God’s Extravagant Creation

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God’s Extravagant Creation

Edited Version of Remarks Delivered at St. Vincent de Paul Church’s Easter Vigil 2017

Buckle up! In the next few minutes we are going to cover an immense amount of distance and time, and think about some challenging things, and I aim to make the ride a little bumpy. All set?

Going back over the years, this may the fourth time I’ve talked at this service about the opening stories of Genesis. Recently I’ve focused on the hard lessons of Chapters 2 and 3 about morality and mortality. But to get to them, I kind of skipped over the two utterly enthralling and fascinating creation stories in Chapters 1 and 2. We just heard the first of those stories, about the dawn of everything.

Unapologetically Anthropocentric

Genesis 1 and 2 tell us about God fashioning everything, and setting the table for us, creating a world with the fundamental requirements for us to exist: earth, sky, sea, night and day, plants, animals – and us ourselves. It is a fundamentally anthropocentric story, in which mankind is presented unapologetically as the crown of creation, and in it all that is created is stated to be for man’s benefit.

There is another theme in the creation myths of Genesis: the wonder of it all. When God keeps marveling how good it all is, it’s an invitation to us to marvel as well. And it’s even easier for us than for the ancients who came up with this story; they had no remote idea how wondrous it really all was. We have a better one.

This evening, I want to compare and contrast the ancients’ ideas with those of modern scientists about the same things – as best I can. Now, most of you know that I’m no scientist. That said, I do read a lot. And one thing I can tell you with confidence is that what we think we know on this subject is dwarfed by what we can be quite certain we don’t know. The most informed people know just enough, as the saying goes, to be dangerous. But here we  go!

Still the Appropriate Reaction

Modern scientists, when they try to reconstruct the way everything came about, are more resistant to the notion of everything being assembled with our arrival in mind. Yet it is hard to put the scientific story together without seeing that human-centered story arc in there. I’m not saying it’s logically compelled, but in a mysterious way it seems to make sense, given our limited information.

And marveling at this insanely huge creation is still the appropriate reaction.

So let’s look at the standard modern version and see what echoes it evokes next to Genesis. I will start out by saying that whether there was anything before the Big Bang, the explosion that kicked off our universe – whether that is even a meaningful question, is up in the air as far as scientists are concerned. I wish I could do justice here to the richness of the concepts involved, but I lack the time and the scientific knowledge or rigor. I’ll simply say that if you look at the red shift, the changes in spectrum that tell us where the stars are going from and to and how fast, and if you decode the cosmic rays that are part of the background radiation in space, you cannot avoid concluding that it all started in one spot.

Before-ness in the Singularity

And by all I mean all: all matter and all space as well. But if it really was in one spot, then it must have been a spot of infinitesimal size and nearly infinite mass and heat and energy. The trouble is, if you posit that, then at that spot, all the laws of physics, both conventional and quantum physics, break down, among them the laws governing time. There basically isn’t supposed to be time in a singularity like that.

So what do we do with the notion that our universe may not have had any time when it started? What does that do to the question of what may have existed before it? Before-ness is a quality that only makes sense in the context of time. There are cosmologists who get around the problem by saying that in that context time curves. I guess that suggests that time slingshots around that singularity the way a spacecraft can sling around the gravitational field of a planet and come back. Otherwise put, perhaps our universe has always been here, because in curved time there would be no such thing as a beginning.

But wait! If that were true, what room would there be for a God the Creator?

Sorry, Aquinas!

Whatever Thomas Aquinas, with his emphasis on God’s role as the source of everything, might have said, the author of Genesis would not have seen the problem. Remember, in Genesis, the Creation is not quite the origin of the world. By the time God gets to work in the story’s first couple of sentences, there is already an ocean and a formless wasteland that, for all the story tells us, could have existed from all time. In Genesis, God’s creativity seems to work on materials that already exist.

Or course, if you could interrogate the author of Genesis, you might find that he or she attributed the ocean and the wasteland to an earlier act of God’s creation. Who knows? If you need to see a God as in some sense prior to the emergence of anything, though, then I need to mention what some quantum physicists think: that matter and energy bubble in and out of existence all the time, and that the origins of the singularity that existed before the Big Bang may have lain in this kind of spontaneous self-generation. There is also a theory that ours is just one of an infinity of universes bubbling up out of nothing. Again, none of this rules out divine agency. A natural order in which universes bubble up out of nothing cries out – to our human minds, at least – for a cause. Can a natural order create itself, even one in which things spontaneously generate? That thought just seems wrong.

In any case, time and our universe did get started. Most scientists think now that the start was the explosion we call the Big Bang about 13.6 billion years ago. And the story from there to here – well, let’s just say that it sure lends itself to seeing an intentionality at the center. A lot had to happen before there could be a world for us.

What Had to Happen

Let’s break it down some. First, much is supposed to have happened in the first milliseconds. One of the first changes, scientists think, was the predominance of only three dimensions among the ten or eleven our mathematics seems to show must exist. The remaining dimensions are thought to have curled up tight so that they are not major players. If they had not done that, apparently gravity wouldn’t have worked right. Don’t ask me to explain what I just said, because I can’t, but I think there’s a lot of scientific consensus behind it.

Just like the void of which Genesis speaks, gradually taking form, scientists envision the way that our mostly three-dimensional universe took form from a plasma – hot non-molecular atomic particles, uniformly distributed throughout the cosmos. (I can’t show you a picture, because there wouldn’t have been any light emitted from that heat.)

Then, little bits of plasma bumped up against each other and stayed together, bound by basic physical forces. Gas atoms formed. These atoms kept bumping up against other ones, and congregated, so the clouds of gas grew and grew. And because of the physical laws dictating what happens when matter aggregates, they got hot and started the reactions that turned these balls of gas into stars. Billions and billions of stars. And light again. At this point we’re maybe a hundred million years out from the Big Bang. (Here’s an actual photo from the Hubble of what the universe looked like then.)

Day 8 - First Stars

Also important was the formation of the first black holes. Nowadays they come from collapsed supernovas; perhaps initially they were fragments of the singularity. In any case, they did a vital job of pulling stars together into formations we call galaxies. In those formations, stars could collaborate more closely on joint projects like forming elements.

Life in a Balloon

Meanwhile space itself was growing, and apparently continues to do so. Here’s something to wrap your mind around: if we have any descendants ten billion years from now, they’ll look up and they won’t see too many other galaxies besides our Milky Way, despite the fact that there are billions of galaxies. Why? Because most of the other galaxies will have moved so far away from us and so quickly that the light from them will never reach us.

How is that possible? We’re told that nothing can move faster than light. So however fast these other galaxies are moving, surely they can’t outrun the light they are shining on us. And that would be true, if space itself, including the space between us and other galaxies, weren’t expanding. We don’t understand what space is, but the best comparison for this purpose is to a balloon. Whatever space is, it has been or is being pumped into this balloon so rapidly that almost everything in that balloon is being separated from everything else at a speed that exceeds the speed of light.

For the time being at least, we can see a lot of galaxies. And right now, we can see about 46 billion light years in any direction. In other words, we can look around within a sphere of double that diameter, about 91 billion light years wide. It all looks like universe, galaxies in all directions. Is there universe beyond that? Almost certainly, but we have no way of knowing how much, or whether it curves in on itself eventually, as many physicists suspect.

But what this wild profusion tells us for sure is that creation proceeds on an unimaginable scale, much of it unseeable and unknowable. Billions and billions and billions of stars and galaxies and black holes and who knows what else in this expanding realm we call space.

Our small story is dependent on that big story. So let’s return to it.

Celestial Cuisine

If we’re thinking in terms of what’s necessary to make us, what we need at this stage of the game are planets, so that one day there can be a planet for us. The thing is, to have a planet with somewhere solid to stand, we had to have heavier elements than the hydrogen, helium and lithium that were the main components of the earlier universe. It turns out that the stars were cookhouses for all the other elements, including carbon, vital to all life that we know of. But those elements had to be in the oven a really long time, about ten billion years from the Big Bang to be produced in terrestrial quantities. And then the stars that were doing the cooking had to go supernova or somehow explode, so as to spread the mineral wealth around to younger stars that could capture those blobs of heavy star matter and fashion planets from them. And it turns out that a star dying in that fashion is not necessarily inevitable. Certain chemical and physical properties are required, or the star goes out in another way.

But there were enough supernovas that eventually planets became commonplace anyhow. Scientists estimate there may be 1024 planets out there.

Of course it isn’t enough that there are planets. Not just any planet will do to support life – at least not carbon-based life forms like us. And here I’m going to paraphrase some of what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow say in their recent book The Grand Design: About half the stars out there are in pairs, circling each other – not good for life on the planets that circle them.

The Goldilocks Orbit

You need a planet with an orbit that is nearly circular rather than elliptical – which is good for keeping temperature relatively constant – because life does not favor wide variations in temperature. And you can’t get circular orbits around double stars. So there had to be single stars. And orbits work in only our three dimensions, which makes it handy that the other dimensions are tucked out of the way somewhere.

