Monday, April 2, 2007

Heroism and Writing

Very soon, I'm going to start posting on this blog excerpts and stories I've written. Most of them will have the protagonists doing fairly terrible things, and being really rotten people. Some people – mostly those that don't know me, but when I'm a successful novelist that'll include most of the people who have read my works – might assume that I'm this dark, brooding person that views the world as a dystopic horror, spiraling into nightmarish oblivion.

Well, no. I'm actually a philosophical optimist. It is fairly clear to me that people today are healthier, freer, saner, better educated and happier than they were at pretty much any point in history. This isn't the same as saying that everyone is healthy, free, sane, educated and happy – far too often that is not the case, and I'm not using optimist as a justification for political nihilism or saying that the way things are right now don't need to change. As a libertarian consensualist with a heavy dose of socialist leanings and a total technophile (believing that social change is dragged forward by technological advances), I'm nearly the most radical person I know. I think that society needs to change a lot to get better. However, I'm confident it will get better. You look back a thousand, or a hundred or even fifty years ago – well, we've got a lot of problems, but we've also made a lot of progress, and I don't think that we won't continue to make progress.

But why don't I write about the world I imagine – freer, fairer, saner, healthier – instead of dystopic visions?

First, books about free, fair, sane and healthy people are dreadfully boring. There's a fair bit of literary work going on – mostly by academics – to try to “free” us of traditional narrative structures. It is not taking. Most movies, TV shows and books have very traditional structures in the sense that there's a heroic protagonist that overcomes a variety of threats to accomplish something. Whether it be Michael Corleone in The Godfather or Ofelia in The Labyrinth of Pan, the heroic protagonist existing in a dystopic world is part and parcel of narratives. It is equally obvious to me that the reason for this is it is exciting. A narrative is helped a lot if it's exciting and interesting. It takes a very advanced aesthetic – perhaps a hopelessly decadent one – to maintain serious and consistent interest in non-narrative books, movies and TV shows. They are not, in essence, interesting to most people. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly since I'm talking about me, they're not very interesting to me. No matter how many times I tried, I just couldn't summon the energy to give a damn about Joyce.

Second, well, I have a problem with the concept of “hero”. This is separate from the concept of bravery. I'm very pro-bravery. In modern language we mix bravery and heroism up – we say that brave people are heroes, particularly if they're doing something society judges as “good” (such as firemen rushing into a burning building to save someone). However, those heroes tend to be very short lived (how many of the firemen who died on 911 can you remember, right now?). We say they're heroes but we don't really honor them as such, in the sense that we remember them. No, the people we remember tend to be historical, mythological, literary and political figures. Especially if they have perpetrated violence.

So, a lot of people will regard Alexander the Great as a hero. He's so heroic we call him “the Great” without any sense of shame. What did he do that was so great? He conquered Persia, briefly, creating untold misery and suffering in the process. He was a drunken barbarian who murdered his close friends in fits of alcohol-inspired dementia. He was an egotistical bastard who dragged the men of a whole nation ten thousand miles into the wilderness, killing most of them in the process, and effectively depopulating Greece for a generation. That's great?

The same is true of most literary heroes, too. They're generally terrible people who do awful things – but that's generally covered up. So in The Lord of the Rings, the Southrons and Easterners aren't really described. They're just generically corrupt pseudo-Slavs and pseudo-Arabs that can be slaughtered at will, to add color to the valiant white guys list of automatically despicable enemies. (Yes, I know that criticizing Tolkien is a quick way to get flamed. Hey! A guy's gotta have a hobby.)

However, where this really starts to go wrong for me – I can look at literary and historical heroes in light of catharsis and distance; our admiration of Alexander the Great rarely includes wanting to emulate him or in allowing anyone else to emulate him – is that we, as a society, are still terribly addicted to political heroes.

In my view, modern politicians are (as a group) one of the most venal and cowardly lots of people alive. George Bush epitomizes just about everything that is wrong with political hero worship, and will be a useful example for that reason – but make no doubt that all politicians share this to some extent. So, rather than fighting in Vietnam, Bush joins the cushy Texas Air Guard, never bothers to get qualified for a plane (thus removing any chance that even, once in a while, he might be near combat) and takes a year off to help with politics in Louisiana (whether or not this was actually desertion is for the reader to decide). Way to go, Bush. Brave guy, right?

