Thursday, October 19, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery -- "Choose your pain"

Last week, we learned that the keys to instantaneous space travel are

1) mushrooms

2) torturing a space hippopotamus

This week's episode opens with Specialist Burnham dreaming about an engineering deck in which she is both the one operating the instantaneous space drive and the one inside the drive being tortured.  While Star Trek has never been subtle it has, at least, evinced its own belief that it was subtle in seasons past.  I think that time is now over.

The plot of this episode kicks off when Captain Lorca, having been identified as the commanding officer of Starfleet's teleporting super-weapon, is kidnapped by the Klingons while returning from a meeting with Starfleet Command.  Obviously, Discovery is the only ship that can effect a rescue since he is now being held in Klingon space (don't ask how the Klingons got so close to Starfleet Command).  Unfortunately, the space hippopotamus is not doing so well on account of all the torture.  In fact, as soon as Discovery teleports in close enough to have a shot at rescuing the Captain, space hippopotamus sheds all its water and curls up into a shriveled comatose mass.  This provokes much sturm and drang amongst the crew.  Specialist Burnham, Cadet Tilley, and Chief Engineer Lieutenant Stamets think torture is a bad idea and start working on a plan to engineer something else that can interface with the mushrooms and run the teleportation drive.  Acting Captain Saru also thinks torture is a bad idea, but he is thinking more about his erstwhile captain getting tortured by the Klingons, and doesn't really care if the space hippopotamus has feelings.  Eventually, the engineering team comes up with an injection that can engineer a human's DNA to be just close enough to space hippopotamus DNA to work, but there is apparently some blanket Federation law against "eugenics" the prevents them from using it.  This, presumably, is supposed to make us feel warm and fuzzy because it obviously has its roots in World War 3 and the rise of Khan Noonien Singh.

Meanwhile, Captain Lorca is indeed being tortured (but not being asked any questions, as far as we can tell) on a Klingon prison ship where he is being held with a random Starfleet Lieutenant and.... drumroll please.... Harcourt Fenton Mudd.  Yes, the delightfully campy human trafficker from the Original Series episodes "Mudd's Women" -- an episode about mail order brides that somehow fails to conclude that mail ordering people is wrong -- and "I, Mudd" -- a delightful tale about robots that is probably still okay to watch -- apparently has a backstory that we are going to learn.  Shenanigans ensue, Mudd colludes with the Klingons; Lorca and the random Starfleet Lieutenant shoot their way out of prison, Discovery beams them aboard, and Lieutenant Stamets heroically injects himself with the illegal space hippopotamus DNA, letting Discovery teleport back to Federation space.  The penultimate scene shows Specialist Burnham and Cadet Tilly setting the space hippopotamus free.  The ultimate scene shows Lieutenant Stamets and his boyfriend doctor (whose name I guess I now have to learn) talking about the days' adventure and ends when they both leave the bathroom only to have Lieutenant Stamets' reflection linger behind them.  Cue the creepy music.

I suppose this episode was fine.  I may actually like one of the characters now: doctor boyfriend has done nothing morally objectionable, nor has he verbally abused anyone that I am aware of.  Lieutenant Stamets is also almost an okay person, now.  It was obviously too easy for Captain Lorca to shoot his way out of Klingon prison (there's a theory about that on the internet, I'm told), but I am going to ignore that for the moment to talk about the thing I really want to talk about: Harry Mudd.

