Atheism and Hope

“Atheists have no hope.”

Of all the slanders and misrepresentations told about atheists and atheism, this is… well, this is the one I’m thinking about right now.

Doris 26

I’m thinking about it because of something I just read. It was in Doris Zine #26 by Cindy Ovenrack, and… well, here’s what it said.

“I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, she is a restaurant manager and we’d never really talked about politics at all, but something came up and she said, ‘Atheism and anarchist theory were the first things that gave me any hope in this world. They were the things that said we had the power within us to make things better. Everything else said we were either evil or helpless to fate.'” (Emphasis mine.)

The-audacity-of-hope

Typically, when atheists respond to the accusation that we have no hope, our response is something along the lines of, “We do so!” Which is a perfectly fair response, one I myself have made before and will make again. We point out that there are many things to hope for other than immortality (which we believe to be a false hope). And we list all the things we have hope for. We hope that our book will get published, that our children will go to college, that global warming will get handled before it’s too late. We hope that our friend’s cancer is treatable. We hope that a reasonably sane and intelligent person will be elected President in 2008. We hope to be remembered after we die.

And I’ve always felt a rumble of both irritation and pity when I hear this no-hope accusation, a rumble that sounds something like this: “Do you really have no hope for anything other than eternal life? Is your life really so pathetic that you have no hope for anything other than Heaven? Does your life — the actual life that you’re living right now — have so little joy and meaning that you can’t imagine any hope without the promise that, when it’s finally all over, you’ll get to have another, better, permanent life at the end of it?”

But then I remember:

Maybe the answer is Yes. That’s true. They really do have no hope for this life.

Globe_1

I remember, among other things, that rates of atheism are much higher in countries with higher levels of prosperity and social health… and that rates of religious belief are much higher in countries that are riddled with poverty, oppression, and despair.

Now, if the person making the accusation is some yahoo on the Internet, then I feel perfectly free to indulge in my irritation and snark. If you have the time and leisure to be reading atheist blogs, then you have the time and leisure to make something of your life. This life, I mean. The one you actually have.

But for many people, it’s not so easy.

Which is why I was so struck by Cindy Ovenrack’s comment above.

And I am reminded:

For many people, religion does not offer hope.

For many people, religion offers helplessness, and self-hatred, and despair.

And for many of those people, atheism offers a way out of it.

Hand

Atheism doesn’t just offer the regular sort of everyday hope, the hope for achievement and health and happiness and a better world. Atheism offers, as Cindy’s friend put it, the hope that we have the power within us to make things better. Not the hope that we might be able to convince some moody, capricious, punitive, easily- ticked- off God to make things better for us if we walk on the eggshells just right. It offers the hope that no such God exists… and therefore we don’t have to worry about what he thinks or what he’s going to do. And that we therefore don’t have to listen to religious leaders and teachers who tell us at every step that we’re bad people, that we’re powerless to make ourselves better, that all the power we think we have actually belongs to someone else.

Finger globe

Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.

And that’s a pretty big hope.

Atheism and Hope
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In Defense of Atheist Blogging

Today, I want to point something out I would have thought was obvious:

This is a blog.

And every single blog post in it is… well, a single blog post.

Crosses 1

Here’s what I’m talking about. Among many theistic commenters, there seems to be an odd expectation that every single post I write about religion should address every single aspect of religion that exists, or has ever existed. When I write about X, it’s pointed out that I didn’t write about Y; when I write about Y, I’m scolded for not writing about Z. (Or about X, for that matter.)

It’s not just me, either. Almost every atheist blogger I’ve known has been called to task for this shockingly lax behavior.

In the past, I’ve pointed out a contradiction in this sort of thinking — namely, the fact that religious believers do not hold themselves to the same standards of rigorous study they hold atheists to. They don’t read every word of Aleister Crowley and Robert Anton Wilson before rejecting occultism; they don’t read every word of Scientological thought before deciding that L. Ron Hubbard was either a charlatan or a wackadoodle. And they certainly don’t read every word of Richard Dawkins and Julia Sweeney, Bertrand Russell and David Hume, Ebonmuse and Hemant Mehta and PZ Myers and my own bad self, before deciding to reject atheism.

So having said that, today I am going to point out what I thought should have been obvious:

This is a blog.

And among other things, a blog is a literary form in which brevity is key.

Brevity

I already write far longer pieces than the blogosphere standard. Too long, in some people’s opinion. If, in every single blog post, I were to try to rhetorically dismantle the entire institution of religion and every single one of its variations, I’d never get anything written or posted. And even if I did, none of it would ever get read.

