In keeping with Occupy Wall Street’s unique mixture of socialist and libertarian sensibilities, the Rolling Jubilee is a do-it-yourself “people’s bailout” of those Americans who are most hopelessly in debt. In the marketplace, when debt becomes “distressed”–i.e., payments aren’t being made and it looks like the loan will not be paid back–lenders often sell that debt for pennies on the dollar to other debt collectors. That way the original lender makes some money off the debt, and the new debt owner typically uses new collection strategies to try to make more off the debtor than they paid to buy the debt.
Somebody down at Occupy Wall Street figured out that when buying the most distressed debts–you could buy debt for literally $0.05 per dollar of debt–meaning that someone with the sufficient legal and financial knowhow could spend $25 to buy $500 worth of someone’s severely distressed debt–and then forgive the debt instead of trying to collect it. Occupy Wall Street was able to find volunteers with the necessary expertise, and now this is happening:
“Got $10 to spare? We’ll liberate someone from $200 of debt. Throw us twenty bucks and we’ll obliterate $400 of a struggling American’s debt. $100? We’ll take the weight of *TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS* off someone’s back.”
“Jubilee” is a term stemming from the Abrahamic faiths, for a religious holiday during which all debts would be forgiven and captives and slaves sometimes freed. The title “Rolling Jubilee” comes from the hope that the debtors who receive relief will “pay it forward” by contributing to help relieve others in situations similar to theirs for pennies on the dollar.
Donate if you feel so compelled. So far the Rolling Jubilee has raised over $100,000, sufficient to purchase and forgive over $2 million of severely distressed debt.Their website also has a “Twitter” link, through which you can tweet at A-list celebrities asking them to support the cause to help the Rolling Jubilee get exposure.
We’ve probably all seen a lot of discussions about gay marriage lately. It’s a topic that presidential candidates always drag out during election years and use to demonize their opponents. We’ve probably all seen
Church and State are both adults and are perfectly capable of making their own decisions. Also both have questionable fashion sense.
posts online about how it’s barbaric to oppose homosexuality, or how supporting it goes against the will of God.
Lately I’ve been wondering why we’re even having this argument. There’s a solution that should make both sides even happier than either of the popular solutions (ban gay marriage/legalize gay marriage): take government out of religion and religion out of government altogether.
The proposal has been referred to as “privatizing” marriage. The idea is simple: have the government offer civil unions with the full benefits currently afforded to legal marriage to everyone. Then have the government stop saying anything about “marriage” altogether.
That way, all the different religions get to perform the sacrament of marriage on whomever they want, and only on whomever they want: no government telling you whose marriage you must recognize. At the same time, everybody can get equal legal benefits to help them build families: no discrimination here, no government saying “this union is better than that union.”
Yet somehow, no one seems to like this idea. Why? Because “gay marriage” isn’t about legal rights or the effect of gay unions on society anymore. It’s about using the government to force people to conform to your beliefs. There’s no getting around this.
Anti-gay marriage folks won’t get behind marriage privatization because they believe we need the government to enforce moral behavior–to “protect” people from unions that “go against human nature.” On top of that, many people seem to have the idea that “if you’re not for me, then you’re against me” related to government and religion: clearly if the government isn’t in active agreement with the teachings of my religion, it must hate me and persecution is just around the corner. To these folks, privatization of marriage would be a massive concession to the pro-gay camp in that it would set up a system where gay and straight marriages are recognized by the government exactly equally.
Pro-gay marriage folks, on the other hand, won’t support privatization because they also want the government to actively support their theological beliefs. If the government gets out of marriage altogether, how is it going to tell society that gay marriage is okay? To supporters of gay marriage, privatizing marriage would be a massive concession in that it would seem to “permit” certain segments of society to go about their lives without ever recognizing gay unions as being equal to straight ones.
What’s it called when both sides make a concession so that they can come to an agreement? Oh yes, a compromise. Something we don’t seem to be very good at these days.
I’d argue that in reality, privatization of marriage would not be a “compromise” for either side, but rather a stunning victory for both. Religions would win absolute jurisdiction over the institution of marriage among their followers–the government would no longer be a formative influence in people’s minds when it comes to what marriage is supposed to be. Gay couples would win absolute legal equality–no legal difference between gay and straight unions at all.
Everyone would get another crucial benefit: a lesson in ignoring things that are none of your business. In exchange for absolute jurisdiction over marriage among their followers, religions would ignore the gay couples who would be getting legally recognized on par with straight couples and getting married by the religions that would do so. In exchange for absolute legal equality, gay couples would ignore religions that teach that homosexual activity is wrong. And I’m betting the world wouldn’t end for anyone.
Then maybe the next time our culture was faced with an issue of theological disagreement, maybe neither side would feel quite so strong a need to use the government to impose on the freedom of others in support of their beliefs.
Modern Christianity runs a pretty full spectrum when it comes to attitudes toward gender equality. Some churches still openly teach that women were designed for the sole purposes of supporting men and producing more children, and that the gateway to happiness for all members of a family is for the wife to submit to her husband in all things. Others now ordain women and men equally as pastors, priests, and bishops, and even refer to the Holy Spirit as a “She.”
It’s not hard to see why followers of Christ interpret Biblical teachings in such radically different ways. From the start, the Bible supplies us with two radically different accounts of the creation of man: one in which God creates humanity “male and female” in his own likeness simultaneously; and another where man is created first, and God subsequently decides to create woman to keep man company and help him out.
