a letter from a young atheist: Preacher, Preacher, can’t you see?

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You’re such an inspiration for the ways,

That I’ll never ever choose to be,

Oh so many ways for me to show you,

How the savior has abandoned you, Fuck your God!

–Judith,Pulsifer

 

Dear B——,

Blasphemy is a bit of an acquired taste, and it’s a lot like salt: in small doses it can bring flavor, in large doses it just leaves you dry and wanting desperately for water as you gag on it.  For the record that last bit is actually true.  I once emptied half a salt shaker on an egg roll when I was around five and after biting into it I went into a shock before trying to rub the salt off my tongue on the sleeve of my mother’s dress.  It’s not a terribly fond preacher-book1-700x1093memory since we were in a group and most of the other people in attendance got a little chuckle at my expense, but the visual metaphor I think retains its poignancy as I decided I would write to you about the graphic novel Preacher by Garth Ennis.

Before I continue B—- I just wanted to make sure that you and Charlie are okay.  In your previous letter you sounded like you and Charlie were having some problems.  Now it is my first philosophy in life to stay out of other people’s relationships; people who offer advice freely about how to handle other people’s relationship problems are suspect to me and tend to be emotional leeches.  If you ever want to talk about it know that I’m here and that I’m a listener first when it comes to people’s problems.  Far too many people don’t realize that, when it comes to shit like that, all you really need to be is a listener.

Getting back to Preacher though, I recommended it to you because the last graphic novel we discussed was Punk Rock Jesus.  To be honest with you I feel that that book succeeds far better than Preacher in terms of understanding and exploring the complexity of the theology and philosophy of Christianity in society.  Whereas that book had a point to make about the mixing of capitalism and religion, Preacher seems, for the most part, to be blasphemy for the sake of blasphemy.27ca0f311f354c91cc669fe446c59263

Since you told me you haven’t read it I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the plot.  A minister by the name of Jesse Custer is giving a sermon in his church the day after a drunken outburst at the bar and in the middle of the service a being of color and light bursts through the window, occupies Jeese’s body, and creates an explosion that kills everyone in the church.  The creature is called “Genesis” and it’s revealed later that it is the love child conceived when an angel from heaven and a demon from hell fell in love and made love.  Genesis gives Jesse the “power of god,” allowing him to command people to perform actions against their own freewill.  While he’s wandering he runs into a vampire named Cassidy and a woman named Tulip.  The first volume follows Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy through the first part as they make their way to New York City to figure out what Genesis is, in the second half Jesse and Tulip are captured by Jesse’s grandmother and her servants.  Jesse’s past is revealed as the reader observes that Jesse was raised in an emotionally, physically, and psychologically abusive household which is putting it mildly.  Jesse watches his grandmother’s servants shoot his father in the head, shoot his best friend, drag his mother away, and he himself is placed in a coffin which is sunk into a river and left there for weeks at a time.  All the while Jesse is searching for god because, as it’s revealed in the book, god has abandoned his position in heaven and Jesse wants to know why.

Just describing the plot, I recognize that it sounds outlandish or crazy, but so is the plot of Catch-22 and that book is not only required reading but also one of the most influential books in the American literary canon.  Preacher is unlikely to ever attain such status for like I said above Blasphemy for the sake of blasphemy is like too much salt, and at times Preacher is like taking a deep swallow of it.first-four-minutes-of-amc-s-preacher-pilot-are-here-and-they-re-full-of-easter-eggs-pr-980231

Now to be fair be I’m not immune to this impulse.  While I detest anti-theism there is at times an impulse to roll my eyes and make easy pot-shots at religion when my Christian friends wax philosophical about their faith and their beliefs.  There is the impulse when, after a friend has explained why they believe in god and the afterlife and heaven and why they’re happy with the life they’ve chosen I do wish sometimes that I could yell:

“It’s a bunch of self-absorbing bullshit.  You believe in god because you still buy into the idea that the universe gives a shit about you, and the outdated geocentric, human centered reality that man is the center of ALL creation.  If you weren’t such a narcissist you might be able to get your head out of your ass and realize that human life, when set against the enormity of creation, basically amounts to the dick lint of infinity and no amount of ancient texts are going to change that.”1745753-garth_enn2

I would like to say that sometimes, but what holds me back is the fact that responding like that only clouds up the discourse with nasty rhetoric and I would come across as self-righteous and, even worse, “the typical all-knowing egomaniacal atheist.”  I distrust the impulse to say these words B——, because they feel too cathartic.  There’s nothing wrong with releasing emotion from time to time, but in conversations, especially philosophical ones, emotions should be contained as much as possible lest you dissolve the conversation into pathos and ad hominem attacks.  What matters most in discussing whether or not god exists is not the arguments themselves but the way people express the arguments.

Looking at Preacher then there is a real problem because Garth Ennis doesn’t try to make a fair conversation about theism, he’s just pushing religious buttons hoping somebody somewhere will crack and try to yell at him.  It’s shock value, and the problem with shock value is, over time, people become inured to it, and when they become inured they become bored.  The reason why Marilyn Manson isn’t shocking anymore, the reason 1969327_10152150620861551_21563389_nwhile Alice Cooper is a cartoon character, the reason why Black Sabbath now has fans that span at least three generations is that people eventually stop being shocked.  I would argue though that the difference between Marilyn Mansion, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, and Garth Ennis is that the previous three actually make art that’s worth your time.

Also for the record B—— you should totally look up IOWA by Slipknot.  It’s their Death Metal record so it’s going to be intense, but if you can survive through it you’ll love Slipknot till the day you die.  People = Shit and Disasterpeice and Left Behind.  Listen to those first.

Ennis’s book abounds with scene after scene of horrible people doing horrible things in the name of god or divine will and by the end if becomes difficult to find any sympathetic figure.  By the end I did find myself liking the character of Jesse, but not because he was a good person, but because he was able to survive a living hell and find faith, not in god per say, but in himself.  At this point though B—-, I imagine that I can predict your question.

The answer is yes Margot Robbie was a great Harley Quinn, and those lame critics on Rotten Tomatoes be damned, I fucking loved Suicide Squad.  Definitely see it, if only to make fun of Charlie when Margot Robbie’s bodacious bootie wiggles around in those ridiculous hotpants.  Seriously after leaving the film even my sister said they should have called the film “Margot Robbie’s Bodacious Ass Wiggles in Hot Pants…The Movie.”

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The answer to your second question B——, is how exactly does one find any kind of redeemable reason to read a book like Preacher?  This is a conflict because I don’t at first glance have an answer besides the fact that it is legitimately entertaining and does offer some opportunity for reflection about faith and blasphemy.  For myself B——, the point of reading Preacher is about four pages in the book that allow the reader to be both shocked and reflective about the nature of faith.screen shot 2016-02-24 at 1.37.33 pm

Tulip is shot in the head in front of Jesse and is brought back to life by god who asks only that she have faith.  She refuses, and reading this passage I think about my own position.

Here’s the point B—–.  Even if god exists I would not have faith.  Some people are able to balance the idea of a god with the “problem of evil,” but I cannot for that doesn’t absolve a creator.  The reason I’m an atheist is because I do not recognize any empirical evidence for the existence of a divine being or creator, and even if there was, all that would change is my belief that god exists.  My high school biology teacher, still one of the smartest men I’ve ever met, once held a religious conversation with some of his students.  Dr. Bradford held a doctorate in biology but also had a Master’s in theology and so he asked them “What is faith?”  a few of them began their arguments with “the belief in god,” but he would interrupt them with a solid “no” and finally they got frustrated and asked him what faith was.  His response has never left me: “faith is trust.  You trust in god.  Even if you believe in god that doesn’t mean you trust him.”  This to me is and always shall be everything.  Even if god exists, and proof appears to validate this possible fact, I cannot in good conscience trust this god.preacher_book_one_ennis_dillon_dc_vertigo_03

Some might say that this is unfair or me, or claim that I simply cannot see the bigger picture.  This may be true, but neither do my contesters.  Like me they are limited by their humanity, their faults and bias, and so when they come to me speaking about the infinite wisdom of the creator and his unfailing love for them all I can do is roll my eyes.  It’s not out of condescension, it’s more out of the recognition of cognitive dissonance.  Man wants his god to be above him, to possess more wisdom than himself, but the opposite is true.  Men make god after their own image and I have to fall back upon Lex Luthor for this in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice:

Lex Luthor: The problem of you on top of everything else. You above all. Ah. ‘Cause that’s what God is. Horus. Apollo. Jehovah. Kal-El. Clark Joseph Kent. See. What we call God depends upon our tribe, Clark Jo. Because God is tribal. God take sides. No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from Daddy’s fist and abominations. Mm mm. I’ve figured it out way back, if God is all powerful, he cannot be all good. And if he’s all good then he cannot be all powerful. And neither can you be. They need to see the fraud you are. With their eyes. The blood on your hands.

The moment I referred to earlier in Preacher when god himself has appeared bathed in divine light after bringing Tulip back to light and he begs her to beseech Jesse to give him his trust and Tulips response is incredible, for it’s the exact same response I’ve had to the notion of god in my own life:

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Growing up in the environment I did I desperately wanted to say, actually scream out often to god to “cut the shit.”  In fairness, due mostly to retrospect, my problem was not with god but with Christians themselves.  It was always a sell, it was always a dogma, it was always the call to blindly follow and wholly trust, and the problem was often that thus trust involved some sacrifice of my principles because “trust” meant bashing gay people, voting republican, being prejudiced against Mexicans and blacks (though this was always hinted at or suggested without ever being outright spoken, you know “those people”), and burning copies of Harry Potter.

That last one’s important because you don’t fuck with Harry Potter.  Period.

If Preacher achieves any kind of artistic statement, it’s in these two pages because it affords a new reality for readers and individual thinkers.  I know this may sound like pathos B——, but reading does open up new worlds and often times I feel like I’m living in a different world now that I don’t believe or trust in god.  This doesn’t always make life easy, in fact sometimes it makes it far more difficult.  goteborg-svenska_frimurare_lagret-medeltidens_kosmologi_och_varldsbild-100521323518_nMy life has become painfully shorter for the benefit of an afterlife is gone, but this only places me in a position in which I have to “cut the shit” and really recognize my problems because there isn’t someone looking out for me.  What I do with my time isn’t just a sentence, it’s a real reality.  Living without god, or faith in god, is stepping out of narcissism because it reduces the ego.  Once mankind steps away from god they step out of the center of all creation, and while life in this new space isn’t always pleasant, as Preacher clearly demonstrates, it does make you see the world in a new way.

Reading Preacher is not easy if you are easily offended or unused to having your religious or moral convictions challenged.  It’s important to remember that challenges are different than outright assault, and being fair to the book, Preacher is a book designed to push buttons far more than it is about challenging the reader.  Ennis’s book is about showing all the negative sides to Christianity, while also squeezing in some blasphemy for fun, and the problem with this is that it doesn’t really encourage reflection or growth.  Reading this book becomes an exercise in “allright what blasphemous shit is he gonna write next?”  The three pages cited earlier though do redeem the book B——, at least so far as to ask yourself: if there was a god, would you trust him?

