Thursday, May 30, 2013

Having Some Work Done


May 30, 2013

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.”

Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with these words as they related to wealthy eligible bachelors among the English gentry during the first decades of the 19th century.  In the context of the story she is about to tell, it is both true and untrue, real and imagined, and most importantly, written from a viewpoint not universal at all, but rather from the perspective of comparatively few people, and most especially, not from that of either of the initial persons in question.  The single man referred to in the opening lines and the wife chosen for him by the world--Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett--do not marry as planned, and only later are reunited in a rather roundabout way.  Another pair who immediately fit the bill—Mr. Darcy and the heroine Elizabeth Bennett—also marry, though no one expects them to except the reader.  Thus is the initial promise of the novel accomplished, just not in the way the writer would have you expect at first.   

When best wrought in literature, irony accomplishes exactly what Jane Austen’s opening sentences do.  It views the inevitability and essential uncontrolability of the voyage of life from the perspective of those who think they can somehow steer its outcome into a different port, as it were.  It cloaks the varied vagaries of human experience in the blandness of what is generally accepted, so that no matter what happens afterwards, the readers will be both satisfied and left scratching their heads in wonderment when the story unfolds pretty much exactly as it was foretold to do.  Oedipus, in attempting to escape his foretold fate—that he will kill his father and marry his mother—runs right into its arms, but not without a great deal of contrary effort on his part and unwitting cooperation from his parents.  Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, in trying to find a little happiness and respite from the tedious fate he has fallen into by staying in his little village in mediocrity and marrying his hypochondriac cousin, simply achieves a new more wretched version of the same, only with a different cousin.

These examples, and many more that could be recounted here, are literary tales designed to encourage us readers not only to accept our own fates, whatever they may be, but to understand that trying to alter the course of life is essentially an exercise in futility, and furthermore, that attempting to divine what that course might be is equally useless, and usually wrong, apart from the universal understanding that we will all die some day, and if we're fortunate, grow old first.  As such, from both the literary and theological perspectives, irony reinforces the certainty of predestination over the illusion of free will.

Some examples are more elaborate than others, but that’s pretty much the sum of it.  In the Book of Job, it plays out at a cosmic level, as God and Satan engage in a petty contest, the outcome of which we all know in advance.  God knows Job is obedient to his fate, but agrees to let poor Job be tormented in various ways in order to teach Satan who’s boss, as if there’s any doubt about that.  It’s a prime example of the fact that free will is not only an illusion, but an evil one at that.  Only the Devil would try to convince himself or anyone else that the Almighty doesn’t have it all figured out in advance, and that the outcome is anything but inevitable, and that, in effect, God isn't going to bet against himself.  Predestination trumps free will, because if we believe that God is omniscient, even what appears to be free will has been preordained.  Satan and his human victims are the all-time losers because they keep trying to change the outcome. Here, at least, Calvinism got it right over Roman Catholicism.   

Well, I could go on in this wise for pages, and would enjoy doing so.  But by now you might well be wondering what any of this has to do with the hideous examples of plastic surgery depicted above.  It’s the subject of irony that ties it in.  Increasingly throughout the country, and out here in southern California especially, people are prone to trying to alter their appearances for the better by various forms of facial reconstruction, often with disastrous results.  I’m not talking about fixing a cleft lip or grafting skin onto horrible disfigurements caused by burn injuries.  I’m talking about what we like to refer to as “having some work done.”  A generation or two ago this mostly meant the facelift, whereby the sagging folds of skin wrought by age and gravity are stretched and tucked and snipped, usually under or behind the ears where the scars won’t show, and sometimes rhinoplasty, where the nose is trimmed and sculpted to make it smaller, straighter, and more often than not, less interesting.  In the old days this was done with an eye toward conforming to an ideal of beauty in line with that of the northern European Gentile look, as opposed to the conspicuously Levantine look.  It was done to actors and actresses, especially, at the behest of the moguls of the movie industry, who, ironically, were almost all Jewish themselves, from Goldwyn, Mayer, and the Warner brothers of old to Eisner, Katzenberg, and Spielberg of today.