It has always offended me a little that, of all the guest stars in all of original Star Trek, Harry Mudd is the only one who shows up more than once.  Even before I thought about "Mudd's Women" long enough to realize why it was totally unacceptable (and it took an embarrassingly long time), the episode was too campy to warrant a repeat appearance by it's equally campy villain.  Yet there he was in "I, Mudd" and here he is now.  This strikes me as problematic in two ways.  Given that Captain Lorca did not bring Harry Mudd with him on his escape, it seems unlikely to me that, having been abandoned on a Klingon prison vessel, Harry Mudd will evolve into the comically problematic sixties archetype that Captain Kirk encounters eight story years from now.  I have said similar things before on this blog.  That is not even the heart of my complaint, though.  The heart of my complaint is that this is naked fan service.  There is no reason to make him Harry Mudd (just as there was no reason to make Specialist Burnham's foster father Sarek) except so that the writers can lean on our preconceptions of who Harry Mudd is.  This feels lazy.  It's an insurance policy in case the writers fail to properly characterize Harry Mudd this time around.  "Just fill in the gaps with the things you learned about Harry Mudd in the Original Series."  I also find it a little offensive.  "You'll think this is cool because it's a thing you have history with."  I'm sorry, but I'm not that stupid, and I wish you (the writers) would stop treating me as though I am.  Benedict Cumberbatch saying "my name is Khan" in Abrams Trek 2 did not compensate for the fact that nothing anyone in that movie did made any sense.  Rainn Wilson declaring that he is Harry Mudd evokes no emotion other than, on my part, confusion.  It does disservice to me as a fan and it does disservice to the show.  This Harry Mudd actually makes some good points.  "[This war] is your fault for 'boldly going where no one has gone before.'  What did you think would happen when you finally ran into people who didn't want you on their front lawn?"  It's a question which Star Trek has never dealt with (except for passing mention in "Arena," I guess).  I would like to see how they answer it.  Given that I know how Harry Mudd ends up, though, the writers' options to explore the question through his character are already constrained at one end.  Why tether yourself that way? Oh, right.  Because I'll think it's cool because it's a thing I have history with.  It's okay.  This is Star Trek.  We care enough to run with you while you try new things (case in point: I have referenced "mushroom-based propulsion" twice in this post alone).

While we're here and talking about fan service: when the engineering team is trying to figure out if any other lifeform can interface with the mushroom drive in space hippopotamus' place, Cadet Tilly asks if she should access "the top secret life form files at the Daystrom Institute."  The Daystrom Institute is where Leah Brahms, the engineer who designed the Enterprise-D, will be employed 100 years from now.  It was (I presume) named for Richard Daystrom, who created the M-5 computer featured in the Original Series episode "The Ultimate Computer."  It's not clear to me that there would be an institute named for Dr. Daystrom while he is still alive, and possibly even before he is famous.  If you're going to drop Easter eggs on the second most detail-obsessed fandom in all of geekery, do it right.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery -- "The Butcher's Knife Cares N" -- wait, seriously? That's your title for this episode?

Star Trek should be better than this.  Star Trek is better than this.

By way of a recap: last episode, we learned that the USS Discovery and her sister ship were working on (and this is not a typo) a fungus-based propulsion system that would allow starships to instantaneously teleport anywhere in the galaxy.  An accident occurs aboard Discovery’s sister ship, and Discovery is sent to investigate.  The boarding party discovers a derelict vessel filled with many dead humans, a few dead Klingons, and a creature that appears to be a cross between a hippopotamus and a beetle.  Shenanigans that look remarkably like “Alien” ensue, but, somehow, the landing party (minus one red shirt) manages to survive and return to Discovery.  The final scene reveals that Captain Lorca has ordered his somehow-even-creepier-than-he-is security chief to beam the hippopotabeetle into a containment cell in what appears to be his own personal Menagerie of Death.  There might also be some pontificating by chief engineer Stamets about how he just wanted to do science and not fight a war.  I can’t quite remember.  Cut to black.

In this episode, Captain Lorca invites Specialist* Burnham into the Menagerie of Death (which is actually a museum containing “the deadliest weapons in the galaxy”).  He wants her to figure out how the hippoptabeetle’s skin is “hard enough to deflect Bat’Leths” and why its claws can “tear through a starship’s hull.”  He wants her to weaponize these abilities.  Burnham does some science and, in the truest tradition of Star Trek, discovers that the hippopotabeetle isn’t a predator, but an herbivore with a very good defense mechanism.  In fact, the hippopotabeetle is the key to making the fungus drive work.  She convinces Chief Engineer Stamets to connect his engines to the hippopotabeetle and, whammo! my prediction that fungal-based teleportation will not work because Captain Kirk doesn’t do it is proven incorrect (new prediction: Captain Kirk doesn’tt use fungal teleportation because doing so appears to inflict pain on the hippopotabeetle and this is Star Trek and inflicting needless pain on beetles is wrong).