You know where I stand.

Blasphemy for the sake of blasphemy becomes tiresome and repugnant, because long after the shock of blasphemy is over there’s precious little, if any, art worth mentioning.  The conflict then is that if an artist doesn’t have anything better to do than shock his reader, then he really hasn’t produced anything worth reading.  But at least there’s the spirit of John Wayne reminding Jesse to be strong, so it ain’t all bad.

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Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,

Joshua “Jammer” Smith

 

 

 

P.S.

You may have noted that I sound a little bitter.  I can assure you that only appears when I listen to poor arguments, or spot a Joel Olsteen book in a pile of “Local Favorites” at Barnes & Noble.  It’s not that I’m a bitter man, I just can’t stand Joel Olstean.  And to be fair is there any thinking person who doesn’t?

 

P.P.S.

Waited till the end for this.  I loved Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn but I hated those hot pants and those heels.  Harley Quinn is a gymnast and she’s expected to do all those crazy stunts in heels?  Bullshit.  I’ve tried running in boots with a one-inch heel and I damned near fell and busted my ass, and Harley Quinn is supposed to be able to flips and kicks in stiletto heels?  I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in super hero films only so far.

Now as for the hot pants I have to say…say…13932800_867485320063002_6333598408011090595_n

Never mind.

I Am…Nowhere Near as Cool as Malala

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Two of my co-workers in the Writing Center had a code.  I use the word code because the English language is poor and I don’t have any other word for inside reference between two people who share a friendship or relationship.  The code was simple.  B would usually complain that she was tired or anxious and didn’t feel up to going to class that day, and so she thought about going out to grab some food instead.  S, her friend, would look at her and utter one word: Malala.  Upon utterance of said word B would groan and usually say “you’re right, you’re right.”  At this point S didn’t necessary have to continue for often girls-malalathe code word Malala would be enough to remind B or her responsibility as a student, but on occasion she would follow the code with “what would Malala do B?  Malala wanted to go to school.”  B would usually tell S to shut the fuck up, but she would still smile, nod, and eventually go ahead and go to class.

This may at first sound like a bad parody of stereotypical white women or a sketch you might see on Amy Schumer, but my co-workers were genuine in their affection and adoration of Malala, and this affection demonstrated the influence of the woman who, while I had yet to actually read her book, I still respected tremendously for her passion and mission in life which was to help girls all across the world receive access to an education.  My little sister, who happened to be friends with B and S, which I just realized makes my entire opening sound like a bluff, would usually do nothing but sing Malala’s praises and often point to her copy of I am Malala and utter the same phrase over and over again: “you need to read that book.”  Much like people who told me that I needed to watch Breaking Bad, I trusted them and fully recognized that the book was not only worth my time but would be enormously satisfying, but for whatever reason I decided to hold off.  Hype can be a deterrent as much as it can be a help and so I waited till sometime after finishing Breaking Bad before I actually picked up Malala’s book and read it.breaking-bad-heisenberg

I’ll begin by noting that there was a pronounced lack of meth, but I suppose that was the post-afterglow of finishing Breaking Bad, and now I’ll shut the hell up about Breaking Bad and give Malala the attention she deserves.  Though you should definitely get around to watching Breaking Bad when you get the chance.

Malala Yousafzai was fifteen when she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban.  She and a group of students were on their way to school when a squad stopped the truck, demanded to see her, and when she openly admitted to her identity she was shot.  She managed to receive proper medical care before she and her family received political asylum in England where she was given expert medical aid and from there began a new career as quite possibly the most important feminists since Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan.  Men, women, and children the world over flocked to her giving up their prayers, thoughts, money, and time so that she might become well, and in the mass rhetoric which surrounded the story of Malala an important figure was largely cut out of the picture: her father.malala-obama

I Am Malala is a book about Yousafzai’s life, but I was surprised when I was reading the book to discover how much of the actual memoir was not actually about Malala but about her father Ziauddin Yousafzai.

She describes in one passage her villages reaction to The Satanic Verses and the Fatwah.

My father’s college held a heated debate in a packed room.  Many students argued that the book should be banned and burned and the fatwa upheld.  My father also saw the book as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech.  “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book,” he suggested.  He ended by asking in a thundering voice my grandfather would have been proud of, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it?  Not my Islam!”  (46).

This passage immediately struck me because I have just such a parent.  It’s almost malala2laughable now that people were, and still are in some small pockets of the United States, outraged by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  As the series was continually published this fervor over young children performing magic in a seemingly religious-absent world only grew and book burnings were a popular spectacle on the evening news.  In my own state and county, I remember hearing whispers of this mysterious book Harry Potter, and one evening the local news even interviewed a man who spoke to a reporter honestly when he said he would refuse to let his children read the book lest they become enticed by devil worship and witchcraft.  There was passion all over Texas about Harry Potter and in the midst of the ballyhoo my mother, being the amazing woman that she is, looked at me and said, “Why don’t we actually buy the book, read it, and then decide for ourselves whether the book is evil or not?”

Like Malala, I was blessed with a rational level headed parent who taught me the most important lesson of my life, and from there every summer until The Deathly Hallows was published, my mother would buy the new Harry Potter book and read it to us.  Malala’s story is often the story of her father, for while Malala i-am-malalaspends time narrating the details of her life, the dramas that take place between her and her school chums and family and friends, there is a great deal of attention payed to her father, specifically his efforts to build a girl’s school.

While Yousafzai’s struggles tend to occupy a significant amount of the book, Malala’s memoir is just as much a reflection on her cultures, sometimes noting the detrimental aspects it had on its people particularly women:

I am very proud to be a Pashtun, but sometimes I think out code of conduct has a lot to answer for, particularly where the treatment of women is concerned.  A woman named Shahida who worked for us ad had three small daughters told me that when she was only ten years old her father had sold her to an old man who already had a wife but wanted a younger one.  When girls disappeared it was not always because they had been married off.  (66).

She goes on to note:

We have another custom called swara by which a girl can be given to another tribe to resolve a feud.  It is officially banned but still continues.  In our village there was a widow called Soraya who married a widower from another clan which had a feud with her family.  Nobody can marry a widow without the permission of her family.  When Soraya’s family found out about the union they were furious.  121109041309-02-malala-1109-horizontal-large-galleryThey threatened the widower’s family until a Jirga of village elders was called to resolve the dispute.  The jirge decided that the widower’s family should be punished by handing over their most beautiful girl to be married to the least eligible man of the rival clan.  The boy was a good-for-nothing, so poor that the girl’s father had to pay all their expenses.  Why should a girl’s life be ruined to settle a dispute she had nothing to do with?  (67).

A fair question, though I note the irony in the sentence for in a few years Malala herself would become just such a victim, not in a local domestic dispute, but in fact a philosophical and multi-national conflict.  Since September 11th, an event which she actually describes the perspective in her home country, the United States has undergone a profound paradigm shift in terms of foreign policy and this has influenced seemingly every aspect of society.  Looking over just a few recent contemporary events is enough to see this, though perhaps the best example is the Muhammed Cartoon contest that took place in Garland, Texas last year.  The coordinator of the events, a abc_malala_robach_interview_1_jtm_140815_4x3_992woman by the name of Pamella Geller, continues to defend her position and action of hosting such an event because for her it was a reaffirmation of American civil liberties, rather than a baiting action against Muslims.  I wish I could say events like this were few and far between, but since that wretched day(and even before it) this has only been the most recent and most publicized example.  It’s not uncommon to read or hear of Church gatherings in the United States where copies of the Quran are burned to mass applause.  Baiting and protests of Mosques is not uncommon, and the other day I even read of an instructional comic strip about helping people suffering from public instances of racism.  It’s telling that the young woman in the cartoon who plays the recipient of the abused is in fact a Muslim woman.  While this obvious reactionary behavior has manifested in my country, a nation that prides itself in its rhetoric of being open minded and accepting of all people, I’ve observed as well a pernicious rhetoric:

Muslim women and girls need to be saved from the despicable society and culture which persecutes them without impunity.persepolis

The Reader may object instantly, wondering if I am about to negate the testimony and actual film evidence that women in Muslim societies tend to suffer under patriarchy and bullshit sexism.  I am not.  Malala herself notes in the book that young women in her society tend to suffer greatly from fundamentalist Islam, and she’s not the only one.

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis came into my life when my little sister showed me the film Au Revoir Mes Enfants.  It’s a French film; a period piece about a boy’s school operated by priests during World War II where two young boys meet and become friends before it’s discovered that one of them is Jewish.  Before the film even began a black and white advertisement came on in which a woman was singing along to the song Eye of the Tiger in Arabic, and when the title Persepolis followed I knew that I had to see it.  The film in turn eventually led me to the graphic novel.  Persepolis as a book is not just an autobiography of a woman living during 1979, for it moves past this period into the reverberations of the war and way life changed for individual people living in Iran at this time.

Perhaps the best panel, in my estimation, is the one that explains the rise of “the veil” and Satrapi’s attitude towards it:

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Like Satrapi’s memoir, the book Reading Lolita in Tehran explores this repressive environment.  I discovered this book about the same time that I found Persepolis, though to be honest, I can’t remember how that book came into my life.  All at once it was there and I was reading the book and enjoying it tremendously and not only for the fact that it gave me yet another argument to employ when defending the novel Lolita from half-assed critics.  The book is written as a kind of memoir by Azar Nafisi about a 7603secret book club she formed with a group of students that she taught at Tehran university.  The book is divided into four main chapters with smaller sub-chapters, each main chapter is centralized around one particular author.  This division, which I note follows the same rhetorical pattern as Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, allows for Nafisi to construct her own personal narrative of the events around her while she and the group of all female students discuss the works.  The first chapter begins after the new regime of Ayatollah Khomeini has assumed power and Nafisi notes her personal reaction:

Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation was subservient to politics and subject to arbitrary rules.  Always, the joy of teaching was marred by diversions and considerations forced on us by the regime—how well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one’s work but the color of one’s lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair?  Could one really concentrate on one’s job when what preoccupied the faculty was how to excise the word wine from a Hemingway story, when they decided not to teach Bronte because she appeared to condone adultery.  (10-11).

The idea that totalitarian repression dwells on the superficial rather than the substantial isn’t anything new and Satrapi herself presents just such a moment of this idiocy:

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Both of these books provide enough first hand testimony to make the argument that fundamentalist Islam, when combined with unfettered political power, is nothing but a repressive totalitarian madhouse where murder, rape, sexism, and torture are allowed free reign, but it’s important to recognize that these elements are only one element in these women’s lives.  True they may steer the direction their lives and mundane actions take, but in the second half of Persepolis Satrapi notes that really is but one answer to this oppression of the individual:

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All of these books speak to the fact that Muslim women don’t need to be “saved,” they need to be afforded opportunity to make their life whatever they want it to be.  The attitude that Westerners can “save” Muslim women from their homelands reeks of White Savior Complex and a desire to appear morally and intellectually superior, when the evidence is clear that Muslim women can stand as intellectual equals alongside Western women.