You need a planet with the right distance from the star it’s circling. To make it concrete, in the case of our earth, if we were 20% closer to the sun, we’d be hot as Venus, and if we were 20% further out, we’d be as cold as Mars. And there’s another important result of the so-called Goldilocks zone we exist in: liquid water is possible. Our lives are nearly unthinkable without a world in which there can be liquid water, frozen water, and evaporated water.

Also we need to have a magnetic core if only to allow us to form radiation belts that keep harmful radiation away from the surface.

Beautiful Volcanoes

What’s another vital thing for our lives here? An atmosphere. Scientists think we have volcanoes to thanks for that – another reason we needed a molten magnetic core on which tectonic plates of earth could float and rupture and collide and give us beautiful volcanoes. Volcanoes spewed water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, from whence what we breathe ultimately evolved. Also our oceans.

And we received all of that. To me, that feels so like running the table against long odds, there almost has to be a God in our corner, making it happen.

Of course, it would feel less miraculous if we knew it were commonplace. But we have no comparators.

Four Necessary Things

And on that subject, let’s talk numbers. I’ve read that there are perhaps 500 planets in our galaxy that fulfill the four conditions for life as we know it: a) correct orbits that preserve moderate temperatures and don’t run through radiation zones, b) made of rock, c) possessed of a molten core, and d) capable of holding an atmosphere. On the assumption our galaxy is typical, multiply that 500 by 100 billion, the number of galaxies we can see, and you get an estimate of 50 trillion planets throughout the cosmos that might have the requirements for supporting life.

And yet, so far as we know, we are alone. The problem is, it’s not clear how we’d know if we weren’t. Think of what would have to happen for our neighbors to know about us. The most likely way neighbors would learn about us would be to pick up on our radio and TV signals, now that we are emitting radio waves 24/7. But we’ve only been broadcasting for a little less than a century, meaning that our earliest transmissions are only 100 light-years out at this stage. Hence our radio transmissions can have only reached about 500 stars so far, because all the other stars are further away than 100 light-years. And 500 is an infinitesimally small proportion of the stars that are out there even in our galaxy. So, turning it around, if other planets out there supported radio-broadcasting life forms who developed at the same time as we did, they’d have to be on planets around one of those 500 stars in order for their radio transmissions to have reached us yet. The odds of that happening would be vanishingly small. And if the radio-broadcasting neighbors happened to be on a planet circling the furthest-away star within our own galaxy, they would have had to have sent out their signal nearly 100,000 years ago for it to reach us today.

So we have no information. We don’t know whether we’re rare or commonplace. But I think Genesis speaks to us either way.

If We’re Unique

Say we’re rare, that this whole vast creation contains nothing else like us. A 91-billion light-year wide cosmos, filled with billions and billions of stars and black holes and planets, etc., just so there could be an us. It’s conceivable, but at the same time insane. What could we possibly think about a God who would paint so long and so hard on such a stupendous canvas, when the most interesting and important detail was all encompassed in one little speck buried in some off-center part of the picture that no observer could possibly see?

Because of that apparent mismatch between us and our setting, the response of skeptics has been to propose a concept of the universe as a one-armed bandit whose handle has been pulled trillions of times. The evolution of every star, every planet, counts as a pull. All the planets that don’t meet those four preconditions for life are just bets that didn’t pay off. But a certain number of those planets, as we’ve seen, do meet those conditions. They pay off, somewhat. Most of them won’t be jackpots, though. The planets that meet the conditions of life but don’t develop carbon-based life forms, or get hit by an asteroid that blows them apart, or get swallowed up by a supernova or a plague or a volcanic eruption that destroys all life, or do develop life that never becomes intelligent, or do develop that kind of life, which goes on to destroy itself by engineering its own ecological catastrophe or killing itself off with warfare, or what have you, they’re not jackpots. But with trillions of pulls, the theory goes, everything is bound to line up at least once and yield the jackpot of intelligent life. No God guiding it and looking at it afterwards and see how good it all is; just the operation of the odds.

To which a believer might respond: yeah, but who set the odds in the first place? Where does this one-armed bandit of a universe with all of its laws and all of its huge capacity to allow trillions of opportunities to create intelligent life come from? Maybe the very reason there’s such a vast cosmos is that its creator knew how many tries would be required to bring about something like us. That might explain the otherwise apparently insane profusion of creation. Of course it would leave open the question of why God created a universe that made it so hard to achieve what God was aiming at. But it’s hardly irrational to infer a divine hand behind the workings of nature, even if we don’t have much of a clue why those workings were ordered the way they are.

If We’re Nothing Special

Or let’s try the opposite tack. Let’s say we’re nothing special, and that races like us are seeded throughout the universe, perhaps all unaware of each other. Genesis, of course, was written without notice of these other planets and other races. But the basic insight there: that what was done was done to set the table for our existence and survival: that would seem equally adapted to every planet that hits the jackpot and supports intelligent life. The more such planets there might be, the less urgent the questions we’ve just been grappling with. If it turns out that the making of planets that support intelligent life is relatively commonplace, then it would seem that God would have been aiming to create a lot of separate good things. That seems reasonable.

It would raise some interesting questions, to be sure. We used to hear Fr. Lawrence entertain them: Would there be separate incarnations there? Separate original sin? Separate redemption? You might recall that C.S. Lewis speculated about just this question in his science fiction novel Perelandra, set in a world which had not yet fallen and into which sin had not yet entered. (The mission of the hero was to prevent those things from happening.) I read neither Genesis nor any other part of the Bible as ruling out such things. Until we have a known instance of any other intelligent life out there, however, it’s all speculation.

What we do know, from Genesis and from what is in our hearts, I am sure, is that what God or nature has gifted us with is good, is sacred, and necessary for us. It seems that we now increasingly have the means within our grasp to reject that gift. We can poison the ecosphere or blow up the whole human species or even all species. We can exhaust some vital natural resource or tear down resistance to some virus that will kill us all.

Too Sickening to Contemplate

Think of this reality in relation to the two basic scenarios I’ve posed. Let’s say that this whole unimaginably vast creation was truly just about us. Are there words for what a tragedy it would be if we extinguished the whole point of not just our own earth but of literally everything, including all the billions of galaxies and trillions of stars? If we wiped out, not just the few billion humans involved, but literally the meaning of everything?

The prospect is only a little more endurable if it turns out there are other inhabited worlds. Maybe the jackpot we could have embodied got wasted. Maybe God built into the odds that there would be late-breaking failures like us. Maybe, even having sent the Redemption and the Resurrection we celebrate this night, God has not persuaded us to abandon suicidal destructiveness. Maybe we just didn’t have what it took to make the grade. And hopefully some other beings somewhere else will succeed where we failed, so that God’s plan may be realized somehow, somewhere.

Personally, I recognize the possibility of that outcome, but I refuse to reconcile myself to it. To me, and hopefully to all of us here, that sickening kind of failure is not an option. To me, looking at the vastness of the universe, with all that light, all that activity, all that excitement – all of which God sees and thinks good – I take heart. Though I do not know much about saving a planet, I sense that the purpose of this stupendous undertaking will not be easily frustrated, and that somehow I and you and all of us will be shown ways to contribute to keeping the show going.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Single Carrot’s Magical Mystery Tour: A SHORT REUNION

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Single Carrot’s Magical Mystery Tour: A SHORT REUNION

Paul Diem

Paul Diem

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com April 23, 2017

Bundles of really short plays often make for decent evenings of theater, but they throw so much at you that, cumulatively speaking, they may not be very memorable. (Try to call to mind the last time you saw a package of playlets presented for over two hours – say, the very enjoyable 10x10x10 series at Fells Point Corner Theatre: anything in particular stick in your mind?) I would not expect a similar oblivion to await A Short Reunion, Single Carrot Theatre’s nine-performance anthology, not so much because of any individual stick in the bundle, but because of the uniqueness of the whole conception.

The collective title reflected some of the distinctiveness of the evening: it was a series of “shorts” that also constituted a “reunion” of two types. This is Single Carrot’s tenth season, at a point where the group has established a firm if slightly paradoxical claim to be the leading fringe theater in our region; and as happens when time passes, by now only one of its founding members still belongs to the resident company. The entire founding ensemble was back for this series of performances, however. In addition, the playlets were by playwrights whose work has been featured in former seasons.

And, apart from the reunion aspect of things, there was the peripatetic nature of the experience to make the evening unique and memorable. Audiences were warned that they should wear comfortable walking shoes, and that they would cover most of a mile crisscrossing the Remington neighborhood to witness the various pieces on offer.

