Sunday, November 20, 2005

Shh! Don't tell Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the gang about this, or they'll go after poor old Ben Franklin


Even before the advent of "reality" TV, I was fascinated by the public's peculiarly ambivalent relationship with reality. Let me try to explain.

I think we're all familiar with the old-style disdain for reality in the world of entertainment. As far back as I can remember, the common wisdom was that people watching TV or going to the movies wanted to escape reality. And believe me, I understand the impulse, as a card-carrying 9-to-5 drudge. When I leave my desk every day, whew, do I want to escape.

But gradually I came to understand that the craving for escape isn't the whole story. The concept of reality still exerts some kind of pull. It's amazing how many folks seem to crave the "stamp" of reality--some kind of seal, or certification, or label, or sticker, or imprimatur that says, "THIS IS REAL."

The hitch is that those folks don't seem to demand, or necessarily even want, the actual reality that lurks beneath that precious seal of reality.

An anecdote:

Awhile back, a coworker and friend told this story drawn from his real life as a would-be writer for TV and/or the movies. He had pitched an idea that seemed tailor-made for a TV movie. Which is to say that it was built around a health issue--something to do with midwives, as I recall (as you'll see, it really doesn't matter)--and the story lent itself to good guys vs. bad guys (presumably those nasty bureaucrats). My friend's idea had attracted enough interest to move several rungs up the TV world's notoriously rickety Ladder of Development. He was just a rung away from raking in what for him would have been significant money. Of course, considering that he had gone from being a struggling actor to a struggling writer, what qualfied as significant money in his life probably wouldn't cover lunch for a TV mogul.

The deal looked all set, until one day a panic-laden phone call came. Some network bigwig, or at any rate a honcho higher up on the corporate food chain, was having a hissy fit, demanding to know: WAS THIS STORY REAL? And you have to trust that what mattered to Mr. Bigwig wasn't the substance of the story. Clearly what mattered was that the network be able to slap on the precious label "based upon a true story." (Notice how they like to say "based upon" rather than "based on," which is what you or I would say? Presumably this is meant to show that they're really, really serious about this based-uponness.)

My friend was made to understand that Mr. Bigwig's concern was in fact so important that it constituted a deal-breaker. Luckily, he was able to allay the panic with the assurance that the story was 100-percent Grade A true.

Unluckily, the fortess-against-thought that is Hollywood is protected by a veritable minefield of deal-breakers. There were still plenty of other ways for the project to be derailed, as it was soon enough.

Now the irony here, in case you haven't worked it out for yourself, is that if the movie had actually been made, we know that not the slightest millisecond would ever have been wasted over so utterly inconsequential an issue as the "truth" of the story. You'll note that none of these TV movies that come certified as "based upon" reality are ever promoted as BEING "a true story." I imagine that anyone who says at any point in the development or production of such a project, "But that's not the way it happend," is assumed to be either (a) joking or (b) out of his friggin' mind.

And yet, and yet. . . . Isn't it fascinating that the powers that be would spare no effort to make sure that the damned story of their TV movie, despite having ultimately been distorted and falsified in every way imaginable, at some point was true?

What I detect here is an undercurrent in American life that has hardly been noticed, except by people like Karl Rove who use it for evil. I'm not so naive as to suggest that the American people have an unnoticed passion for truth. C'mon, take a glance around us! But people do still seem to need the trappings of reality, just without any of the inconvenient things that tend to come with it. Real reality has a nasty way of being complex, ambiguous, untidy, uncontrollable, not conventionally dramatic, and often (and this may be the most unforgivable) downright depressing.

What they seem to want is some kind of "reality substitute," a reality that's better than the real thing. And no one gave them a clearer vision of what they could have than our beloved President Ronald Reagan. Reagan after all lived his last several decades in a private reality of surpassing pleasantness. Being rich and having many still-richer friends can do that for a person. And Reagan wanted everyone to share this pleasantness--by sharing, not the riches, but the crucial concept that every American has the right to believe in whatever reality makes him/her feel best. If that happens to be hatred and bigotry, then not only should you do it, but there's no reason why you should feel bad about it.

For years I was proud of my discovery of the sway of "reality substitute," and thought I should do something with it. I just couldn't think what. Beyond identifying it, what was there to say or do about it?

Nobody really seemed to care. Especially when "reality" TV descended on us. Of course it should always have been called "unreality" TV, since it was devoted to offering only the veneer and never the substance of reality. But what else would you expect in an era when the media, emphatically including the mainstream news media, had so open-heartedly embraced reality substitute?