Malala herself says this outright when she writes:

But I said, “Education is education.  We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow.”  Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.  (162).malala-yousafzai1

Human is a nice touch there.  I wish I had written that sentence.  My admiration for Malala’s diction here is really just to point out the most important facet of I am Malala, for while the world took comfort in the fact that Malala had survived the ruthlessness of the Taliban and enjoyed telling her story to show everyone that terrorism is bad, the real woman Malala appeared in the pages she had written I came to know.

I am Malala is not just a book about damning terrorism because the book is about more than that.  It’s about demonstrating the idea that education is fundamental to the success and health of civilization.  After Malala is shot, and 4315096-3x2-940x627she describes the political drama that created a conflict in ensuring she survived, she talks about her attacker in such a way that is admirable and almost unbelievable:

I felt nothing, maybe just a bit satisfied.  “So they did it.”  My only regret was that I hadn’t had a chance to speak to them before they shot me.  Now they’d never hear what I had to say.  I didn’t even think a single bad thought about the man who shot me—I had no thoughts of revenge—I just wanted to go back to Swat.  I wanted to go home.  (282).

Revenge is rooted in impulse in the human species and so when we are slighted, offended, hurt, or damaged by others there is an initial impulse to bring harm to someone else, to validate the pain one has experienced.  That’s why Malala’s reaction to be shot in the head is almost unbelievable.  But in fact it demonstrates the very idea that courses its way through the body of this memoir and that is that education can lift people from the base impulse and remind them of their own humanity and find reason.  Education is what can alter the course of a life, and looking to my own experience I know this is just the case.  My parents reading to me every night before bed, buying me books, paying for my education; it was these gifts that helped me become the person I am.girls_in_school_in_khyber_pakhtunkhwa_pakistan_7295675962

Education also reminds me of the dangers of stereotyping.  About a year ago the graphic novel book club I’m a part of read the new Ms. Marvel comic book in which the main character was a young Muslim woman.  The series was beautifully drawn, and the characters were fun to read and learn about.  When it came time to give our opinions most everyone at the table agreed the book was charming and enjoyable, but one of my friends explained that he couldn’t enjoy it.  His argument was that the characters were Muslims, people like ISIS who were killing Americans and from there the people at the table began either to stare at the table or try to mumble under their breath.  I interrupted him, asking about the character’s costume and the scene was averted, but that moment lives on.  Terrorists like the Talbian, and ISIS, and Hezbollah, have come to be the faces of Islam rather than the exceptions, and this is conflict because this creates the idea that all Muslims are despicable repressed psychopaths.large_mfwrddsmko7n1cjj9bhs_gui5xz4vmywndzlez007js

I am Malala challenges this position.  Evil individuals will always exist in human society, and while some will seek educations and use what they learn to harm their fellow human beings, most will spurn the idea of learning because it is far easier to squeeze a trigger and kill someone.  Likewise, the survivors of evil run the similar trap of becoming the very forces they despise, for revenge, or the desire for it, is an easy impulse that can story good people.  Malala Yousafzai is an extraordinary young woman because she has faced such a force, suffered for her bravery and integrity, and written her narrative to inspire others.  Education is a powerful institution because it can revolutionize the way people live their life.

In a later passage, before her family leaves Pakistan, there is a brief moment that reveals the character of Malala:ht_malala_yousafzai_karachi_school_ll_131004_16x9_608

When I heard they would be in Birmingham in two days, I had only one request.  “Bring my school bag,” I pleaded to my father.  “If you can’t go to Swat to fetch it, no matter—buy new books for me, because in March it’s my board examination.”  Of course I wanted to come first in class.  I especially wanted my physics book because physics is difficult for me, and I needed to practice numericals, as my math is not so good and they are hard for me to solve.

I thought I’d be back home by November.  (285).

There is a sweet charm in this, but there’s also room for inspiration.  Malala is a girl, not an idealistic hero, just a girl who wants to learn.  Some would try to make her into some kind of icon, and in many ways she is, but her memoir serves the function of balancing this public icon with the real living breathing young woman who is driven by a passion to discover, succeed, and learn and in turn take what she has acquired in knowledge and ensure that other young women have the same opportunity.  Too often the stories of the Middle East are tragedies, but in the case of I am Malala, there is a narrative of hope and determination.

A book of this caliber is sure to leave its mark on society.  B. and S. being my first and final example it’s clear already that I am Malala has done just that.

malala

 

 

 

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

I’ve mentioned Breaking Bad throughout this essay but only because it became a running gag and also because I really haven’t seen a television show that has left me so satisfied apart maybe from Stranger Things on Netflix.  My constant reference to it is in some small way a subconscious effort to indicate that Malala’s book is tied to greatness.  One final Breaking Bad reference:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIom3LSbB0I

 

**Writer’s Note**

I like moments in which personality of people appears, rather than the ideals people want them to be.  This can manifest sometimes in character failings, and other times as little eccentricities.  Whether it’s her love of the TV show Ugly betty or her loves of books, Malala appears throughout her memoir as a real human being and one passage which I didn’t get a chance to incorporate reveals this:i-am-malala

I liked doing my hair in different styles and would spend ages in the bathroom in front of the mirror trying out looks I had seen in movies.  Until I was eight or nine my mother used to cut my hair short like my brothers’ because of lice and also make it easier to wash and brush, as it would get messed up under my shawl.  But finally, I had persuaded her to let me grow it to my shoulders.  Unlike Moniba’s, which is straight, my hair is wavy, and I liked to twist it into curls or tie it into plaits.  “What are you doing in there pisho? my mother would shout.  “Out guests need the bathroom and everyone is having to wait for you.”  (145).

 

 

***Writer’s Note***

While I was touching up this essay I found this article from The Washington Post about I Am Malala.  Hope you enjoy:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2015/10/08/what-were-reading-i-am-malala/

 

Don’t Change the Channel, Cronkite’s Coming On

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Josiah_Bartlett_with_chair

President Bartlet taught me much during his Presidency, and it’s a great tragedy that his administration was so distrusted.  Granted he was a fictional man on the television show West Wing that assumed the office sometime after Jimmy Carter (though they never really mentioned him or anybody after him due mostly to timeline issues) but his actual existence aside he taught me several important lessons.  One was that James Bond orders a weak martini in virtually every film he’s starred in, and the second is that most of the twenty-first century’s history was nothing but people watching television.  I’ve tried finding the exact quote but can’t due either to lazy meme makers who are far more interested in bashing real Presidents than affording fake ones the credit they deserve, or because I was far too lazy to go back and actually sift through the entire series to find one quote.  The gist of it is Charlie, played by then young Dule Hill, is taking a history course on 20th century history and Bartlett, who’s a true Classicist, scoffs at him and reminds him that 20th century history is nothing but people watching television and that real history begins with the barbarian hordes attacking Rome.Rixty_Minutes_Better_Picture

As so often happened while I was watching West Wing, I laughed at the man’s quirky academic sense of humor, and then thought about having a real epiphany as I realized he was right.  I’ve written several essays in the past that dealt with television as a medium.  The most recent was my review of David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram, but before that was the review of Brian and Stewie, and even before that was the review of Buckley Vs Vidal, and sometime between all of these essays I began to realize how much television has shaped me culturally and creatively.

While President Bartlett was trying to make a snide point about television, not recognizing the cognitive dissonance of smearing the very medium that brought him to every household in America during the late 90s, really looking at the period starting from the 50s and up television has played a central role in the lives of millions of Americans and perhaps the best example of this is We Are Mired in Stalemate.

In the last few weeks I’ve grown to hate myself for studying the war in Vietnam as much as I do simply because my great uncle died recently.  My parents and little sister returned from Houston after helping my aunt move into his house and they managed to save much of the man’s personal papers where, it seems, he was attempting to write some kind of book about the Korean War.  I know about two facts of the obituary_waltercronkite01Korean War: the first is that American forces were pushed back to the 38th parallel by Chinese forces, and the second is that the war saw the integration of black and white soldiers.  There was also something about General Mcarthur wanting to drop a nuke but that’s immaterial.  The point is in his notes there was a line that struck me “The Korean War was the war everyone forgot.  They Forgot about us.”  I read that line out loud, and while this sounds maudlin I did feel a morose chill reading a dead man’s words, but my father interrupted by saying, “Well it is, most people talk more about the Vietnam war.”

I really do believe that the cause of this is the fact that the Vietnam war has become so much of a cartoon as well as a national scar, whereas because there wasn’t a soul crushing defeat or warm blooded victory the Korean War was simply lost to time or bad PR.  Thewillard Vietnam war possesses the images of Helicopters over the jungle, napalm explosions, Marlon Brando chanting “The Horror, The Horror,” Robin Williams making fun of Richard Nixon’s Testicles, Richard Nixon himself, that awful movie Forest Gump, and an entire generation of America’s finest reporters one of them being Walter Cronkite.

It’s hard to appreciate or convey how important the news media was to Americans at the time.  In our contemporary media landscape of the United States the press is largely seen as entertainers or biased members of the “lame-stream liberal media.”  News has become so inundated with sentiment, faulty reporting, bad jokes, and personality that the thought that a reporter’s sentiment could actually sway public opinion seems farcical to say the least.  Nevertheless, during his time as the lead anchor of CBS evening News Cronkite earned not only the public’s trust, but also their respect.hqdefault

On February 27, 1968, Cronkite delivered the following speech at the end of a news broadcast:

Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we’d like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won’t show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.Ho Chih Minh Trail

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that — negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.CBS_Evening_News_with_Cronkite,_1968

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

It’s easy to look back and observe a flaw or a mistake, and often the narrative of Vietnam is recorded with the 20/20 insight of exactly what went wrong and when and how.  To be fair to the actual history, the Vietnam war had actually started during the Eisenhower administration, pushed into a real military concern during the Kennedy administration, an escalated conflict during Johnson’s administration (Lyndon Johnson for the record was President during Cronkite’s famous speech), a bloody mess of chaos and agony during the Nixon administration, and finally an imploding quagmire that ended during the nixonPresidency of Gerald Ford.  Nixon takes most of the blame despite the fact that he inherited the war from Johnson who hated the conflict just as much as Nixon, but Johnson’s failure was truly illuminated through the glow of the television screen as Cronkite spoke to millions of Americans.