In fact, if every single post were even to include spelled-out disclaimers — like, “This critique only applies to this one particular form or aspect of religion,” and, “I haven’t studied every variety of religious thought that exists, so I can’t be positive that there isn’t one out there that I’d be convinced by” — again I’d never get anything written, and none of it would get read. I do usually include a shorthand version of this — I say things like, “I think religion often acts as a form of ethical misdirection,” “There’s a common trope among many progressive Christians,” “the way so many religious believers…” But I will have to beg forgiveness for the sin of not always letting my argument get bogged down in disclaimers.

And I must beg forgiveness for this as well: This blog is not an encyclopedic compendium of atheist thought. It is not the Single Work Of Writing That Discredits Religion Once And For All. And it’s not intended to be. I am one person, criticizing religion as I see it in the real world around me. I am trying to critique religion as a whole… but I’m doing it in small pieces, critiquing one form or aspect of religion today, another form or aspect of it tomorrow. I am not trying to set thousands of tons of explosives under the foundation of religion. I am trying to chip away at it with an icepick.

And I’m doing it in tandem with hundreds of other atheist bloggers.

Musicophilia
But apparently, in order to be acceptable atheist writers, we are expected to devote every spare moment of our lives to studying theology, and familiarizing ourselves with every branch of current theological thought. We are not to spend any time reading, say, the new Oliver Sacks book on the neuropsychology of music, or the short history of Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation.” We are not to go on nature walks, or go for drives in the wine country. We are not to go to folk art museums. We are not to write porn reviews. We are not to go contra dancing, or watch “Project Runway,” or see “Hamlet 2.” In order to be taken seriously as atheist writers, we are apparently expected — in what strikes me as a rather head-scratching paradox — to sacrifice all the hours and days of our lives to the study of religious thought.

And we are to address every single one of those religious thoughts in every single piece of atheist writing that we do.

Just to be 100% sure that we didn’t miss anything.

Okay. To be fair, nobody to my knowledge has actually said that. Nobody has accused me, or any other atheist writer, of being bad people and bad atheist writers simply for having a life. But I’m really and truly not sure what it is these critics expect of us. Do they think it’s okay for us to reject other religious ideas and experiences… as long as we give long, careful consideration to their own? Or is it simply, as OMGF recently wrote, that we are not to stop considering religious ideas until we have accepted them? That once we’ve accepted them, then that’s the point at which it’s okay to stop considering?

Thinker

In his Daylight Atheism blog, Ebonmuse recently wrote that, “when I first hear a religious apologetic or miracle claim that’s new to me, often my initial response is to feel a little tremor, as I wonder, ‘Could that really be true?'” I totally have that experience as well. When I see a believer in my blog start to make an argument, I almost always have a moment of wondering, “Will this be the one? Will this be the argument that convinces me?” (And like Ebon, I’m glad for this — it’s a sign that I still have an open mind.)

But it’s also the case that, while I do still get a brief moment of doubt in the face of religious arguments, this experience has diminished considerably over the months and years that I’ve been writing about this stuff. Because the arguments are never, ever any good. They’re always the same — it’s always some version of the argument from authority or the argument from personal experience — and they’re never even remotely convincing. So having considered approximately 876,362 religious arguments in my life, I find myself both aggravated and amused when a believer says, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?” And I always want to ask these people, “At what point is it okay for me to stop? At what point is it okay for me to say, ‘I have considered the possibility of religion at great length, and I have rejected it, and until I see some seriously excellent arguments or evidence in its favor I am going to continue to reject it and to argue against it”?

Fear and trembling

Now, I have, in fact, read a fair amount of religious apologetics and religious thought. I was a religion major in college, and while that was 25 years ago, a fair amount of it stuck. And since becoming an atheist writer, I’ve read even more, and will continue to do so. But apparently, if I don’t know every single piece of religious apologetics, I am a failure as an atheist writer. (A standard that, once again, religious believers themselves do not adhere to.)

I find this especially aggravating — and at the same time, especially amusing — since when commenters say things like, “There are lots of good modern arguments in favor of God!”, they almost never say what those arguments are.

You know, if you have a religious belief that you think is not only true but rational and defensible, then by all means, tell me what it is. But don’t say, “You didn’t address my particular form of religious belief… therefore your critique of religion is invalid,” unless you’re prepared to say what that particular form is, and offer some arguments and evidence in support of it.

