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?


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

“People of Faith”: Religion as Ethical Misdirection


Ever since I started writing about atheism and religion, I’ve been troubled by the idea that being a strongly religious person, in and of itself, makes you a good person.

I’ve been troubled by the idea that phrases like “person of faith” or “man of God” are supposed to be understood to mean “good person.” Pretty much by definition.

Well, there’s a story in the news that’s turning this irritation into a full-flown outrage. And it’s making me realize what, exactly, it is about this trope that I find so troubling.

From the AP, via PageOneQ (via a comment on Daylight Atheism, where I got this story as well as the idea for this piece), we have the charming story of David Davis. Florida high school principal. Who, when a student told him that she was being harassed by other students for being a lesbian, told her that homosexuality was wrong, told her to stay away from children, and outed her to her parents.


And who, when the girl’s friends expressed their support for her by wearing gay pride T-shirts and buttons, interrogated them about their own sexuality and the sexuality of other students… and in some cases, suspended them.

And we have the story of the community who, when the school district was sued by the ACLU for this behavior, and Principal David was reprimanded and demoted, expressed righteous outrage and anger towards the girl’s family and the ACLU, and backed Davis up… because he was a Christian.

Saying things like:

“David Davis is a fine man and good principal, and we are a gentle, peaceful, Christian, family-oriented community.”

So today, I want to talk about religion as misdirection.

Carter the great

In stage magic, misdirection is a central skill in which the audience’s attention is focused on one thing to distract their attention from something else. You do something that looks big and interesting and important with your right hand; people don’t notice the less flashy but genuinely important thing you’re doing with your left.

I bring this up because I think religion often acts as a form of ethical misdirection. It creates an illusion of good, ethical behavior… which distracts the observer from the question of whether this person’s actions really are, in any useful, real-world way, ethical and good.

Think about the quote above. Think about what it means to look at Principal Davis’s actions, and call them fine and good, gentle and peaceful.


What is gentle and peaceful about responding to a teenage girl who tells you in confidence that she’s being bullied — by bullying her some more? By blaming the victim? By ignoring her complaint, betraying her confidence, and telling her that she’s a bad person who can’t be trusted around children?

And what is gentle and peaceful about using your position of power to silence the girl’s supporters — a.k.a. your detractors — by interrogating them about their own sexuality and kicking them out of school? It’s not even Christian; at least if you take the whole “Turn the other cheek” thing to heart. (And, as Ingrid points out, it’s more than a little sexually creepy as well. In any other context, a high school principal going around asking his underage students about their sexual practices would be fired so fast
it’d make your head spin.)

And yet, the people of this Florida community have been misdirected into thinking that Davis is a gentle, peaceful person. He’s a Christian, after all. And in their mindset, “Christian” means “gentle, peaceful person,” de facto and by definition.

Religion, essentially, is serving here as the big flashy gesture done with the right hand, that distracts from the actual moral behavior that’s being done with the left. It’s the shiny show of fineness and goodness, gentleness and peace, that keeps people from seeing that the actions being done are, in fact, brutal, hurtful, domineering, and evil.

And it creates a misdirection so strong that it can effectively replace the entire notion of right and wrong. When hard-line religious believers slander atheists by saying that we have no morality, insisting that there can be no morality without belief in God… well, what is that but a substitution of religion for ethics? What is that but a replacement of your own moral instincts and perceptions with obedience to somebody else’s code?

This is a point Ingrid keeps making. When religious believers accuse atheists of taking the easy way out, her reply is, “Do you know how hard it is to live the way I do? It would be so much easier to just do what some book says — or to do what some leader tells me about what the book says. And it would be so much easier if I could always convince myself that God wanted me to do what I do. To actually think about my hard moral choices? And take responsibility for them? And live with them for the rest of my life? That’s not the easy way out. That’s harder than you will ever know.”

