Every so often, it's a good idea to stop and take stock of what's going on. When I first started this blog back in 2004, it was very exciting to post on any and every news item I could form an opinion on. The best bloggers, I think, are the ones that are incapable of having an unexpressed thought. From the beginning, however, I was aware that my blog tended to fall into the category of "Hey! Look at this cool thing I found!" rather than "Here is my 5,000 word disposition on the current state of foreign affairs." I might link to such an article, but it's a rare thing when I write something like that myself.
However, some broad guidelines have always governed what I understood this blog to be about. In the first instance, narcissistically, it's always been about me. My interests, my insights, etc. Of course, that would only be relevant to someone who actually cares about what I think, and so I've been content with a fairly small population of readers.
However, more substantially, I've always intended this blog to deal with the central issues that I work on: Religion and society primarily. I am aware, however, that there are long stretches that go by in which I don't deal directly with those issues at all. Instead, I might link to an interesting Youtube video or comment on some aspect of geek culture that is interesting or appealing to me. If this is your cup of tea, you've probably enjoyed those posts. If, on the other hand, what you're looking for is what I have to say about, say, the latest screed from John Hagee, an extended discussion of Iron Man or the Green Lantern might seem less interesting.
And then of course there is the election. It's such great fun watching Hillary and Obama go after one another, and both go after McCain, that I can't resist the more-than-occasional post on the subject, even if I can't tie it into the religion and society angle. That's not likely to change until after the election.
Nevertheless, I feel the need to give the blog a bit of a jump start, to begin focusing again on the topics that motivate me, particularly, issues of religion and society. So, while you may not notice the changes immediately, over the next few months, you can expect to see more frequent, and hopefully more substantive, posts on matters of religion and society, rather than just general pop culture and politics.
In part, let's face it, this is also a matter of marketing. To the degree that some portion of my readership comes to find out about me as a scholar and teacher, it is helpful if what they see when they come to the blog includes more of that material. On the other hand, I am who I am. So don't expect to see the comic book and science fiction posts to go away entirely. Hopefully however, they will either offer relief from the other, heavier posts, or will tie in to those heavier themes in a meaningful way.
This has been .... The State of the Blog. Please feel free to leave comments.
I like playing video games, but I'm by no means hard core, and I've never had a desire to play one of the Grand Theft Auto games. However, I was interested in this observation from Salon.com:
As much as it is a driving and shooting game, then, "GTA" is also a
puzzle game. The puzzle concerns social relationships: You're working
with and for several characters at once, and what you do for some of
them affects how you get along with others. In a game known mainly for
carjacking, it's surprising how much time you're asked to spend
building and maintaining friendships and romantic liaisons -- going on
dates to bowling alleys and comedy clubs, hanging out with your pals at
bars and pool halls, keeping up with a surfeit of text messages and
e-mail (even deleting Nigerian spam).
It may be too much to say that "GTA" has a message, but it
certainly has a vision: It's the dystopian near-future, something like
the world of "The Children of Men" (there are no kids here, either).
The vision is pushed by the media your character encounters -- the
radio stations, the TV networks, the astonishingly deep in-game Web
(with parodies of Craigslist, Fox News, Match.com and other sites,
which you access at Internet cafes called TW@).
As you pass through the city, you learn about the end of reading as
a pastime, or the new market in selling babies over the Internet, or
the extremely elevated terrorist threat -- "Liberty City is now
officially on Charcoal 8 Alert, more serious than the Red High 7 Risk
Alert, but not as serious as the recently created Black Severe 9
Alert," the game's Fox News analogue, Weasel News, warns.
I can't imagine enjoying a game like GTAIV, but I might enjoy reading a book or seeing a movie set in its world? The difference? I suppose it's one of moral agency. I can watch characters on a movie screen do dispicable things without identifying with their depravity. I can read about them in books without becoming responsible for their actions. But you take agency over video game characters, and their actions are, vicariously, your actions, and the limits (or lack of limits) of your moral universe define the characters' morality as well. Thus, by playing this story in a video game, I would come to see myself as complicit in that which my character did, in ways that I would not want to be complicit.
By analogy, I've played several Star Wars themed video games, and one consistent theme is the ability of your character to choose the light side or the dark side of the Force through the choices you make in-game. I've never been comfortable playing dark side characters. When I played Neverwinter Nights 2, which allows alignment shift based on your behavior, by the end of the game my character was strongly "Lawful Good" (and here I had always thought of myself in real life as Neutral Good, oh well).
