High-Demand Religion and Male Loneliness

I recently watched the Netflix documentary “The Family”, based on religion journalist Jeff Sharlet’s books about a covert Christian supremacist network that seeds the highest levels of government with right-wing evangelical allies. Hiding in plain sight, these folks are the force behind the National Prayer Breakfast and send congressmen on unofficial junkets to change the hearts (and secure the petrochemicals contracts) of authoritarian leaders from Russia to Libya. The Humanist magazine has a good summary here.

The show opens with a dramatic reconstruction of a younger Sharlet’s stint in an intentional community called Ivanwald, an idyllic suburban mansion near Washington, D.C. where wholesome young men are groomed for future leadership. Like a Christian version of the boarding-school lads in Dead Poets Society, the “brothers” play football, share their innermost feelings, study the texts that are supposed to change their lives, and subject newbies to surprise hazing rituals.

Watching these scenes was a bittersweet reminder of the evening at Harvard Hillel, over 25 years ago, that sealed my desire to try living as an observant Jew. It must have been Succot because we were eating dinner at long picnic tables outdoors under a lantern-lit tent. The Orthodox boys had a camaraderie with one another that was mature, tender, and close-knit, a visible contrast to their jaded, slick, competitive counterparts in the secular world of elite schooling. My three imperatives in my 20s were (1) find a husband, (2) don’t fail physics, and (3) survive one more day of living with my mentally deteriorating mother. (Two outta three ain’t bad, kids.) But the yearning in my heart, as I looked at those young men, wasn’t for a future father of my Jewish babies.

I was in love with a kind of homosocial bonding that seems to flourish in high-demand communities–some alchemy that makes loud insensitive boys into reflective young men, a pressure that forces affection out of them like weeds pushing through a cement sidewalk. I devoured books like Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline (doesn’t that title just make you tingle?), a semi-autobiographical novel about the military academy The Citadel. Later, in my 30s, married and recently moved to this very female-centric Western Massachusetts town, I went along with a teenage friend to her charismatic evangelical church. It was remarkable to see white working-class men weeping, trembling, and embracing as a matter of course–a space of respite from the bluster and gruffness that such men perform with each other in the outside world.

The appeal of places like Ivanwald can’t be reduced to covert homosexuality, however tempting it is for liberals to take that cheap shot. In his essay collection Undergoing God (Continuum, 2006), gay Catholic theologian James Alison suggests that sexual desire may be a subset of men’s stigmatized need for emotional intimacy, rather than the reverse. (Alison is a follower of social scientist Rene Girard, referenced below; the blog Teaching Nonviolent Atonement explains Girardian theology in layperson’s terms.)

Imagine a Freudian or a neo-Freudian looking at a rugby scrum. We can hear such a person commenting, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, lots of latent homosexuality around here.’ Now imagine a Girardian or neo-Girardian gazing at the goings on at a gay sex club. Such a person might say, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, an awful lot of latent rugby playing going on here.’

Funnily enough when I have talked to gay male audiences on retreats and made this comparison, they’ve always smiled and got it immediately. The Girardian comment rings much truer to our experience than the Freudian. And this is not, I think, because it is ideologically more flattering to us. But because you can’t hang around in such circles for very long without realising how much of the apparently sexual activity which is going on is to do with touching, with bonding, being with the tribe, with affection and with playing games. (pg.160)

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis contrasts eros, romantic love/lust, with philia, friendship. Whereas lovers look at one another, friends stand side by side, looking in the same direction at something they both value. In the classical and medieval worlds, philia was considered a higher-level love because freely chosen and not tied to bodily needs such as reproduction. (Sounds kind of queer, no?)

It stands to reason, then, that philia based on shared spirituality would be especially deep and meaningful. The stronger the pressure to face in the same direction, as in high-demand religions like Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, the more that bond is reinforced. The men’s passion for one another–again, not necessarily sexual–is given cover by their passion for God. Because these religions are punitively heteronormative and patriarchal, these men can have it both ways, being vulnerable and devoted to one another in “feminine” ways without losing status.

I wonder if this is a particularly masculine flavor of friendship, to be more object-oriented than personally intimate. In the past decade I’ve had several intense female friendships where our conversations revolved around psychological growth and relationship processing. We had common interests, such as literature, but that wasn’t our strongest bond. It was partway to eros, without any sexual desire, but with that love’s characteristic shadow side of jealousy and engulfment. One element of my masculine transition is the attempt to shift towards a male style of philia, which I’m currently pursuing by attending every available queer nerd convention.

The shadow side of worship-oriented male philia is, of course, the Christian supremacy that is all around us in America. Non-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians in Israel might tell a similar story about the deadly consequences of believing that your in-group is chosen by God. In another essay in the same book, Alison contrasts non-idolatrous worship with authoritarian group bonding exercises, epitomized by the Nazis’ Nuremberg Rally. Boldface emphasis mine, and some paragraph breaks added for ease of online reading.

One of the things in Nuremberg-style worship is what I referred to in my initial description as ‘Bruderschaft’. This is the sense in which, as they gradually become worked up in their enthusiasm, so those involved in the crowd begin to discover a special sort of love for those who are there along with the, a deep camaraderie, a sense of being one with, and delighted to be with, these others who, but a few hours previously, were entirely unknown to them, and, in a few hours’ time, will be just as unknown once again.

Part of worship is a sense that love enables you to leave behind the tedious banalities of the particular, the petty irritations, the timidities, the quirks, and instead find yourself together, and in communion, with these people whom an outside viewer would describe as strangers, but you, at the time, would swear that you were united by a special and mystical bond. And that ecstasy, that ek-stasis, can be quite overpowering, and indeed quite addictive.

Now I want to say that, from the perspective of True Worship, this is all completely ersatz. True Worship leads to a slow, patient discovery of being able to like people in their bizarre particularities, and see the beauty in those things, not abstract from them. Just as true friendship requires time and stretching and self-examination, and trust building, and vulnerability and time wasted doing nothing in particular. This is part of the sense that we don’t need to hide from each other if we are all being forgiven together by the forgiving victim [Jesus], and that un-hiding, that discovery, happens very slowly.

Worship requires the suppression of the particular because it requires all those involved to share in a lie which will lead to a new form of unity creating a new sacrifice by casting someone out. All those involved in the unity are automatically, by the mere fact of being involved, abstracting from their particular stories and sharing in a lie, a cause that is beyond them. The love, the friendship, the real brotherhood which comes with and through True Worship, is a certain sort of being able gradually to bask in particular beauties discovered without any cause beyond themselves. (pgs.46-47)

Preach! I read this book a decade ago during my spiritual crisis about writing a gay novel. Re-reading these passages I bookmarked, I now understand how the ecstasy of friendship with my Christian women’s group could have felt so real, and how it was inevitable that my emerging gay transmasculine self would subsequently be cast out. The main virtue of Julian, my novel protagonist, is his anti-ideological bent. This slutty but sensitive fashion photographer is an expert on “bask[ing] in particular beauties…without any cause beyond themselves.” I believed then, and even more now, that the Holy Spirit sent him to me.

August Links Roundup: What Are Christians Smoking?

Folks, I’m tired. The baggage of Christendom is too much for me to carry. Every once in a while, though, a novelty item falls into my lap from the overhead compartment of the Internet, and the momentary smile gives me the strength to go on.

Your levity of the day is ChristianCannabis.com. Launched by the founders of XXXChurch, a ministry to rescue and convert sex workers, Christian Cannabis aims to open Christians’ minds to the healing and enlightening properties of responsible weed use. Hat tip to Slacktivist for the link.

What if believers were to entertain the idea that legality is not the equivalent of licentiousness, but neither must we demonize and condemn every single thing that we don’t quite understand? What if the Christian community were to begin to understand how something like cannabis could be used in beneficial ways that supports their lives? Their health?

What if – rather than trading our feelings for platitudes and “should-bes” – we were to begin to better understand them?

What if cannabis proved to enhance mental clarity, diminish anxiety, and lend itself toward physical healing and integrative wellness?

What if cannabis proved to dissolve the self constantly getting in the way, enabling one to better prioritize others and the qualities and relationships that make for a full and vibrant life?

Your boi is completely in favor of de-stigmatizing and de-criminalizing cannabis, which has proven medicinal uses and is less addictive than many legal prescription substances (and less profitable to drug companies…coincidence?). But I’m still waiting to see if these white hipster evangelicals will put their political clout behind freeing the people of color who’ve been imprisoned by the drug war, or if they’re only interested in selling Christian-branded products to the mega-church demographic.