No in-text reason is ever given for the two separate accounts of the creation of humanity, so folks have speculated down the millenia as to why they’re there. Some argue that a proper translation of the name “Adam” suggests that “Adam’s” creation was really symbolic of all of humanity, both male and female, and that Eve’s creation from his rib show the attributes of a whole humanity attributes being divided between the sexes.
One tradition (never accepted by Christian orthodoxy, but too bizarre not to mention) even speculates that the the woman from the first creation story is Lillith, the first created human woman who promptly refuses to submit to her husband and is kicked out of paradise before Eve is even created. Some legends and occult traditions go that Lillith ended up marrying Satan/Lucifer and mothering all manner of dangerous spirits–in some legends she’s associated with vampires, succubi, and even unexplained deaths of human infants in the cradle.
Which message should we pay more attention to–that man and woman are two equal halves of humanity, created simultaneously on God’s image? Or that the role of woman in creation is to make life easier for man, who is the original created in God’s image? The fact that the first sin (to which Christian theology attributes literally all evil) was committed by the first woman doesn’t help.
The Old Testament certainly seems to take the latter view. Its books are positively run through with the attitude that a woman’s only worth is in her reproductive capacity: almost all women who appear in the Bible seem to be largely judged on their capacity to produce heirs, and the Old Testament God explicitly authorizes, among other things, the public execution of a woman who’s discovered not to be a virgin on her wedding night.
The Old Testament also paints an image of heirarchy: God > Man > Women > Children. Women are told to submit to their husbands, as children are told to submit to their parents and men are told to submit to God. At one point the righteous family becomes a literal metaphor for the relationship between God and man: Man submits to God, and woman submits to God by submitting to her husband. In this Old Testament vision, not only does man have unlimited divine authority over his family, but direct contact between God and woman is apparently impossible or at best not routine.
The New Testament (seen by Christian believers as “fulfillment of the law” which frees Christians from most if not all Old Testament teachings like the ones detailed above) seems at first to utterly reject the idea that men are better than women in the eyes of God.
Jesus welcomes women as students (something that typically wasn’t done under Jewish law at the time) including sinners. He even rebukes a dutiful hostess when she complains that her sister Mary is listening at Jesus’ feet (a man’s role) instead of helping out with womanly housekeeping duties (a woman’s role, per customs of the time). He states that the woman who chose to study at his feet has made the better (and by extension more righteous) choice between the two of them. He eventually makes the radical statement that “there is no male or female, but all are one in Christ.”
But wait–there’s more. Some chapters after Jesus’ death, we hear from “Paul” (many scholars believe these passages were penned by someone other than St. Paul, but the Bible attributes the words to him) that far from equal participation in Christian life, women are to be prohibited from speaking in church, and if they wish to learn anything about God “let them ask their husbands at home” rather than having any voice at all in public Christian assemblies. This seems to fly directly in the face of Jesus’ own acts and teachings, but it has been attributed to a divinely inspired Apostle for millenia.
The Gnostic Gospels turn out to shine a whole new light on gender politics in early Christianity. These 52 books provide a much wider vista on early Christian attitudes toward gender than what we’re accustomed to seeing. It was not, it turns out, a mere matter of early Christian teachings following the social norms of the time period. It turns out that there were elements within early Christianity pushing for everything from the complete glorification to the complete demonization of women. It’s fascinating to see which of these the orthodox church fathers (never mothers) picked.
It may help to start with a clearer definition of what gnosticism is: it’s not one group or teaching. In fact the only thing which all the “gnostics” seem to have in common at all is that all were condemned as heretics, their teachings and practices rejected by the founders of the orthodox Christian church. But all thought of themselves as Christians, and drew on everything from Greco-Roman paganism to Platonic philosophy to Eastern beliefs to paint diverse understandings of what Christ’s life and death really meant, both for those who chose to follow him and for humanity on the whole.
At one extreme of gnosticism, there were those who saw women, not just as spiritually inferior, but as evil. One memorable passage from gnostic text The Paraphrase of Shem involves the female entity Nature, seen to represent all worldly evil, corruption, and temptation of the flesh, shooting flames from her vagina using “the power of darkness, which was within her from the beginning.” Another text, The Dialogue of the Savior, has Jesus commanding his followers to “destroy the works of femaleness” and “worship in the place where there is no woman.”
Many scholars believe that in these texts, “the power of darkness” and “the works of femaleness” are both references to sexuality–something which was widely seen by both some Greek philosophers and Jewish religious custom as “unclean” and associated with all unrighteousness and corruptions of the imperfect flesh and human nature. But even so, here we see womenbeing scapegoated for these evils–an unhealthy attitude to be sure, and one rejected by the orthodox founders who chose to portray women merely as lower on the spiritual totem pole, not as sources of soul-destroying evil.
At the other end of the gnostic spectrum, we have the servants of Sophia–”Sophia,” in Greek literally “Wisdom,” was seen as Jesus’ feminine counterpart, a manifestation of divinity more powerful, righteous, and wise than Yahweh, who she was responsible for creating. The feminine Wisdom and the masculine Jesus were seen to comprise a complete and complimentary pair, representing both gendered aspects of the sexless creator being, with, with Sophia playing roles similar to those of the Holy Spirit and God the Creator in orthodox lore. As a “manifestation of divinity,” Sophia could be understood by her followers either as a literal female creator and guide, or as a metaphor for the female aspects of the supreme godhead–a sexless perfection from which all attributes of both the masculine and feminine sprung.
