Monday, January 01, 2018

Your Public Domain Report for 2018

Hey gang! It's time for Public Domain Day again, where we list all of the music, film, books, and other pieces of art leaving copyright today. And here's that list again, just like last year:

Nothing. Nothing at all.

Happy New Year.

Although the Framers of the Constitution only gave Congress power to grant copyrights and patents "for a limited time," repeated extensions have made sure that nothing has entered the public domain in the United States since January 1, 1979. Today makes nearly forty years since that happened.

Copyright in this country had a 28-year maximum back during the George Washington administration. By the 20th century that had become a very reasonable 6 years. Then the 1976 Copyright Act and the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act  ensured that big media company's like Disney and Sony got to keep their intellectual property out of the public domain forever.

The big news is that the public domain clock is due to unfreeze in exactly one year, on January 1, 2019, unless Congress extends copyright terms again. Left to their own devices, Congress will certainly do that. But they haven't written that law yet, and there's time to lobby. Call your senators and representatives this year, and tell them not to extend copyright any more.

In the meantime, as every year, I have to write a post about what would be entering public domain today. What are we missing?

If Not for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act:

Today is the day Casablanca should enter the public domain. Actually, under the law when it was made, it should have become public domain in 1999. The 1976 extension delayed that until today, but that apparently was still not enough. We'll always have Paris, if by "always" we mean "never."

This is also the day the public would get the rights to Bambi, Flying Tigers with John Wayne, Now, Voyager, The Palm Beach Story, Across the Pacific, Andy Hardy's Double Life, The Courtship of Andy Hardy, noir classic The Glass Key and horror favorite Cat People, musical For Me and My Gal, In Which We Serve, the original live-action The Jungle BookMrs. Miniver, Orson Welles's Magnificent Ambersons, Lon Chaney in The Mummy's Tomb, My Sister Eileen, My Favorite Blonde, The Pride of the Yankees, The Road to Morocco, Saboteur, The Talk of the Town, This Gun's for Hire, To Be or Not to Be, Tortilla Flat, Woman of the Year with Tracy and Hepburn, and James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Ronald Reagan's finest work as an actor, Kings Row, would become public domain today. So would George Gershwin's classic Christmas musical Holiday Inn (which I will spend part of this New Year's Day watching, as usual), and all the songs in it, including "White Christmas."

Unlike the last few New Year's Days, today would not see many major cartoon characters enter the public domain, mostly because those classic characters would be in the public domain already. The big exception is Tweety Bird. Thought you say a puddy tat? Not for another twenty years.

Most of the great Golden Age comic-book heroes would also be in the public domain already, but today they would be joined by various classic sidekicks (like Wonder Woman's pal Etta Candy, villains (such as Two-Face and Shade), and minor colleagues: Guardian, Metallo, Mr. Terrific,  Kid Eternity, Mary Marvel, Robotman, and Wildcat.

But on the science fiction front, Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics would become free to use today.

In literature, Albert Camus's The Stranger should become public domain today, as should his Myth of Sisyphus. C.S. Lewis also has a fiction/non-fiction double-header, with his Preface to Paradise Lost and his classic Screwtape Letters. Raymond Chandler's The High Window and Ellery Queen's Calamity Town should leave copyright today. So should Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon, Steinbeck's The Moon is Down, O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet  and Jean Anouilh's Antigone. We could also look forward to Eliot's Little Gidding, Wallace Stevens's Parts of the World, and Langston Hughes's Shakespeare in Harlem.

In the world of music, "White Christmas" is the big headline. But Duke Ellington classics "C-Jam Blues" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" would enter public domain, too, as would Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." Other ontributions to the great American songbook by Johhny Mercer, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Mack Gordon, and Johnny Burke would become free for all to use. And there would be plenty of classical music, too: Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and works by Britten, Barber, Schoenberg, Kachuturian, and those crazy Russians Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

Not the richest year overall, since most of the West was pretty busy doing other things in 1942, but still a pretty respectable haul. Still, we'll have to wait until 2038 for those works, and longer if Congress passes another extension in the next 12 months.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

A mother lode of classic movies were scheduled to enter public domain today, under the law at the time they were made: West Side Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's, La Dolce Vita, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Children's Hour, Last Year at Marienbad and The Hustler. Copyright was also originally set to expire on One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Guns of Navarone, Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, Splendor in the Grass, The Parent Trap, Babes in Toyland, Divorce Italian Style, El Cid with Charlton Heston, Five Minutes to Live, Flower Drum Song, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, King of Kings, The Misfits, Mysterious Island, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Raisin in the Sun, Town Without Pity, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and last but not least, Kurosawa's Yojimbo.

Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 should enter public domain today, as should fiction by
Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Agatha Christie, Stanislaw Lem, J.G. Ballard, Patricia Highsmith, Poul Anderson, Brian Aldiss, Margaret Lawrence, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Theodore Sturgeon, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, and Harold Robbins. Let's not forget Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mister Biswas, John Le Carre's fiction debut A Call for the Dead, and, oh yes, J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey.

James and the Giant Peach should enter public domain today, but what would happen if a beloved children's story became public domain? So should Beckett's Happy Days, Genet's The Screens, and Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana. And let's not leave out three important and influential non-fiction works: Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, Marshall McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy, and Janes Jacobs's classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

It should be a great year music, with tunes by Sinatra, Elvis, Judy Collins, John Coltrane, Chuck Berry, Judy Garland, Roy Orbison, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Cash, Count Basie, Sun Ra (and his Arkestra), Patsy Cline, Rachmaninoff, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Mercer, Henry Mancini, and Willie Nelson becoming publicly available. 

But all of those works will stay firmly in the hands of Sony, Disney, Time Warner, etc., until at least 2057. Someone needs another 39 years of royalties from Moon River, apparently.

What will become public a year from today:

But let's keep our eye on the prize. The current law is not changed (and you should expect Congress and the lobbying industry to try), works first publishes in 1923 will become public domain in the US next January 1. The public-domain clock, which has been stuck in place since January 1, 1979, is set to come unstuck. (Yes, this means that everything published in 1922 is public domain but nothing published in 1923 is, and it has been that way for 39 years now.)

If we can keep the lobbyists at bay, Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," the one that ends "And miles to go before I sleep," will leave copyright next New Year's Day. So will Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "Emperor of Ice-Cream." Likewise, Yeats's collection The Cat and the Moon, and various poems by Cummings, Djuna Barnes, St. Vincent Millay, Edward Arlington Robinson, Vachel Lindsay, and William Carlos Williams.

Jean Toomer's Cane is due to become public, and Hemingway's first chapbook Three Stories and Ten Poems. Willa Cather's A Lost Lady; Tarzan and the Golden Lion; Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet; Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities; Agatha Christie's Murder on the Links. Works by Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Jean Cocteau. Beloved Czech classic the Good Soldier Svejk. Classic silent films by Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Works that are classic, and already almost a century old; works that are forgotten, but cannot be republished and rediscovered because it's been so long that the copyright owners can no longer be found and so there's an, ahem, Catch-22: you can't republish the work without paying for permission, but you can't find the person you need to pay.

We can begin a return to copyright sanity in one short year, if we just keep our lawmakers from being crazy.

Whose woods these are I think I know: 
They'll likely keep them private, though.

cross-posted from Dagblog (all comments welcome there, not here)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Never Trust an Action Hero: Star Wars' Lost Politics

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has hit the cineplex and begun raking in the customary astronomical profits. But the film has some angry detractors among hard-core Star Wars fans (a minority, I think, but a loud one) who complain bitterly that The Last Jedi is unfaithful to the Star Wars tradition. I'm not going to talk about the new movie here, and I'm going to do my best to delete discussion of it in comments (no spoilers!) for at least the next week. But I'd like to talk about the old Star Wars movies, the originals and the prequels, and the ambiguity that George Lucas tried, but failed, to give them.

The original 1977 Star Wars movie, the one now retroactively called "A New Hope," is filled with references to earlier film classics and it ends with a big one. The final sequence, in which Princess Leia hands out medals in a big military assembly, is a very clear reference to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the most visually-powerful Nazi propaganda film of all time. This is widely known, but poorly explained. Everyone agrees that this is a Triumph of the Will homage; very few people can persuasively explain why.