I’m not saying all religious believers do this. There are certainly believers — usually of the more progressive, less fundamentalist variety — who think that God created them with a moral compass and bloody well expects them to use it themselves. I’m not saying all religion is ethical misdirection. I’m saying that some of it is. Way, way too much of it.

And I’m not saying this misdirection is conscious, either. Most of the time, I think it probably isn’t. I think many religious believers themselves are convinced that they are good people, and that the strength of their religious faith makes them so.


But in a way, that actually makes it more insidious. After all, if someone consciously knows that they’re being deceptive, there’s always a chance that their conscience will catch up with them. But if they’re completely mired in their own rationalization, it becomes a self-perpetuating circle that’s almost impossible to break.

Religion can create an ethical misdirection so powerful, it fools even the magician.

And that scares the crap out of me.

(These ideas were largely inspired by the Imaginary Virtues piece on Daylight Atheism, which everyone has to go and read right this minute.)

“People of Faith”: Religion as Ethical Misdirection

Good Stuff, or, Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #3


So what the heck — let’s have another round of Cool Stuff I Saw on the Blogosphere and Wanted to Share with the Rest of the Class. A.k.a.: Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival, #3.

The Real Religious Terrorism, by Sarah Braasch at Freedom from Religion Foundation. A vivid, chilling story of a childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness. Exhibit A in what atheists are talking about when we say religion gets a free ride: if parents treated their children this way in the name of anything other than religion, society would universally recoil in horror. Via Friendly Atheist.

The XY Games, by Jennifer Finney Boylan at the New York Times. (No, it’s not a blog post — so sue me.) On gender testing at the Olympics… and why it’s testing for the wrong thing.

Militant Atheists, by Al Sweigart at CoffeeGhost. A nifty, funny video on why the phrase “militant atheist” is both inaccurate and bigoted. Includes a faux newsreel, which is always a good time. Via Friendly Atheist.

Negative Energy Research, by Skeptico. Psychics and other woo practitioners often claim that their abilities and effects disappear in the face of rigorous testing because the presence of skeptics produces “negative energy.” Here, Skeptico proposes an experiment that would test this effect. Does the presence of a skeptic have a negative impact on psychic ability? And if so, under what conditions?

McCain Antoinette, by Waymon Hudson at The Bilerico Project. John McCain has created an image of himself as a maverick “everyman” — but his disconnected ignorance about the economic realities of ordinary Americans are closer to Marie Antoinette’s mythical line, “Let them eat cake.”

The Internal Clitoris — What a Woman’s Cock Really Looks Like. An anatomy lesson from Susie Bright, with visual aids by Betty Dodson.

And Sophisticated Urban Indoor Camouflage, on ErosBlog. Naked woman, beautifully painted to match the wallpaper. Gorgeous and strange. (The rest of the gallery that the image is from is neat, too.)

Happy reading, y’all!

Good Stuff, or, Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #3

The Eroticism of the Olympics, and the Inherent Hotness of Variety: The Blowfish Blog

Please note: This post, and the post it links to, discusses my personal sexuality and sexual practices — not at great length, but in a certain amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff will probably want to skip this post.

Naked gymnastics

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about the eroticism of the Olympics, and the astonishing variety of beautiful forms that the bodies of top-level athletes come in… a variety that, in and of itself, I find erotic. It’s called The Eroticism of the Olympics, and the Inherent Hotness of Variety, and here’s the teaser:

It’s all too common in our culture to mistake athleticism for body fascism. “Physically fit” is too often used as a euphemism for “approaching a single ideal of perfection that all bodies are supposed to aspire to.” I’ve fallen into that trap myself: I’ve definitely felt lumpy and out of place at the gym as a chubby middle-aged lady in a weight room full of Venuses and Adonises. (It doesn’t help that I work out at a university gym, populated largely by grad students in their twenties.)

But watching the Olympics is a lovely, sexy reminder that even top-level physical fitness comes in a delightful variety of forms.

To find out more, read the rest of the post. Enjoy!