(Image source: @_youhadonejob1)

Hmm, the links are salty this month, eh? Well, I watched “The Keepers” on Netflix and I am not in a forgiving mood. This documentary series investigates the 1969 murder of a young schoolteacher nun in Baltimore and its likely connection to a cover-up of a massive pedophile ring at a Catholic high school. Though sometimes slow-paced and repetitive, the series inspired me with its depiction of older women creating community, doggedly investigating leads dropped by probably-corrupt police, and healing from recovered memories. Unlike the film “Spotlight”, it doesn’t end with a definitive triumphant reveal, but such frustration is true to the experience of most survivors seeking justice from the Church.

In the New York Times Sunday opinion pages this weekend, Rachel L. Swarns, a black Catholic journalist, shared her unexpected discoveries about “The Nuns Who Bought and Sold Human Beings”.

Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, one of the oldest Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the nation, has long celebrated the vision and generosity of its founders: a determined band of Catholic nuns who championed free education for the poor in the early 1800s.

The sisters, who established an elite academy in Washington, D.C., also ran “a Saturday school, free to any young girl who wished to learn — including slaves, at a time when public schools were almost nonexistent and teaching slaves to read was illegal,” according to an official history posted for several years on the school’s website.

But when a newly hired school archivist and historian started digging in the convent’s records a few years ago, she found no evidence that the nuns had taught enslaved children to read or write. Instead, she found records that documented a darker side of the order’s history.

The Georgetown Visitation sisters owned at least 107 enslaved men, women and children, the records show. And they sold dozens of those people to pay debts and to help finance the expansion of their school and the construction of a new chapel…

Some former slave-owning religious orders are publicly acknowledging their past and making reparations, such as the Louisiana-based Religious of the Sacred Heart school’s new scholarship fund for African-American students. But in general, Catholic schools’ official histories still gloss over the extent to which they were built on slave labor.

Cindy Wang Brandt, founder of the Facebook community Raising Children Unfundamentalist and author of the progressive Christian parenting book Parenting Forward, wrote a heartfelt blog post last month explaining “Why I’m not a bridge builder within evangelicalism”. As she sees it, in a tradition that has not thoroughly examined its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy, any attempts to change the system from within will require too many compromises:

As I watch from beyond evangelicalism the way Beth Moore has been bravely fighting for inclusion of women’s voices and agency within the Southern Baptist denomination, and witnessing the backlash, I can’t help but be reminded of how low the bar is for evangelicals. That to simply exist as a woman with a voice is heresy…

…A hundred years later [since American women won the right to vote], women still cannot have a voice in their own spirituality, submitting an integral part of their being to the government of men within the largest denomination of evangelicalism.

I don’t know what the final outcome will be of Beth Moore’s current battle within her own denomination. I believe she will, and has already, disrupted the status quo, and possibly some progress will occur in which women gain greater agency.

But what I also know is that she will only be able to maintain her voice within the system if she stays in line with other matters of orthodoxy, i.e. remaining committed to sexual purity including condemnation of the “homosexual lifestyle.” This was the pattern for other Christian feminist movements within evangelicalism such as CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality); whose success in moving the needle on egalitarianism has meant they toe the line on reproductive rights and the inclusion of sexual minorities. (As reported by Deborah Jian Lee in her book, Rescuing Jesus, pp. 125)

In other admittedly harsh words, evangelicals only give a limited degree of freedom to one subset of human beings if they can surely throw other human beings under the bus.

This week at Kittredge Cherry’s QSpirit blog, a site that celebrates LGBTQ spirituality in art, I learned about the British gay slang dialect Polari and a New York artist who is using it to queer the lectionary:

[Erich] Erving’s projects include his ongoing “Bona Breviary of the Fabulosa Innocents” and an Evensong worship service in Polari, the secret language of British gay subcultures. Using images of deceased male porn stars as a starting point, the alchemy of his artistry transforms them into etchings of saints with the same name. In his breviary, they are accompanied by prayers and scriptures translated into Polari, a language that is too queer to be acceptable.

Polari often switches male names and pronouns to female. For example, in Polari Jesus tells his followers:

“Be ye therefore absolutely fantabulosa, even as your Auntie which is in heaven is absolutely fantabulosa.”

The same scripture in the King James Bible is, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The Evensong text is taken from a Polari translation of the entire King James Bible by the Manchester chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, “a protest and street performance charity that uses drag and re-purposed religious imagery to promote tolerance of LGBTQ communities.” (Sisters from the Boston chapter often show up at our local Pride Parade!) Listen to excerpts on the QSpirit website.

“And the sparkle shineth in munge; and the munge comprehended it not.” (John 1:5) Praise Josie Crystal!

Two Varieties of Post-Christian Experience

Two theology bloggers I follow have been exploring what’s next after one has deconstructed the conservative evangelical faith of one’s upbringing–and have arrived at quite different answers.

I began reading Stephen Bradford Long’s posts a few years ago, when he was just beginning to deprogram himself from the anti-gay beliefs that had severely traumatized him. In the beginning, he focused on developing and defending an affirming Christian sexual ethic. Later on, he branched out into explaining how Tarot was compatible with Christianity–a timely subject for me, since at that time I was also trying to maintain my old faith despite relying more and more on non-Christian spiritual practices. Somewhere along the way, he realized that he no longer believed in the Biblical God or the supernatural aspects of traditional religion. In a provocative move, Long came out this year as a follower of the Satanic Temple.

Now, before you start sprinkling your laptop with holy water, the Satanic Temple (not to be confused with the Church of Satan) is a secular humanist organization that adopts the symbol of the Christian Devil to challenge Establishment Clause violations and invoke a Romantic tradition of rebellion against religious repression. They’re the folks who protested a Ten Commandments monument at the Arkansas Capitol by installing a statue of Baphomet, a witty move to highlight the state’s unconstitutional favoritism toward one religion. According to NPR, the Temple “argues that public spaces should be free from religious messaging or be opened up to representations of all faiths, including Satanist icons.”

In his post “Why Satan?” Long explains:

Satanism is originally a literary tradition rooted in the romantic poets, namely Hugo, Shelley, Blake, and Byron. These four poets were not themselves religious Satanists, but they were the first to recast the biblical myth of Satan in a positive, metaphorical light. In the throes of enlightenment, romanticism, and revolution, they saw the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost as the far more sympathetic and heroic figure. As Ruben Van Luijk notes in his book Children of Lucifer, “For radical sympathizers with the Revolution like Godwin and Shelley, Satan was no longer an evil insurgent against righteousness and cosmic order, but the mirror image and mythological embodiment of the revolutionary standing up against arbitrary and despotic power.” (pg. 77)

Similar to how the LGBTQ community has reclaimed the slur “queer”, Long embraces the demonic imagery that was once employed to fill him with self-loathing:

I’m gay, and it’s hard to describe what receiving this cultural story about homosexuality did to my psyche as I was growing up. I was told that homosexuality is the greatest and vilest perversion of the natural world, that I was demon possessed for loving men. I went through exorcisms. One Christian woman slapped my hand out of the air when I made a “disgusting” feminine gesture, which compromised my godly manhood. I was told that gay sex would open a portal to uninhibited and darkness within me. I was an abomination, just like Lucifer…

Owning Lucifer as my figurehead is now a defiant act of empowerment: it is an ownership of my minority status, a proclamation that the myth of my demonization was misguided, and claiming solidarity with the demonized everywhere. Claiming Satan as the heroic good is a deeply validating act when I myself have been deemed a monster because of cultural myth. I embrace my own goodness by recasting my father Lucifer as good, too.

In the Tarot, the Devil (depicted as Baphomet in the classic Rider-Waite deck) does not represent an external force of evil to be loathed and defeated. Rather, it symbolizes our repressed shadow side that we must integrate in order to be free from self-imposed bondage.

Spiritual integration is good for the abs, too. (Lucifer pin by Kate Sheridan)

Finally, Long chose a symbol from Christian iconography because he remains within the stream of the Christian tradition, though not as an orthodox believer. In his post “Giving Up on Calling Myself Christian”, he writes:

While I have utmost respect of people who can affirm the creeds, I now personally experience the truth claims of Christianity as intellectually insulting, and little more than untenable superstition…And yet I find the symbol, story, liturgy, and tradition of Christianity significant enough for me personally to not walk out of the church. Because of this, I think I personally qualify as at least *some* sort of Christian.

…I’m tired of fighting the faithful over my participation in their religion — a religion which is my tradition, heritage, and central guiding story. I’m tired of trying to stake my claim in Christianity, even though I still speak the liturgies, attend the rites, dream the symbols, and revere Christ.

But whatever. Too many of the faithful insist that I’m not in their club, and I’m tired of fighting them. To make the bickering stop, I’m shedding the term Christian, and adopting “Post-Christian” as a more accurate description: I can no longer affirm the central creeds of Christianity, but I am in a place accessible only by way of Christianity. I don’t think I will ever leave the church fully, but I will partake not as a Christian, but a Post-Christian. That seems like a compromise which makes everyone’s life (especially mine) easier.