And for the sweet love of Loki, don’t say, “You didn’t address (X) form of religious belief… therefore your critique of (Y) is invalid.” That’s not only an aggravating argument — it’s a silly one.

Truth to tell, though? I honestly don’t care all that much about advanced modern theology. If you have an argument to make, I’ll certainly read it. But for the most part, I’m just not all that interested in religion as it’s believed and practiced by a handful of theological scholars. I am primarily interested in religion as it overwhelmingly plays out in the real world.

Pope's cologne

And when theists insist that modern religious thought and practice no longer includes magical thinking and a belief in a supernatural being whose interventions can be affected by human behavior, all I can do is suggest that they visit Lourdes. Or attend a prayer meeting being organized by the parents of a terminally sick child. Or visit a website where prayer accessories are being sold by the thousands. Or talk to the believers who are praying for gas prices to go down. Or else just read the “hilarious if it weren’t so appalling” story of the Pope’s Cologne.

Finally, I want to point out some — well, “hypocrisies” is probably not the right word, let’s say “serious contradictions” — in this sort of argument.

When atheist bloggers write about extreme, hard-core, fundamentalist- type religions, we get scolded for picking easy targets, and we almost inevitably have it pointed out to us (as if we didn’t know) that “not all religion is like that.”

But when we criticize progressive religions, we get scolded for being mean and divisive and going after people who should be our allies.

What’s more: When we criticize the overall concept of religion in general, we’re accused of over- generalizing, of not understanding the rich variety of religious belief and thought.

But when we criticize one particular form or aspect of religion, we somehow, once again, get accused of over- generalizing — of not seeing that the one form or aspect we’re talking about today doesn’t apply to every form or aspect of religion that exists or has ever existed.

So what on Earth are we supposed to do?

Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do:

I’m not going to give a damn.

I’m going to continue to critique both religion in general and specific religious beliefs and practices, as they cross my path and grab my attention.

I’m going to continue to try to be fair when I do so. I’m going to continue my practice of (usually) critiquing beliefs and practices rather than insulting people. But I am not going to stop critiquing any given aspect of religion whatsoever simply because I am not able to single-handedly dismantle the entire body of religious thought in a single thousand-word blog post.

And the next time someone responds to my critique of the Fundamentalist Wackadoodle of the Week by saying, “But what about the subtle shadings of modern progressive theological thought?” I am going to point them to this piece.

Project runway

And I am then going to watch “Project Runway,” or go contra dancing, or review some porn.

In Defense of Atheist Blogging

Sex, TV, And Actual Human Beings: “Swingtown” And “Secret Diary Of A Call Girl”

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. This review was originally written a couple of months ago, when the programs in question were just starting; the first seasons of both are now over, and an update appears at the end of the piece.

Funny thing. When I wrote my recent Blowfish review of the “Sex and the City” movie, my friends all had just one question:

Swingtown logo

What did you think of “Swingtown”?

(I guess they figured out what I thought of “Sex and the City” without need of any more questions…)

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but until I started getting these questions, I hadn’t even heard of “Swingtown.” I’m not sure how a prime- time major- network TV show about swinging escaped my notice. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to let my lack of pop- culture coolness slide for the moment, and just talk about “Swingtown.”

Secret diary
And “Secret Diary of a Call Girl.”

And a new face of sex on television.

To some extent, I’m reserving judgment on both shows. I’ve only seen a couple episodes of each, and it’s way too early to get into the serious socio- politico- sexual analysis of either one. But it’s not too early to say this: I’m watching. I’m curious. I care about the stories and the characters, and I want to see what happens next.

And that’s because the characters are — dare I say it? — human beings.

Which is an exciting new development in the relationship between alternative sex and television.

Swingtown1

Let’s take “Swingtown” first. A new prime- time drama on CBS, “Swingtown” is about Susan and Bruce Miller, a couple who move to a nice Chicago suburb in 1976 and are introduced by their neighbors to the world of swinging. They’re clearly intrigued by these new possibilities; at the same time, they’re clearly freaked out, and not at all sure where they want to go with it or even if they want to go with it at all. Adding to their confusion are their old best friends, Janet and Roger, a more conservative couple who disapprove heartily: of all these new ’70s shenanigans in general, and of their friends’ new friends in particular. Susan and Bruce — especially Susan, who’s clearly the central character — feel increasingly torn between the old friends and the new… a conflict that symbolizes, and gets tangled up in, their conflicted feelings about the new sexual world that the decade is offering.