Today elective plastic surgery takes many more forms that it did in its infancy.  Botox injections in the lines of the face, cheek implants, collagen in the lips, breast enhancements, you name it.  But the one thing it all has in common is that it’s usually instantly recognizable, much as even good toupees are.  And though it is meant to enhance the beauty of its subjects it almost always makes them look ridiculous or pathetic and ruins what natural beauty their faces or bodies originally possessed.  Who can look at Cher, for example, without thinking that she’s become a version of the deformed child she mothered in the movie Mask?  Who can behold the mouths of actresses like Goldie Hawn or Nicole Kidman and think that anything other than a cruel joke has been played by whoever convinced them that making their lips look like a cartoon version of a fish has improved their looks?  Who can gaze at the frighteningly smooth and stretched faces of octogenarians like Barbara Walters and Joan Rivers and believe that placing an artificial doll's head upon a superannuated body does anything but mock the wisdom and self-possession that ought to have accompanied their fame as they have aged?

The list of the stretched and puffed and smoothed faces of the aging famous, living and dead, goes on and on.  Michael Jackson, Priscilla Presley, Wayne Newton, Tony Curtis, Mickey Rourke, Dolly Parton, Meg Ryan, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Jenner.  The blubbering lips, the tight slanted eyes, the absurdly round cheeks.  I’m not talking about the discreet tuck here and there, but rather the faces that, to paraphrase Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, make nature stand up and say to all the world, “This is a freak.”

Then there are the regular folks, just walking around at the supermarket, with conspicuously swollen lips and distorted faces.  The lips, especially, are a source of eternal puzzlement to me.  Who in the world ever came up with idea that making someone's lips look fat would enhance their beauty? Well, for those poor folks (not poor in money, just in perspective), it’s more often than not simply a desperate attempt to turn back the hands of time and also to effect at least a partial change in ethnicity in much the same way those with straight hair want to curl it and those with curly hair wish it to be straight.

For the famous, I’m convinced that the urge--the need--for facial plastic surgery stems from a combination of factors.  One, of course, is the complete loss of rational self-image that besets them, actresses especially.  Since their careers often have been founded on their original youthful good looks, when they see the natural effects of age upon their faces they begin to panic, and what follows more often than not is a trip to the plastic surgeon.  Somewhere along the way their images of themselves have merged with what they see of themselves on the screen, covered in beautifying cosmetics and illuminated by flattering lighting, and they become convinced they’ve always looked better than they really have, or that if only one little thing were tweaked, so to speak, they would be damned near perfect.  So plastic surgery, they reason, is like a more permanent version of makeup.  And since they spend most of their time looking at their peers, when they see so many others with blubber lips and Barbie doll noses and cheeks the size of apples, they begin to perceive, however wrongly, that such is the standard of beauty in their profession.  Only imagine, if the modern version of plastic surgery had been around fifty years ago, what a person as insecure as Marilyn Monroe might have wound up looking like. 

Another factor is the surgeons themselves who, as intelligent people, of course know that they’re not really doing anyone but themselves any favors with all this cutting and pasting and filling.  They are like Satan in the Garden of Eden, convincing humans that they can attain more for themselves than comfort followed by peaceful oblivion, and thus leading them to ruin their lives.  There is, after all, absolutely no medical necessity or justification for cosmetic surgery of this kind, and only an evil physician would or could engage in such a practice.

Third is the fact that plastic surgery has become a fad, and moreover, an addictive one.  Get big lips on a small face, and you need bigger cheeks to balance them out.  Get bigger cheeks and you need fewer wrinkles.  Change all that and you need a different nose.  Actors are not, by and large, highly intelligent people, although if they are good actors they can play intelligent people and sometimes fool us into thinking they are smarter than they really are.   But just watch them on talk shows and you can see that they’re usually pretty average in the IQ department.  The brightest and the wittiest of them usually don’t succumb to the blandishments of excessively conspicuous plastic surgery.  They are imitators, and imitating others is what they do best, which I think explains a great deal.  But also, actors tend to do what others tell them to do (which, after all, is what directors are for), and to envy what others have, and so if a competitor is getting work done, they reason, it must be something worth having, more or less for its own sake, like having a fancy home or car.

And finally, I am convinced, is what I call the sabotage factor.  Some actresses (being, as I said, not overly bright as a rule) let themselves be talked into having their faces distorted and ruined by others in their profession who stand to gain from their removal from their positions at the front and center of the spotlight of celebrity once they become bizarre caricatures of their former selves.  Or they’re encouraged by fellow actresses who have made the mistake themselves, and whose misery desires company.  In Hollywood, after all, there is comparatively little room at the top of the pyramid of beauty and fame.  And still less room for intelligence and independence.

