Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why Scorn Avatar?

Commenter Reuben asks a fair question:

Do you reserve particular contempt for the film out of its inverse popularity, or its inherent qualities? I mean, a LOT of bad films are being consistently farted out by Hollywood, and that without your comment (not that I'm expecting it).
Kinda. It's not so much the popularity that bugs me -- you're right that plenty of unwatchable, insultingly stupid garbage pulls in large audiences without the grace of my always-thoughtful commentary. It's the critical reception of Avatar that chaps my bee-hive and kicks my hide -- currently it's scoring 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a travesty. I am confident in saying the same film with merely Hollywood-blockbuster-average visual effects would be scoring in the teens among critics.

I will go beyond that and assert that no film with a blemish as ham-handed as "unobtainium" would score above 60%. "Unobtainium"? Even the creative minds behind Congo and Rocky IV knew better than that.

So trace my scorning of Avatar to a failure of expectations management spiced with moral hazard. In turn:
  • Expectations Management: Jim Cameron is not incapable of making a decent film. Terminator was and remains a very watchable, even thought-provoking science fiction film, despite -- please note this -- its sometimes middling special effects. It took a terrible actor, Arnold Schwarzenneger, and put him in a role where his stiffness could actually work. Titanic, while far from flawless, managed to achieve what it seemingly set out to do, a thing at which many a film has failed, namely, give something to everyone in the audience. It's a romance and it's an action flick. It has suspense, layers of conflict, a pretty heroine, a dashing hero, a tear-jerking ending, even boobies and gunplay. Its special effects -- please note this -- serve the story rather than seeming like 100% of the reason anyone bothered to make the film.
  • Moral Hazard: Jim Cameron, and the many who cite him as inspiration, can be trusted to see Avatar's positive critical reception as a green light to make yet more films where the whizbang visual effects absorb 100% of the effort. Because there has been an Avatar, and because people who know better have pretended that it isn't terrible, we are guaranteed to receive dozens of knock-offs that similarly combine fabulous computers, awesome cameras, and scripts with things like "unobtainium" left in the final cut.
People say "it's hard to make a film" to excuse bad films because, hey, it's hard to make a film. I don't disagree: making a film is, in ways I'm sure I don't even recognize, a technical, financial, organizational, creative, and human relations challenge whose details would make me drop into a fetal position and soil myself.

On the other hand, this excuse has it somewhat backwards. A corollary is that a filmmaker gets only so many opportunities to make a film, so this should constitute a reason to step back and take the time to make it as well as possible: story, casting, effects, performances, directing, all of it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

1990's Turn


Andrew Sullivan has posted this interesting chart of public opinion on homosexuality and has given a few guesses as to what changed in 1990:

... [I]t seems clear to me it was multi-determined as my shrink often (helpfully) says. The first is that this coincides with a re-framing of the issue in public discourse. Many of us ... believed that the focus on sexual liberation, on "queerness" and subcultural revolt were not actually very descriptive of most gay lives and not the most persuasive arguments for gay equality. I mean: if you want to be queer, why seek any legal acceptance at all? Isn't marginalization the point? Why not revel in oppression as the only legitimate way to live as "the other"?

So in the late 1980s, the homocons, as we were subsequently described, started making the case for formal civil equality, not counter-cultural revolution.
I can't speak for the entire swing in public opinion that began in 1990, of course, but I can say my views of gay equality took a radical turn right around then, and I trace the change in a way that's opposite of Sullivan.

Thanks to the efforts of Queer Nation, a very active chapter of which existed on the college campus where I lived, I first became aware that the label "queer" was being actively appropriated by pro-gay activists; that people I already knew (and knew of) were -- suddenly to me -- visibly, openly, and proudly gay; that gay people were standing up and demanding to be regarded as human beings now, not when a majority was ready to get around to deciding to concede it.

I believe Sullivan when he says he and other "homocons" began, at that same time, writing up a polite, well-reasoned case for gay rights. I didn't read a word of it, or if I did, I forgot it almost immediately. (Sorry, Andrew!)

It was right around this time that I began seeing stickers exactly like this one affixed to people's bikes, book bags, and jackets. Yes, I found them a little shocking at first, but that wore off soon enough, and when it did, I was able to see the question with which it confronted me: yes, the gay men suck the cock and the gay women do the thing with the thing, but why on earth is that a problem for me? I didn't have a satisfactory answer then, and I still don't today, and that's because it was not and is not a problem for me or anything I care about. This activism shook me out of the complacency with which I had considered gay equality hitherto.

Twenty years later, the graph of public opinion continues moving in the right direction -- red line higher, black line lower -- but I am still with the spirit of Queer Nation, circa 1990: the complete equality of gay people is non-negotiable, and needs to be realized yesterday.

Of Moral Equalizers

Commenter Warren Isleib says:

Original religions and ancient wisdoms advocate a peaceful mind, and actions intended to promote the welfare of those around us. A casual observer can see the common philosophies at the root of these beliefs.
Casual observers can see a lot of things, many of which are not actually present, others of which rise to nothing more than trivial truths. By contrast, the aspects of religions that are most compelling to believers and to filthy infidels such as myself are the differences -- the boundaries they insistently draw dividing sacred from profane, good from evil, saved from damned, ours from theirs, and so on.
Anyone with an agenda beyond their God and family is at risk. If I lose focus I will get caught up in self-promoting desires, and eventually make the conscious choice against the greater good.
"The greater good"? Just one sentence before, the focus needed to stay on "God and family," but now you're making demands on behalf of the greater good? One's family is not to be confused with the greater good, and god is no more tantamount with the greater good than is any anthropomorphized animal character from Aesop's fables.
There is no excuse, exception, or escape from our human condition. We have two choices (it is that simple); love of self or of others. Denial of this is merely an attempt to avoid responsibility. Every human makes the same basic choices daily, regardless of nationality or lifestyle. This is the moral equalizer.
Sure, suppose we call that good enough and run with it. On second thought, no, I simply have to sex it up by noting that pretending to follow a god is just another means by which people try to avoid the fundamental, inescapable, moral responsibility of our shared human reality.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Important Avatar Addendum


Concerning Avatar, my previous comments failed to touch on an important point, broached here by Annalee Newitz:

Pandora is clearly supposed to be the rich, beautiful land America could still be if white people hadn't paved it over with concrete and strip malls. In Avatar, our white hero Jake Sully (sully - get it?) explains that Earth is basically a war-torn wasteland with no greenery or natural resources left. The humans started to colonize Pandora in order to mine a mineral called unobtainium that can serve as a mega-energy source. But a few of these humans don't want to crush the natives ...
Yea, yea, whatever -- among its wish-fulfillments, Avatar gives European Americans the chance to undo some of the callousness and brutality that put us where we are today. The point is, did everyone catch that the precious resource on planet Pandora is called "unobtainium"?

"Unobtainium." Un. Obtain. Ium.

