Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Electoral College Got Us Into This Mess and It Can Get Us Out of It

The 2016 presidential election has come and gone and one thing is abundantly clear: Hillary Clinton won. And she didn’t just squeak by. As of the current count, she won by over a million votes with that number likely to grow as absentee ballots continue to be counted.
But although Clinton won the vote she has been declared the loser of the presidency because of an anomaly of electoral math. Donald Trump accrued more votes in the Electoral College, the body that actually decides the presidential election. However, that isn’t entirely true either since the Electoral College does not cast their vote until the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, which this year is December 19th. Trump’s supposed victory is nothing more than an assumption based solely upon the expectation that the Electoral College voters will follow the results within their state even if the national total doesn’t reflect the state-by state outcomes.

The funny thing about the Electoral College is this: there is no Constitutional requirement that the electors actually follow the will of the voters. The Founders devised the Electoral College as a stopgap measure to prevent the great unwashed from electing someone who was unfit for office. It is a fundamentally undemocratic concept that was born out of a distrust of direct democracy. After all, in the late 1700s most people were uneducated and information traveled slowly. And for most presidential elections the Electoral College was little more than a rubber stamp; the 2016 election is only the fourth time in our nation’s history that the president-elect lost the popular vote (although notably two of these instances have occurred in the last sixteen years).

Donald Trump is exactly the kind of candidate that the Electoral College was designed to prevent. After running a campaign based upon xenophobia and lies and proving himself completely ignorant of world affairs and matters of state, as well as being unusually cozy with the authoritarian elites of Russia, Trump’s transition to the White House has gotten off to a foreboding start. He has named a white supremacist to be his chief strategist, refused to put his estate into a blind trust, intends to give his children top secret security clearance, and apparently has little understanding of what the job of President of the United States actually entails. If ever there was a candidate who demanded to be overruled by the Electoral College, Trump is it.

But with the popular vote going to Clinton, the Electoral College wouldn’t be overruling anyone but themselves. Naming Clinton to the White House would be consistent with democracy and with the intentions of the Founders.

There have been calls to amend the Constitution and abolish the Electoral College. That’s a debate worth having but it should not be our primary concern. The immediate question for all of us—and especially for the members of the Electoral College—is this: are we prepared to ignore the expressed will of the people and hand over the presidency to an intellectually, experientially, and psychologically unfit candidate because of the eighteenth century equivalent of a computer glitch?

If the answer to that question is no, then the Electoral College voters ought to defer to the popular vote and name Hillary Clinton the next President of the United States. If the answer to that question is yes, then we face a crisis of democracy.

If the electors hand the presidency to Trump—an office he did not earn and does not deserve—they will do so over the wishes of the majority of Americans. The message to the citizens of this country will be clear: their vote did not matter and this government does not honor their wishes. This threatens to disillusion a generation of voters but the consequences could go well beyond depressing the turnout at the next election. The stability of our society is predicated upon trust and over the recent decades, trust in all of our social institutions has rotted. The confirmation of Trump as President of the United States could be the coup de grace that fundamentally breaks American democracy and precipitates a social collapse.

This is not hyperbole. People aren’t bound to follow the law or to be moral citizens. They choose to follow the law and they choose to behave in a moral way because it’s advantageous to do so. Our acquiescence is conditional. It rests upon the fairness and integrity of the system. And as Americans feel further and further alienated from their government and social institutions, the vote is one of the few things keeping us bound to each other and to the social contract. Removing that incentive weakens the few remaining pillars that prop society above a sea of chaos.

And perhaps those pillars will come crashing down. I don’t write that with nihilistic glee. I don’t want to be witness to the collapse of American civilization or to see our democracy weakened to the point at which it becomes meaningless. And I’m not saying that Americans should burn down Washington D.C. if Trump is inaugurated. But if the popular vote is nothing but a patronizing charade, what is left to dissuade them from doing so?