The followers of this borderline-polytheistic Sophia scheme were not the only gnostics who saw both sexes as equally important aspects of a perfect God. Other gnostics were much closer to the monotheistic teachings of the early church fathers–except that they prayed to both “God the Father” and “God the Mother,” seeing veneration of both God’s male and female aspects as essential to complete worship. These gnostics even circulated prophecies in which God referred to herself as “she” alongside those in which the same creator-of-all chose to identify as “he.”
Less radical still–and, some might say, marginally less progressive–were those Christians who saw the Holy Trinity as “Father, Mother, and Son,” picturing the Holy Spirit as playing the role of Jesus’ true spiritual mother to Yahweh’s role as his spiritual father, or even those who merely referred to the Holy Spirit as “She” instead of “It,” (a practice to which many Anglican churches have recently returned), making use of the feminine Hebrew word for spirit instead of the gender-neutral Greek word for spirit which was favored by orthodox church fathers.
But these views, too, were rejected by the founders of the orthodox church. Why? Why would a church which, both then and now, openly acknowledged that God had no human-style gender see it as acceptable to refer to God as “He,” but never as “She?”
For that matter, why would a follower of Jesus who said himself that “there is no male or female, but all are one in Christ,” show rage and disgust at the gnostic practice of allowing women to serve as readers, teachers, or even (gasp!) prophets and performers of sacraments alongside men? The orthodox saint and then-bishop Iraneaus wrote extensively on the evil of these gnostics, complaining in detail of the fact that some gnostics revered certain women as divinely inspired spiritual teachers, and generally made no differentiation based on sex in assigning roles.
Theories abound as to why traditional Old Testament-style gender roles continued to be enforced by early church fathers after Jesus himself appeared to denounce them.
Some point to the content of the Bible itself, particularly the Old Testament, proposing that the early church fathers were merely following the edicts handed down by the same God with whom Jesus identified. After all, an essential teaching of Christianity is that God doesn’t change with time; why, then, should his commands in the Old Testament no longer be considered valid?
The criticism of this theory may be obvious; the early church fathers only preserved parts of Old Testament law. Why did they scrap the old command to stone adulteresses, but keep the tradition, also broken by Jesus, that women should not be educated on religious matters in public? Why take Jesus words as justification for eating pork, but ignore his apparent statement that men and women are essentially the same in the eyes of God? Since not all of the Old Testament survived, critics say there must have been some external reason for why some old laws were kept and others discarded.
Others point to the prevailing social climate of the time. Divine or not, the Jewish culture in which Jesus and most of his apostles grew up certainly had strictly enforced gender roles; so, for that matter, did the culture of the Roman Empire. Though the Romans were known for affording women more social freedom than most cultures, at the time of Christ a few progressive Roman nobles had only just accepted the idea that maybe educating girls alongside boys wouldn’t destroy society.
This is the same Greco-Roman culture that saw women as too emotional to serve as witnesses in court (fun fact: the word “testimony” comes from the part of your anatomy you had to swear on when vowing to tell the truth in Greco-Roman court).
So early Christianity was developing in an environment where, in addition to Yahweh’s explicit command that men should act as the conduits of divine authority to women, the gentiles of the world also apparently feared that educating women or would result in an abdication of wifely and maternal duties, and the subsequent downfall of society. The agreement of Jewish and Roman traditions on the nature and duties of women must have made it look like this was a practical truth so obvious that even the pagans had figured it out.
One final theory, perhaps compatible with the former, cites the more anti-female gnostic gospels for insight into the ancient mind. These writings describe female entities as the root of all corruption, and prescribe total exclusion of women from worship unless they “become like men” by disavowing sex completely. Perhaps, then, it was the church fathers’ own temptations that led them to keep women out of the public eye during worship–perhaps these church fathers, striving to help all of their congregants avoid tempation, saw women as the source of sexual urges–and therefore an independent woman was a danger to the piety of all.
This could be the same logic that gave birth to the legend of Lillith, the first woman to refuse to submit to her husband, as a source of both sexual temptation and family-shattering tragedy long before the time of Christ. Since women were obviously the root of sexual urges, by no means could they be trusted in power–most especially in budding Christian congregations that espoused Old Testament standards of chastity and strove to be the pinnacles of spiritual purity. Better that women be seen and heard only by their husbands, less they tempt righteous men to sin.
Perhaps, then, both Biblical and transcultural anxieties about the female sex led early church fathers to crack down on gnostic teachings that placed the female on equal footing with the male. Perhaps this is why early church fathers like “Paul” and St. Iraneaus appeared to revile those who claimed to be Christian while allowing women to speak in church, to perform sacraments, even to become teachers. Not only were these congregations violating Yahweh’s natural order as prescribed in the Torah, but with such unrestrained gender mixing they could not be sexually pure.
None of this does much to answer questions about gender equality in Christianity today. The Bible seems to provide backing for both those who argue that men and women are spiritually identical, and those who argue that they’re fundamentally different in important ways.
Many Christian churches today still argue that it’s impossible for women to be priests, not because they’re inferior to men, but simply because they’re “different”–less similar in spirit to Jesus, who was of course male, and designed to be mothers, not fathers, whose attributes are seen to be more fitting to the role of pastor.
Others are increasingly moving toward the attitude that there’s no spiritual reason for power in Christian churches not to be gender-equal–Jesus may have been a man, but he was also God, who we all know is both the ultimate father and ultimate mother of humanity. Because God is sexless and we know that his creation was designed not to function without both male and female, they argue that there’s no reason the earthly pastoral heirarchy can’t or shouldn’t reflect both sexes that God created.
