As a Child

At a certain age, when alumni magazines arrive (and they will), one starts first by opening to the necrology. Who didn’t make it as far as me, after all? There’s a poignancy to it—knowing that at any age we’re vulnerable—but many of us felt a kind of immortality in our younger years that is only belied and effaced with the passing of time. The articles in the alumni magazines feature those who made it better than you, fellow students and faculty who made a genuine breakthrough. You should be proud of having the privilege, they seem to say, of having attended in her or his shadow. But once in a while, those self-serving articles do touch on the issues of the necrology where I always start. Boston University’s most recent edition boasts an article “You Are What You Feel” by Barbara Moran.

Bost

Intellectuals, in what I like to call the Spock Fallacy, frequently suggest that rationality is the whole story. Or at least the better part of it. If the left brain could only just subdue the right, and all decisions could be logical, wouldn’t this world be a better place? Better, maybe perhaps, but not human. We require our emotions for more than just feeling good. Studies suggest that thinking would be difficult, if not impossible, without them. So Bostonia profiles the work of Natalie Emmons, suggesting that ideas of immortality are more than just cultural relics. Perhaps our brains reason eternity for ourselves from some deep well we’ve not yet discovered. Emmons, and co-author Deborah Kelemen, are psychologists who study children’s idea of prelife—where we were before this. It is pretty difficult to imagine the world getting along without us. But the research suggests that intuition, rather than culture, gives us religious concepts such as immortality.

Substituting intuition for an actual essence, however, puts us in that odd place of using a word we can’t define. Scientists frequently fall back on intuition as an explanation for animal behavior that, in most instances, seems to suggest thinking that couldn’t have been acquired the usual way. How do salmon, fish that hardly seem like doctoral material, know to return home and swim upstream? How do newly hatched sea turtles know to crawl toward the water? Birds and butterflies to migrate? Instinct is a handy fallback, for sure. The research of Emmons and Kelemen suggest that children reason (note) prelife based on observations of actual life. The mind is the product of the brain. In my department at Boston University, another set of variables applied, focused mainly on surviving through the other end of the journey. It is with those in mind that I thumb through the necrology and hope, irrational as it may be to do so, that maybe the children are right.

Hydrofracking

HydrofrackingGenies can’t be put back into bottles, I’m told. They are one of the many things that once done cannot be undone. I had that sense throughout my reading of Alex Prud’homme’s Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know. Prud’homme does an admirable job in attempting a dispassionate, fair treatment of a subject that is divisive by nature. And destructive. Fracking, once done, cannot be undone. Those who are already against fracking will probably come away from this little book with a sense that ex cathedra statements are slightly more difficult to sustain. The further you read, however, the darker the palette becomes. Yes, fracking provides domestic, fairly clean fossil fuels, reducing dependency on foreign oil. It also has long-term results that remain unknown, with indicators pointing to the worrisome side of the dial. Enough negative correlations exist to give us pause for rumination. Is fracturing the shale a mile underground really a good idea? What about when we run out of shale? And the tremendous waste of water.

Environmental concerns are, by definition, ethical issues. What we do to the environment effects others, and when we effect others ethics is involved. Or should be. One of the startling facts about fracking is that it has been around for a long time. Since the 1940s. Growing up in fracking-friendly Pennsylvania I had no idea that oil companies could move in, break up the ground under my feet, and siphon out the gas and oil they found. It is an industry without strong federal regulation. In fact, due to Dick Cheney’s influence, oil companies are not required to declare what chemicals they are releasing into the environment. Trade secrets can be deadly. It feels like awaking to find Deepwater Horizon in your back yard, not having been aware that the technology to do such massive operations even existed. Who granted permission? The mighty rex lucre.

Prud’homme points out that fracking is not about to go away. Too much money is at stake. Once we’ve learned how to build atomic bombs, incendiaries will ever after seem quaint. We can’t unlearn how to frack, even as we can’t undo the process once it’s done. We have, however, abundant sources of renewable, sustainable energy, but not the will to harvest them. Our economic thinking embraces the myth of excelsior—ever upward! Fracking may not be as dirty as coal or as scary as nuclear waste, but it does leave scars forever beneath the surface. Its genie has escaped its bottle and it is far too capitalist an idea to be suppressed once it has tasted opportunity. Prud’homme’s book is rightly subtitled What Everyone Needs to Know. That which you don’t know can indeed cause harm on a scale we can’t even calculate.

Cowboys and Demons

Cowboys_&_Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens finally came down into my price range. For movies I’d have to view alone, I generally wait until they appear for free on some online movie service or for less then ten dollars at Target. I’ve been waiting for this one since 2011, but my patience paid off. Inspired, so the rumor goes, by the Roswell incident, the film follows the adventures of some old western stereotypes as they encounter the superior power of aliens. The aliens, it seems, are just as materialistic as humans, coming to the old west in an extraterrestrial gold rush. They abduct humans to learn their weaknesses (which really seems superfluous given the technological imbalance between the species) and anger a number of ornery hombres in the process. Then we have an old-fashioned shootout with ray guns versus bows, arrows, and bullets. Human devotion, however, defeats the evolved armor and flying machines of the—well, what are they exactly?