“Vanity…” says Al Pacino with a chuckle at the end of The Devil's Advocate, “...definitely my favorite sin.” 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Our National Religion

May 10, 2013

Monrovia, California

One of the organizations I support is dedicated to upholding the separation of church and state in this country.  It sends me a monthly magazine detailing the trials and tribulations of fighting this good fight, including articles about the constant assaults upon this national principle by the Religious Right (evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants mostly, with a few conservative Roman Catholics thrown in), a principle most of the people who invented the United States considered essential to the ongoing viability of the country.

This watchdog group keeps track of an almost constant onslaught of clearly unconstitutional laws and practices that violate the separation of church and state which are still being enacted by states and municipalities, and occasionally by the federal government.  Sometimes it joins lawsuits through its small legal staff, as an amicus curiae.  It also celebrates some of the historically significant cases that have helped to reduce the incursion of religion into the workings of our public institutions, mostly schools, courts, and other taxpayer-funded programs.  Incorrigible counties still put the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns, ignorant cities still put manger scenes in municipal parks, misguided school districts still allow or encourage the recitation of prayers as part of their daily routines, and crazy states try to allow Christian symbols to be printed on license plates.  When lawsuits make it to federal court these practices are almost invariably struck down, but sometimes the money and the will to take the suits that far are lacking.  The organization I support is currently headed by an ordained Methodist minister who, I presume, has no bias against Christianity, but does believe in the freedom of all persons to express their faith, or not, as they see fit, without  encouragement or interference from the government.

Let’s pause here to look at what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they decided that church and state should be separate, and when they pronounced as much on a number of occasions, both within the Constitution—in the First Amendment, of course, and also by the deliberate omission of references to God and religion in the body of the Constitution itself—and in other of their writings.  The omission of any reference to a deity within the Constitution speaks for itself.  Now look at the opening phrase of the First Amendment —“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .”  Many people take this as simply a guarantee of freedom of religion, which indeed it is.  But the political and cultural milieu from which the first Americans came—British subjects all—suggests that the real purpose behind the First Amendment’s “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses was not so much to protect religion as to protect the government from religion, and in particular from the power and tyranny of the clergy over everyone, especially non-Christians, dissenters, agnostics, and atheists.  Religion in the most basic sense of the word is simply a belief in and worship of a God or gods.  In the First Amendment the word did not come with any qualifying adjectives such as "organized" or "recognized" or "accepted."

There is an inherent contradiction in the idea of freedom of religion within a society.  It really amounts to a rejection of the primacy of religion itself in favor of the primacy of laws that everyone knows were invented by humans.  This idea was so at variance with the orthodoxy of the 18th century as to be novel and practically heretical.  A civil war had been fought in England a century earlier over religious nuances most of us today would consider piddling—Episcopalianism versus Presbyterianism versus Puritanism.  Naturally it had much to do with temporal power and comparatively little to do with God.  Each faction wanted its own version of Protestantism to be the established religion of the realm, although a few people believed that Englishmen should be free to worship as they pleased, as long as they remained Protestant.

Most western religions, at least, claim to have the definitive truth about the relationship of God to the arrangement of the cosmos.  If a religion possesses the only correct path to enlightenment and a right relationship with God, how can a society be governed by anything but that religion?  Nothing else would make sense, would it?  After all, God is greater than any little country.  This of course is the position taken by many Christians today, and is the reason they fight so hard against the First Amendment.

We all assume that what makes religion truly dangerous is not so much the daily bowing and scraping of its humble adherents as the declaration of the absolute truth of things by the leaders of a religion, whether they go by the title of Bishop, Ayatollah, Guru, or the Reverend Billy Jim Bob.  Any time anyone presumes to pronounce the truth about God or about how God wants you to live, you should grab your wallet and go hide somewhere.  And if that person has a position of power in a government, well, you’re in big trouble.  Imagine if the head of the Mormons or the Pope were on the payroll of the U.S. Congress, with a permanent seat in the Senate and the power to mandate and officially interpret the practice of Mormonism or Roman Catholicism throughout the land and to punish or at least disenfranchise those who didn’t practice those beliefs.  Imagine having the President of the United States as the official leader of the Mormons or the Catholics.  Absurd, you say?  Tell me how that differs fundamentally from having the Archbishop of Canterbury on the British government payroll, with a seat in the House of Lords, no less, and the Monarch as the official head of the Church of England.  And although the power of the Archbishop and the Queen he nominally serves are today all but gone (thanks in large part to the examples set by the United States, France, and the Netherlands), back in the 1770s that power was real, and it meant that religion was always going to stick its nose into the workings of the government, not in the sneaky roundabout ways American churches do now, but in an officially sanctioned manner.