Given the seemingly conflicting Bible passages on the subject, these questions may never truly be settled. But at least today we’re sure of a few things that even the pagan world didn’t know at the time of Christ–like that women speaking in public won’t destroy society.
CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD!
One thing I did not expect “The Dark Knight Rises” to be was a political flashpoint. But that, apparently, is what it has become–pundits and activists on both sides of the political spectrum have been angered by the movie, claiming that it demonizes the things they support.
Which, in my mind, means that the Nolans did a really good job.
Not only have they managed to inflame tempers; they’ve managed to inflame tempers in both directions. Rush Limbaugh condemned the movie as anti-Romney propaganda, even claiming that the villain “Bane” was somehow named for Bain Capital (despite the fact that this character has existed since 1991 and, you know, is a common word in the English language). Meanwhile, some Occupiers have lambasted the movie for demonizing the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Glenn Beck has called the movie “the best film he’s seen in years” for the same reason.
Bravo, Nolans. Bravo. Virtually everybody seems to have seen themselves in your film, and for the mostpart they didn’t like what they saw.
My own take is that the Nolans’ entire Batman series has turned out to be full of very complex and challenging political thought. The series’ ongoing motif has been The League of Shadows, an organization whose goal is to topple our current corrupt system, putting innocents in harm’s way in their quest to upset the status quo at any cost. “The Dark Knight” posed hard questions with its blatant metaphors for the Patriot Act and other questionable Bush administration practices. Now “Rises” has, without a doubt, questioned us about Occupy Wall Street and our real-world economic conditions.
Intentionally or otherwise, these movies clearly speak to the real world. But do they have a clear for-or-against message? I’d argue not–to me, the Nolans’ movies seem primarily to show how tough these questions are, rather than pontificating. Last movie asked “is it okay to circumvent international law, to spy on every citizen, to lie to the people in order to make them safer?” This movie asks “can people govern themselves without authority figures,” and also “who bears responsibility for society’s ills?”
Here’s how I think the Nolans answered these questions in the movies.
The initial impression of “Dark Knight” was that the Patriot Act and other much-criticized Bush era security measures were okay, because in this case, they were the only way of stopping the Joker and bringing his allies to justice. The ending of “Dark Knight” even seems to imply that lying to the citizenry is okay if it will make them safer in the end–Commissioner Gordon lies, claiming that Batman is responsible for the murders Harvey Dent committed, so that the people will support Harvey Dent’s anti-crime measures. And these actions seem to cause everything to turn out okay.
But in “Rises,” the deception from the last movie blows up in everyone’s faces. Though Gotham has enjoyed a few years of peace thanks to these lies, when trouble rears its head again the city is ill-equipped to respond because they believe the wrong culprit is responsible for the city’s ills. Both Batman and the police department are unable to apprehend Bane, chasing nonexistent phantoms instead of the true threat who is really capable of destroying them all.
So there, perhaps, is the Nolans’ complex statement on national security and truth: “Sometimes you’ve gotta do whatever it takes to stop a madman with explosives. But lying about it isn’t going to make things better in the long-run; in fact if you need to lie to get people behind your goal, you’re probably egregiously overlooking the truth about what it is that’s destroying you.”
Or perhaps even that is too simple. Perhaps the Nolans’ true message here is to use your head, because right and wrong are not always clear.
But national security isn’t what has everyone buzzing about “The Dark Knight Rises.” No, that’s just a callback to “Dark Knight.” The hot-button issue of “Rises” is economic inequality. And this is what has both Rush Limbaugh and the Occupiers up in arms.
Let’s start with the characters. This movie introduces two powerful new protagonists–Detective John Blake and Catwoman. Such is the power of these protagonists that Batman would not survive without them–for once the superhero legitimately needs help. And what are their backgrounds? Blake is an orphan who grew up in an underfunded orphanage. We first see him identifying the body of a teenager from the same orphanage who had been killed after turning to crime for the money he needed to survive. Catwoman is a “cat burglar”–a jewel thief who, despite pulling off million-dollar jobs, lives in a tiny apartment and struggles with poverty because of a debt incurred in her youth.
I was rather shocked to hear rhetoric straight out of Occupy Wall Street coming out of Catwoman’s mouth. She berates Bruce Wayne about how he and his rich friends made their fortunes on the backs of the poor. She even expresses disgust at how “the rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us” when Bruce’s “financial ruin” means that he gets to keep his palatial home. Add to this a charity worker who makes repeated comments about the opulence of the rich’s lifestyles compared to her own impoverished youth, and the fact that one of Wayne Industries’ board members turns out to be plotting with Bane in hopes of turning a profit and gaining political power, and you can see Limbaugh’s interpretation of the film as being anti-Romney/anti-rich.
But wait, there’s more! We’re barely halfway through the movie by the time all this has happened. The real conflict doesn’t start until Bane makes his move. And that’s when he, too, starts to sound like an Occupier.
First, let’s make no mistake–Bane was never a leader of a people’s revolution. He’s a member of the League of Shadows, whose plans include murdering countless innocent civilians in order to bring about a collapse of our current “corrupt” civilization. He makes clear to Batman from the start that his intent is to slowly torture the people of Gotham for a few months before ultimately killing them all.
And what torture does he choose? He “gives power back to the people.” And by that we mean he assassinates the mayor, takes literally the entire police force out of commission, frees all the inmates in Gotham’s prisons, and informs the people of Gotham that if anyone leaves the city he’ll kill them all with a nuclear bomb. And of course, at no point does he tell the populous that he plans to kill them all in the end no matter what they do.