*Michael Burnham has been stripped of rank.  I will call her a “specialist” until I am told to do otherwise, though I believe that word actually does mean something specific in the military.

None of this is objectionable.  It is, in fact, the bare minimum of pseudo-science and pseudo-ethical conundrums one needs to fall in the “is Star Trek” circle on the Venn diagram in my mind.  What is objectionable is the wtf-ex-machina used to inject drama into this plotline.  Turns out, creepy-as-f@#$& security chief is a soldier and she doesn’t buy any of Burnham’s Vulcan space ethics nonsense.  She is going to stun the hippopotabeetle and cut off one of its claws because that is how you win wars.  The flaw in her plan (besides the fact that it is cruel) is that the hippopotabeetle cannot be stunned and its claws can still rip through starship hulls.  Creepy-as-f@#$& security chief does not survive the encounter.  This is good because, as you can tell, she was annoyingly one-dimensional.  This is bad because she was the only other named woman in the cast who was not white (not that I bothered to learn her name because, as I already mentioned, she was annoyingly one dimensional).  I get that sometimes you write characters just to kill them.  This is, after all, the franchise that gave “red shirt” a meaning outside of college football.  However, it is just common courtesy to respect your audience’s intelligence enough not to telegraph that this is a throw away character by making her so unbelievable that we want her to die so that we can go on trying to enjoy your television show.

Meanwhile, back in the wreckage of the space-battle from the pilot episode, we discover that T’Kuvma’s ship is still crippled, his followers are still on board, and both the Federation and the Klingons left every ship that was destroyed or crippled in the battle just sort of drifting there.  We know this latter fact because T’Kuvma’s appointed successor, Voq, has been scavenging the derelicts for parts to fix his crippled vessel before his/T’Kuvma’s followers all starve to death.  Did I mention that T’Kuvma’s ship, the one that the Klingons left behind for anyone to find, is apparently the only one with a cloaking device?  During World War 2, the allies went to great effort to make sure the Germans did not know that they had captured a functioning enigma device.  The Klingons just left their only enigma device (okay, bad metaphor) drifting in space for anyone to find.  It’s okay, though.  Voq and another Klingon manage to fix T’Kuvma’s ship through a combination of eye-fornicating and scavenging parts off of the Shenzhou, Michelle Yeoh’s ship, which the Federation left behind for anyone to find.  I once got in an debate about whether or not Starfleet was a military organization.  My argument was “no.”  The man I was debating with thought I was making the “Starfleet’s missions has always been one of peace argument.”  I wasn’t.  I was making the “Starfleet is terrible at behaving like a military” argument.  Turns out, I was right.

Eventually, a member of one of the other Klingon great houses (one who ostentatiously refused to follow T’Kuvma in the pilot) realizes that the Klingons left their single greatest weapon just drifting in space and comes back to claim it, buying off T’Kuvma’s starving followers with food.  There’s some palace intrigue between this newcomer (I think his name was Kor*), Voq, and Voq’s eye-lover (I know I should learn her name, but I am not rewatching this episode; not for any amount of money).  It ends with a promise to the viewers that Voq is going to go find some Klingon nuns who will teach him how to truly unite the Klingon empire.  This plot is actually fine.  It’s fun to see an alien culture in flux, but I have the same worry I have expressed from the beginning that I don’t see how these Klingons become Kang, Koloth, and Korr in just eight years and I don’t know why these Klingons couldn’t represent a nationalist revanchement several decades after Martok.

*Oh, wow, if this ends up being Korr from “Errand of Mercy,” I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it might involve impolite words.

Reading these words, it seems like I am giving this episode a passing grade.  I am not.  I did not enjoy it.  The nonsense with the security chief dragged on too long, keeping me in mortal terror that I was going to be stuck with this character and her total lack of believable motivations for many episodes to come.  There was a subplot involving an attack on a Federation dilithium mine which served only to provide pressure on the “what is the hippopotabeetle?” plot and to set up an overworked argument between Captain Lorca to argue with his chief engineer about whether they were scientists or soldiers.  In summary: this episode had all of the pretentiousness of Star Trek with none of the levity.  My wife reminds me that, at this point in Star Trek: the Next Generation (my first great geek love), we still had “Code of Honor” to look forward to, so, I guess, as long as we can avoid adding “explicitly racist” to the list of invectives I hurl at any given episode, we’re ahead of the curve.  I like to think, though, that we have learned things about storytelling in the last 30 years and that I am justified in holding this show to a slightly higher standard.  Or maybe I am just stodgy.

