved beyond our distrust of those long separated from us by natural barriers.  Homo sapiens are distrustful of strangers, and even the internet hasn’t brought us the understanding we require.  Not yet, anyway.  The background to “race relations” in the United States can’t be separated from slavery and the attitudes it engendered.  On almost every page of Invisible Man its traces can be seen.  That kind of cultural memory, and other cultural memories such as Jews being routinely castigated by Christians, or monotheists being raised to combat polytheism, are deep dividers.  Our cure for these evils is understanding.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of literary fiction.  It rings true, however, and although it represents a world I do not know the fact of its publication invites  those of us outside the tradition to read.  Indeed, doing so is one way of attempting to reach understanding.


The New Purple

Those of us who grew up Evangelical hold an unusual place among our liberal peers.  We’re often able to peer around, over, and under that wall that has been built between those who want a faith-based nation and those who want a free one.  Angela Denker is a fellow traveler on this road, and her book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump is a useful roadmap.  Some of us fall further from the tree than others, but one of Evangelicalism’s more endearing traits, when taken seriously, is the love of those who are different from you.  That love is often forgotten in the political rhetoric daily whipped into a froth by an unstable president being used by his party to install agendas that hardly fit the moniker “Christian.”  That’s why books like this are so important.

I confess that reading studies such as this make me uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because my Evangelical past haunts me worse than any ghost, but also because Denker is clearly right that basic humanity is being left in the garbage as battle lines are drawn up in what could be a great, diverse nation if a leader were determined to work for unity.  I recently wrote about lunar landings.  Kennedy was a Catholic who had to work to bring a nation together around a common goal.  Instead of tearing the country apart for his personal aggrandizement, he pointed to the moon.  Sure, there was a xenophobia concerning the Soviet Union, but at least in this pocket of the world there was a sense that we should work together.  When religion entered politics with Richard Nixon and his followers, a deep rift opened up.  The two topics you were never to discuss—religion and politics—were now in the same bed.

Red State Christians is an extended road trip on which Denker interviews people who largely fall under the Evangelical umbrella.  Some of them are Catholic.  Some of them are Hispanic.  Some of them are less concerned with social issues, but are hard-working laborers often overlooked by the Democratic Party.  The resulting pastiche is one in which Americans are cast not in sharp relief, but rather with the hazy edges that are a far more accurate way of understanding human beings.  Many, it becomes clear, elected Trump out of fear, or out of fear of his opponent.  These aren’t bad people, but they are people afraid.  This wasn’t an easy book to read, but it is an important one.  And those who want to work for a future that might include realms beyond the moon might find this work a small step in the right direction.


Live Long

Maybe you went through it too.  In your teenage years the fascination began.  Before you knew it, you had a stack of them tucked away, each well-thumbed and ogled over.  Guinness Books of World Records, I mean, of course.  We’re captivated by extremes.  While working on a fictional story the other day, I started wondering about longevity claims.  The Good Book suggests that once upon a time a century was the equivalent of becoming a teenager, and people were acting like teenagers well into their eighth or ninth centuries.  Modern scientific analysis provides an alternative narrative, putting upper limits at 120, with only one verified, and disputed, case putting someone over it.  Curious, I looked at Wikipedia.  Two pages (at least) address the issue, one on human longevity tout court and another on verified claims.  Since the lists include home nations, I began to notice a pattern.

The verified records tend to feature the United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe.  The unverified Russia, Latin America, and Western Asia.  This disparity struck me as perhaps a bias concerning the source of reliable information.  Not only affecting longevity reports, concerns about reliable data impact all our sources of information.  I’ve written about internet resources before, but here I’m mainly worried about the bias of “first world” records as opposed to the records of less developed countries.  Not only that, but in the case of longevity claims, those born in outlying areas—beyond the reach of official government recorders—are suspect when compared to those kept by city dwellers.  We tend to trust our own kind, especially when it comes to extreme claims.

Like John Mellencamp, I was born in a small town.  Official records, comfortably handwritten, indicate when and where that happened, to the nearest day.  (Birth is a process, of course, and doesn’t always obey conventional human time-marking practices.  Organic events are often that way.)  The fact of the existence of other people indicates that they too have been through this in some form.  The event was marked in the way of local custom.  It’s locally true.  I knew a doctor trained in Sweden.  She couldn’t practice medicine in the United States for fear of what boils down to competing forms of belief.  Xenophobia in medical practice extends to other areas of human knowledge as well.  We are taught to trust the information given by our own authorities, but not those of other cultures.  I’m suppose to accept that without question, but I wasn’t born yesterday.