I think the best explanation is that this was George Lucas's failed attempt to add some moral complexity. After spending the whole movie very obviously associating the Empire with the Nazis (calling them "Stormtroopers" is not subtle), Lucas turns at the end and codes the Rebels as Nazis too. Whoa! Maybe I need to rethink things! Now, that move certainly does not work as intended, and basically never has. An audience of eight-year-olds is never going to catch the Leni Riefenstahl reference. Most people watching a summer popcorn movie aren't. And even if you do notice it, it doesn't work. The movie that comes before that scene is too joyful, too seductive, and too simple-hearted for that sudden moral twist to work. By the time you get to the end of the original Star Wars, everyone wants the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be bad, period. No arty little film-school reference, coming from left field with no preparation, is going to derail the audience at that point. No way.

Lucas seemed to give up trying to cast doubt on his good guys' politics through the next two sequels. But he went back at it hard during the prequel trilogy, which is filled with moments where the heroes mess up catastrophically. The prequel trilogy is three movies about people losing their democracy. They start with a Republic and blow it. And, over and over, it's the good guys, the Jedi and their allies, actively blowing it. There's no moral equivalence; Palpatine and his flunkies are clearly evil. But time and again we have scenes that are pretty clearly meant to inspire moral confusion. Yoda introduces the Stormtroopers for the first time. Jar Jar, who is an idiot but a good-hearted idiot, votes Palpatine into power. These are meant to be moments where the audience steps back and says, "Whoa! The good guys did what now?" Those emotional beats don't land, any more than the Triumph of the Will reference landed in the original movie. Audience members don't respond the way Lucas seems to be asking them to. Maybe it's that the prequels are actually more ambitious, morally and artistically, than Lucas could execute. (To say they're ambitious is not to say they're good: many bad movies are the burning wrecks of ambitions that were beyond their makers' skill.) Maybe Lucas would have been able to pull it off earlier, but had lost a step. Or maybe this would have always been beyond his grasp as a story-teller, because getting across moral complexity has never been his thing. He certainly didn't pull it off. But equally certainly, he tried.

The message that George Lucas has repeatedly tried and failed to get across in his Star Wars movies can be boiled down to: never trust an action hero. If you are looking for rational democratic governance, a bunch of impulsive, shoot-from the hip adventurers are really not your guys. They're just not wired that way. And this is a fair point. The Jedi are not the same as the Empire or the Sith or, God forbid, the Nazis, but you can see why the Sith view the Jedi as such a valuable recruiting pool. The prequels very deliberately shows the good guys' action-hero impulses being played, repeatedly, by Palpatine's manipulations. But they're vulnerable to those manipulations because their heroic instincts are naturally a little un-democratic. That's not my spin. That's the plot of Episodes II and III.

Action-adventure stories like Star Wars naturally have a little bit of authoritarian bias built into their DNA, whatever their superficial politics. Or, to put it another way, these stories have a natural authoritarian lean that a storyteller has to work around. Remember, a lot of these basic stories come from monarchical societies. Celebrating a class of armed overlords is the natural groove path.

Part of this is that adventure stories mostly solve problems through violence. The good guys are never going to spend a Star Wars movie registering voters or hammering out a legislative compromise. Their basic approaches to problem-solving are 1) shoot it, 2) blow it up, and 3) cut it in half with a sword. And people enjoy that more than a story about committee work. (Our girl Senator Amidala gets fed up with the whole being-a-Senator thing and flies off to kick some ass, leaving the trusty and reliable Jar Jar with her vote. How's that work out?) Now, democracies do sometimes have to use military force, and most good adventure stories pay at least lip service to democracy and freedom. "Beating People Up for Freedom" is the unofficial Jedi motto. But that adventure story structure also lends itself easily, even naturally, to politics that glorify violence and believe in imposing control from above by force.

But more importantly, good adventure stories focus on a small group of individuals, and on things that a few individuals can do in a story. Star Wars makes a lot of World War II references, but it's not really set up for D-Day; a vast battle where every individual only makes a small contribution isn't really how these movies work. It's always going to be about a few central characters taking decisive action. And that makes for good storytelling. But if you don't watch it, that can quickly devolve into a narrative where a few Special Shiny Important People make all the decisions for everyone else. In fact, it's hard to raise the stakes of the story without doing that. Things go Game of Thrones so fast you might not notice.

