The News from Garrison Keillor

Garrison KeillorHungarian countess and serial killer Elizabeth Bathory was born on this day in 1560. She was never convicted of her many murders because she was never charged. She was above the law, just like the rich of today. The great geographer Carl Ritter was born in 1779. Expressionist painter Emil Nolde was born in 1867. Billie Burke, the women who played Glinda the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz was born in 1884. Labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in 1890. The great archaeologist Louis Leakey was born in 1903. Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in Our Gang was born in 1927.

Magician James Randi is 85 today. Actor David Duchovny is 53. Gymnast Yelena Davydova is 52. The more annoying Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is 47. And actor Charlize Theron is 38.

The day, however, belongs to writer and storyteller Garrison Keillor who is 71 today. I’m not that big of a fan of his fiction. But A Prairie Home Companion is about as close to a perfect entertainment as exists in the world up to this point. Now if you could just combine it with Radio Lab, that would really be something. Of course, that is what I want; such a thing would probably be a flop. Anyway, A Prairie Home Companion is great radio and I listen to it most Saturdays. Here he is doing his thing:

Happy birthday Garrison Keillor!

Giving Up on America in God Bless America

God Bless AmericaLast night, I had a curious reaction to a recent Bobcat Goldthwait film, God Bless America. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a “black comedy.” But that hardly captures the essence of the film that pushes the limits of even that very broad category. It tells the story of Frank Murdoch, a quiet and polite man whose problems in his personal life lead him to kill an annoying reality TV star. The event is witnessed by precocious teenager Roxy Harmon and the two of them go on a killing spree—mostly of people whose main crime is that they just aren’t nice.

Perhaps the best scene in the film takes place in a movie theater where the duo go to see a documentary about the My Lai Massacre. Four of the five people watching the film are rude in various ways. So while the song “It’s Oh So Quiet” plays, Frank shoots them all (Roxy is not yet proficient with a gun). Before leaving the theater, he speaks to the terrified survivor, “Thanks for not talking during the feature. Thanks for turning off your cell phone.” She says, somewhat confused, “You’re welcome.” And they leave. Despite memories of the 2012 Aurora shooting (which took place after the film was released), it is an incredibly funny scene:

I enjoyed the whole film. Goldthwait squeezes a lot of humor out of his idea. It is more than just the gut laughs of the over-the-top violence and the catharsis of people like Bill O’Reilly, Simon Cowell, and Honey Boo Boo getting their due. The film is also sweet with humor more like Little Miss Sunshine than Natural Born Killers. It also puts in some interesting speeches strategically throughout the film so that no one can miss the satire and message of the film.

Where it all fails is in its theme. Ultimately, Goldthwait doesn’t seem to understand that his characters are no more heroes than William Foster in Falling Down. Frank doesn’t like what the society has become, but what he would prefer is only slightly different. Yes, our culture is coarse and insipid. But there is no indication that Frank is anything but insipid himself. Roxy is just an ignorant youth with cliched views. Their frustration is understandable. But there is nothing revolutionary in their thinking. And what does the film ultimately have to say on the issues that it raises? As far as I can tell, it is cynical about the issues: there is nothing we can do about our society, so it is enough to enjoy this fantasy about killing all of the people who annoy us.

And I did enjoy it. I especially liked its postmodern self-reference—being exactly what it claims to hate. And it portrayed the relationship of the two main characters with great sensitivity. Ultimately, it represents all that it is good and bad about Bobcat Goldthwait. He isn’t a great thinker, but he’s a funny guy in ways that while distasteful are ultimately delicious.

Afterword

Here is “It’s Oh So Quiet” from Happy Texas:

Clueless Atheists

Richard DawkinsOn one of the commentary tracks of The God Who Wasn’t There, the films producer Brian Flemming interviewed The Raving Atheist. Within about a year of that interview, he had turned himself into The Raving Theist, having not only found God but an Abrahamic one at that. The change was interesting but hardly surprising. A lot of people go from atheist to theist. I’m sure it is more common for people to move the opposite direction, but that’s largely due to the greater number of theists. To me, such shifting of sides is an indictment of both movements.

I started thinking about this over the weekend when I listened to a Skepticon 3 panel discussion on “Confrontation vs. Accommodation.” It included Richard Carrier and other prominent (but not famous) atheists. And I found it kind of offensive. Most of the people on the panel were arguing that atheists who didn’t get in other people’s faces were “closeted.” And there was an explicit embrace of atheism as something that one should evangelize for. When people complain about atheists, it is not about them being atheists in a very public way. The problem is that the New Atheists are very often annoying as hell. Penn Jillette? Christopher Hitchens? Sam Harris? These men come off as pretentious jerks, because, you know, they are pretentious jerks.