Cronkite’s commentary is important for the fact that he refers to the incident as a “stalemate.”  In the lore that surrounds the Cronkite broadcast, it’s often said that Cronkite declared that the Vietnam Conflict was a quagmire and therefore the United States had wasted its time and hundreds and thousands of innocent lives, but only part of that may be true when one actually reads the broadcast.  Cronkite never said the war a quagmire, or that it was over.  He simply observed, as good reporters do, the facts of the war, the reality of the politics, and came to the conclusion that the military was stuck.

Looking at this, and looking at the man, I consulted a book on my shelf that I only bought within the last year after watching The Sixties and The Seventies on CNN.  Cronkite is a book by one of the regular commentators, a man by the name of Douglas Brinkley.  I’d recognize him before watching the series because one of my professors always showed a History Channel documentary (back when you could trust the channel to provide real and factual history) of the French Revolution at the start of her Romantic Literature course.  51Bn+LyNKCLBrinkley has a distinct voice, and his insights and commentary really are a pleasure to listen to (I hope that doesn’t sound too kiss-assy) and so when I discovered he’d written a biography of Walter Cronkite I decided to buy it on Amazon in the usual whirlwind that leaves my credit card hot and my wallet empty.

Brinkley briefly discusses We Are Mired in Stalemate during the chapter dealing with The Tet offensive and he notes:

Delivered in strong, reasoned tones, Cronkite’s nutshell editorial wasn’t radical.  Calling the Vietnam War a “stalemate” was a middling position.  […]  But in the Harshly polarizing environment of early 1968, it placed Cronkite in the dove camp.  Cronkite had lent his august name to the Anti-war movement and thereby put it into the mainstream.  (378-9).

While I was writing this essay I spent a day at my parent’s place doing some manual labor and helping with the Expense/Revenue entries for their business and I mentioned my “What Would You Read?” Posts on Facebook.  It’s a little social experiment I do from time to time when I gather up piles of books, snap a photo, and ask people which one they’d prefer to read.  My most recent post included Brinkley’s biography Cronkite, and one of my friends suggested that I should just burn it.  When I mentioned it to my family my father suggested that it might be because there are some that, to this day, hold Cronkite responsible 220px-Doug_Brinkleyfor the turning of the American public against the Vietnam War.  I admit this was a little far-fetched in explaining why one should burn a book, but it does illuminate part of Brinkley’s analysis because We Are Mired in Stalemate has remained a crucial lore element in the narrating history of the Vietnam conflict.

To reiterate my earlier point Cronkite was a man who retained a great amount of respect from the American public, and a tremendous amount of ethos.  Dan Rather has noted in the CNN mini-series The Seventies that Cronkite rarely brought his personal feelings into his reporting, and so this speech is a landmark for that fact alone.

Brinkley goes on however to explore the impact of the report:

The aftershock of Cronkite’s reports was seismic.  His opinion was quoted in the press, and it opened the door for NBC News’ Frank McGee to take a similar stand in a documentary on Vietnam that aired two weeks later.  The gossip in the press rooms of America was that Cronkite had offed the president.  Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, “The Whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.”  A wave of relief hit Cronkite for giving voice to his dissent.  As a cronkite-395CBS News executive later joked, “When Walter said the Vietnam war was over, it was over.”  A lot of Johnson administration officials, including Walter Rostow and Dean Rusk, weren’t amused. […]

As the CBS special aired that February 27, President Johnson was traveling to speak at the Gregory Gymnasium at the University of Texas at Austin.  He took Air Force One to his home state to take part in a birthday party for Governor John. B. Connally, a close friend.  According to former White house press secretary George Christian, when Johnson heard about Cronkite’s flagrant antiwar commentary he blurted out, disheartened, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”  (379).

It’s important to recognize that this statement is rooted in lore and Brinkley notes this, however even if these were not the exact words spoken, Johnson did realize the effect that it would have.  Johnson hated the war in Vietnam, but like Nixon after him he did not want to be the first president in the history of the United States to lose a war, and a stalemate would be just as bad.Reporters

It’s difficult, as I’ve noticed several times in this essay, to really understand the relevance of Cronkite’s report to those of us living in this contemporary period.  Why should anybody care about an old television broadcast from the late 60s about a war that’s been long over?  This is a fair question given the fact that most of the people who care about it tend either to be historians or journalism majors on blogs preaching about the first amendment.  To an average citizen of the United States it may seem absurd to suggest that they should care, but in fact they should because the problem of the legacy of Cronkite’s report is not that it helped people realize the Vietnam conflict was going nowhere, it’s the fact that they listened and believed him.

The contemporary political climate of the United States is a polarizing one, and the media which has become just as much a product of capitalism as Burger King and reality shows.  With the push of Fox News towards a conservative agenda, and the other news agencies tending to shift in a more liberal view, the ethos of the reporter has largely dissipated.  If a report comes out concerning the Office_in_Californiaproblems of fracking the reporters are listed as “liberal trouble makers,” and likewise if reporters try to discuss the positive legacies of Regan they are dubbed “backward conservative pundits.”  The reporter has become a figure plagued by the shadow of his or her economic bias, and depending on the political bent of their organization their words will largely fall upon either deaf ears, or else upon people who will simply nod and smile in smug self-congratulatory poses.  If a reporter came out today and declared that a war was unjust, as many did during the war in Iraq, and even if they possessed irrefutable proof that the conflict resolved nothing, many citizens would simply shrug confident that they couldn’t trust the reporting.

This essay is not a call to arms, nor is it designed to shame the reader who distrusts the media, because I distrust the media.  Watching the news is a dance for me because I flip between CNN, Fox news, and CSNBC, and if the reports all seem to match in terms of detail then I trust the facts being presented to me.  The fact that I have to do this morbid exercise is a testament to the condition of contemporary news.  Though I will note that Fareed Zakaria and PBS Newshour remain the most consistently reliable sources of information concerning world events.475914_10201182664555829_1948818481_o

We Are Mired in Stalemate is not just an important speech about the Vietnam war, for its legacy reverberates revealing the shadow which has fallen upon the public of the United States.  The first amendment is often the Amendment made to the Constitution that is shouted so vocally in American society, and while many citizens use it to argue for religious or creative freedom, the true inspiration for the clause was for the liberty of the press.  This was because the offense that many young colonists were bothered the most by was the local English government’s control of the press whenever colonists objected to certain taxes.  A republic, or any free society, requires a free press in order to ensure the defense against a government’s corruption.  It’s through the press, specifically the stories the press informs the public about, that democracy is able to continue because it educates the people about facts in their world and reality and government.  When a society distrusts it’s reporters, or cannot trust its own reporters, that is the beginning of the end of informed democracy.

It would be almost impossible for a new reporter today to give a speech similar in vein to We Are Mired in Stalemate and have the same kind of social influence that Cronkite did.  That’s not cause for despair, but rather an opportunity for reconsideration or rebirth.

The ethos of the reporter is a fragile good, but it is not impossible to obtain.

walter-cronkite-1fbg856

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

While I originally discovered this broadcast during my high school and then college level history courses, I did originally consult the Library of America Reporting’s on Vietnam Vol. 1 where the entire speech is printed.  While researching for this essay however I stumbled upon a website that gives the entire transcription of the broadcast, if you’re at all interested you can follow the link below:

https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~ebolt/history398/cronkite_1968.html

You can also, if you prefer to watch things, see Cronkite deliver the address.  Just note however that portions of the speech have been cut:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn4w-ud-TyE

 

 

**Writer’s Note**

I’m a fan of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and one of the most recent episodes made its focus the problems facing contemporary journalism in the United States.  I’ve posted a link to the video below, and I’d encourage you to watch it, if only so you can understand the situation much better:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bq2_wSsDwkQ

Is Your End at the Bottom of a Cheap Lagar?

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 Worlds-End-Drinking

When we were young the future was so bright
The old neighborhood was so alive
And every kid on the whole damn street
Was gonna make it big and not be beat

–The Kids Aren’t Allright, The Offspring

Watching The World’s End makes me unbearably thirsty.  This was my first conclusion after watching the film in theatres with my little sister and my wife, then fiancé, and my second conclusion was that it had the most disappointing ending of the Cornetto trilogy.  This last opinion has changed with my fourth viewing of the movie and I promise that having three beers had nothing to do with it.  It made me taste the colors of the lights that the Network robot/aliens made during the fight in the Bee Hive, but I promise it didn’t influence any other judgements.hero_WorldsEnd-2013-1

I discovered the Cornetto Trilogy about halfway in when I rented the movie Hot Fuzz from Hastings (obviously this a while ago because the company recently declared bankruptcy and foreclosure sending me into an emotional tailspin as I watched the end of a retail outlet I’d visited literally as long as I could remember).  Watching Hot Fuzz though was unlike watching any film I had ever watched and that’s not maudlin on my part it’s just fact.  The scenes would cut and shift so dramatically, and while the film was obviously meant to be a comedy the level of the violence seemed at first a kind of contradiction.  Watching a man have his head imploded by a chunk of concrete pushed from a Church roof, and watching his body wobble from left to right before falling to the dirt wasn’t funny it was disgusting and shocking…and then it was funny.  Hot Fuzz led to Shaun of the Dead which, like the previous film, balanced a smart comedy alongside a grotesque zombie movie.  Seriously when David gets ripped apart by zombies for the first time I literally almost vomited, now I can’t watch it without laughing and groaning.Wright 2

While we’re being fair I do consider Paul a part of the Trilogy.  Even if Edgar Wright didn’t direct it like the other three, I do feel the humor and narrative structure satisfies the Wright/Pegg/Frost model but I’m getting off topic.

The World’s End came to theatres and so I was ecstatic to watch, but as I began, I was originally disappointed by the film because, until the final ten minutes of the movie, I had loved every minute of the film.  This impression changed when I watched it again when it came out on DVD, and when I watched it last Saturday with my family and my little sister I recognized that I had come to actually love the ending because of the character Gary King.