Look: at the end of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a promising young pilot who manages to score a decisive hit in a key battle. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the question of whether anybody in the galaxy ever gets to vote hinges on how Luke Skywalker happens to work out his feelings. The superficial question "Should the galaxy be ruled by one man's decisions, or by the people themselves?" stealthily changes to "Which one man should make decisions for the rest of the galaxy?" Sure, the happy ending is foreordained, so we don't really worry that people are going to stay under the Empire's thumb. But we're spent the last few hundred years in the real world working to reach a point where a couple of super-elite individuals get to decide everyone else's destiny. Maybe we shouldn't be leaving these decisions up to a Skywalker. And in fact, the three prequel movies are about the folly of letting a Skywalker make these political decisions. Anakin Skywalker working out his feelings is the original problem.

But don't take it from me. Take it from Yoda, who more than once during the prequels makes it very clear how badly he and his associates have failed. The never-trust-an-action-hero idea is not mine; it really does belong to George Lucas. He's just never managed to sell it.

 cross-posted from Dagblog (all comments welcome there, not here)


Monday, November 27, 2017

The New York Times Wants You to Know How Normal Everyone Is Here at the Applebee's

Here in bucolic Fairfield, California, amidst rolling vineyards and struggling big-box stores, unassuming souls like Norman Bates go largely unremarked. While most Americans would instinctively recoil from his habit of brutal murder and the uses to which he puts his victims’ bodies, here in Middle America he is Norman Next Door, a soft-spoken young man whose manners nearly any mother would applaud, working to keep open a family motel that serves both as symptom and as symbol of the economic anxieties roiling the heartland. Norman has heard murmurs advocating radical change, from Wal-Mart’s gun aisle to the local church’s pork-and-beans supper, and seems guardedly optimistic. Perhaps it will become easier for him to date. “Most girls don’t want to hear about being violently stabbed to death and having selected portions of their remains repurposed,” he says, browsing the knives at the dollar store. Now, he feels, things may be about to go his way.

    The Joker understands that mainstream Americans do not approve of him, or his plans to set most of Gotham City’s inhabitants on fire. He has come to see this disapproval as the fruit of consistent media bias. A slender man dressed with immaculate care, he possesses an infectious laugh that instantly announces his presence in any room. “Your big legacy media companies just aren’t equipped to think about crime on my scale,” he says, sweeping with his customary brio into a local Steak n’ Shake and nonchalantly commandeering a booth whose most recent occupants have succumbed to his poisonous gas. “They’re dinosaurs. They can only imagine mass extinction as a bad thing.”  He takes a sip from the Orange Freeze a newly departed customer has left untouched and gives his trademark roguish grin. “I think ordinary people, your average Americans, are tired of all the knee-jerk moralizing, the hypocrisy. The New York Times got so holier-than-thou about that thing with the orphanages, but they publish David Brooks twice a week. How do they justify that?” He feels the current political volatility, the disappearance of the Police Commissioner and Mayor, might at last permit his ideas to be heard. “The anarchy, the looting, the complete breakdown of civil order: it’s my moment.” He strolls along Maple Street, glittering with fireflies in the Midwestern dusk, toward the Volunteer Fire Department, another clever scheme in mind.
               
    Leatherface has no grand ambitions for himself. It has always been enough for him to live here, on the wind-scoured Texas plains, working with his brothers in the family’s humble assortment of businesses: a small gas station, adjoining restaurant, and a now-shuttered slaughterhouse. Often one of the brothers must resort to hitchhiking, hoping to steer passing motorists the family’s way. Leatherface does the homestead’s chores, his beloved chainsaw always at the ready. He even built the family’s furniture, using whatever traditional materials come nearest to hand. Years of thrift have become ingrained habit, and absolutely nothing goes to waste.
    "We’re just trying to put meat on the table,” he explains, slipping into an Applebee’s booth that other regulars, by unspoken agreement, leave reserved for him. He has brought his own dinner, wrapped in humble butcher’s paper, and tucks into his meal with a workingman’s eager gusto. He must occasionally readjust his homemade, lovingly hand-crafted mask, constructed entirely from recycled human flesh. “That’s what people outside the flyover states never understand. If they want to find out what this country is really about, tell them to come out here. Straight to my house.”