There in the theater during Avatar, some time in the second hour or so (I lost count), I heard a character call it "unobtainium" for the first time, and I told myself that the movie's length and my bladder urgency were playing tricks on my cognition. Soon enough, the word came up again -- "unobtainium" -- and then once again. By several hours in (honestly, I lost track), it had become undeniable and inescapable -- un. deny. able. and in. escape. able. -- that Jim "king of the world!" Cameron, together with his creative team of advanced cameras, fabulous computers, and millions of monkeys chained to typewriters had crapped the name "unobtainium" into their waiting hands, wadded it into a ball, and hurled it onto the final version of the screenplay. Un. Edit. Ed.

There is probably someone or something more egregiously half-assedly named in the annals of film -- perhaps "The Dark Side" from George Lucas's typewriter-bound monkey troupe, as if the oppressors of the universe go around labeling themselves as "dark" rather than light, good, fair, and balanced; or ever concede they're a "side" of anything rather than its whole.

If you find just one reason not to see Avatar this year or next, make it "unobtainium." Or, if you like, avoid it because it is (over. long.), predictable (predict. able), and dumb (dumb).

Rove's Stance Widens


I am surprised that Karl Rove was ever married in the first place, not so much because he is a greasy, lumpy, doughy, duplicitous toad of a man, but because his strident advocacy of "traditional marriage" marks him as a self-loathing gay man of the Larry Craig-Ted Haggard-Richard Cohen variety.

It either increases or decreases the surprise -- you decide, I'd rather not ponder Karl Rove as a sexual being longer than absolutely necessary -- to find out that he has embarked on his second divorce:

After 24 years of marriage, many of which were spent under incredible stress and strain during the White House years, the Roves came to a mutual decision that they would end the marriage. They did spend Christmas together with their son, and they plan to spend time together in the future.
It was kind of Rove to end his traditional marriage after Jesus's birthday given Jesus's rather severe stand against* ending traditional marriages. We should, whenever possible, be generous to all the Bible characters.

We should also show compassion for self-loathing gay men -- but only if they're not complete assholes.


* That's the cue for hilarious theological flip-the-script hairsplitting to the effect that Jesus really thought divorce was fine.

Let's Freeze That Goat

There may be a prosaic explanation for all this, and if so, I hope I never encounter it. Some goats should stay frozen and some rainbows should stay unweaved.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Remembrances of End Times Past

Those of us who can still remember the harrowing run-up to the Y2K-palypse know that, by the standard of the time, $24.95 and $3 more for "shipping and handling" was a pittance in the context of the body of expenses associated with constructing an off-grid fortification against the looming social collapse. Just listen to this pitch and try to fight the urge to call the number just in case they still have a few copies left over:



Many of us endured the changeover from 1999 to 2000 thanks to the information promoted here, or information substantially similar to it, or information in keeping with its general spirit, or quite possibly information that wasn't the product of alarmist hucksterism packaged in a crude form of religious faith that no atheistic parodist could get away with inventing.


(via Portland Mercury)

Everything at Scale

The American Museum of Natural History has released a brief video that shows the entire known universe in its true scale. Amazing:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Athwart, The Game


Of all the screeching portents of doom from conservatives of days past here anthologized, this is my favorite:

“[I]t would make it practically impossible for any publisher in the United States to accept any food, drug, or cosmetic advertising without facing squarely into the doors of a jail.”

Federal Trade Commission Chair Ewin L. Davis, in 1935, on the dangers of empowering the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the food, drug, and cosmetic industries
Indeed so. Open any magazine or newspaper, turn on a television or a radio, and try to find an advertisement for food, drugs, or cosmetics. You can't! All the executives who might have approved them are rotting in jail!

In reply to this, I suspect some conservatives would respond by noting that it actually confirms the deeper conservative insight that people are fallible in their judgments and predictions, that all instances of human agency produce oodles of unintended consequences, and therefore the only sensible move is to find something and stand athwart it.

Remember Pong? This rhetorical gambit -- prediction followed by denunciations of the human power to predict -- is a lot like that game: dull, monotonous, and within a few minutes, entirely exhausted.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Pogues on Christmas

There were people willing to appear in public looking like this in 1988. I know; I was there. Fortunately, they sounded much better than they looked, and in the case of the Pogues, they could really throw down a Christmas jingle when they wanted to:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas on Screen

I don't care for many of the Christmas films -- Miracle on 34th Street gives me the hives, White Christmas gives me the green apple splatters, I don't want to talk about the terrors that the claymation classics have wrought in my dreams over the years.

On the other hand, I do like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation more than not, I can appreciate A Christmas Story despite its excess of popular adulation, and I keep hearing good things about the Will Ferrell vehicle, Elf, though I've never seen it.

Whatever it says about me, my favorite Christmas movie is It's a Wonderful Life, the updated and Americanized take on Dickens's A Christmas Carol (the many direct adaptations of which always seem to fall short). Some large portion of whatever positive feelings I have about Jimmy Stewart's on-screen persona is bound up in this particular scene:

A Pope Tackling for Christmas

While most content themselves with spending time with family, eating treats, exchanging gifts, singing carols, and going through the 'going to Christmas mass' motions (if only for the sake of family comity and/or getting a solid hour away from the stresses of reality), this is what I call making the most of Christmas:

A woman jumped the barriers in St. Peter's Basilica and knocked down Pope Benedict XVI as he walked down the main aisle to begin Christmas Eve Mass on Thursday.
Boo-ya! Forearm to the pope's head! Happy birthday, Jesus!

In all seriousness, body-slamming heads of state -- even unelected heads of fake states -- while hilarious, is not a good idea. It's not nice. But the fact remains: it is hilarious.

I await the footage before deciding whether the papal tackle tops the shoe-thrown-at-Bush moment from not far back:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Few Basics

Said President Obama to the Washington Post: “I didn’t campaign on the public option,” thus partially validating the current radical chic that Obama was never the progressive some of his supporters have taken him to be.

Think Progress helpfully corrects this false claim:

– In the 2008 Obama-Biden health care plan on the campaign’s website, candidate Obama promised that “any American will have the opportunity to enroll in [a] new public plan.” [2008]
– During a speech at the American Medical Association, President Obama told thousands of doctors that one of the plans included in the new health insurance exchanges “needs to be a public option that will give people a broader range of choices and inject competition into the health care market.” [6/15/09]
– While speaking to the nation during his weekly address, the President said that “any plan” he signs “must include…a public option.” [7/17/09]
– During a conference call with progressive bloggers, the President said he continues “to believe that a robust public option would be the best way to go.” [7/20/09]
– Obama told NBC’s David Gregory that a public option “should be a part of this [health care bill],” while rebuking claims that the plan was “dead.” [9/20/09]
The way to get a public option -- or anything else contentious -- is to argue for it, advocate for it, speak out for it, and otherwise make the best possible case for it. In a representative democracy featuring separation of powers, an honorable way to fail is to demand and fight for something only to see it fall to the corrupt, bad-faith depredations of a coeval branch, or those of some of the store-bought parasites (e.g., Lieberman, Nelson, Landrieu, every Republican, others) composing it.

Whereas it is insulting and dishonorable to pretend to want something, then decline to bother to strive to obtain it, then pretend it's someone else's fault that it could not be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

SAG Hurts

Oh, Screen Actors' Guild, you've broken my black little heart by declining to nominate Breaking Bad for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Dramatic Series.