Moreover, the interactions with the “tour guides,” members of the company wearing (natch) carrot-orange shirts who led platoons of the audience members around the neighborhood so they kept bumping up against each other like ghost tours in the French Quarter, were effectively a separate part of the experience. We were told that the tour guide was working from a script, but that there would be spontaneous departures from it. Or were the departures scripted? Some seemed to be, but that might just have been a double fake-out. My group lost its tour guide, gained another, got merged with one other group, and then with all of the groups at the end, and it wasn’t possible to determine what was “real.” That manipulation of the framing experience was part of the fun.

The subversion of the frame started at the outset and never let up: the groups congregated outside the 26th Street theater entrance, a scene where on a mild spring night, there are crowds eating outside at Parts & Labor next door and crowds congregating in the small park space. We were encouraged to congregate in one spot in the park and suddenly realized that a couple sitting there were the performers in our first event, Adam Szymkowicz‘s 36 Questions or Emily & Sanders, a sometimes-cute riff on modern dating mores. The two of them seemed to be deciding, with the help of a questionnaire (being read off a cellphone) that helped them know each other better, whether to become an item or not. Emily (Genevieve de Mahy at the performance we saw, but three others are also listed on the program for that part, so no guarantees) has to run off for a bathroom break, and when she must leave, so must we – although we were reunited with them at a later juncture, to learn more of their ultimate fate.

Off we went to a nearby church where Grand Mal by Shawn Reddy awaited. There a Man (Paul Diem) seemed to be consoling a Kid (Ben Kleymeyer) who was sitting by his father’s coffin. But was it consolation or what? And what was all that talk about time travel? No matter: before any of it could gel in our heads, it was time to be whisked to a stoop at a corner, where a Teacher (Alex Fenhagen) was trying to talk sense into a rebellious 15-year-old (Jesssica Moose Garrett) in Olivia Dufault’s The Ninth Planet. The teacher gave up when the child, Casey, insisted her father was an astronaut. Then we followed Casey into the house for her confrontation with her no-account father (Elliott Rauh), who may yet have been an astronaut after all, and for her escape from that confrontation … into outer space?

Relentlessly onward to the offices of Young Audiences, next-door to Single Carrot, for Tense White People Have Dinner by Jen Silverman, whose The Roommate recently entertained audiences at Everyman. If tension means losing your eyeballs before the first course, then this play lived up to its title even if not all the people in evidence were white – or was that merely non-traditional casting? And what was the confrontation with an owl at the end all about?

But wait! Or rather, don’t wait! There’s lots more! Back on the street, three performers atop, within, and beside an automobile revisited one of the most controversial and tragic psychological experiments associated with Johns Hopkins, the gender reassignment experiment conducted by Dr. John Money that ended in the subject’s suicide. The shift from the magical realism of the previous two experiences to the somber documentary style of this piece, Bruce/Brenda/David, by J. Buck Jabaily and Nathan Fulton (with Aldo Pantoja and Meg Jabaily also credited) was both disconcerting and refreshing.

It was at about this point that we lost our guide after and as an apparent consequence of what appeared to be an extended off-script chat about his personal life, and with that loss, we found ourselves plunged into an even more disorienting part of the evening. We were led back then to the church, in another hall, where what we encountered could barely be called a theater piece, and more properly should have been called an installation, Live Through This, credited to Caridad Svich, a sort of stroll through life notable for a recreation of Jessica Lewinsky’s blue dress (don’t ask me why). The only thing that it had in common with theater was a strange monologue playing through a speaker with dreamy background music.

Time for comedy: we were led across Howard Street to Itch So Bad by Joshua Conkel, a scabrous (and I mean that literally) exploration of communicable disease in an era of prolific gay sex. It followed the liaisons of Josh A (Elliott Rauh) and Josh B (Dustin C.T. Morris) that were continually interrupted and/or punished by eruptions of scabies. The int-eruptions were embodied in a Scabies marching band led by Britt Olsen-Ecker performing George Michael‘s Faith, whose syncopated percussion soon had the house rocking. It is doubtful any of us in the audience had ever witnessed such a peppy presentation of a parasitic contagion.

But no rest for the weary. Down the street we went, to a former VW dealership where in a large space formerly devoted to automotive activities, we were shown a somber and perhaps agonized pas-de-deux of two women, portrayed by de Mahy and Fenhagen, apparently saying goodbye after – what? A love affair? A shared bereavement? Not stated – in fact there was almost no dialogue with which to state anything, in One More Time by Eric Coble (whose show Natural Selection was part of the 2010 Carrot season and my introduction to the troupe).

Left momentarily in the metaphorical and literal dark by the departure of the second performer in One More Time, we were surprised by the rolling up of garage door to admit the entire company, particularly the Scabies Band, but also all the other tour guides and performers, to provide what was called “group therapy” in a monologue called The Therapist by Charles Mee. The title character, embodied by Paul Diem, launched into a spirited evocation of the art of theater, which morphed into a vision of all life as a work of art. In that spirit, flags and funny hats were passed out to the congregation, as the Therapist stripped down to Superman skivvies (he is pictured above) and led the whole assemblage out onto Howard Street in a bacchanal, with a motorist honking in rhythm with the syncopation of Faith, and thence back to the theater.

The reader will note that I have been more descriptive than critical, and for good reason: most of these pieces were designed to resist analysis. Trying to understand such mini-enigmas is almost an insult to them. The question was whether you enjoyed the experience of being teased by them. I did, and I think most viewers would. And the experience, unreliable narrators, installation, marching mites and bacchanal and all, was surely more than the sum of its analyzable parts in any case.

These shows are running through the coming weekend only; that’s one more way in which the “short” part of the title is meant, I’m sure. So strike while the iron is hot.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Utilitarianism Invades the Window Seat

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Utilitarianism Invades the Window Seat

Published in the Daily Record April 14, 2017

We can all agree that the airport security guy did the unpopular thing when he yanked Dr. Dao out of his window seat on the Chicago-Cincinnati flight. But I believe that United Airlines and its regional partner Republic Airline are run by Benthamite Utilitarians who acted on principle, and that we all ought to stop being so horrible to these fine companies.

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham is best known for his dictum that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” To discern how he would have applied it to this complicated situation takes some thinking. Did you do some thinking? Or did you just say: Oh, how dreadful to see them manhandling that poor doctor? How superficial of you!

Try sorting through these five Benthamite propositions instead, if you’re so smart.

Proposition 1: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of air travelers would be secured if it were agreed that, once one has run the gauntlet of purchasing tickets, checking baggage, enduring the indignities of airport security, finding the gate, waiting patiently to be seated, stowing things in the overhead bin (if lucky enough to locate one with actual space), and wedging oneself into a seat that may be too small for comfort, one should have a proprietary interest in one’s seat that can only be divested if one has seriously misbehaved, or some dire emergency is taking place.

Proposition 2: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of air travelers would be secured if all flights departed on time or as close thereto as possible, and hence, if by one’s requested departure from a plane one can speed the plane’s departure, it is fitting and proper that to deplane. (Sort of a companion to Horace’s line Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori: it’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.)

Proposition 3: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of air travelers would be secured if airlines never bumped passengers for supernumerary crewmembers that the airline had neglected to make arrangements for before the plane boarded, and instead the airlines made use of vans, general aviation (which must be plentiful at large fields like O’Hare) and the like, to transport late-identified supernumeraries to wherever they need to be next, even at significant cost.

Proposition 4: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of air travelers would be secured when the greatest number of flights depart on time or as close thereto as possible, and if the system will not deliver that number of departures unless supernumeraries may bump a few already-seated travelers, so be it.

Proposition 5: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of humans could be preserved by airlines knowing in advance whether the patients of a physician they wish to deplane might die or be gravely injured for want of care in the morning, because human life and patient safety is a paramount value that trumps the happiness and convenience of many, many airline travelers, and airlines care far more about that than about mere profits. (They do, don’t they?)

Not so easy, is it, Mr./Ms. Smartypants?

Clearly the deep thinkers and committed altruists who run United and Republic were persuaded by the philosophical rightness of Propositions 2 and 4. This took some bravery, because even if you agree that it is sweet and fitting pro sociis exponere (to deplane for one’s fellow-fliers) and moreover that an airline possesses the right and in fact the duty to deplane passengers who seem oblivious to how sweet and fitting it all is, well, there’s still the little matter of how you go about it.

Naturally, being a deep thinker, you’re not going to be concerned about the mere optics, about how it looks when paying passengers are dragged out of their seats and their faces bloodied. No, if you’re United and Republic, organizations which only seek the greatest good of the greatest number, you will not be distracted by public relations consequences at all. You will do the philosophically right thing, no matter what. And bully for you! (Okay, maybe that’s not the right word. But anyway…)

Granted, if you do not resort to market mechanisms, you really have no alternative to the use of force should you come up against an unfeeling wretch like Dr. Dao, who thinks only of himself and of his patients waiting for him in the morning.

Market mechanisms could resolve the matter. You could auction off the right to deplane. It might cost more than the $1350 that is the current limit on what airlines are supposed to pay for the privilege of booting passengers involuntarily. Markets being what they are, however, in an aircraft like the Embraer 170 that carries 80 passengers (the model that was used for Flight 3411), there will be travelers whose noble inclination to sacrifice for the greater good will be activated at some price. And there is no limit to what can be paid to volunteers.

