Monday, September 17, 2012

Muslims, the Middle East, and Musicals

A horrible event happened last week. Riots still continue this week even after the death of four Americans including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya.

What makes the situation even worse is that this was all sparked by the trailer to a poorly made movie that defames the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.  I wouldn't recommend watching the video, even though it's still up on youtube. It's mean spirited and clearly hacked together with green screen and duct tape. Any specific reference to the prophet was dubbed in later, so the actors and actresses didn't even know they were making an attack on the prophet.

It's hard to believe that such a hackneyed attempt at slander could be taken seriously by so many Muslims. That said, Muslims still have a history of getting upset about these things. Just recall the reaction that the Muslim community had to Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard's depiction of Mohammad. In Muslim law there are strict laws against idolatry and it is forbidden to depict the prophet Mohammad in any visual way. Furthermore, according to Muslim law, the insulting of the prophet Mohammad is punishable by death. So there you have it, precedent; and really, America is such a far off place for many Muslims and demonized for decades. It almost seems inevitable that a poorly made production like this couldn't help but raise the ire of people living in the Middle East.

On the other side of the world, we Americans have gotten quite comfortable with insulting anything that catches our fancy. I don't know if we're totally a nothing-is-sacred society yet. We have some vocal individuals who believe that, and others who don't. By and large most American, whether they agree with the voices out there believe that people should have the freedom to say what they want. Even so, there are still things that universally upset us, we're probably less sensitive to religious insults and more sensitive to cultural ones (the campaign against bullying gay students comes to mind, racism, and general intolerance makes us upset); and so we've had to live in a world where people will say insensitive things and we've accepted that in order to allow ourselves the freedom to believe otherwise.  At the same time we try to persuade people to basically "not be mean to each other."

The filmmaker who made the anti-Mohammad film calls himself Sam Bacile. While he has every right to make any film he wants here in American, he clearly did wrong by being insensitive and insulting Muslims. He wasn't going to change any minds through his brazen depiction of a figure that Muslims love and revere. Personally I believe everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe according to their own hearts. There is certainly room to criticize the actions of certain Muslim people (the people who killed Ambassador Stephens, the perpetrators of 9/11, you could even say that Muslims just need to lighten up a little), but criticizing their Prophet does nothing. People should be judged by their actions, not whatever their beliefs are.

Here's an easy exercise for anyone to do. Think of a person who you revere, maybe it's a parent, maybe it's a historical figure like Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King. Think of someone who means a lot to you. Now try to imagine some stranger mocking them, it doesn't feel very good no matter who you are. For some, it feels like a kind of schoolyard bully flashback. In order to not get upset or retaliate, it requires a certain amount of levelheadedness something that is acquired through years of maturing self-discipline.

I'm not saying that Muslims are childish, or that I understand the senseless violence that has been demonstrated. Furthermore complaining that Muslims should show restraint doesn't excuse the vitriol of the filmmaker. And if we're to live in a nicer gentler world, shouldn't we show kindness toward others, including their sacred beliefs.

Speaking of nicer and gentler things, this brings me to the world of musicals. What if that little film that Sam Bacile made wasn't a little film, but rather a full scale Broadway musical? What if it defamed a beloved prophet all in the context of a humorous, clever and lighthearted frolic through song? Would it still be okay to do it? What if Muslim didn't kill anyone because of it, would that make it acceptable? I wonder what the makers of Book of Mormon the Musical would say?

[UPDATE]: The Wall Street Journal posted a similar opinion piece by Bret Stephens.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Snake Oil Reflections

The Snake Oil Salesman is arguably the first villain of capitalism. The first depiction of one was for me was the character Dr. Terminus in Walt Disney's Pete's Dragon, played by Jim Dale. He had the mustache and a shill who helped him hock his bogus wares, but he was comedic and as a child he was infinitely less scary than the other villains, the abusive Gogans, who pursued the protagonist, Elliot. I didn't really understand at the time exactly why Snake Oil Salesmen were so bad.

I remember in school when I learned about them I also learned the phrase caveat emptor (Latin for buyer beware). I was also learning about techniques of persuasion (Testimonial, Band Wagon, Peer Pressure, etc.) as part of late 1980's D.A.R.E. program. To top it off my Mom, who is very much into consumer advocacy, bought her children a subscription to “Zillions”, which was basically Consumer Reports for kids. All these things together built in me a very healthy skepticism of people who want me to buy things and their motivations.

