Those evil moderates (Noam Chomsky, Pastor Anderson, Dr. King, and Revelation 3:15-16)

The theme of this post is “evil moderates”, and I’m drawing on radically different figures who have censured moderates as being worse than the real enemy: Noam Chomsky, Pastor Steven Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the author of the Book of Revelation.

Consider the following description and citation of Noam Chomsky, written by Chris Hedges:

chomskyChomsky reserves his fiercest venom for the liberal elite in the press, the universities and the political system who serve as a smoke screen for the cruelty of unchecked capitalism and imperial war. He exposes their moral and intellectual posturing as a fraud. And this is why Chomsky is hated, and perhaps feared, more among liberal elites than among the right wing he also excoriates…

“‘I don’t bother writing about Fox News,’ Chomsky said. ‘It is too easy. What I talk about are the liberal intellectuals, the ones who portray themselves and perceive themselves as challenging power, as courageous, as standing up for truth and justice. They are basically the guardians of the faith. They set the limits. They tell us how far we can go. They say, ‘Look how courageous I am.’ But do not go one millimeter beyond that. At least for the educated sectors, they are the most dangerous in supporting power.'”

That’s the typical judgment of the regressive left — and why I take Noam Chomsky with a pound of salt — that one’s liberal cousins are more profoundly threatening than bigots, right-wingers and demagogues on the opposite side. There are many reasons why ideologues like Chomsky think this way, but the biggest one is our entrenched culture of self-loathing (on the extreme left) that denigrates anything and everything Anglo-American, and exalts western-haters as heroic underdogs struggling to defend other underdogs, whether or not they deserve a defense.

Take an example now who is opposite in every way from Chomsky. Pastor Steven Anderson is famous for his toxic sermons, especially the ones against gay people whom he considers beyond God’s forgiveness. He insists that all gays and lesbians are pedophiles, and if that’s your starting point (incredible as such a belief is), then gay people are as dangerous as it gets. But Anderson comes down harder on his fellow fundies for their moderate stance. He says, in a sermon delivered after the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage:

anderson“I never get mad when I get hate mail from the sodomites or mainstream Christians. The homos are just being the homos, and liberal Christians don’t even pretend to follow the Bible. But if you want to see me get mad, watch what happens when I get an email or call from a fellow fundamentalist or evangelical who tells me that I should tone it down against the sodomites. My wife will tell you, that’s when I start yelling at my iPhone.

“I’m not even so much preaching against the sodomites tonight. Because you know what the Bible says? ‘He that is filthy, let him be filthy still’ (Rev 22:11). That’s what the Bible says. But you know who I’m preaching against tonight? I’m preaching against my fellow independent fundamentalist Baptist pastors. Because the Supreme Court decision is their fault and they don’t even realize it. The battle wasn’t lost to a bunch of sodomites and perverts. No, the battle was lost in the hearts of fundamentalist preachers, who one day starting reading their Bibles, and got to Romans 1, and decided not to preach what it says. THAT is why our country is in the condition that it is.

“It’s my fellow fundamentalist preachers — I am blaming them for the Supreme Court’s decision; I am blaming them for our society accepting homos; I am blaming them for the homos coming out of the closet; and I am blaming them for the downfall of this country. They say ‘homosexuality is a sin” and ‘I’m against gay marriage’, but they WON’T USE THE WORDS THAT THE BIBLE USES! And they are trimming the message, and they’re preaching a tiny percentage of what needs to be preached. The Bible says that ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by EVERY word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’. And if they won’t use the words that God uses, then they are frauds and liars and compromisers. And what the Bible says is that homosexuals are reprobates beyond God’s salvation, and worthy of death. It does NOT say that we should ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’. It does NOT say that we should love the homos so that they can repent and be saved. It says ‘I hate them O Lord who hate thee’ (Prov 129:31), and that sodomites are haters of God (Rom 1:26-30).”

Moving now to the most admirable example: Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike the examples of Chomsky (bad) and Anderson (off-the-scales), Dr. King’s sentiments were grounded in the best of reasons. From his Birmingham jail letter:

MLK“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'”

Even our best leaders run with rhetoric, and Dr. King’s rhetoric implies that liberal sympathetic moderates are more dangerous, or more problematic — indeed “the great stumbling block” — than the actual racists who kill or vilely discriminate. That’s nonsense, of course, but we treat nonsense like wisdom when it grabs attention and fires our passions. If Dr. King had said that white moderates were a (not “the”) stumbling block, for the reasons he gives, and if he had removed his contrast with white supremacists groups (which implies that these groups are not a stumbling block at all to the black cause), his statement would have otherwise been fine. He was right that white moderates in the ’60s weren’t proactive enough — like today’s white moderates who aren’t assertive enough in addressing police brutality against blacks — and given the frustrated jail-cell context of his letter, Dr. King can probably be excused for his rhetorical excess.

Last is the classic example from the bible, Revelation 3:15-16:

lukewarm“You are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other. Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

On the common reading of this passage, the author of Revelation prefers the “hot” who are zealous for God, and even the “cold” who are openly against God, over against the “lukewarm” who serve God out of half-hearted convictions.