Nominating Bryan Cranston (Walter) individually was right and proper, but whose performance put the ensemble below the line? Was it Aaron Paul's Jesse, the way he tends to the histrionic? Well, obviously you've not spent enough time in the company of "former" addicts who are deeply paranoid and deeply conflicted about, well, everything. Such people yell a lot, even when they're crying or sleeping.

For my monthly cable fees, Breaking Bad consistently sets the mark for acting on the tee-vee, and I say that as a hopeless fan-boy of Mad Men, a more or less avid follower of two series that received nominations, True Blood and Dexter, and an occasional viewer of another nominee, The Closer.

I have never watched The Good Wife, so I will spare it except to state my unshakable conviction that Breaking Bad's ensemble could crap better acting than the clowns in The Good Wife, whoever they are.

As for the others:

  • The Closer? Really? Have you not noticed that that guy who played Sgt. Rizzo on M*A*S*H is in that series, and is still portraying Sgt. Rizzo for what would seem to be a very different role?
  • True Blood: Really? Really really? You mean the one they put on HBO? The vampire drama? By and large, that's a clinic of over-acting performances that seem cut from a 1940s mid-budget melodrama, though a handful of the performances -- that of vampire Eric, usually that of Sheriff Bud and shy Hoyt, once in a while that of vampire Bill, rarely that of Tara* or Sooki -- play convincingly. Arguably, vampire scripts call for heightened melodrama (if outright cancellation won't do), but you're going to have to argue it, not simply assert it with your nomination-rendering fiats, SAG.
  • Dexter [spoilers alert]. Maybe. I would go along with this but for the way Julie Benz's wife-of-Dexter either decided, or had it decided for her, that she would wheeze every line this season. A voice that breathy belongs either in pornography or the lung cancer ward, and either way, it was enough to take the edge right off the season finale's shocker.
  • Mad Men. It can do no wrong. Every performance is outstanding.
In short, either Mad Men wins or the terrorists do.


* I can't recall the context, but Rutina Wesley's Tara did have one bout of tears this season that I found exceptionally convincing -- the kind of scene that would justify an individual nomination if there were even two or three more like it and fewer scenes in which she is trying to follow the acting coach's prompt for sassy loud person, or sassy person who wants all the hearing-impaired people in the very back row of a large theater to hear her lines.

Pajamas

A blogger has certain responsibilities, and at the risk of turning this thoughtful, temperate, controversy-averse, all-things-in-moderation, carefully reasoned, precious, precious blog into some kind of low-rent Cheers n' Jeers, I must comment on these PajamaGrams ads that are presently filling US-based TV sets with noise, stupidity, and sexually-suggestive imagery.

Here's the ad in question -- the Valentine's Day version, though it happens to be identical with the version presently running -- presented twice for some reason:



A more generous person than I would praise the audacity of the ad's central claims: (a) that all women want sexy underwear for Christmas, and (b) that giving your lady-friend sexy underwear for Christmas opens the express lane to her vagina.

Look, guys. I know this time of year can be difficult -- the hockey and basketball seasons are just heating up, while the football season is at its apex with college bowl games and high-stakes NFL matches. People are scurrying around making cakes and brownies, winter ales, and all kinds of elaborate meals with turkey, steak, ham, venison, goose, moose, rabbit, pheasant, bison, squirrel, soylent green -- I mean, the health care bill is passing, right? -- all manner of recently-killed flesh. Amid all this enchanting diversion, the lady-friend seems to expect you to take time not only to buy something for her, but to wrap it in wrapping paper. Whatever, right?

In that dizzying context, this PajamaGrams thing seems like a godsend -- the TV comes right out and says, in a woman's voice no less, that these underwear are "what she really wants." They do all the wrapping for you, and they'll even bundle the underwear with a bunch of that spa-bath-soap stuff women are always yammering about. The women in the ad seem downright giddy, and why wouldn't they be? It's every woman's dream come true, in a single reasonably-priced, pre-wrapped package. It's the one gift that guarantees she'll take her clothes off (I think you know what that means!!), so what kind of moron isn't already on hold with the PajamaGrams people?

I can suggest a kind: the kind who takes five minutes -- we're already speaking as people who experience commercial breaks, right? -- to ask the lady-friend what she likes, and what, if anything, she wants as a gift in celebration of Jesus's birthday. If, in reply to this question, she hems and haws, or finds herself too reserved to say, or asks for something magnitudes beyond your price range, then so be it. I say chances are good that she'll reply with enough information to piece together a good idea for a gift, though I warn you: you might need to listen a little.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Peevish Tidings from Lake Wobegon


Garrison Keillor to non-Christians:

Christmas is a Christian holiday - if you're not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah.
Wow, when did Garrison Keillor turn into a complete asshole? Was he finally granted tenure on his radio show or something?

Anyway, me to Garrison Keillor: No. No, fuck off, and Merry Christmas.

The war (if such it was) to keep Christmas a Christian holiday was lost and peaceful terms established long before anyone living today was born. I've never known it as anything other than a hodge-podge of Christian and non-Christian ingredients, and to be frank, the elements worth caring about are on the non-Christian, or the long-since unrecognizably Christian, side of the line: sweets, gifts, stockings, trees, lights, yule logs, singing, compulsory family togetherness, and so on. There's a reason no one, not even those scheming Jews or limp-wristed Unitarians that have so enraged Keillor, has tried to commandeer Ash Wednesday or Good Friday: because those really are "Christian holidays," offer nothing for non-Christians, and are, to us away-teamers, pointless, mirthless, charmless, and otherwise not worth appropriating. Whereas Christmas is something far more interesting and appealing than its Christian moorings, and hence my emphatic no to Keillor and like-minded Christians.

Christmas is also, for me these days, the annual festival of crap-wrapping. The one above features an old towel bound with two glamorous shades of masking tape, while these two integrate faces and dialogue:


"Tear my face and I'll cut you" says the one caption. "Give me $20 and I'll tell you where Santa Claus went" says the other. Next up:


"The sooner you open this, the sooner I can get some sun" says the bleached-faced model face clipped from a magazine.

(via Rust Belt Philosophy)

O Sun, Where Art Thou?


Today is Winter Solstice, which means a day lasting eight hours, forty-two minutes, four seconds for those of us living in Faire Puddle-Towne.

Today, the solar declination is -23.44 degrees, and if you remember your trigonometry, and factor in your city's precise position on the globe, you can calculate that the sun's apparent path must be touching the Tropic of Capricorn today.

Alternately, you can forget your trigonometry as thoroughly as I have -- which is to say, so thoroughly as to doubt whether you actually studied it, and to consider it more likely that your dreaming subconscious mind has made up a new word, trigonometry, around which it has woven a disappointingly prosaic narrative that you now mistake for reality -- and just read stuff on the internets.

Enjoy your solstice, wherever you are -- dance naked around something, or burn something (NOT a person), or eat something. Or don't -- whatever works. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, today will be short, but it also signals the turning point beyond which the days begin lengthening. Those punks in the southern hemisphere have had their fun and now it's our turn. Gradually.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Your Fear of Santa Claus - You're Not Alone

The Sketchy Santas blog confirms what prior generations could only suspect: that Santa Claus is a walking, talking, jiggling, ho-ho-ho'ing nightmare for children and the adults who compel them to pose for holiday-themed photographs.