I mean, what did he did on 911? Hopped a plane to a secret bunker. Man. What a gutless fucking coward. Then he talks all tough – when it's other people's lives on the line. Bring it on, indeed.

You see this time and again with politicians. While some of them did display tremendous physical bravery – for all that I think McCain is reprehensible as a politician, it would be a lie to doubt his physical bravery, though I do have serious questions about his moral and intellectual courage – most of them took great pains, if they were in the military, to avoid actual combat. Most of them, of course, were too busy being lawyers or accountants to serve in the military or other dangerous job in any capacity.

Worse, when something goes wrong, people seek to create a hero, even if they have to do it out of whole cloth. Again, Bush provides the ideal example. After 911, we “rallied around the flag”. We gave Bush carte blanche. Why? His flaws as a leader were already evident. On September 10th, his approval ratings were in the low 40 percentile range. He was dithering and stupid on September 10th, and he was the same ditheringly stupid man on September 12th, still lacking in administrative ability, honor, intelligence or loyalty. Obviously so! On September 10th, it was pretty clear to the American people that a terrible mistake had been made on letting this clown take office.

But on September 12th, his approval ratings were suddenly around 90%. Overnight – literally over night – forty percent of the American population changed their minds and created a hero out of Bush.

The things that were said about him . . . man, we must be trying to forget them. People were talking about his “gravitas” and “bravery” – the chickenshit ran to a hidden bunker for three days, people! – and spared nothing to attribute to him traits that, two days earlier, most Americans knew he did not possess. And it took years for Americans to remember that he's a corrupt and incompetent boob – it wasn't until a truly frightening counter-case of lies, corruption, downright stupidity and arrogance had been amassed that America turned the corner about Bush.

Bush isn't the only person this happens to. Almost constantly people attribute things to politicians that the politicians didn't do. So, for example, people will talk about how Lorenzo de Medici “built” a lot of Florentine Renaissance architecture. Uh-huh. The truth is, of course, that he didn't build anything, and all of that magnificent stuff was built by carpenters, masons and architects – but for some reason a politician gets the credit for what the workers did.

(To give a dose of militant atheism, too, I think this is what happens with messiahs. Much like Lorenzo the Magnificent is credited with doing things he had scant part in, messiahs are credited with equally magical powers. Most messiahs, like Bush, destroy their followings because of their ego, incompetence and cruelty – but if they die at the right time, their followers can immortalize their superhuman traits before the egotism destroys the movement.)

I shudder to imagine how many “heroes” have been created by these forces! That something traumatic happens and some mediocre person is elevated to the position of absolute power! Not because they have some superhuman power, but simply because they were in the right place at the right time. I suspect that most political heroes are like this. Most are vessels of the desires of others and can't live up to it in any capacity. Like Bush. History being what it is, we only remember the rare successful ones – and forget the failed ones (tho', thankfully, that is changing).

In short, I dislike how real “heroes” are made. That we forget the fireman who runs into a burning building, but lionize an incompetent moron like Bush.

This creates ambivalence in stories, for me. I want to write stories that have traditional narrative structures – protagonists duking it out with an antagonist – but I'm deeply suspicious of “heroism”, or at least how heroes are created and why.

I resolved this tension inside of myself by writing about my nightmares. Rather than write about the world I think ours will become, I write about what might happen if anarcho-capitalists ruled, or about religious messiahs. This also helps to make the protagonists horrible people, which means that I can view them as simply vicarious bastards doing terrible things, as catharsis, or maybe as a cautionary tale if one goes in for that sort of thing.

So, it isn't that I'm a depressed person living in a brutal fantasy, it's just that to write narratives the way I want to, I find it easier to write them about the figures that populate my nightmares.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Scientology Ahoy!

I've really been laying hard into Christianity in this journal because it is, without doubt, the most powerful religion in America as well as the specific religion that Simon Peter is about, obviously.