Swingtown 3

I’m not sure where the show’s going with this. And I’m not sure what its attitude toward swingers and swinging will ultimately be. On the one hand, the swinging neighbors, Trina and Tom, are a little too evangelical about swinging: a little too convinced that it’s the solution to all life’s problems, and a little too cool-kid superior about people who don’t want to play. On the other hand… well, that is a reality. I’ve met people like that. I’ve been people like that, in my younger days. And while Trina and Tom definitely have a high- school cool- kids vibe, they also come across as very genuine, complicated and three-dimensional, with honest affection for Susan and Bruce, and a strong marriage that works for them.

Swingtown-4

And while the show may be a little pissily judgmental about Trina and Tom, and may even be gearing up to play them as sophisticated seducers who blindly fuck up a happy marriage, it isn’t playing Susan and Bruce that way at all. It may be setting them up for a fall, but it isn’t being judgmental of them for being curious and open- minded and willing to try new things — and new people — in bed. They are the moral center on which all these social changes are pivoting… and they’re making friends with committed swingers, and taking baby steps into trying out that world for themselves.

Secret diary 2

“Secret Diary of a Call Girl” (Showtime) is nowhere near as complex or subtly shaded as “Swingtown.” It’s definitely a bit in that lurid, gratuitous, “how can we put sex on our network today?” vein that Showtime is so good at. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…) But it also shows its characters — prostitutes and customers alike — as very real and human indeed: funny and poignant, anxious and clueless, selfish and touching.

The show is based on the blog of a real (or supposedly real) high class London call girl, Belle de Jour. And reality is a major player in the story. While it definitely shows the sexy, entertaining, soft- core- pornographic side of Belle’s work, it also shows her as a thoughtful, quirky character, someone who basically likes her job but has issues with how it affects her non-working life. And in these early stages of the show, it’s not yet clear how that conflict is going to play out.

In fact, in the first five minutes of the first episode, Belle puts it this way, in what may amount to the show’s mission statement: “There are as many different kinds of working girl as there are kinds of people, so you can’t generalize. But I can tell you about me.”

And that, folks, is what I’ve been waiting to see in mass- media depictions of non- mainstream sex. Not role models; not shiny happy people with perfect lives. Just people: people who want freedom and who want security, people who love sex and who are cautious about its power, people who think carefully about their sex lives and who make hasty, impulsive decisions about it. People who aren’t based on stereotypes or formulas, and whose actions can’t always be predicted.

Swingtown 5

Like I said, I’m still reserving judgment on both programs. I’m waiting to see whether “Swingtown” goes for the easy and predictable arc of seduction and ruination — which it might be doing — or whether it goes for a more complex, ups and downs, plusses and minuses vibe — which it might also be doing. I’m waiting to see if “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” comes up with any real analysis of sex work, or just winds up showing pretty pictures of sexy people.

But the point is that I’m waiting. So far, both shows have been about human beings, every bit as unpredictable as non- fictional human beings are. And I’m just going to have to watch, and wait, to find out what happens next.

Which is one of the biggest compliments I can pay to any show on TV.


Update: I originally wrote this review a couple of months ago, when both shows were pretty new and I was all giddy with excitement about them. Now that the first seasons of both shows are over, here’s my sober, better- informed opinion.

Swingtown-02

“Swingtown”: I’m enjoying this show a fair amount. Not as much as I’d like to be, mind you… but a fair amount. The plotting tends strongly towards the soapy, and much of the time the dialogue is, shall we say, rather less than sparkling. But the characters are interesting and complicated and human. And it’s easily the smartest and most sympathetic treatment of non-monogamy on prime- time network that I’ve ever seen. It’s actually one of the smartest and most sympathetic treatments of non-monogamy that I’ve seen in any pop-culture venue. It’s not all sunshine and roses — it wouldn’t be much of a drama if it were — but the sexual mistakes and conflicts are human, and understandable, and presented with a surprising lack of purse-lipped judgment.

Swingtown 6

And I love, love, love the fact that, of all the three main couples in the story, the happiest, most loving, most connected, most shit- together- having — by a long shot — is the swinger couple. When the show first began, I thought its moral center was Susan and Bruce, the newcomers dipping their toes into the world of swinging and unconventional sex. But it isn’t. If the show has a moral center, it’s Tom and Trina… the hard-core swinging veterans and evangelists.

And that, I wasn’t expecting.