    Darth Vader, weary at the end of another long day, agrees to an interview at a Cracker Barrel off the Ohio Turnpike. He orders coffee for what can only be reasons of politeness; his complicated and burdensome respirator apparatus will not allow him to drink liquid in public.  His detractors in the press view him as aloof, out of touch, and motivated by implacable evil, but he still sees himself as a humble farm boy from a tiny desert village he declines to name, a place so poor that his family actually had to farm for water. He never knew his father, but he claims still to feel that Dickensian desert demi-orphan inside him at his most impetuous moments, as when he is strangling another senior staff officer, and during whatever subsequent moments of fleeting regret.       
    He was raised not to complain, but feels that the public has come to see him solely through the lens of a one unfortunate, notorious day. “The single worst news cycle of your life, repeated forever,” he intones, in his deep, reassuring church-organ basso. “That is CNN.” He offers no self-justification or excuse for the destruction of the planet Alderaan and its millions of human inhabitants. He speaks instead of his faith, at once old-fashioned and profound, a set of lifelong, deeply held beliefs that have come to feel out of place in modern, secular society.
    “Is the problem that I created a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced?” he asks. “Or is the problem that no one in the liberal coastal elite could feel that disturbance? I find their lack of faith disturbing.” He counts out his tip carefully, in exact change, before leaving it on our server’s lifeless body.

    The few New Yorkers who have ever heard of Cthulhu consider him a malevolent demon-god intent on the elimination of all human life. But here in the hardworking blue-collar neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island, he passes easily for that most beloved of homespun meals, a plate of fresh calamari. Cthulhu considers his poor reputation a temporary problem, soon to be rectified, in his view, by the terrified madness and utter annihilation of every living creature. It’s a goal he has long dreamed of; he knows that not everybody understands. We meet at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, where his entrance reduces customers and staff to shrieking horror and dismay.
    “This country has a serious problem,” he says in a blood-curdling and nigh-incomprehensible gargle. “Washington doesn’t understand it. Mainstream media doesn’t understand it. No mewling pathetic humanoid could possibly grasp it. I alone know what the problem is, because I am the problem. You will all bow down to me before you die.” He demonstrates his point by disemboweling the morning-rush customers and brutally eviscerating the staff. The interviewer, reduced to gibbering madness, crawls out of the Dunkin’ Donuts having lost of his ability to speak. He has been permanently institutionalized; portions of this article have been reconstructed from his notes. But before leaving, Cthulhu takes two honey-dipped donuts in a wax paper bag: for all the world, in that moment, just another ordinary customer on the streets of the Real America.

cross-posted from Dagblog: all comments welcome there, rather than here

Sunday, October 08, 2017

What Is Praying?

I have been too angry to write about the mass murder in Las Vegas, and too angry to write about the empty and reflexive offerings of "thoughts and prayers" that now follow every murder like it. But let me take this opportunity to talk about the question of what prayers are, and how they might be different from thoughts. America's general enthusiasm for religion masks deep, sometimes nearly bottomless religious differences, and so many, many people talk about praying, but use that word to mean very different things: sometimes contradictory things. What is praying, anyway?

Praying is different from simply thinking because it is directed outside yourself, to some larger spiritual power. (This also makes prayer different from meditation. I have prayed, and I have meditated, and they are not the same thing at all.) Prayers have an address outside yourself; they are addressed to a god or to some other spiritual being. Some people pray to departed ancestors, to deceased saints, or to angels. But it's always to a spiritual being of some kind, rather than to someone who is walking around with a cell phone right now. The big differences in the way people pray are their reasons for praying and what they think prayer can accomplish.

On one end of the spectrum, there are people who pray in an attempt to influence or control events in the real world. They pray to get a promotion at work, to avert a hurricane, to cure a loved one's apparently incurable cancer. If you're Huck Finn, you pray for God to give you some fish hooks. There is a lot of this, all over our culture, and it doesn't break along clear denominational lines.

I tend to be skeptical of this practice myself. It is, on a fundamental level, a straight-up magical practice, no different from the prayers dedicated to idols during a ritual sacrifice. ("O mighty Jupiter, are you hungry? We have a delicious spring heifer for you. And, by the way, is there any chance you could make it rain?") In some cases, it is a very obvious magical practice, as with santeria rituals or the self-described "prayer warriors" who imagine they are fighting various demonic influences over our world. I am not interested in sorcery as a religious practice, and moreover I find it disrespectful. This is the omnipotent Creator of the Universe we're talking about. It isn't Let's Make a Deal.