However, the character of Jesus in Simon Peter is definitely an amalgam of characters. One of the figures that plays a reasonably big role in the personality of Jesus, in my book, is . . . L. Ron Hubbard. A great online resource is The Bare-Faced Messiah. It's an out-of-print, unauthorized biography of Hubbard and an utterly fascinating read, and a good place to start to learn about Scientology in an entertaining way.

More than any other self-proclaimed messiah, Hubbard embodies the con-man who got suckered into believing his lies. No one believes that Hubbard, originally, was sincere. Enough of his former friends and associates have come forward and said, more or less, that he started a religion to make money – that the talents of a science-fiction writer were wasted writing stories when there were other sheep to fleece. (Since he died worth hundreds of millions of dollars, there's probably something to that. Assuming, of course, that you could look at yourself in the mirror after selling bogus spirituality to needy people.) By the end of his life, few will doubt that he was a complete nutjob, that he was a paranoid, a sexual deviant and quite possibly schizophrenic.

How was he paranoid? Well, after having legal problems in several countries – the US, UK, Germany, Australia – it occurred to him that “70% of the world was without government”. The ocean! So he made this little Scientology navy, the Sea Org, where he went for years going from port to port. Eventually, so many ports in the Mediterranean were closed to Hubbard that he snuck back into the United States where he eventually died.

The Sea Org had some . . . interesting facts about it. One of them was the origin of the Rehabilitation Project Force, the RPF. In Scientology, the two worst sins are “overts” and “withholds” -- which are lies and secrets in English. If you do overts or withholds during “auditing” (the crude bio-feedback enhanced therapy sessions of Scientology) it is possible that you'll be put on the RPF.

When you're on the RPF, you are used for slave labor. I am not exaggerating. You're used for unpaid labor for an indefinite period of time, usually with sleep deprivation and inadequate nutrition. Some people were (and perhaps are) in the RPF for a year or two. You can't leave until they let you. It's literally slave labor.

In the Sea Org, the RPFers would be kept entirely below decks where they'd do the worst jobs – cleaning bilges, chipping paint or rust in bilges and other inaccessible parts of the ships, things like that. Landward, RPFers are often doing manual labor like ditch digging or clearing land.

Another thing that Hubbard started on the Sea Org was the use of “messengers”. Messengers were pretty pre-teen girls that would serve Hubbard – they say not that way, but one of the things they would do is sleep with him. Naked. They would also be his mouthpiece to the fleet, giving his messages – more than a few of them got drunk with this power and became petty tyrants in their own right. But Hubbard liked 'em young, so when they got too sexually developed they got the heave-ho. He also, apparently, often publicly humiliated them if they didn't do things the exact proper way; several of Hubbard's messengers have left Scientology and appear quite emotionally scarred by it.

Speaking of heave-hos, one of the common methods of punishing people would be throwing them off the ship into the water. The main ship of the fleet was a converted cargo ship, and the drop was something like a hundred feet, and often the water itself was cold and choppy. This could happen to a person several times in a row. More than one port revoked their rights based on this punishment.

While in the Sea Org, Hubbard would also go on imaginary treasure hunts. He would say he had a past-life memory of some buried treasure or the other, order the Sea Org to the spot and start trying to find it. Due to the paranoia with which Hubbard regarded all governments, he didn't bother to tell the government or get permission to do treasure hunting and, as a result, caused all sorts of problems for himself because this was during the Cold War. His treasure hunting looked a lot like espionage and his evasions seemed to confirm it.

I could go on for a long time on this vein, but I think my audience out there is seeing what I mean. Hubbard is one of the paradigmic historical messiahs. A sexually deviant person that gets drunk on power and orders people to do the craziest things and acts self-destructively. It's really easy to laugh at the galactic overlord Xenu and body thetans . . . and why not? They're fuckin' funny! But Hubbard isn't funny, really. He was a power drunk madman who's destroyed innumerable lives.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

A new messiah!

A crazy self-proclaimed messiah.

Let us give snippets:

Tari, the leader of an obscure cult with 6,000 followers, had been on the run since last June, when he escaped from custody with the help of a Lutheran pastor. Suspected of raping scores of girls and carrying out sacrificial killings, Tari eluded police by staying on the move and hiding in far-flung mountain villages.