Simon Pegg plays a man who, 20 years after having the night of his life decides he wants to reconnect with his group of high school friends and try again to finish the “Golden Mile.”  The opening monologue of the film, and the subsequent bit of dialogue set everything up:

Gary King: [opening monologue] Ever have one of those nights that starts out like any other but ends up being the best night of your life? It was June the 22nd, 1990. Our final day of school. There was Oliver Chamberlin, Peter Page, Steven Prince, Andy Knightley, and me. They called me “The King”. Because that’s my name – Gary King. Ollie fancied himself as a bit of a player but really he was all mouth. We called him “O Man” maxresdefaultbecause he had a birth mark on his face that was shaped like a six. He loved it. Pete was the baby of the group. He wasn’t the kind of kid we would usually hang out with, but he was good for a laugh. And he was absolutely minted. Steve was a pretty cool guy, we jammed together. Chased the girls. I think he saw us as rivals. Sweet really. And Andy. Andy was my wingman. The one guy I could rely on to back me up. He loved me, and I’m not being funny, but I loved him too. There was nothing we were going to miss about school. Maybe Mr. Shepherd, he was one of the good guys. He used to ask me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I just wanted to have a good time. He thought that was funny. It wasn’t meant to be, not that night. Newton Haven was our home town, our playground. Our universe. And that night was the site of a heroic quest. Our aim? To conquer the Golden Mile – 12 pubs along the legendary path of alcoholic indulgence. There was the First Post, the Old Familiar, the Famous Cock, the Cross Hands, the Good Companions, the Trusty Servant, the Two Headed Dog, the Mermaid, the Beehive, the King’s Head, the Hole In The Wall, all before reaching our destiny – The World’s End. We took my car into town that night. We called her “The Beast” because she was pretty hairy. And so our journey into manhood began. MV5BNzA1MTk1MzY0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjkzNTUwMDE@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_We were off. We didn’t waste any time, we hit pub one and we hit it hard. There was drinking, there was laughs, there was controversy, there were ladies, there were shots, there was drama, and of course there was drinking. By pub 5 we were feeling invincible, and decide to purchase some herbal refreshment from a man we called “The Reverend Green”. Pint 6 put O Man out of commission, so we carried on without him. Good thing, I bumped into his sister at the next pub and we went into the disabled’s, and then I bumped into her again. Sam tagged along for a while, but then I had to let her go, I had another date that night. And her name was Amber. Nine pints in and it was us against the world. Things got mental in the Beehive so we tailed it to the Bowls Club, or as we called it “The Smoke House”, which is where it all went fuck up. Everyone got paranoid and Pete chucked so we had to bench him. In the end we blew off the last three pubs and headed for the hills. As I sat up there, blood on my knuckles, beer down my shirt, sick on my shoes, knowing in my heart life would never feel this good again.

[shows Gary in a group therapy setting]

Gary King: And you know what? It never did.

Group Leader: Interesting, Gary. Does anyone have any insight? Or maybe they want to challenge Gary?

Pale Young Man: Were you disappointed?

Gary King: About what?

Pale Young Man: You didn’t make it to the World’s End?

[shows Gary with a smug grin on his face]

This was a rather long quote, but it’s necessary to really understand Gary King.  Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are always the center pieces of the films of the 130820_MOV_WorldsEnd.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeCornetto trilogy, and The World’s End follows this pattern as they play Gary King and Andrew Knightly, two friends who have become estranged after Gary seemingly faked a drug overdose and left Andy following a car accident that left Andy in intensive care.  Gary gathers his old group together, lying to Andy that his mother has died, and they eventually return to their home town Newton Haven.  They begin the Golden Mile, but about halfway through they get into a fight with a group of teenagers who turn out to be “robots filled with blue stuff.”  From that point on the remainder of the night becomes just about surviving while Gary pushes through to the end of the Golden Mile seemingly oblivious to the reality around him.

There are a lot of elements holding the film together, and part of the major theme of the movie is the threat to individuality by corporate sterilization.  The first three bars the group enter are almost identical and a brief conversation handles the issue of, as Steven calls it “Starbuckin.”  Starbucks is the most reliable example of this in contemporary society, through the McDonalds effect is a previous model that works just as well.  The general idea is that as corporate assets grow, their influence grows too.  Part of this is just their ability to buy up multiple pieces of real estate to expand their presence within communities and cities across the globe, but the idea explored in The World’s End is the notion that, along with these territorial expansion, the-worlds-end081comes a unification of aesthetic.  That’s a fancy-pants way of saying corporations make everything look, feel, and taste the same.  It’s no mistake that just about every pub the group goes into the same beer is Crown & Glory, and so like the Big Mac, the Whopper, or Venti Mocha Frappuccino, the commodities companies sell tend to unify the experience of people entering their establishments.  This sentiment is best expressed by a friend of mine during a casual conversation, “People like McDonalds because they know, wherever they are in the world, they can walk into one and the burger will taste the same way that it does in Dallas, Budapest, Constantinople, London, The Hague, or even Moscow.  A Big Mac is a Big Mac.”  There’s an essay in the bland banalization of sensation and the purposeful avoidance of interacting with foreign cultures but that’s for a later date.

The group eventually comes into contact with The Network, the head of the “robots” that is in fact a multi-global force attempting to prepare human beings for interactions with the rest of the galaxy, but while The Network is The_Worlds_End_58talking Wright carefully suggests that it’s this force that has created the technological innovations humans have enjoyed over the last few decades.  The general idea is that once all human beings are complacent and abandon their rebellious behavior, then they’ll be fit to interact with the real world.

It’s not unfair to suggest that corporate realities make this moment in the film, not so much a narrative trope but in fact a beautiful moment of mimesis between reality and the rest of the film.  This essay isn’t necessarily about the corruption of corporations on individual human beings, but it most certainly is about fuck-ups.

By the end of the film the men encounter the head of the Alien organization which has taken over Newton Haven, and by extension the world.  The exchange is the climax of the film, but also allows for brief examination of what’s sometimes excessively referred to as “the human spirit.”  The Network notes that:

The Network: At this point your planet is the least civilized in the entire galaxy.

Gary King: What did he say? tumblr_n1b31nf0yH1szmjmeo1_500

Andrew Knightley: He said we are a bunch of fuck ups.

Gary King: Hey it is our basic human right to be fuck ups. This civilization was founded on fuck ups and you know what? That makes me proud!

From there the issue of human’s tendency to rebel against authority is addressed:

The Network: You are children and you require guidance. There is no room for imperfection.

Gary King: Hey earth isn’t perfect alright? And humans aren’t perfect and guess what? I ain’t perfect!

The Network: And there in lies the necessity for this intervention. Must the galaxy be subjected to an entire planet of people like you?

Andrew Knightley: Hey who put you in charge? Who are you to criticize anyone? Now, you might think Gary is a bit of a cock and he is a bit of a cock, but he is my cock!

Gary King: Oh thanks mate.Worlds-End-Andy-Fight

And finally when it becomes clear that The Network is losing Gary notes that:

Gary King: I think you bit off more than you can chew with earth mate

Andrew Knightley: Yeah, because we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine.

It’s an odd feeling watching this exchange and wanting to say “Yeah I’m a fuck up, and damn it makes me proud!”  It’s akin to that moment in The Network when you want to chant “I’M MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE!”  The only problem is Howard Beale died at the end of that movie so I think I’ll stick to the fuck-up line.  Far more accurate.  Less foreboding.the-worlds-end-decapitated-blank-658x370

The exchange is easy to miss as just the drunken ramblings of a few men who are too pissed (drunk, there are some idioms that I wish would cross the Atlantic) to even know what they’re saying let alone trying to defend the freedom of humanity against a nonhuman totalitarian system which seeks to rule the world, but the idea of power, specifically individual power is what defines the movie The World’s End, because from the start Gary King is trying to find some kind of personal power to make up for the fact that his life went nowhere and he is, in all estimation, a loser in life.

Watching the film again I really felt and observed Gary as a figure of sympathy and pity and that reaction is in no small part because of the way Simon Pegg plays him.  Constantly in the film the old gang talk to each other about where they are in life.  They’ve all moved away from Newton Haven, each finding their own life and career:  Steven works in construction management, Peter is a partner in his father’s car dealership, Oliver is a successful real estate salesman, and Andy works corporate law.  That leaves Gary tumblr_inline_mwndlkeybZ1r7ejbgwho, as he admitted in the opening of the film, never went anywhere, and by the time they’ve hit the sixth pub it’s become even more clear that his life and his personality haven’t changed a bit since he graduated high school, assuming he graduated at all.  At this point the film would become just a sad movie about some fuck-up who never grew up, but because it’s an Edgar Wright film Gary and the gang eventually have to fight robots which, while it’s not objectively brilliant in a cinematic sense, is still fun as fucking fuck to watch.

That and its impressive when you recognize that Peirce Brosnan was the second James Bond to appear in the Conetto Trilogy.  Just putting that out there.

Gary is a man fighting his reality and trying to reclaim something and near the end of the film he finally arrives at The World’s End, the final pub in the Golden Mile, but Andy won’t let him drink.  I won’t lie I was actually in tears watching the scene as Gary desperately tries to drink his beer while Andy fights him every time until the men finally offer this exchange:

Gary King: It never got better than that night! That was supposed to be the beginning of my life! All that promise and fucking optimism! That feeling that we could take on the whole universe! It was a big lie! Nothing happened!9071_5

Andrew Knightley: What is so important about the Golden Mile?

Gary King: It’s all I’ve got!

It’s a hard fact, but life can be unfailingly cruel, and to some people High School is a time where they can flourish, but while some graduate and enter the real world finding some sense of purpose or ambition, for a select few it’s not enough.  Memories are truly powerful, and not just because they make up the reality of our lives and help us find perspective and wisdom, memories also create narratives about our lives.  Gary’s final flaw is not just that he’s a fuck-up, it’s the fact that he believed he had so much promise and discovered that life didn’t care.  The metaphor of the big fish in a small pond is a good adage for Gary, but perhaps a more fitting assessment is that he felt disillusioned about the fact that he felt he had so much promise and discovered that life didn’t care who he was, or what he had done, or even what his reputation was.3b8JtX4

In life you have to build yourself into the person that you want to be and want to become, and that involves developing an independent will power that you can use to push yourself into the goals and aspirations you desire, and it’s clear that Gary did none of that.  Gary embodies the man who has to fall back upon his memories for emotional comfort and satisfaction because he’s done nothing in life that anybody would consider worthwhile.

My contester argues now that it sounds like there’s no point.  The movie in fact is just an odd science fiction movie that’s about how corporate greed has enslaved humanity while also dealing with some guy’s mid-life crisis.  Why should I bother with the movie at all?

My response is that The World’s End may be about how corporate culture has negatively affected society, while also taking time to show a man who has gone nowhere in life, but I would argue that the endearing quality of The World’s End is that, like all three of the Cornetto Trilogy, the film is ultimately about achieving some kind of reinvigoration and redemption.Worlds-End-Film-Review-2013

Whether it’s Shawn, Nicholas Angel, or Gary King, Simon Pegg consistently plays a man who is caught in a life that leaves him unsatisfied and static before a kind of supernatural event profoundly affects his life and he is given the chance to create a new life for himself.  Likewise, Nick Frost plays the role of Simon Pegg’s friend, offering in different ways in each film, a friendship that will ultimately lead Shawn, Nicholas Angel, or Gary King to this reinvigoration and recreation of his life.  In my own life I have had such friends and acquaintances, people who appeared and offered me their time and help when I needed it and it was because of them I am the person I am today.

The World’s End is about trying to achieve something, just one victory in a life of errors in spite of a world that seems bent on trying to stop you.  Gary King is a fuck-up, but as he and Andy and Steven so eloquently put it at the end, it’s the basic nature and right of human beings to be fuck-ups.  Mistakes are what make us human beings in the first place, and it’s learning from them that we become the people we are today.

Though to be fair, by the time you get to the third garden wall you should realize it’s not going to end well.