There is an opportunity to avert all of this. But the citizens will have to demand it and the members of the Electoral College will have to do what is best for the country. That is asking a lot and listening to the way our media and politicians and many of our fellow citizens have resigned themselves to a Trump presidency does not fill me with hope for the future. We’ve been so thoroughly conditioned to accept what “everybody knows” and to comply with traditions that most Americans do not have the capacity to imagine possibilities others than the ones given to them by authorities. But if Trump is made President and our society is crippled by a combination of depressive disillusionment and white nationalist totalitarianism, remember that we did this to ourselves.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Democracy Means Getting What You Deserve

We are now less than forty-eight hours away from the end of the 2016 presidential election. This political circus, which has gone on for about eighteen months (and has been the subject of press speculation for even longer than that), has been headlined by the two most unpopular presidential candidates in a generation. Since Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were officially crowned as the Democratic and Republican Party nominees, the consistent and overwhelming sentiment to be found on social media has been something along the lines of “Ugh, how did we end up with these two?”

Voter antipathy about our presidential choices is understandable but it is also hypocritical. It isn’t as though Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were foisted on the public. They are the end result of a democratic process. Even though the Democratic National Committee certainly did what it could to tilt the primary table in Hillary Clinton’s favor, she was ultimately and overwhelmingly chosen by the voters. And Republican primary participants were given nothing less than a smorgasbord of potential candidates from libertarians to neoconservatives to evangelicals to business executives but they chose Donald Trump.

And that is the point. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s presidential candidacies are not a conspiracy or an aberration. They are accurate representations of their parties.

Denial of this fact has been virulent on the Republican side. The past few months have seen the publication of many frustrated think-pieces written by otherwise reasonable Republican or conservative voices—take this one by S.E. Cupp as an example—who can’t believe what has happened to the party. These right wing commentators attempt to let themselves, their political leaders, and their constituents off the hook by describing Trump as an outside force that hijacked the GOP and took it in a violent, misogynistic, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual direction. But to believe this requires overwhelming ignorance of recent Republican history. This was the party of Dick Cheney and John Yoo who oversaw the implementation of torture. This was the party of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson who yelled “You lie” at President Obama during the 2009 State of the Union Address. This was the party of the Willy Horton political advert and birtherism.  This was the party that has refused to even hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees. This is the party that has passed discriminatory voting laws intended to disenfranchise the poor and people of color. This is a party of gay reparative therapy and climate change denial. Donald Trump did not invent any of this. He has simply taken the prevailing Republican attitudes and behaviors to their logical conclusion.

On the Democratic side of the ballot, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton is marked by the enthusiasm of a few—Democratic Party elites, some feminists, and Clinton true believers—and a sigh of resignation by everyone else. The regard for Clinton by the progressive wing of the party ranges somewhere between reluctance and hostility. This should not be a surprise. If a Republican were up for office with the identical voting record and policy positions as Clinton, traditional Democratic voters would rally to defeat her.

So how did this person become the Democratic nominee for president? Silly as it may seem, the best way to explain Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is a comparison with McDonald’s. Most anyone, even those who eat fast food on a regular basis, would acknowledge that McDonald’s food is mediocre. So why would they sell hundreds of millions of hamburgers each year? Surely part of their success is the low price and high availability of their products but perhaps more important is brand recognition. McDonald’s is predictable. When customers patronize a McDonalds they know what they are getting and they can reasonably expect the same experience in a restaurant located in Los Angeles, New York City or Winona, Minnesota. The customers don’t want quality and they certainly don’t want change. What they do want is familiarity and reliability.

The Clintons are the McDonald’s of American politics and Hillary Clinton is a mediocre candidate. She is familiar and we recognize her as part of the political landscape from her turns as a First Lady, a United States Senator, and Secretary of State. But she possesses no vision (or even the illusion of one as Barack Obama did in 2008) and she is fundamentally unthreatening to the status quo or to the power elites that run Washington and Wall Street. In fact, she personifies the establishment power structure. Clinton’s highly touted experience combined with her close ties to Wall Street may not have compromised her in an obviously corrupting way but they have captured her thinking. Like the rest of our elites, Hillary Clinton will not be able to face the challenges of the future in an innovative way. That would require upsetting the status quo. Institutional thinking will not permit that. This is exactly what the Democratic establishment and the party’s primary voters wanted and that’s what they got.

Let me head off the pseudo-feminist nonsense that says Hillary Clinton will approach our problems differently because she is a woman. That’s the kind of idiotic platitude that liberals tell each other when they want to sound like they care about women’s issues. The fact is that institutions shape individuals, not the other way around, and Hillary Clinton is more invested in the institution than virtually anybody in American politics.