This entry may or may not be the most unintentionally hilarious of the lot, but it's certainly not the most genuinely disturbing.

I like the way this mall Santa has interpreted what dressing down would be for the Santa Claus character he has been paid $8/hour to portray. All in all, it's not so bad a portrayal.

In his casual moments, he reasons, Santa Claus would drop the overcoat and cap, but would stay within the signature red-green color scheme. Maybe he'd go ahead and dangle some feathers from his suspenders -- why not? It's vaguely "festive," or "jolly" if you will forget the dead geese. He would go with black sandal clogs for comfort, but not boots, over stockings that introduce a black stripe that goes well enough with the footwear but coordinates with nothing above the waist.

The part where he grips the child to keep him in frame against his will, and presses his facial expression into "goddammit, I am close enough to smiling" have to be seen as necessary compromises of improvisation.

Cynicism Telegraphed

Just as you'd been thinking how welcome it would be to read a sexily contrarian commentary stating that the craven, chickenshit compromises of President Obama and Senate Democrats is the fault of the people who elected them, Chris Hedges steps forward with the sexy:

I save my anger for our bankrupt liberal intelligentsia of which, sadly, I guess I am a member. Liberals are the defeated, self-absorbed Mouse Man in Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground.” They embrace cynicism, a cloak for their cowardice and impotence. They, like Dostoevsky’s depraved character, have come to believe that the “conscious inertia” of the underground surpasses all other forms of existence. They too use inaction and empty moral posturing, not to affect change but to engage in an orgy of self-adulation and self-pity. They too refuse to act or engage with anyone not cowering in the underground. This choice does not satisfy the Mouse Man, as it does not satisfy our liberal class, but neither has the strength to change. The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power, but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.
Uh, no. It's blindingly obvious, even if not sexily contrarian, that the gravest danger we face as a nation is from the knuckle-dragging, theocratic, bigoted, anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-intellectual, warmongering, Mammonite far right against which the liberal-left counterpunches have been too insubstantial and pusillanimous.

As for that cynicism that "cloaks cowardice," that "inaction and empty moral posturing," that "self-adulation and self-pity," Hedges helpfully telegraphs precisely that:
I am not disappointed in Obama. I don’t feel betrayed. I don’t wonder when he is going to be Obama. I did not vote for the man. I vote socialist, which in my case meant Ralph Nader, but could have meant Cynthia McKinney.
Indeed. It could well have been Cynthia McKinney, Santa Claus, Parker Posey, Omar Bradley, Leonardo DeCaprio, King Henry VIII, the guy who holds the boom microphone on the set of Oprah, the Barnes of Barnes & Noble, Bartleby the scrivener, any random old red barn -- who gives a shit who the socialist candidate for president was? Whoever it was, it was someone conducting a pointless goddamn stunt, siphoning off energies and resources, however slight their sum, for the sake of accomplishing something just short of nothing. Oh wait, in fairness, I'll wager they "raised issues the mainstream candidates wouldn't raise" or some feckless horseshit of the sort. I'll even grant the probability that they passed out some fantastic, incisive pamphlets that were, in their way, more worth reading than the pro-Jesus pamphlets more commonly handed out on city sidewalks.

Hedges's empty, self-pitying, self-adulating cowardice that cloaks cynicism (or vice-versa) continues:
I learned to dislike liberals when I lived in Roxbury, the inner-city in Boston, as a seminary student at Harvard Divinity School. I commuted into Cambridge to hear professors and students talk about empowering people they never met ...
Oh dear Flying Spaghetti Monster I can't bear to quote the rest, which, fortunately, was hackneyed garbage before it left Hedges's keyboard: across the Charles river in Boston, far from the abstraction-weeded fields of Harvard Yard, Hedges encountered humble, noble, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth working class types -- sometimes their very sweat fell upon his cloak! -- and came to admire the shit out of them. They fought hard, drank hard, worked hard; they didn't use fancy words, drop Dostoevsky's name, or waste everyone's patience finding ways to mention the time they'd spent pursuing advanced degrees at Harvard.

This bit unhorses me:
At what point do we stop being a doormat? At what point do we fight back? We may lose if we step outside the mainstream, but at least we will salvage our self-esteem and integrity.
I could read that charitably, but as Chris Hedges is already established as a wanking joke with a keyboard, I will not: self-esteem?!? Sweet Jeebus in blue jeans, he really wrote that? Anyone concerned with self-esteem -- their own or anyone else's -- who is not a high school guidance counselor, social worker, or battered women's shelter volunteer should back away from the keyboard, take a good long look at his life, and re-think his politics, ideals, and aspirations.

Sigh.

Lest I allow cynicism to mask fecklessness, I say the following: candidate Obama made certain commitments -- here's a good enough list -- that I expect him to meet. I expect him to follow through on those commitments or fail in the valiant, relentless pursuit of them. I don't want to hear any more goddamn speeches, excuses, or jaded, easy, lazy protestations of "Obama was always just another plutocrat." No. No he was not. He was no Bernie Sanders, but the president we have is not the candidate for which we donated, worked, advocated, and voted, and I refuse to concede "that's just how it works."

That's how it fucks up, not how it works.

If current trends continue -- the relentless pursuit of pleasuring people who are lying right-wing plutocrats -- Obama and similar back-sliders will continue to see the liberal-left cohort of voters abandon them. Our votes, time, dollars, and advocacy will continue to wither away. We will get, in that case, not some popular green-labor-socialist uprising led by Ralph Nader, Chris Hedges, Cynthia McKinney, and their seventeen fellow party members, but President Sarah Palin or the equivalent. We will get that and we will fear and despise it, rightly, as something substantially worse than a weak-willed President Obama, as rotten and disappointing as that has become in too many aspects of public policy.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar - Huzzah for the Stone Age!

I saw Avatar, today, and when I say "I saw Avatar today," the reader should note that this entails spending upwards of $9 to sit in a movie theater for three to six hours -- honestly, I lost count -- to watch a story that has already been rendered in film several times.*

On the level of story, this is Dances With Wolves again; it is any of several Pocahontas-and-John-Smith films again; it is Braveheart again; it is Gladiator again; it is Gangs of New York again, and so on. I strongly question whether this story -- Subject arrives amid The Other to learn and subvert The Other (or vice-versa), Subject changes sides and fights alongside The Other (or vice-versa); after much heartache and many lessons learned, the "good guys" prevail. Which reminds me, I hereby issue a spoiler alert for Avatar.

People who watch films for the technical aspects of visual effects might be impressed with Avatar. As for me, I don't give two shits about whether this film breaks new ground in 3-D or whatever, but the giving of shits is, of course, a matter of individual discretion. I defer to others on whether this film is secretly awesome because of the fabulous new way the director combined computers and cameras or whatever.