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North Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: A Protest of Civil Significance for the United States

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I’m hesitant to write this because the passion in me right now is hot.  My blood boils and I find myself dizzy that my country is once again going down this path.  I worry whether or not it’s right for me to write this.  My writing is not political, in the sense that it is designed to promote party or private interests, for there are other bloggers in the universe content and happy to take such stances.  As a writer I write about myself, the books and essays, and films that I observe and appreciate, and so when matters of politics are at hand, I will usually veil whatever opinion I have beneath interpretations of poetry, or passages in novels.

However, I cannot stand for what is happening in North Dakota.leith-protest-against-white-supremacists-2-e1380134197530

A man by the name of Dave Archambault II is currently leading his tribe, a group of 9000 people of the Standing Rock Sioux.  And with him and his people are various tribes oilpipelinesiouxleader-539fbfrom across North America to lend weight to their support.  Energy Transfer Partners is a Dallas based natural gas and propane company that is currently constructing an oil pipeline that will travel south from Canada through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.  At one point said oil pipeline was supposed to travel under the Missouri River near the city of Bismark.  It was pointed out by citizens that a crack in the pipe could cause health problems for citizens and so the pipe was moved to the Sioux reservation.

 

This article brought most of the facts of this case to my attention:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/showdown-over-oil-pipeline-becomes-a-national-movement-for-native-americans/2016/09/06/ea0cb042-7167-11e6-8533-6b0b0ded0253_story.html

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And these articles below can provide further information about the Civil Unrest that is happening:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/our-cause-is-just-says-tribal-leader-in-pipeline-protest/2016/09/03/b994124c-71e5-11e6-9781-49e591781754_story.html

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http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/04/492625850/dakota-access-pipeline-protests-in-north-dakota-turn-violent

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http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pipeline-national-guard-20160908-snap-story.htmlprotest41

http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2016/09/tempers-flare-during-protest-against-the-dakota-access-pipeline/498809/

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http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/news/4109496-use-dogs-north-dakota-pipeline-protest-criticized

 

And here below is a link to Change.org where you can sign your name to the petition to stop the pipeline and contribute funds to help protesters in that area.

https://www.change.org/search?q=Dakota

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As I said before, I do not like to engage in politics on this site, for White Tower Musings has always been first and foremost about the discussion of Literature, History, Art, Science, Cinema, and culture, but dear reader I am terribly bothered by the events in recent weeks because it feels as if my homeland is once again about to commit a grave error and repeat the mistakes of the past.  The United State’s Original Sin as a nation is the legacy of it’s treatment of Native Americans.  The word Genocide often accompanies this story, but that is only because it is accurate. What is at stake here is not an outright attempt to exterminate the life of Natives, but to perpetuate the treatment of these people as either subhuman, or worse, sub-citizens in a country that relentless preaches an identity of loyalty to the principles of liberty.yhst-137970348157658_2433_873837242

I don’t wish to burden the reader with lessons.  That’s not what this call to attention is about.  So I return to my establish method and look to my books for some sense of guidance and I find it in a small book.  Great Speeches by Native Americans is a real treasure in my library, for searching through libraries and online book stores I can never find any collection to equal it.  Reading the recorded speeches is a reminder that civilization and culture is relative, but every society produces brilliant men, and Chief Joseph, sometimes referred to as Young Joseph, is a shining example of what great minds should look like.  His speech I Will Fight No More Forever is the one most assigned to students in American schools, but in my anthology right beside it is another speech An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs and in that speech is a passage that echoes through the centuries since it’s recordings.

In a long but necessary quote Joseph reports to his people the political and philosophical state of the Indian:

Chief (General Butler) and many other law chiefs (Congressmen), and they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while their mouths all talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle. Good words will not give me back my children. Good words will not make good the promise of your War Chief General Miles. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. mte1oda0otcxmtcymtm2ndyxThere has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk. Too many misrepresentations have been made, too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men about the Indians. If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth, and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented, nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They can not tell me.  dakota-access-pipeline-protest

I only ask of the Government to be treated as all other men are treated. If I can not go to my own home, let me have a home in some country where my people will not die so fast. I would like to go to Bitter Root Valley. There my people would be healthy; where they are now they are dying. Three have died since I left my camp to come to Washington.

When I think of our condition my heart is heavy. I see men of my race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, shot down like animals. 

I know that my race must change. We can not hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. If the Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If the white man breaks the law, punish him also.  (164-5).

There’s dakota-pipeline-protest02-889x594nothing more to say.  I stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.  I admit with shame that this essay amounts to the support I can offer at this time.  I am not a famous man, or a wealthy man, or even a great figure of influence, but I have this space and my voice, and that is what I can offer to the Sioux tribe who are currently battling for the principle that their existence and voice matters just as much as any other citizen of the United States.  That is the essence and ideal of democracy, and what citizens should hope for in their country, not dogs and violence, but support and real justice.91987-004-9b8b69ce

The Washington Post Article Showdown over oil pipeline becomes a national movement for Native Americans ends with a quote by Chief Archambault and so it seems fit that he should have the last words

For Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, the questions about what happens after Friday’s ruling are existential. Standing in his back yard, he smoked a cigarette and recited a list of treaties that his people made with the government that were broken whenever economic interests outweighed tribal rights.

“How do you eliminate a race?” he asked, letting the question hang in the air. “That’s what the government has been trying to do for 200 years. But we’re still here. We have maintained our culture. We’ve maintained our way of life. We’ve maintained our dignity. We’re still here.”

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My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and They Still Are It Seems

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Just remember, Fievel – one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn. I don’t know what’s out there beyond those hills. But if you ride yonder… head up, eyes steady, heart open… I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been looking for.

–Wiley Burp, Fievel Goes West

Like many closeted young men at the time, I refused to believe that cowboys could be gay.  I also refused to acknowledge the fact cowboys-togetherthat cowboys had in fact, always been gay, or at least gay in the sense that they exhibit homoerotic tendencies.  When Brokeback Mountain came out in theatres, pun not intended, it caused a bit of an uproar and not just because it was one of the few watchable Jake Gyllenhaal movies made at that point, but because it was a mainstream film which featured openly gay, or at least bisexual, characters as the center point of the plot rather than as quirky side characters.  An unapologetic gay love story, while not unprecedented, hadn’t reached mainstream audiences in such a way.  The fact that Ang Lee dared to make a movie about honest love between two grown men in an atmosphere that satisfied the typical qualities of a Western, a film genre that is looked upon often with reverence despite the fact no film director since Sergio Leone has managed to make one worth watching (unless you count Django Unchained and I do), created a controversy for the reasons I just stated.  Brokeback Mountain challenged the masculinity of the Western because it placed two gay, or at least bisexual men, alongside men like Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglass, and, my hero at the time, John Wayne.

As I said before I was closeted at the time and didn’t recognize that that weird feeling I got looking at the underwear models wasn’t just bad Chinese food I had eaten, and so at the time my reaction reeks of the typical desperation of those wanting to cling to the heterosexual identity.  cowboy7Cowboys for me were figures who answered the faults in my own masculinity because I was the young man often presented in cartoons and movies on the sidelines of the game, either my nose stuck in a book, or trying desperately (and pathetically) to talk to girls.  Growing up John Wayne was the answer to my masculinity problems, because he seemed to exemplify everything that a man was supposed to be.  Men were strong laborers and heroes while gay men were prissy fairies.

Growing up, cutting the shit, and reading lots of books has a remarkable way of changing your perspective.  In graduate school I took a Queer theory course (which I won’t shut up about as some readers may know) and while reading Butler, Bersani, Halberstam, and Sedgwick I decided to finally get around to reading Brokeback Mountain, the novella by Annie Proulx.  I’d bought the novella for a dollar curious, in every sense of the word, about the book because the media had portrayed the story as a homoerotic pornographic snuff film.  I’m sure like many people I was slightly disappointed when I opened the book and discovered, not an erotic masterpiece, but an emotional melodrama that was beautiful to read and imagine in my mind.

It was while studying this book, and producing a paper about how it queered the landscape of the Western, that I realized I was bisexual, came Brokeback-Mountainout to a friend and my wife respectively, and began to read more and more about male same-sex intimacy.

There are only two moments of intimacy between Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist described in the novella and Annie Proulx writes it carefully:

Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock.  Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear-slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed.  They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s chocked “guns goin off.” Then out, down, and asleep.  (14).03c5a6437fc4abf0c0a7e8079f7a7628

It speaks to a heteronormative standard that the first sexual act between these two men is anal sex rather than a blowjob and in truth this is something I’ve struggled with as both a writer, a reader, and a critic of the novella.  On the one hand because Annie Proulx is a straight woman it does make sense that physical penetration would be the first sexual scene described, but many literary and queer critics have bashed her for this.  The argument is that it perpetuates the idea that the only kind of sex that can occur between men is anal sex because of old heteronormative standards of “active vs passive partner” best exemplified by the bullshit question: “So which one is the girl?”  I recognize the problem these critics have with the text and I agree that this does perpetuate a bad example of what male-male sexual behavior is, but at the same time I’m willing to forgive Proulx for this description simply because it makes sense to Ennis and Jack’s economic background.

Ennis and Jack are both working-class men who come from poor upbringings.  If I can write this without sounding elitist, it 0416846951670bd382f37c24fcac0d85d5691e78edd73552e11c66d6c6f4585ddoes stand to reason that both of these men are not exactly literate and so the nuances of sexual behavior and identity, or the idea that they could experiment sexually before anal sex occurred, would not be developed.  Proulx even goes so far as to write this out herself:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state […] both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.  Ennis, reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road leaving them twenty-four dollars in cash and a two-mortgage ranch, applied at age fourteen for a hardship license that left him make the hour-long trip from the ranch to the high school.  The pickup was old, no heater, one windshield wiper and bad tires; when the transmission went there was no money to fix it.  He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work.  (4-5).Brokeback-Mountain-Promotional-Stills-brokeback-mountain-31873878-1769-1191

Ennis and Jack are both men who have received little education and come from traditionally heterosexual families, as such both of these men have been raised with the idea of what masculinity is, what it isn’t, and how people are to behave during sex.  Looking back at the previous passage, this is clear when Proulx notes that Ennis “ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock.”  Ennis in this moment has clearly bought into the idea that men do not “receive” during sex; that their role is instead to be active and penetrate their partner.  As such Ennis becomes the “top” and Jack becomes the “bottom.”  Both of these characters may be acting a traditionally heteronormative sexual behavior, but I think it would be unfair to expect anything else from these men.

At this brokeback-mountain nudepoint my contester emerges wondering why they should care?  I’m not gay and I don’t care how gay people fuck, that’s none of my business.  Why should I care about a novella about two gay guys who bang each other in Montana?  Where’s the relevance?