My first sales job was as a telemarketer. I took calls for infomercials. I completed the sales and tried to up-sell the customer while I was at it, it wasn't a very difficult job. Before I worked there I was fully convinced that most of the stuff being sold through infomercials was crap that people didn't need. This job only strengthened that conviction for me. I couldn't help but feel creepy through the whole process, twirling an imaginary mustache as I told people how easy three payments of $29.99 would make their lives.
Subsequent sales jobs didn't change my feelings. It didn't help that as a christian I've been trained in anti-materialism, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Mathew 6:19-20). I really enjoy transcendentalist writers like Emerson and Thoreau, who mourned the materialism of the nineteenth century (they didn't have malls back then).

Through it all I've made friends with people who really think they're helping others by selling them crap, or putting them into debt for a “good cause”. A lot of money can be made doing that. I wonder at what cost though. I can't help but feel empathy for the customer who tries to improve their like through material means. I sometimes just want to shake them and say “You're life will not get better by buying stuff,” and then collect my last paycheck from my employer.

Now I have no problem with capitalism, in general an open market seems to be the best system of economy available. But I do have a problem with how capitalism is represented as the perfect system of economy, one that makes full use of man's self-interest. The problem is that man's self-interest does not naturally sustain an open market and full disclosure; pure self-interested capitalism is not self-sustaining, as evidenced by monopolies, scams (like snake oil salesmen), and most recently the sub-prime mortgage crisis. If people can make money at the expense of someone else then they will. Not to say that all sales use unfair or underhanded business practices, but for the ones that do, I wonder how those people feel about humanity at large and their place in the human family. Are they playing the villain who thinks they're the hero?

Monday, February 1, 2010

What is fiction?

After reading a great deal about fiction where literary minds try to define what fiction is in a scientific manner, as if it were some kind of natural phenomenon, I'm left greatly confused. To me fiction is, in simplest terms, a story that didn't happen. Though scholars feel a great need to build a scaffolding of terms and diagrams from which to study the subject from, I don't feel that is as helpful in the study of fiction as it is in say the study of sea anemone. Where you might easily file a creature under an invertebrate category, you may have greater difficulty filing a story between the category of short story and novella. But why is it even necessary?

The twentieth century has seen a flood of scientific practices and terminology cascade from the realm of pure science into all other kinds of disciplines. Those waves of science break against the shores of the literary world but thankfully the shores have remained relatively impenetrable. Can you really apply scientific method to literature? Can I observe stories, form a hypothesis about why they're successful, experiment with stories based on that hypothesis and then proceed to write to highly successful story? Certainly many people have tried to do that, the world is full of books and expensive lectures on how to write the great American novel, but the peer review of those methods have proven that they are not scientifically sound, they are largely not repeatable with the same results.

Either successful fiction writing is such a complex thing that scholarly minds have yet to identify all the variables in play or fiction is simply not a natural phenomenon that can be understood in scientific terms. The latter makes the most sense to me. What could be more unnatural and break all scientific laws than to create something out of nothing? And yet fiction can carry more truth than most non-fiction in the world.

There are countless examples of what fiction can do. When Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Son does it really matter if the son was a real person and the event actually happened? No, because it moves us and demonstrates human nature to us. An acquaintance of mine, the late Doctor Gustavo Lage, was a very accomplished psychotherapist, a Florida medical school gives an annual award in his name; after years of medical training and personally going through psychoanalysis himself, he told me that he knew nothing about psychoanalysis until he read Dostoyevsky. The teacher in a recent philosophy class told me that philosophy can only teach what a particular type of thinking is; but fiction is the realm where philosophy is applied.

Fiction is distinctly human. Man has been telling stories since before the beginning of recorded time. What makes a story good or what makes a story bad, that's all debatable and often is. But fiction itself remains simple and immutable: the story that didn't happen, the unproven tale, the imagination, the dream. Despite all our rational and scientific minds tell us, if we reject the fictitious story we reject one of the most useful and well used tools humanity has ever had. We can debate about how and why fiction is so powerful but those things are as different as the individuals who read and write fiction. For better or for worse, fiction simply is and forever will be fiction.

Monday, January 25, 2010


No monster better encapsulates the fears of the twenty-first century than the zombie. We're not afraid of the half-animal half-man that preys on us from the impenetrable forest, otherwise we'd have 'Werewolf Week' on the Discovery channel. Vampires too are no longer the foreign nocturnal monsters who seduce and steal our women away, now they sparkle, take our daughters to prom and marry them before 'biting' them and having a family. These classic monsters don't scare us anymore, but the zombie does.