But at the same time, many people I love and respect do pray this way, some of the time, and I would not try to talk them out of it. When my mother's cancer came back, I wasn't telling anyone not to pray for remission. I never would. Someone close to me once prayed for a desperately-needed career break, got it, and followed through on a promise to return regularly and light more prayer candles at the place where he'd made the original prayer. I don't have a real problem with that.

But I think almost everyone recognizes that this kind of prayer is only appropriate for situations when you have already done everything else that's your power, or when the situation is completely outside your power to begin with. You pray for the hurricane to pass your town by because, really, what else are you going to do? You pray for God to cure a loved one's cancer because there is nothing else you can do about your loved one's cancer. Almost everyone gets that. Even if you consider such prayer to be a form of self-deception, human beings sometimes need a little self-deception to keep going.

Things become very different if you expect such prayer to substitute for action. Lighting a candle in a church after you've already done everything you can to prepare for a key job interview is one thing; lighting a candle instead of preparing for your job interview is another, much stupider, thing. Praying that the chemotherapy cures your family member is more than understandable. Telling your family member to pray instead of trying chemotherapy would be grotesque.

So if someone's offering "thoughts and prayers" in addition to concrete action, that's terrific. But if
the "thoughts and prayers" formulation means, as it too often does, "I intend to pray that no more mass murders like this happen again, and that is all I intend to do about the problem," then as far as I'm concerned you can stuff those thoughts and prayers. Your magic does not work. It is a pathetic self-deception, and nothing can be more arrogant that offering someone who is suffering your grandiose delusions in place of actual help.

And for what it's worth, I never prayed for God to cure my mother's cancer. God already knew what I wanted and how desperately I wanted it. Mom's cancer had not come back because God figured that I wouldn't mind. So I did not pray for God to do my bidding or work me a wonder, like some petty conjuror. I prayed for God to make me a better son while my mother was still alive.

Once you move past the vast number of prayers that aim to effect the visible world, you get to a gray area of what I will call funerary prayers: prayers dedicated to the spiritual welfare of the dead. From the skeptical atheist's point of view, these prayers are at least as pointless as prayers that attempt to control business, medical health, or the weather. In fact, they may be even more pointless, since they are aimed at an afterlife whose existence atheists do not concede. The only advantage of such prayers is that they are immune from immediate falsification. When you pray for a tornado to miss your house and the tornado destroys your house, everyone can see your prayer didn't work. When you pray for the welfare of your dead grandmother's soul, who knows? There's no way to tell if it's working or not.

This kind of prayer was once a flashpoint in the violent Catholic-Protestant disputes that roiled the West from the early 16th to the early 18th century. But the practice of this kind of prayer has now become popular even in denominations that technically forbid it. (Lots of people do it, but you might also meet fierce objections to the practice; it's slightly unpredictable.) I was raised in a tradition that focuses strongly on these prayers for the dead, and even if I doubted their effectiveness I would still participate in them for reasons of culture and tradition, for much the same reason I would still always make sure my loved ones got proper funeral rites. At this point, I can no longer specifically remember praying for my mother's soul during her funeral, but I almost certainly did.

On the other hand, I have seldom prayed for the welfare of Mom's soul since her funeral, largely because I don't believe she is in need of such prayers. I have some deceased relatives for whom I never pray, because I'm very confident of their spiritual state, and other relatives whom, for various reasons, I give a more strenuous effort. (I will confess that I once began a silent prayer for a departed family member with the phrase, "Okay, Lord. Let's not make this about me.")

If someone says that they plan to pray for the souls of the Las Vegas victims, I am okay with that. Flights of angels sing them to their rest, and so on. But I wouldn't accept that as the sole appropriate action.

The last major form of prayer, and the form most of my own prayer life centers on, is prayer asking for spiritual strength and guidance. I pray to ask for more patience, more generosity, better understanding. I don't pray for God to change the world around me for my convenience. I pray for God to change me, and make me better.