The nominations of Clinton and Trump distill what has happened to America’s major political parties over the past generation. The Democrats have shifted rightward to occupy the space that Republicans did a few decades earlier. Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill and 1996 welfare reform act were really an extension of Reagan-era policies. The signature legislative accomplishment of the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) is nothing less than the Republican health care plan advanced by Bob Dole in the 1990s and enacted by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the 2000s. America’s policy of drone assassination is of a piece with Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. And the interventions in countries like Syria, Libya, and Yemen have been about as disastrous as Ronald Reagan’s misadventures in South America. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have much more in common with these recent Republican presidents than they do with the legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party has become the National Front.

The Democratic and Republican parties have given us exactly who we wanted. The Democratic voters, in their bereft of imagination and lack of courage, have rallied around a custodian who will tend to the institution and keep the machine running with minimal interruptions. The Republicans have nominated a stupid and bloviating psychopath who will turn back social progress of the last fifty years or burn the place down.

And that, my fellow Americans, is your choice this election day. But please, as you head to the polls, spare me the sanctimonious whining about your options. You did this. It’s your fault. And the consequences will be yours to bear.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween 2016

2016 is the twentieth anniversary of the two most important pieces of media from my adolescent years: the motion picture Scream and Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar album. I have already commented extensively on Wes Craven’s film for Sounds of Cinema in which I discussed why Scream was such a key artifact of the 1990s. For Halloween I turn my attention to Antichrist Superstar.

The art and media of our adolescent years holds powerful sway on our psyche. Whatever music we listened to in that period of our lives has the ability to transport us back into that adolescent frame of mind or at least a middle age reconstruction of it. Different people respond to different musical genres for different reasons. But for me, the essential music album of that period of my life is Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar. Throughout my late teens and early twenties, songs like “The Beautiful People” and “Cryptorchid” and “The Reflecting God” played constantly on my CD player. Looking back at this album, and doing so in the shadow of Halloween, I see why I responded to Antichrist Superstar as strongly as I did and why so many other people responded to it as well.

It is important to remember where mainstream music was in the mid-1990s. At the beginning of the decade the gritty street rhymes of NWA and Public Enemy had been a genuine countercultural presence but by the mid-1990s much of mainstream rap and hip hop had been coopted by MTV (back when the network still gave a shit about music) which reduced the genre to stupid gangster posturing. Grunge rock, which had been a reaction against the coked out glamour the 1970s and 1980s, had a more restrained and introspective aesthetic. But whatever subversive potential either of those musical movements possessed came to a halt with the violent deaths of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur in 1994 and 96, respectively. The subsequent pop cultural scene of the 1990s was generally tame and very little of it was threatening to the establishment.

It should not be underestimated just how important a subversive presence is for the culture. It is the antagonist who drives the action of every story and a culture needs a figure or two who challenge the status quo. Even if, in the end, traditional norms are reaffirmed the culture still benefits from putting its values to a stress test. But outmoded moral values are frequently a source of social decay and those who enforce them work against the development of culture and the expansion of freedom. The countercultural villain puts the self-appointed guardians of decency and morality on notice while forcing society to examine itself. This is especially true of the culture’s youth. Artistic social pariahs allow young people to experience transgression in a way that opens up creative, political, and moral possibilities.

Enter Marilyn Manson. Influenced by KISS and David Bowie, among others, Manson had caused a minor stir with the band’s first album, Portrait of an American Family and the single “Sweet Dreams” from their Smells Like Children EP. But it was the 1996 concept album Antichrist Superstar that really made a cultural dent. Like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy, Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar was a narrative presented through music. Channeling the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche by way of Ozzy Osbourne, the album was the story of The Worm who overcomes oppression and self-doubt to become the Antichrist Superstar. It was an expression of self-actualization presented through a gothic industrial sound.

Landing in the cultural context that it did, Antichrist Superstar was the right album at the right moment. Marilyn Manson (the band and the front man) gleefully provided the antagonist that the culture needed at that time. The band’s music video for “The Beautiful People,” the breakout hit of Antichrist Superstar, featured strange imagery set to an aggressive anthem that raged against mainstream, corporatized standards of beauty. The “Dead to the World” tour that supported the album was an impressive spectacle that included desecrations of the Bible, the American flag, and ultimately Manson himself who routinely cut himself on stage. Youth seized upon the rebellious imagery (although not necessarily understanding it) while media watch dogs decried the lyrical content (often without actually listening to the music) and conservative religious organizations protested the band’s play dates (which only made them more popular).