Which is kind of what it comes down to for me with this show. The dialog is often on the flat and cheesy side; the plotting often leans toward both the soap opera and the after- school special. But ultimately, it’s unpredictable. It keeps surprising me: not with its stupid curve- ball plot complications (which are legion, alas), but with characters who keep turning out to be more complicated and multi-layered than you’d expected. I wish I liked it better than I do; I wish I could rave about it unreservedly and tell you all to rush out and watch every episode. But like I said in my original review, the characters are human; and I’ve come to care about them; and I want to see what they’re going to do next.

In summary: Execution, 6.5. Content, 8.5.

Secret diary 3

“Secret Diary of a Call Girl”: This definitely isn’t as deep or serious as “Swingtown.” It’s lighter, it’s shinier, it’s fluffier, it’s way more about the soft-core sex. (For a show about swinging, there’s surprisingly little sex in “Swingtown.” “Swingtown” may be more serious than “Secret Diary…” but “Secret Diary” is rather more fun to watch.)

But again, I’m sucked in. The characters — especially the main character, Belle — are complicated and human, and they stayed complicated and human throughout the course of the season. And the show does an excellent job of presenting sex work as a positive career choice that a smart person with choices might reasonably make… without sugar- coating the real problems that the choice can create.

And it’s really, really pretty.

Secret diary 4

Like with “Swingtown,” I’m a tad disappointed. It’s not quite all that it should be or could be. But again, I’m sucked in. And happily so. I’m not completely blown away — the show isn’t “Buffy” or “Six Feet Under,” neither one of these shows is — but it has a lot of surprises up its sleeve, and I’m definitely watching to see what happens next.

And for a show about sex work — for a show about any kind of unconventional sexuality — that is pretty darned high praise.

Execution, 8. Content, 6.5.

Sex, TV, And Actual Human Beings: “Swingtown” And “Secret Diary Of A Call Girl”

“Old Time Religion”: And The Winner Is…

Old time religion
My deepest and most wildly entertained thanks to everyone who participated in the “Old Time Religion” song parody contest. We definitely have some wonderful new verses now to liven up the repertoire at drunken folk-nerd parties. And in a way, you’re all winners.

But in another, more accurate way, Cuttlefish is the winner.

Oh, like anyone’s surprised…

Let’s start with the honorable mentions and the runners-up. (FYI, some slight adjustments have been made on a few of these to make them scan perfectly, since I’m a little obsessive- compulsive about scanning.) A very fond honorable mention goes to Tim Walters, for:

Cthulhu for president
Let us bow down to Cthulhu
Most implacable and cruel, who
Always covers me with drool; you
Know that’s good enough for me.

Give me that cold slime religion…

FYI, the only reason this verse doesn’t get a higher score is that I’ve heard the verse before (plus it seemed unfair to pick my personal friends as winners). I didn’t know Tim wrote it, though; it just sounds like it’s part of the canon, which is always a good sign in the folk process. (If you hear anyone say that the folk song/ dance/ tune you’ve written is very old and nobody knows who wrote it, you know you’ve arrived…)

More Honorable Mentions to traumerin, for:

Let us bow down to Astarte
Though the Hebrews call her tarty,
She knows how to throw a party,
And that’s good enough for me.

To Charlotte, for:

Minerva
Let us now worship Minerva
Study with religious fervor
Then go kill those who don’t serve her –
Hell, that’s wise enough for me!

To mandydax:

Let us worship our Sky Fairy.
Lo, His chin is rather hairy.
He says don’t eat meat with dairy,
And that’s good enough for me.

To Danielle — several people had good ones about the Discworld gods, but this is my favorite:

Let us all worship Blind Io
With his many eyes that fly-o.
God of thunder up on high-o,
He is good enough for me.

To Seth Manapio, for one of the best Flying Spaghetti Monster ones:

When he comes the Pasta Brethren
Will have beer and television
We’ll have strippers up in heaven
And that’s good enough for me

To Pierce R. Butler, for the only Pascal’s Wager one:

Blaise_Pascal

Let us worship all the gods
Some are dudes, and some are broads
Pascal says that gives great odds
And that’s good enough for me!

To Indigo, for another fine one in the Made Up Atheist Religion Series:

Let’s bow to the hidden dragon
In the garage of Carl Sagan
Can’t be known and that’s not braggin’
And that’s good enough for me!

To Rebecca, for one that’s both ancient and raunchy:

All you virgins sing to Vesta…
(empty pause)
Come, I promise we won’t test ya…
(pause)
Well I guess that’s it for Vesta
And that’s good enough for me.