It’s worth mentioning that this may not be what the author of Revelation meant to say. His nasty remark was addressed to the church of Laodicea, and it may have been intended to evoke the hot medicinal springs of Hierapolis, and the cold refreshing waters of Colossae. Laodicea’s aqueducts channeled both from afar in a lukewarm ooze. The passage could have been saying that the Laodicean Christians were neither therapeutic nor energizing — that they were neither like hot water in a soothing bath, nor like cold water in a refreshing drink; they were entirely useless. On this reading, it’s not that they lacked zeal in particular; they simply didn’t have a spiritual focus at all, especially being rich materialists (Rev 3:17-18). Craig Keener paraphrases the passage as saying, “I want water that will either heal me or refresh me, but you remind me instead of the water you always complain about in your city. You make me want to puke.”

But frankly the common reading — that the Lord prefers a (hot) zealous Christian or a (cold) godless heathen over against a (lukewarm) mainstream Christian — seems to me to be just as plausible. The other six churches addressed in Rev 2-3 faced opposition and/or persecution that calls forth zealotry, and it’s not unreasonable to suppose the Laodiceans faced the same problem even though it’s not explicitly mentioned. In any case, the idea that God hates mediocre believers even more than he hates infidels is often the litmus test of devotion among religious hard-liners, and for better or worse, Revelation has become the basis for this harsh view of moderates.

More moderation

I deliberately chose examples of people and writers who command different levels of respect according to one’s values, and the point is a common drive in our humanity. It’s easy for extremists and crusaders (even noble ones like King) to treat the real enemy like a sideshow while faulting those closer to home. The Chomskys of the world may hate the right-wing, and the Andersons the left, but the brunt of their ire falls on their moderate cousins who are in most cases more enlightened.

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The Episodes of Stranger Things Ranked

After this list, check out the season 2 rankings.


Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: tense and emotional, with the right payoffs and surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast with blood, and when it appears (on top of a visit from Steve), hell breaks loose — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan, all around a strobe effect of blinking lights. At the Hawkins Institute, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien. And at the school, the kids are apprehended by Hawkins goons after El goes bad-ass and kills some of them, and while Lucas stands up to the shadow beast impressively with the slingshot, it is El who vaporizes it, sacrificing herself and devastating poor Mike. Certainly one of the best finales to any TV series I’ve seen.

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Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The final act of this episode is a piece of undiluted cinematic art. Hopper and the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river, and they have no reason to think it’s a fake. Mike’s reaction is heart-rending as he accuses El and runs home enraged, to the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes”. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara killed in the shadow realm; the scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s breakthrough with Will, as she communicates with her son through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get out of the house as the Demogorgon bursts out of the living room wall.

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Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. The title defines the episode everywhere, because the true monster isn’t what it seems. It’s not the shadow creature (who just feeds according to its nature), nor even El (who opened the gate to the shadow world and let the creature through, in a terrifying flashback). The monsters, rather, are revealed to be people like Doctor Brenner, who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives (like Terry Ives) and child abductions (Jane = Eleven). Or people like Steve, whose jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy, whose bullying is carried to the extreme of forcing Mike to jump from the quarry’s cliff by by holding Dustin at knifepoint. All of these scenes are hard-hitting (I thought Jonathan was going to beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip, and El’s telekinetic rescue isn’t as predictable as you’d think it would be. Her reconciliation with Mike is sublime.

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Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is precious. The boy’s 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early ’80s. It establishes their acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master) and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; the hilarious Dustin ruled by his appetites; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is incredible, and I fell in love with them right away. Eleven’s encounter with Benny Hammond is a perfect introduction of her character. In the short space of his screen time I really loved the guy and was pissed at the goons who shot him.

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Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This is a chapter of slow-burns and stinging revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. The kids also realize Will is alive (despite their tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels his voice over the radio. Three particular scenes stand out: (1) the boys dressing up El and Mike becoming increasingly smitten by her; (2) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That last is one of my favorite scenes of the series, and it gave me a nightmare.

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Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 ½ stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between him and Mike before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s great exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.

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Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The kids’ most iconic scene is their prepubescent horror at a girl who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked??” Dustin: indignantly mimicks her taking off her dress.) Another great scene is El’s flipping the game board as she tries to convey the concept of the Upside Down. The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and certainly not Steve; their characters are annoying in the way of teens. But it’s precisely for this reason that their story arcs pay off so well in the later episodes.


Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 stars. The prologue is the best part, and could stand its own as a short film: it begins on a tender moment, with Mike almost making a move on El, only to leave home immediately as fugitives; the road chase is intense, and El delivers her most spectacular feat of the series when she flips the van; it ends on a perfect reconciliation between Lucas and El/Mike in the junkyard. The rest of the episode is also good, though somewhat underwhelming, as it centers around the plot of getting El in the bathtub to locate Barbara (dead) and Will (alive). I think it’s the way the three groups of characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together. These characters are at their best when they’re facing challenges on their own, especially the kids and teens who have to transcend themselves. Here they are just gathered around El so she can get the information they need. The Bathtub is very good, but it’s a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.