Looking back on the controversy over Antichrist Superstar two decades later, it all seems a bit silly. Youthful rebellions and middle aged moral panics usually do. It’s easy to sneer at images of teenagers dressed in black and caked in gothic makeup and it’s even easier to roll our eyes at the protesters who got so worked up over a music CD.

But that should not obfuscate that something very powerful was happening. Antichrist Superstar touched a cultural nerve. Within American culture of the 1990s, and among the youth in particular, a decline in religiosity had begun to take hold. This was indicative of a larger sense of alienation from American institutions that would snowball over the next decade. The Antichrist Superstar was the icon for a post-religious age. It was something to believe in when faith in everything else was eroding.

The declining faith in both religious and secular foundations was important to the cultural moment of Antichrist Superstar. This is especially true of white suburban teenagers who were the main audience for Manson’s music. The image of the Antichrist Superstar, the narrative within the concept album, and indeed the biography of Manson himself—an average middle class white kid who reinvented himself as a rock star—spoke to a desire to escape the mundanity of our lives and to transcend our existence. This is the appeal of religion but religion does not have a monopoly on it. And when religion began to fail to provide that spiritual experience (for lack of a better term), Marilyn Manson stepped in to provide it.

And this brings me to Halloween. Many of the same appeals active in the success of Antichrist Superstar can be found in the rise of the holiday season. Halloween’s rise occurs against an ever declining faith in our institutions and traditions and a dearth of outlets for a meaningful spiritual experience. The opportunity to dress in a sexual or violent or silly costume, usually in the context of inebriating drinks, is a sacrament of transgression and transcendence in a secular world. So is experiencing “controlled fear” by ritualistically watching scary movies, reading scary stories, or visiting a haunted house. Fear has a way of putting us in touch with the unconscious and subconscious parts of ourselves which is an important psychological exercise that can also lead to a spiritual boon.

Antichrist Superstar was a musical Halloween party that could be played at any time. It’s ideas and imagery were frightening especially to the concerned parents of America. And to associate with the source of that fear was empowering or at least created the illusion of empowerment, which is often the best that art can do.

It has been twenty years since Antichrist Superstar first invaded the culture. In that time Marilyn Manson has produced better work (see: Mechanical Animals and The Pale Emperor) but nothing that has created the same cultural moment as the 1996 album. Looking at contemporary culture, it’s not difficult find Manson’s influence (see: Lady Gaga and Rihanna) but there’s no one who has been able to penetrate the mainstream and terrorize the culture the way he did in the Antichrist Superstar era. Maybe we’re all too jaded now. Or maybe fears of terrorism and mass shootings make the theatrics of a rock star irrelevant. Or, to paraphrase Nietzsche, maybe we’re just waiting for the next antichrist who breaks through the mendacity of life and awakens the culture from its malaise.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Why Break the Glass Ceiling When the House is Burning Down?

We enjoy stories of firsts. The first African American baseball player. The first female astronaut. The first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. These people and the thresholds that they cross are held up as symbols of progress and they are regarded as both personal and cultural achievements. But do these firsts actually symbolize anything tangible? And when it comes to politics and elected officials, do these firsts actually mean anything at all?

We are in the midst of a presidential election in which there are a number of potential “firsts” among the candidates. It’s possible that in January 2017 we could witness the inauguration of the first woman, the first Hispanic, or the first Jewish president. 

But should we believe that any of these candidates would actually change anything? Is there any reason to believe that anti-Semitism will fade in light of the first Jewish president? Will we get improved border security or an overhaul of the immigration system under the first Hispanic president? Will women achieve equality and have their rights better preserved under a female president? The impulsive response to those questions is “of course.” After all, a candidate from those backgrounds will bring his or her unique experiences to bear on the job, right?

Not necessarily. We are now in the final year of the presidency of Barack Obama and if we should take anything from the administration of the first African American president it is this: electing a black man to the highest office in the country had no tangible benefits for the African American community nor did it in any significant way improve the condition of ethnic minorities.