One other red flag that went up for me: in the course of getting caught up on what has happened in the six months of story time since the pilot, we learn that Voq and his crew ate Michelle Yeoh’s body.  I am going to go with the generous interpretation that they were starving.  If Klingons now eat other sentient beings for fun or ritual, that would be a bridge too far in the direction of the “Klingons as ‘savages’” direction for me.  I have a haunting feeling that the Klingons are going to be stand-ins for one or more of the peoples on the receiving end of Manifest Destiny (remember, this is still Roddenberry’s “wagon train to the stars”).  I’m not sure I yet trust Star Trek to tell that story respectfully.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery -- "Context is for Kings"

I waited three days before writing anything about this episode, because I was hoping something would come to me that I haven't already said.  Alas, it was not to be.  I still see no justification for this series being a prequel to original Star Trek.  If anything, I see even less justification for this series being a prequel.  Apparently, the crew of the Discovery (or, at least, its engineering staff) is working on a fungus-based technology that will allow people to beam from planet to planet.  Benedict Cumberbatch's shenanigans notwithstanding, we know that doesn't pan out, because people are not beaming from planet to planet in the twenty fourth century.  Already we are seeing the brutalizing effect of war on the Federation (or maybe this vision of the Federation was always brutal).  Very few characters in this episode come off as sympathetic or empathetic to each other or us.  Authority figures relate to their subordinates principally via condescension.  A shuttle pilot gets jettisoned into deep space in the first five minutes of the episode and no one bats an eye.  Culturally, I do not see how this Federation evolves into Captain Kirk's Federation in less than ten years.

While we're on the topic of the Federation's new mean streak, I'm beginning to worry that I gave the first episode too easy a pass on the whole "mutiny" thing.  The first half of the effectively two-part pilot ends with Commander Burnham (sp?) Vulcan neck-pinching her mentor and (I assume) friend of seven years, Captain Georgiou.  Captain Georgiou then pulls a phaser on Commander Burnham.  I understand that "character you like pulls a gun on another character you like" is a time-honored way of ratcheting up the tension (and, I assume, it is probably what a commanding officer would do upon being rendered unconscious against her will by a subordinate, so maybe the fault lies more with Commander Burnham than Captain Georgiou), but I thought Star Trek was better than that.  This is supposed to be a vision of what humanity can become when we recognize, if not entirely overcome, our flaws, not a world in which professional military officers -- especially those in command of.... anything -- assault one another when they disagree.  The idea that the moral authority of the Federation has been or always was compromised is a worthwhile theme (again: something that Deep Space Nine got to first with the Maquis and Section 31 plots).  I'm not sure, though, that the way to explore that theme is by presenting us with a cast of main characters who are themselves compromised (put another way: I'm not ready to watch a Star Trek series in which I feel unfriendly towards more than half of the characters).  I know I am being hasty and we will get a chance to see everyone's warm and sympathetic side in turn (except Captain Lorca; that guy is Admiral Presman levels of creepy).  I just feel like this isn't quite Star Trek (because I clearly get to define what is and is not Star Trek....), which I would be much more comfortable with if it was sold to me as what Captain Janeway's Federation became through neglect and dissolution as opposed to the thing that became Captain Kirk's Federation through surviving a war with the Klingons.

Also: the super-top-secret lab is secured with a.... breathalyzer lock.  Clearly that choice was made to make it reasonable for Commander Burnham to hack the lock (which she could only do because her cadet bunk mate is authorized to enter the super-top-secret lab; one of those words, "cadet" or "top-secret" doesn't mean what I think it means).  I am just pointing this out because that level of world building for the sake of plot this early in the show doesn't strike me as a good sign.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Vulcan Hello