I mentioned the fact that the leader of the watchdog group dedicated to maintaining the separation of church and state is an ordained Methodist minister because it bolsters an assumption under which I have operated for many years, namely, that only a religious “insider” can fully understand the power of religion to overreach itself and try to impose its tenets on all people in a society.  Coming from a strongly religious background myself I think I can appreciate this more than my friends who were brought up with comparatively little understanding of the detailed workings of religion, particularly in the context of Christianity.  (No one, on the other hand, has any problem seeing the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, but few Americans are capable of looking directly into the mirror such excesses hold up to our own theological prejudices.)

Among people who are well-meaning but essentially ignorant of the inherent power and built-in absolutism of much of organized religion are those who are not themselves devout.  They perhaps imagine that Jesus was a Great Teacher and that the religion named for him embodies its more benign ideals.  There are those also who, though not particularly churchy, think of the Bible as a great fount of wisdom, and that reading it from cover to cover might be an exercise that would make them more righteous, or at least more understanding of the thinking of Christians. They do not realize that the Bible, far from being a coherent theological text, is a crazy quilt of myth, legend, history, and pure fiction, which makes it more akin to the kind of badly-written science fiction and fantasy stories that make it onto the silver screen, only with much less continuity and many more absolute contradictions.  These folks think that by studying Christianity in some reasonably organized or scholarly way they can come to understand it. 

To be fully understood, religious belief must be inculcated pretty much from birth, and furthermore, you’re only allotted one serious religion per lifetime.  I will never understand the mindset of a devout Muslim no matter how hard I might endeavor to do so.  Trying to come at a religion and understand it after having been raised outside rarely if ever produces results.  It’s like trying to become blond haired and blue eyed after having been born with brown hair and brown eyes.  You might fool yourself, but you won’t fool anybody else, and you’ll look silly trying.  I therefore assert, somewhat immodestly, that only those of us who were born into the family of True Believers can ever lay claim to understanding the real dark side of such belief.

This latter opinion is supported, I think, by examining the U.S. presidents who have done the most damage to the separation of church and state.  Some of our presidents have been devoutly religious men.  Jimmy Carter comes immediately to mind.  There was also my man John Quincy Adams.  James Garfield had been a minister before he became president.  These men did not mess with the separation of church and state, probably because they respected the full power of religion and knew its potential for tyranny.

Instead, for the most part it was the presidents who had always taken their religion with a grain of salt who thoughtlessly eroded the separation of church and state.  The first one was numero uno, George Washington himself, a nominal but basically unreligious Anglican with strongly Deist and Unitarian leanings (meaning that he didn’t really believe in the divinity of Jesus and the other supernatural claptrap of his birth religion).  This man, doubtless with the best of intentions but completely heedless of the clear proscription within the Constitution he was swearing to uphold (he was no intellectual philosopher or social architect, like some of his contemporaries), took the very first oath of office with his hand on the Bible, and added, gratuitously, the words “So help me God” at the end, though they did not appear in the prescribed oath.  After that, every president has felt the need to follow suit, lest he break from tradition and look like a heathen and lose votes in the next election or weaken his party.

Another erring president was none other than the revered and beloved Abraham Lincoln, raised by a Bible-thumping Baptist mother but never fond of organized religion and profoundly skeptical of Christian orthodoxy from an early age.  It was he who signed the law that ordered the words “In God We Trust” to be added to our coinage.   (One of his successors, Theodore Roosevelt, tried to have the phrase removed on the grounds that it was sacrilegious to put the word “God” on money, which was honest, at least.)  Lincoln, even though he was never a regular church-goer, got more sappy and sloppy in his references to God as he trudged along through his presidency, thus ignoring “the better angels of his nature,” to borrow one of his own phrases.  Maybe it was the terrible ravages of war, maybe it was the loss of his young son, but whatever it was it made him increasingly weak-minded when it came to the separation of God from government.