The cowboys scratch their heads, not quite having the consarned concept to categorize these flying machines and their occupants. The local preacher, who is a pretty handy shot, tries to help the confused cowboys, who settle on the term “demons” to describe the extraterrestrials. We forget that in the early part of the last century other galaxies had not yet been discovered, and although we knew of other planets, there was assuredly no way to get there from here. Ugly things that come from the sky are demons. This doesn’t lead to a whole load of speculation—nobody suggests praying to take care of the menace, although the Native Americans resort to a religious ritual to unlock the mystery of where the demonic hoard is hiding. Through her resurrection we discover that Alice is a good alien, planted in the town to stop the invaders from doing to the earth what they did to her planet. And winning the heart of Jake Lonergan (whose very name suggests lone gunman to insiders) along the way.

Since the movie is three years old, I won’t worry about spoilers—if you’re inspired to watch for the first time, however, you might want to do so before finishing this. When Alice figures out how to stop the alien mining operation for good, Jake is left, for the second time, with his woman being killed by demons. Woodrow Dolarhyde, realizing that the outlaw Jake isn’t such a bad guy after all, seeks to console him at his loss. At the end of the movie, in a camera angle that goes from Woodrow to Jake, the focus falls on the cross atop the local mission as Woody says, “She’s in a better place.” All aliens go to heaven. Literally. With echoes of the X-Files, Cowboys & Aliens is sufficient for a dark night where demons and angels are a little too close to tell apart.

The Good, Bad, and Human

VixensVampsVipwesMike Madrid may know more about women in comics than anyone else alive. I’ve commented about his Supergirls and Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and he’s now followed up his previous successes with Vixens, Vamps and Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics, due out in October. Despite the lament of many a parent that comic books are a waste of time, Madrid demonstrates through a close reading, that some of the most basic issues of society are featured in graphic format. Psychologists have long known that people are visually oriented. We have to learn to read, but we’re born with the knowledge of how to look. Comics, therefore, appeal to the young reader, illustrating the action with exaggerated pictures to underscore the tale. Although the early heroes were generally male, Madrid showed in his previous two books that girls and women were also superheroes, but, as in real life, competing in a world constructed by men for men.

Vixens, Vamps and Vipers flips the coin to see the role played by villains less known than Catwoman (whom he discusses), and torn between the human impulses to succeed and to be good. In fact, the first few pages of the book offer a profound consideration of the terms “good” and “evil” as they apply to the comic book (i.e., the real) world. As Madrid points out: if there were no villains, we would have no need of such colorful heroes. At the same time, evolution has embedded a desire to protect females in the minds of most males—Poe knew that the death of a beautiful woman was the among the most moving of literary images. Still, as Vixens, Vamps and Vipers points out, some of the villains here considered are beautiful and the allure demonstrates that something much more complex is going on beneath the surface. Despite the image of the hero, all people, male and female, constantly struggle with the impulses to do good and evil.

One of the complexities that religions attempt to codify is human nature: are we born good or evil? Are we totally depraved or inclined to strive for divinity? Any honest assessment of humanity, it seems to me, must take into account that we constantly struggle. Total depravity is totally disproved by the many good impulses shown by those of religions outside Calvinism and Christianity, let alone the tendency of humanists and atheists to help others. In fact, in many circumstances good and evil are intricately intertwined. Madrid explores this conundrum with women put in difficult, if fictional, scenarios who must decide which impulse to follow. He’s honest about this. Some will become superheroes despite the hurdles the male champions put in their way, while others will follow the trail that leads to his latest exploration of humanity through illustrated story. Look for Vixens, Vamps and Vipers and enjoy, if secretly, learning something profound about human nature.

New Gods

The new gods are the old gods, apparently. Increasingly I feel myself to be in the old category, but I do glance at Wired once in a while in a vain attempt to recapture my decidedly low-tech youth. I was halfway through July’s edition when I saw “Worship More Gods!” near the top of the page. Of course, gods aren’t what they used to be. The short column, Angry Nerd, was on about all the movies out there featuring Greek gods. Classic gods. Although they’ve been around for a couple of millennia or more, they had apparently fallen into the obsolescence pile for a number of centuries, staring around 1700 years ago. When I was in fifth grade I first heard about these gods (okay, I had watched that ridiculous cartoon Hercules—pre-Disney—as a child, but does that really count?). Mrs. McAlevy (and I sure hope I spelled that right!) felt that kids in my redneck little town needed to know about the gods and heroes. It was some of the most fun I ever had in school. I took a reprise class in college, just for good measure. After all, Clash of the Titans had just shown that gold can rain down like that in Danaë’s secret chamber, if you hit that sweet spot. Myth movies have flourished ever since.

Gods

Can we ever have enough of the old gods? There are lessons to be learned there still. It is safe to say that one of those lessons is that we should not act as the gods do. Almost always they do not stand as moral exemplars. Lest we feel too superior on that point, it is worth pointing out that the God of the Bible sometimes pulls some tricks that we would consider a little less than moral, right, Abraham? The role of the gods is to tell us what to do, not to show us. Impossibly high moral standards, after all, are difficult even for the mighty ones to keep. With great power and little accountability, well, we don’t need to have gods to show us what happens.