Star Trek is what taught me to be a geek.  When my brother and I were pre-teens, our mother would tape the late night re-runs of "Star Trek: the Next Generation" (hereafter TNG) and we would binge-watch them all on Friday night in anticipation of watching the new episode that would be premiering on the following Saturday.  As a result, I have seen every TNG episode at least five times (except "Code of Honor;" @$%$ "Code of Honor").  None of this should surprise anyone who knows me well enough to be reading this blog.  I just want to make it clear what a big deal it was for me when I learned that there was going to be a new Star Trek show on "television" (scare quotes because, of course, you can't actually watch it on anything that anyone from the 1980s would recognize as a television), and I don't necessarily mean "big deal" in a good way.  I am one of those who responded to the ad campaign for Abrams Trek 1 -- "this is not your father's Star Trek" -- with "but.... I liked my father's Star Trek."  I like watching pedantic arguments about the political ramifications of abrogating the Treaty of Algeron.  "Abrams Trek 2: Into Darkness," with it's poorly-motivated laser gun fights papered-over with shallow recreations of memes from "The Wrath of Khan," made me..... upset.  Accordingly, my experience of the lead-up to "Star Trek: Discovery" went something like this:

1) "Bryan Fuller is making a new 'Star Trek' series!  Alright!  I loved 'Pushing Daisies'!  I can't wait to see what he does with 'Star Trek'."

2) "Bryan Fuller is..... not making a new 'Star Trek' series, but someone else is using his ideas.  Okay... I guess he probably is pretty busy with 'American Gods.'  Sure...."

3) "They have cast Raine Wilson as Harry Mudd.  They have cast anyone as Harry Mudd.  No.  No. No.  No.  No.  No.  Stop.  Please, stop."

4) "The main character is a human raised on Vulcan by Sarek (Spock's father).  Oh, for #$%@ sake! There are OTHER Vulcans, you know?"

Nevertheless, this evening I held my nose and watched the two-part pilot of "Star Trek: Discovery."  These are my thoughts (recorded because, you know, I can).  Is this where I'm supposed to say "spoiler alert?"  I'm not recapping anything here, but I'm going to speak like you've seen the episodes.

That wasn't half bad.  It actually felt like Star Trek.  There were more laser guns and explosions than I'm used to, but I feel like I understood why everyone was shooting at each other, which is a marked improvement over more recent additions to the franchise.  I am not totally sold, though, that the principal threat had to be Klingons, as opposed to a new alien species created specifically for "Discovery," or that this story should be happening in the past rather than the future (where "the past" means before Captain Kirk and "the future" means after Captains Picard, Sisko, and Janeway; the only way time should really be reckoned).

These are essentially same question.  Klingons are the second most studied alien species in Star Trek behind Vulcans.  We know a lot about Klingons.  Nothing that was introduced in this pilot contradicts what we already know about Klingon culture (TNG introduced a very strong and reasonably defined Klingon spirituality), but I worry about how it interacts with what we know of Klingon history (disclaimer: I am a snob about my Star Trek; I refused to watch and thus know very little about "Enterprise",  or, for that matter, "Voyager," so maybe everything I am about to say was addressed by where "Enterprise" left off; I know Klingons appeared in "Enterprise" somewhere).  The Klingons of Captain Kirk's Star Trek were a well-established, stable society that interacted with the Federation much as the Soviet Union interacted with the United States at the time Captain Kirk was on television: a respectful adversary who would like to wipe them off the map if they could, but who acknowledges the political and military realities that make that proposition difficult.  The first two hours of "Discovery" present us with a fractious Klingon society that is only just now banding together under the influence of an apparent religious revival.  Furthermore, by the end of those two hours, a fairly bloody war has broken out between the Federation and the Klingons.  Granted, it has been a long time since I saw "Errand of Mercy," but I never got the sense that Captain Kirk and company were less than a decade removed from a shooting war with the Klingons.  Compare the collegial disdain shared between the Klingons and Captain Kirk's Federation with the racist vitriol directed towards Romulans (and, by extension, Spock, when the magic of view screen technology reveals that Vulcans and Romulans are somehow related) in "Balance of Terror," in which it is explicitly stated that only a generation has passed since an all-out Federation-Romulan war.