And now for the winners. Second runner-up goes to JohnnyPotamus, for my favorite in the Flying Spaghetti Monster series (and for some of the best rhymes ever):

Flying Spaghetti Monster

I will worship His Great Noodles
‘Cause he doesn’t give two toodles
What we do with our own doodles
And that’s good enough for me!

First runner-up goes to Claire B., for writing the Russell’s Teapot one that I couldn’t come up with:

Teapot
Let us worship Russell’s Teapot
Though it cannot keep your tea hot
Yet disprovable it be not
And that’s good enough for me

(Claire B. had other good ones, including an excellent one on Carl Sagan’s Dragon, but I’m limiting myself to one per customer.)

And finally, we come to the winner. It was hard to pick just one by Cuttlefish; he had so many excellent ones. But ultimately, me being me, I have to go with this one:

Apollo
At the Temple of Apollo
Some will lead and some will follow
Some will spit and some will swallow
And that’s good enough for me.

The masterful Cuttlefish, Poet Laureate of the Atheosphere, wins his choice of a free copy of any of my three books that he wants: Paying For It, Three Kinds of Asking For It, or Best Erotic Comics 2008. Drop me an email or a comment to let me know which (if any) of these you’d like, Mr. Fish, and I’ll ship it off to you pronto.

And thanks to everyone for playing! This has been more fun than a barrel of apologetics, and I can’t wait to unleash these at the next drunken folk nerd party.

“Old Time Religion”: And The Winner Is…

Brief Blog Break/ Open Thread/ Shameless Self-Promotion Opportunity

Ingrid and I are going to be of town for a few days for the holiday weekend. Our neighbors will be looking after our apartment and our cats, but I may be too busy to look after the blog much. I’ll check in to make sure there’s no horrible trolling, and I’ll post a piece or two and reply to comments if I have time; but if you don’t see me back here until Tuesday or Wednesday, don’t be surprised.

In the meantime, consider this both an open thread and a shameless self-promotion spot. If you have a blog and want to link to a post you’ve done — or if you’re doing something neat and want to tell us about it — go ahead and do it here. Obvious plugs for commercial products will be deleted, but if you have a book or a show or an art project or something, let us know about it.

So talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic. “Firefly” is neither a fire nor a fly. Discuss. Have a happy Labor Day, think kind thoughts about the labor movement, and I’ll see y’all when I get back!

Brief Blog Break/ Open Thread/ Shameless Self-Promotion Opportunity

Gratitude For Small Favors: “Evolve: Sex” (The Blowfish Blog)

Evolve

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a review of the “Sex” episode of the new History Channel series, “Evolve”… and it talks about why, despite a number of complaints I have about the program’s handling of sex, I’m overall giving it a thumbs-up. It’s called Gratitude For Small Favors: “Evolve: Sex,” and here’s the teaser:

I suppose I should be grateful.

And I am grateful.

But it’s a bit sad that I should be grateful about something that should be ridiculously obvious — and ridiculously common.

I’m grateful for this: On the History Channel’s series “Evolve,” on the episode about sex, they say the word “penis.”

Several times. Casually, matter- of- factly, as if they were saying the word “jaw” or “kidney.” When they say, “The penis is a good example of convergent evolution,” they could just as easily have been saying, “The eye is a good example of convergent evolution.”

Ditto with the words “intercourse,” “sperm,” “sex organs,” “climax,” “ejaculate,” and more.

And, of course, the word “sex” itself.

To find out more about why I liked this show despite my complaints about it — and what exactly those complaints are — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Gratitude For Small Favors: “Evolve: Sex” (The Blowfish Blog)

Del Martin, and What Makes a Life Meaningful

A very great woman died yesterday.

I want to talk about her. And I want to talk about some of the things that make a life meaningful.

If you aren’t in the queer community, you may not know who Del Martin was. And I’m not going to give you her whole biography here. But I want to hit a few high points before I get to my point.

The_Ladder_May_1966

Del Martin co-founded — along with her partner of over five decades, Phyllis Lyon — the Daughters of Bilitis, the very first public and political lesbian rights organization ever in the United States, back in the 1950s. Yes, you heard that decade right — the 1950s. She and Phyllis were the first and second editors of The Ladder, the DOB’s newsletter/ magazine and the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S…. also begun in the 1950s. She was a leader in the campaign to get the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness. She was the first openly lesbian woman elected to the board of the National Organization of Women.