That’s not to say there weren’t accomplishments. The Affordable Care Act, the improved relationship with Cuba, the legalization of same sex marriage, and the economic recovery (anemic as it may be), will be noted by historians and become test questions for future generations of social studies students. But notably absent from the legacy of the first black president were initiatives specifically aimed at addressing systemic racism.

Who knows the reason? It may be that between the economy and the wars, President Obama simply had bigger and more immediate problems to solve. It could be that when Obama did try to engage with race it blew up in his face, as it did with the Henry Louis Gates incident, and so he chose to avoid it from then on. Or, as the president has said, he saw himself as responsible for the whole country, not just black America, and racial issues were not a priority for him. But there is a sense among some prominent academic black voices, such as Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West and Melissa Harris-Perry, that Obama squandered his position or otherwise sold out the hopes that the African American electorate invested in him.

Those hopes may be the real problem. It’s a mistake to hope for a savior, whether he or she comes from Nazareth or Chicago, and that’s exactly how Obama was perceived by liberal voters in 2008. The campaign never said this overtly but they didn’t try to dispel this perception either and the iconic “hope” poster certainly encapsulated the savior appeal that was a key part of Obama’s first presidential campaign.

But it’s not as though Obama would have had to go out of his way to find a racial cause to fight for. Mass incarceration, police brutality, campus racism, the drug war, and the death penalty were in the news over the last seven years and they offered the Obama Administration ample opportunities to act or at least to comment. But he didn’t and the work that has been done on these issues, such as the rise of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, occurred not because of the president but in spite of him.

All reasonable people understand that we have to judge political candidates more deeply than their gender or flesh tone. Truisms like that are usually said as a way of fending off negative stereotypes. But it’s also worth applying that wisdom to our benign stereotypes and especially onto our hopes. Because hope, especially when it is baseless, is a vice and it’s all the more insidious because hope is actively encouraged by all aspects of the culture.

Hillary Clinton in particular has entertained the hope we associate with “firsts.” In many cases those hopes aren’t even disguised. It’s quite clear in the way that surrogates talk about her and the way Clinton talks about herself that she intends her candidacy to embody the hope for gender equality. That’s a noble hope but do Democratic voters have any reason to think that they will get a better deal on women’s rights from Clinton than they would from any other candidate, namely Bernie Sanders? There is a temptation to assume that because Hillary Clinton is female that women’s issues would be a priority for her presidency more so than in a male-led administration. But looking at their platforms and voting records, Clinton and Sanders score quite evenly. They both have sponsored and voted for legislation related to pay equality, prevention of violence against women, and reproductive rights. They both score 100 percent by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. There is simply no reason to believe that one of these candidates is substantively better than the other on women’s issues.

The desire to see a woman president is understandable. Both domestically and internationally, women are treated as second class citizens. Although things are considerably better for women now than they were fifty years ago, sexism is still a very real part of American life. The image of a woman in the oval office is satisfying but it would also be hollow and largely meaningless. Those of us who care about women’s rights—and that includes voters of both sexes—should not confuse electing a woman to the presidency with a meaningful change to women’s position in the culture.

A vote for a symbolic candidate is a form of immediate gratification. And for a repressed group, seeing one of their own make it to the presidency feels like progress. Think back to November 2008. There was a brief but bright glow about much of the country immediately following the election of Barack Obama. We felt good about ourselves, at least for a few weeks. But the novelty wore off and in the months and years that passed very little actually changed. In fact, Obama proved to be the establishment’s man as he refused to prosecute torture and instead went after whistleblowers, passed a Republican health care plan, doubled down on our commitment in Afghanistan, and protected the financial class instead of punishing them for the fraudulent schemes that caused the recession.

Just because a politician comes from a repressed group does not mean that he or she will necessarily avenge the injustices against that group. Nor does it mean that such a person would necessarily bring a fresh perspective to the table. The real indicator of a candidate’s potential for social progress is found in his or her relationship to the power structure. If the candidate’s ideology is synchronous with the institution and if he or she is invested in the existing power structure and relies upon it for legitimacy then that candidate is unlikely to challenge the institution or even understand that it needs to be fixed.