Xenophobia’s Children

There are consequences, it seems, for not paying attention in school.  I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect most of us are taught that basic fairness is the social ideal.  Xenophobia is deeply embedded in the primate psyche, but to those who claim we haven’t evolved, there seems to be no way to convince them that “racial” differences are merely a matter of differing collectives separated by natural borders.  Over time traits favorable to the region predominate, and humans therefore have what seems to be a very wide array of potential appearances.  There should be nothing in all of this that suggests one group is superior to another.  Primate evolution, however, helps to explain but not to excuse.  Xenophobia is something from which we can evolve.

Fear is at the heart of any phobia.  In a society that measures the worth of individuals by their wealth, fear that another will take it is constant.  Perhaps, in a part of our souls we’d rather not acknowledge, we know it’s wrong to have too much while others don’t have enough.  It’s very cold this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  In Manhattan on Saturday I saw many people on the street, those who’d met the wrong end of capitalism.  I’ve seen human beings shivering in Dickensian conditions in the twenty-first century.  I’ve known capable adults who couldn’t find work, even when they’ve tried.  We fear the street person.  We know that, but for slight shifts in capitalism, that could be us.

Xenophobia has come under threat with globalization.  We’ve made travel to remote locations affordable in order to spread capitalism to regions ready to be exploited.  And we see nothing wrong with taking from those who can’t prevent us from doing so.  Then we wonder why people just like us turn out to march in the cold.  Civil rights marches took place half a century ago.  Crowds thronged the nation’s capital seeking basic human treatment.  Fifty years later over a million women and supporters had to show up to make the same point again.  Fair treatment should not be a commodity.  Those who have fear the stranger.  Those who have don’t wish to share.  They claim the name of “Christian” and mock the very tenets upon which that belief system was founded.  It’s cold outside today.  As we huddle inside, we should have time to think.  It is a waste of a national holiday if we don’t at least ponder for a few moments what it is we celebrate.  And the real costs of xenophobia.


Pleasant Dreams

The last time I watched Pleasantville I didn’t have this blog running to discuss it.  It was also during the Obama administration where it felt more like nostalgia rather than a documentary.  In case you’re not familiar, Pleasantville is a movie about how a nerdy teen, David, and his cool sister Jennifer get sucked into a 1950’s sitcom, “Pleasantville.”  They find themselves in black-and-white and in a world as regimented as Stepford, but somewhat more humorously so.  As Jennifer is eager to get back home, she introduces this colorless world to sex, and as the two-dimensional characters begin to experience strong emotions colors start to appear.  The “picture perfect” Pleasantville begins to let the plastic facade of the 1950s slip to reveal a complex and messy world of true humanity beneath.

Watching the film in the age of Trump, as with most things, interjected a current of fear.  The townspeople feel threatened by those who are different, colorful.  They want everything just as it was—women serving their husbands, everyone the same hue, and pretending that sexuality doesn’t exist.  It may have been originally intended as an homage to the the 1960s, but what became clear in an age of MAGA is that crowds easily respond to suggestions of hatred.  Many of those in the group, individually, are “coloreds” themselves, but fear to let it show.  Conformity is much safer even if it means hating those who are different.  I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the superiority of the white man apparently was.  One of the characters is, tellingly, named Whitey.

Initially drawn to the film seeking biblical references (occupational hazard) I knew there was an Eden scene before I first watched it.  Margaret, on whom David has a crush, has discovered actual fruit at Lover’s Lane.  She brings him an apple which, the TV Repairman (if you’re lost, please watch the movie—it’s quite enjoyable) points out, is a form of sin in this world of simple answers and unspoken repression.  A mash-up of Jasper Fforde and American Graffiti, the film exposes the lie behind the idea that all were put on earth to serve the white man.  Jennifer discovers books and stays behind in colorized Pleasantville to go to college, something of a rarity in those days.  Although the movie bombed at the box office, it has a serious message to convey.  There was no perfect 1950s iconic America.  The process of becoming great is one of evolution, rather than that of a fabled Eden, available only in black-and-white.