So, GTA, though I'm sure a very intriguing game for any number of reasons, would leave me morally troubled in a way that watching "No Country for Old Men" did not. So, I'll be happy to read the reviews, and consider the distopian vision of the game, but I can't imagine I'd ever be intrigued enough to actually play it.
Here's an interesting political sideshow, to distract everyone from the boring political sideshow that has become the Democratic nomination race (Ok, ok, it's really not boring, but it has been frustrating at times!).
Nevertheless, I find the implications of this intriguing:
At a dinner party in Los Angeles not long after the 2000 election, I
was talking to a man and his wife, both prominent Republicans. The
conversation soon turned to the new president. "I didn't vote for
George Bush" the man confessed. "I didn't either," his wife added.
Their names: John and Cindy McCain (Cindy told me she had cast a
write-in vote for her husband).
McCain now denies this, of course, but Matt Yglesias wonders if it's really possible that McCain voted for Gore in 2000:
In 2000, after all, Bush's signature initiative was a tax cut proposal
that, at at the time, McCain opposed -- just like Gore. Similarly,
McCain's signature initiative was a campaign finance reform proposal
that Bush opposed but Gore favored. On foreign policy, I don't think a
clear differentiation emerged between Bush and Gore, but many construed
Bush's rhetoric as calling for a retrenchment of American commitments
abroad at a time when McCain was calling to expand them and adopt
"rogue state rollback" as a signature issue. Gore's running mate was
Joe Lieberman, who's clearly someone McCain adores. As a career
Republicans, you could imagine McCain deciding he couldn't possible
vote for Gore and just not voting, but considering the issue positions
and personal bitterness why would McCain have voted for Bush?
Actually, I find it more likely that, like Cindy, he wrote himself in for President. But Matt's argument is compelling. McCain has always been conservative, more conservative than his media fan club are willing to admit, but he was also always willing to work with Democrats on policies he considered valuable. And, as Matt notes, he apparently did consider running as John Kerry's VP in 2004. So, McCain for Gore? It's possible. But even if so, I'm not sure it means very much. After all, I'm not sure that Joe Lieberman would vote for Gore today, so what does it matter if McCain did?
An Iron Man movie? Really? Well, I have to admit myself that it looks pretty cool, and Robert Downey, Jr. is
an inspired casting choice. So, yeah, I'll probably see it, if for no other reason than I'm a sucker for comic book movies.
But ... Iron Man? Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark? Arms Dealer Tony Stark? Tony Stark who is responsible for the Super Hero registration act, and the forcible interning of rebellious super heroes in an interdimensional version of Guantanamo Bay? Let's face it, Iron Man is a putz! And yet, we are after all the children of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and all but 12 years of my life have been lived under Stark's Republican minions, so perhaps it shouldn't be suprising that Iron Man's go-go capitalism is viewed as an unquestioned virtue. Exhibit A is Slate Magazine's article on the movie:
Even now, Iron Man represents Stan Lee's adolescent
dog-eat-dog version of capitalism, the version that appeals to our
"might makes right" monkey brains: Innovation is good; monopolies rock
when we run them, suck when we don't; big corporations need CEOs rich
enough to own space jets; and regulations should be a result of the
CEOs' benevolence and wisdom, not imposed by outsiders. Tony Stark is a
self-made man who believes that we can build ourselves out of trouble.
He's one of America's romanticized lone inventors who, like Steve Jobs,
solve problems by locking themselves away in secret workshops to emerge
later with their paradigm-shifting inventions.
These days, the Iron Man
comic book sells worse than not only the Hulk, Daredevil, Captain
America, and Thor but the six different titles featuring Wolverine. So
why an Iron Man movie? In a maneuver worthy of Tony Stark himself, Marvel Comics is producing Iron Man
on its own after getting burned on licensing deals for the lucrative
Spider-Man and X-Men franchises. Who's left in the stable? Captain
America and Daredevil have already bombed on film, and the Hulk and
Thor are in movies coming later this year, and so Iron Man it is. The Iron Man
movie is a decision born of greed and pragmatism, a decision based on
Marvel's best corporate interests. It's a purely capitalist decision,
and according to Iron Man ethics, that makes it practically heroic.
On the other hand, it's worth noting an important tweaking of Iron Man's story in the new movie: Although he starts as an arms merchant, he eventually sees the wrong in making a fortune on instruments of death, and uses his super suit to right his past wrongs. So, while the movie is no more questioning of the virtues of capitalism than the comic book, it seems to come around to recognizing that what companies create is an important moral consideration. It is not a matter of whether business or capitalism is good or evil, but whether capitalism, as a means of providing goods in the market, can make distinction between goods that are, well, good, and those that are not. In that regard at least, Iron Man has grown up, at least a little.