It is delusional to expect change from a candidate who would expand the surveillance state, keep us in a perpetual war in Afghanistan, would support fracking, and maintain the economic status quo. And voting for such a candidate to contrive a historical anecdote is superficial at best. There’s no point in smashing the glass ceiling if the house is burning down.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Best and Worst Movies of 2015

The January 24th edition of Sounds of Cinema featured my picks of the best and worst movies of 2015:


1. Room

2. Inside Out

3. The Revenant 

4. The Big Short

5. The Martian 

6. Mr. Holmes 

7. Beasts of No Nation

8. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

9. White God

10. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief


1.      Aloha
2.      Entourage
3.      The Loft
4.      Hot Tub Time Machine 2
5.      Unfinished Business
6.      Get Hard
7.      War Room
8.      Seventh Son
9.      The Human Centipede 3
10.  Fantastic Four

You can find more, including rationales for each title and lists of honorable mentions, here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Some Thoughts on Islamophobia

The recent terrorist attack in Paris reignited the debate about the problem of radical Islam. This is an ongoing conversation that mainstream Western culture has been having at least since September 11, 2001, although incidents of Islamic terrorism go back further than that and hate crimes against Muslims (or people who fit a very general profile) go back further still. In the fourteen years since the 9/11 attack the conversation hasn’t gotten very far. With each new terrorist incident the debate becomes louder but it’s really just a reiteration of the same talking points: this is a war of civilizations (or it isn’t), groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are fighting a contemporary religious crusade (or they aren’t), Islam is a religion of peace being perverted by radicals for their own agenda (or it’s an expression of the religion’s true values unencumbered by modernity). Out of this debate has come the term “Islamophobia” and it’s been used interchangeably with the word “racist” as a way to marginalize and dismiss critiques of the religion.

There are several problems with the term “Islamophobia” but the main problem is semantic. A phobia is “an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear.” It isn’t just to be afraid; to be a phobia, the fear must be inflated and irrational. Fear of religion in general and Islam in particular is not a phobia, not when it occurs in the context of terrorist attacks and beheadings as well as a cottage industry that exploits religious violence for the sake of television ratings and book sales.

Consider this example: a family from an unfamiliar subculture—let’s say they wear bathrobes all day, every day—moves into your neighborhood. You’ve never met anyone who dresses like this before and you don’t know anything about their background. The only media depictions you’ve seen of this subculture is in the weekly action-adventure television series in which the hero must foil the terroristic plots of bathrobe-dressed people. Shortly thereafter authority figures, such as a friend who is not prone to gossip and a reliable newscaster, tell you that people who wear bathrobes are a threat to you and your family. Then you discover that there are incidents of bathrobed people murdering those who don’t wear them; in fact, they video record themselves cutting off the victim’s head and upload these videos to the internet.

In light of this information you are afraid of the new neighbors. But this is not a phobia. If it turns out that the claims of your friend and the newscaster are wrong and the new neighbors are peaceable and friendly, your initial fear is not a phobia. And even if only a small percentage of the bathrobe-wearing believers are violent and this sect justifies their actions based on an arcane reading of ancient texts, your fear is still not a phobia. This is a rational reaction based on the information you have.

But the problem with “Islamophobia” goes beyond semantics. It isolates Islam and its beliefs, values, and practices from any discourse. The term preemptively shuts down discussion. But Islam—and for that matter any religious system—should be subject to analysis and critique. After all, religions are ideologies. Islam and Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Scientology and Satanism are each competing world views that offer distinct and, in many respects, irreconcilable dogmas. Imagine someone suggesting that we cannot debate the merits and defects of capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, or democracy. That would be absurd and we’d all call it that. But this is exactly what the “Islamophobia” defense claims.

In the long term the Islamophobia defense actually does more damage. Islam, like any other religion, is host to a range of opinions. For instance, there are Muslims (men and women) who believe that females should be covered from head to toe but there are also Muslims who don’t even think women are compelled to wear a hijab. The cries of Islamophobia shut down the discussion and prevent these groups from airing their differences. This ultimately silences the moderates and enables the radicals.

Let’s also do away with this nonsense that all religions are inherently nonviolent and harmless. This assertion, which is made by leaders from the President of the United States on down, is plainly untrue. Many sacred texts do provide contradictory instructions about violence, especially those of the Abrahamic faiths, but the histories of Christianity and Islam (to name two) are rife with examples of religion inspired violence. The root of human destructiveness may ultimately be biological but religion has a unique way of marshalling our destructive tendencies. Ignoring this doesn’t make it go away and pretending it isn’t so is just ignorant.