The Eroticism of the Olympics, and the Inherent Hotness of Variety: The Blowfish Blog

A Clowncar Named Desire: Sex, Humor, and Ellen Forney’s “Lust”

This review was originally published on ALT.com.


Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads From Seattle's The Stranger
By Ellen Forney. Introduction by Dan Savage.
Fantagraphics Books. ISBN 978-1-56097-864-8. 168 pages. Hardcover. $19.95.

It's completely hot.

And it's completely hilarious.

That's a hard combination to get right. Sex and humor are a tricky combination. I've written about this before: a big part of sex is about building up tension, and a big part of humor is about breaking tension, so they're two great tastes that don't always taste great together.

But comic artist Ellen Forney makes it work.

Watch me undress

For several years, Ellen Forney has been illustrating the adult online personal ads of the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger. In Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads, she collects the best of these cartoon illustrations…in a nasty, silly, sexy, filthy, shameless, constantly surprising, and joyfully exuberant display of the unbelievable variety of human sexual desires. From "Pirate Wench" to "Panty Bear," from "Pull My Hair" to "Watch Me Undress," from "Have You Been A Bad Boy?" to "Force This Top To Be A Bottom," from "You Are A Mechanic" to "I Like Knives" to "Erotic Hypnosis" to "My French Maid," Forney's comic illustrations are a hot, hilarious, thoroughly delightful parade of human libido. If you've been playing the adult personals for any length of time, you'll find this book both inspiring and hysterically familiar. And if you've never run or answered a personal ad in your life, you'll still find it… well, both inspiring and hysterical.

Super sluts

Like I was saying, "sexy" and "silly" is a combination that's hard to pull off. But Forney has the knack of it. She has an unerring eye for the overlapping ground between sex and humor — namely, playfulness. What's more, she has the ability to make her subjects seem completely human — imperfect, vulnerable, goofy, hopeful — in a way that's loving and friendly, and that actually makes her subjects seem even more sexy. And the shamelessness and pure adventurous spirit of these advertisers is simply inspiring. (Anyone who runs adult online personal ads absolutely needs to read it… if only to get some new ideas.)

But Forney is more than just an enthusiastic appreciator of the astonishing variety of human sexuality. She is also an exceptionally skilled comics artist, with a distinctive, immediately recognizable style that is a major part of the beauty and eroticism in this book. She has a strong, bold, sensual line that seems like it was born to draw sex. And her drawing and design skills are on proud display here. From the text of the BDSM ad written into the ropes tied around a naked body, to the lush Art Nouveau styling on the "Hairy Girl" ad, she shows inventiveness, imagination, and serious artistic chops. She clearly has a deep respect for sex, and is clearly thrilled to be using her considerable talents to illustrate dirty personal ads.

And the fact that the comics are illustrating real-life sex — or at least, real-life sexual desires, at least some of which must have gotten translated into real-life sex — gives them a tremendous amount of erotic punch. For me, at least. I've always found real-life sex stories to be hotter than fiction: reality gives a sexy story an immediacy that makes it very hot indeed. These aren't unattainable fantasy figures; they're real people, looking for some real action. I love looking at these cartoons and imagining, in detail, what the people behind the ads actually wound up doing. I love thinking about which ads I might actually want to answer, and what might happen if I did. And I love imagining what kind of cartoon Forney would draw if I ran an ad myself. Yum.

Foot fetish

I should tell you that not all of these comics are explicitly sexy or dirty. Many of them are, but a lot of them aren't. And they're not all meant to be. Many of these cartoons are just supposed to be funny. So if you're looking at this simply as a stroke book, you may find it disappointing.

But I found Lust to be not just intriguing and funny and beautiful, but extremely arousing as well. And I found that even the silly, funny, non-explicit cartoons add to the overall eroticism of the book. Ellen Forney has found a way to turn the goofy, absurd, "what would this look like to space aliens?" side of sex into something hot, enticing, and erotically inspiring. It is sexy, it is unique, and it is not to be missed.