Lesbian woman

She was co-author with Phyllis in 1972 of the book Lesbian/Woman, one of the first positive, lesbian-authored books about lesbian lives, chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the 20 most influential women’s books of the last 20 years. She was one of the first women to speak about sexism in the gay community. She was a major writer and activist in the movement against domestic violence. She and Phyl were the first couple to be married in San Francisco in the first round of same-sex weddings in 2004… and the first couple to be married in San Francisco in the most recent (and hopefully last) round, in 2008. She…

I could do this for pages. You can read more here, and here, and here, and… you know what, just Google her name. People are writing tributes to her all over the Web.

So this is what I want to say.

Like millions of other queers, I felt terribly sad when I heard she had died. It’s almost always sad when someone dies, and it’s especially sad when someone this remarkable dies, even if it’s someone you’ve never met. But as sad as it is, it’s not a death that seems tragic, or unjust. Because she got to have such an amazing life. She got to be a pioneer, someone who made real change for millions of people after her, and she got to be an influential activist throughout her life. She got to have tributes upon her death from people ranging from Gavin Newsom to Nancy Pelosi to Barack Obama. She got to be part of history. A not- insignificant part.

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Plus, she got to have a 50+ year relationship with the love of her life.

And she got to marry that love of her life. Not so special for most people. But think about what the world was like when Del and Phyl were starting as lesbian activists. It was the ’50s. Homosexuality was still illegal in every state in the country. Homosexuals were still being put into mental institutions. The thought that one day, gays and lesbians would be able to get married, anywhere in this country, anywhere in this world… it must have been unimaginable. It wasn’t even on the radar. They weren’t fighting for the right to marry back then. They were fighting to not be put in jail, to not have their bars raided, to not lose their jobs and their children, to not be given shock treatment and lobotomies.

Greta and Ingrid City Hall wedding 2008

Think about what the world was like for queers then. And for all the messed-up crap, for all the work that still needs to be done, think about what the world is like for queers today.

Del Martin got to see the world change, in ways that at one time it probably wouldn’t have even occurred to her to dream about. And she got to be part of that change.

And she got to die at a ripe old age of 87, with her beloved at her side.

What a life to have lived.

I’m not saying that being an influential activist and important historical figure is the only way to create meaning. There are countless people who live and die unheard of by anyone but their immediate circle of family and friends… and their lives have tremendous meaning. Del Martin’s life isn’t the only way to have a meaningful life.

But it sure is a damn good one.

Recently in this blog, this Christian lackwit — excuse me, I do so try to criticize ideas and not insult people — this Christian with some truly lackwitted ideas, said, among other things, that atheists have no hope.

I want to say this: I have hope.

No, I don’t have any hope that I’ll get to be immortal and live forever after I die. I believe that’s a false hope, and I have let go of it. But I have much hope, and many hopes. And one of my greatest hopes is that my life will be even half as meaningful, and half as rich, and have half as much impact on the world around me, as Del Martin’s.

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In Del’s memory, donations can be made to the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ No on 8 fund, the campaign to stop the same-sex marriage ban ballot initiative in California in November.

Del Martin, and What Makes a Life Meaningful

On Not Being a Crank

How do you be a critic without turning into a crank?

Any kind of critic. Social, political, cultural, whatever.

George carlin

When George Carlin died, HBO ran a marathon of all the stand-up specials he’d done for them, from the late ’70s until shortly before he died. We didn’t watch all of them, but we tuned in and out throughout the day, getting sort of a smorgasbord of his career over the decades. And I noticed a pattern.

In his later years, Carlin had improved his craft by leaps and bounds. His mastery of language, his perceptiveness about society, the cleverness of his barbs… all had sharpened to a razor-like edge over the years. (Not that they sucked in his earlier days…)

And yet, his later performances were not nearly as much of a pleasure to watch. The content had become increasingly negative, to the point where the shows got overtaken by jeremiads… not just against great social ills and hypocrisies, but against anybody who didn’t do things the way Carlin did, or who cared about things other than what he cared about. He’d turned from a fiery, uncompromising social critic using his extraordinary skill with language and humor to chip away at the greed and lies of the power structure, into an old man railing about modern technology and how nobody does things right anymore, and yelling at kids to get off his lawn. (Doing it exquisitely, I hasten to add.)

He’d become a crank.

A brilliant crank, but a crank nonetheless.

And I want to know: How do you avoid that?