While I encourage intra and inter-faith criticism, I do so with some caution. Religion and culture in general are not so precious that they shouldn’t be critiqued. But just as religious debate tends to stir our violent passions it also tends to steer us toward stupid and irrational thinking. If the goal is to actually communicate and interrogate each other’s ideas (as opposed to self-righteously wagging our finger), then shouting down people from another culture and labeling all of them terrorists isn’t constructive. No one likes to be condescended to and religious critics have an obligation to do their homework and learn a little something about Islam’s history and beliefs before we start talking.

There is another concern. The so-called New Atheists, which is a proselytizing anti-theist movement, has made opposition to Islam a major priority. In the face of Boko Haram and ISIS, that makes sense. That’s where the most urgent fight is. But the movement spearheaded by figures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is at risk of creating shelter for the Donald Trumps and Pam Gellers of the world. The latter aren’t really afraid of Islam. They are afraid of brown skinned people. That isn’t a fight about religion and ideology. It’s racism and should be called as such.

Therein lies the irony of the Islamophobia defense. The word is hurled at anti-theists and used interchangeably with “racism” when in fact racists have much more in common with religious fundamentalists than they do with anti-theists and other critics of religion. At their best, the anti-theists critique religious ideology by contrasting it against the tenants and values of classical liberalism, the foundation upon which all modern societies are built. Both racists and religious fundamentalists pursue a pipe dream of ideological purity that is antithetical to classical liberalism. The proof is found wherever they gain control of the levers of power. Invariably, racists and religious fundamentalists create remarkably similar nightmare scenarios.

Given what has happened in Paris and around the world, from Brussels to Chibok to New York to Nairobi to Sydney, we have to confront the problem of Islamic terrorism. But we first have to admit that there is a problem. Critiquing religion is tricky and doing so in a way that is honest and rigorous is going to be uncomfortable both for Muslims and for those who want to build an inclusive community. And as we have this debate it’s equally important that we not create a pedestal for racist stupidity. But we cannot shut down the debate for the sake of comfort or to entertain the illusion that all religious ideas are valid and benign. The Islamophobia defense, although well intended, is counterproductive and dishonest and must be abandoned.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween 2015

Most years I’ve posted a Halloween message on this blog and in many cases I have used the space to extoll upon the virtues of this holiday. As I have often put it, Halloween is the celebration of carnality and fear. It is a contemporary Dionysian festival that functions as a sacrament in a post-religious age.

I think of Halloween as a counter celebration to traditional religious holidays, namely Christmas, and its value is found in the way it challenges conservative puritanical ideas. That has been the trajectory of the holiday over the past generation and a half. In the 1980s, media hacks and populist Christian leaders attempted to destroy Halloween (and line their pockets) by whipping up hysteria about poisoned candy and demonic child abuse cults. The lies were eventually exposed for what they were but throughout the 1980s and 90s Halloween changed from an innocuous holiday geared toward children and families and into an autumn Mardi Gras that primarily catered to adults. Far from disappearing, Halloween has become among the most popular and profitable holidays on the calendar. 

But while rightwing religious zealots have moved on to other issues, Halloween faces a new challenge, one that is more complex and formidable: the patronizing protectionism of the liberal left, generally referred to as “political correctness.” Specifically, this threat has taken the form of bans and social shaming of Halloween costumes that are deemed to be inappropriate, insensitive, or offensive. Most alarmingly, this has primarily happened on college campuses, which are supposed to embody the essence of the marketplace of ideas.

This threat to Halloween is so insidious because it originates from a relevant and legitimate concern. Where the anti-Halloween ramblings of televangelists could be dismissed wholesale, the advocates of political correctness begin with a quite reasonable position: that certain costumes, such a blackface, reinforce stereotypes, insult minority communities, and strain the civility of the community. The advocates of political correctness argue that they are building a better and more inclusive community and on the surface that may be the case. Who wouldn’t prefer a world where people didn’t say stupid and hurtful things?

One of the popular phrases in the new political correctness movement is “safe space.” The very idea of the safe space is (to use another buzzword) problematic. Life is not safe. There is no gool. And instead of limiting the “safe space” to an appropriate context like the counselor’s office, the hypersensitivity of the safe space has spread to classrooms, online forums, broadcasts, and to private gatherings.

