What To Do With Such Times

Today I went downtown to the huge – 70,000 strong, early reports say – protest against Trump’s concentration camps for kids. It was my second protest this month related to this topic; I went to a small but energetic emergency march the day after those initial reports came through.

I return from the protest energized and hopeful. I have been cynical of late, thinking that Twitter and the internet give people the dopamine rush of being activists without actually engaging in any activism (love David Simon, but yelling curse words at trolls isn’t making any real difference in the world, except as entertainment. Which, hey, we also need). I have seen so many people tweeting variations on “Why aren’t people in the streets?” and I always think: “Aren’t you people? Get in the streets.”

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Save Yourself With Service

Another heavy day. They come one after another, not letting us catch our breath. They are huge, cataclysmic. They overwhelm. You look at the scope of the problems hitting us, hour after hour, and it seems like there’s no way to fix it, like there’s no hope. You’re staring at a tsunami wave and simply waiting to be consumed.

That’s how I felt when I woke up this morning and saw a news alert on my phone about the Supreme Court upholding the President’s racist Muslim ban. I had only just opened my eyes and the first thing I learned about the world today is that our system of checks and balances is unbalanced and unchecked. What could I, an unemployed disgraced former film critic, do in the face of such wrongness?

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Your Obedient Servant, or, The Sham of Civility

One of the songs in Hamilton that always gets a chuckle out of me is “Your Obedient Servant,” which happens late in Act Two. Hamilton and Burr, once friends and now simmering enemies, exchange a series of increasingly heated letters back and forth that culminate in the two agreeing to a duel. Based on real letters, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song has the two men getting more and more aggressive with each missive but closing out every letter with a return to civility – they sign as “your obedient servant,” and the music switches from a driving beat to chipper and polite strings. The disparity between the anger and the sign-offs gets me every time.

This is civility, and it’s bullshit. The two men, despite all their well-learned politesse, end up in a fatal shoot-out. They adhere to the rules of good taste, and yet one man still bleeds to death when it’s all said and done.

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Don’t Look For Helpers – Be The Helpers

These are difficult days. The sense of injustice and horror is overwhelming. Some days I think this must be what it’s like to be in a falling elevator – weightless, terrified, aware of the inevitable conclusion of the journey. Hopelessness can seem like the only reasonable reaction.

Thomas Merton, Catholic monk and great thinker, wrote this about hell:

Hell is where nobody has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and themselves.

They are thrown together in their fire and each one tries to thrust the others away from him with a huge, impotent hatred. And the reasons why they want to be free of one another is not so much that they hate what they see in others, as that they know others hate what they see in them: and all recognize in one another what they detest in themselves, selfishness and impotence, agony, terror and despair.

The tree is known by its fruits. If you want to understand the social and political history of modern man, study hell.

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We Must Fix Our Hearts Or Die

Something is wrong. You can see it manifesting in a million different ways, in your immediate life as well as in the state of the world. No one is unaffected by the current wrongness; it hangs over our lives like a miasmic cloud of toxins. Even the people who have things good feel uneasy and off, and for the people who have things bad this has been a catastrophic addition to their problems.

We can see the symptoms of the wrongness all around us. We see it in the big stuff, like the bizarre way we just ignore climate change as someone afraid of the doctor ignores a lump. We see it in the cruel policies of the US government and in the ways supporters of that government seem unfazed by the suffering of others – no, more than unfazed, they seem encouraged by the suffering of others. We see it in the rise of angry, hate-filled racist politics. We see it on Twitter, where the righteous destroy other human beings in order to get the thrill of dominance from purity, turning the platform into a kind of democratized Spanish Inquisition in which anyone can take on the role of Inquisitor and prove their moral high ground by crushing others. We see it in our friends and ourselves as sadness and isolation become the norm, as everybody we know is in a funk of some sort and so many seem to be struggling just to get through the day.

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Who Was Buddha?