I was right there with it for the first few hours (honestly, I lost count), but by the time we seemed to be headed into our third or fourth decisive battle sequence -- or, by another metric, my second pee break -- I was ready for the damn thing to find a way to wrap up. And, amazingly enough, it did, and by the most implausible way imaginable -- an army wielding bows, arrows, flying lizards, and Gaia-ish mystical woo defeated a greedy invasion force outfitted with nothing better than technologies enabling cross-species mind transfer, advanced genetic engineering, interstellar travel, armored attack helicopters, and gigantic bipedal robotic tanks mounted with steel knives and huge guns.

It turns out that wood arrows are unbeatable when combined with the fighting spirit of the righteously oppressed who really, really want their planet-wide tree network to suffer no downtime. (Which reminds me: this is a worldwide network of interlinked organisms that we're supposed to be weeping over, but that implies that the death of a small number of nodes shouldn't harm the whole. Networks worth protecting are capable of routing their way around silenced nodes -- networks are redundant, and if they're not, they're not really networks. But whatever. The movie was quite long enough without delving into networks.)

It looked cool even as it went nowhere I hadn't been sixty or seventy times. I can say the rendering of the alien creatures was less distractingly fake than in many films I could mention. A more or less similar visual effect seemed to be the aim of, say, Beowulf -- but there, the story was kinda-sorta worth following and tended to subtract focus from the middling quality of the computer-enhanced visuals.

Whatever.

* Qualification (12/22) - it's not as though re-telling a familiar tale automatically dooms a film. Some of the best films ever made are direct adaptations of existing works, while other superb films are continuations of myths, themes, typologies, and characters we have read or seen countless times before. There is nothing new under the sun, so it would be stupid to say that only movies that bring genuinely new material can be credited. The question is how inventively the source materials are re-used, and whether the work at hand reaches for a new twist, a deeper look, or a new application. On this level, Avatar fails for being so hackneyed and predictable. From the first frames, we know where it will go, and it never bothers to perturb those expectations. Even despite all this, the film could have succeeded had it told this exact same story in an exceptionally complete, beautiful, and compelling way, so that it would become the standard from which subsequent efforts might depart. Alas, no. It tells a familiar story, does not depart from that story, and does not execute it with any exceptional grace. (And no, using a new whiz-bang combination of cameras and computers is not what I mean.)

Astonishingly Inept

Leaving aside the byzantine details of the policy, notwithstanding the president's attempts to polish the turd, I am absolutely baffled by the sheer politics of the health care "reform" the Democrats are about to pass into law.

When Democrats force people to buy private insurance without putting adequate rules on the nature and pricing of the insurance, it comes across as a straightforward and substantial tax increase, one that goes directly to companies that are already loathed across the political spectrum.

Moreover, it means that the line between "what those asshole insurance companies did to me" and "what those asshole Democrats did to me" becomes impossible to find. It dissolves that line.

Democrats had a chance to stand up here. Sixty-vote Senate majorities don't come along often. The Democrats are about to stand up and reveal what they truly stand for on one of the most significant public policy disputes of the last half-century. I wish I didn't have to see it.

Dylan Ratigan is cranky at what looks it like -- to him, to me, to people who trade stocks, to anyone with eyes -- namely, a massive redistribution of wealth from people to health insurers:

Friday, December 18, 2009

When to Marry

It would be a slight exaggeration to say that everything is bad and trending worse because a barrier to legal equality has been lifted in Washington DC:

District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty signed a measure recognizing such [same-sex] marriages as legal. The district council overwhelming passed the bill Tuesday, following a similar vote December 1.
For the passionate enthusiasts of certain passages of Leviticus and Paul, there's still hope to have the icky gays dragged back to a lower tier of citizenship:
The measure now goes to Congress for a 30-day review period, but it's considered unlikely that the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill would block the bill. By law, Congress has the right to review and overturn laws created by the District of Columbia's council.
I don't know what Democratic majority on Capitol Hill the author of this news article has in mind, but for my part, I expect the batch of chickenshits who constitute today's Democratic majority to roll this back forthwith, and to do so with the support of the Obama White House.

Granted, I do expect the chickenshit-in-chief to give a right pretty speech outlining the regret and reluctance with which he hails the perpetuation of the kind of inequality that his hero, Martin Luther King Jr., gave his life to overcome. I expect to learn in this speech that something or other underscores one continuing challenge or other, and I expect it to depict two deplorable extremes between which the president and all sensible people of good will find themselves. Or some shit like that.

If you're gay in DC and of a mind to marry, schedule the ceremony for the first seconds after this change takes legal effect, assuming it does so. Maybe it will stand for a few minutes before Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, or some other parasite scares the Democrats into compromising it away in the name of reaching out to fair-minded independents or finding middle ground or whatever phrasing Rahm Emmanuel is now using. Timing is critical when the exercise of human rights collides with Democrats' preemptively pissing themselves over 30-second campaign ads their future political opponents might run.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Very Nietzschean Christmas


This cartoon from Big Fat Whale has something for all us war-on-Christmas foot soldiers* -- I particularly like the Richard Dawkins snow man, the wreath design, and the Nietzsche sweater, though I think Nietzsche was an agonized sort of atheist rather than the cheerful sort -- I read him to mean something more like 'Oh crap, god is dead, now what?' as distinct from 'Hooray, god is dead, let's party like it's 1899!'

Then again, insanity contains multitudes (as does genius), and no one trash-talked religion with more alacrity and verve than crazy, brilliant old Freddy Nietzsche -- one of his writings is titled The Antichrist, after all. This is from Ecce Homo:

"God", "immortality of the soul", "redemption", "beyond" -- Without exception, concepts to which I have never devoted any attention, or time; not even as a child. Perhaps I have never been childlike enough for them? I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event: It is a matter of course with me, from instinct. I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer. God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers -- at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us: you shall not think!
Zing! And this from The Gay Science:
One form of honesty has always been lacking among founders of religions and their kin: they have never made their experiences a matter of the intellectual conscience. "What did I really experience? What then took place in me and around me? Was my understanding clear enough? Was my will directly opposed to all deception of the senses, and courageous in its defence against fantastic notions?" None of them ever asked these questions, nor to this day do any of the good religious people ask them. They have rather a thirst for things which are contrary to reason, and they don't want to have too much difficulty in satisfying this thirst, so they experience "miracles" and "regenerations," and hear the voices of angels!
Zung! The point is, I am confident that if he were still alive today, Nietzsche would be flattered, amused, and enraged to see one of his most provocative statements stitched into a garish Christmas sweater. He would also be very, very old, and probably crazier than ever.

No, I have re-thought the matter one final time and it turns out there was no point, as "points" are for suckers. Merry Christmas!

(via Domestically Challenged)



*As I have explained before, I have nothing against Christmas. Indeed, I celebrate it with good cheer, and insofar as I get testy about it, it's over the tiresome "Jesus is the reason for the season" chatter. Sure, it has something or other to do with Jesus, or had at one time -- he apparently wanted his birthday remembered with a society-wide gift exchange and large-scale disfigurement of pine trees rather than a surprise party and wish-granting candles stuck into a cake -- but I do not concede The True Meaning of Christmas to Jesus's friends or anyone else. Christmas belongs to all by now.