Finally, the chief exponent of the Klingon revival, a self-styled messiah named T'Kuva, appears to be very concerned with the sanctity of Klingon culture.  This is an interesting idea in the Star Trek universe.  "Deep Space Nine" started to deal with it, by which I mean that they mentioned it once when they had Commander Eddington, a Starfleet officer-turned-Maquis-terrorist/freedom fighter compare the Federation unfavorably to the Borg ("at least the Borg tell you they want to assimilate you").  The problem I have with dealing with this idea in "Discovery" is... why now?  Why are the Klingons worried about cultural assimilation at this point in their history.  As presented to us, it is not even obvious that Vulcans are fully integrated into the Federation at the time of "Discovery."  Certainly no one is tossing around the idea of incorporating the Klingons into the Federation, yet.*  Fast forward a few hundred years (into the post Picard/Sisko/Janeway future) and this story would be very timely and, I think, much more believable.  TNG presented an alliance with the Klingons as the next logical step in our post Cold War progression towards a more perfect incarnation of Gene Roddenberry's vision.  It's not obvious how many Klingons were happy with that (there were several episodes early in the series that pretty definitively made the case "not all of them").  Maybe a few decades later, as the Klingons became even more integrated into the Federation after their united victory in the Dominion War, there would be some in the (former) Klingon Empire eager to receive T'Kuva's gospel of Klingon "purity" (a good friend of mine actually pitched something very similar to this, set in the future, as his ideal "next Star Trek" story).  Maybe I'm wrong and this will all make perfect sense once the show runs its course and we will see a seamless transition from ragtag religious revival to 1960s-style superpower.  I hope I am wrong.  I just don't want Star Trek to fall into the trap of thinking that all of our best stories are behind us and that the future is "solved."

PS I'm still upset that it's Sarek.

PPS I'm also still upset that it's going to be Harry Mudd.

PPPS They screwed up canon.  The Klingons didn't invent the cloaking device.  They got it from the Romulans in the alliance first referenced in "The Enterprise Incident" (though Klingon ships that could cloak really weren't a thing until Star Trek 3).  There; I've said it.

* I do acknowledge that there can be other threats to cultural integrity besides explicit incorporation into something like the Federation, but if that is what is going on here, I need to be explicitly told that the Klingons lost a war, or experienced some major loss of territory, or somesuch.  If this really just boils down to "Klingons preserve their culture by fighting because Klingon culture is about fighting" I'm going to be disappointed (but not surprised; Star Trek aliens are not the most fleshed-out societies on television; that's what Babylon 5 is for).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Time and Place

Disclaimer the first: The title of this blog post probably doesn't mean what you think it means.

Disclaimer the second: It is entirely possible that some of you will think I'm a hypocrite by the time you reach the end of this post.  You are justified in so thinking.  I will do my best to keep the hypocrisy limited to the footnotes.  "Hypocrisy" may also be a proxy for "snark."

Among the several Major Life Changes I am going through right now, my girlfriend and I are "church shopping."  Every Sunday, we visit one of several churches in our neighborhood.  Eventually, we will tell all but one of them that we're really just not that into them.  We thought we'd narrowed it down to two finalists.  Then we discovered that both of them are currently led by interim/imminently retiring pastors.  We have not decided if we are going to expand our list.

One of the finalists is a Lutheran church.  One part of Lutheran worship (and maybe the worship of other denominations; I'm not sure) is the Prayers of the People.  The celebrant reads a list of standard petitions to which the congregation replies "Lord, hear our prayer" (or some variant thereof).  These are usually pithy yet general enough to be unequivocally good things (e.g., "We pray for there to be less starvation in the world with a preference for no starvation").  The floor is then opened for members of the congregation to spontaneously offer their own petitions, which are then also given general sanction.  We're all Christians.  We should pray for each other.  Maybe someone's aunt is sick.  How can you know?

Today, one of the spontaneous petitions was "Help return our nation to what our founding father's intended."*  A similar petition was made the Sunday after the election (we were attending the same church that particular Sunday).  Today, the petition was immediately followed by a prayer for a Federal ban on assault weapons.  This particular turn of awkward events has prompted several reflections which I present in no particular order.