(The image above is Keanu Reeves as the Buddha in Little Buddha, a movie that actually does a pretty good job of retelling the Buddha’s story, and also feature a weird Chris Isaak performance)

Yesterday was Vesak, a Buddhist holiday that, with extreme efficiency, celebrates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment AND death all at once. It’s highly unlikely that all of those events took place on the same day, and as Buddhism is one of those ancient religions that is less interested in facts than modern religions are, nobody really got upset about it.

Vesak seems like a good opportunity to talk really briefly about just who the Buddha was, because it’s clear to me most people don’t know. I certainly didn’t know until a couple of years ago, and I had taken comparative religion courses and had a lifelong interest in religious mythology. I always thought Buddha was the fat guy whose statue you see in Chinese restaurants, but it turns out that ain’t him. In fact those fat Buddha statues couldn’t be farther from the real thing.

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Droids Are People Too: The Life And Metaphysics Of L3-37

This contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Droids are sentient. We’ve known this since 1977, when we first met R2D2 and C3P0 and saw them make decisions as the Tantive IV was being boarded. It became clearer on Tatooine, where R5D4 faked a blown motivator to keep the two friends together, and it was quite clear when we learned about restraining bolts, devices intended to keep droids from making their own choices.

As the Star Wars saga has gone on we have seen that droids have rich emotional lives. R2D2 seems to shut down in response to Luke going missing. K2SO has a deep camaraderie with Andor. C3P0 suffers from what seems to be generalized anxiety disorder. And yet every character in the saga treats droids, at best, like pets. Most of the time, though, they’re treated like slaves. 3P0 especially is consistently dragged into situations that he does not want to be in, fighting for a cause that has no bearing on his existence.

Enter L3-37. Lando Calrissian’s droid co-pilot, L3 is a robot who is, in the parlance of the modern era, becoming woke. When we meet L3 in Solo: A Star Wars Story she is already sickened by the way droids are treated in the STAR WARS universe, and we see her trying to break up a bot battle in a seedy cantina. She appeals to the droids in the ring, and she threatens the referee. “You’re being exploited!” she cries (I’m paraphrasing here), a sentiment familiar to many marginalized groups over history. Droids are not allowed in that bar… except to fight for the death.

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It’s Your Fault (But It’s Not Your Fault It’s Your Fault)

Some spoilers for the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend season three finale are contained within. 

Everything you do is your fault. You did it. But the trick is to understand that it isn’t your fault that it’s your fault. That’s where it gets complicated.

Let me explain what I mean through pop culture.

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The Post-Humanist, Biocentric Films Of Darren Aronofsky

Humanism is your religion. Even if you’re an atheist, you’re probably a humanist. It’s the basis for most of our society, truly rising to prominence since the Enlightenment. It’s a secular philosophy, one that forwards rationality and critical thinking over divinity and supernatural beings. It is a philosophy that places humans at the apex of all things, and makes us responsible for our own greatness and our own destinies.

But how is that a religion? If you follow the reasoning of Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens (and I do, and I think you should read this book), a religion is “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.”

Note the word superhuman here. This doesn’t mean supernatural, and it doesn’t mean Spider-Man. It means order that is not mandated by humans, that is above humans. Under Harari’s definition Communism is a religion, and I love his reasoning:

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The Ending Of THE WIZARD OF OZ Isn’t Complete Bullshit After All

The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite movies, but I used to really hate the ending. I couldn’t get with Dorothy’s realization that there was no place like home, especially after she had been in candy-colored Oz and seen so many wonders. It felt like a cop out to me, like the movie just needed to end and it couldn’t end with this girl separated from her family forever.

Like so many other things in my life, I was wrong about the ending of The Wizard of Oz. Sure, Dorothy’s last lines are a little extreme (“And I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all!” Like, leave the door open for a nice vacation, or even a road trip), but it’s the insight she gets in her final moments at Oz that has become meaningful to me:

“And it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, l won’t look any further than my own backyard… because if it isn’t there, l never really lost it to begin with.”

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