Kangaroos and Gods

Ophelia Benson is not the only one who smells a rat:

The whole set-up really is a cheat, and it can't be seen as anything else. We do have faculties that work, and it is beneficial for us that they work, yet when it comes to God we are supposed to do the opposite of what we do the rest of the time. We are supposed to veto our own cognitive abilities and just believe things for no good reason. That's backward. A decent God shouldn't expect that kind of reversal. It's a cheat and it's also an insult ...
Quite so, and beyond that, such an arrangement -- a god who expects us to believe by means of reversing and suppressing our usual truth-finding capacities -- would be a terrible waste in a sort of Maslow Hierarchy sense. Under the assumption that this god exists as presented, we humans, given the way we're constituted, have to expend vast mental energies just to scratch around deeply enough to believe in it.

Whereas if its existence were as perspicuous and undeniable as the existence of the sun, kangaroos, or the city of Madrid, we could devote those energies to higher-order ends, such as not killing, abusing, or stealing from one another. Behaving ethically would still be as difficult as it is now, but we would not have to waste any calories on theological and existential preliminaries: the necessity of billions of words and countless hours of effort would be wiped away, clearing the space for higher pursuits.

We don't need to believe in kangaroos; we can just check the voluminous documentary record, or go to a zoo, or go to Australia; we can simply accept the existence of kangaroos and move on to understanding and/or giggling at them. A god who was more like kangaroos -- living somewhere we could find, with definite habits and appearance, possibly marsupial -- would make more sense than the gods of ancient lore.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Crap-Wrapping: First Foray of 2009


These are my first Xmas crap-wrappings of the 2009 regular season. I am pleased with these, but I expect better from myself. For starters, I need to branch out from the green masking tape and find new means of adhering the wrappings.

Also: more creepy faces needed.

It's a start.

The Many Loads of Shit

Not that it detracts from my disgust for Senator Lieberman, but Glennzilla lays out a portrait of a rot that runs far deeper:

[T]here is a reasonable debate to be had among reform advocates over whether this bill is a net benefit or a net harm. But the idea that the White House did what it could to ensure the inclusion of progressive provisions -- or that they were powerless to do anything about it -- is absurd on its face. Whatever else is true, the overwhelming evidence points to exactly what Sen. Feingold said yesterday: "This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place."
It's quite a little political system we've produced here in the USA. There are two nominal parties: the one consisting of knuckle-dragging, warmongering, Bible-thumping, lying, shrieking anti-intellectuals who shamelessly promote the shortest-possible-term interests of business, and seem to derive their popular appeal, such as it is, from the same nihilism, paranoia, cruelty, and misanthropy that draws people to dog-fighting and snuff films. Such is the Republican party, and given its ways, the Democrats can do almost anything in the vicinity of public policy and come off as sober, high-minded, and responsible.

Consequently, while one side is drooling and barking insanely, worth observing only periodically to ensure that none of its members is approaching with a sharpened shank or chewing through his own tongue, all the substantive policy-crafting, such as it is, occurs between the least and most wild-eyed, reality-indifferent, and business-subservient wings of the Democratic party.

Thus the Democrats do exactly what they can easily get away with, almost anything -- always, by some crazy coincidence, landing in a spot that's to the liking of big-dollar interests -- and attempt to portray it as adequate. Or they portray it as the best we can hope for given the grim political realities, at which point the camera points at John Boehner, Sarah Palin, or Dick Cheney lunging wildly from behind a bite-mask, then back to the Democrat throwing up his hands in a gesture of helplessness. Q.E.D.

Speaking of which, remember "hope" as a loaded political term circa 2008? What a load of shit.

Entre révolte et dérision: Wednesday Stereolab Apologetics

Over the course of this precious, precious blog, I've done a poor job of concealing my adoration of the music of Stereolab, notwithstanding the odd "so last decade!" cloud into which their reputation seems to have sunk of late -- a situation no doubt helped along by the band's indefinite hiatus, which tends to pare back the publicity efforts.

Call me a hopeless tool -- of the machine, of the past, of Franglo-techno-krautrock post-whatever musical melanges, of lyrics delivered in French -- but I continue to find their music refreshing, challenging, and relevant even after thousands of listens. This is "L'Enfer des Formes," a favorite from Mars Audiac Quintet that, among its many layers, might include the most heartfelt and suggestive use of "la la la" in all of popular music:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lie is in Right There in the Name

What can I say to this but here, here:

I despise Joe Lieberman. I always have, but every time I hear about him again, I despise him more. Treacherous, self-satisfied, self-aggrandizing, self-admiring - happy to make millions of fellow-citizens worse off than they would otherwise be, just for the sake of his own preening smirking ego. What a sack of shit.
Ophelia Benson is, perhaps, too kind to Joe Lieberman and too harsh to sacks of shit.

Human beings will suffer and die from Joe Lieberman's duplicity and mendacity.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Good Constitution is Hard to Find

Cecil Bothwell isn't just a name you'd expect for a character in a Flannery O'Connor story, it's the name of a man recently elected councilman in Asheville, North Carolina. Bothwell does not believe in god, and the rest writes itself almost as plainly and grimly as anything in O'Connor. Bothwell's election has

riled conservative advocates, who cite a little-noticed quirk in North Carolina’s Constitution that disqualifies officeholders “who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” The provision was included when the document was drafted in 1868 and was not revised when North Carolina amended its Constitution in 1971.
Apparently this "quirk" is not "little-noticed" enough -- however quirky, actual passages of text in state constitutions tend to get noticed sooner or later.

When things like this happen, it makes me wish that the framers of the US Constitution, good country people all, had possessed the foresight to ensure that religious tests are never permitted as qualifications for public office. On the off-chance I had forgotten or misremembered some or other little-noticed quirk of the US Constitution, I checked, and as if by a stroke of good fortune, I came across Article VI:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Remember your constitutions -- the rights you defend may be your own.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Jennifer Connelly at 39

I want to extend happy birthday wishes to Jennifer Connelly, who turned 39 today, the day on which I was, quite by coincidence, first exposed to the glaring shortcomings and talent-wasting realities of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a terrible film that has no reason to exist.

Connelly's IMDB profile includes the following detail that is too deliciously perverse not to include in the annals of this precious, precious blog: the actress

[c]ut a single in Japan, which she sang in phonetic Japanese. She says her agent made up the idea that she is semi-fluent in the language.
Of all the things the parents of Jennifer Connelly pictured for their newborn in the closing days of 1970, was singing in fraudulent Japanese at the behest of her money-grubbing handlers among them? I think I know the answer, but I can't be sure.

Most of us don't have agents pressing us, for pecuniary reasons or other reasons, to pretend we know, or can sing in, a language we don't actually know well enough to sing in. Then again, if it came in trade for being paid monstrous sums of money for appearing in shitty feature films and being one of the most beautiful people on the planet, it might not be so awful. I've heard of uglier fates.

It should be noted (for purposes of this blog post) that the production of The Day the Earth Stood Still made a go at being 'green':
To prevent the wasting of paper, concept art, location stills, and costume tests were posted on a website created by the production for crew members to reference. Costumes were kept for future Fox productions or given to homeless shelters, rather than thrown away. Hybrid vehicles were used and crew members had orders to turn off their car engines if they sat in their vehicles for more than three minutes.
Now, I'm ever more sure I'm vindicated in my offline arguments to the effect that some the costumes seen in the control room scenes of The Day the Earth Stood Still were re-used by Fox in subsequent episodes of American Dad.

Poem of the Day: "It Was Not Death"

This is a poem superficially about death but more about the end beyond which the speaker cannot see. It feels about right on this day when I have lost the last of my grandparents.

Emily Dickinson, "It was not death"

It was not death, for I stood up,
And all the dead lie down.
It was not night, for all the bells
Put out their tongues for noon.

It was not frost, for on my flesh
I felt siroccos crawl,
Nor fire, for just my marble feet
Could keep a chancel cool.

And yet it tasted like them all,
The figures I have seen
Set orderly for burial
Reminded me of mine,

As if my life were shaven
And fitted to a frame
And could not breathe without a key,
And 'twas like midnight, some,

When everything that ticked has stopped
And space stares all around,
Or grisly frosts, first autumn morns,
Repeal the beating ground;

But most like chaos, stopless, cool,
Without a chance, or spar,
Or even a report of land
To justify despair.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Decisionmaking Without Certainty

Greg Craven has what seems impossible -- a promising way to change the way we talk about climate change. Watch and pass it along:



Craven expands on these ideas with DJ Grothe in a recent Point of Inquiry podcast.

Coyotes: Nervous and Numerous

There is now a blog of "The Canyon," which is a geological feature of the campus of Reed College -- or rather a geological featurette, given its diminutive size.

The word from the canyon's blog is that coyotes have been sited there of late, and while noting that coyotes pose no threat to humans, it grimly observes that

[C]oyotes will prey upon free-roaming cats and unleashed small dogs.
Being neither, I was right not to be alarmed upon seeing a nervous-looking coyote last week at the golf course where I run, and now I realize I should not have been surprised (at seeing it, not necessarily at its nervousness), as coyotes are apparently feeding on free-range cats and dogs from one end of east Portland to the other. We are overrun.

The canyon blog goes on to list ways to reduce what it calls "human-coyote conflict," and I have helpfully annotated the list:
* If you see a coyote, shout and make noise, wave your arms.[I would think this would only call attention to the coyote, which is sure to increase its nervousness, if not disrupt its feast of unleashed cat. Rude.]
* Never deliberately feed a coyote or other wild mammal.[Meaning, presumably, always keep your small dogs and cats on leashes. I don't have the small-turd tolerance necessary to keep a small dog, but have you ever tried to keep a cat on a leash? I'd rather cede a few cats to coyotes than subject them to the indignity of the leash, and I think they'd agree.]
* Never deliberately approach a coyote and teach children to respect all wildlife from a distance.[Indeed. Do one of these or the other, but not both. I choose the first, never deliberately approach a coyote, but I will expect the children to learn how to approach wild animals just as I did, by reading the blogs of geological featurettes.]
* Keep house pets indoors and allow only controlled access to the outdoors (fenced yards and leashes).[Now the cats and dogs have to stay indoors, within a fenced yard, and leashed? We might as well just euthanize them all now.]
* Always keep pets in at night when coyotes are most active. (While coyotes are most active between dusk and dawn, they can be seen at any time of the day.)[I don't know about the small dogs and their small turds, but oh, the cats, being nocturnal by nature, are not going to like this one. Their late-night squalling and mad-dashing is going to make us all want to let them out to face the coyotes.]
* Cats and dogs need to be on a leash or indoors at all times in Multnomah County, and in the canyon. [Yea yea, and I need to save all my money for a rainy day, spend all my money to help the economy rebound, convert to the metric system, learn CPR, try not to unnecessarily impregnate the octo-mom, and avoid soy milk if I don't want gigantic man-boobs. Need, need, need. Blah blah.]
For broadly "fifth amendment" reasons, I would prefer not to expand on why I would say this, but no one should be surprised if a middle-aged Amboina Box Turtle is also seen wandering the Reed canyon.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Father Mapple's Sermon

As delivered by Orson Welles as Mapple:



As delivered by Gregory Peck as Mapple:



As written by Herman Melville, chapter 9 of Moby Dick:

Father Mapple rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. "Star board gangway, there! side away to larboard- larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!"

There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women's shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on the preacher.

He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit's bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.

This ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog- in such tones he commenced reading the following hymn; but changing his manner towards the concluding stanzas, burst forth with a pealing exultation and joy-

The ribs and terrors in the whale, Arched over me a dismal gloom, While all God's sun-lit waves rolled by, And lift me deepening down to doom.

I saw the opening maw of hell, With endless pains and sorrows there; Which none but they that feel can tell- Oh, I was plunging to despair.

In black distress, I called my God, When I could scarce believe him mine, He bowed his ear to my complaints- No more the whale did me confine.

With speed he flew to my relief, As on a radiant dolphin borne; Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone The face of my Deliverer God.

My song for ever shall record That terrible, that joyful hour; I give the glory to my God, His all the mercy and the power.

Nearly all joined in singing this hymn, which swelled high above the howling of the storm. A brief pause ensued; the preacher slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: "Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah- 'And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.'"

"Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters- four yarns- is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah's deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish's belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us, we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God- never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed- which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do- remember that- and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.

"With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men, will carry him into countries where God does not reign but only the Captains of this earth. He skulks about the wharves of Joppa, and seeks a ship that's bound for Tarshish. There lurks, perhaps, a hitherto unheeded meaning here. By all accounts Tarshish could have been no other city than the modern Cadiz. That's the opinion of learned men. And where is Cadiz, shipmates? Cadiz is in Spain; as far by water, from Joppa, as Jonah could possibly have sailed in those ancient days, when the Atlantic was an almost unknown sea. Because Joppa, the modern Jaffa, shipmates, is on the most easterly coast of the Mediterranean, the Syrian; and Tarshish or Cadiz more than two thousand miles to the westward from that, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. See ye not then, shipmates, that Jonah sought to flee worldwide from God? Miserable man! Oh! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas. So disordered, self-condemning in his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck. How plainly he's a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag,- no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux. At last, after much dodging search, he finds the Tarshish ship receiving the last items of her cargo; and as he steps on board to see its Captain in the cabin, all the sailors for the moment desist from hoisting in the goods, to mark the stranger's evil eye. Jonah sees this; but in vain he tries to look all ease and confidence; in vain essays his wretched smile. Strong intuitions of the man assure the mariners he can be no innocent. In their gamesome but still serious way, one whispers to the other- "Jack, he's robbed a widow;" or, "Joe, do you mark him; he's a bigamist;" or, "Harry lad, I guess he's the adulterer that broke jail in old Gomorrah, or belike, one of the missing murderers from Sodom." Another runs to read the bill that's stuck against the spile upon the wharf to which the ship is moored, offering five hundred gold coins for the apprenhension of a parricide, and containing a description of his person. He reads, and looks from Jonah to the bill; while all his sympathetic shipmates now crowd round Jonah, prepared to lay their hands upon him. Frightened Jonah trembles. and summoning all his boldness to his face, only looks so much the more a coward. He will not confess himself suspected; but that itself is strong suspicion. So he makes the best of it; and when the sailors find him not to be the man that is advertised, they let him pass, and he descends into the cabin.

"'Who's there?' cries the Captain at his busy desk, hurriedly making out his papers for the Customs- 'Who's there?' Oh! how that harmless question mangles Jonah! For the instant he almost turns to flee again. But he rallies. 'I seek a passage in this ship to Tarshish; how soon sail ye, sir?' Thus far the busy Captain had not looked up to Jonah, though the man now stands before him; but no sooner does he hear that hollow voice, than he darts a scrutinizing glance. 'We sail with the next coming tide,' at last he slowly answered, still intently eyeing him. 'No sooner, sir?'- 'Soon enough for any honest man that goes a passenger.' Ha! Jonah, that's another stab. But he swiftly calls away the Captain from that scent. 'I'll sail with ye,'- he says,- 'the passage money how much is that?- I'll pay now.' For it is particularly written, shipmates, as if it were a thing not to be overlooked in this history, 'that he paid the fare thereof' ere the craft did sail. And taken with the context, this is full of meaning.

"Now Jonah's Captain, shipmates, was one whose discernment detects crime in any, but whose cupidity exposes it only in the penniless. In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers. So Jonah's Captain prepares to test the length of Jonah's purse, ere he judge him openly. He charges him thrice the usual sum; and it's assented to. Then the Captain knows that Jonah is a fugitive; but at the same time resolves to help a flight that paves its rear with gold. Yet when Jonah fairly takes out his purse, prudent suspicions still molest the Captain. He rings every coin to find a counterfeit. Not a forger, any way, he mutters; and Jonah is put down for his passage. 'Point out my state-room, Sir,' says Jonah now, 'I'm travel-weary; I need sleep.' 'Thou lookest like it,' says the Captain, 'there's thy room.' Jonah enters, and would lock the door, but the lock contains no key. Hearing him foolishly fumbling there, the Captain laughs lowly to himself, and mutters something about the doors of convicts' cells being never allowed to be locked within. All dressed and dusty as he is, Jonah throws himself into his berth, and finds the little state-room ceiling almost resting on his forehead. The air is close, and Jonah gasps. Then, in that contracted hole, sunk, too, beneath the ship's water-line, Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowels' wards.

"Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah's room; and the ship, heeling over towards the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. The lamp alarms and frightens Jonah; as lying in his berth his tormented eyes roll round the place, and this thus far successful fugitive finds no refuge for his restless glance. But that contradiction in the lamp more and more appals him. The floor, the ceiling, and the side, are all awry. 'Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!' he groans, 'straight upwards, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!'

"Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him, as the plungings of the Roman race-horse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him; as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anguish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steals over him, as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there's naught to staunch it; so, after sore wrestling in his berth, Jonah's prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep.

"And now the time of tide has come; the ship casts off her cables; and from the deserted wharf the uncheered ship for Tarshish, all careening, glides to sea. That ship, my friends, was the first of recorded smugglers! the contraband was Jonah. But the sea rebels; he will not bare the wicked burden. A dreadful storm comes on, the ship is like to break. But now when the boatswain calls all hands to lighten her; when boxes, bales, and jars are clattering overboard; when the wind is shrieking, and the men are yelling, and every plank thunders with trampling feet right over Jonah's head; in all this raging tumult, Jonah sleeps his hideous sleep. He sees no black sky and raging sea, feels not the reeling timbers, and little hears he or heeds he the far rush of the mighty whale, which even now with open mouth is cleaving the seas after him. Aye, shipmates, Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship- a berth in the cabin as I have taken it, and was fast asleep. But the frightened master comes to him, and shrieks in his dead ear, 'What meanest thou, O, sleeper! arise!' Startled from his lethargy by that direful cry, Jonah staggers to his feet, and stumbling to the deck, grasps a shroud, to look out upon the sea. But at that moment he is sprung upon by a panther billow leaping over the bulwarks. Wave after wave thus leaps into the ship, and finding no speedy vent runs roaring fore and aft, till the mariners come nigh to drowning while yet afloat. And ever, as the white moon shows her affrighted face from the steep gullies in the blackness overhead, aghast Jonah sees the rearing bowsprit pointing high upward, but soon beat downward again towards the tormented deep.

"Terrors upon terrors run shouting through his soul. In all his cringing attitudes, the God-fugitive is now too plainly known. The sailors mark him; more and more certain grow their suspicions of him, and at last, fully to test the truth, by referring the whole matter to high Heaven, they all-outward to casting lots, to see for whose cause this great tempest was upon them. The lot is Jonah's; that discovered, then how furiously they mob him with their questions. 'What is thine occupation? Whence comest thou? Thy country? What people? But mark now, my shipmates, the behavior of poor Jonah. The eager mariners but ask him who he is, and where from; whereas, they not only receive an answer to those questions, but likewise another answer to a question not put by them, but the unsolicited answer is forced from Jonah by the hard hand of God that is upon him.

"'I am a Hebrew,' he cries- and then- 'I fear the Lord the God of Heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land!' Fear him, O Jonah? Aye, well mightest thou fear the Lord God then! Straightway, he now goes on to make a full confession; whereupon the mariners became more and more appalled, but still are pitiful. For when Jonah, not yet supplicating God for mercy, since he but too well knew the darkness of his deserts,- when wretched Jonah cries out to them to take him and cast him forth into the sea, for he knew that for his sake this great tempest was upon them; they mercifully turn from him, and seek by other means to save the ship. But all in vain; the indignant gale howls louder; then, with one hand raised invokingly to God, with the other they not unreluctantly lay hold of Jonah.

"And now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east, and the sea is as Jonah carries down the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind. He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison. Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord out of the fish's belly. But observe his prayer, and learn a weighty lesson. For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah."

While he was speaking these words, the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher, who, when describing Jonah's sea-storm, seemed tossed by a storm himself. His deep chest heaved as with a ground-swell; his tossed arms seemed the warring elements at work; and the thunders that rolled away from off his swarthy brow, and the light leaping from his eye, made all his simple hearers look on him with a quick fear that was strange to them.

There now came a lull in his look, as he silently turned over the leaves of the Book once more; and, at last, standing motionless, with closed eyes, for the moment, seemed communing with God and himself.

But again he leaned over towards the people, and bowing his head lowly, with an aspect of the deepest yet manliest humility, he spake these words:

"Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me. I have read ye by what murky light may be mine the lesson that Jonah teaches to all sinners; and therefore to ye, and still more to me, for I am a greater sinner than ye. And now how gladly would I come down from this mast-head and sit on the hatches there where you sit, and listen as you listen, while some one of you reads me that other and more awful lesson which Jonah teaches to me, as a pilot of the living God. How being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things and bidden by the Lord to sound those unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh, Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God by taking ship at Joppa. But God is everywhere; Tarshish he never reached. As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along 'into the midst of the seas,' where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and 'the weeds were wrapped about his head,' and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet- 'out of the belly of hell'- when the whale grounded upon the ocean's utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and 'vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;' when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten- his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean- Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!

"This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!

He drooped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm,- "But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him- a far, far upward, and inward delight- who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight,- top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath- O Father!- chiefly known to me by Thy rod- mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world's, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?"

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.
It is truly a strange and compelling book.