This formulation gave me a way to categorize my complex religious identity. I’m a Christian the same way I’m a New Yorker. Manhattan, like Christendom, is a place that fundamentally shaped who I am, but I couldn’t live there anymore. There are things I miss about it that I can’t find anywhere else. When a certain song plays, or a characteristic smell reaches me (incense, burnt soft pretzels, the subway grating after rain), I feel satisfied and whole–for a maximum of 48 hours in the city, or 45 minutes in church, before something predictably makes me overwhelmed and stressed.

Though I chose the Devil as my Tarot Wheel of the Year card for 2019, I don’t feel the same bond with that figure as Long does. It has too many associations with the ritual abuse that some of my friends suffered. Moreover, I want to put my traumatic relationship with the Bible behind me, instead of remaining bound to it in an antagonistic way. For me, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu served the same purpose, an anti-God that doesn’t require literal belief in order to be effective at clearing away the gaslighting of an abusive Father’s “love”.

Cthulhu-chu, I choose you!

Meanwhile, Richard Beck at Experimental Theology is writing a series on “post-progressive Christianity”. Beck is a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University and a member of the Churches of Christ who also appreciates high-church devotional practices like the rosary. I recommend his book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Morality (Wipf & Stock, 2011), an exploration of the ethical problems with the purity paradigm in religion, with the reservation that his criticism of “boundaries” is not sufficiently informed by feminism or trauma theory.

Beck’s latest blog series points out some missing ingredients in the liberal Christian churches where many post-evangelicals wind up. Essentially, he argues that these environments don’t offer much that adds to the secular progressive worldview of their members. Liberal theology and preaching mainly emphasizes how our pre-existing political or intellectual commitments are compatible with (parts of) the Bible. We’re less likely to hear a faith-based challenge to the values and methods we brought in from outside the church. The absence of such a challenge can stunt our spiritual growth and make our religion irrelevant. Beck observes:

[M]any progressive Christians are biblically fragile. Almost every page of the Bible triggers a faith crisis, every Bible study getting stuck on what is “problematic.” The Word of God isn’t enjoyed as a location of delight and joy. The Bible isn’t a daily source of life, comfort, and sustenance…

Put bluntly, progressives don’t read the Bible much because they already know what the Bible is supposed to say. God is always being judged, criticized, and indicted by a progressive moral vision. Progressive Christians believe in morality rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when that happens the Bible is thoroughly tamed and captured by the progressive moral and political imagination. The Word of God is stuffed into a progressive moral box and is not free to startle, surprise, challenge, criticize, indict, unsettle, disturb and interrupt us…

From a prophetic aspect, while I still have questions and concerns about the Bible, as a post-progressive I spend less time questioning the Bible and more time letting the Bible question me.

Now, I absolutely agree with this. It was true of the Reform Jewish congregations I attended back in the 1990s before my baptism, and all the liberal-mainline churches I’ve been in. Back when I was an orthodox Christian, I often cited Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, where he says that the Resurrection is not something to be explained according to our existing ideas of how the world works. Rather, a Christian is someone who takes the Resurrection as starting point, and reorients their understanding of the world accordingly.

The difference between Beck and me is that the Bible is not the authority I want to be under–or to be more precise, not the sparring partner I consider most worthy and fruitful. I want to be taught and challenged, as much as Beck does. But the worldview of Scripture at worst is opposed to, and at best doesn’t prioritize, my core values of consent, sexual and neurological diversity, children’s rights, and the authority of personal experience. I don’t feel it’s ethically or psychologically healthy for me to put those up for debate any longer.

I commend Beck for stating the problem in such clear terms that may be disturbing to his progressive readers. And I wonder how his assessment of left-wing Christianity would change if he looked beyond majority-white denominations and theologians. James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power and Renita J. Weems’ Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, both of which we studied in my church small group, engage boldly with Christian theology and Scripture from black liberation and womanist perspectives, treating the tradition with respect and expertise while being unafraid to depart from it where justice dictates.

Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.

June Links Roundup: If This Is Success, Give Me Failure

Happy Pride Month! I have briefly paused my efforts to buy every possible gay nerd tank top, to bring you this list of lovely links.

Sometimes I look back on my Harvard undergraduate career as a conservative journalist and wonder what would have happened if I’d remained on the Federalist Society fast track to networking success. Since I’ve never sexually harassed anyone, I probably wouldn’t qualify for the Supreme Court. However, I might be a stealth political kingmaker like Kelly Monroe Kullberg, author of the Christian intellectual apologetics anthology Finding God at Harvard–and, apparently, the woman behind a slew of pro-Trump “Astroturf” groups that spread hateful anti-Muslim fake news on social media. Alex Kasprak at the scam-busting site Snopes.com conducted this in-depth investigation, published last month: “Disguising Hate: How Radical Evangelicals Spread Anti-Islamic Vitriol on Facebook”:

A coordinated network of evangelical Christian Facebook pages publishing overtly Islamophobic, conspiratorial content paints extreme, divisive right-wing rhetoric as having broad American support but is actually tied to one individual, a Snopes investigation reveals.

These pages claim that Islam is “not a religion,” that Muslims are violent and duplicitous, and that Islamic refugee resettlement is “cultural destruction and subjugation.” Just hours after the April 2019 Notre Dame spire collapse in a catastrophic fire, this network went into overdrive sowing doubt about the possible role Muslims had in its collapse. Multiple pages within this network have stated that their purpose is “message boosting & targeting.” Ten of the pages within the network explicitly support U.S. President Donald Trump in their titles and belong to an umbrella organization that “[speaks] up for a Trump-Pence agenda.” A post shared on several of those pages implores readers to “like our page and let’s roll 2020!

These pages, however, are steeped in fantastical notions of “globalist” conspiracies linking Islam, Socialism, and multi-billionaire philanthropist and Democratic Party supporter George Soros to the decline of Western civilization. Some of these pages also claim that survivors of the Parkland High School massacre in the U.S., for instance, are on a Soros-funded “Leftist-Islamist payroll.”

…Though the actual authorship of the posts within these pages is opaque, their titles imply diverse representation from a broad swath of American demographic groups, including “Jews & Christians for America” and “Blacks for Trump.” In reality, however, the pages in this network are all connected to evangelical activist Kelly Monroe Kullberg…[who] is neither black nor Jewish…

…This network, and others that employ similar tactics, can affect online discourse in several ways. First, the network serves to influence public opinion by presenting the views of a small group of activists as representative of a much broader swath of the American populace. Second, such a strategy in this case amplifies and offers a veil of legitimacy to hatred and conspiracy theories. Third, in spite of these strategies awash in misinformation, the pages within the network have attracted the financial backing of well-heeled political donors who exploit these pages and groups to disguise the origin of political Facebook ads.

Fun (or not-so-fun) fact, Kelly was one of my main sources for a 1992 Harvard Salient cover story called “The Witches Are Hunting”, describing anti-Christian bias at Harvard Divinity School. (The other source was Rich Tafel, later president of the gay conservative PAC known as Log Cabin Republicans.) With my usual penchant for flamboyant self-destruction, I declared my major in the Religion Department a couple months after ripping them a new asshole in the aforementioned conservative biweekly. And now I am a practicing witch…the gods laugh.

Republicans have perfected the one-two punch of exploiting American workers: first, hollow out their manufacturing base with predatory corporate takeovers, then channel their dispossessed rage into electing far-right demagogues. That’s the takeaway from this 2012 Rolling Stone profile, “Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital”, which remains timely as an exposé of how private equity firms are strip-mining our economy.

A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent…

…Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company’s management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.

But here’s the catch. When Bain borrows all of that money from the bank, it’s the target company that ends up on the hook for all of the debt.

Now your troubled firm – let’s say you make tricycles in Alabama – has been taken over by a bunch of slick Wall Street dudes who kicked in as little as five percent as a down payment. So in addition to whatever problems you had before, Tricycle Inc. now owes Goldman or Citigroup $350 million. With all that new debt service to pay, the company’s bottom line is suddenly untenable: You almost have to start firing people immediately just to get your costs down to a manageable level.

“That interest,” says Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission, “just sucks the profit out of the company.”

Fortunately, the geniuses at Bain who now run the place are there to help tell you whom to fire. And for the service it performs cutting your company’s costs to help you pay off the massive debt that it, Bain, saddled your company with in the first place, Bain naturally charges a management fee, typically millions of dollars a year. So Tricycle Inc. now has two gigantic new burdens it never had before Bain Capital stepped into the picture: tens of millions in annual debt service, and millions more in “management fees.” Since the initial acquisition of Tricycle Inc. was probably greased by promising the company’s upper management lucrative bonuses, all that pain inevitably comes out of just one place: the benefits and payroll of the hourly workforce.

Once all that debt is added, one of two things can happen. The company can fire workers and slash benefits to pay off all its new obligations to Goldman Sachs and Bain, leaving it ripe to be resold by Bain at a huge profit. Or it can go bankrupt – this happens after about seven percent of all private equity buyouts – leaving behind one or more shuttered factory towns. Either way, Bain wins. By power-sucking cash value from even the most rapidly dying firms, private equity raiders like Bain almost always get their cash out before a target goes belly up.

Let’s wrap up with two stories about people who are trying to fix this trash fire of a planet–literally. This week’s Springwise trend-spotter newsletter profiles Europe’s first garbage-collection race, held on May 30 in Marseille. Participants included Olympic swimming champion Coralie Balmy and other world-class athletes. The Mediterranean Sea is among the world’s most polluted bodies of water.

Merging elements of a race and a treasure hunt, 20 teams, made up of two swimmers and two kayakers, aimed to collect 8 km of waste from the sea.

Le Grand Défi, or The Grand Challenge, was co-organised by the French environmental protection brand SauvagePalana Environmentand the Amos Sport Business School. It was inspired by Emmanuel Laurin and his film The Great Saphire, which featured Laurin’s 120-km swim between Toulon and Marseille, where he collected more than 100 kg of waste.

Found via the ex-evangelical blog Love Joy Feminism, this story by Karina Bland in the Arizona Republic newspaper profiles her state’s chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse International, a volunteer organization that helps kids recover from trauma. The bikers, who are vetted and trained for these sensitive situations, become big buddies for children who need to feel protected and strong again:

[A] biker’s power and intimidating image can even the playing field for a little kid who has been hurt. If the man who hurt this little girl calls or drives by, or even if she is just scared, another nightmare, the bikers will ride over and stand guard all night.

If she is afraid to go to school, they will take her and watch until she’s safely inside.

And if she has to testify against her abuser in court, they will go, too, walking with her to the witness stand and taking over the first row of seats. Pipes will tell her, “Look at us, not him.” And when she’s done, they will circle her again and walk her out.

 

May Links Roundup: Happiness Comes in a Pill

Spring flowers have bloomed in the Happy Valley, and we just celebrated Pride here in the lesbian capital of America. I do love our bohemian small-town paradise, mostly, but one aspect of granola-mom culture that I could do without is the suspicion toward Western medicine, particularly mental-health drugs like antidepressants and ADHD treatments. I was raised to feel this way too, but since recognizing myself as transgender, I’ve noticed a loosening of my attachment to the given body as more natural or safe than the altered one. I struggle to respond politely to cis people’s oft-repeated caution that “we don’t know the long-term effects of hormone replacement therapy.” Well, we do know that denial of transition-related care has severe negative effects on people’s mental health, right now. (I’m not on HRT myself but I know a fair number of folks who have benefited from it.) Simply put, I’m no longer assuming that inaction is safer than experimentation.

At Dame Magazine, Erin Biba takes a sympathetic look at the misguided anti-vaccination movement in her April feature, “Why are so many women rejecting medical science?” (Hat tip to the feminist blog Shakesville for the link.)

There are, obviously, many reasons for the growth of miracle cures and predatory medical treatments and their popularity among women. But one of the main causes is a failure of evidence-based medicine to properly study, understand, and treat women—or even to show them basic empathy. The lack of proper health care and even a basic understanding of women’s bodies has left women desperate for any possible treatment. Because why trust medical science when it ignores you and fails to treat your health seriously?

Among her examples are studies showing that doctors spend fewer minutes listening to female patients; women’s pain is minimized (especially black women), leading to under-prescription of painkillers as compared to men; and clinical tests that until recently only included males.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Congress finally passed a law requiring all NIH-funded trials to include women. It may seem shocking that drug trials with government funding only started including women in the 90s, but what’s even worse is that it wasn’t until 2016 that NIH-funded research was required to use male AND female mice in their studies and to use male AND female tissue cells in their research.

What that means is, until recently, the way that drugs work in female bodies has been largely unknown—and that drugs to treat female-specific disorders have not been developed.

While we’re on the subject of better living through chemistry: Mike Morrell is a progressive Christian writer and speaker whose blog fearlessly explores the fringes of mystical experience and ecumenical collaboration. In this post, he reprints an excerpt from Jack Call’s book Psychedelic Christianity: On the Ultimate Goal of Living. Call speculates on what the “unforgivable sin” might be, reaching a conclusion that reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story on this topic, “Ethan Brand”:

We are all sinners and we are all forgiven for our sins. By the way, let me just say that I hate the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I hate it because it implies that Christians are superior to non-Christians in that they are forgiven and non-Christians aren’t, and this is not a bit less self-righteous than simply saying, “Christians are perfect. Non-Christians aren’t.” Non-Christians are forgiven too.

Jesus said that there is only one sin that is unforgivable: blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. And what is that? Well, it certainly isn’t just not being a Christian. If it were, we would all be damned; because, even if a person is baptized in infancy and a Christian from that point on, she or he wouldn’t have been a Christian before that; so, if not being a Christian was an unforgivable sin, all of us have committed it, and it would be the one sin that baptism can’t wash away.

Given, then, that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not equal failure to be a Christian, what is it? The context in which Jesus proclaimed this to be the one and only unforgivable sin was one in which some scribes and Pharisees had accused him of driving out demons with the help of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons (Matt: 12:24-32, Mark 3:22-30)…

So, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is being so morally blind and confused as to be unable to see plain and evident goodness as goodness and instead to think that there must be something evil about it. It is unforgivable only because the intended recipient of the forgiveness would be unable to accept it, would think there is something evil about forgiving and being forgiven. If you are worried that you have committed this unforgivable sin, then you haven’t, because your worry shows that you care about and can recognize goodness.

What this tells us about what we should do to reach the ultimate goal is that we should be open and ready to see goodness in the place where we find ourselves. If we can’t do that, it won’t help to be in the kingdom of heaven. No matter how bad you think you are, God forgives you and blesses you, but he can’t accept and appreciate the forgiveness and blessings for you. Only you can do that for yourself.

I was watching the overhead TV at the Green Bay, WI airport (the cutest little airport ever), out of touch with the news cycle as always when I travel, when I saw video of the catastrophic Notre-Dame cathedral fire. I had to watch the repeating loop for several minutes and still didn’t quite believe it. At the time, it sounded as if the whole structure was doomed, though it appears that much has been salvaged and money is being raised for rebuilding. Predictably, there was some disagreement on social media regarding (1) whether the Catholic Church as a whole should be burned to the ground, metaphorically speaking, and (2) the unfairness of wealthy people and countries rushing to save a building when they’ve done nothing of the sort for the suffering poor. At the socialist journal Current Affairs, editor Nathan J. Robinson explains why this is a false dichotomy in “Neoliberalism and Notre-Dame”:

It seems that the fire was an accident. But it was apparently also an accident “waiting to happen.” The Wall Street Journal reports today that the cathedral had suffered “decades of neglect” and had been deteriorating and rotting. A senior adviser to the Friends of Notre-Dame commented: “For sure if the cathedral had been maintained regularly, with a higher level of funding, we would have avoided this… The more you wait, the more risks you have.” What happened, then? Notre-Dame is beloved, so much so that a billion dollars instantly poured in to fund its repairs. With the public valuing Notre-Dame so highly, why was it deteriorating and lacking in funds?

The French state owns the cathedral, and the government was unwilling to spend money on it. According to the Journal report, state officials were pushing the church to start charging admission, which the archdiocese was unwilling to do. A 2017 report said that “to the government, the cathedral is just one of many old buildings in need of care,” and “Notre Dame is not necessarily the most pressing case” with one official quoted as saying “France has thousands of monuments…It will not fall down.” Famous last words.

You can see why the government didn’t want to massively increase its spending on maintaining historic buildings, though. It would have caused an uproar, at a time when the French people are already furious about economic inequality. Emmanuel Macron’s government has cut taxes on the rich and “the traditionally generous social welfare system is increasingly neglecting key slices of the populace, especially young people.”

It’s impossible to separate Notre-Dame’s neglect from austerity and inequality…

…This is neoliberalism: We are always being told that we cannot afford certain things, that even though more and more billionaires keep popping up, the government is strapped for cash and cannot possibly raise enough revenue to fund the basics.

Of course, it’s correct that historic preservation money will only be provided if public opinion demands it, and that public opinion probably isn’t too passionate about it. But why is public opinion lukewarm on historic preservation funds? Because the public has a lot more to worry about. If you’re cutting social welfare spending, then of course the public aren’t going to want you to increase funding for maintaining cathedrals. If, on the other hand, you have a functional and fair welfare state, people won’t feel that there is a trade-off between funding the cathedrals and funding benefits.