In my experience, ignorance of the God question is just as pervasive in the atheist community as it is in the Christian community. This is how The Raving Atheist turns into The Raving Theist. Listening to most atheists talk, you would think that the only theological options are atheism and fundamental Christianity. Look: I understand: here in America, Christianity has a strong and pernicious hold. But I’m often struct by the fact that supposedly important thinkers in the atheist movement don’t seem to understand that some questions transcend the reality in which we find ourselves.

Richard Dawkins, for example, thinks that natural selection implies atheism. How is that? Natural selection is a mechanism. Why is it that mechanism rather than another? Can he really be blind to that question? I wonder why photon quanta have energies given by the frequency of the light times Planck’s constant. I wonder why Planck’s constant is 6.626e-34 Joule-seconds. Of course, it isn’t the case that Dawkins is blind to these questions. It is that he simply sees them as invalid and the people who ask them as starry eyed nitwits.

This is very similar to the attitude that I get from theists. Such questions are silly because the universe was made the way God wanted. But for the theists, that’s a perfectly acceptable answer. We don’t expect them to ask questions and push the envelope of our understanding. But we do expect that from our skeptics. Atheists simultaneously claim that (1) they are just following the facts and (2) certain questions are off limits, but they mock those who don’t share that view. And that makes them pretty annoying.

This kind of attitude is also bad for the atheist movement itself. Eventually some atheists will think about these questions that the movement has told them are invalid. And who are they going to turn to for answers? Certainly they won’t turn to the atheists who will just mock the questions if not the questioner. And they probably won’t know any atheists like me who not only acknowledge the questions but relish them. So they turn to the theists, who at least acknowledge the questions, even if their “answers” provide no insight at all. And thus we get the spectacle of The Raving A/Theist.

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, New Atheists,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Afterword

That bit of Shakespeare is odd. The first and third lines are straight iambic pentameter (the first with a weak ending). But the second is a mess. It makes me wonder if the actual line wasn’t more like, “There are more things in heaven and earth, sir.” Or, “There are more things in heaven, Horatio.” It also explains why the lines are commonly misquoted as, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Actually, I kind of like this:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Dude,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Populist Rhetoric Elitist Policy

Rick SantorumLast year, I applauded Rick Santorum’s middle class rhetoric. In particular, I liked his speech at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference where he blasted the RNC for its long line of business owners who came up on the stage and proclaimed that they did, in fact, build that. He said, “One after another, they talked about the business they had built. But not a single—not a single—factory worker went out there. Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them. You know what? They built that company too! And we should have had them on that stage.” It seems that now that the Republican Party is looking to garner some populist cred, people are starting to notice that Santorum really can talk that talk.

This morning, just like I did last year, Matt Yglesias noted that while Santorum does talk that talk, he doesn’t walk that walk. The evidence is clear. And it is the same with every Republican: his budget. As Yglesias said:

And indeed on the campaign trail, Santorum said a fair amount about this. He also championed a tax plan that relative to a scenario in which the Bush tax cuts were fully extended would have extended an additional $448,000 per year in tax cuts to people earning over $1 million per year, while delivering around $1,000-$2,000 to the median family. To pay for that, you would need to enact large cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs.

The truth of the matter is that populist rhetoric is not exactly hard to find in the Republican Party. Paul Ryan is a great talker. When given half a chance, he will talk about big corporations that pay no taxes. In fact, this created an uncomfortable moment during Ryan and Romney’s joint interview with 60 Minutes last year. Yet Ryan is the author of the middle class destroying House Republican “budget.”

There are a few ways to look at this. It could be that these guys are just lying and that they don’t care about the middle class. I think that’s unlikely. It could also be that they really do think that supply side economics is the way to help the middle class. While I think this is true, it isn’t the core reason for their cognitive dissonance. When Jack Kemp was pushing supply side economics back in the 1980s, I understand it. It seemed like a wild idea—even George Bush Sr called it “voodoo economics.” But it was at least plausible. But after 30 years of such policies, there is no longer any doubt: supply side economics was just a con game that justified taking wealth and income away from the poorer classes and giving it to the richer classes. So no reasonable observer can now think that giving even more money to the rich will help the middle class.

What distinguishes Santorum and Ryan is that they aren’t reasonable observers. Ryan hasn’t moved beyond Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, and what he heard Jack Kemp say 30 years ago. I’m sure that Santorum doesn’t read or listen to anyone who doesn’t tell him the same thing. So these guys can hang onto their airy notions of helping the “common man” without ever seriously looking at how their economic policies might affect him. And what that means is that what matters first and foremost to these guys is helping the rich. But always with a sprinkle of tinkle.