Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Ah, life in Medieval–er, I mean, Middle America. Though raised in a red state, I was shocked recently when my brother, who still lives in one, complained that “they” were trying to keep creationism out of the public schools his children attended. I would have used the word, “we,” and was unpleasantly surprised he hadn’t. A math nerd, he’s been studying computer science at night school. I figured he saw evolution at work every day.

Adaptation and selection are very obviously integral to who we are, and human history is unintelligible without them. The basic principles of evolution are at play in every aspect of our daily lives, not only in agriculture and animal husbandry, but in the progressive development of medical technology, and devises like cell-phones, ipods, and personal computers. Our penchant for selection clearly mimics Nature’s.

But I’m not as concerned about my brother as I am about his four kids, who range in age from 5 to 14. They are already having difficulties in school, and their parents’ growing involvement in a charismatic megachurch seems to be making matters worse. The church all but forbids inquiry, because questions open the door to doubt, and doubt leads to debate and dissent. And dissent is chief among sins. These churches constitute an aggressive “shadow theocracy” seeking to undermine modern democracy. No joke.

My brother’s kids are being taught to stifle their innate curiosity about the world, the physical laws governing it, and the other people inhabiting it. Since they are not to believe the evidence of their senses, or to ask nettlesome questions about the way things really work, they’re learning not to dialogue with others, but to disengage. Anyone with different ideas is automatically the enemy. The curiosity of others is a threat. Because they have no recourse to reason even benign questions are felt to be hostile.

Creationism in our schools encourages this mentality, discouraging the open inquiry necessary for participation in a global market. The hostility to debate that accompanies it is antithetical to democracy. Creationism is neither credible as an explanation of the origins of the species, nor are the teachings that often accompany it in any way beneficial to democratic socialization. Reason enough to keep it out of classrooms. Sensitivity to diversity should not blind us to the damaging effects of equating science with fiction.

Creationism is not a religious necessity, but for some it serves a psychological need, addressing feelings of disorientation in a rapidly changing world. Evolution represents dynamism, creation stasis. Feelings of helplessness in a world always in transition are real and valid, but creationism does nothing to allay them. Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power.

In 1633 the astronomer Galileo was forced by the church to renounce “the heresy of the motion of the earth,” not because it was not demonstrably true, but because it challenged the self-serving “truths” of the church, threatening to undermine her hold on power. Today as ever, truth is heresy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

It’s a good thing the middle class in this country has a self-deprecating sense of humor, because these days it’s the butt of every joke in D.C. Despite the claims that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 portrayed President Bush in an unflattering light, he actually showed the president as a very competent comic, admirably able to make his audience of wealthy patrons laugh. All the way to the bank. I especially liked the one about the haves and the have-mores. Har har har. A real knee-slapper.

My personal fave’s gotta be the one about deficit spending, better known as the “Lucky me, I hit the trifecta” joke, which Mr. Bush told over and over to appreciative laughter at Republican fund-raisers after September 11th. A “trifecta” is the big payoff you get at the races for picking three winners. What were Bush’s big three? Recession, war, and 9-11. Our Comedian-in-chief. Anything for a laugh.

But President Bush’s side-splitting budget is by far his biggest, most elaborately set-up joke to date. And it’s on us, in more ways than one. He started work on this one when he signed the slyly ironic Jobs and Growth Act back in 2003, ensuring the have-mores would have even more, while the rest of us foot the bill. These are heady days for our burgeoning class of kleptocrats: Congress has installed a vomitorium for those who can’t stop binging. And why should they?

This budget is even more boffo than the last. The Paris Hilton of American presidents has slashed already meager funding for local cops, taking half a billion from them and throwing it into his wacky manned mission to Mars. He’s working on some totally awesome sketches for a way cool escape pod, that he’s axing food stamps to pay for. He’s also axed 48 Department of Education projects, hacking away at preschool literacy programs. The Environmental Protection Agency’s wastewater treatment programs for poor communities has been gutted. And the National Park System budget seems to have dried up, too. But who needs parks when you’ve got that big ol’ ranch in Crawford? With all the brush you could ever want to clear.

On the bright side, there’s another $81 billion for the war, and untold billions next year, and for who knows how many more years thereafter. But a funny thing happened on the way to Iraq. Somehow, according to an official US audit last month, over $9 billion bucks went missing there under Paul Bremer. $9 billion. Poof, just like that. Bremer, an obvious jokester himself, shrugged off the audit, saying it’s unfair to expect proper accounting practices at a time of unrest in Iraq. I mean, it’s like asking the libertine to remember the names of everyone at the orgy.

As for his own $2.57 trillion orgy, with its huge hidden costs, Mr. Bush, typically tongue-in-cheek, has called it “lean” and “disciplined”. Clowns in Congress have called it “principled, fair and restrained”. Some of the funniest lines since “let them eat cake.”

Thursday, February 10, 2005

“Holy hotpants, Batman!”

The world of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered muppets, cartoon characters and animated superheroes was rocked recently by charges, leveled by real-life cartoon-character-outer James Dobson of Focus on the Family, that one of its own, Sponge Bob SquarePants, is gay.