The relevance dear contester is in the fact that this sexual act opens up a new territory in the Western which, whether they like it or not, typically defines the American landscape in the minds of countries around the world.  The United States contribution to the collected consciousness tends to be “The West” and with that image came the figure of “The Cowboy.”  The other night at Graphic Novel Book Club we were reading Preacher and the idea of “The West” came up.  While we largely trashed the book, we did all recognize that the image of Texas, specifically cowboys and the desert, are usually the images of America that the rest of the world immediately perceives.  Cowboys have come to define what and who Americans are, Heath-Ledger-in-Brokeback-Mountain-heath-ledger-15596211-1067-800and anyone from Texas can attest to the fact that Texas itself captures a mythos.  Mentioning to someone that you’re from Texas usually creates a strong of questions running from “Do you ride horses to school” to “Is it true everyone has an oil well in their backyard?”

For the record only queers and democrats ride horses, Texans ride longhorn bulls to school, and we each only have one oil well and that’s only so we can fertilize the endless fields of blue bonnets planted by Pecos Bill before he and Elvis Ascended to Enlightenment.

That’s a joke for the record.

My pathetic attempts at humor aside Brokeback Mountain is important because of this perception of the Western as the 2977f740-7f02-0131-ef04-42aab1726324definitive narrative of the United States.  The important idea that emerges after Brokeback Mountain is that “The Cowboy” is no longer only straight.  Although there are some who would argue the cowboy never was truly straight in the first place.

Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, apart from having a monstrously long title (though it’s actually relatively short for an academic book, trust me on this) came to my attention after I received a rejection letter for my Brokeback Mountain paper.  One of the reviewers mentioned that I had clearly never read Queer Cowboys, and that any work on homoerotic behavior in westerns had to reference this book.  I could say that I pouted for several weeks imagining that reviewer’s face as a butt, but given what normally happens after criticism of any of my work I immediately looked for the book and devoured it.  Chris Packard’s small tome is a brilliantly researched text that looks at the genre of the Western and observes how homoerotic and homosocial bonds between men in Westerns constitute a queer lifestyle.  That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying Packard’s book looks at how cowboys were pretty gay in their own right.250909

Looking at just a small passage from his introduction he makes some compelling points:

Most people, if they think about it at all, assume that the cowboy in history and in literature practiced sexual abstention until he arrived in a town, where he practiced the acceptable vice of dalliances with female prostitutes.  But this explanation is counterintuitive and is not supported in the literary record.  Particularly in Westerns produced before 1900, references to lusty passions appear regularly, when the cowboy is on the trail with his partners, if one knows how to look for them.  In fact, in the often all-male world of the literary West, homoerotic affection holds a favored position.  A cowboy’s partner, after all, is his one emotional attachment, aside from his horse, and he will die to preserve the attachment.  Affection for women destroys cowboy comunitas and produces children, and both are unwanted hindrances to those who wish to ride the range freely.  (3).

Packard’s argument can be clearly seen in Proulx’s novella, for after Jack and Ennis have reconnected after four years apart they retreat to a hotel room and after they make love there’s a brief exchange where Ennis lays it out plain:

“I doubt there’s nothin now we can do,” said Ennis.  “What I’m saying, Jack, I built a life up in them years.  Love my little girls.  Alma?  brokeback-mountain-sacrificeIt ain’t her fault.  You got your baby and wife, that place in Texas.  You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there”—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment— “grabs us on like that.  We do that in the wrong place we’ll be dead.  There’s no reins on this one.  It scares the piss out a me.”  (27).

It’s important to realize that while Proulx is laying out a melodrama about being closeted in rural communities, there’s still this idea that domestic relationships are what’s keeping the two of them apart.  Keeping in the tradition of the Western as a genre Garth and Ennis are left unsatisfied in their marriages, not because they don’t care for the women they’ve married, but because the opportunity to have a truly satisfying relationship together is denied to them.

If I can go back to Packard one more time, there is one passage that digs into the conflicts of marriage to the Western:2A98551900000578-3164423-image-a-16_1437076251275

The trouble with wives in Westerns, at least until Wister’s The Virginian came along, is that they come with a doctrine that annihilates the identity of a free spirited cowboy.  But as Wister showed, the partnership with a same-sex friend, when it resembles a marriage, provides safety, consolation, and perhaps erotic satisfaction either prior to marriage or alongside it.  (60).

Brokeback Mountain is, as I alluded to it a moment ago, a melodrama because the conflict of the plot is taken almost from Romeo & Juliet.  Two lovers discover one another in a fit of passion, express that love through physical acts, get swept up in their love, they are separated, and then ultimately they have to hide their love until it destroys them.  For Jack it’s being queer-bashed by his father and some locals, for Ennis it’s a lifetime of isolation and dissatisfaction.  Being gay in rural areas is ultimately going to lead to destruction, or at least that seems the end point of the novella, but looking to another book there is a logic behind the destruction of Jack and Ennis.

Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a vital book in my library because it seems that hardly a day goes by when I don’t pluck it off the shelf to read or transcribe some quote from it.51gxLM4ThAL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_  When I was actually writing my original Brokeback Mountain paper I cited heavily from it largely because Tompkins is a damn good writer, and partly because she opened my eyes to many of the tropes of standard Westerns I’d been watching and then reading for years.

In one passage she lays out a central concern for genre:

For the Western is secular, materialist, and antifeminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus.  (28).

And in a later passage she explains out part of the embedded homoeroticism:

 In the course of these struggles the  frequently forms a bond with another man–sometimes his rival, more often a comrade–a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism.  There is very little free expression of the motions.  The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action–usually fighting.  And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder.  (39).

And I suppose, with that in hand, my contester may still wonder then why they should bother reading it, but the previous quotes should be enough to explain.  Brokeback Mountain is a book which, by exploring the romance between Ennis and Jack has not only allowed a part of the Western that was always there to “come-out,” it does so while also following the standard “rules” that makes the genre what it is.

For my own part it goes back to the early passages of Brokeback Mountain when Jack and Ennis are watching the sheep and falling and love:brokebacktent16

As it did go.  They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, ‘I’m not no queer,’ and Jack jumped in with ‘Me neither.  A one-shot thing.  Nobody’s business but our ours’ (15)

I wouldn’t realize that I was bisexual until a year ago and this knowledge is troubling to me.  Growing up I always felt a sense of lacking in myself and I answered that largely by watching Westerns with my dad.  Most of them John Wayne films, but there was also Feivel Goes West.  The men in those movies, with their pistols, quick hands, horses, and cynical wisdom about humanity seemed like the kind of men I wanted to be when I brokeback-mountain-1024grew up, and when I made my discovery there was some part of me that felt that lacking again.  Brokeback Mountain checks that resolve however, for it in effect levels the playing field.  While the novella may be a melodrama about the tragedy of being gay, Ennis and Jack do queer the Western genre by their very existence.  Looking over articles and academic books about the genre I became more and more aware as well that cowboys weren’t the sole property of white male heterosexual audiences.  There was a queer behavior embedded in those mythic men who defined the identity of Americans to peoples all over the world.

To the young bisexual or homosexual man, unsure about the possibility of possessing masculinity and their sexuality, Brokeback Mountain provides them a model to work with.  proulxQueer men aren’t just prissy fairies (though if you want to be that be it and rock it), they can be working class men as well; hard men that work the land and have to fight for paychecks.  Proulx’s novella does an important job of reminding readers that while John Wayne might have gotten Angie Dickinson at the end of Rio Bravo, somewhere out there was a little boy who wanted to see Dean Martin wind up with Ricky Nelson too.

The cowboy was my hero growing up, and he still is.  Whether it’s Roland from the Dark Tower, Chance in Rio Bravo, Sherriff Wiley Burp in Fievel Goes West, or Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, all of these men have taught me how to be a man, and at least one has helped me finally understand why those SEARS underwear models made me feel funny.

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 *Writer’s Note*

All quotes from Brokeback Mountain came from the Scribner paperback printing of the novella.  All quotes from Queer Cowboys came from the Palgrave Macmillan paperback printing.  All quotes from West of Everything came from the Oxford University Press edition.

 

**Writer’s Note**

The title of this essay is a line of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite singers.  Willie Nelson breathes the American spirit and sings the voice of long dead men.  WillieNelsonAnyway, I could wax poetic for days about the man, but the reader should listen to the song My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys at least once.  If you’re interested follow the link below:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jINz-4Mpwc

 

***Writer’s FINAL Note***

I didn’t get a chance to put it in but another reason to read the novella is simply because Proulx as a writer has a beautiful prose that, when read aloud, rivals poetry in its ability to blend aesthetics with mood.  Take for instance this description of Brokeback mountain:

Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire.  The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.”  (9)

There are few passages about landscapes that ever achieve such beauty, and damn is Proulx doesn’t knock it out of the park.

 

****Writer’s REAL FINAL Note****

This is still one of the best conclusions to a Western.

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The Inconceivable Four: Divinity, Manhattan, the Monolith, and the Time Traveler

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I’ve tried once to explore the fourth dimension, but only in writing.  I was taking a creative writing course and riding the high of being one of the few top writers in the class.  This wasn’t ego on my part, because if it hasn’t been made apparent at this point in my life my fatal flaw is my inability to sing my own praises.  Whatever the case most of the students in the class would confide in me and tell me that they thought I was a great writer and the teacher seemed to support this sentiment, and riding that high I thought about Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick is a bit of an acquired taste, and sometimes I do honestly believe some critics sing the man’s praises because they want to make other people think that they understand his creative ethos, but being a teenager I suffered the delusion that I would be a film director and so I began watching interviews with film makers who would often drop the man’s name.  On a small tangent my desire to be a director shifted after reading Slash’s autobiography and so for a number of years I suffered under the delusion that I could be a rock star.  This faded when I remembered I had little to no musical talent.  Kubrick was a film maker that I enjoyed because his narratives were so eclectic.  Looking at just few years he made in respective order: Paths of Glory, Sparticus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, and to put this in perspective maxresdefaulthe moved from a World War I epic to a gladiator rebellion, to a Pedophile capturing a young girl, to the Nuclear apocalypse, to a science fiction philosophy opera, to a dystopian nightmare, and finally to a period piece about an Irish peasant ascending to the British Nobility.

2001: A Space Odyssey is probably one of his best known films, though often because many people in the 70s got stoned and watched it with their kids.  What they missed in their induced state was that in his own way Kubrick was attempting to do what I tried in my own small essay about how we tell stories.

Human beings exist in the third dimension, and if I can remind you of your brief high school geometry class the third dimension’s quality is that it allows figures to move through space.  In the first dimension objects and organisms could only move to the left or right, whereas in the second objects could then move up and down left and right.  The Third dimension allows objects and organisms to move forward and back and they do this by moving through space.  2001_Monolith.jpeg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeHuman beings exist and interact with a three dimensional reality, and it needs to be made clear this is a simplistic breakdown of a complicated philosophical, mathematical, and psychological problem.  Many scientists turned philosophers have mused about our three dimensional reality, and looking to inspiration from science fiction authors, the next frontier seems to be to understand if it possible to break into the reality of the fourth dimension who’s defining quality and nature is time.