A rolling stone may not gather moss, but it does gather momentum, and into the 20th century the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” became increasingly more prevalent, making it onto paper money and eventually becoming the official motto of the United States.  It also happens to appear in the rarely-sung fourth verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was approved for use under Woodrow Wilson and became the official national anthem in 1931, under Herbert Hoover.

The third revered president to do significant damage to the separation of church and state was Franklin Roosevelt, an Episcopalian (and more devoutly, an Anglophile) who spent most Sunday mornings at home than at church.  He was the first to employ clergymen to recite prayers at the beginning and end of his presidential inauguration, in 1933.  That has become standard practice ever since, turning what ought to be the greatest national celebration of the rule of secular constitutional law into what amounts to a church service—invocation, liturgy, sermon, benediction.  Though giving lip service to worldwide freedom of religion (probably as a wartime tactic) FDR also declared on a number of occasions that he believed the U.S. to be a Christian, and also essentially Protestant, nation.  True, we were opposing the combined forces of non-Christian enemies in battle at the time, but still, that left little room for much sympathy or hospitality on his part toward the millions of Jews who were being systematically slaughtered under Fascism. 

Under Dwight Eisenhower, another guy who rejected the faith of his mother early on, Congress mandated, and old Ike signed into law, the insertion of the words “under God” into the pledge of allegiance to the flag.  That was done largely at the behest of the Knights of Columbus, but was embraced by the Protestants in the legislature too.  The thinking was that no atheistic Commie could swear an oath of allegiance to the American flag if those words were in there—it would be like asking a vampire to munch on garlic.  Score one for the religious wackos.

And so it went.  In 1973, Richard Nixon, a very severely lapsed Quaker and pretty much irreligious, became the first president to end a major speech to the nation with the words “God bless America,” surely an exercise in cynicism unparalleled in presidential politics, since it was a speech in which he was sidestepping his responsibility in the Watergate scandal.  His successors Ford and Carter (both believers in the Constitution, apparently), declined to use this benediction, but it was picked up again by Ronald Reagan, another guy who gave only lip service to organized religion, and who practically never attended church services.  After that the die was decisively cast, and all his successors have made profligate use of the term “God bless America” after virtually every speech they’ve made.  By the time of our current Chief Executive, Barack Obama (another real dilettante when it comes to organized religion), the phrase had morphed into the more elaborate “God bless the United States of America,” and his inaugurations had become prayer-fests and clerical free-for-alls. 

Small wonder, then, that in spite of the Constitution, the Religious Right is utterly convinced that this has always been a religious country and that there’s no such thing as the separation of church and state, notwithstanding the First Amendment and the crystal clear pronouncements of Madison, Jefferson, and others on the subject.

One conclusion that could be drawn from the sad history of the almost immediate erosion of the separation of church and state in this country is that the leaders we have to fear most are not those whose personal religious beliefs are the strongest and deepest.  Nor should we be that concerned about the shills for the lunatic fringe of the Religious Right—fundamentalist legislators from Southern states and Arch-Catholic members of Opus Dei on the Supreme Court, for instance—those who wear their religion on their sleeves and have an open agenda.  We should instead fear superficially less religious presidents like Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan, and Barack Obama, who think they are doing the nation no harm by invoking the blessings of a nonsectarian deity while completely ignoring the rights of nonbelievers and pandering to the truly religious.  They arrogantly assume that all Americans who really matter believe in God, and not only that, but in a God who watches over and is involved in shaping the future of the country, who blesses us and in whom we should trust.  This is not the separation of church and state at all but a sort of national religion, less formal than Anglicanism, but a religion nonetheless.  Moreover it assumes ideas that are inherent to orthodox Christianity and a number of other religions, even if it does so in a general way, while sweeping aside the rights and beliefs of atheists, humanists, agnostics, and those who profess any number of other “isms” that either do not acknowledge the existence of God or do not think that God actively favors this country or its far-flung ambitions.

In the interest of political expediency, or in selfish moments of personal sentimentality or insecurity, they have weakened one of the pillars on which our government rests.