1) NOT COOL.  As I said, the way the Prayers of the People work is that someone asks for a prayer and everyone responds "Lord, hear our prayer."  I did not say that everyone has the option of responding "Lord, hear our prayer."  Everyone responds "Lord, hear our prayer."  That places a particular onus on the petitioner to ask himself (both were men in this case) "is what I'm asking for really something that all Christians (or, at least, all Lutherans) agree upon?  Is it a part of Lewis' 'Mere Christianity'?"  I want to believe that the "no assault weapons" advocate only said what he said to counterbalance the "founding fathers" prayer (I also want to believe that God is not in favor of assault weapons as a general rule), but maybe he was going to ask God to ban assault weapons, anyway.  Regardless, these gentlemen should have realized that these were issues that can (and should) be debated without committing heresy and saved their prayers for a time when we wouldn't all look rude for not agreeing (full-disclosure: I did not say "Lord, hear our prayer," to restore the founding fathers' vision; I muttered it to get assault weapons banned).

1b) I guess this is a good stand-in for the school prayer debate (or at least an explanation for why there still is a school prayer debate).  These gentlemen assumed everyone in the room was exactly like them and therefore saw no problem in foisting our approbation upon their views.  If Lutherans (Lutherans!) cannot see how that is problematic when surrounded by other Lutherans (LUTHERANS!), how can we expect Christians writ large to see how it is problematic when they are leading a classroom full of 30 children whom they assume are Christian except that two of them are actually Jews, three are Hindu, and one is an atheist?

2) All of that being said... there has to be a time and place for these conversations.  If churchgoers actually believe what they say they believe, it should probably have a fundamental influence on how they live the rest of their lives.  Does God want us to return to the founding fathers' vision*?  Does He want us to ban assault weapons?  If we're not going to ask these questions, what is the point of faith?  As a friend once said when I was in earshot "church can legally affect the state; it's just that the state cannot legally affect the church."  The problem is less that the gentlemen in question brought their politics to their house of worship.  The problem is that they brought it at a time when we are supposed to give thanks to God, support one another, and not raise any hackles.  We all (most of us) said "Lord, hear our prayer," and moved on.  I'm not a pastor.  I don't know what pastors think about such things, but in my imagination, if I were, I would have stopped the service right there and asked the congregation: "What do we think about that?"

2b) The first two-thirds of episode #456 of "This American Life" examine the "self-deportation" movement: the idea that states can solve the problem** of illegal immigration by making life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they will elect to leave.  Specifically, the episode focuses on an Alabama bill that allows state law enforcement to ask people to produce their immigration papers and arrest them if something is amiss.  It also makes it a crime to employ an illegal immigrant (that part may be redundant). Around the 34 minute mark, they interview State Senator Gerald Dial of Alabama, a self-described "devout Christian" working to amend the bill (which he originally voted for) so that providing charitable help to an illegal immigrant is not, itself, a crime.  The interview culminates in this exchange.

Jack Hick (interviewer): "Once you've amended the bill, do you think Jesus would vote for the bill?"

State Senator Dial: "Gosh... you've asked me a tough question you know, uh... I would hope that He would understand that... I would, I would say that.... would He vote for the bill?  Probably not."

This makes no sense to me.  If you are a lawmaker who believes in God and you are presented with a law that you believe God would not support (and I would say it's pretty safe theology that God does not support making people's lives miserable), how can you, in good conscience, vote for it yourself?  I worry that this is one of the direct consequences of our refusal as a society to discuss "tough issues."  It is impolite to talk about politics.  It is impolite to talk about religion.  We just say "Lord, hear our prayer" and go about our days with all kinds of self-contradictory nonsense living in our brains.  To quote Ray Bradbury (by way of 'The West Wing') "If you hide your ignorance, no one will ever hit you, and you will never learn."

I started out annoyed that politics were injected into the church service I attended.  I have pretty strong views about what my religion says about my politics, but I'm still annoyed.  I'm annoyed because the politics were injected, not by reasoned debate, but by fiat.  "I believe X, and therefore, you're all going to pray for X with me."


I'm really not.

*Never mind that our founding fathers intended to leave slavery legal in half the country.  Also, isn't one of the points of Christianity supposed to be that exactly one infallible person has ever been born?

