Cosmos and the Lack of Politics

CosmosBecause my sister knows me well, she bought me the new Cosmos on DVD for Christmas. I had seen much of it before, but I’m glad to have it. For one thing, it has allowed me to share it with my father who likes such things. But I have to admit that it bothers for a few reasons. The most minor of these is simply that I’m an old curmudgeon. I know far too much science and I bristle at every statement that isn’t quite right. I found that to be especially true in the fifth episode because it dealt with relativity and that’s a subject that people seem to be unable to discuss with any degree of clarity. And then there was some mixing up of special relativity and general relativity and I was fit to be tied. But that really is minor.

What most bothers me about it is the politics of it. The first several episode were filled with scientific hubris. This is an issue that causes me no end of problems in my relationships with fellow atheists. It’s kind of weird. The scientific process is an amazingly powerful thing that I greatly admire. But there is a tendency among people to think that it is the end all of knowledge. And it just isn’t. It is the ultimate in the old joke about the drunk guy looking for his keys under the lamp even though he dropped the keys in a different location, “The light is better here!” Science is a great way to answer certain kinds of questions. But there are questions that science just can’t parse. So those questions are just avoided or defined as non-questions.

So it is great that we have science around to pound away at our knowledge. But it is generally not the case that what we want for is a scientific approach to solving problems. In the 13th century, for example, the Dominican Theodoric of Freiberg managed to figure out the rainbow. The biggest problem is not how we will go about answering questions. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t even occur to us that questions ought to be answered. To me, the best example of this today is found in the field of economics. It seems like a science. The same process is used with data and models and all that. But fundamental questions are simply not acceptable. Where in the world of mainstream economics are there people asking how property — a commonly held resource — can be privately owned? That’s just an illegitimate question. The best we get is an analysis of income inequality, which the profession has denied to generations and now shoves aside with various arguments — most notably with the idea that inequality is great because we have iPhones.

And this gets to my primary problem with Cosmos. The takeaway from the original series really wasn’t scientific. Rather, it was that science is a powerful means of understanding the universe and so it must be used to counter bad ideas in the lives of humans. In particular, Carl Sagan was interested in nuclear arms. But what is the new series interested in? Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the big fight now is just against ignorant theists who want to teach Creationism in science classes. But I think it is a major mistake to even step down to that level. So what great policy is Tyson willing to tackle? Nothing really. He doesn’t say much more about global warming than Carl Sagan said three and half decades earlier.

Add to this the fact that the producers of the series made the terrible decision to put the show on commercial television. The original series provided a whole hour to deal with a subject. But here, the narrative is interrupted every ten minutes for everyone to be reminded what really matters: commerce. And that’s what I mean about the questions we don’t ask. Is science a common good that should be shared with all of humanity? Or is it just a way of delivering eyeballs for commercials about soft drinks and erectile dysfunction medications? I think the former, but our society clearly thinks the latter. Sadly, the new Cosmos does not have an opinion on such matters. That means that the producers of the series are doing just what those who ran the Library of Alexandria did: nothing. And Carl Sagan pointed out the problem with this kind of disinterested science in the original Cosmos.

Useless Mainstream Media

Chuck ToddCharlie Pierce made an interesting comparison over at his place at Esquire, Life And Cheerios Imitate The Newsroom. He started by noting the ridiculousness of Chuck Todd claiming that he has to allow Republicans (“politicians”) to lie on Meet the Press, because if he didn’t, they wouldn’t come on the show. It was a remarkable moment of honesty, although Todd does seem to think it is about “balance.”

I think it is typical of what I call “fake power” — the kind of power you only have as long as you don’t use it. The best recent example of this has been Speaker of the House John Boehner who has enormous power, but if he ever used that power to do what was right rather than just to do what his caucus wanted, he would find that he was out of a job. Similarly, Chuck Todd has the power to ask the “hard questions” only so long as he absolutely never asks the hard questions.

It reminds me of something else. You could watch the nightly news on ABC, NBC, and CBS. And you would never see anything different. It is a remarkable example of self-censorship. Either that or it just so happens that the major news outlets manage to get right to the heart of what is going on in the world. Of course, we know that isn’t the case. You can go back over the decades and see what the news sources were reporting in their amazing unanimity and see what was really going on. It’s just follow the leader.

Meanwhile, all the time I was growing up, I was told that the Soviet Union didn’t have a free press. Well, true enough. But that didn’t speak poorly of them so much as it speaks poorly of us for thinking that we do have a free press. It’s like what Noam Chomsky said in The Common Good, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

So good old Chuck Todd is there to play the part of a free journalist. And indeed, he isn’t being told what to say and not to say by the government. Oh no! He’s being told what to say and not to say by the “free” market! And that is better because… I’m not sure. No one has ever answered it because no one seems to even be aware that it is a question to be answered.

Pierce focused primarily on Reince Priebus’ recent hissyfit about not allowing any Republicans to come on MSNBC, after someone at the network had tweeted out, “Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.” MSNBC folded like a cheap ironing board, of course. And Pierce notes that if a Democrat had made a similar demand, he would have laughed out of polite company. But there is a difference I’m afraid: Democrats aren’t bigots. If half the electorate that votes Republican weren’t compelled to do so by their bigotry, Priebus wouldn’t have felt the need to demand an apology.