And even more especially when control of the White House was seized by our first full-fledged reality-substitute president. The crowning moment in the flight from reality came when that unnamed philosopher-functionary in Bushworld, while paying tribute to intrepid trailblazer George W. Bush, who was creating visionary new realities out of . . . well, it was never clear what he was making them out of, contrasted his hero with the surly malcontents who remained outside the neoncon fantasy world. He referred to those fringe elements derisively as "the reality-based community."

I can't imagine that any DownWithTyranny reader needs chapter-and-verse documentation of the Bush administration's assault on reality. Perhaps nobody has captured the spirit better than Air America Radio's "Morning Sedition," which every Wednesday has been serving up the latest dispatches from "The War on Brains."

In its most brazen form, the War on Brains has set its sights on science.

Now science isn't and shouldn't be immune from criticism. For example, there is a corporatized commodity we might call Big Science which could benefit from some stiff knocks. But that of course isn't what the thugs of the Right have gone after. No, they've sought to marginzalize if not actually dismantle the very concept of science, which is to say the struggle that mankind has been waging since the dawn of the species to achieve some understanding of the physical universe around us.

Of course the administration's indispensable allies in this central battlefront in the War on Brains have been the massed, itchin'-fer-a-fight forces of organized junk religion.

None of this is news. I guess I've been inspired to bring up the subject by a couple of recent rays of hope. First there was the election-day defeat of that pack of school-board know-nothings in Dover, Pennsylvania. Then, in part inspired by that event, there was an op-ed piece in Saturday's New York Times by Scott M. Liell, "the author of the forthcoming 'Founding Faith,' about the religious beliefs of the founders."

Liell was commemorating the 250th anniversary of an earthquake centered at Cape Ann, Massachusetts, north of Boston--"the most destructive earthquake ever recorded in the eastern United States."

This cataclysm, Liell notes, produced two very different kinds of responses:

* On the one hand, there were people like John Adams who responded to this awesome display of nature's power with curiosity, taking it as an opportunity to try to gain some knowledge and understanding of natural phenomena.

* And then there were the people who retreated behind the power and wrath of mumbo-jumbo, notably the dark forces of religion as practiced in colonial Massachusetts. To this fire-and-brimstone set, the earthquake was God's punishment for . . . well, fill in the blank.

No one filled in the blank more creatively than the Rev. Thomas Prince of Boston's South Church. Prince sermonized that the earthquake was God's punishment for a sinful invention by none other than . . . Benjamin Franklin!

Liell reminds us that Franklin was already world-famous for his invention of the lightning rod. With all that famous kite-flying, he had learned enough about lightning and electricity to figure out that lightning rods could protect buildings by harmlessly redirecting lightning bolts, which since time immemorial had been frying any structure that came in their path, to ground.

To the Reverend Prince this was mucking about in God's domain. Lightning, after all, was God's basic tool for expressing displeasure. Now this dastardly Franklin had deprived God of His favorite tool! Was it any surprise that He had visited an earthquake upon the northern colonies?

Now, I don't want this to smack of a homework assignment, and so I'm refraining from posting the whole piece here. But I hope your appetite has been whetted enough to want to read it if you haven't already, and therefore, in particular for the benefit of those who haven't coughed up the NYT's ransom payment for its now-under-wraps opinion writers, I'm going to try to post it in a comment. (No guarantees here, but I'll give it a shot.)

However, the point I want to get to is the conclusion Liell offers us about the nature of the battle that raged in the colonial America of 1755, and how it relates to the battle beteween science and faith that is promoted so vehemently, and often violently, by the junk religionists of 2005:

"At the end of the day, it was never faith per se that stood in opposition to science; Franklin was ultimately as much a believer as Thomas Prince. Many people of faith--Unitarians, Quakers and those who, like most of the founding fathers, were deists--were prominent members of the scientific community. Rather, it was (and is) a specific type of belief that consistently finds itself at odds with science, one that is not found merely in America and is not limited to Christianity. It is the specific brand of faith that devalues reason and confers the mantle of infallible, absolute authority upon a leader or a book. It is only the priests of these sects, as Jefferson said, who 'dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.' . . .

"For Franklin and his like-minded contemporaries, scientific pursuit was the ultimate act of faith; faith that there was an order to be discovered and faith in our ability to discover it."


At 2:20 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Here is the full text of Scott Liell's piece:

November 18, 2005
Op-Ed Contributor
Shaking the Foundation of Faith

Madison, Conn.

AN event that occurred 250 years ago today stands as a singular reminder that the war between faith and science in America did not start in Dover, Pa., where several school board members who promoted the teaching of intelligent design were voted out of office last week, or even in that Tennessee courthouse in 1925 where John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution. It has been a recurring theme in our history since the very seedtime of the republic.