But United and Republic are above all that. Concessions to the market are not for them. They have a sterner duty. The important thing is to preserve their right to assault passengers whose views are less enlightened than their own. Paying passengers more than $1350 would only encourage defiance. And in an airline run by philosopher kings (uh, philosopher CEOs), defiance must be suppressed.

How little money matters compared to philosophical principle! Who cares if you end up refunding the fares of all passengers (as United did), or if you have to pay fees to lawyers to participate in hearings in multiple state, federal and local venues (as United likely will), or face legal action by the person you caused to be dragged off the plane with a bloody face (as United is). Only by maintaining your monopoly of violence undefiled can you assure that proper philosophy prevails in your friendly skies.

Thank you, United and Republic, for being so committed to your priorities. And shame on those who would question you!

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Appalachian Agincourt, Hillbilly HENRY V from Cohesion

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Appalachian Agincourt, Hillbilly HENRY V from Cohesion

Lance Bankerd

Lance Bankerd

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com March 13, 2017

“Make that good,” commands Maria when Feste, the clown in Twefth Night, says something that sounds preposterous. I had a similar reaction upon hearing that Cohesion Theatre was going to do a Hatfields-and-McCoys-style Henry V. I was in a mood to call bluffs. I had to see whether they could make that ridiculous premise good.

Could they? To some extent.

Accentuating the Positive

The relocation of the action (so Alice Stanley and Jane Jongeward, the directors, inform us) puts all the characters physically in 1882 Tug Valley, between Kentucky and West Virginia, the period and place of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. The costumes (by Heather Johnston) and the weaponry seem time-and-place-appropriate to that setting. And that, for better and for worse, is as far as the relocation goes. The script does not seem to have been altered to make this a fight over anything but the historical Henry V’s claim to French lands, and even though the costumes contain not a single plate of armor, the French nobles still discuss their suits of armor. In other words, there is a mismatch, fairly typical for resituated Shakespeare, between what the script says the play is about and what the setting, costumes and props force it to be about. The modern theater critic must accept such discontinuities or forego reviewing Shakespeare almost altogether. The Bard isn’t performed much in doublet and hose these days. You have to think about what you might gain from the substituted setting.

First and foremost, what you gain here is a drastic rereading of the lines. When the words are delivered with a Southern twang, they come across dramatically differently, much as wood will look different with different stains and varnishes. This is apparent from the first speech, by the Prologue, here recast as the Storyteller (Lance Bankerd, pictured above), the familiar plea that the audience will enter into the theatergoer’s grand bargain with any play: that it suspend disbelief and accept the limited resources of the stage as representing the elements of the story. But here the prologue comes across less as a plea and more as an invocation of the very things the Storyteller admits we cannot see: the two mighty kingdoms, the ocean separating them, the horses “printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth.” There is something about the Southern accent designed to coax fantasy out of an audience that standard middle American or King’s English accents do not possess. Likewise, when Henry (Zach Bopst) feels his way through the moral dilemmas he confronts (whether to go to war, how to treat traitors, the moral responsibilities of a king who leads his nation into war, how a conquering army is supposed to behave toward the vanquished), we discover that that accent and phrasing are perfect for capturing the process of thinking things through.

Many of us, myself included, will mentally default to Laurence Olivier‘s phrasing from the 1944 movie and more particularly the album that was made of it, still available commercially, with Olivier voicing both Henry (whom he played in the movie), and the Prologue and various other roles (whom he did not). Or our ideas of these speeches may come from Kenneth Branagh‘s 1989 film or even the 1990 Christopher Plummer recording, in which Plummer delivers all the speeches that Olivier recorded and others, backed with William Walton’s lush music from the 1944 film. The differently-accented delivery of the same lines in this production does not begin to square with any of these earlier readings. It is a rediscovery, a rediscovery in service of a different mission.

No Beating Drums

The mission is to use Shakespeare’s text for an anti-Shakespearean task. Shakespeare was out to glorify Henry and his campaign. Shakespeare may have recognized some vexed issues surrounding Henry, but we always know where Shakespeare comes down in the end, beating the drum for English glory. Olivier, whose movie, for all its artistry, was also a piece of British war propaganda and financed as such, deviated not at all from Shakespeare’s outlook. And Branagh, while he certainly toned down the glory and focused, where appropriate, on the mud and the blood and the gore, still makes of Henry a national hero, possessed of real religious belief and real modesty.

Cohesion’s production, by contrast, is out to deconstruct that whole picture, and largely to reassemble it showing Henry in a much less flattering light. It starts immediately after the Storyteller’s initial pitch, with two characters Shakespeare denominated the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely (apparently given different names in this production) discussing and then presenting to Henry the legal case for his French claim. The language is obscure at best, made more so because the essential information (that Henry’s claim is controversial because it reaches him through a female progenitrix whose power to transmit it to him depends on a choice-of-laws problem) is only tangentially referred to (the progentrix, Isabella of France, several generations senior to Henry, not even being named). Branagh treats it skeptically (by presenting the bishops in a close two-shot and making their palaver seem like malevolent nonsense), but he also shows Henry taking it seriously and in good conscience. Here, Henry’s reaction seems harder to gauge. He may be asking himself whether the claim is plausible rather than whether it is true.

Not a Nice Guy

We get a stronger early hint that this Henry has more bloodthirst and realpolitik about him than Shakespeare had in mind, when (without any sanction in the script) he shoves aside a squeamish executioner and personally participates in the execution of the three traitors suborned to murder him at Southampton. This is reinforced later when, as retaliation for the French killing of the boys guarding the supplies behind British lines at Agincourt, he orders all the prisoners killed, both acts being understood as contrary to the laws of war. (The historical Henry did issue the order, probably out of fear that the very numerous prisoners would break free and join a French counterattack on Henry’s rear.) Pro-Henry enactments have traditionally shown him issuing the order in anger at the killing of the boys. The Cohesion Henry seems to be issuing the order off-handedly and cold-bloodedly, making use of the French provocation as an excuse.

And if there be any doubt as to the Cohesion view of Henry, there is the extended treatment of his courtship of the French princess Katherine (Micaela Mannix).

The way this production handles the Katherine business is perhaps the most striking thing about the performance. In any staging, the play makes no scruple about the fact that the marriage is a term forced upon France as part of a surrender, in order to bring about a dynastic consolidation. Nonetheless, I have never before seen the courtship scenes at the end of Act V presented other than as romantic comedy. Not here. Here Katherine visibly regards Henry with visceral distaste, is struggling not to be kissed by him, and the whole thing comes across as the prelude to a rape. (All without changing a line that I could determine.) Henry would be blind not to see how she feels about him, and his proceeding with a sunny demeanor and lines about his love for her, as he does, can only result from a profound lack of interest in her feelings. By now we recognize him as willing to do almost anything in pursuit of his own and his country’s interests, and not a nice guy.

Hitting the Floor

Shakespeare gives the Chorus – the Storyteller – the last word, and in that final speech Shakespeare faces a challenging task. He wants to send his audience away happy with the spectacle they have just witnessed. The challenge comes from the fact that everyone in Shakespeare’s audience knew what came next: the death of Henry still in his youth, the premature ascension of his (and Katherine’s) son Henry VI to the throne, the son’s troubled reign (subject of three plays Shakespeare had already written and his audience had already seen), and the loss of the France possessions Henry had fought so to preserve. The Storyteller acknowledges all this, and then, without further ado, signs off, with a syntactically awkward plea for the audience’s applause. The way Cohesion stages this speech, Henry is standing behind the Storyteller as it is delivered, listening to the Storyteller, and when he finds out that everything he achieved was in vain, he collapses to the floor. It is a stunning moment.

I’d add just a word about how the Battle of Agincourt is played. It must be emphasized that Shakespeare got his history wrong. He pictured Agincourt as a chivalric combat of conventional armies which Henry’s forces miraculously won in a rout. The reality was that this was a clash of French mounted armored knights (the previously dominant technology) and the emerging technology of English longbows. An arrow shot from a longbow could stop, if not penetrate the armor of, mounted knights, by unhorsing the knights after their un-armored steeds fell, and also by killing them through their visors. After the three days of rains which had preceded the battle, an unhorsed knight was trapped in the mud, and easy prey for an archer also equipped with a war-hammer. As employed by British archers, battle-hardened in previous Welsh wars, the longbows therefore wrought a massacre of the men wearing armor.