With all forms of law and government out of the way, Bane tells the people of Gotham to “take back their city.” He has taken down the “oppressors”–the government, the police, even the prison system–and now he urges the citizens to retaliate against the rich and powerful for past injustices.
Then, he mostly leaves them be. Bane watches as the homes of the rich are looted and their occupants dragged out into the streets to face mob justice. Protagonists and antagonists alike are “sentenced to death” for the crime of being seen as too wealthy or powerful in the midst of hard times. So here, you can see why the Occupiers were as offended as Limbaugh–the implication seems to be that the common people are incapable of governing themselves without widespread gang violence breaking out.
What do we take from a movie that seems to skewer the Romneys and Occupiers of the world alike? The Nolans take great pains to give us both good an evil characters on both sides of every metaphorical fence: Batman and Bane’s corrupt accomplice are rich. Catwoman and Blake grew up in poverty; so did Bane and his secret ally. There’s even a subplot that revolves entirely around the struggle between courageous and cowardly police officers over what to do about Bane. In the end literally the only difference between the two sides is how willing they are to watch the people around them die.
I think we can safely say that this is a message of personal responsibility: there’s good and bad folks in every rank. Be a good guy.
Well, my long-planned series on political psychology has been delayed. I’ve tried tackling the topic and found myself not equal to the task. So while this subject percolates in my brain a little more, I got a fun idea–exploring our possible futures through underrated science fiction movies!
I may get some flack for considering “In Time” to be underrated. It certainly has some of the worst features of a low-brow wanna be blockbuster, including a heavy-handed, politically-charged morality tale aspect that probably accounts for the film bombing at the box office. But for all its technical clumsiness, “In Time’s” premise is so unique, and the dilemmas it poses so relevant, that it absolutely has to have a place among our review of possible futures.
“In Time” takes place in a world where humans have achieved the dream of engineering themselves for immortality. The body’s aging process stops the instant you turn 25, so you can theoretically live at that biological age forever.
The problem might already be obvious: “Everyone can’t live forever. Where would we put them?” In the face of finite natural resources, a system has been developed by which adult members of society must constantly work to earn more time–when their aging process stops, a biological clock starts that must be constantly replenished. If your body’s clock hits zero, every cell in your body stops working. But if you can continue earning more time, there’s no natural limit to how long you can live.
“In Time’s” future society has cut out the middleman between cash and resource consumption altogether–now, time is the currency. The price of a cup of coffee, bus fare, clothes, etc. are all measured in minutes off your life. This is fine, if you can keep earning more time. If you can’t, you may die because a hike in bus fare prevents you from getting to work to pick up your paycheck before your clock runs out.
Things get downright dystopian when it becomes clear that the real reason for this time-based economy is population control. People keep being born, so people have to keep dying. Since nobody dies of old age anymore, the time-based economy makes sure that people die of poverty instead. In this world, prices and wages are determined by how many people need to die today–and the ones who die are literally always the poor.
Yes, the poor. This time-based economy is nearly identical to our own, except for the use of time, the very stuff of life, instead of money as a currency. The movie hits us over the head with references to high-interest loans and billionaire investment bankers who may possess a million years–which they could theoretically live, but are more likely to trade for luxuries.
Despite being heavy-handed in its morality tale about America’s self-perpetuating class system, the movie’s premise provokes some pretty intense thought by carrying many modern dilemmas to their natural conclusion. Modern medicine strives to eliminate death altogether–if we were to get our wish of never having to die of old age, how would we handle it in the face of limited natural resources? For that matter, even without immortality, how will we handle the very real and inevitable problem of an infinitely expanding human population on a planet that is not infinite? And how are the virtues and vices of capitalism tied up in this question?
“In Time” is a profoundly weird movie for reasons that can be summed up just by looking at its cast list: it stars Justin “Sexy Back” Timberlake alongside Cillian “excellent taste in high-brow sci-fi roles” Murphy. The movie repeatedly asks profound questions and introduces moral complications–then ends up completely ignoring them in favor of a “feel-good” ending that makes no sense if you think about it for even two seconds. You can practically hear the arguments between the writer of this subtle and complex premise and the producer who wanted an excuse to put a world-saving Justin Timberlake onscreen with a bunch of gorgeous women.
For all its narrative failings, in a way “In Time’s” decision to ignore its own complicated questions just shows how well it posed them. The dilemmas of a world where humans are immortal could not possibly be solved in one two-hour chunk of screentime–and the movie’s ultimate failing is pretending that they were. If anything, it should have ended on a tragic or bittersweet note–perhaps where nothing has changed, except the individual characters and their understanding of the world they live in.
Without giving too much away, I will say that Cillian Murphy’s character makes this movie. Though billed as an antagonist, he’s the only character who seems to understand the moral dilemmas facing his society, and the only one who manages to surprise the audience. The biography of Murphy’s character seems to perfectly personify the questions this film asks and then forgets about in favor of a happy ending.
And someone in production seems to realize this. Murphy’s name is the first to appear in the credits.
Since the new NASA Mars rover touched down on Mars, I’ve been somewhat distressed to see a lot of complaints about its cost, some even calling it a “waste” of funds that could be used to feed the hungry hear on Earth. All of these posts seem to be based on a series of staggering misunderstandings, which I would like to address here.