In the early hours of Nov. 18, 1755, the most destructive earthquake ever recorded in the eastern United States struck at Cape Ann, about 30 miles north of Boston. "It continued near four minutes," wrote John Adams, then a recent Harvard graduate staying at his family home in Braintree, Mass. "The house seemed to rock and reel and crack as if it would fall in ruins about us."

The shock was felt as far away as Montreal and Chesapeake Bay. Throughout the New England countryside familiar springs stopped flowing and new ones appeared; stone walls were thrown down and cracks opened in the earth. Two hundred miles out to sea one ship was knocked about so violently that its crew believed it had run aground. In Boston, 100 chimneys toppled into the streets and more than 1,000 houses were damaged. A distiller's new cistern collapsed with such force that it brought down the entire building in which it was housed.

For Bostonians, the experience was unlike anything they had been through and their reactions varied widely. On the one side were a few who absorbed the experience with keen interest; as a natural phenomenon with natural causes. In this group were people like Adams and his favorite Harvard professor, John Winthrop, who gave a lecture on the science of earthquakes the following week.

To such people, the Cape Ann quake was an opportunity to learn something about a kind of event that was quite rare in their part of the world. While they knew nothing of plate tectonics and fault lines, the written accounts of these observers are replete with the sort of details that a modern seismologist would value. This was the reaction of men inspired by the still-new principles of natural philosophy, as science was called then, to believe that there were laws governing the operations of the world and that man could come to understand these laws through careful observation and reason.

The more typical mid-18th-century response to these kinds of events, however, was a desire to find supernatural explanations that while short on empirical detail, were usually long on ominous foreboding. To these folks earthquakes and hurricanes were simply just deserts for sins ranging from loose morals to having strayed from the true religion of their pilgrim forefathers.

The weeks after Nov. 18 saw an outpouring of sermons preached and articles published on the subject of the quake's divine origin. One strain of faith-based explanation, however, stands apart from the rest, not only for its popularity but also for its downright strangeness. According to a prominent Boston minister, the Rev. Thomas Prince of South Church, and his adherents, one novel practice in particular, together with its originator, was to blame for provoking this act of divine wrath; no, not that unlucky Boston distiller, but the lightning rod and its famous inventor, Benjamin Franklin.

It was a widespread belief in the 18th century that lightning was God's instrument of choice when manifesting his displeasure. In fact, it was a common practice to ring a town's church bells upon a storm's approach in an 11th-hour plea for mercy. To the grief of many a poor bell-ringer's widow, it was not a tactic that met with much success. But Franklin's idea of mounting pointed iron rods to the tops of tall buildings was so effective that their use quickly spread around the globe, making Franklin internationally famous two decades before he fixed his name to the Declaration of Independence.

And it was precisely the effectiveness of Franklin's invention that drew the blame of some in the city he had run away from at the age of 17. Lightning rods meddled with God's usual mode of reprimand, went this line of thinking, causing God to reach for another, more terrible weapon in his arsenal. "God shakes the earth because he is wroth," insisted Prince in a sermon he published soon after the quake. He warned his flock that the more lightning rods were erected around Boston, the more earthquakes would afflict the city as a result.

While not present at this sermon, Adams wrote that he heard idle talk of the "presumption of philosophers in erecting iron tods ... attempting to control the artillery of heaven," and dismissed it a drunken nonsense. For his part, Franklin was amused by the reaction. Why, he wryly asked, was it acceptable to build a roof to keep out the rain but blasphemy to place a rod upon the roof to keep out the lightning?

At the end of the day, it was never faith per se that stood in opposition to science; Franklin was ultimately as much a believer as Thomas Prince. Many people of faith - Unitarians, Quakers and those who, like most of the founding fathers, were deists - were prominent members of the scientific community. Rather, it was (and is) a specific type of belief that consistently finds itself at odds with science, one that is not found merely in America and is not limited to Christianity. It is the specific brand of faith that devalues reason and confers the mantle of infallible, absolute authority upon a leader or a book. It is only the priests of these sects, as Jefferson said, who "dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight."

IF people are dismayed to find fresh examples of the type of faith that blames victims of natural disasters - like Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake - for causing their own misery, it is comforting to see that the other kind of faith is also alive and well. For that, we need look no further than Franklin's adopted home state, Pennsylvania. No doubt many of those who voted for science on Election Day in Dover went to church the following Sunday.

For Franklin and his like-minded contemporaries, scientific pursuit was the ultimate act of faith; faith that there was an order to be discovered and faith in our ability to discover it.

Scott M. Liell is the author of the forthcoming "Founding Faith," about the religious beliefs of the founders.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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