Speaking of false choices, literature and critical theory professor Grace Lavery’s e-newsletter The Stage Mirror (the best $5/month you will spend on the Internet, trust me) hosted an insightful conversation with queer/trans writers Daniel Ortberg, Molly Priddy, and Charlie Zieke about the perceived competition between butch lesbianism and transmasculinity. There’s a narrative going around in some cis lesbian circles that nowadays, young tomboys are pressured to transition to male, instead of embracing their nonconforming womanhood. The feminist counterculture narrative against “Big Pharma” informs trans-exclusive radical feminism here too. Grace frames the issue thus:

So, our topic is the narrative that sometimes gets called “butch flight,” but it’s an old and slightly tiresome phrase and we might all decide we want to use something better. The narrative, which is as old as ftm transition, is something like: we are losing our butches to testosterone and maleness. Every part of this is fascinating to me, as a fear, or as a piece of reasoning. The “we,” the “losing,” the “our,” and the notion that transition is less queer, and more definitive, than lesbian identity or butch identity. I’m interested in why people feel this way, and what political desires and interests the feeling enables or licenses.

At one point in the conversation, Ortberg, a trans man, remarks: “it’s hard when there’s a whole sense of community that’s invested in your own gender/body/lesbianness as a sort of public resource!” In my experience, this sense of entitlement to an assigned-female person’s loyalty and political labor, at the expense of that individual’s self-development, is both narcissistic and sexist. Our real enemy is toxic gender roles, not maleness.

Closing out with some femme love: the New York Times profiled doll fashion designer Carol Spencer, “The Chic Octogenarian Behind Barbie’s Best Looks”, who’s written a new memoir, Dressing Barbie, about her career at Mattel from 1963-99. Countering criticism that Barbie fosters unrealistic body image woes, Spencer “defends Barbie as a healthy alternative to video games; an engine of imagination for girls and boys, who can project onto a Barbie doll whoever they may wish to become.” My son and I agree!

April Links Roundup: Gaslighting and Magic

Happy Spring, friends! I have tempted fate this morning by putting away the Young Master’s snow pants, which means that Western Massachusetts will probably be hit by an unseasonable blizzard soon. Flowers and songbirds are still in short supply in our chilly region, but I’ve got a nice crop of links for you this month.

I had a good conversation recently with my friend the poet Charlie Bondhus about why magic “works” and what kind of formal study is needed to take it to the next level. We were sympathetic to the idea that magic is mainly about intention; ritual can be helpful as a focal point, but the specific implements can be adapted to your needs without diminishing its effectiveness. Charlie prompted me to consider whether I’m looking for a mentor to validate my practice because I don’t trust myself enough. To that end, he sent me this link to John Beckett’s pagan blog Under the Sacred Oaks: “Believe Your Experiences–Wisdom from the Shredded Veil”. Beckett observes that mainstream society gaslights us about our perceptions of hidden realities, so we’re afraid to share our stories of magical experiences. If we talked about them more, we’d discover how common they are.

Your eyes aren’t lying. Neither are your ears, or your skin, or those thoughts that are occurring in your brain but that you know didn’t come from you. Believe your experiences.

What happened is undeniably real. What it means is a question of interpretation. We have to practice good discernment. Sometimes a strange light is your neighbor playing with a flashlight at 3:00 AM. Go through all the rational explanations, and if one of them fits, so be it. The goal of discernment is to find the truth, not to convince ourselves we saw something we didn’t see but wish we had.

While all the stories in the workshops have been solid, I’ve heard a few privately that I had serious doubts about. I’m sure the person was telling the truth – the experience happened like they described it. But their interpretation struck me as unlikely. Jumping to Otherworldly conclusions is just as bad as dismissing Otherworldly conclusions.

But sometimes you run through all the so-called “rational explanations” and none of them fit. Sometimes the experience is so strong and speaks to us at such a deep level that–at least in the moment–there is no doubt it has a non-ordinary source. Maybe you could dismiss one strange occurrence, or two, or three… but by the time you get to six or eight or twelve, you can’t ignore the magic any longer.

Your experiences are real–believe them.

Your stories are true–tell them.

By contrast, it turns out, the rest of this month’s links fall into the category of “things we know that just ain’t so”. At 1843 Magazine, a spin-off of The Economist, Peter Wilson reports the “Death of the Calorie” as a reliable measure of the relationship between food and weight gain. (Hat tip to feminist blog Shakesville for the link.)

Most studies show that more than 80% of people regain any lost weight in the long term. And like him, when we fail, most of us assume that we are too lazy or greedy – that we are at fault.

As a general rule it is true that if you eat vastly fewer calories than you burn, you’ll get slimmer (and if you consume far more, you’ll get fatter). But the myriad faddy diets flogged to us each year belie the simplicity of the formula… The calorie as a scientific measurement is not in dispute. But calculating the exact calorific content of food is far harder than the confidently precise numbers displayed on food packets suggest. Two items of food with identical calorific values may be digested in very different ways. Each body processes calories differently. Even for a single individual, the time of day that you eat matters. The more we probe, the more we realise that tallying calories will do little to help us control our weight or even maintain a healthy diet: the beguiling simplicity of counting calories in and calories out is dangerously flawed.

In fact, not only are all calories not created equal, but the popularity of this metric actually contributed to Americans’ weight gain problem, because it led people to substitute high-carbohydrate, fat-free processed foods (which convert to sugar faster) for foods with naturally occurring fats that give you a longer-term energy boost.

By the late 1960s, obesity was becoming a pressing health concern as people became more sedentary and started eating highly processed foods and lots of sugar. As the number of people who needed to lose weight grew, changing diets became the focus of attention.

So began the war on fat, in which Atwater’s calorie calculations were an unwitting ally. Because counting calories was seen as an objective arbiter of the health qualities of a foodstuff, it seemed logical that the most calorie-laden part of any food item – fat – must be bad for you. By this measure, dishes low in calories, but rich in sugar and carbohydrates, seemed healthier. People were increasingly willing to blame fat for many of the health ills of modern life, helped along by the sugar lobby: in 2016, a researcher at the University of California uncovered documents from 1967 showing that sugar companies secretly funded studies at Harvard University designed to blame fat for the growing obesity epidemic. That the dietary “fat” found in olive oil, bacon and butter is branded with the same word as the unwanted flesh around our middles made it all the easier to demonise.

US Senate committee report in 1977 recommended a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet for all, and other governments followed suit. The food industry responded with enthusiasm, removing fat, the most calorie-dense of macronutrients, from food items and replacing it with sugar, starch and salt. As a bonus, the thousands of new cheap and tasty “low-cal” and “low-fat” products which Camacho used to diet tended to have longer shelf lives and higher profit margins.

But this didn’t lead to the expected improvements in public health. Instead, it coincided almost exactly with the most dramatic rise in obesity in human history. Between 1975 and 2016 obesity almost tripled worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO): nearly 40% of over-18s – some 1.9bn adults – are now overweight. That contributed to a rapid rise in cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke) which became the leading cause of death worldwide. Rates of type-2 diabetes, which is often linked to lifestyle and diet, have more than doubled since 1980.

Read the rest of this well-researched article for surprising tips about food preparation and calorie counts. For example: “The calorie load of carbohydrate-heavy items such as rice, pasta, bread and potatoes can be slashed simply by cooking, chilling and reheating them. As starch molecules cool they form new structures that are harder to digest. You absorb fewer calories eating toast that has been left to go cold, or leftover spaghetti, than if they were freshly made.” Maybe the Young Master is onto something when he eats frozen ravioli right out of the package. I’m a good mom.

At The Baffler, novelist, travel writer, and Tarot deck creator Jessa Crispin complicates our Trump-era celebration of women’s anger in “Good Girls Gone Mad”. Reviewing recent books by Rebecca Traister and Soraya Chemaly, Crispin writes:

Both books assume that I should be furious at the unfair treatment Hillary Clinton received at the hands of the media during the 2016 presidential election.

Neither book considers the possibility, even for the length of a sentence fragment, that one thing making some women angry might have been the insistence by a certain segment of elite women leaders that Hillary Clinton was the feminist choice despite her having made the lives of an entirely other segment of women unlivable through her support of military intervention, the gutting of social welfare programs, and the financial ruin of our nation by the wealthy. We should only care that some commentators were mean about her pantsuits, and her laugh, and her hair…

…And of course neither book manages to explain how women’s anger is different than men’s. When a woman is angry in these books, it is because of injustice, not because of immigrants. An angry woman is working toward progress—she is not a white supremacist, or a mother trying to suppress trans rights for the sake of “the children,” or an online troll sending death threats. Readers of Traister and Chemaly would never guess that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016. When a woman is angry in these tracts, she is Elizabeth Warren, not Marine Le Pen.

Subscribe to her weekly e-newsletter for straight talk about relationships, gender roles, and Tarot.

