Thursday, 27 November 2014

This time, there is a right side and a wrong side to be on

I wasn’t going to say anything about what’s going on in Ferguson because I haven’t got anything to say that isn’t already being said. I’m white, so my voice is not the voice you need to hear, and I’m neither an American nor resident in the United States so my influence over what’s happening is distant-to-nil. But some well-meaning people are posting memes on my Facebook to the effect of “let’s everybody calm down and stop calling each other names.” As if there were anything remotely resembling equality or balance in the situation.
Here is what’s going on, people. Some people are angry and yes, some of them are probably making a bit of a mess. The reason why they’re angry is because the people tasked with protecting them (as members of society) from harm and exploitation are killing them without provocation because of their skin colour. That is only happening on one side. There have been no cases of black police officers killing unarmed white youths.
You do not get to tell people to stop expressing their anger about their families being killed by agents of the Government for no reason. You just don’t.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The kind of religion I’m against

I am an atheist from a Christian family. Quite a few of my Facebook friends are people I knew from church back in the day, and most of them are still Christians if not necessarily still at that church. So quite often I get religious memes across my feed, and there will sometimes be religious conversation around the dinner-table when I visit my family. It seems to me that I exercise quite a noble degree of restraint on these occasions, continually refraining from passing critical comment, saying nothing in front of the children. But of course everybody feels that they respond better to annoyances than they really do, and that they themselves are less annoying than they really are.
This isn’t going to be about why I don’t believe in God. Nor is it going to be anywhere near all my thoughts on religion. I just want to stake out my position on the question: to what degree should religion be tolerated, and to what degree should it be opposed? Is it like race or gender, so that opposition to a belief different from one’s own is bigotry? Is it like politics, so that the rights and wrongs depend partly on what you want and what you stand for? Or is it like science, so that there is a “truth of the matter” and other positions are factually false? And can everyone please at least pick one of those and stick with it, rather than being like “My religion is like my race and you’re a bigot if you dispute it, but other people’s religions are like their politics and I hereby declare my opposition to them because I don’t want them to be true”?
I’ve been drafting this post on and off for a while now. I started it when Libby Anne over at Love, Joy, Feminism wrote this post on the four major goals of the atheist movement, of which she endorses three, the exception being “working toward a world without religion”. I agree with most of what she says, but somehow the whole thing doesn’t quite sit comfortably in my head. (By contrast I agree completely with what she said recently about Sam Harris, though admittedly because it’s just what I already thought.) Of all things, what’s drawn me back to it is that, in the small choir I sing in, we’re now practising a setting of Thomas Hardy’s 1915 poem The Oxen for the upcoming Christmas concert. But I’ll get to that.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Why couldn’t we have had a movie about Lúthien?

I gather the Tolkien family have put their foot down and said “no” to any more Middle-Earth movies after The Hobbit is completed. I’m disappointed, but only mildly. The days are now past when any attempt to depict high fantasy on screen was bound to fail ignominiously. I don’t begrudge the Tolkiens their decision – apparently their father’s fame has been the bane of their privacy for half a century, not to mention that the movie companies have been very stingy about passing any of their profits on to his estate. And I understand completely why Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop went for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit first. But I think Tolkien himself was a bit embarrassed by The Hobbit. It wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the mythos at all – he just helped himself to the name of a character (Elrond) and a place (the lost city of Gondolin) to give it a bit of atmosphere, and then filled out the connections over the twelve years it took to write The Lord of the Rings. (Which then took six more years to publish. And George R. R. Martin fans complain about waiting five for A Dance with Dragons.)
Those two were the only Middle-Earth books J. R. R. Tolkien got published in his lifetime. All right, those and a small collection of verse under the title The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. His son Christopher is still, I think, collecting and transcribing the giant mass of manuscripts he left when he died, some of them going right back to his time in the trenches of World War I. The first published was The Silmarillion, a collection of the whole mythos condensed down to one chapter per story, which many people understandably find tough going. Jackson has had to stretch and pad out The Hobbit to make three movies of it; The Silmarillion would fill at least a dozen.
Of all Jackson’s padding, the single element that has raised the most fan complaints so far is the most necessary one: the invention of the female elf-ranger Tauriel among Thranduil’s people in Mirkwood. I have a sneaking suspicion Jackson is going to kill her off in the third movie. The Hobbit was a boys’ adventure story, and like many boys’ adventure stories of the time it had no female characters. The Lord of the Rings has seven named female characters, eight if you count Shelob the spider. Two, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Ioreth of Minas Tirith, are old-lady stereotypes. One is Rosie Cotton, who doesn’t show up until Sam Gamgee needs a happy ending. The remaining four are all idealized models of femininity – Goldberry, Arwen Evenstar, Galadriel, and Éowyn of Rohan. Goldberry, like Tom Bombadil her husband, appears only in a disconnected episode near the beginning; her character is too sketchily drawn to tell us much about her author’s values. Arwen, Galadriel, and Éowyn each warrant further investigation.