I’m not intending to put words in the mouth of the Angry Nerd. The point of the article seems to be that we should share the wealth. There are plenty of other cultures out there with very colorful gods (sometimes literally colorful). In the cultures I’ve studied those gods pretty much fall into the same category as my step-father’s mantra “do as I say and not as I do.” Rank hath its privileges. There’s no doubt that the gods provide some good moral guidance—even the deities of the Canaanites seem to have had pretty clean expectations for humankind. But when it comes to behavior, well, let’s just say they don’t behave like a bunch of nerds. These are the frat boys of the universe. We obey because we know it’s dangerous to do otherwise. So in this day of religious sensibility, perhaps having a few more gods wouldn’t hurt. As long as we keep in mind that every deity has his or her limitations.

Fear of the Known

Social media has become the new reality. Not that rumor ever had much trouble before the internet, but now our cultural memes explode so fast that we have to be wired constantly to keep up. And what we see makes us afraid. The other day I came across a story on channel 7 WSPA website out of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t suppose I have any business needing to know what was going on in South Carolina, but the headline “Mysterious ‘woman in black’ spotted in Tennessee” got my spidey sense going (or my Men in Black sense, but that’s just a bit cumbersome). Was this a female urban legend who shows up after UFO reports and warns the witnesses to keep quiet? The truth is much more mundane. She’s a woman, dressed in black, walking south from Virginia, currently in Tennessee. Police say she has a name and she’s from Alabama. Since she’s all over social media, however, people are worried.

She’s on a Bible mission one woman has claimed. A Blues sister in black? Others claim she’s from an Islamic nation. Some implicate the Pentagon. When someone exhibits unusual behavior our minds turn to religious causes. Why would a person dress in black and walk down the highway? It’s just not done! Must be religion. On YouTube apparently a video shows her arguing about religion with a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Where’s the element of surprise there? If there are any firmly fixed social markers they are surely Wal-Mart and religion. Time to be afraid.

Scarcely a day passes when I’m in New York that I don’t see someone doing something peculiar. It’s the new normal. I suppose religion is sometimes the motivation, but I wouldn’t know. The gospel can be pretty difficult to identify definitively these days. You can’t trust someone just because they dress in black any more. After all, we’ve seen agents K and J battling aliens on the big screen since 1997 and there doesn’t seem to be much preaching involved. There is conversion, however, and just a dash of conspiracy theory. That’s more like American-style speculation. Internet fame is remarkably easy for some. Put on your black and walk down the road. And if you see Johnny Cash along the way, there will be no doubt that this is newsworthy indeed.

Bible-thumper or alien?

Bible-thumper or alien?

Candle, Book, and Bell

AmericaBewitchedHaving married into a family descended from the surviving relatives of women executed as witches at Salem, I have long been saddened and fascinated by the story. Not just the story, but also by the cultural milieu. We all know about the witch trials and the tragic massacre of innocents (mostly women) that took place in late Medieval and early modern Europe; the Salem miscarriage of justice came at the very end of that, after the start of the Enlightenment. Owen Davies is also fascinated by witchcraft, and his America Bewitched: The story of witchcraft after Salem is an exploration—mostly via newspapers and court trial records—of witchcraft accusations in America that continued up until about the 1950s. The coincidence of the 1950s with the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism will not escape some readers, and indeed, from the time of Arthur Miller’s nemesis on, those who vociferate against witches have kept rather quiet. Unless, of course, you count those who subsequently feared “terrorists” or any other group that might be profiled. We could learn from history, if we’d let ourselves.

Davies’s book brings together largely overlooked, nearly forgotten instances of how many cultures, including that cultural mix of Europeans who were to become “whites,” feared and sometimes killed witches. The difference from Salem was that almost all of these cases took place at the hands of self-appointed accusers (vigilantes) who hounded, punished, or killed someone suspected of being a witch. Surveys still show that a large percentage of people in the United States, although not a majority, believe in witches. It is an idea that has a primal hold on human psyches, and, as Davies points out, it is often used to explain misfortune. As I read this book I reflected how Americans come across as pretty gullible and not exactly sensible in this matter. The germanic strains of immigrants, it seems, were particularly susceptible to such beliefs. We also find witches, however, among Native Americans and African Americans as well. Misfortunate plays no favorites.

There are those who claim technology will save our culture. The other day a friend reminded me of the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Even the most scientific of us knows, whether or not s/he will admit it, that “spooky action at a distance” does occur. It is perhaps only a matter of time before we find the hidden laws that operate the mechanism, but I can’t help but feel a little bit uncanny when I see more and more lifelike robots operating with what seem like human intentions. Of course, those intentions are programmed by humans. And it is often otherwise rational adults who with gun in hand, up until fairly recent times, accused flesh-and-blood neighbors as witches. America Bewitched can be a scary book, especially since unlike vampires, witches do cast their reflections in a mirror.