This is, in my reading, pretty par for the course. Murdering and rapist messiahs are the norm, not the aberration. For another example of this, read about Jeffrey Don Lundgren.

Police are investigating the murder of three girls whose flesh Tari allegedly ate after they were killed.

I have to admit the cannibalism is pretty rare, tho'.

Of course, religious folks will say that their particular messiah was different, and truly inspired by whatever god is said to inspire them, but this is keeping in line with my research on messiahs, generally. They are frauds, kooks or both.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Messiah on Messiah Combat!

Most Christians are totally ignorant that the 1st century CE was an era of tremendous messiah activity beyond Jesus. (Indeed, generally, the lack of cultural knowledge that most Christians have about that time period that wasn't directly tied to the Gospels I've found consistently shocking. I've met a dozen Christians who know everything about the events in the Bible, but can't hold a conversation about Tiberius, the Emperor at the time of Jesus' death. And, like Mel Gibson, most Christians think that Romans in the area spoke Latin . . . even tho' in the Book of Acts the Gentile party is referred to as the Greeks and the New Testament being an almost entirely Greek document originally.) Jesus had serious competitors in a variety of ways and the Christian victory was sure from assured.

The first place we can see the struggle between messiahs is the struggle between Jesus and John the Baptist. Most Christians accept without thinking about it that John the Baptist was, consciously, waiting for a messiah and that messiah happened to be Jesus, but there was an obvious struggle between early Christians and followers of John the Baptist.

You can see some of this in the Bible, itself. In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John the Baptist criticize Jesus' disciples for their lax fasting habits. (Jesus answers them that his disciples might as well enjoy the good times while Jesus is still alive, likening himself to a bridegroom, because soon he'll be gone and misery will await them.) In Matthew 11:2-3, a couple of John's disciples question whether Jesus is the Messiah. (Jesus sends them away with no answer, but orders them to go tell John the Baptist of his works and deeds.) (I will also presume that anyone who reads this can find Bible quotations without me linking them. A trifle lazy, perhaps, but I don't use the Internet for my Bible and I don't have links for all this stuff laying around.)

By the time Luke was written – some twenty or more years after Matthew and Mark – there is even more signs of struggle. A fair bit of Luke is designed to demonstrate that John the Baptist is clearly Jesus' inferior, and that John the Baptist recognized it. So, in the Gospel of Luke, there is an extremely self-serving account of John the Baptist's birth where Luke time and against makes it clear that John the Baptist is the inferior of Jesus and knew it. Luke chapter 1 is just full of Elizabeth and Mary going on about how how Mary's child is so much greater than Elizabeth's, specifically the Magnificat and Ave Maria. Otherwise, Luke follows Matthew in the disciples of John the Baptist questioning of Jesus.

By the time that the Gospel of John was written, the overt struggle between Christians and the followers of John the Baptist had largely come to an end. John the Evangelist was very confident in the Baptist's inferiority. In John 1:20, the Baptist clearly says he's not “the Christ”. In John 1:21-23 he says he's not even a prophet, really, but just “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” to “make straight the way of the Lord.” And in John 1:32, the Baptist sees the Holy Spirit descending into Jesus and in John 1:34, the Baptist said, “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” Nevertheless, later on the questioning of Jesus that occurs in Matthew and Luke resurfaces in John, too.

Still, this is all pretty veiled. Most Christians don't even realize there's an ancient religion that continues to exist to this very day where John the Baptist is considered the Messiah and Jesus a traitor to John – the Mandeans. These are a non-Jewish, non-Muslim, non-Christian group of people who acknowledge Adam, Noah and John the Baptist as prophets but not Abraham, Moses, Jesus or Mohammad. They also seem to have been influenced by Chaldean and Babylonian religions, as well as Zoroastrianism. I am not claiming expertise. Indeed, it is hard for anyone to claim expertise because the Mandeans have as one of their religious creeds near absolute secrecy.

Unlike Baha'i (who also refer John the Baptist), the Mandeans are an ancient religion. Because of their intense secrecy, small numbers and the vicious persecution that has occasionally befallen them, there is no clear connection between Mandeans and the disciples of John the Baptist who questioned Jesus. It does, however, demonstrate that religions that followed John the Baptist existed in antiquity and that John the Baptist was, and is, the messiah in some people's eyes. This lends considerable credence, I think, to the notion that the treatment of John the Baptist in the Bible is due to the competition between the followers of the Baptist and the followers of Jesus.