A Writer’s Life

WeHaveAlwaysLivedSometimes, an experienced editor once told me, the author’s life is just as important as the book she’s written. I can’t pretend to know much about Shirley Jackson, beyond that she wrote compelling fiction and that her name is barely recognized today. Best known for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, she didn’t match the output of more prolific writers and therefore, in a world driven by capitalism, didn’t receive much notice. Her work is difficult to classify. Not exactly horror, it is nevertheless unsettling by implication. There’s something wrong beneath the surface. Jackson apparently suffered neuroses for much of her adult life, and her ability to translate angst into literature has gathered her a following among fans of ghost stories. I just finished reading her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a funny, quirky, and serious story about two young women who live alone and who, one suspects, are thought to be witches by the local population.

This little novel is difficult to lay aside for long. The characters of Constance and Merricat are too compelling to leave alone for any length of time. The fact that they are pariahs makes the reader want to ensure that they are safe as they remain carefully inside the home they’ve always known. Even though you know one of them murdered her family, you want them to be happy and secure, perhaps because the whole town is against them. I wouldn’t presume to say what Jackson meant by this story, but to me it seems a clear description of xenophobia by a woman who felt she was never accepted. Women being persecuted in New England always brings witch trials to mind. Although we don’t know why one of the girls killed her family, it is easy for the mind to fill in the blanks.

Although Jackson died prematurely, her work has influenced novelists such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Uncompromising in her outlook, she allows her characters access to those strange places of the human mind where many of us wander from time to time. Merricat, for example, practices that sympathetic magic that we all, if we’re honest, admit that we attempt every now and again. Hoping in magic doesn’t make one a witch any more than prayer makes one a priest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although as old as I am, reflects a world in which reality can’t be pinned down. Assumptions are made and challenged. Protectors turn out to be exploiters, and the only ghosts are very human characters hated by the community in which they live. Still this is an uncanny tale, haunted by a reality that women still face in even the most progressive countries. Listening to their voices, even if from beyond the grave, may demonstrate just how much a writer’s life might mean.


Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.


42 Shots

Many of us were raised with the figure of a divine father who is ready to whip off the belt for any infraction we may make, intended or not. On a more human scale, our criminal justice system locks people in prison often on the basis of race rather than purely objective considerations. The infographic below demonstrates this clearly. African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population in a society that is still reluctant to offer true justice to all citizens. When these numbers are wrenched from statistics and brought down to personal levels, the results are distressing indeed. I recently read of the case of a promising youth who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His lawyer, a prominent African-American, pled with the judge for leniency for this young man who had great potential. Time in jail, even in one for youth, would probably scuttle this boy’s hopes for a productive future. Being an American, though, I had no hope that this might end well for the boy. Still I read on as the judge sentenced him to jail.

None of us likes to be reduced to statistics. At the same time, some social-justice disparities are easily overlooked until they are placed in such stark terms. Xenophobia is a normal human reaction. In fact, it is displayed in apes and other social animals as well as in people. Its biological function seems to be group cohesion and safety. We’ve evolved beyond that, however. The great promise of the New World was freedom. Unless you were imported as a slave. The Bible, being a document of its time, lent its voice to the approval of keeping slaves and those who wanted to justify their horrid treatment of fellow humans in the name of God relied heavily on the Good Book. We still put considerable roadblocks in the way of African-Americans and others of minority status, believing that we are somehow justified in the myth of Caucasian superiority. Humans are humans. Society benefits from the gifts that different traditions bring to the cultural table. And yet, we continue to lock up those who look different.

Justice shouldn’t be a distant dream. We know that for those who do commit crimes reformation is a possibility. Critics cite the expense, but I have to wonder whose bank account is being audited. As a society as a whole we could all benefit from some reform. The profession from which I have been repeatedly blocked is one of the few that has taken demographic configuration seriously. Some must pay the cost for others to be given an opportunity. Of course, opportunity itself is a rare commodity these days of hoarding and one-percenters. Perhaps those who build towers and remove themselves from the rest of society have put themselves in a kind of luxurious arrest. Until they are forced to share, however, those of us on the street level have to do our best to help each other out. Take a look at this infographic from arrestrecords.com and see if I’m right.