All crusades for social cleanliness eventually become absurd and ultimately eat their own tail. Just as there is a straight and relatively short line between obsessions with sexual purity and honor killings, efforts to create speech codes inevitably place certain words, topics, and ideas out of bounds. What’s more, the subjects that are partitioned are usually the things we need to talk about the most. Quarantining the issue does not make it go away. Instead it festers like an infected wound.

This brings me back to Halloween. As a holiday of evil, which is to say it puts us in touch with the uncivilized parts of ourselves, of our culture, and of life itself, Halloween exists on the boundary of social propriety. Costumes that channel and display sexuality, mortality, immorality, and the irrational are the most common and wearing these costumes is part of embracing those qualities.

Halloween’s allure is that it is simultaneously safe and unsafe. That’s its social function. Watching scary movies, attending haunted houses, and reading ghost stories puts us in a state of controlled fear. Wearing outrageous outfits requires a certain amount of social daring that is tempered by the knowledge that everyone else will look ridiculous too. It may not be a coincidence that the increase in Halloween’s popularity in recent decades occurred in tandem with a cultural obsession with safety that hedges on paranoia and takes the edge out of everyday existence.

Another important aspect of Halloween is its countercultural qualities. Where both religious and secular holidays pay tribute to the myths and institutions of our culture, Halloween destroys them. It is an irreverent holiday that tears down and desecrates the idols. Costumes are integral to that job. Not only do we adorn outfits that embody desires, heroes, and villains but we also inherently ridicule those archetypes through the act of dressing up. 

Because of Halloween’s irreverent nature, offensive costumes are par for the course. But there are tiers of offensiveness. Some outfits, like blackface, do channel ugly stereotypes and tap into and reinforce systemic racism. But the demands of sensitivity have grown ever louder as the sphere of protectionism swells. Now costumes that even hint of “insensitivity” are grounds for outrage by the social justice hive mind of social media.

I understand when people get angry about blackface costumes. I have a similar reaction. But let’s be clear about something: costumes don’t make people racist. Racist people choose racist costumes. And by wearing such an outfit we know exactly who those people are and what they believe. So let assholes be assholes and then we’ll all know who they are.

I also have to wonder who we think we’re protecting and from what. A costume may be uncouth but let’s not kid ourselves into pretending that someone’s Halloween costume is the epitome of social injustice or that berating that person makes us virtuous. Bad taste is not a hate crime and Twitter pile-ons are not community organizing.

We need to cut each other some slack on Halloween. The very essence of the holiday is inappropriate. But further, Halloween is a release. There are a handful of nights each year when we give ourselves permission to go wild and blow off steam. This isn’t just an amusing indulgence. It’s a matter of individual and collective sanity. If we don’t allow ourselves to be naughty and outrageous, even on Halloween, we not only spoil the holiday but we also risk creating an emotional pressure cooker that’s going to explode one way or another and it’s going to be a lot messier than the aftermath of a raucous Halloween bash.

This said, I want to be absolutely clear about something. I am not advocating that you dress in blackface or some equivalent costume on Halloween. But I’m not going to tell you not to either. Instead, I’ll pose two questions. First, why do you want to dress in this costume? It may be that you think it’s funny or it may be part of a grandiose social statement. You may even think that your outfit is a show of solidarity with a marginalized group. But like any other outfit, a Halloween costume is a social interaction that announces to everyone else how you wish to be perceived. That leads to my second question: are you prepared to accept the social criticism that comes with such a costume? Even if you think blackface is funny or that your Ku Klux Klan robes are ironic, I can assure you that other people won’t. And if you intend your costume to be a piece of performance art or a political statement, realize that your message will be lost in the drunken haze of a Halloween mixer.

If you conclude that a racial or otherwise offensive costume makes an unpopular statement that is important for you to articulate, then by all means do so. But please, spare us all from your persecution complex when everyone else thinks you’re an asshole and says so on Twitter.

Early on in 1978’s Halloween, the sheriff says of the holiday, “Everyone's entitled to one good scare.” While that’s certainly true I think we’re also entitled to one good outrage as well. So as the sun sets and you head out for your Halloween plans, suspend your moral judgement just enough to have a good time. That’s what Halloween is all about.