“I’m just stunned. This was totally out of the blue,” Batman, who was contacted by bat-phone last weekend, said. “Robin and I were out clubbing with Superman and the Hulk when we heard, and we were absolutely gobsmacked.”

At the Halls of Justice reaction among Superfriends was mixed.“I know every gay dive from here to Atlantis,” Aquaman said. “And I’ve never seen Sponge Bob in any of them.”

Green Lantern was indignant. “I don’t know how he’ll ever get a date. You have to have killer abs, and sponges don’t even have abs to begin with.”

Tinky-Winky issued a statement from Teletubbyland, which read in part: “I only hope that Mr. Squarepants is not subjected to the same personal hell I had to endure due to careless whispers by the Rev. Jerry Falwell back in 1999.”

At a press-conference on the matter Bi-Curious George voiced support for his fellow fictional friend but questioned the veracity of Dr. Dobson’s claims, which have been neither confirmed nor denied by Mr. SquarePants, whose spokespeople insist is asexual.

Others have refuted the assertion outright, pointing out not only Mr. Squarepants’ lack of genitalia, usually a prerequisite for sex and sexuality, but his utter lack of queer cred.

“Take it from a trained queer eye: Squarepants are so, like, 2004,” scoffed Fred, reached on the road in The Mystery Machine. Velma and Daphne, who recently took their vows in a low-key ceremony and are apparently honeymooning, could not be reached for comment.

Elmo had his doubts, too. “Elmo’s gaydar never go off with Sponge Bob,” he said from the set of Sesame Street last week. While Big Bird agreed, some of their costars seemed to shrug off the revelation.

“Doesn’t surprise me a bit,” Bert said with his trademark scowl. “Ernie and I were at that cruisy bathhouse at the other end of Sesame Street the other day, and saw Shrek in the shower sponging himself down with Bob, and Bob was laughing like crazy.”

“But Shrek is married,” Big Bird protested.

“And?” Bert sneered. “So were Fred and Barney.”

He-Man and She-Ra welcomed the news. In a joint statement they said, “It’s time the cartoon GLBT community brought asexual critters into the club, too The more the merrier.”

Bullwinkle and Rocky, ex-co-chairs of the Cartoon GLBT Alliance, the oldest such organization with an illustrious membership including the likes of Popeye and Brutus, Bugs Bunny and Snagglepuss, were vexed by the controversy. “Gee whiz, we bust our butts to make people laugh. All we do is give. If there are some people who can see only sex when two genderless cartoon friends are holding hands and having fun it’s really their own prurient imaginations at work. It’s their problem, not ours.”

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

When I visited Auschwitz on a trip to Poland several years ago, it was a quiet summer day, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the neat and orderly buildings bore no trace of what had gone on inside. Here in this nondescript setting was what philosopher Hannah Arendt described as ‘the banality of evil.’

Arendt coined the phrase during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an SS Lieutenant-Colonel and Chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo charged with implementing the “Final Solution.” What struck her about Eichmann was his very ordinariness. He was not a comic-book villain, but your average middle-class Everyman. Much like the millions his branch of the SS rounded up and shipped to their deaths.

When you tour Auschwitz, you can walk through the gas chambers. There is an enormous room piled high with victims’ shoes, and another filled to the rafters with human hair. I remember a seemingly endless corridor with ID photos of prisoners, literally millions of them: young, old, some looking frightened, some weary, some defiant. They looked just like you and me.

But conspicuous by their absence at Auschwitz are the Eichmanns: the everymen on the other side. It is difficult to know how to represent them without seeming to show unwarranted, inappropriate, and frankly appalling sympathy for them—in simply representing them we humanize them. But in leaving them out we miss what may be the starkest lesson of the Holocaust—not only were the victims like us, but so were the perpetrators. It’s easy to walk away thinking of the millions who were murdered: “that could be me, or someone I love.” It is infinitely harder, more painful, but arguably as important to look at the perpetrators or those who stood idly by, and ask, “could that be me or someone I love?” Only then can we take measures to ensure it won’t happen on our watch.

Not surprisingly Vice President Dick Cheney chose the occasion of the liberation of Auschwitz to plug the administration’s own neocon liberation theology, which seeks to rid the world of evildoers. The trouble is, Liberators have a nasty habit of perpetrating unspeakable evils themselves. Remember, it was the Red Army under Stalin that liberated Auschwitz. In fact, the rhetoric of liberation has provided license for some of the most terrible atrocities in history.

It would be easy to relegate human atrocities to demonic supervillains and their drones, and were it not for the banality of evil we could. But we have our Eichmanns, too. At Abu Ghraib, for example, vastly different from Auschwitz in magnitude, certainly, but not so different in kind. If there is a lesson in the Nazi Holocaust it’s not that there are some comic-book villains out there waiting to perpetrate unspeakable evils—there may be—but the lesson of Auschwitz and Eichmann is how easy it is for all of us to be complicit in everyday evils that, when compounded, amount to unutterable atrocities.