(Disclosure: Ellen Forney is a contributor to a book I edited, Best Erotic Comics 2008, as well as the cover artist for that same book. The Lustlab Ad of the Week feature, alas, is no longer running; but you can find many of them in the Lustlab archives on Forney's blog.)

A Clowncar Named Desire: Sex, Humor, and Ellen Forney’s “Lust”

Good news about Violet

Hi, all. I wanted to update you on the situation with our cat, Violet. Regular readers of this blog will know that we've been having a very scary veterinary situation, with Violet needing to be rushed to the vet emergency hospital last week with what turned out to be bleeding ulcers. We've been having a "bad news/ good news/ bad news/ good news" rollercoaster sort of week with it, but we have some solid information now, and I wanted to let you all know about it.

The bad news is that the ulcers didn't come from nowhere. Violet has inflammatory bowel disease, and the very early stages of cancer.

The good news is that both the cancer and the IBD are very treatable, and we caught the cancer very, very early — early enough that she'll probably have a normal lifespan. (She's recovering really well from the surgery, btw, and seems more like herself every day.)

And the treatment isn't even all that invasive: no surgery, no radiation, nothing like that. She will be on chemo for a while, but that's just going to involve giving her medicine at home. We're going to have a few weeks/months of a somewhat intensive cat pilling regimen (and boy, is that going to be fun); but it doesn't seem like it'll be hard for her to tolerate.

There are no guarantees with cancer, of course. There are no guarantees with anything. But given what we've been going through for the past week, this is an incredibly good outcome. Our lives will be a disrupted for a little while, but we are breathing huge sighs of relief, and are preparing to get back to what passes for normal in our lives. Thanks to all of you for your kind words and support, and I'll be blogging at you soon!

Oh — and Violet sends her love.


Good news about Violet

A Parade of Weird Little Worlds: Why I Like The Olympics

Olympic Rings

Ingrid and I are not, generally speaking, sports fans. To put it mildly. (I had a brief stretch of fairly serious baseball fandom in the late '80s and early '90s, but I fell out of the habit in the strike of '94, and never got back into it.)

And yet, we are getting completely sucked into the Olympics.

I've been thinking about why.

Yes, we're watching the gymnastics and a couple of the other big-ticket events (diving is always a good time). And yes, I'm watching women's wrestling, for reasons that should be obvious. But mostly I'm being a big old dilettante, and am watching bits and pieces of the largely unsung sports.

Archery. Fencing. Badminton. Table tennis. Synchronized swimming and trampoline are coming up later this week, and I can't wait.

I'm having a ball with this.

Some of it is that it's always a good time to watch people doing something — anything at all — really, really well. The look of pure concentration on a person's face when they're deeply immersed in something they passionately love and are extraordinarily good at… it's one of the most beautiful sights there is.

And, of course, some of it is the two-week parade of beautiful athletic bodies in tight, skimpy outfits. My libidinal interest varies from sport to sport (sky-high for divers and female wrestlers, almost nil for weightlifters and female gymnasts), but I can't be the only erotic connoisseur/ drooling pervert who's getting off on this.

But most of it is this:


One of the things I love best about human beings is the way we create these weird little worlds for ourselves. The world of competitive ballroom dancing. Of model train building. Of comic book enthusiasts. Show dog owners. Historical recreation societies. Contra dancing. Atheist blogging. These worlds always call to mind for me a line from Dave Barry: "There's a fine line between a hobby and mental illness." Yet at the same time, they call to mind that line from the teenage kid from "Trekkies": "People tell me to get a life. Well, I have a life. This is a hobby. And having hobbies is part of having a life."

There are anthropologists and neurologists and evolutionary biologists who think that the human brain evolved to deal with about 100 or 150 other people, tops, and I'm convinced that the forming of these weird little worlds is a way of narrowing down the dauntingly enormous and increasingly interconnected global village into something a bit more manageable.