If you're a skeptical rationalist type, this might seem like simply a particular form of focused meditation, a way to focus my own mind on what, to an atheist, can only be an imaginary addressee. And if it were only that, I would still defend its value. But I will add, again, that the practice is very different from meditation. When I meditate I am trying to clear my mind, to leave it blank. Prayer very much engages the parts of the mind that meditation is trying to still. Prayer has a direct, positive focus.

When I pray for wisdom and guidance, I am asking for help deciding what to do. In effect, I am praying for instructions. Such prayer is never a substitute for action. It is a prelude to it.

If people say they will pray about what to do to stop another mass murder like the one in Las Vegas, I hear that and feel like it's the right thing to do. But appropriate prayer has to lead to proper action. "I've prayed on the Las Vegas murders, and I've decided we need to change some things," is what I'd prefer to hear.  But somehow that's never the party line.

cross-posted from Dagblog, where all comments are welcome (comments here are closed)


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Some People Are Not Duelable

I'm not a big proponent of bringing back customs and manners from hundreds of years back. The centuries I study were much worse to live in than this one. But there is one concept from Ye Olden Days that (suitably retooled), I have always found pretty useful. That is the concept of people being "not duelable." I use it in my academic writing. I use it in my daily life. I occasionally teach it to graduate students. And it turns out to be a concept that both the Age of Twitter and the Age of Trump badly need.

Now, dueling itself is a vicious custom and should not come back. But that custom contained one illuminating rule: dueling is something that happens between equals. (It's also restricted to the upper classes; humbler folk who fight with swords, like the playwright Ben Jonson, are just street brawling.) You only duel people who are, generally speaking, on your own level.

If you're a 17th-century gentleman, or a Russian aristocrat, or a young swell in Flaubert's Paris, you don't get in duels with servants or bartenders or some poor hapless working stiff. That's beneath you. (I'm not going to idealize this practice; this is mainly about not giving the hapless working stiffs a fair shot at the rich folk, or allowing the working stiffs to fight back.) Fighting those people isn't simply wrong. The wrongness isn't even the main problem. Fighting with those people is demeaning to you. It lowers you. It invites shame and ridicule.

Early in the 20th century (a little late for this sort of thing), the novelist Vladimir Nabokov's father got so angry about a yellow journalist's attack on him that he decided to challenge someone to a duel over it. (Neither Dr. Cleveland nor Dagblog endorses fighting duels or threatening journalists.) Did he challenge the person who wrote the article? No. That person was, from Nabokov Sr.'s point of view, just some greasy little scribbler, not worth the bother of tussling with. Papa Nabokov challenged the newspaper publisher. (The younger Nabokov has a wonderful chapter about this episode in his memoir, Speak, Memory.)  None of this is exactly Nabokov Sr.'s finest hour, but it taught me the basic "not duelable" concept, which has real value.

Let's broaden the definition of "duel" here to mean any public or semi-public conflict which, on some level, involves your reputation. That's what duels were: fights designed to protect one's reputation, and when someone was not duelable that meant that fighting them, or even challenging them, would only damage your reputation more. Some kinds of political slagging and point-scoring qualify, alas. So do some entertainers' public feuds: two rappers beefing with each other are both acknowledging each other as peers and trying to raise their profiles. And, like it or not, academic writing has its share of this, both because professional reputations are closely tied to that writing and because academic debate works, especially in the humanities, by disagreement. It is almost impossible to write a publishable article about Shakespeare where you don't at least politely suggest some other Shakespeareans are wrong about something. Often, people are much less polite. Sometimes scholars get into epic running beefs. The letter pages of the Times Literary Supplement are notorious for hosting ongoing tweedy vendettas. The question of who is duelable and who isn't in academic arguments is one I've given a lot of thought to, and it needs a post of its own.

One of my favorite examples of non-duelability in pop culture is Crash Davis in Bull Durham, flat-out declining to compete with boy idiot Nuke LaLoosh for Annie's favors: "I'm not interested in anyone who's interested in that boy." Translation: I'm not going to compete with that idiot, because he's not a suitable rival, and it would be demeaning to compete against him." Not duelable, bro.