I’m beginning to see crank tendencies in my own self. And I don’t like it. I’m finding myself more and more likely to see, and think about, and talk about, flaws. In everything. Movies, music, food, books, bourbons, blogs, decaf lattes, ideas, people. Even things that I like, I’m finding myself critical of: not entirely negative, necessarily, but hyper-aware of their imperfections… and hyper-willing to talk about them.

And I’m doing it in situations where it’s not always appropriate. Increasingly, I’m having to remind myself that I am not being asked for a thorough, unblinking, rigorously honest analysis of pluses and minuses when I’m asked a question like, “How do you like the soup?”

And I’m wondering: Is this a natural result of the work that I do? Is one of the job hazards of being a professional critic that you start turning into a personal one? Or a permanent one?

Your movie sucks

The way of crankery can be very tempting. For one thing, it makes life as a writer so much easier. Any writer worth their salt can write about things they don’t like, in a way that’s entertaining and funny. Witness the success of the Roger Ebert books, “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” and “Your Movie Sucks”. (Both of which have pride of place in our home, on the shelf in front of the toilet.) The hard job is writing enthusiastically about things that you do like without just stringing together a list of superlatives and sounding like a sap. (And the insanely hard job is writing about things that are mediocre. How many ways are there in this world to write “Formulaic but passably pleasant” without wanting to shoot yourself?)

And some of it is that being critical is a quick ‘n’ easy way to feel smart and superior. Especially if you have any sort of connection to hipster culture, which defines itself by what it doesn’t like almost as much as by what it does. (If not more so.)

And, of course, it could just be that I’m getting older. And for reasons I don’t at all understand, an awful lot of people get crankier as they get older.

And then, some of it may just be that I’m having a very, very, very long year, the sort of year that I hope I’ll be able to look back on one day and laugh grimly about, and my natural perky “glass half full” realistic- optimism has been getting just a tad irritable.

But I think that a lot of it is just habit.

Anatomy of criticism

I’m a critic. Professionally, I mean. It’s my job to, you know, criticize: to look at pros and cons, plusses and minuses, goals met and unmet, goals worth and not worth reaching in the first place. And I’m writing a lot on a topic about which I am very critical indeed — namely, religion.

All of which I’m basically fine with. I’m definitely not of the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” school. I think many not-nice things are important and need to be said.

But I feel like I need to watch this trend. I need to watch the degree to which it affects my personal life. And I don’t want it taking over my professional life completely. Thirty years from now, I don’t want people reading my blog (assuming that I have a blog in thirty years) and thinking, “Wow, she sure is a good writer — but she sure does complain a lot.”

Any thoughts?

Olympics

The best idea I’ve come up with about this is to make an effort — a conscious, disciplined effort — to at least sometimes write about things that I like. I’ve even thought about turning it into a series: the “Things I Like” series. That’s sort of what I was doing with my recent Olympics piece. I could easily have written a piece of that length — hell, longer — about all the things I don’t like about the Olympics and the media coverage thereof. It would have been interesting, and it would have been valid. But it wouldn’t have been all that original — my critiques have all been made before, many times and by many others. And mostly, I just didn’t feel like going there. I was already starting to think about this crank issue (I’ve been thinking about it for a while now); and since I was, in fact, having a good time watching the Olympics, I decided that this time, I wanted to go to my happy place.

But I’m looking for other strategies for crankery avoidance, other than just Occasionally Write About Stuff I Like. And I’m wondering how other incipient cranks deal with this. Writers especially, but really anybody. How do you stay critical of society as the years go by without turning into a curmudgeon? How do you stay realistic about the half-empty part of the glass without getting absorbed into it?

What are your thoughts? What are your strategies?

And while I’m thinking of it: Would you, in fact, like to see a “Things I Like” series in this blog?

I’d love to know. It would take me to my happy place. Thanks!

On Not Being a Crank

“I will try not to sing…”: Joe Cocker With Subtitles

I don’t think I have anything to add to this video.

Mostly because it makes me laugh so hard I can’t talk.

It’s probably funnier if you’ve seen the movie “Woodstock” (or heard the album); but it should still be a darned good time if you haven’t. BTW, the joke doesn’t start until about 30 seconds in, but it’s worth waiting for and not jumping ahead.

Video below the fold, since putting videos above the fold mucks up my archives.

Continue reading ““I will try not to sing…”: Joe Cocker With Subtitles”

“I will try not to sing…”: Joe Cocker With Subtitles