In the world in which we live, where swine flu breaks out and takes over the world, the idea of plague still scares us. We see the fruits of extremism, where suicide bombers mindlessly seek destruction. Consumerism is rampant, people sell and are sold 'stuff' in an effort to find happiness. Things move so fast that people don't have time to stop and think where this is all going. In our post-God society we see humanity as just an animal, a documented lump of interconnected biology, a brain whose inter-workings are no longer a mystery, we're nothing more than evolutionary instinct. We're mastered by our DNA, scientifically destined for death and decay, humans are not greater than the sum of their parts. Never has man's opinion of himself been smaller than in our age and it scares us deeply. Hence the rise of the zombie's popularity; the zombie is a perfect metaphor for our twenty-first century fears.

The philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The truth is that living the 'unexamined life' in a kind of non-living. If we go through life a slave to our desires but never consider ourselves or this life and rise above the din of human routine, then we are a kind of zombie. We can change though. We can master our basest desires rather than being mastered by them. I love zombies because they remind me of what not to be. Man has a spirit, a part of himself that rises above the material plane. I believe firmly in what Shakespeare wrote about mankind:
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
Everyone has the potential to be more than just a zombie.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Beatles and Me

I remember the first die-hard Beatles fan I ever met. Her name was Merisa. She was a really sweet girl who I met at a summer camp at BYU. We met again later when I attended BYU after high school. Merisa was a talented vocalist and she loved music. She would send me emails of song lyrics. I thought they were poems until she sent me a line I recognized from a song. “They paved paradise and put in a parking lot.” A lot of these songs were Beatles songs and she talked a lot about how much she loved them.

It was an odd thing for me; the Beatles were a band long before my time. I was into the current bands of the time. Smashing Pumpkins, The Cranberries, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and U2 were the bands I knew and loved. In fact everyone around me loved those bands too. To me Merisa was this strange anomaly, a woman out of time, like a person at a J.K. Rawlings book signing raving about how great Chaucer is.

I asked Merisa why she was such a fan of the Beatles. She told me that her parents played them all the time and they would sing along as a family. She had a very musical family. My Mother says she loved the Beatles when she was a young girl. Despite that I didn’t grow up listening to the Beatles as a child. It really didn’t bother me; I didn’t know that I was missing out on anything at the time.

There was only one time I can remember feeling like I was missing out on the Beatles experience growing up. It was in high school, me and my friends were driving off campus for lunch. We’d all piled into Natalie’s boat of a beater car, Doug, Natalie, Jodie, myself and others. The song Yellow Submarine came on the radio and instantly everyone in the car cheered. Everyone in the car sang along with the song at the top of their lungs and swayed back and forth in time to the music. They were all so happy, except for me. I didn’t know the words; in fact this was the first time I’d ever heard the song before. As a high school student I was amply skilled in fitting in, I swayed with the crowd in the back seat and mouthed words but I felt left out

With that experience forgotten I didn’t think of the Beatles again until I met Merisa. We became good friends. She had this playful innocence about her that I really liked. She wrote me on my mission but I lost touch with her towards the end of my time away. I didn’t think about Merisa or the Beatles until one profound experience.

When I got back from my mission I was busy trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. As I was exploring the opportunities available on campus I found a ‘Study Abroad’ offer. It was a program that sent college students to foreign countries for a certain period of time to study learning the culture and the language of the place. At least two of my siblings had done study abroad in Europe and enjoyed it so I was interested. BYU had just expanded their program to include a program that took place in Saint Petersburg, Russia. I applied to get into the program, I only had a semester of Russian language at the University but I told them that I had taken three years of Russian in high school. They accepted me despite the fact that I wasn’t qualified for the program, probably because the program was new and they had open seats available.

Academically I was pretty lost on that whole trip, but I loved what I saw of Russia. The language classes were far too advanced for me and I pretty much failed the academic part of the program. What I got out of the trip was mainly the museums and the cultural sights of Russia. The only thing that I remember from the class part of the program was when they had a history teacher from the local university come to teach us.

He gave us a one day crash course on Russia’s history, hitting all the highlights. The fact that he taught us in English isn’t the only reason that I remember his lesson so well. Russia’s history is fascinating and I would encourage anyone to look into it. The thing I remember most fondly about the lesson was his insight into modern Russian events. I’ll never forget when we asked him about the fall of communism. He told us the moment he personally realized that communism wouldn’t work was the day he first heard the Beatles.