You will not learn about this from Shakespeare, who presents the results as simply miraculous. Olivier and Branagh knew about the longbows, and Olivier at least was fairly accurate about how they were deployed. But Branagh, though he depicted what the longbowmen and their volleys looked like, still emphasized hand-to-hand fighting (which did occur at the end of the historical battle), playing up the fear and the chaos and the death – but also the individual valor that the real battle’s arrow volleys had actually largely rendered irrelevant. The Cohesion production follows in the Branagh footsteps while changing the killing technology, with an extended gun battle that descends into bloody chaos. But the lopsided total fatalities in the battle go back to appearing, as in Shakespeare’s conception, miraculous rather than inevitable – and puzzling, for two reasons. First, there is no technological disparity: everyone is packing guns. Second, the upshot is not really borne out by the count of the “French” versus the “English” bodies on the stage, so far as I could make out.

Headscratcher

When everyone gets killed, but somehow only one side dies, that’s a headscratcher for the audience. But it’s almost an inevitable byproduct of having not enough actors to depict much in the way of armies and moving the play to an era when both sides had comparably lethal technology. Here then is one place where correct period dress — plus longbows or some kind of advantage on one side only — might have helped.

There’s a great deal more that could be said, including how non-traditional casting has led to, in this instance, a female-dominated cast in a play with only four female speaking parts, how doubling has led to a near-breakdown in the distinguishability of characters, and about how the play navigates some of the other big issues the directors, in their program note, point to (the value of monarchy, the legitimization of violence, the justifications, if any, of state-sponsored killing). Also about the use of Appalachian ballads, mostly about death, to underline, in a manner in keeping with the re-siting of the play, the grim world-view that informs the production. But those comments I must leave to others.

Clearly, there is much to admire in this staging, which leaves the audience with plenty to think about. Though I’m not sure they “made good” (in Maria’s sense) their choice to move the play from Agincourt to Appalachia, the line readings in a Southern accent assured it wasn’t a pointless exercise. And though the rethinking of the underlying play could have been done just fine without the Appalachian business, the rethinking is solid and fascinating in its own right.

Thus, as I am too often forced to say, if you want to catch it, you need to hurry. And you should want to catch it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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“The Administrative State”: Nothing Less Than Our Civilization

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“The Administrative State”: Nothing Less Than Our Civilization

To be published in the Daily Record the week of March 19, 2017

The Trump administration has various names for what it would like to kill inside the existing government.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief ideologist, told the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 23 that he and his president were working to achieve “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” The Washington Post explained the phrase as “the system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president says have stymied economic growth and infringed upon U.S. sovereignty.” Bannon did not define the phrase himself, but he did indicate the sort of thing that “the administrative state” does: pass regulations to implement policies that “the progressive left” can’t get passed any other way.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer on March 10 called it the “deep state,” which he says is “people who stay in government … and continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration.”

There Will Be Questions

Whatever the administration spokesmen call it, the administrative or deep state seems like shorthand for earlier policies the administration is trying to reverse. Informing both labels is the notion that the administration is entitled, merely by virtue of the president’s place atop the executive branch, to stop the implementation of any and all national policies in place before January 20. That notion underlay the angry outburst by senior adviser Stephen Miller to the effect that Trump’s authority in national security matters “will not be questioned” when a federal district judge invalidated the first version of Trump’s executive order establishing the travel ban from certain Muslim nations (The Ninth Circuit went ahead and, fully in keeping with precedent, questioned anyway.)

The administration seems to be short of lawyers who can explain these matters to the president. This is unfortunate. He needs to learn that while he has a critical policy-formulating role, his power to act unilaterally is limited, constrained by all the laws that currently exist. Of all sources of law, the president can change only executive orders on his own. By contrast, the Constitution, treaties, statutes, and regulations can be changed only with the cooperation of other government actors.

Subversion From Within

At least dimly aware of this, Trump seems to be trying to undermine existing laws he dislikes that he cannot change, or cannot change yet, by demonizing or firing federal employees trying to do their duty to implement the existing laws, or by defunding or attritting the agencies that implement the laws, or by appointing agency heads dedicated to stymying their own agency’s mission (e.g. CO2 denialist Scott Pruitt as head of EPA).

There is no doubt that the president may legitimately use some of the tools he is employing in this effort, like powers of appointment and dismissal, and some discretionary budget actions, not to mention the government’s prosecutorial discretion, part of which he has the right to control. But there does come a point where these actions render laws unenforced. And this brings him up against the Take Care Clause, in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution. Presidents are required to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The Clause contains no qualifying language; presidents are supposed to take care that all laws be faithfully executed, not just the ones they like.

Now we must be real about this. There have never been resources available to presidents sufficient to allow them to see that each and every law is fully enforced. Choices have always had to be made. Nor is presidential foot-dragging unknown when it comes to disliked laws. The Obama administration, for instance, famously failed to enforce marijuana laws. And several administrations by now have failed to deport millions of undocumented aliens.

Unprecedented

It is clear, however, that the scale of the Trump administration’s defiance of the laws Trump swore an oath to execute is of unprecedented scale. He is using these various tools to try to weaken or nullify such programs as civil rights enforcement, environmental protection, wage-and-hour protections, support for the United Nations, Obamacare, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the wall between church and state in education funding, public housing and securities regulation – and those are just the ones that come readily to mind – all at once.

Together, the programs under attack amount to more than a collection of governmental initiatives. Together, they amount to a major set of our civilization’s accomplishments. When we try to monitor the relations between minorities and police, when we protect transgender youth, when we keep acidic coal dust out of our streams or try to slow down the catastrophic rise in the temperature of our air, when we insist that workers be fairly paid, when we reject diversion of public funds to religious purposes, when we try to secure decent housing for our poorest citizens, or keep the investing public safe from fraud, or underwrite the international order by supporting the United Nations, or try to lift public sophistication and discourse through the National Endowments, our actions collectively amount to a summary of many things that define us as a people. We have enshrined these activities in programs that we shield from political interference by making them statutory, or establishing implementing regulations through a notice-and-comment process that then makes them hard to undo. We set our courts to guard these activities through various enforcement mechanisms. And we empower government attorneys and regulators with various degrees of autonomy to prevent interference, including presidential interference, with their actions.

Not Easily Movable

To be sure, nothing can be set in immovable stone. Even the Constitution may be amended. But the administrative state or the deep state if you will is not supposed to be easily movable. It is, after all, our civilization we are protecting. Against that, an electoral college majority that lacks an electoral majority to support it and a dominance in Congress made possible only by gerrymandering has but small legitimacy.

Our president and his advisors had better get used to being questioned. It will happen again and again and again, so long as they try to dismantle a government far more representative of popular consensus than any policy-making authority they claim.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Brilliant Fucking A from Iron Crow

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Brilliant Fucking A from Iron Crow

Fucking+A+Poster

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com February 6, 2017

Fucking A is fucking brilliant. (Decorous diction being pointless with a show titled as this one is.) Suzan-Lori Parks‘ three-ring circus of a play is what might have emerged if Brecht and Weill had been commissioned to write a Jacobean revenge tragedy. The plot drives straight toward a horrific forced abortion that is a dark joke of fate on the abortionist herself, followed by a killing that destroys what the killer held most dear. All of this is brought off with sometimes hilarious song and dance, with comedy of a sort (for instance a courtship carried out via a nervous-making demonstration of how to slit throats), and a deeply sardonic attack on the ways of kleptocratic governments. Also the odd picnic that turns into a rape. You have to be deeply disturbed to write a show like this – and fucking brilliant.

But then life often presents us reasons to be deeply disturbed. Though the show is set in an unnamed place that come across a lot like the Jim Crow-era American South, many of the realities that lead the characters to live such distracted lives can also be found in our own sphere, in our own time. There are still prisons run for profit; there are still peonage arrangements that surround them; prison still turns rambunctious youngsters into monsters; powerful men still marry for money and consort with sex workers; abortionists still operate in a legally uncertain zone and are stigmatized. Most important, the poor mostly stay poor, abused and exploited by the rich.

In production by Iron Crow Theatre, which bills itself as “Baltimore’s only professional queer theatre,” Fucking A is being framed as, in words of Sean Elias, the company’s Artistic Director, “most queer in its form, its construction, and its encounter with the ‘other’.” I’m not sure I see all that in this play by a heterosexual playwright with no overtly gay or transgendered themes, but it scarcely matters; this is a terrific production, and we can only be grateful to Iron Crow for bringing it to us.

The title? The central figure, the abortionist, Hester (Jessica Bennett), has been required by the State to wear, publicly displayed on her breast, a brand of an A, which, it is explained, is both stigmatizing and a license to practice her profession. (Resemblances to a certain Nathaniel Hawthorne protagonist also named Hester are purely intentional.) Hester and her best friend, the self-characterized whore Canary Mary (Deirdre McAllister, who also doubles as the show’s musical arranger and musical director), struggle though their lives trapped between their poverty and their dreams — Hester’s to be reunited with her imprisoned son Boy, Mary’s to wrest the Mayor (Jamil Johnson) from his loveless marriage to The First Lady (Cricket Arrison) and marry him herself. The society in which they live has no plans to fulfill either dream. Like Brecht’s Mother Courage, however, Hester and Mary keep on surviving and keep on pursuing their dreams because they have no alternatives.

The absence of alternatives is indeed the fundamental condition of all the characters’ lives. The society criminalizes a ridiculous range of behavior, from murder down to not picking up one’s room, giving the law near-total discretion to imprison whom it chooses – the better to run an extortion racket on the inmate’s relatives. To be sure, there must have been some trivial bad choices at the root of any imprisonment, but the human condition does not allow anyone to get through life without making some of those. And prison amplifies them. The principal inmate, Hester’s son Boy, who in prison has made some other bad choices and consequently become known as Monster (Javier Ogando), had little choice, it seems, but to have been dehumanized by his incarceration. Another inmate, Jailbait (Kaya Vísìon), has been driven ravenous by the absence of real food in prison, resulting in behavior that ranges from rude to brutal. Most centrally, society’s relentless oppression of Hester leads her to abandon her relentlessly sunny and optimistic dream and opt for revenge with the previously-mentioned unforeseen consequences. Victimization and bad choices are then so intertwined that to speak of individual moral agency seems almost pointless. And this holds true almost as much for the oppressors as for the oppressed.

None of this detracts from the fact that show is frequently quite funny. I particularly liked the low comedy wrung from the roles of three bounty hunters, played as Duck Dynasty-esque males by three nontraditionally-cast female actors (Caitlin Weaver, Martha Robichaud and Kelly Hutchison), who, when occasion demands, could also sing in a tight harmony like latter-day Andrews Sisters; listening to them exult over how they will torture Monster when they catch him was grim humor indeed but it was indeed funny.

Hats off, in particular, to Bennett and McAllister, and to Jared Swain, who turns in a nicely understated speaking and singing performance as the Butcher who would be Hester’s love interest, if she had any love left to give. Hats also off to director Stephen Nunns, whose control of the tone of this wildly varying production was always assured.

Not everything about the production was perfect. Sometimes the downstage characters would be speaking in circumlocutions or an incomprehensible language while upstage characters would speak “translations” into microphones; my understanding is that the play as written calls for projected surtitles instead, which if employed would have kept anything being said from becoming unintelligible – as everything being said under these conditions usually was. In fact, even when there were not competing voices, there were sometimes issues with intelligibility – without which the other aspects of good acting are insufficient. And Theatre Project, where this show is staged, is not known for bad acoustics. Still, these were minor flaws overall.

This show will not be here long. Catch it while you can.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for advertising poster

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Pantheistic Consolations

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Pantheistic Consolations

Spring Awakening

The Song of Purple Summer, Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik, Sung by the Original Broadway Cast of Spring Awakening (2006), encountered 2007

Available on Spotify | Buy it here | See it here | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

The loss of my mother in 2006 tore me loose from my religious moorings.

I’d not seen it coming.

Mother’s death – yes, that I’d foreseen, of course. And I’d anticipated it as a blessing; Mother had been ill, demented and lost. But I’d expected to feel better afterwards. I realized after the fact that I’d been operating on a barely articulated conviction that I would somehow feel her presence, and that I would also be comforted by my faith. But nothing of the kind occurred. It proved to work the other way around. I did not feel her presence, and that lack of feeling challenged my faith.

Made Me Wretched

After you lose your equilibrium, you naturally try hard to regain it. But because you know how badly you want it back, you suspect any sign of its return you think you see. And that was my situation. Every time I thought I might be hearing either Mother’s voice or God’s in my mind, I was driven to consider rigorously the likelihood I was just talking to myself.[1] So I veered back and forth. Enough of that will make you wretched.

I also thought that going back to my roots, back to my childhood church and the schools I’d attended in my home town of Ann Arbor, might help. As it happened, I did actually have to go back, once, to inter Mother’s ashes there next to Father’s. Over the next 18 months, though, I paid not one but three visits to the town, and wrote a book (one I never tried very hard to publish) about the experience. The exercise, a full immersion in memories of my childhood, did help with the grief, but did not restore my faith that all was right with the world, or that God was in charge of my history or the world’s.

Sometime not too long after Mother died, I had a lunch with my older son, who spoke, not disrespectfully but quite definitively, about his view that there was nothing to religion or its consolations. And I realized that he was speaking for the majority of educated opinion – that somewhere between my youth, when probably the majority of serious grownups held sincere religious beliefs, and now, the balance had shifted. Somehow I had gotten quite out of step.

Looking to Art

Confidence is always easier when you’re in step than when you’re out. And I had lost mine. I regrew some of it eventually, after much struggle, a struggle which of course is still ongoing.

This was the synthesis the struggle has left me with: I could never again deny the substantial possibility that my faith was completely in vain – and I have to acknowledge that, if so, there could be little reliable basis for an equanimity based on faith or on anything else. On the other hand I still feel that I’m on the right track going to church, and I plan to keep on, holding fast to my perception that some things, like human decency and the existence of existence, still seemed more plausibly explained in a universe with a God in it than in one without.[2] My certainties have fled, but I have at least decided on my course.

Big questions, to be sure. I’ve always looked to art to help me tackle big questions. This time was no different.

In January 2007, in Manhattan on an overnight before a court appearance, I attended a performance of the previous year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, Spring Awakening. As many readers will know, this adaptation of a scandalous Expressionist 1890s play about the difficult sexual and social maturing of adolescents also takes up the existential challenge of death in a putatively God-less environment. Melchior, the youthful hero, confronts that challenge after the losses of his love Wendla (victim of a botched abortion) and of his close friend Moritz (hounded to suicide by the small-minded martinets who run the village school). What good is Melchior’s life under these new circumstances?

Two Answers

The musical at the end proposes two answers to the problem. First, in the number Those You’ve Known, Melchior is visited by “ghosts” of Wendla and Moritz, although these are evidently metaphors, not actual beings. The point is, he has internalized them through his intimacy with them, and they will remain inspiring presences in his life even though they cannot actually talk to him directly. Secondly, in the inspiring closing number, The Song of Purple Summer, a kind of pantheistic solution is suggested. Though the lyrics of the show that I and most audiences have heard differ from those on the CD (recorded before the show was “locked” in previews), the CD’s lyrics were the ones I learned by heart, and they state the issue plainly:

And all shall fade –

The flowers of spring,

The world and all the sorrow

At the heart of everything…

But still, it stays –

The butterfly sings,

And opens purple summer

With a flutter of its wings…

The earth will wave with corn,

The grey-fly choir will mourn,

And mares will neigh with

Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne…

And all shall know the wonder

Of purple summer…

The message, it seems, is that there may not be any Wendla or Moritz now, and there may be a permanent “sorrow at the heart of everything,” but there is still the eternal, unconquerable beauty of summer. That beauty can give meaning to life, to everyone’s but also to Melchior’s specifically. The meaning with which God was once thought to have imbued Creation, and, succeeding Him, Wendla and Melchior symbolized, is now to be found all around, in the butterfly, the corn, the “grey-fly choir,” and the mares and the stallions and the foals. These things amount to a pantheistic replacement of the Lutheran God whom the youngsters had been brought up to look to. And the power of the message is driven home by the heart-rending harmony with which the cast always delivers it.[3]

Still Going On

Even with the softened lyrics, I was sent out of the theater reeling, a freshly-purchased copy of the CD in my bag. I played that song several times on my laptop when I got back to the hotel, before dropping off to sleep eventually.

Yet I soon realized that that kind of consolation was not for me. The lyrics (the original ones, the ones on the CD) did not promise that nature’s beauty could wipe away every tear or fill the God-shaped hole. All they promised was that it would help.

I appreciated help, but I was still looking for a cure. I would go on to see the show several times in several productions, but I always recognized the correct limits of the consolations it offered. Accurate or not, the Christian promise at least identifies the one thing that actually would constitute a cure: a world in which the Wendlas and Moritzes survive death, in which the Melchiors can actually be reunited with them. I wish I were more confident that that promise is accurate, but I know it’s the only thing that would truly make me feel better.

And so, though I flirted with pantheistic consolations and was grateful for them, I went on past them. I am still getting further away from them. I keep revisiting my beliefs constantly, and time has blunted grief over my mother (though as I age, the toll of deaths among those I love keeps adding fresh causes to grieve). I am sufficiently worldly to take pleasure in many things, but, however worldly I may be, I am no pantheist, and I do not confuse the things that give me pleasure with the things that impart meaning or value. There may be a God and there may be meaning; I believe these things are true. But if they exist, they do not reside in the world around us.

__________________

[1] For instance, there was the realization that in thinking of God I might be doing what in my private mental shorthand I called “drawing my own eye.”

Thank humorist James Thurber for the comparison. In an amusing memoir of his undergraduate experiences at Ohio State University, Thurber, who had severe eye problems, recounted how he never could see anything through the microscope in botany class, greatly upsetting his instructor, until the day he finally manipulated the lens and saw a cell, and drew it. I have to quote Thurber on what happened next:

He looked at my cell drawing. “What’s that?” he demanded, with a hint of a squeal in his voice. “That’s what I saw,” I said. “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t!” he screamed, losing control of his temper instantly, and he bent over and squinted into the microscope. His head snapped up. “That’s your eye!” he shouted. “You’ve fixed the lens so that it reflects! You’ve drawn your eye!” From University Days, in My Life and Hard Times (1933).