First off, Curiosity did not cost $100 billion, as one popular meme is claiming. The price tag was not even 3% of that–for a measely $2.6 billion, we sent a 900 pound nuclear-powered science lab to the surface of another planet to open the way for humans to explore a possible second home for humanity, and to look for extraterrestrial life which could revolutionize our understanding of biology in a way that literally no earthbound discovery could.
All for a whopping cost to American taxpayers of about–$7 per person. Not “per year”–that’s a
We got to see Curiosity’s wheel on the ground moments after touchdown on Monday. Thank government funding for science.
total. We all could have bought a hamburger, or cooperatively sent up the first device ever capable of really searching for life on another planet while simultaneously testing unprecedented landing techniques necessary to eventually send human explorers to the most human-friendly known world outside of Earth. For $7 a piece.
Since the space race ended, Americans have gradually stopped appreciating–and funding–NASA. A lot of this probably has to do with the perception that the space program was military in nature–since we went to the Moon mostly to show our dominance over the people we were also seriously considering nuking.
Things like satellite imaging and GPS have become so commonplace that we scarcely give thought to the fact that it was NASA who pioneered these things–and who continues to pioneer new technologies with specifications more exacting than any that private industry could impose.
But that is such a tiny part of what NASA does. The Moon landing was a singular event that captured the world’s attention for a brief moment in time. The work of NASA over decades, on the other hand, is responsible for virtually everything we know about anything that goes on outside our own atmosphere, as well as a good deal of what we know about physics and Earth’s climate.
What else have we gained from NASA over the years?
Teflon-coated fiberglass used as roofing for many buildings and stadiums was invented by NASA. Portable cooling systems used for heat-sensitive injuries and illnesses were invented for astronauts. Modern firefighters’ light-weight breathing systems were developed for–who else–astronauts. NASA technology has gone into our cars, our airplanes, our cleaning products, our medical equipment–even our artificial hearts, for decades. After all, there’s nothing to spur innovation like charging a team of the world’s top scientists with developing lightweight, portable equipment that will function to support human life in a vacuum under fluctuating temperature extremes.
Knowledge of other worlds, and all this technology too! All on an annual budget of $16 billion, which is about half a percent of our total federal budget. Or about $53 per American per year. Not a bad subscription, if you ask me.
As such, I’d argue that Curiosity is arguably the best way our government could possibly have invested a mere $2.6 billion. Here’s why:
First and most obviously, we have the potential scientific boon. Will Curiosity discover life on Mars? No one knows. But it is a very real possibility–not just some sci-fi fan’s pipe dream. We’ve long known that the Martian atmosphere undergoes mysterious chemical changes throughout the Martian year–chemical changes quite consistent with the presence of bacterial life.
I will shoot you with laser beams until you talk, Mars. Failing that, I’ll just use my lasers to spectroscopically analyze your chemical makeup.
Perhaps it takes a biology geek to understand just how huge of a deal this would be. Currently, we have precisely one type of life to study: Earth life. Since all earth life is descended from the same cellular ancestor, this means we literally know nothing about the fundamentals of life or biology.
We’ve never seen any type of life except Earth life: we’ve never seen any cells that have a different way of passing on their hereditary traits, or of turning genes into proteins, or of doing any of the fundamental functions of life. If we found an independent origin of life on Mars, who knows what those organisms could teach us?
Who knows what staggeringly better ways of getting things done they might have developed, simply because they never thought of doing it our way? Who knows what this could mean for academic science, let alone medicine?
And of course, the question of life on Mars goes far deeper than the practical applications of such a discovery. One of the things we don’t know, since we’ve only ever gotten to study our own origin of life, is how common life might be in the universe. Or how common intelligent life might be in the universe. We don’t even know for sure that there is other life out there. This is kind of huge.
What does it mean for us if our neighbor has a whole separate origin of life from ours? It means that maybe life is common–maybe we need to expect to find ecosystems on other worlds as we explore further out, maybe we need to expect to get visited by extraterrestrials and maybe shut our interstellar radio transmissions down like Stephen Hawking said, so we won’t get invaded. I feel like “don’t get invaded, because seriously there is other life out there” might be a worthwhile thing for us to know, medical and philosophical boons aside.
Secondly, we have the new technology that Curiosity is testing. Humans just aren’t going to Mars on the technology that got the featherweights Spirit and Opportunity there. Those things were so small–and comparatively scientifically feeble–for a reason. It turns out that it’s really hard to land on Mars. In fact, 60% of Mars missions to date have crashed or otherwise been lost (though the U.S. has done slightly better than that in recent years). Curiosity‘s landing was so nerve-wracking because a ridiculously complicated string of precise, unimaginably complex calculations, computer programming, and mechanics had to go off without a hitch in order to safely lower the half-ton rover onto the planet which lacks an Earthlike atmosphere to slow spacecraft.
Guess what a manned capsule would need to land on Mars safely? That same technology. That we just tested for the first time on Sunday night. That worked. While the nearest human was 300 million miles away. Even ignoring the ultimate goal of landing on Mars, do we think that kind of technology doesn’t have some pretty serious commercial implications for things like, say, unmanned vehicles here on Earth, or computer programming of robotics in general?
The last major benefit of Curiosity I want to address is purely psychological. It may also be the most important. Some people will take “purely psychological” to mean “not real,” because it’s not an object you can pull out and put on a table and go “look, SCIENCE!” Which is completely stupid, given that virtually all of the problems in the world are purely psychological. Well, maybe not all–illnesses and earthquakes, not psychological. But that fight you had with your parents? Purely psychological. The part of world hunger where we have plenty of resources to feed everyone, but can’t seem to get them in the right place to do it–purely psychological. All war, everywhere, for any reason? It’s psychological, guys.