Immediately I was in disbelief. How does someone who was indoctrinated since birth listen to a couple guys beat on instruments for a few minutes then suddenly realize that his entire system of government is flawed? Was this guy nuts? He went on to explain that according to Russian communism, Western capitalistic society was the enemy. They believed that capitalism was a dead, the western world still clinging to the past, and that communism was the inevitable destiny of the human race. When he heard the Beatles he couldn’t believe that something so creative and wonderful could have come out of a society that was supposedly so evil.

That was the highest and most intellectualized praise I had ever heard given to the Beatles. That very day I went out to the marketplace on the outskirts of St. Petersburg and bought my first collection of Beatles music. I got to the apartment of the family I was being boarded at and I sat and listened to the music. It was wonderful. This music was so playful, so innocent and so emotional. I was impressed. It reminded of Merisa, a person who was clearly shaped by the music she loved.

Since then I profess my love for the Beatles whenever they come up. Years later I still love to hear their songs and I play Beatles songs for my son and daughter whenever I get the chance. A little while ago I went to my friend Joe’s Beatles Rock Band party and I was reminded of my experience with the Beatles. As I sat with a crowd of friends, we laughed and cheered, singing “Yellow Submarine” together. We were all so happy. There is something about these songs that speak not just to the generation that first listened to them but to everyone. Plus, this time I knew the words.

Monday, January 11, 2010

New Year's Resolution: Conquering the Unread Bookcase

Since I started writing I've been very concerned with the books I'm reading. To be more specific, I'm concerned with the books I'm not reading. Over the years I've collected quite a few books that I've been planning to read but haven't gotten around to yet. Here's a picture of my bookcase:

I'd say that about 10% of those books are actually read, the rest are just sitting there collecting dust. I've determined that before I spend anymore money amassing a larger library of unread books I'm going to read through all the books in my collection that I haven't read yet. Here are the ground rules for this project:
  • Have no more than three books going at one time, currently I have more than that going but once I finish some of those I'll maintain that narrow focus of only reading three books (1 Classic Literature, 1 Contemporary Fiction and 1 Non-fiction book).
  • I will not spend any of my own money on new books. If I am given a book as a gift or given a gift card or store credit that I use for purchasing a book it will immediately be added to the bookshelf and become a part of this project.
  • If someone lends me a book to read I will read it as a part of this project. Obligation reading is essentially what this project is about (but hey, reading is still reading).
Since I was a child I've always had a special reverence for books. The way they look all lined up on a shelf and the way a new book smells; it all creates this amazing atmosphere. But I'm afraid I neglect the most important aspect of a book, the information inside and how it can teach and transport a person to new people, places and things.

So I've taken the first step, I registered for the website and added all the unread books in my bookcase to my to-read list. This is my New Years resolution, to conquer the unread bookcase!

Updates will be forthcoming!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Old Books

There's something about old books. They're like time capsules. A window to another world where people talk and act just a little bit different than we do. Opening an old book is an adventure, every time.

“If you want to learn something new, read a book by someone from 100 years ago.”

An old book is also a mirror on our own world. The things you hear about a classic story before you read the original is a reflection of the things our world values in that world of art. The modern world sees Don Quixote as a lovably wise dreamer striving for the impossible dream. Read it and see that the Don was actually a laughably pathetic man who read too many fantasy books and was justifiably mocked for his foolish delusions (like a man who plays too much Dungeons & Dragons today and decides to wear chain mail and Renaissance Fair garb everywhere). Read Peter Pan and see that Pan was far more sinister and deadly than the 'spirit of youth' portrayed by Walt Disney. Read Frankenstein and see that the monster was more than a groaning infant-minded child; he could reason, speak eloquently, and sought revenge on his creator.

It's not surprising that ideas and characters are recycled so much in our day. The character Sherlock Holmes inspired the television show 'House M.D.' and a new Hollywood movie named after the character. Bram Stoker's original vision of a vampire has been repeatedly re-imagined from Anne Rice's tales to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. Greek Mythology is continually recycled through movies (Clash of the Titans), books (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) and even video games (God of War). I would advise that if you don't read the source material for these ideas and characters you are limiting yourself and missing the entirety of the wonderful worlds that spawned these creations. Worlds that even today we can't stop revisiting.