We’ve all heard about the celebrities who bribed and cheated to get their kids into elite colleges. But Elaine Ou at Bloomberg Opinion says, “Forget Bribery. The Real Scam Is Pretending That Degrees Have Value.” Parents targeted Ivy League schools, rather than “rigorous, practical” ones like MIT and Caltech, because the main advantage of a Harvard degree over an online course or community college is the hoarding of prestige by elite families. “Successful parents in the upper middle class can leave money to their children, but that doesn’t guarantee entrée into the social elite. The more reliable way for powerful parents to buy power for their children is through a name-brand, exclusive education…When something is both expensive and of no practical value, it’s clearly intended as a means of wealth transfer.”

Speaking of economic inequality, Roge Karma at The American Prospect demands a greater public return on investment from government-supported research, in “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Myth of American Innovation”. At a hearing on regulation of the pharmaceutical industry last year, New York Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that the industry justifies high drug prices and restrictive patents on the grounds that companies need money to fund future innovations, but in fact, most of these drugs would not exist without significant funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Every single one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2010 to 2016 was developed thanks to NIH’s taxpayer-funded research.

In her 2004 book The Truth About Drug Companies, physician Marcia Angell notes that for decades, the NIH has backed research into the most promising drugs in the United States to the tune of $30 billion every year. Meanwhile, executives and shareholders combined receive 99 percent of the over $500 billion profits generated by the industry’s largest 18 drug companies, leaving relatively little room for new spending on research.

For years, progressive proposals like a 70 percent marginal income tax rate or a 2 percent wealth tax, have been dismissed as unworkable and naïve. Such policies, the argument goes, will stifle the underlying mechanism that drives the U.S. economy: private sector innovation. As Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, the country’s preeminent start-up incubator, put it “if income taxes are high enough, start-ups stop happening.”

This argument rests on a story of an American economy driven primarily by genius entrepreneurs, corporate risk takers, and private innovators who could solve our society’s most pressing problems if government just got off their backs. Typically, progressives have found themselves responding to this story in two ways: they ignore it and focus on inequality, or they reaffirm it and assure the public that private innovation will continue to flourish under progressive leaders.

But the fact that some of the world’s most innovative companies are American is not because of low taxes or loose regulations. It is because America is home to the biggest venture capitalist in the world: the U.S. government. The taxpayers who fund these innovations should be compensated accordingly.

Finally, this news headline from Taiwan has gone viral as the perfect unintentional poem: “Doctors find four bees in woman’s eye, feeding on her tears”. And not just any bees–graveyard-dwelling sweat bees. It doesn’t get more Goth than that.

March Links Roundup: Sacred Arts, Imperfect Mediators

Just as today we debate “separating the art from the artist” when an influential creator’s bad behavior comes to light, the early Christians were split over the standards for mediating their own sacred inspiration. A purist breakaway group in North Africa in the fourth century contended that clergy had to be morally blameless, or else their ministry, prayers, and administration of the sacraments were not effective. Because church authorities (rather conveniently) rejected this position, we know it as the “Donatist heresy”.

The official line has pragmatism to commend it: it’s bad enough when “all your faves are problematic”, but if you have to start worrying that your baptism or absolution is invalid, your eternal fate might depend on the unknown misdeeds of your priest. That’s too much stress and uncertainty for the flock. On the other hand, I think we’re seeing nowadays that the clergy abuse crisis is retroactively undermining many Christians’ experiences of God in church. The truths they thought they knew, the love they felt in the worship and sacraments–was it all a lie? When someone or something formative for us is exposed as predatory, we may even doubt the goals, beliefs, and affections that once seemed synonymous with our “self”.

In this October 2018 article from Vox, Constance Grady asks some literary critics to weigh in on “What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster?” On social media, there’s a predictable cycle of declaring that some creator is “cancelled” because of anything from an unfortunate remark to serial predation, followed by a flurry of equally simplistic rants against political correctness. Separating art from artist was the premise of early 20th century New Criticism, which has stuck with us because it makes English-class papers easier to write without historical background. Postmodern “death of the author” theory, meanwhile, can empower readers to reclaim the text from its problematic origins. I see a similarity to the way that progressive Christians claim personal authority to talk back to oppressive Bible passages and carve out a place for marginalized people in the tradition. On the other hand, New Historicists warn that the reader is also embedded in a context that may include the same vices that plagued the creator, like racism and rape culture. We need to look at ourselves as critically as the text.

The critics differed, however, on the question of whether it’s ever reasonable for a critic to decide not to engage with art made by a predator. There are two basic arguments here. One of those arguments…says that engaging critically with a work of art is completely different from endorsing the morality of the artist… The other argument says that our time is limited, we cannot devote equal critical attention to every work of art out there, and it’s reasonable for critics to curate their choices a little…

The issue here is not just “Is this artist monstrous?” but “Is this work of art asking me as a reader to be complicit with the artist’s monstrosity?” It’s the same argument that has come up repeatedly with R. Kelly, who writes songs about sex and consent and age differences between lovers, and who has also been accused of sexually assaulting very young women and girls.

I agree with Grady’s conclusion that there’s no one-size-fits-all theory that’ll determine when to disengage from questionable art or artists. Like a dysfunctional family where love is also possible, or a church that can be both oppressive and liberating, staying or going is a very individual decision.

Over at Into Account, a new blog for lifting up the voices of abuse survivors in church, Stephanie Krehbiel has a message for anyone who’d override that discernment process: “Godly Men, Be Quiet”. Conservative church leaders lately have been making noise about #MeToo because they can’t ignore it, but their pronouncements aren’t followed by structural change or repentance. Survivor-led reform isn’t happening. Too bad:

The vast majority of church leaders have absolutely no business trying to be leaders in the movement to end sexual abuse. Part of how church leaders mess up–particularly in strongly patriarchal traditions invested in male headship (and let’s get real, for all the change that’s happened, that’s still most of Christianity)–is in assuming that they do.

Their business is not to lead; it is to follow. Not for a designated period of penance. Not as part of a healing ritual that they can subsequently advertise. Not as a finite disciplinary sentence.

FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

Patriarchal Christian masculinity is a powerful drug. It makes many church men believe that the world desperately needs their perspective on everything. It makes their followers believe that asking such men to step aside from leadership is somehow tantamount to cruelty. God is always calling these men to lead someone or something, even when what they know about that thing may be approximately two cents less than nothingParticularly in the evangelical world, the spiritual quality that seems to most define men like this is their ability to imagine that they hear God in the voice of their own ambition…

I am not asking men in church leadership positions to do nothing about sexual abuse. I’m asking them to devote themselves to the task of following people who have less social power than they do.

Which, you know, sounds a lot like what Jesus told us to do…

In the New York Times last month, Elizabeth Dias’ investigative feature on gay Catholic priests, “It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage,” is a heartbreaking look at scores of mostly-anonymous clergy trying to live their vocation while crushed by hypocrisy, secrecy, and loneliness. Being sexually active, apparently, is less scandalous than being honest about one’s orientation while celibate. The atmosphere is even more stifling now because church leadership is erroneously scapegoating gay clergy for the sexual abuse crisis.

Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent…

…The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.

This topic is in the news again because of the new book In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, an exposé by French journalist Frédéric Martel. On the Nonviolent Atonement blog, gay Catholic theologian James Alison offers a sensitive and well-thought-out analysis of the problem and the way forward. Alison’s work helped me tremendously a decade ago when I was tormented by the gay/Christian question.

Alison describes the book, for which he was interviewed, as “the first attempt of which I am aware at a properly researched answer to the question: ‘How and why is it that the principal institutional obstacle to LGBT rights at the worldwide level appears itself to be massively staffed by gay men?'” This is not a book about the child abuse crisis per se, but rather, about how a culture of duplicity and blackmail is conducive to all sorts of abuses and cover-ups. Most people in the system are not even aware of the big picture:

We’re not talking about one single big lie, where all these men butch it up in public until they get back behind the Vatican walls ― at which point all can relax together in a theatrical green room, let down their hair and call each other Monica, Morgana or Mechthilde while swapping hot takes about their respective beaux. Rather we are talking about endless small lies, defensive manoeuvres, acts of hiding of self, adoptions of positions, fear of loss of livelihood, betrayals of friends, disguises of love, hints of blackmail, bizarre alliances, coded exchanges and resilient creations of habitable bubbles. We are also talking about the ways this system of mendacity reproduces itself through newcomers joining in playing the game. All involved are lying to and about themselves and each other; and yet, at the same time, they both know and don’t know what each other knows.

Furthermore, many are tortured by their own duplicity, not yet having achieved the perfection of polished cognitive dissonance at which some of those whom Martel interviews have obviously arrived. This matches what I have myself observed: the most venomous anti-clericalism and hatred of the Vatican comes from the mouths of its own clerical employees.

Meanwhile, the cognitive dissonance is amplified as sexual diversity has become mainstream in the outside world. Honest discussion of sexuality is the norm–except in the Church. Alison notes (a point that also emerged in the New York Times article) that unlike heterosexual men, many of the gay priests took their vows of celibacy without real understanding of their sexuality or options for healthy romantic partnership.