Carl Sagan was HUGE on the psychological benefits of the space program. Why? Because images and from space, unlike literally any piece of writing or art or photography or anything else done by another human being, show us reality as it really is. Not a human-centric universe, but an unimaginably huge one in which Earth is just a tiny speck. Not an Earth divided into color-coded territories, but a whole, finite, and objectively interconnected planet. Space exploration makes us aware of the dangers we face that we don’t like to think about and/or haven’t experienced as a species–”never mind that 99% of all species on Earth are now extinct, that won’t happen to us because it hasn’t happened before in living memory.”
Sagan believed that space exploration, as it showed Earth to be united and fragile in the universe, was a fantastic way to combat war. Space exploration is a concrete, physical sign of humanity transcending its violent, instinctive, short-sighted animal origins–and it is by necessity a cooperative effort.
In a staggering feat of cooperative science, the European space probe orbiting Mars took pictures of the American rover as it landed on Mars. Now we just need to get China in on this and we’ve got us some world peace.
As it shows us the true nature of things, it rallies us around a common cause.
Part of the reason some folks today don’t like the space program is that once upon a time, it was a powerful rallying point for the “in group” of the U.S. and its allies, against the “out group” that was the Soviets and their allies.
But everybody seems to have forgotten what Sagan once saw–that cameras turned back on the Earth from space show all of humanity as a single “in group,” a perspective which may be our only hope for surviving our own growing power over the material world in the face of our collective psychological problems. We won’t address these problems if we’re afraid of each other. If we all feel we’re on the same team, we just might.
Here’s a thought I had: NASA currently costs us about $53 per person, per year. How’d you feel about chipping in an extra $10? If everybody in the U.S. did that, it would put NASA’s budget up from $16 billion to $19 billion–that’s an extra $3 billion, more than the total cost of Curiosity. Every year. At a cost of $10 per person to us.
I think it may be time to lobby some Congresspeople. Or start a donation jar. Whichever comes first.
Everyone knows that people have a long history of persecuting each other on the basis of religious practice. Opinions as to who or what is to blame vary–some say that persecution of nonbelievers is inherently a part of any organized religion, while others blame universal human failings like greed for co-opting morally good religions and using them to turn people against each other. Whatever the case, we all agree that it happens–and opinions vary drastically as to how to put an end to religious persecution.
The history of Christianity is inextricable from the history of persecution. Jesus Christ himself was executed for starting the faith, as was anyone and everyone discovered to be practicing Christianity in the Roman Empire for the next three centuries. But the religion continued to spread, and after those first three centuries, the roles were suddenly and violently reversed–when the Roman Emperor Constantine himself converted to Christianity and decided to make it the state religion. Upon his revelation that Christianity was the Truth, he promptly set about outlawing all other religions, including traditional Roman paganism, Judaism, and various “heretical” groups like the gnostics.
It was during this abrupt reversal of roles that Constantine (portrait at right) began the anti-heresy book-burning campaign that prompted some mystery man or woman to bury 52 gnostic gospels in a clay jar in the barren soil of the Egyptian desert. And this crackdown was so successful that in many cases the papyri hidden in this jar are the only surviving copies of theses texts we know of.
So how does this happen? How do followers of a religion founded by a man/God who himself refused to deal out earthly punishment for sin or strike back at his oppressors, which subsequently endured three centuries of being straight-up murdered for not conforming to the state religion, turn around and start straight-up murdering others for doing the same thing?
Let’s take a moment to examine the psychology of religious persecution.
The two basic arguments for the origin of religious persecution are this: either persecution comes about as a result of religion, or that religion is a casualty of persecutions motivated by personal greed. These theories are not mutually exclusive, and both have a lot of evidence to back them up.
How would persecution arise as a result of religion? After all, religions that have “murdering nonbelievers” as one of their commandments tend not to attract many converts, since most people start out instinctively averse to murder. So how do the followers of prophets who largely taught universal love and maybe a little chastity repeatedly end up murdering each other? The thoughtstream seems to go like this:
- ‘This religious is good for me. In fact, it’s the best thing I’ve ever come across. I’ve never felt so compassionate and loving.”
- “This religion is good. Nothing makes people love each other like this religion.”
- “Nothing makes people love each other like this religion. Therefore, those who aren’t of this religion can’t be trusted.”
The Roman Emperor Constantine appears to have made this psychological progression with astonishing speed. He went from his own personal conversion to declaring non-Christians, who lacked the moral compass of Christian teachings, to be inherently untrustworthy and therefore unfit to serve in any positions of power. As he made the practice of any religion other than Christianity steadily more illegal, he authorized, among other things, the execution of many “heretics” (who, in teaching deviant scriptures, also taught rejection of the orthodox moral code) and the burning of nearly all copies of the “heretical” gnostic gospels save those buried in the Egyptian desert to protect them from Roman authorities.
Needless to say, this thread is not unique to Constantine. Throughout the ages, religious groups have suspected each other of morally perverse practices. The Roman pagans suspected Christians of ritual cannibalism and sexual perversions–allegations which may sound familiar, as they are often leveled by modern Christians against modern pagans and occult practicioners. Christians, Muslims, and atheists alike can be heard to echo the same cry today–if “they” disagree with us about some things, then how can we trust “them” to exercise good judgement, and, say, not murder people?