Steven Hawking, the noted theoretical physicist and part-time Simpsons character, explores this in his book A Brief History of Time.  When I first read the book I was fresh out of high school and it should be noted that at the time I understood little if any of the actual text, however over time this changed.  That’s a bad joke so I’ll move on.  In a chapter dealing with wormholes, pockets of space in which it is believed human beings might, and a big emphasis on might there, be able to move through large stretches of the galaxy relatively quickly Hawking writes:BriefHistoryTime

Because there is no unique standard of time, but rather observers each have their own time as measured by clocks that they carry with them, it is possible for the journey to seem to be much shorter for the space travelers than for those who remain on earth.  But there would not be much joy in returning from a spae voyage a few years older to find that everyone you had left behind was dead and gone thousands of years ago.  So in order to have any human interest in their stories, science fiction writers had to suppose that we would one day discover how to travel faster than light.  (161-2).

It’s important to note that, while Hawking is an unapologetic science fiction fan even once appearing on an episode of Star Trek, the passages immediately following this quote explains why these writers’ descriptions of travels through space and time were rather inaccurate or else impossible.  The problem of human beings entering or attempting to move through the fourth dimension is either plagued by the actual science, or the fact that actually passing into that dimension requires individuals who are willing to do so without concern of what they’re leaving behind.  As such I look back to Kubrick, but before I do I look to H.G. Wells.

Hawking actually bothers to mention Wells at the beginning of the chapter from which I received the previous quote, and the reason for this is Wells’s small novel The Time Machine.  The book is a slim narrative but contained within its pages is in fact some of the earliest inclinations of the science that men like Steven Hawking would write into reality.  Wells, it should be noted, is often considered one of the “founding fathers” of science fiction, and while it should be noted that there were other writers writing into similar territories and ideas, Wells work boosted the aesthetic of science fiction into something concrete and often inspired future engineers and scientists.  Looking at just the opening pages of The Time Traveler it’s incredible to see the man’s foresight:cvr9780743487733_9780743487733_hr

“Can a cube that does not last for any time at all have a real existence?”

Filby became pensive.  “Clearly,” the Time Traveler proceeded,” any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have length, breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.  But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact.  There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time.  There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.  (4).

The” arrow of time” is a concept that is explored even outside the studies of physicists and mathematicians for poets and writers have been relying on that damned symbol almost since the first arrow was painted on a wall.  It should be noted that part of the reason for this is that the shape is incredibly phallic, but I don’t have the time to explain that all of history is just men measuring dicks.

The Time Machine made its first appearance in 1895 and, according to some, effectively established the genre of science fiction though this last point is debatable.  What’s still incredible about the book is how well Wells managed to explain out the idea of dimensions in just one paragraph.  Employing the “arrow of time” in order to convince his companions about his ideas concerning the fourth dimension, The Time Traveler, who is never named by the narrator thus launching him into the territory of archetype, manages to begin the first question: can man step out of his comfort in the third dimension in order to see his potential.rod-taylor-time-machine

That last word has been chosen carefully as I get closer to my later conclusions.

But along with his observations of the abstract concept of time the Time Traveler also makes a fascinating observation about human beings:

“Well, I do not mind telling you I have been at work upon this geometry of Four Dimensions for some time.  Some of my results are curious.  For instance, here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on.  All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensional being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing.  (6).

From here the Time Traveler makes his argument that it would be possible for man to break free from the “arrow of time” from which he is forever caught by his perceptions, and, given the supposed hypothetical conditions, almost anything could be possible, specifically time travel.  Because this is the late Victorian period and science had only proceeded so far The Time Traveler produces the Time Machine, and it’s important to note how that dates the book, but not necessarily in a bad way.  It’s through an external device or machine that man is going to be able to achieve his destiny and this idea of man riding a kind of time traveling vessel is not outdated for the Back to the Future movies proved that this concept is still alive and well.  What changed over time is revealed in this second quote.8-cell

The Time Traveler notes that human beings are three-dimensional beings but that is only because they haven’t unlocked the ability to see and observe their true potential.  This is actually a brilliant idea being expressed that, while it has enormous philosophical implications, seems to counter act the very necessity of a time machine. Simply put, human beings are Fourth-Dimensional creatures they just haven’t realized how to actually tap into that reality. Human beings typically perceive their existence like a three dimensional cube.  They recognize the length, width, and girth of the physical space they occupy, but because they can only perceive time as an arrow moving through time they don’t recognize that they are actually able to be a four-dimensional cube, a shape that, in its true form is malleable and constantly regenerating itself.  I don’t want to suggest that this is immortality, but the direction two science fiction narratives have taken seems to be just that.

I had no real intention of reading Divinity because before I saw the advertisement in the back of Faith Vol.1 I had no idea that it actually existed.  The image of an astronaut, later revealed to be a cosmonaut, caught me because despite my trepidation I do actually enjoy science fiction stories they just have to be grounded in or around planet Earth or its history.  I asked my friend Michael (one of the three Michael’s I know and talk to regularly) what the book was about seeing as how he is the go-to Valiant expert.  His exact description was: “I mean, I liked it. If you ever watched 2001 and were like “man, this sure would be better as a superhero comic”, well, that’s Divinity in a nutshell.”  photo-jul-22-7-03-49-pmGiven the fact that I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey (though let’s be fair I really like the idea of it far more than the actual film) I was intrigued and so I bought the book a week later and devoured it in four days.  The only reason it took four was because I tend to read books one chapter at a time per day; it helps me get through a lot of books.

Divinity is about a cosmonaut named Abram Adams who assigned a top secret task of being launched into space.  The U.S.S.R., desperate to defeat the Americans launches Adams to the very edge of the galaxy and when he arrives at his destination after years of isolation and Cryogenic stasis he encounters an energy force, a plane of white light that some would call god and other might refer to as the ground of being, that enters his body and alters his consciousness.  Abrams effectively becomes a god but what’s most important is the fact that the story is told is a splintered fashion.  Rather than follow Adams and then show MI-6 sending in The Eternal Warrior and X-O Manowar to take him down, Matt Kindt writes the book so that events are taking place in the past, in the present, in the future, in individual’s imaginations, and in people’s memories all at the same time.

Abram Adams hasn’t just become just a superhero, his has accessed his fourth dimensional being.divinity-4-eva1-665x1024

Reading Divinity I was struck by how much I thought of the graphic novel Watchman and my favorite character from that book Dr. Manhattan.

Watchmen was published through the years of 1986 through 1987 in twelve installments, which is rather fitting given the clock imagery deliberately inserted throughout the book.  If the reader has never read it before that’s a terrible shame because there really are few great books in existence and Watchmen most certainly fits that category.  The graphic novel follows a group of superheroes in the year 1985 right after one of them, the sociopath ex-government agent The Comedian, is thrown from his apartment window and killed.  From there the characters Rorschach, Silk Specter, Night Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan each in their own way try to discover who is trying to kill former superheroes and why, while in the background a nuclear war is looming against the U.S.S.R. and President Richard Nixon seems only to be baiting and encouraging it.  There’s also a pirate comic book that’s being read throughout the text but that’s for another essay.  While each hero has at least one issue dedicated to them, it was the Dr. Manhattan chapter that always intrigued me (Rorschach’s is really fun too, though I use the word “fun” loosely) because it’s written from his perspective after he retreats from planet earth to live on Mars.  Dr. Manhattan is more or less a god and became so after he was working on a particle physics experiment that went horribly wrong and ripped every atom of his body apart.  He eventually pulled himself back together and became Dr. Manhattan, but what’s most important about his character’s chapter is its narrative structure.

Like Divinity, Dr. Manhattan is experiencing the past, present, and future seemingly all at the same time and looking at just a few passages from the book it becomes clear that his perception of time far exceeds human understanding.

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I should finally address my contester however, for they remind me that most people cannot or will not perceive anything outside their own dimension.  What the point, or why should I care about books that are written about people outside of my own perception?  It’s impossible for human beings to break free from the “arrow of time” and spending your life trying clearly will only leave you isolated or destroyed or alienated from society, so why not try and enjoy your life?zigzub3pivq9rcrpnshl

These are all excellent points, and to be fair I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to them.  Carpe Diem, or seize the day, may be a platitude but it’s one that leaves average people generally satisfied and happy with their lives.  Human beings have yet to reach a point in their evolution so that they would be able to access the Fourth-Dimensional being that they are, and it’s likely that such a stage is hundreds, if not thousands, of years away anyway, but books and films like Divinity, The Time Machine, Watchmen, and even 2001: A Space Odyssey try to offer up ideas of how human beings might access that next level.  For the most part it seems that humans will have to wait until a supernatural entity, whether it’s the black monolith or the white plane, arrives and bestows knowledge of being to them, but at least in the case of Watchmen and The Time Machine there’s an idea that, through their own devices, humans might make the next step themselves.  Even if it is through technology, humans might be able to expand their awareness and being and that’s an important idea, because in many ways we’re already trying to do just that.

Steven Hawking ends A Brief History of Time with a thought concerning the future of physics, philosophy, and possibly that of mankind:izsm9waivgrdruul7nzf

Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why.  On the other hand, the people who business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advancements of scientific theories.

He concludes then:

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.  Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is we and the universe exist.  If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God.  (191).

The purpose of science fiction is largely to ask questions either about the nature of human beings, or their future.  While many have taken the opportunity to explore thought experiments and the more morbid conclusions concerning the future of humanity a few select have decided to question what if human beings could become more and explore a new dimension of being?  A while the general conclusion is that the result of this gallery-1464367257-before-watchmen-doctor-manhattan4-09a0e-aaec0experiment would result in alienation or some kind of self-destruction I would argue that that reaction is rooted more in those left behind than those moving forward.

The closest success human beings have made in understanding this new state of being is fiction, and that’s perhaps the most telling but also the most encouraging.  Scientific enterprise depends upon imagination, and as more and more writers explore the notions of time travel and accessing new states of being, so too will scientists who will change our world in ways we can’t possibly even imagine.

Though if we ever get to the point where we start sending Bender back in time to steal precious masterpieces, we may have taken it a step too far.

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*Writer’s Note*

While I was working on this review I found this essay on The New Yorker Website.  Enjoy:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/hearing-and-seeing-2001-a-space-odyssey-anew

 

**Writer’s Note**

I’ve included links to three videos below.  The first is the “star gate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ou6JNQwPWE0

The second link is the final three minutes of the film in which the astronaut Dave ascends to a new state of being:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXS8P0HksQo

I’ve also found a small documentary a YouTuber produced in which he explains the Monolith.  This interpretation, as he notes, created a bit of a controversy because many fans loved the idea but certain film scholars didn’t.  I’ve posted Part 1 here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSo6s_xrj4c