Church authority still teaches that a young gay person cannot appropriately be socialised into the humanisation of their emotional and sexual urges while dreaming of being married to someone they love. Indeed, far too many Catholic high schools, especially in the United States, are viciously legalistic in their attempts to apply these teachings to their employees and young charges. Further the authorities teach that such a young gay person does not have freedom of choice concerning whether to opt for marriage or a single life. They have a solemn obligation to singleness, with the threat of Hell a powerful enforcer….

Yes, the authorities really do deny there to be such a thing as an emotionally and psychologically balanced openly gay person who, therefore, might make a free choice between marriage or celibacy and so become a straightforward, honest candidate for seminary.

Now, that the official position is a lie is obvious to everyone, and scarcely applied anywhere. Even hard-line Bishops claim that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but instead on the basis of something they call “emotional and affective maturity.” But that effectively means that they do not believe their own teaching, for they are admitting people who their own official teaching claims not to exist. Such candidates are automatically implicated in the dishonesty of their superiors simply by being there. Furthermore, any gay candidate need only learn how to pretend not to be gay, for which many of them have had a whole adolescence-worth of training, and they will certainly find enough seminary officials who will induct them into playing “wink wink, nudge nudge,” having themselves become masters at the same game.

In short, long before any issue of a candidate’s sexual practice comes up, whether in the past, the present or the future, he finds that the one thing that is impossible is straightforward, first-person narrative honesty.

…Imitation is a much stronger force than instruction, and any gay candidate for seminary will see many others like himself already in the seminary, and will be interviewed by others like himself on the seminary staff. If in the midst of this he is presented with the instruction “You are required to be honest about being gay, and if you are gay and honest, your vocations counsellor is required to tell you that you cannot join,” he is not really being presented with a straightforward moral choice. In context, he is being presented with a hurdle, and his capacity to jump it will show whether or not he will be a suitable game player like all the others. Just in case the hurdle seems a little high, and if the vocations director likes the candidate, he may suggest that the kid is not really gay, just suffering from a transitory form of “same-sex attraction” or some other ecclesiastically convenient fiction. If the vocations director doesn’t like him, then, indeed, the fact that he is gay can be used to keep him out.

A dishonest system cannot demand honesty from its recruits, since in a dishonest system even the demand is dishonestly made and will be dishonestly received.

Alison concludes with a call for the Church to be honest with its children about God’s love for them regardless of orientation, and to bring its doctrines in line with the current evidence of science and psychology that queerness is a “regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.”

I’m afraid I’m not optimistic. But if Christianity survives as anything worthwhile, it’ll be because of folks like Alison.

November Links Roundup: Whose Side Are You On

The theme for November is “I hope I can fit everything interesting I’ve read this month into one post”. But you could say that these links loosely gather around the idea of clearly facing our alternatives and taking a stand. This heightened resolve reflects the mood of the country, where progressives seem to be waking up to the fact that moderation and bridge-building are an ineffective response to fundamentalism and fascism. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be especially grateful to the Massachusetts voters who passed Question 3 by a solid 2-to-1 margin, keeping our transgender nondiscrimination law on the books.

At Pacific Standard, freelance journalist Noah Berlatsky contends that “Israel Doesn’t Show Us How to Fight Fascism–But the Diaspora Can”. He notes a divergence between the intersectional, progressive values of many American Jews, and the right-wing Israeli government’s coziness with Trump. Like many in my generation, he grew up on the belief that support for Israel was our insurance policy against renewed persecution in our home countries. But it’s time to rethink that: “Israel as a state doesn’t feel threatened by growing fascism abroad because Israel as a state isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, the target of fascism abroad…The Nazis didn’t just hate the diaspora at random either; they hated the diaspora for being a diaspora. Nazi propaganda attacked Jews as being despicable precisely because they were a people without a country.”

Berlatsky suggests we should look to the 19th-century Bund movement as our historical model instead: “The Bund and other Jewish socialist movements used Jewish diaspora internationalism as a springboard to socialist internationalism, and vice versa. Rather than seeking a Jewish homeland, Jewish socialists and communists had a vision of trans-national equality, in which workers of all nations would be liberated…When Jewish identity is centered on Israel, the diaspora is always supposed to be vaguely embarrassed because it conforms to fascist stereotypes about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, intellectualism. But is it really wrong to have ties to a community based in a shared vision of God, justice, and hope, rather than in land and blood?”

For a different perspective on the lessons of Jewish history, the Yale University Press blog editors recently interviewed James Loeffler, author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, about the Jewish leaders who created the modern concept of international human rights:

In writing this book, I wanted to puncture the widespread myth that Zionism has no connection to the history of human rights. Many people assume that since Zionism was a nationalist movement, it focused only on securing the Jews a homeland. Some even assume that Zionism’s particularism placed it in opposition to the universal cosmopolitanism of human rights. But the truth is that before international human rights there was the cause of international minority rights, and that project was to a large degree a Zionist one.

There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, only Zionists thought globally about Jewish peoplehood and made grand claims to be acting on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Bundism, Diaspora Nationalism, and other important Jewish political movements stopped their activism at the borders of the lands in which their leaders lived. Other non-Zionist Jewish liberals cared deeply but selectively about far-flung Jewish communities. But Zionism, because of its own ideological principles, focused on naming and claiming a global Jewish nation.

That leads to the second reason Zionists were so interested in international rights schemes. Jews were an historical anomaly—a nationalist movement comprised of a diaspora people outside their ancestral homeland. Someone else (first the Turks, then the British) controlled Palestine. So they turned to international law as a way to make claims both on behalf of the Jewish people and in service of their political aspirations for a country of their own. To be sure, not everyone agreed with these ideas, but no one could ignore them. For to protect a global minority, you had to engage with the questions of its unique collective identity and its status in international law.

While acknowledging the Israeli government’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights, Loeffler argues that the international human rights community and the Left have become disproportionately focused on Israel’s sins, following a Christian theological tradition of disparaging Jewish particularity as a foil for “universal” values:

The human rights movement was shaped dramatically by the emergence of Amnesty International. As I show, its Jewish founder, Peter Benenson, went from being a socialist Zionist to a Catholic humanitarian. In the process, he set his organization—and by extension, the larger human rights movement—on a course to view Jewish nationalism as an affront to the universalist sensibilities of the liberal, Christian West. The human rights community, in other words, came to define itself as a universal Church of humanity through renouncing its Jewish origins. The State of Israel became an irresistible target, worthy of extra scrutiny and moral critique by virtue of its ties to Judaism and the Holocaust.

This was not antisemitism in the classical sense. But it was an ideological obsession with Zionism, and it saw Israel as cartoonish rogue state and icon of clannish tribalism. Thus, what we might call the “deep culture” of the human rights movement grew out of an almost missionary-like, Christian-inflected worldview, in which Israel became a symbol of the redemptive promise of human rights universalism and the failure of Jewish nationhood.

At Media Matters, a site that fact-checks conservative misinformation, Parker Molloy wonders, “Media keep talking about ‘identity politics’. But what does it even mean anymore?” It’s become a cliché, even among some liberal pundits, to blame Democrats’ election losses on a divisive and narrow focus on special-interest groups: Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and so on. But Molloy says we’ve just been conditioned not to notice the “identity politics” of Republicans, because their preferred identities (white, Christian, male) have been held up as universal norms for centuries. Molloy cites an academic psychology paper that found that white Christian homogeneity demarcates Republican party lines and gives force to identity-based political appeals, more strongly than any similar appeal to race/gender/sexual identity among Democrats.

Along those lines, acclaimed novelist Tayari Jones debunks the myth of the moral middle in her Time magazine article “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”:

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call the “good people on both sides” phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? Instead of subjecting Japanese-American citizens to indefinite detention during WW II, what if we had agreed to give them actual sentences and perhaps provided a receipt for them to reclaim their things when they were released? What is halfway between moral and immoral?

…For the people directly affected, the culture war is a real war too. They know there is no safety in the in-between. The romance of the middle can exist when one’s empathy is aligned with the people expressing opinions on policy or culture rather than with those who will be affected by these policies or cultural norms. Buried in this argument, whether we realize it or not, is the fact that these policies change people’s lives.

As Americans, we are at a crossroads. We have to decide what is central to our identity: Is the importance of our performance of national unity more significant than our core values? Is it more meaningful that we understand why some of us support the separation of children from their parents, or is it more crucial that we support the reunification of these families? Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism? Should we agree to disagree about the murder and dismemberment of a journalist? Should we celebrate our tolerance and civility as we stanch the wounds of the world and the climate with a poultice of national unity?

This piece came at a crucial time for me. I’m not sure how to feel about friends from my evangelical days who seem open to my identity journey, but attend churches that want to erase my existence. I don’t expect everyone to pick solidarity with me over their faith or their church family. I’m not that important in their lives. But I’m starting to resent the expectation that I honor their fence-sitting as a broad-minded vocation. Don’t try to make me concede that your Christian friends are “loving” and “good”, when they would not be that way to me.