I love that each of these weird little worlds has not just its own skills and trends and passions, but its own gossip, its own politics, its own scandals and controversies. I love how immersed people get in our weird little worlds: how the issues of historically accurate shoes at Civil War re-enactments, or gender- balancing at contra dances, can seem like life or death. I love how much time and care and passion people put into these endeavors that will never make them famous or rich or remembered in the larger world, the world outside of a handful of equally demented enthusiasts.

Bare necessities

And I love that these worlds have stars and celebrities that nobody on the outside has ever, ever heard of. If you don't do English country dancing, you've almost certainly never heard of Bare Necessities: and yet they are a band with a rabidly devoted following, across the country and around the world. And when Ingrid and I met PZ Myers on a recent visit he made to the Bay Area, we told all our friends about it with bubbly excitement… to be met with almost universal blank stares. (Stares that got even blanker when we explained that he was "a famous biologist and atheist blogger.")

As thousands of pundits have noted before me, the world is becoming ickily homogenous, filled with depressingly interchangeable supermarkets and strip malls, processed foods and chain restaurants. But the weird little worlds of hobbyists and enthusiasts are a bulwark against that tendency. Whenever I despair over humanity losing its quirkiness, all I have to do is read the Carnival of the Godless, or go queer contra dancing, or turn on "Project Runway" and watch the contestants pissing themselves with excitement over some fashion designer I've never heard of.

And what I love about the Olympics is that, for two weeks every four years, I get a peek inside a dozen or so of these worlds.


I love finding out what the strategy is in weightlifting (yes, there's strategy — I know, it was news to me as well), and that it's forbidden in Olympic weightlifting to lubricate your thighs. I love learning that a round of play in archery is called an "end." I love discovering the existence of a triathlon-style sport that combines running, swimming, fencing, shooting, and equestrian… and learning that it was invented as a narrative of a soldier ordered to deliver a message on horseback.

And I love how intensely immersed the athletes are in their worlds, how hard they work to become so superbly good in them with so little in the way of obvious payoff.

I mean, it's easy to understand why you'd want to be a famous gymnast or a multi- medal- winning swimmer. If you succeed, you actually get a fair degree of fame and fortune in the larger world. But if you sacrifice years of your life to become the absolute top of your game in archery or fencing or badminton, nobody is ever going to know about it but your immediate circle of family and friends, a handful of other archers and fencers and badmintonites… and every four years, some weirdos like me, who could care less about Michael Phelps's eight gold medals but get intensely sucked into the women's saber competition for about fifteen minutes.

I love that they do it anyway.

(P.S. Tivo helps with this a lot, btw. I can't believe I ever watched the Olympics without it. Tivo lets you watch all the weird events you want to watch… and skip the ones you think are boring.)

Ballroom dance photo by Petr Novak, Wikipedia.

A Parade of Weird Little Worlds: Why I Like The Olympics

CSI: Deuteronomy

How to handle an unsolved murder, Old Testament style.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9:

Cow 1

"If in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, any one is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance to the cities that are around him that is slain; and the elders of the city which is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer which has never been worked and which has not pulled in the yoke.

And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley.

And the priests the sons of Levi shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled.

And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, 'Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed. Forgive, O Lord, thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and set not the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of thy people Israel; but let the guilt of blood be forgiven them.'

So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord." (Revised Standard Version.)

Got that, everybody?

So. There are two things that immediately leap to mind about this passage.

Life of brian

Okay, three things, since the very first thing that leaps to mind is a totally baffled, almost hallucinatory, "What the fuck?" It makes so little sense that it almost doesn't parse at all. When Ingrid first read it to me (it's the opening quotation to the book she's reading, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets"), I thought I was hearing it wrong. It reminds me of nothing more than the Prophets Row scene in "Life of Brian." "At this time, a friend shall lose his friend's hammer. And the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o'clock."

But I think we can take that as a given. So after the hallucinatory bafflement fades a bit, here's what immediately leaps to mind about this passage.