Monkey See, Monkey Do

ConquestPlanetApesThe year was 1972. In the continuing saga of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, addressed the civil rights movement directly. Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, is the last speaking ape left in the past to which his parents had escaped. Inexplicably, the other great apes have all suddenly evolved by 1991—the year in which the story is set—into large sized, almost upright creatures whose population matches than of humans (almost). Initially purchased as pets since the cats and dogs had died off in the late 80’s, apes have been imported as slaves. They are given menial tasks and beaten mercilessly if they make errors. A deep fear pervades the establishment that these apes will try to take over. Breck, the governor of California, decides to find and kill Caesar, at any cost, while his deputy MacDonald tries to save him. When Caesar reveals himself to MacDonald, an African-American, he states that he especially should know what it means for a people not to be free.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only four years earlier and although civil rights had made progress, there was still a long way to go. Still is a long way to go. As an affluent culture, we remain reluctant to share. We still see disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans forced to live in areas that the amorphous “white” population has fled. Xenophobia is one of the less noble traits with which evolution has endowed us. Even so, the classes we devise aren’t always helpful in determining who people really are. “White” can mean anyone from the southern tip of Chile to the tundra of eastern Siberia. On job applications now “Hispanic” is classified as “white.” I get the feeling that there’s a few unresolved issues here. The sense of entitlement did not begin with this generation. Those who have naturally suppose that they deserve. Caesar observes the unfair treatment and, down to the detail of the weapons the apes stockpile, leads a plantation-style revolt that overcomes a heavily armed command post. Gorilla warfare indeed.

In classic 1960s-70s style, Caesar grandstands after his victory. He was about to order Breck’s execution, but stays his hand in the recognition that even humans deserve to live. We do have to wonder where he might have learned about God, being raised by a circus trainer and in what is an otherwise completely secular society in the film. In any case, his final words in the movie place the apes on a higher moral plane than humans. “But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God! And, if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” Maybe it’s all the dead bodies around, but I’m still having a little trouble with the “Destiny is the will of God” part.


High Aspirations

I’m not a fan of the Olympic Games. It’s not that I have a problem with the passion and dedication of these (mostly) young people who’ve trained themselves to perfection in various physical skills, but the Games have tended toward jingoism a little too often. They may be intended to bring the world together, but often they become the focus of international tension. And, of course, television shows us only where our own nation makes a good showing. In my more somber moments I wonder if there isn’t someone even better at this or that sport/event whose circumstances make it impossible for her or him to make an international showing. Olympic Games are for those who can afford personal trainers and who can manage to make it to tryouts on schedule. Again, I don’t demean the ability of the competitors; when I find myself in front of a television I often stare in awe at what they accomplish.

A certain disconnect always attends the opening ceremonies. I have to confess to having glanced at the screen in our hotel room once or twice during the London extravaganza, but what became clear is that culture is what’s celebrated here. Athletics are the same internationally, if we take the Olympics at their word, but culture in region specific. Figures from Harry Potter and Mary Poppins, and other British contributions to the world of art and literature, filled the arena with a sense of national pride. Even the queen deigned to parachute down to the level of the commoner, in the company of James Bond of course (Sean Connery, why did you have to age?). This is what the commentators called the “rebranding of the royals.” What is it that we really value about ourselves? Can we not truly overcome xenophobia?

Xenophobia has a reach far beyond nationalities. It is rampant between social classes, political parties, and language groups. We distrust the other, for those like us are the best. The best swimmers, the best gymnasts, and the best shooters.

To look down on the world.

Just days ago I stood atop one of the peaks of Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont, with my daughter. As we looked out over the panorama that included New Hampshire and New York, and maybe even Quebec, it seemed as if the world could be one. Maybe the things we value could lead us to share instead of selfishly claim everything for ourselves. I think of Mount Nebo and I shudder. And I think if I knew how to ski and if it was winter, maybe I could be the best.


Out of Reach

Last weekend I had hoped to see the movie Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin. This is a movie that has had trouble in the United States since distribution companies felt it would be too controversial for American audiences. Believing that evolution is still a taboo topic in the most “advanced” nation on the planet is a peculiar conundrum. Why are we so sensitive concerning our natural pedigree?

Primatologists are constantly discovering new and unexpected connections between the great apes and homo sapiens. We share biological, and as we are increasingly aware, cerebral traits. Empathy and xenophobia, two features once believed unique to humans, are in evidence among our great ape cousins. We are on a continuum rather than a segmented train.

Bearing these provocative thoughts in mind, I was ready to head out to the theater, even if I had to go alone, to see the story of Darwin. I’ve read enough biographies to know there are some heart-rending moments in the story, situations that I would not be able to face – but it is a story of truth. It is ironic that we sometimes fear the truth, since religion is our effort to find exactly that. So, resolve firmly in hand, I searched for New Jersey theaters showing the film. None. The nearest show was in Midtown Manhattan. Add a twenty-dollar train ticket to the cost of admission, and to an underemployed academic the price was out of reach. Perhaps some day the movie will become available for general public consumption. Until it does, however, I’ll just have to lament my frustration to a local empathetic ape.

A scene from the movie, so I'm told