At Longreads, “Theater of Forgiveness” is a powerful essay by Hafizah Geter about the intergenerational trauma of African-American women, and how it can be compounded by a religious culture that makes them swallow their anger. A nonthreatening, peacemaking response to racist violence is a logical survival strategy in a society that fears Black strength, but those suppressed emotions plagued her family with broken health and abusive relationships.

Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy.

How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?

I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding. How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.

Over the course of the essay, Geter recounts childhood torments at the hands of a cruel aunt. Yet without minimizing or excusing her, she ends with a compassionate awareness of her aunt as the fierce protector of her abused siblings. It’s something more complex yet more fair and satisfying than simple “forgiveness”, no sentimental forgetfulness here. Geter concludes:

No, we should not abandon the work of forgiveness, but I do believe we should honor our forgiveness by raising the price on it. I do not want to live with a hard heart, but I do want limits on turning the other cheek. I want us to stop offering our injurers unconditional salvation and offer that to our children and ourselves instead. I want us to unmangle what religious white supremacy has done to our sense of justice and self-worth.

Finally, via Harvard Magazine, here’s a link to a cool New Yorker story by Margaret Talbot, “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture”. Turns out that Greco-Roman sculptures were often painted in colors we might consider garish, but the evidence has been repeatedly ignored because we’re so invested in the aesthetic of white rational purity we picked up from the Renaissance. Art restorers even scrubbed paint traces off antique statues to make them more marketable to collectors and museums. Moreover, many portrait sculptures were originally colored with a variety of skin tones, unsurprisingly since the Roman Empire once stretched from Scotland to North Africa. The ancient Greeks actually considered dark skin a sign of superiority in men, since it meant they spent a lot of time outside doing healthy athletic things. Read the whole article to see photographic and video reconstructions of classical art in all its flamboyant hues.

Comics Review Roundup: Telgemeier, Burns, Adventure Time and More

The Young Master and I have been bonding over our love of comics and graphic novels since I returned from Flame Con with Warrior Cats manga and Lumberjanes. I read them aloud to him, and he re-reads them for the pictures and action, sounding out the simple words he knows. Every day for weeks after we finished Graystripe’s Adventure, he asked me to make-believe we were Graystripe and Firestar, feline best friends who lead a noble clan of feral cats in the forest. This full-color manga has a positive environmentalist message, as the cats’ home has been destroyed by human development. We also enjoyed the manga trilogy collected in Ravenpaw’s Path, where Graystripe’s friend Ravenpaw turns away from his warrior heritage to live in a barn with his male friend Barley. I appreciated the covert queer rep (though nothing romantic is shown on-page, Barley is essentially his life partner) and the storyline about the limits of loyalty to toxic family members. Although Graystripe is too tough to consider this a compliment, the cats as drawn by James L. Barry are awfully cute and have realistic body language–they’re genuine cats, not Disney plushies.

Some Flame Con panelists name-dropped the cartoon series Adventure Time, so I picked up Volume 5 of the comic book spin-off at the library to field-test with Shane. It’s a surreal, self-referential farce about a boy, his dog friend who has Plastic-Man-like abilities to reshape his body, and Princess Bubblegum of the candy kingdom of Ooo. The princess is a high-femme mad scientist with a rock star vampire girlfriend. It was bizarre and random in the way that I like, but judging from Shane’s reaction, the humor was possibly too wordy and subtle for a 6-year-old. Even so, we’ll give it another shot. (Thank you, Forbes Library, for having the most excellent comics collection for kids and adults.)

Since the Young Master is a fan of the movie “Coco”, and I bawl sappy tears every time we read the picture book version, I guessed correctly that we’d like Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, a kid-friendly but serious graphic novel about a Mexican-American family whose younger daughter has cystic fibrosis. In the days leading up to Día de los Muertos, the sick girl and her older sister cope with impending mortality through encounters with friendly spirits. Folks, I broke down crying on the last two pages and could hardly read them aloud. But they were happy tears. Have your tissues ready. Shane loved this one too. At his request, we borrowed Claudia and Mean Janine, a book in Telgemeier’s “Baby-Sitters Club” series, though tween girl friendship drama did not hold his interest. I think the issue is genre, not gender; he shows a strong preference for non-human protagonists and fantasy settings. Unlike Claudia’s Type-A parents, I will never police his choices as “not great literature”.

His latest make-believe scenarios come from Dragons Beware!, the second volume in the Chronicles of Claudette, by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. (I hope the library has the first book, now!) Claudette is a fearless, flame-haired, tomboyish child in a medieval French village. With the help of her kid brother Gaston, who’d rather be a pastry chef than a fighter, and their friend Marie, a nobleman’s daughter who believes all problems can be solved by diplomacy and good hair, Claudette challenges mythical beasts and defeats an evil wizard. Her father is also a formidable warrior and blacksmith, despite being legless in a wheelchair. Limited dialogue and action-packed panels make this book a great read-aloud for the first-grade set.

Definitely not for kids: Charles Burns’ body-horror trilogy of graphic novels, X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull (now collected in a single volume, Last Look, from Pantheon Graphic Library). Imagine that Samuel Beckett and Hieronymus Bosch dropped acid together and wrote a Tintin comic. I read an excerpt of The Hive in one of the annual Best American Comics anthologies some years ago and vowed to find the whole series so I could figure out WTF was going on. (Thanks again, Forbes Library!)

Mild spoilers ahead. The books braid the real-world story of Doug, a photographer and failed performance artist obsessed with his lost love Sarah, with the nightmare visions of his alter ego, Johnny 23, a low-level functionary in a breeding factory where woman-like creatures produce monstrous eggs. The features of his grotesque dream world make no sense in the first volume, but gradually reveal parallels to the themes around which Doug’s mind circles endlessly: the death of his depressed father, the work of avant-garde artists that Doug and Sarah imitate in a shallow way, and Sarah’s ritualized guilt and masochism. Why is Doug’s alter ego an invalid with a bandaged head, in a landscape of insanity? Did Sarah succumb to her abusive ex-boyfriend or self-harm? We are led to expect a dramatic resolution to their story, a big reveal worthy of the post-apocalyptic menace of its fantasy double. The ending of both narratives is banal and anticlimactic, which at first left me feeling cheated, till I realized this was the book’s brilliant objective all along.

The real tragedy of Doug’s life is that there is no tragedy; like his father before him, he falls victim to a self-aggrandizing narrative that the reader is at first seduced into accepting, too. Do the peculiar features of his nightmare world have any symbolic meaning, in the end, or is the message that “there’s no there there,” no substance behind the Burroughs-style cut-up performance poetry that Doug thinks is so profound? Sarah starts out as whatever the Goth equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, but she outgrows it and he doesn’t.

To the extent that there’s any logic to his fantasy of angry lizard-headed factory managers and egg-laying girls, I interpret it as Doug’s horror of adulthood. It’s the world of the suburban heterosexual salaryman, the Willy Loman figure that his dad became. The monster that looms invisibly over this world is the mother archetype. The real female body, representing the cycle of birth and death, ruins his idealized image of his lover and the Tintin-like eternal adolescence that he desires with her. Doug’s mother is never seen on-page, though she supposedly lives in the same house where Doug convalesces and Dad mopes in the basement with a photo of his old girlfriend. Johnny 23 brings 1960s romance comics to the breeder girls, the same comics that real-life Sarah loved and Doug disdained. The most grotesque moment, in a book that’s full of them, comes when Johnny’s favorite girl unveils her giant dripping ovipositor from beneath the blankets, begging him to catch the egg that he can’t bring himself to touch. The woman that Doug is married to, in the last book, doesn’t seem quite real: she is impossibly understanding of his Sarah obsession and occasional tumbles off the wagon of sobriety, and her helmet hairdo belongs to the previous generation. She is a sexless fantasy mother, Wendy to his Peter Pan.

I wondered about the Asian flavor of the nightmare realm. His sometime guide is a sort of midget sumo wrestler, and the monstrous characters at the unhygienic outdoor market speak a language speech-bubbled in kanji (probably not real but I can’t tell). Was this a nod to the ethnocentrism of the original Tintin comics? A clue comes in the final pages of Sugar Skull, when Johnny 23 encounters a Buddhist-looking shrine just before his aimless journey starts all over again. I think Doug is trapped on the wheel of samsara. The extreme manifestations of bodily excess in his dream world (culverts pouring blood, maggots with human faces, the fetus in the breeder girl’s dropped egg) are analogous to Siddhartha’s encounters with aging, sickness, and death (the Four Sights), but he has not yet taken the opportunity to seek an end to anyone’s suffering, not even his own. Perhaps the spirit of Inky the Cat will lead him out of the Hungry Ghost realm eventually? We can only hope.