Two major-party Presidential candidates going at each other is unpleasant and arguably unseemly. But you can't say that conflict is inappropriate. As nominees, they are peers. But if the President of the United States, with all the majesty of that office, decided to beef publicly with say, an ESPN personality like Jemele Hill, which is too crazy to ever happen, he would be attacking someone non-duelable. If he were to get petulant with an NBA player, that is fighting with someone non-duelable. Calling an unemployed NFL quarterback a "son of a bitch" in public is totally attacking someone non-duelable.

Trump does not make the duelable/ non-duelable distinction at all. He fights with people who have vastly different statuses. He goes after the grieving parents of an American serviceman killed in action. He beefs at Rosie O'Donnell, still, for God knows what reason. He gets in spats with the Emmys telecast and the Apprentice, with ESPN. The list goes on, unfortunately. It's depressing to see.

The first problem with this is it's wrong, because the people he goes after are weaker and have no defense. One of the basic reasons large categories of people were originally designated non-duelable is because those people did not have swords or guns. (The laws often restricted weapon ownership to the upper classes.) Picking on the poor grieving mother of a dead serviceman is a disgusting way to use your power. It's wrong because unjustly harms other people. It makes you a bully, and a thug, and an asshole.

The other two problems, which are interrelated, are problems because they harm you, rather than your target. The main problem is that it destroys your dignity. You get into the gutter to fight some rapscallions, what you win is a trip to the gutter. You get dirty and you make a depressing spectacle of yourself.

Trump does not preserve the dignity of his office. He screeches at people who are, since inauguration, vastly below him in station. Part of this is that Trump still insists on operating like a fairly low-level New York media figure, a guy who gets into arguments on a call-in radio show. He's like a less well-adjusted Howard Stern. Part of it is that, frankly, he's a psychologically damaged personality. The rest is that Trump has always behaved like someone from an entirely different social class, rather than like a normal, socially-adjusted rich New Yorker. For all his money, he has never been able to learn the rules of upper-class Manhattan, social norms that usually get expressed as "taste," "manners," and "class." That he's a rich guy with the manners, and open resentments, of someone from a much lower class has always been a big part of his appeal. But it's not an act; Trump isn't someone who can charm donors to the Met and then switch it up to bond with a cabbie. He genuinely doesn't understand the normal rules of upper-class behavior, including the rule that some fights are just beneath you.

What Trump gains by his refusal to observe decorum is the ability to attack people that Presidents usually don't attack. What he loses is the protective aura of his office's dignity. It feels wrong to insult a President of the United States in certain ways, but that's ultimately predicated on the fact that the President isn't going to shout crude insults at you, either. The aura is a two-way protection.

Normally, the dignity of the President's office keeps people from calling the President a bum, but Trump doesn't respect the dignity of office and so it doesn't protect him. If a pro athlete called a president, any president a bum, I'd usually think that was a classless move. But the President in question called another pro athlete a son of a bitch in public yesterday, so he's the one who changed the rules.

And related to the loss of dignity is the problem that when you get down in the gutter to fight with some guttersnipes, the guttersnipes might win. Trump publicly slagging on Colin Kaepernick and Steph Curry opened the door for LeBron James to just lay Trump out:




That's not the golden political rhetoric of yesterday, but Trump is playing the playground diss game, and as playground disses go this is a classic. Trump has no one to blame but himself.

(I do not mean to imply that Mr. James is a guttersnipe. He is a sublime athlete and a philanthropist. But he's also a guy who sweats for a living, not somebody who gets called in to give the Cabinet advice. Do you remember when FDR got into that public insult match with Joe DiMaggio? That's right. You don't.)

The bigger question is whether the dictator of North Korea is duelable for an American president. All of Trump's predecessors thought not, and didn't waste time trading insults with a small-time dictator. Trump, who has no sense of dignity, is getting into a slagging match and, on balance, losing. But actually, this is not at all how people used to talk before duels. Duels are about saving face, but also about finding a way out of conflict if you can: a lot of energy focused on finding a way to say everybody's honor was satisfied without anyone bleeding out. Sometimes that failed, but that was the focus. Papa Nabokov found a way not to fight that duel. Trump and Kim are not looking for an elegant way out of this. They are woofing at each other like playground antagonists, both scared of looking "weak" by backing down. It's a situation that usually leads to the two knuckleheads trading blows because they're afraid not to.

The danger, of course, is that if these two idiots come to blows, it's not just them.

 cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog