Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Blockbuster Model

This will be my last Harry Potter post for a while, I promise. Harry Potter season is almost over, and this could well be the last serious Harry Potter season there is -- the movies, alone, don't create the same buzz as the novels (which now that I think about it is a pretty interesting fact in itself) because the books never cover new ground.

But this is what I've learned from Harry Potter in terms of the fantasy publishing industry: the industry has moved towards the blockbuster model of producing novels and marketing them. As I said in yesterday's post, the idea that Harry Potter leapt onto the scene with no advertising, that it was in some fashion a "sleeper", isn't particularly true. Scholastic gave Philosopher's Stone a huge (for the industry) advertising budget and every book since then has seen sharp increases in advertising budgets (not to mention the various cross-promotions, such as movies, toys, etc., each of which has its own advertising that nevertheless boosts sales of the books, just as the book's ads increase sales of the cross-promotional items).

I think that they're understanding the implications of the fact that, even more than just about anything else, readers are intensely loyal to particular writers. They've long known that readers read writers they've read -- if you've bought Author X before, you're far more liable to get another book by Author X even if you didn't particularly like Author X's stuff than pick up a book by Author Y whom you've never read. So, advertising-wise, it makes a lot of sense to have elaborate advertising budgets designed to create "brand loyalty".

So, lately, there have been a fair number of designer fantasy series, not just Harry Potter (and, indeed, compared to some of these, Harry Potter, in terms of literature, is downright stellar in quality). So, Terry Goodkind's The Wizard's First Rule sold at an auction for $275,000 and he got a $300,000 advertising budget. He'd never been published before. All of his books have been bestsellers. George R. R. Martin's books also had a huge advertising budget, and have also all been bestsellers, each and every one. The same is true of Jordan's Wheel of Time books, where a relatively unknown author was given a huge advance and ad budget and has gone on to great commercial success. This is a marked difference from reading fantasy in my own youth, where the books were never bestsellers and never had anything like advertising budgets.

Or, to say it another way, Harry Potter novels are promoted like a movie, to create fan loyalty in the characters and situations, and creating star writers like the movie industry has star actors and directors. A lot of people "trust" Rowling the same way many movie audiences trust, say, James Cameron. And, furthermore, the fantasy industry is following this model. (I think it's happening to fantasy first in genre fiction because of the intense cross-promotional potential in most fantasy series. It'd be pretty damn hard to make a video game out of an Ellroy novel, but it's really easy to make a video game out of virtually any fantasy series because of the emphasis on magic and monsters -- that sort of thing looks really good in video games! Likewise, you can do cross-promotion in big, special effects laden blockbuster movies, brightly colored comics, etc., etc. as opposed to novels where much of the drama occurs in the private thoughts and subtle actions of the characters.)

I don't think this is a terribly good idea, for the same reason I dislike the blockbuster system in Hollywood. It really cuts out a lot of talent in order to score the big hit, because it centralizes all the money in a small number of products, which will have the effect of choking off a lot of other writers who might have otherwise made it enough to keep writing (tho' there are other things happening that counterindicate this, such as the rapid growth of fanfic communities, but since most of those are part of the hype machine . . .) and definitely centralizes marketing and distribution in a way is designed to keep out competition. I don't like it much at all.

But . . . as a writer who's trying to get a novel published, what does a person do? I understand this. Is it better or worse to talk frankly about that understanding? Should I say to prospective agents and publishers, "Look, I think that this would do well in the blockbuster system of novels. It has great cross-promotional potential, video games, comic books, the whole works"? Because, from all the "how-to get published" books I've read, and various discussions, the subject of money is virtually taboo at the initial phases of the negotiation -- but, on the other hand, I really think I understand how this works. My feeling about the industry is that, while they do admit that publishing businesses operate on a profit basis, they also say that talking about money off the bat is a faux pas. So, would it be an even bigger faux pas to talk about one of the other elephants in the room? The actual underlying motivation of the industry? Would it be taken as a sign of cleverness and willingness to "do what it takes to get published" by talking about it so frankly? Or would it seem arrogant and insulting? I honestly don't know.

But, Harry Potter showed me that fantasy novels, especially, but to some extent all publishing models, are increasingly blockbuster modeled, where writers are packaged as brands to create loyalty through extensive advertising in a way similar to big movies and video games.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and Advertising, Plus the Fate of the Free World, Still

Preface: I almost didn't post this. But only one person actually bothered to post about the actual point I made yesterday but a fair number of people, both privately and on my blog or LJ, just defended the books. Which missed the point of my post, but also confirmed my point.

I've got some additional comments about Harry Potter and hype. One of the more common arguments against this applying to Harry Potter is the "stealth success" of Sorcerer's Stone -- how it became a best-seller without any advertising or promotions. This is, simply speaking, untrue. While the UK publisher, Bloombury, didn't have much faith in Sorcerer's Stone (or, more accurately, Philosopher's Stone), and advanced Rowling a mere $4000. However -- and this happened before the UK publication of the book -- Scholastic gave Rowling an advance of $100,000 and about the same as the advertising budget. People familiar with the publishing industry will realize that this is an extremely large sum of money, advanced with the expectation of high sales. Obviously, the book performed, but this is normal when you've got a good advertising budget.

Because -- and I'm surprised that I need to say this -- advertising works. About 1 in 6 dollars in the US is spent on advertising. But even in response to yesterday's post about Harry Potter, what I found is that . . . no one wanted to talk about the hype. Some people were interested in correcting what they saw to be factual errors, and damn near everyone tried to defend the quality of the books, but no one seemed to consider the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, their enjoyment of media was manufactured.

Ironically, the biggest proponent -- at least in public -- of the idea that advertising doesn't work is . . . the advertising industry! Seriously, go and follow any of the arguments that the ad business advances whenever someone wants to regulate advertising. Suddenly, advertising doesn't work. Well, OK, then, if advertising doesn't work, why is 1 in 6 dollars in America being spent on it? Because, to say the obvious, it does work. To say what few people want to believe: it works on you.

You. The person reading this. It works on you. If you're connected enough to the system to be reading my blog, you're connected enough to be effected by advertising. And most of us don't have any idea how sly these bastards are.

For instance, a lot of sneaker sales depend on what people in poor urban areas are wearing -- the guys playing hoop down at the park. So shoe companies have for years paid street ball players to wear their shoes as a mechanism of sales. As advertisement that no one even knows is actually happening. Or how advertisers write up "news stories" and submit them as genuine articles and then news shows show these ads as actual news. Or lean on magazines and TV shows to write favorable articles about the products being advertised.

But even more than that. Look around your house, really look around at the things you actually buy. How often do you buy something because of the label? Recently, a person I knew bought an Ipod Shuffle. It's this 2 GB MP3 player that you can't program. It's always on random shuffle. He paid about a hundred dollars for it. For about 20% less, I bought an MP3 player that has more memory and upon which I can make my own playlists. Why would anyone want to buy an Ipod Shuffle when there are better products for less money? And this is generally true of all Ipods and gear for Ipods. It's pretty easy to find better things for less money if a person bothers to look. But, well, Apple is making a fortune betting that people will not look, that they'll buy the hype, see the adds and won't even consider the possibility of there being different products. They go into a store and buy an Ipod rather than go into the next aisle over and buy an entirely superior MP3 player for less money.

The obviousness of this leaps out at me. Advertising works. But it seems to me that most people pretend it doesn't work on them. And it's partially true. I've never succumbed to the hype and bought a single Brittany Spears album. No matter how cool their commercials are, I don't buy Budweiser. But I look forwards to Grand Theft Auto 4 . . . despite strongly disliking the last big GTA 3 game. And I've seen a number of absolutely terrible science-fiction, fantasy and comic book movies because of the hype. So, while it's true that not all advertising works on everyone, it works on everyone some of the time. It works well enough that at almost no restaurant can a person get anything other than Coke or Pepsi products. Would someone really not order soda if it was RC Cola? How often does that happen? "I'd like a cola." "We have RC." "OH, NO! You don't have Coke or Pepsi! I REFUSE to get a soda!" I estimate roughly zero percent of the time. But, nevertheless, it's almost impossible to get RC as a fountain drink. So, even if the advertising didn't work on you, it's worked on virtually every person who orders drinks for convenience stores and restaurants. Which is another one of those hidden ways that advertising works.

But Harry Potter fans, even when confronted with the reality that Harry Potter books are the most hyped books in the world will consistently attribute the success of the books to the quality. Which is, of course, the same argument that people use about Coke or Pepsi. "They taste better." But why do they taste better? Do they taste better because in a world without labeling or advertisements we'd all choose to drink nothing but those two drinks, or due to the pervasiveness of advertising we define good tasting soda by either Coke or Pepsi? It's the same argument that people use about Brittany Spears -- that it's the best possible pop music, that the music system does, in fact, channel people to the top based on quality (even though the corruptions of no industry are as obvious as the music industry). The media attention defines what is acceptable as good. It makes it's choices based on it's priorities and that's what we get, and it's all most of us get, because most of us don't know where to look for things other than the obvious places. (This is true of me, too, by the way, though perhaps less than many because of my relative media isolation. The TV at our house has neither an antenna to get local channels nor do we have cable, so I miss all TV ads, pretty much, which makes small talk weird, BTW. Until I divested myself of TV with ads I never knew how much small talk is based on TV commercials. Not even TV SHOWS but TV COMMERCIALS.)

I mean, all you Harry Potter readers . . . c'mon! You're liking the most popular fantasy series since Lord of the Rings. You're liking the most hyped fantasy series ever, the most hyped series of books in history. But everyone I speak to about this that likes the Harry Potter books, each and every one, first tries to attribute the success of the books to the quality of them. They usually do this even after at least partially agreeing that the books are, shall we say, flawed. So, they say the books are flawed, but, golly, they're so good, and none of them, even for a moment, step back and analyze why they find the the most hyped book series ever produced to be so good, don't consider for a moment that advertising works on them, too. That advertising's purpose is to create longings that it then fills, and the reason why you're satisfied is because you've bought precisely the product that they've told you fulfills the very longing they've also created in you!

Like I said in yesterday's post, this is a big deal. It's much bigger than Harry Potter or Brittany Spears or GTA 4. Because those advertising tricks I mentioned above? Business and government do them, too. Take, say, global warming. Just the other day, I had a bit of a flame war with a fella who told me that it was unproven that humans made climate change. How could someone take that position? Because primarily the power industry has done everything it can to engage in advertising to make climate change look ridiculous. It has drafted advertisement and presented it as science, it has leaned on news agencies it advertises on, it has put it's shills in legitimate scientific organizations to promote it's agenda. All those tricks people fall for -- that occasionally everyone falls for -- business and government do. So I think it's vital that responsible citizens learn to understand when they've bought into the hype and discuss things clearly, because corporations and governments aren't trying to fool us, they are fooling us. For decades, literally decades, scientists have been talking about climate change, about the precautionary principle, about the long-term social, economic and political effects of climate change would be -- and because of the hype, it took decades for most people to believe there was any problem at all. And most people still don't want to do anything about it! They don't want to stop driving their cars, or eat primarily locally produced foodstuffs, etc., etc., even the people who are absolutely sold on the principle that people are responsible for climate change do very little to do something about it. (The number of SUVs at the farmer's market makes me want to wretch.) Even measures like merely increasing the efficiency of new buildings is met with terrible opposition, because corporations promote the idea that energy efficiency is somehow bad for the economy (which goes with the hype that the economy is the most important thing that there is).

So I find it frustrating, and worrisome, that even about something as essentially frivolous as a series of fantasy novels, I can find almost no one that will acknowledge that the hype has effected them. It makes me worried and somewhat depressed because the same skills that a person would use to identify the hype of Harry Potter novels, or Brittany Spears albums, or GTA 4 games, or whatever bit of hype a particular person might fall into . . . these are the same skills that a person would use to identify when corporate and government propaganda has influenced them. In this, the biggest thing that keeps a person trapped by advertisement is the naive belief that they are immune to it. You're not. I'm not. That's why one-sixth of the US economy is advertising: because it works on you.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter, Hype and the Fate of the Free World

Harry Potter season is upon us. Everywhere I go, everyone is talking about that damn book! I swear, I tried to understand the appeal and I think, intellectually, that I do. The appeal is the same as with, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars, where teenagers coping with the struggles of growing up have to deal with these extraordinary challenges. But upon reading the actual Harry Potter novels -- I read the first five, caught up at my in-laws who lived in rural Indiana during a snowy Christmas season one year; I have read the first five -- I found myself . . . well, disappointed wasn't the exact word. The first and third were disappointing -- tho' I still think generally good things about Azkhaban -- but the fourth and fifth, and particularly Goblet of Fire weren't disappointing in the sense that they failed to live up to the hype . . . they were disappointing in the sense that they were deeply stupid. Everything good that was said about them is, really, in the category of a lie.

The character development wasn't believable, nor particularly interesting. As I have said before, the most fantastic element about the Harry Potter novels is how an abused child suddenly thrust into wealth, popularity and fame is such a nice kid; Rowling's inability or disinterest in having Harry, or any other characters in the books, face the reality of his abuse at the hands of the Dursleys simply invalidates the books as having real character development. And Harry grows up like a "real teenager" only in universes where the predominate occupation of fourteen and fifteen year old boys isn't sex.

The writing style was plodding and huge sections of the book were entirely extraneous, such as the interminable nonsense about what classes everyone is taking and the tedious details of what happens in each and every class. But, yet, there Rowling is, driving forward like the Juggernaut walking through concrete. She gets there, but you've got to have a lot of patience.

And then there's Voldemort! Now, as a person who likes comic books, I find him to be pretty flat and one dimensional. Seriously. Supervillains out of comic books have better described motivations than Voldemort. He makes Ultron seem positively three dimensional and can't hold a candle to the motivations of a character such as Magneto. But he's presented like he isn't high camp and we're expected to take this shallow supervillain seriously.

But, really, what is brutally stupid are the plots. If someone asks me, I will take the time to go on at great lengths about the plot of Goblet of Fire in particular, because that particular book is so intensely dumb, so brutally stupid, that I can go on about it at some length. But in general, the plots go forward only because of every damn year someone seems to forget that Voldemort is trying to kill Harry Potter, and every plot resolution happens only because of a deus ex machina. Something "magical" happens and Harry is saved! Yay! Except there is a difference between magical verisimilitude and deus ex machina, and time and again Rowling just has something illogical and improbable happen to save Harry through no effort of his own, in such a way that no one could really see it coming. In Sorcerer's Stone, at the end when Voldemort just crumbles to dust rather than killing Harry is such an example. Could anyone have predicted that a mother's love could make a person disintegrate? No. Yet, there it was, there it was.

Which is really just a preface to my point, however. A rant because every time I turn around for the past couple of days people have been talking about how splendid Harry Potter is, and he's not. The books are childish, not child-like with their love of whimsy and brightly hued sense of wonder and merriment, but childish with plodding writing combined with stupid plots mixed up with juvenile character development. My point is . . .

How have these books gotten to be the fastest selling novels of all time? They're not that good. Now, a fair number of people are going to say that they are good and my above statements and brief analysis of them is merely wrong.

Or, more generally, what is the mechanism through which any banal piece of media receives undeserved praise? Even if you don't agree with me that the Harry Potter novels are mediocrity that has achieved undeserved attention, I'm sure that if we try we can all think of media things that do (90210 or Brittany Spears albums, anyone?).

The short answer is . . . hype, in the sense of advertisement and media manipulation. Never in my lifetime has a novel been so intensely hyped as the Harry Potter novels. After each novel's release there's this media driven speculation -- often found in the straight news, so let us not doubt that it is media driven -- about what's going to happen in the next novel. Along the way, Rowling is sure to give carefully managed interviews (and always by extremely sympathetic interviewers) where she lets out hints that are then propagated through the traditional media to an audience of literally millions. Then there's the inevitable discussion of piracy and spoilers as a ramp up to the release of the book, and the deluge of traditional advertisement before it's actual release.

Part of what this does is also create, and this is a new development, an online community centered around the novels. You can see shadows of this with stuff like Martin's Fire and Ice books or Jordan's Wheel of Time novels, but Harry Potter kicks their asses hard. So, unlike virtually any other novel that a person reads, people will read a Harry Potter novel and then leap online to talk about it. And there will be talk, unlike, say, if after reading a good Captain Alatriste novel I jumped online to talk about one of them no one would say anything. (Indeed, that's the proximate cause of me writing this post. I can't turn around with someone mentioning that damn book! People, c'mon, if you're going to write about a book, write about a book that isn't the biggest event novel in history! Write about something that I might not otherwise hear about! Will no one rid me of this meddlesome wizard . . . oh, it was a bad idea to compare Voldemort to Henry II, who was played by Peter O'Toole in both Becket and A Lion in Winter. Sorta emphasizes the shallowness of Voldemort.) But because of the media exposure, it is particularly fruitful to talk about Harry Potter novels -- other people will listen far more intently than if you talk about any other novel. Which, of course, serves the hype very well. Not only are there conventional media sources bombarding us with Harry Potter, the formal and informal online communities will generate their own buzz, as well as being ideal for market research for additional advertising!

And, this is what amazes me, virtually no one sees it. Virtually no one sees that a key element to liking the Harry Potter novels is their participation in the hype. When you talk to people about it, and this is my reasonably broad experience, it will be defended first in terms of quality (the novels ARE that good, and your objections are WRONG) and then, and this is surprisingly common, that Harry Potter novels are responsible for improvements in literacy (hey, the news says so, and the news never lies, right? -- though finding a peer reviewed study that demonstrates such a thing is a little more difficult; suffice it to say here that the correlation between Harry Potter novels and improved literacy is both weak and tenuous and to buy into you've got to ignore alternate hypotheses such as the amount of time that children spend online engaging in, say, text messaging and reading webpages and writing emails). The notion that the hype is to some extent (and I think to a very large extent) responsible for their interest and appreciation of the novels is simply unthinkable.

(Admission and irony: I am clearly swept up in the Harry Potter hype. Obviously. The hype is pervasive and annoying in my circles and this is my reaction to it. My critique here is, furthermore, part of the hype. There's no such thing as bad publicity.)

And before rejecting my critique, take a second if you must to separate Harry Potter out from it. Think, instead, about the hype surrounding Hollywood blockbusters, particularly those in serial form, where bad movie after bad movie follows in blindly. Think of, say, Die Hard movies, or Star Wars movies, and how the quality of the second Die Hard movie didn't stop there from being made a third and fourth, or how the truly elaborate awfulness of episodes one and two didn't stop episode three from being made -- and then take a deep breath and realize that all the Star Wars and Die Hard movies have been financially successful. Think of all those Britanny Spears albums or New Kids on the Block or N'Sync. All I've said is just as true for Die Hard, Star Wars and N'Sync as it is Harry Potter, and it's true even if I'm wrong about the specifics of Harry Potter (tho' I'm not, hehe).

I think the importance of this goes way beyond Harry Potter, Star Wars or N'Sync. It has to do with how people relate to media. Not that we buy into the hype. If you want to buy into the hype, hey, knock yourselves out. Hype can be fun, interesting and cool. It is a way, after all, to meet a lot of people, to involve yourself in something. I sometimes like getting caught up in the hype! I find myself looking forward to the GTA 4 game, even tho' I strongly disliked San Andreas. So, my problem isn't even with the hype, per se. The problem I'm seeing is that most people are manipulated by the hype and refuse to acknowledge it.

If people can't recognize the hype that's being sold to them by Scholastic or Virgin Records, what chance do they of understanding the hype around the serious social and political issues of our time?

I feel that the ability to deal with media in America is one of the most important things we must improve. We live in a media saturated environment. We are being bombarded from all sides, almost constantly, with various narratives. Some of these narratives are much louder, more invasive and cleverly arranged than others. People will, naturally, be drawn to ideas that have been surrounded with these loud, invasive and clever narratives -- this advertising and hype -- than those that don't have equally good narratives. But, as I hope I've demonstrated, the advertising has only a tangential relationship to the actual quality of what is advertised. Sure, with books and movies if you buy into the hype of one and ignore another, you're just missing out on a book or movie you might have otherwise enjoyed much more than what was hyped. But when this is taken into the social sphere, the inability to recognize hype and ignore it to seriously examine the ideas behind the hype has dramatic effects for the country and the world. The issue isn't if Harry Potter dies or not, but if real people die or not. And I think that we all can think of situations where hype was used in preference to clear discussion of facts . . . and the consequences have been disastrous.

I will leave you with a quote from the great Chuck D: "Don't believe the hype."

Tomorrow I'll touch on this subject again, in a somewhat different way, as some meditations about the publishing industry.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Writin' Update

During the Danish invasion most recently -- read: a friend from Denmark visited for a couple plus weeks -- I got no writing whatever done. And because I'd been writing a touch slowly beforehand I decided to go back and re-read what I'd written for Simon Peter. While I can see that Simon Peter is a good book, at the same time I have to continue to admit I hate reading what I write.

I tried to explain it to a friend of mine. I told her that it's like taking a really good book, and reading it once, and then reading it, again, for six months. That I've been working on this for a long time and it's driving me crazy, and to go back and re-read it is a tedious and difficult experience. Still, I feel I need to do it to more fully understand the complexities of character and plot so that when I start writing, again, which will be Monday, certainly, I'll be able to advance more confidentally. But it's still terribly dull most of the time. And, more horrific yet, when I've added 40% more to it, I'll have to go back and read it again in order to start the editing procedure! It's enough to make a person weep.

But, that's the status of writing Simon Peter.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More on Christian Child Abuse!

My friend Becky pointed me towards this blog entry. It's an amusingly written account of her family's general feelings about religion, raising a young and intelligent boy. It seems this young and intelligent boy doesn't like Christianity, and here's the reason why:

Because Alex loves music so much, we bought him an alarm clock with a radio and a CD player for Christmas. A few months ago, he was listening to the radio and tuned it to a religious station by accident. Thinking it was the news, which he likes because something exciting is always happening on it, like a building on fire or something, he kept it there. Imagine his horror when he learned that the End Days were upon us and giant scorpions were going to take over the Earth. He was frightened, and Steve had to spend some amount of time trying to tell him, that no, it wasn't the news he was listening to, and no, giant scorpions are not going to take over the Earth, and no, we're not all going to hell because mommies murder their unborn babies.

Now, when I say that Christianity teaches child abuse as a means of raising their children, this is precise the sort of thing I'm talking about.

While it is definitely my experience, and the experience of many non-theists I've spoken, that most Christian religions very vocally tell children the more horrific fate of the world and people who don't follow Christianity's (often absurd and contradictory) rules, one of the more popular refutations is that, well, it just doesn't happen. It doesn't happen that churches and parents don't sit their children down and say, functionally, "do this or you're going to be tortured forever in a lake of fire and when the End Times come you're going to be crushed by the Four Horsemen and the Whore of Babylon is going to cover you with filth and giant scorpions are going to sting you forever". My retort has always been, "That's untrue! Not only in my personal experience, but the whole conceptual framework of Christianity is formed around the idea that disobedience to the Christian god is punished by eternal horror and pain! The whole structure of Christianity is framed around Jesus dying -- in a brutal and horrific way in and of itself! -- to redeem us for our sins, and unless we consciously choose to accept that brutal human sacrifice then we go to Hell! This is the foundations of the religion, people!"

But almost every day and almost in every way, Christianity reinforces the suffering and horror inherent in the religion. Children are never allowed to forget that disobedience is punished by hellfire. So frequent are these messages that some unsuspecting child can just randomly find them on the radio and be swept up into the terrifying world of Christianity, where eternal suffering and mind-shattering horror lurk everywhere.

Cultural Christianity

Cultural Christianity

I was talking with Infidel753 when in my post, Pope Rat Strikes Again I mentioned that about 2/5ths of French Catholics don't believe in any god (which was given to me by Stew's blog post about the subject and subsequently confirmed by at least one other person I know that lives in France). Infidel753 said that he'd read that roughly 1/3rd of Germans who identified as Christian also did not believe in any gods, which seems to suss up with the data about the French pretty well. Apocryphally, I have good Danish friends who tell me that religion is not important for Danes, even though almost all of them are legally Lutheran. Infidel753 then linked me to one of his posts that talked about this article out of The Nation magazine, which is about as square as journalism gets, talks about the bad journal and polls about religion – such as journalists concluding that 91% of Americans believe in god because they believe in a “higher power” without noting the distinction between a higher power and a god. I mean, by the hazy definition of believing in a “higher power” it could be said that I believe in god, because I believe in the power of human reason and experience to transform the world into a better place.

One of the things this means, of course, is those charts that say how many people are Christian or whatever aren't worth the paper they're printed on. It's pretty obvious that many Christians are cultural Christians – that religion is part of the cultural heritage. Many Jews are this way – I'm sure most of us know the sort: they eat bacon and cheese on their pizzas, never seem to celebrate the Sabbat, yet clearly identify as Jewish as part of their cultural identity.

I'm increasingly sure that this is where religion – all religion – is going. Religion makes such little sense, but is nevertheless so integrally part of our culture that separating ourselves from it is troublingly difficult. In many ways, I am a cultural Christian – I'm spending a year of my life to write a book about Simon Peter and Jesus! Yes, the book is wholly secular in nature and intents, but it's obvious I'm heavily invested in Christianity in America, emotionally and intellectually.

I am seeing now that being religious or secular is a false dichotomy. That it is possible to be religious and secular, even an atheist, because many people are already cultural Christians (or cultural Muslims, Hindus, etc.).

I am thinking that . . . we might want to hasten the arrival of a purely cultural Christianity, especially here in the United States. Naming something makes it powerful. And cultural Christianity, totally divested of any political influence, and only artistic influence socially (which can be quite strong, of course), is something that would please a lot of people who are "Christian" in name only, or who are struggling to incorporate this important element of Western civilization into their own lives but having trouble doing so because the only paradigm, currently, that one is allowed to be a Christian is religiously. But it doesn't have to be that way. It is possible to be culturally Christian, to recognize the place of Christianity in Western civilization, but not to fall prey to the religious aspects of it, the absurd beliefs and predatory institutions of religious Christianity.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Future is Now. Again.

A South African amputee came in second in a 400m race in Italy. He's got these curved carbon fiber springs instead of feet and lower legs. The International Association of Athletics Federations is seriously asking if these prosthetics give him an "unfair advantage".

My initial feeling was to be appalled that the IAAF was going to discriminate against their legless man, but I guess then my critical faculties kicked in because I realized that these curved carbon fiber blades were cybernetic enhancements. And even if these particular prosthetics weren't an "unfair advantage", it was only a matter of time, and probably a brief period of time at that, before some prosthetic was invented that was so great that the person who had it would simply be unbeatable by people without similar or superior enhancements.

So, the future is here. Again. An international sports body is legitimately considering the possibility that a prosthetic limb is inherently superior to flesh and blood limbs.

I mean, for the sake of my own curiosity, I hope they do rule that the runner can keep racing. I'm curious when it'll come to pass that ambitious athletes are willing to, say, voluntarily cut off their own legs below the knees to have these techno-feet. I know the curiosity is deeply morbid, but the curiosity is still there. I feel that it is inevitable that people will start to replace their body parts with superior technological models, but as far as I know this is the first time that has practically occurred, that people have actually said that a prosthetic is possibly better than a normal working limb.

Friends and enemies out there, our lives are soon going to get increasingly weird. No cyberpunk novelist has done much to prepare us for the inevitability of the deeply disturbing future shock that is very much right around the corner. What it is to be human is really breaking down, and not in some abstract, but in the immediate present.

On Intolerance

I've been called intolerant, again. I always find it ironic when members of an intolerant church -- and most are wildly intolerant -- complain about intolerance, conceptually. Because the truth is that, yes, I am intolerant of most forms of religion. I mean, duh, look at my journal!

However, and this is not generally touched on when people start up this sort of thing, is that there are many forms of good intolerance. For instance, I'm just going to assume that everyone that reads this is fairly intolerant concerning Nazism, or Stalinism, or pimps, or organized crime, or torturers.

So, I set out to determine what constitutes benevolent intolerance! I came up with two criteria. The first is -- there must be a substantial justification for intolerance. Meaning, you've got to have a good reason. The second is -- what you propose to do should be appropriate to the offenses.

Let us take my intolerance of the Catholicism and the Catholic Pope, He Who Zings Rats (which is a very mild satire, I should point out out, totally not like calling someone's mom a whore -- I say this because I've been accused of that, believe it or not!).

The reasons why I am intolerant of Catholicism and the Catholic Pope. The organization is sexist: it is anti-birth control (which has made worse the epidemic of AIDS, leading to numerous deaths, I should add), anti-abortion, anti-divorce and forbids women into positions of power in the Catholic Church. It engages in massive, wide-spread campaigns of intimidation: it says that anyone who doesn't follow the Pope's rules goes to Hell, it threatens people with eternal suffering in order to spread itself and maintain its congregations. The Catholic Church's unelected officials, this is the Pope specifically, interfers with the politics of other countries, such as threatening excommunication for politicians who don't create laws supporting an anti-abortion agenda. I could go on, but these are some of the big ones. I think that they are true (indeed, obvious) and serious. People's lives are often at stake, and the welfare of whole countries. No joke.

And what do I want to do about it? Engage in occasional light satirization of the Pontiff Who Zings Rats. That's mostly it.

Now, let us compare what the Pope Who Zings Rats and his intolerance towards Protestants. Why is the Pope intolerant of Protestants? Because their leaders don't have apostolic succession. What is the consequences of this? Well, uh, since their leaders don't have apostolic succession, it means none of their rites -- including baptism, communion and marriage -- are "real" and it means they're . . . all . . . going to Hell.

You MIGHT see some differences in the substance of the intolerance, here. Oh, I know, for the Catholics apostolic succession is an element of their dogma and they take it very seriously -- but it isn't very meaningful to non-Catholics. It is the Catholic Church again trying to push itself off on people that don't want it's interference (which is a common theme in the reasons I loathe the Catholic Church -- it systematically is trying to push off itself on people who don't want it, and who are often hurt in the process). And for this "sin", the Pope affirms that all those Protestants are going to burn in Hell forever! Now, I of course do not believe in Hell, but they do. I know that no Protestants are very scared of Papal threats (they've had five hundred years to get used to them, after all), and further many Protestants believe that Catholics are as hellbound as Catholics believe Protestants to be for equally absurd reasons, but the Pope is threatening these people in a very real way with hellfire, he's really trying to intimidate them!

A comparable situation might be if my intolerance of Catholics included, say, a plea to have them rounded up and put in "reeducation camps" where they'd be given electric shock therapy to turn them into good atheists. While it would be laughable that I suggested such a thing, because I altogether lack the authority to make it happen, it would still be really, really disturbing that I'd want to do it at all. (Just like it is disturbing that many neo-nazis want to kill non-whites -- they can't do it, but it's horrible that they want to do it.) So to with the Catholic Church. It is horrific that the Pope is comfortable of it happening (especially since he can do something about it -- he could easily write an ex cathedral papal bull saying that all Christian leaders henchforth have apostolic succession on his own authority, that they forevermore have apostolic succession from St. Peter's throne, but I guess it's just easier to remind them they've all got defective churches and are going to Hell), and wills it to happen.

So, at any rate, I hope I've given some people something to think about when people frivolously bring up the whole intolerance thing. Remember, it matters why you're intolerant and what you propose to do with that intolerance. If your intolerance is backed up with firm reasoning and your intentions are benevolent, you go!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Pictures! Grand Canyon! Pacific Coast Highway!

I have pictures!

Of the Grand Canyon! We went there for a couple of days. It is . . . a very big hole in the ground. The air was very clear -- you could literally see a mountain a hundred miles away. I got heat exhaustion, hehe. I am no longer a desert creature, it appears, but it was mild and went away with some rest and water. After a while, I got grandeur overload. How many epic vistas can you see before they stop being epic? Well! These pictures are the best of the lot I took, I feel.

We also went down the Pacific Coast Highway. We didn't even go too far down it. Again with the grandeur overload. Which is good, after a fashion, because we'll have other visitors and we can just start where we left off, before! Yay! Also, these are the pick of the litter. All this stuff is reasonably local to me, just a little bit south of where I currently live, too.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pope Rat Strikes Again!

I love Pope Rat. I really do. He's doing more to destroy the Catholic Church than a legion of atheists parked out in front of St. Peter's will for twenty years, I kid you not.

It appears that Pope Rat is asserting the primacy of Catholic churches. This is so special and dear that I must quote:

Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released Tuesday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.

He just set back reconciliation between Catholicism and other Christian demonimations fifty years! All other Christian churches are either defective or not true churches. Classic! I couldn't do this kind of damage to Catholicism my whole life!

Here's some more:

"Christ 'established here on earth' only one church," said the document. The other communities "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense" because they do not have apostolic succession - the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ's original apostles, it said.

Isn't that great? I think it's great. I love Pope Rat.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Back from Vacation

I'm back from my vacation. I'll probably need to recover from my vacation for a couple of days before resuming posting and such. But I've left some comments to the comments that have accumulated in my absence. ;)

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Let's Convert the Jews - It's What Mel Gibson Would Want!

The Pope has decided to let priests give the Latin Tridentine Mass. That's a Latin Mass. I have two points, here.

First is that the Pope is allowing this to "heal rifts" between the Catholic Church and it's crazy nutjob ultra-conservative faction. Is he trying to heal rifts between the Church and people who want the Church to lift it's violently insane beliefs about homosexuality, birth control, women priests, non-celibate priests or members who are pro-choice? No. But he does want to "heal rifts" with the most reactionary Catholics in the world.

Second thing is that the Tridentine Mass has this nifty section in it that calls for the conversion of the Jews. Seriously. It contains language saying, basically, that those filthy Jews should convert to Christianity to save their filthy Jew souls.

What a guy, our Pope Rat!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day

I'm still on vacation, so these thoughts will be even more unorganized as usual. But I want to talk about Independence Day.

The Founding Fathers -- which is a term, in itself, that I dislike intensely, denying as it does any contribution from half the population -- were a group of slave-owning imperialists who were largely interested in expanding their own wealth at the expense of the indigenous population. (And, oh, please, no one out there tell me that the conquest of America from the first peoples was justified because they, themselves, were conquerors -- two wrongs still do not make any rights.) They denied rights to women, their large slave populations, not to mention the people who they were in the process of conquering and destroying, those pesky Indians.

And yet, I think that most Americans don't understand what a change -- what an epochal change -- the Declaration of Independence was. For the first time in human history, the government was formally acknowledged to be legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The sovereign was held by we the people. Though the country founded in large part on the Declaration of Independence is (as are all things) imperfect, the Declaration, itself, is a fabulous document, it is an importance advance. Since it's writing, there have been dozens of other declarations of independence, almost all of them being influenced by the Declaration of Independence of the United States. While, in implementation, it failed to live up to the promise of the ideals, the ideals themselves have served as an inspiration for people around the world -- including Americans, ourselves, in our struggles against the imperfections of our government! I think that's pretty cool and worth celebrating.

I will end on this note, then. What I am considering on this Independence Day runs thus: that in the future, it will not be the US Declaration of Independence that inspires people to freedom. Oh, I know that there are other inspirations equally as important and relevant, and more modern, better, but the reasons for people turning away from the US Declaration of Independence are what compels my mind today. The Declaration has not lost its power because the world has moved on from the ideals of the Declaration -- it is not irrelevant, even today. No. What has stopped people from drawing their inspiration from the Declaration is the actions of the United States. After centuries of imperialism, the world doesn't view the United States as an honest broker in any regard. We do not stand for freedom, but for oppression, repression, war and conquest, support of backwards tyrannical regimes and hypocrisy. Which bothers me on the level of pride, but going further back what really bothers me is that the United States does not stand for freedom, but for oppression, repression, war and conquest, support of backward tyrannical regimes and hypocrisy. What bothers me is that it seems that the citizens of the United States of America have, themselves, forgotten the words and ideals of the Declaration of Independence and that, for most of us, celebrating this holiday is a hollow sham, about barbecue and fireworks than liberty.