**I didn't want to overcrowd that sentence with scare quotes, so let me just say that the idea that illegal immigration is a problem (unless you are talking about people dying in the desert trying to get to Arizona, because that is a problem) is... problematic to me.  The people and institutions responsible for the financial crisis all had their papers in order.

Friday, October 19, 2012

That word... I don't think it means what you think it means.

These are the words of a US Senator

“I don’t think the people of Wisconsin discriminate against anybody, but I think we also hold the traditional view that marriage is between a man and a woman,” says Johnson. “I don’t find that contradictory at all. I’d favor civil unions. I have no problem with that.”

I just.... I can't.... There aren't..... gah!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grace, Courage, and Wisdom

Sometime around the 2004 election, I harumphed in loud approval as a friend of mine railed against single-issue voters.  The single-issue voters specifically elected for my friend's ridicule were the members of the so-called "pro-life" faction (scare quotes in honor of the mind-boggling number of people who oppose abortion, support capital punishment, and have somehow managed to convince themselves that giving poor people food and education was not what Jesus had in mind).  My friend thought it irresponsible bordering on silly to decide anything as important as one's vote for President, Senator, or Congressperson based solely on the candidates' views about the appropriate relationship between the Federal Government, fetuses, and womens' internal organs.  As I said: I harumphed.  What I did not understand/was not willing to face at the time was that I was and am a single-issue voter myself.

Five years later, as America debated the appropriate relationship between the Federal Government, sick people, and doctors, a different friend -- a life long Republican perpetually terrified that his vote might a) swing Democrat and b) ever actually matter -- asked "why are you so loyal to the Blue Team?"  I hemmed, I hawed, and the only thing intelligible that came out of my mouth was this:  For my entire political life, one party has used gay people as boogey-folk around which to mobilize its base.  I will never ever ever vote for such a party.

It is now 2012.  In two months, America will elect a President and Washington state will elect a governor.  Two cycles ago, Washington's gubernatorial race wasn't decided until January.  I think I know something about where Barack Obama and Mitt Romney stand on most issues (though not with the subtlety I think I should).  I know the names of the men running for governor of my fair state.  I feel no compulsion to learn anything more.  Five months ago, our current governor and state legislature legalized same-sex marriage.  The opponents of that move have gathered enough signatures to bring that decision before the voters as a referendum.  Rob McKenna is on the record opposing same-sex marriage.  For no other reason, I am going to vote for Jay Inslee.

Many of the problems faced by our government are hard.  Intelligent people can have intelligent, unresolved discussions about how to fix the economy.  These people are called "experts."  You will find them listed in the modern lexicon of the American language under "enemies of Western civilization."  Discrimination is the opposite of that.  It's the political equivalent of the joke

Patient: "Doctor, it hurts when I move my arm like this!"

Doctor: "Don't move your arm like that."


Government: "Doctor, we are treating gay people like second-class citizens!"

Doctor: "Stop treating gay people like second-class citizens."

In McKenna's defense, not legalizing same-sex marriage will leave Washingtonian same-sex couples in their current position, often referred to as "marriage in everything but name only."  However, America has been down the "separate but equal" road before and I think I know what is at the end of it.  Nothing will change my opinion on this question.  I just worry that what I'm doing (casting my vote for governor based on the mono-syllabic answer to a five word question) is irresponsible bordering on silly.

Of course, I worry even more that if I don't, the answer to the related question "when will we start treating gay people like people?" will perpetually be "after...."

PS While I have you here, there's something I've been hearing on the radio all day:
Take Wyoming-based businessman Foster Friess. He’s a conservative Christian who prominently backed Rick Santorum for president. Like McKenna, Friess is no fan of government mandated healthcare.

“This whole idea is health care a right?" Friess said in a 2009 speech. “That issue shouldn’t even come up because we know for those who embrace the Christian values systems, health care is a responsibility. We are our brother’s keeper.”
Does anyone have any idea what this means?  To my untrained ear, being "our brother's keeper" means that we should take care of our brother if he doesn't have healthcare.  Given that the United States Federal Government is the ultimate embodiment of our collective action (at least, that is what Abraham Lincoln tried to convince us of with that "of the people, by the people, and for the people" nonsense), and given that "we are all brothers and sisters in Christ," shouldn't these implied "Christian values" be an argument for some kind of government-provided health care?