One: This sure blows to smithereens any ideas about the Bible being eternal, perfectly true forever, as useful a guide today as it was when it was written.


As Ingrid pointed out: How exactly would this principle operate for an unsolved murder today, in, say, New York City? If a body washed up in the East River, would they measure whether it landed closer to Manhattan or Brooklyn to decide which city had to slaughter the heifer? Would the mayor have to personally do the slaughtering, or would it be okay for the city council to take care of it? Or could it be delegated to a special department: a Department of Unsolved Murder Heifer Slaughtering, to replace the Cold Case Squad? And given the number of unsolved murders in New York City every year, would they have to keep a special feedlot to raise cows specially for the unsolved murder sacrifices?

Two: How was this ever useful? Even at the time it was written? Even in the Bronze Age?

What a weird version of justice this is. Somebody was murdered, you can't punish the person who did it — so you punish a cow?

God Monty Python and the Holy Grail

And what a weird vision of God it is. Why do the city elders have to explain to God that they weren't responsible for the murder? Doesn't God already know? Besides, is God really going to feel better about the injustice of an unpunished murder because an unworked cow gets slaughtered in an unplowed river valley? And if they didn't perform this ritual, would God really punish an innocent city just because it happened to be the closest to where a dead body was found?

(And in fact, as Ingrid pointed out: How would the elders know that the murder wasn't committed by someone in their city?)

And I'm back to my totally baffled, "What the fuck?"

Ingrid keeps saying that I have to be fair: that I have to remember the time and place this was written, and not judge people with a Bronze Age view of the world from my own modern perspective. They didn't have the information or understanding about how the world works that we have today, but that didn't necessarily make them stupid or crazy. Grossly mistaken, yes, but not stupid or crazy.

But in a way, that's exactly my point. So much of the Bible is written with this sympathetic- magic, burnt- offering, appeasing- the- temperamental- Gods mentality of thousands of years ago. I mean, fending off the wrath of your god for an unpunished murder by sacrificing a cow? With all the weird details about exactly what kind of cow, and where? It's like the Greek or Norse myths. We're not talking about a metaphorical scapegoat here, people. We're talking about an actual, literal scapegoat.

Cow 2

Or, in this case, a scapecow.

Now, a lot of progressive Christians would no doubt respond by saying, "You're not supposed to take the Bible literally. It's a divinely inspired metaphor, a history of an evolving understanding of God over the ages. Not all Christians are fundamentalists, and it's unfair to critique all Christianity based on a literal interpretation that many of us don't adhere to."

My usual response to that argument — and the response of countless other atheists — is, "If you're going to cherrypick your sacred text, how do you decide which parts are divinely inspired and which parts are human error? And if you're deciding just by using your own instinct and judgment, rooted in the morals of your society, then how is your sacred text any different from any other book of philosophy or history or guidance, where you take what you need and leave the rest?"

I will, in fact, make that argument again here. In fact, I just did.

But there's something else I want to say as well. And that's this:

How is this passage a useful guide — even as a metaphor?

What is the general principle of life that we can take from this passage? That when you can't punish a wrongdoer, it's an acceptable substitute to punish someone else instead? Or to go through a formalized ritual of punishment that bears no real connection with justice, but looks sort of like it?

Or is the principle at work here a basic "appeasement of God" concept? That God is angered by the injustice of an unpunished murder… and therefore you have to give him sacrifices to chill him out, even if you had nothing to do with it?


It's not just that this passage is completely useless as a literal guide to modern law enforcement. (Although I am getting a kick out of imagining the "Law & Order" episode where the real killer is never found, and Jack McCoy has to go out to the slaughterhouse to wash his hands over a dead cow and remind God that it wasn't his fault.) It's completely useless as a metaphorical guide to justice. It's completely useless as any kind of guide to anything. I can get more inspiration and guidance from an episode of "Project Runway" than I can from this irrelevant, batshit, Bronze Age guide to life.

CSI: Deuteronomy