Critics of this type of moral panic point out that humans, for the mostpart, tend to share a sense of conscience when it comes to actions that hurt other people. Indeed, the teachings of religious figures are often accepted, not because they are in line with the existing Word of God, but because their teachings are recognized as an improvement over the moral dogma of the time.
When Jesus saved that adulteress from stoning, or healed that man on the Sabbath, he was not praised for acting in accordance with the Law of Yahweh from whence Jews got their sense of right and wrong–in fact, he was condemned for violating God’s Law, and yet embraced by the common people who recognized that he was offering an improvement over the prior commands of Yahweh. Likewise, Mohammed was recognized as a truthsayer, not because he re-stated the moral commands of Arabia’s tribal religions, but because he improved upon them. With his teachings of unity, compassion, and moral duty, he attracted followers from among tribes who clearly recognized good vs. evil far outside the bounds of what their religions taught them.
The other side of the argument over religious persecution states that persecution is not a consequence of religion–but rather, that religion is a casualty of persecution that originates in quite human impulses like greed. And proponents of this theory have a good point–in virtually every case of full-out murdery religious persecution, the persecutors stand to gain something material as a result of dehumanizing the persecuted group.
Jesus himself was executed, not because the Romans could have cared less about allegations of blasphemy against the Jewish God, but because both his followers and the Jews he’d upset were threatening to riot. At a time when Rome had somewhat stretched its administrative capabilities over conquered peoples from Brittania to Babylon, a riot in the particularly unstable hotbed that was Israel was the last thing they needed. From the Romans’ perspective, they had to appease the Jews, or risk a violent uprising. And this was no imaginary fear–only a few years after Jesus’ execution, an unrelated Roman offense against the Jewish religion sparked a riot in Jerusalem in which 30,000 people were killed.
The Roman fear of Jesus and his followers went even deeper than just Judea. The Romans, like empires down the ages, justified their Caesar’s rule over his conquered peoples by identifying the Emperor with the will of God. In Roman paganism, the Emperor was seen as possessing his own divinity, bestowed upon him by the gods so that he may rule creation on their behalf. The Romans even made a habit of incorporating their conquered people’s divinities into Roman mythology, thereby cementing Caesar’s place as divinely ordained ruler as thoroughly as possible in the minds of the people.
So when Jesus was accused both of blasphemy against the Jewish God (an offense punishable by death under Judaism), and conspiracy against Rome (even his followers believed he would eventually lead a military or political uprising), he was brought before Pontius Pilate, who tried to convince him to rescind his statements to avoid execution. When Jesus not only refused to appease Jewish law, but continued to deny the divinity of Caesar, he cemented himself under Roman law as someone whose teachings could destabilize not just Judea, but the entire Empire. Jesus’ teachings could have caused millions of people to reject Roman rule.
After Jesus’ execution, his followers scared Romans for the same reason. All of them staunchly refused to recognize any the Roman Empire or any part of the pagan religion as having any divine legitimacy. Early Christians who came to the attention of Roman authorities were tortured in an attempt to make them confess support for Caesar, or at least make a sacrifice to some Roman divinity. Those who refused were executed, not because the Romans had some inexplicable vendetta against Christianity, but because they feared the destabilizing effects of this religion which rejected the divinity of the Emperor. And which was spreading.
It doesn’t take a history buff to spot pretty powerful parallels to later persecutions performed by rulers who were not pagan, but Christians themselves.
Indeed, it was through persecution of non-Christians by state powers that Europe became completely Christianized in the first place. Though Christianity was spreading impressively on its own (helped by the examples of martyrs who joyfully embraced their Truth even in the face of torture and execution), it was Constantine who declared Christianity to be the state religion, and promptly started banning the practice of other religions and curtailing the legal rights of non-Christians. It was a scene that was familiar, both from the examples of pagan emperors before him, and to us through the future actions of countless European monarchs after the fall of the Roman Empire.
And all may have shared the same motive. The debate over Constantine’s true reason for converting to Christianity reads like a microcosm of the debate over why religious persecution happens. Some believe his claim to have had a genuine conversion experience, a powerful encounter with what he perceived as the God of the Christians. Others find it more plausible to say that, realizing the Roman Empire was losing the war against spreading Christianity, he decided to get around the problem of Christian denial of pagan divinities by choosing to identify himself with the Christian God instead. Christians across the empire would identify with a Christian emperor, instead of teaching that he was a pagan impostor.
We now see that in a very real sense, it is impossible for religious belief to not factor into political or other types of power plays. When you’re making a power play, you use any tool available–and religion, the truth about life, the universe, and everything, is a staggeringly powerful one. Support the moral beliefs of the people–and make sure that they all support the same thing, by persecuting those outside the fold–and you will have the people’s support. If you remind them of the need for protection against untrustworthy Others, all the better. To nurture religious diversity is to nurture an uncertain environment where you will actually be judged on the merits of your actions, not on what God you claim to serve.
How, then, can we put a stop to this long history of leaders taking advantage of our religious beliefs and stoking the fires of persecution for their own earthly ends? There may not be any way to prevent some leaders from claiming to be the “chosen one” of the current most popular religion. But we can start, perhaps, by using standards other than religion to decide who we can trust. After all, history shows that some aspects of human conscience transcend religion, and that hypocrisy among religious leaders is staggeringly easy to do. So maybe we’d better start judging our leaders based on their morality instead of using religion as a convenient label to tell us who we should trust to be our leaders.