As applied here, I had formed a picture of God in my mind that conformed very closely with my own ideas of righteousness – which in turn reinforced my belief. And then, after Mother departed, it occurred to me that perhaps God’s perceived minute correspondence with what I wanted was potentially nothing more than my projection of my own ideals rather than an encounter with or perception of something truly out there. Which was more likely: that I had perceived God’s nature or that I was projecting my own?

Again, I should emphasize a point I’ve made elsewhere in these pages: that merely wanting something to be true does not make it false. This is not a philosophical disproof of God’s existence or nature. It is, however, a sign that one must be quite cautious if one does not wish to end up deceiving oneself, a sign I was for the first time in my life able to appreciate fully.

[2] If you believe that the value of anything is intrinsic and not merely a matter of social convention, you have to posit some source of value outside our experience. As C.S. Lewis (I think) put it, following David Hume: you cannot reason from “is” to “ought.” At least you can’t do it within our natural sphere. I think of God in this connection as being the pole that draws all moral needles to point in the same general direction. I do believe in intrinsic values, and reject what I have elsewhere called the Psychopath’s Challenge. (I find I cannot make myself unbelieve in intrinsic values, even as a somewhat attractive hypothesis.) And God seems to be a necessary implication of that belief. I acknowledge that a philosopher would not accept this reasoning as nearly so airtight as I feel it to be. But I’m not a philosopher.

Likewise, I understand the Aristotelian/Thomistic doctrine of the uncreated creator as being based on the experience of causation, an experience which, however universal it seems to us, is formed within time — and I understand as well that physicists seem to have established that time is a  local condition that exists in our universe, but that there is an “outside” in which time does not apply. All the same, I can conceive of causation even without time; that is in fact what I’ve been told about the Trinity, that the love which establishes the relation between Father and Son and brings forth the Spirit exists “from all time.” Be that as it may, I’m far from certain that causation is a local phenomenon like and dependent upon time. Assuming that causation exists outside our universe, then, Aristotle’s “prime mover” and Aquinas’ uncreated Creator seem almost unavoidable alternatives to the problem which would otherwise exist: an infinite chain of causes.

And a corollary of these principles is that a creation without a Creator seems equally inconceivable to me. Again, I know this is not a philosophical nor yet a physicist’s proof. Elsewhere, I have taken issue with the notion floated by Stephen Hawking, our most eminent contemporary physicist that we know it is possible for our universe to have created itself, not on the grounds that he is provably wrong but on the grounds that his certainty is unearned, as his own admissions establish. But if we really have started with nothing, as Hawking proclaims, then even the jittery quanta upon which he built his theory must have arisen somehow from nothing. And that just seems logically a bridge too far.

We are still a long way from Yahweh and/or Jesus of Nazareth. As to them, though, I find myself going along willy-nilly with another point of Lewis’s: that Jesus just sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about. What he says sounds authoritative and makes sense to me most of the time.

That said, even if one responds to the authority in Jesus’ voice, he doesn’t address some issues. With his words we are still far from solving the problems of evil and death in a universe created by a putatively benevolent deity — problems to which I have never been able to conceive of a solution. But, given all these other premises, I’m willing to take some matters, quite literally, on faith.

Think enough thoughts like these, even in a tentative way, and after a while you find yourself back in a belief system.

[3] After the CD was cut, the lyric was watered down. The song subsequently started:

A summer’s day
A mother sings
A song of purple summer
Through the heart of everything
And heaven waits
So close it seems
To show her child the wonders
Of a world beyond her dreams

Though it is preceded by a reference to “The sadness the doubt/ All the loss, the grief,” we are assured that they “will belong to some play from the past.” Now, unlike in the original lyric, the cure that nature offers is so complete that anyone who has felt grief knows the reassurance is being way oversold. I think the original is stronger and truer.

There seem not to be any live-action videos of the song out on YouTube that carry the original lyrics. This is a shame. (At the top of this piece, I have, however, hyperlinked a version featuring the original recording.)

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for cover art

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A Most Telling Consent Decree

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A Most Telling Consent Decree

Published in the Daily Record January 27, 2017

At this writing, we don’t know whether the proposed consent decree between the City of Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice will ever be approved and go into force. But its 215 pages are worth a read, if for nothing more than insight into the kinds of things that have gone on between minorities and police in Baltimore and probably across our country.

What It Presupposes

Sometimes it’s not so much what a document says as what it presupposes that is most telling.

The decree disclaims liability, of course, and proceeds to be very inexplicit about the crisis in Baltimore’s policing that set the stage for it. But it ordains a huge training effort, promises to rewrite major portions of a departmental website, commits to generating a large number of periodic reports, agrees to buy tons of equipment, restructures its officer discipline program, and installs a court-appointed monitor, none of them things you would do unless there was something – actually a lot of somethings – to fix.

Buried in passing phrases of the document are some pretty direct indications of what those somethings are.

Field Interviews

Example: “Officers conducting a Field Interview shall do the following: a. Introduce themselves by name and rank as soon as reasonable and practicable…”[1] No need for that unless it doesn’t always happen. And what would it be like to have an unidentified cop asking you questions? If you’re reading this paper, it may not have happened to you, but you know the answer.

Or: “Officers engaged in … a Field Interview may not use a person’s failure to stop, failure to answer questions, decision to end the encounter, or attempt or decision to walk away to establish reasonable suspicion to justify an Investigatory Stop or Detention, Search, Citation, or Arrest of the person.”[2] Imagine how powerless the subject of a “Field Interview” must feel when he knows that just walking away may get him arrested.

How about this? “BPD will ensure that officers understand that there is no routine or automatic ‘officer safety’ justification for a Frisk or Pat Down during an Investigatory Stop.”[3] That is not to say there may not be circumstances that justify it, as the Decree spells out. But no boilerplate presumptions that justify frisking someone. Again, why would anyone insist upon this, unless it were a problem? And it’s not hard to guess what kind of problem it is.

Frisks

Here’s a beaut: “BPD officers shall not conduct Frisks or searches of LGBT individuals for the purpose of viewing or assigning gender based on the person’s anatomy or genitalia.”[4] Who would even have thought this went on? But provisions like this must have a context: they don’t come out of thin air.

And what reason could there be for a provision like this?: “BPD will ensure that officers issue a Citation or make a custodial Arrest only where they have probable cause to believe a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a criminal infraction or citable offense.”[5] In my neighborhood, that principle probably goes without saying 99.9% of the time. A few blocks away, though, it could be another story, partly because of Quality of Life Offenses (all caps in the original). These include things like gambling, disorderly conduct, and that perennial favorite: failure to obey an officer. The decree would require a senior officer to sign off before the arrest, and that officer is supposed to check both for the discretion of the act (arrest as opposed to warning or citation) and for probable cause. You don’t build checks and balances into the system unless it’s producing arrests without cause or exhibiting some other abuse of discretion.

Demographics

Police will now also need to document the demographics of each stop and each frisk.[6] As this column has noted before, similar statistics maintained by the New York PD revealed marked patterns of stop and frisk aimed at minorities – and also that frisks of white folks were more likely to turn up contraband than frisks of citizens of color, suggesting that police were underpolicing the (slightly) more contraband-carrying class, i.e. white people. It’s not hard to guess that the Justice Department thinks similar demographics would turn up here.

I could quote lots more. But the point is, the document suggests a world in which the police interact with parts of the public in an impolite, intimidating, and discriminatory fashion, enforcing the law with highly discretionary and unpredictable rigor, more intent upon exerting control than being fair, and predictably behaving far worse in racial and sexual minority communities than in white ones.

I do wonder whether the apparent hostility of the new administration to attempts to use DOJ consent agreements to ameliorate urban policing problems will ultimately lead to the decree’s withdrawal or, if approved, lack of enforcement. I also wonder whether, assuming it goes into force, the enormous cost compliance with this agreement would impose upon the City in staffing, training, and reporting would be tolerable. Drastic understaffing in the Baltimore police would also create its own problems even if the money were there.

Rough Rides

To choose but a single example, taken straight from the Freddie Gray debacle: there are, as one might expect, multiple provisions specifically forbidding “rough rides,” the practice of letting unsecured suspects slide around inside paddy wagons being deliberately driven erratically.[7] There are companion provisions requiring cameras in the backs of the wagons,[8] and requiring medical monitoring and the providing of medical attention to transported arrestees as needed.[9] But the retrofits to wagons take money and time; the problem the Freddie Gray defendants complained of (how an officer secures a suspect without exposing a gun to its possible seizure) is not addressed; and the exigencies of driving a wagon directly to a lockup or a hospital amidst moment-by-moment fresh demands for its presence elsewhere have not been solved.