I don’t think there is an other side to this situation. Democrats — despite their many failings — actually believe in what they claim to believe in. It isn’t the case that half of the Democratic vote comes from closet communists. And even that would be more acceptable than the racist base of the Republican Party. So of course if the Democrats started acting like the Republicans, people would scoff. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine a comment that would cut the party so deeply while also being true.

What’s wrong with our media system is that people like Chuck Todd don’t start interviews with Reince Priebus with questions like, “What is the Republican Party going to do when all its racist voters die off? Does the party have a plan to create new racist voters?” But that won’t happen. If it did, the Republicans wouldn’t come on Meet the Press, and people like Chuck Todd would have to do actual journalism. And I don’t think there are many people in the mainstream press that still know how that’s done.

Religious Offense and The Life of Brian

Life of BrianAs I’ve been on a Monty Python kick recently, I’ve revisted Life of Brian. It is the best thing that the group ever did — in terms of comedy, theme, and simple move making. It is a great film. But I don’t think we need to discuss that. Most people I know think that Life of Brian is the pinnacle of their work. What I find more interesting is the fact that the film was controversial. But my memory about it was vague. And I really wondered whether there was much of that. I know that there are silly people who get offended by any discussion of Jesus that isn’t reverential. But were they really upset about Brian? It is hard to believe.

The main reason that it is hard to believe is that the film is reverential toward Jesus. If you ask me, it tries rather too hard in this regard. There are only three instances where Jesus plays a role at all. The first is after the wise men mistake Brian for the Jewish savior. When we finally do see the baby Jesus, the whole scene is lit with halos of Mary and Joseph. The second time we see Jesus is at the Sermon on the Mount where he is portrayed with great seriousness by the fine Kenneth Colley, surround by hundreds of followers. And the only other time I recall him mentioned is when the ex-leper discusses how Jesus cured him and deprived him of his livelihood as a beggar. In all these cases, Jesus is presented as he is in the Bible. Brian is just this regular guy who lives at the same time.

But I think I know why the Christians got upset about the film. It isn’t the portrayal of Jesus that they have a problem with. It is that the film makes fun of fanaticism. It has no opinion about being fanatical about a good cause. But most people are just keen on following anything at all. And that is key, I think. Most Christians are only followers of Jesus for one reason: their parents were. So Life of Brian brings up a very uncomfortable question for Christians, “Does your belief make any more sense than the Heaven’s Gate cult?” To me it is very clear that the Heaven’s Gate cult makes a lot more sense because at least those in it, chose it rather than just accepting what they heard as children.

What’s remarkable, however, is that it wasn’t just your garden variety cultural Christian who had a problem with the film. In the follow interview from the time on Friday Night, Saturday Morning, Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican Bishop Mervyn Stockwood debate John Cleese and Michael Palin. And they both make the argument that Brian is Jesus. I suppose that that is about the only argument that you can make. The truth isn’t going to fly. They just can’t say, “The film makes us look stupid.” But it does show that even those we think of as serious Christians really aren’t.

What’s perhaps most interesting in this interview is how angry Michael Palin is during this. By all accounts, Palin is a the nicest guy you would ever meet. But here, he really doesn’t seem to like the way that his work has been misinterpreted. Still, he maintains his composure. It speaks rather poorly of Christianity that Stockwood and most especially Muggeridge go out of their way to be offensive about the film. Muggeridge refers to it numerous times as being “tenth rate” and discusses how the film got easy laughs with four-letter words and nudity. That simply isn’t true. I suspect that his mind was as closed to the film as it was to his religion.

It was curious to be reminded of all this. I do wonder what Christians think they are doing by being so closed minded. But it goes right along with my thinking about religion. The general level of religious thought is so simplistic and useless that a film like Life of Brian really does act as a kind of criticism. And this debate serves the same purpose that the film itself does: the Pythons hold up a mirror to our society. In this case, they didn’t even say very much. The religious figures made the argument themselves. Regardless if one is a Christian or not, he must decide that he doesn’t want to be that kind of Christian. And that is the the main kind of Christian around.

Update (29 December 2014 8:30 pm)

Infidel753 reminded me of this great parody of the debate:

Jon Polito

Jon PolitoToday, the great character actor Jon Polito is 64 years old. I featured him last year for the birthday post, but there really is no one else I feel that I ought to talk about. It isn’t just that I admire his work. It is also that I’m extremely jealous of him. He has the kind of career that every actor ever wanted to have when they started out. Even though he’s still pretty young, he has over 200 entries on IMDb — and that doesn’t include multiple appearances on a single television show. He also has the sweet spot of fame: famous enough for it to be flattering, but not so famous that he can’t have a regular life.

Primarily, I think his is a great actor. There is depth in his performance that you just don’t find in a lot of established actors. I think it is interesting that in his scene with Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, he dominates. And I say that even as I think Bridges is an okay actor. Anyway, someone put together this nice comedy reel of Polito’s work. Check it out:

My favorite role of his is Johnny Caspar in Miller’s Crossing. He’s the heart of the film, because as much of a psychopath as he is, he’s the only one who has a sense of justice and right and wrong. Sadly, his opening speech about ethics is not online. But here is a little bit from the very end of it:

Happy birthday Jon Polito!