However, by the time of the Gospels of Luke and John, Christianity had grown considerably towards Rome and amongst the Gentiles. If we take the Mandeans as evidence of the direction that the followers of John the Baptist went, they went into Persia – which could explain the high-handed way Luke and John treat the Baptist. Christians and primitive Mandeans didn't intersect very much, with Christians spreading to the West towards Rome and the Mandeans going east into Persia. However, it is indisputable that people in antiquity took John the Baptist very seriously as a messiah.

This is bolstered by Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews where in Book 18, chapter 5, Josephus talks about John the Baptist as a good Jew and a holy man but does not refer to Jesus at all in connection with John the Baptist. So, by the 70s CE, when Josephus wrote The Antiquities, John the Baptist wasn't linked to Christianity much less as an inferior to Jesus.

While, in the end, the cult of Jesus would clearly grow far beyond the cult of John, for a while it was clearly touch and go. But there was a bigger Messiah that Jesus had to face. Growing into the Roman Empire it became inevitable that Christianity would have to deal with, in some fashion, Rome's most powerful religions: Mithraism and Magna Mater.

Mithraism, like all mystery cults, is a hard nut to crack because secrecy was part and parcel of the religion. However, it was very popular amongst the Roman army and was the official cult of several of the Legions. It . . . had certain issues that limited it's popularity, such as being open only to men and having a complex and uncomfortable initiatory rite. As a soldier's religion, it worked because soldiers have all that macho bravado going for them, but amongst the general population the rites were fairly extreme. The cult of Magna Mater, on the other hand, or the worship of the Great Mother, was nigh universal. In the ancient world, over time, the mother goddesses tended to get rolled up into a single character – the Magna Mater – with similar rites from modern Afghanistan to Portugal. Between Mithraism and Magna Mater, virtually every Roman shared in some of their rites.

The struggle against these religions is subsumed under the Christian struggle against “paganism” and even Christians acknowledge that it was a bitter struggle. What they don't seem to grasp is that virtually all the great holy days of the Christian calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, come from either Mithraism or the Magna Mater cult. Indeed, things like the resurrection can easily be traced back to myths about Attis, Osiris, Dionysus and Tammuz, all of whom informed both the rites of Mithraism and Magna Mater and would go on to influence Christianity through those religions.

Christianity overcame this obstacle through a multi-faceted strategy and some luck. If Christianity had stayed a Jewish religion, I suspect it would have died out. But by conversions of Romans, Christianity both spread through the Empire as well as started to adopt more and more characteristics of the big Roman religions at the time which helped to distinguish it from Judiasm. This was particularly assisted by the various destructions of the Jews at Roman hands, both in 70 CE and again in 135 CE. After the second rebellion lead by Simon bar Kochba, there wasn't many Jews left in Judea or Galilee as the Romans destroyed over 900 Jewish towns and villages, destroyed Jerusalem itself and forbid Jews to enter the city after replacing the Jewish Temple with one to Jupiter. The diaspora of the Jews was complete – there was no “home” to return to for 1800 years. This allowed the Gentile sect of Christians to gain total dominance over the religion, with a decidedly Roman character. So, Roman festivals and holidays were brought wholesale into Christianity, making it easier for Romans to convert to Christianity – it was like Mithraism or Magna Mater without a lot of the attending hassles of belonging to those religions.

The second big break came when Constantine I opted for Christianity to receive special Imperial sanction in the Edict of Milan. Effectively, Christianity had become the state cult of the Empire. This allowed Christians to spread without fear of retaliation through the Empire, often engaging in massacres and land theft to bolster their own religion. Most people believe that Constantine, himself, wasn't particularly a Christian and used Christianity to unify the Empire under a single religion for political reasons. I accept this as true. He is a Christian saint in virtually all Christian religions that allow that sort of thing, however.

However, the expansion of Christianity wasn't certain, and Christianity had a lot to overcome towards becoming the world's largest religion.

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