Urgency

Whatever comes of the decree, though, the half-articulated realities glimpsed in it underline the urgency for a real response.

_________________

[1] ¶ 34.

[2] ¶ 36.

[3] ¶ 47.

[4] ¶ 53.

[5] ¶ 60.

[6] ¶ 88.

[7] ¶ 223, 226-28, 231.

[8] ¶ 224.

[9] ¶ 233.

 

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Destination Wedding in ABBA-Land: Mamma Mia! at the Hippodrome

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Destination Wedding in ABBA-Land: Mamma Mia! at the Hippodrome

Sarah Smith, Betsy Padamonsky and Cashelle Butler

Sarah Smith, Betsy Padamonsky and Cashelle Butler

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com January 14, 2017

That MAMMA MIA! is a hit of unbelievable proportions is beyond cavil. There have been 50 productions; the show was the among the ten longest-running Broadway shows ever (2001 to 2015). The current national tour (spoken of as a “farewell tour” though it appears to be more the last six months of a three-year excursion) is in the midst of a four-performance stand at Baltimore’s Hippodrome. On opening night, you could certainly take in the reasons for all that success: the catchy ABBA songs, the comedy verging at times on slapstick, the slightly naughty plot setup (a mother whose wild-child youth has presented her daughter with three plausible candidates for a father) – but not so risqué that it discouraged the attendance of a host of teen and pre-teen girls with their parents, and of course the curtain calls which have become something of a cult event. These features will probably float anyone’s boat – and they did mine.

All the same, let’s be honest: from a formal point of view, this show is kind of a mess. There are essentially three ways of doing a jukebox musical (a show that uses a pre-existing songbook, typically, as here, the oeuvre of a particular pop performer or group). You can embed the songs in the history of the performer who originated them (Jersey Boys or Beautiful), you can present a revue which pretty much eschews a dramatic framework (Smokey Joe’s Café or Rain), or you can create a new story which somehow incorporates the music (We Will Rock You or Rock of Ages). The third course of action, adopted here, is the most difficult because the lyrics which support a pop song are seldom well-adapted to the stage. There’s a well-known taxonomy and progression of song types in most musicals (the I Am/I Want Song, the Conditional Love Song, the Eleven O’Clock Song, etc.) which are frequently tough to dig out of a songbook – and many of which aren’t found here. Add to that that the stories told in existing songs may not match up with a consistent plot, and that even if they do, they are unlikely to be written in a way to advance the plot the way songs in musicals naturally do.

MAMMA MIA! deals with this problem, essentially, by not dealing with it. The nominal story, about what amounts to a destination wedding on a Greek isle, is hardly taken seriously much of the time. Many of the songs are barely congruent with the plot at all. Thus the song SOS puts lines in the mouths of both the previously naughty mom, Donna (Betsy Padamonsky) and Sam, one of her three former lovers whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years (Shai Yammanee), that relate the stresses in a current relationship, not one that hasn’t existed for two decades (“When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?”), and Knowing Me, Knowing You, a breakup song, is awkwardly jimmied into a slot where Sam is giving marital advice to his putative daughter Sophia (Lizzie Markson) on the verge of her wedding. And then there is the issue with the basic sonic palette ABBA used, a tight choral sound surrounding solos; in order to capitalize on that sound, the chorus, frequently offstage, is called on to participate in almost every song, militating against the more typical musical comedy strategy of varying between choral numbers and solos, duets, trios, etc. The plot is just there to assemble a series of excuses for the songs, plus some comic bits and some dancing.

In short, MAMMA MIA! is actually more of a revue than a story-driven show, despite sporting the accouterments of the latter. And none of that mattered a damn to the faithful gathered at the Hippodrome last night. They got what they came for, especially in the curtain call segment where the mask of a story dropped altogether, and the cast just performed three ABBA songs including the inevitable one, Waterloo, which did not feature in the show that had preceded it, and so did not even qualify as a reprise. But no one left the auditorium; everyone was on their feet, clapping and singing along.

If this is your thing, and you can still score tickets (a big if), and if you really hurry, you can catch the fun too. You can always find something more dramatically nutritious next time.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph

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Beyond Big Steel: A Search for Purpose

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Beyond Big Steel, A Search For Purpose

zinc-works

Published in the Daily Record January 5, 2017

I happened to spend the weekend before the election in Donora, Pennsylvania. My wife and some cousins she hadn’t seen in decades had scheduled a small family reunion then, and I was fortunate enough to come along. What I saw might be a backstory to what happened the following Tuesday.

By and For Big Steel

In all respects, right down to its very name, Donora was a town designed by and for the steel industry. The name is an amalgam of the last and first names, respectively, of William Donner, founder of American Steel and Wire, and Nora Mellon, the wife of Andrew Mellon, a financier deeply involved in the industrialization of the Monongahela Valley below Pittsburgh. American Steel and Wire laid a production line along the Monongahela at the bottom of Donora, from blast furnace to wire mill, followed by the Donora Zinc Works – since you need zinc to finish nails.

The Zinc Works were where my wife’s grandfather worked. A skilled laborer from Ukraine, Nicholas Uhriniak was employed throughout his career at the Works. His was an archetypal American success. He and his Ukrainian-born wife, Mary, raised eight children, four of whom, among them my mother-in-law, wore the American uniform in the Second World War; their names are among those memorialized in an impressive veterans’ memorial near the main street. All by varied routes became middle-class successes in their own right. And Mr. Uhriniak built his own house, right at the top of the steep rise of hills above the Zinc Works. He must have walked or driven a mile nearly straight downhill to get to work and gone the same distance uphill to get home.

Above the Blight

Up top was a good idea. If you look down at the Works and its surroundings in a Defense Department aerial photograph taken in 1941, the era of the town’s greatest prosperity, you see blight in the vegetation radiating in all directions from the Works’ nine huge smokestacks. You did not want to breathe the air emanating from the place.

However, for a hellish week in October 1948, not breathing that air was not an option. An atmospheric inversion had trapped the emissions from the steel plant and the zinc works in this little pocket of the Monongahela valley, and people started to get sick and die, especially downhill from Mr. Uhriniak’s house. A contemporary map that plots nurse visits tells the story: higher up and further away was safer.

The Donora Smog, which directly or indirectly killed 70, including the father of baseball great Stan Musial, and left many with lifelong respiratory damage, became an international scandal (you can hear it referenced in the recent British TV series The Crown, as a yardstick for the killing London Fog of 1952). It was also a key inspiration for the movement to clean up industrial air pollution.

The mills at the bottom of the hill may have taken life, but they gave it too. When you visit Donora today, you can see the long main street and the churches, and all the houses nestled on the hillside. Perhaps it was hard to breathe sometimes, but the mills gave a living and a community to thousands.

The Fate of the Downtowns

The mills are all gone now, up and down the Monongahela. Donora was one of the first towns in the Pittsburgh area to stop making steel. Where Donora’s plants stood, other factories now stand, but they are making other things and obviously not employing the numbers that the mills did. The main street is clean and orderly, but there are at least as many empty storefronts as active ones. Not all of the churches are open now.

It would not be fair to blame the decline entirely on the loss of manufacturing. You can observe cityscapes like these from Newburgh, New York to Duluth, Minnesota, to Burlington, Iowa, and everywhere in between. Walmart and Amazon and McDonald’s have as much to do with the state of our downtowns as does deindustrialization. Nor is it fair to ignore the upside of the changes. You can breathe Donora’s air without fear now, for example.

New Life

Nicholas is still perched up on a high hillside, albeit a different one, alongside Mary, under a headstone in the cemetery for Orthodox-rite Catholics. And the house he built is getting ready for a new life.

After his death in 1970, it passed to a son, who himself died a decade ago. It’s a peculiar, homemade place where, for instance, your shoulders touch both walls as you go down the stairs to the basement. But it certainly achieved its own purpose: a large family was fostered there. And now the family from the house next door is about to continue its history. The neighbors’ daughter and her boyfriend wanted the place to raise their own family, and the price was right.

The day we visited, the young man and his prospective father-in-law were hard at work renovating it, and the work was good. The young man, obviously a craftsman, was in charge; the dad was his help. There was happiness in the air, especially when the daughter dropped by.

I don’t know where the young man’s day job may be, but the demise of the mills hasn’t killed all economic activity in the region. Fracking is bringing some natural gas prosperity to the area, and ammonia and plastics are among the town’s products. Many young people have left, but this couple will be living next door to the wife’s parents.

Still Value

Big Steel has abandoned its creations. Nostalgia for the smokestacks Big Steel bestowed will do no good. The stacks can’t come back, and shouldn’t. The mill towns may never find an equivalent replacement, but there is still value in the Donoras, in the housing and the main streets, and the network of family and community ties. There remains a life there and a will to survive. We as a society need to side with the Donoras in their search for new purpose. It is the right policy and the right politics.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for archive photo

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