The Evolution of Demogorgon

Stranger Things made me relive the horrors of Demogorgon in my D&D days. The Prince of Demons is described thus:

“Demogorgon is 18 feet tall and has two heads, which bear the visages of evil baboons or mandrills. His two necks resemble snakes. He is insanely powerful: (1) He can hypnotize up to 100 creatures with his gaze with less than 15 hit dice with no saving throw. (2) The left head has the power of a rod of beguiling. (3) The right head can cause insanity, which lasts 10-60 minutes. (4) He has a forked tail that drains 1-4 levels of the people it hits. (5) If he hits you with his arm tentacles, a limb on your body will rot off in 6 rounds, which permanently removes 35% of your hit points. (6) He’s got every psionic power, 95% magic resistance and plenty of spell-like abilities.”

The Demogorgon I know is represented by the lame sketch of the first image below. While I’m an old-fashioned curmudgeon who lives and dies by 1st-edition rules — the classic D&D of the 70s and early 80s played by our young heroes in Stranger Things — I will admit that some of the artwork from the early Monster Manual was primitive and silly. Later imaginations did justice to what the most terrifying demon lord should look like. Here are the best representations I could find. My favorites are the 2009 versions.

1978: Monster Manual (1e)

Demogorgon.JPG

 

1987: Dungeon Magazine (issue #120)

 

2007: Dragon Magazine (issue #357)

 

2009: Monster Manual II (4e)

 

2009: The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos (4e)

 

2015: “Out of the Abyss” adventure module (5e)

 

Deviant Art

If on my deathbed I could watch ten film scenes…

… I might choose these.

1. The Return of the King: The Grey Havens. If this doesn’t make you cry, then you don’t have your priorities straight. The Grey Havens breathes the long defeat: the failure of Frodo, the passing of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. On my deathbed I’d take comfort, even if those white shores and far green country awaiting Frodo would be out of my reach.

2. The Seventh Seal: The Dance of Death. I wish I could find a youtube clip of the entire six-minute ending, but this brief snip will have to do. Ingmar Bergman’s take on the Danse Macabre is that in the end we’re all on the same footing, regardless of our station or moral character. All the film’s characters are equally united in a dance with Death, who leads them away to an unknown fate. The image summons my nihilistic uncertainties about the afterlife to a tee.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “We are infinite.” I choose this one to remember my teen years, back when, for all my coming-of-age frustrations, I thought anything in life was possible. Most teen films are saturated with cliches, but Perks is an inspired drama of teen alienation and this final scene is incredibly moving. David Bowie’s “Heroes” is as futuristic sounding today as it was back in the ’70s, and transforms what could have been melodrama into something profound.

4. United 93: Rushing the cockpit. This is my meditation on terror, and heroic sacrifice found in unlikely places. It’s a desperate fight-back that ends in foreordained tragedy, and the sudden fade to black as the plane hits ground hits way harder than the expected explosion.

5. Sunshine: Payload delivery. The visuals and scoring in this film are stunning and combine with the story to formulate an authentic statement about human hope. Sunshine postulates a future in which the sun is dying, and a crew embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire and save the earth. I can’t find a youtube clip of the entire end scene, but this music video gives a feel for the film on whole, and has bits of the final act in 1:52-3:20.

6. There Will Be Blood: Washed in blood. My meditation on religion as a raging lethal force. This final scene is basically the same scene of Eli baptizing Daniel in his fundamentalist church. Now it is Daniel doing the “baptizing”. Just as Daniel needed Bandy’s land before, Eli needs the money from Bandy’s land now. And just as Daniel did, Eli chooses to suspend his beliefs for the sake of prosperity. He shouts out that he’s a false prophet, just as Daniel had yelled out his confession of sins. And finally, just as Eli slapped Daniel around in church, so Daniel smashes Eli’s head with a bowling pin — until it is dead Eli “washed in blood”. This brutal climax is my judgment throne, interrogating my cold ambitions and hypocrisies.

7. Juno: “Anyone Else but You”. My deathbed lullaby, sung in part by Ellen Page. It’s the endearing end to Juno.

8. Braveheart: The Field of Bannockburn. This might seem a strange choice, and the fact is that I’ve never been a big fan of Braveheart. But the last three minutes give me chills every time — the soaring bagpipe theme, the sword spinning in the air, the charge of the outnumbered Scots — and on a list focused on death it earns a place. The Scots knew they were in for a slaughter, and it was a miracle they won their independence from the English.

9. Wicker Park: Airport reunion. All right, sue me, I’m including a romance. This film didn’t score well with critics, but it’s actually a good remake of a foreign film, innovative in the right ways, and serves as my “chick-flick” choice for the list. This ending is well earned, as Coldplay’s “The Scientist” plays over Matt’s reunion with Lisa, after two years of being unable to find her in plain view, thanks to the machinations of a jealous rival. It’s the kind of scene that makes me reflect on lost opportunities in life, owing to chance and cruel intentions.

10. The Tree of Life: Eternity. The picture-perfect Tree of Life ends on a spiritual apocalypse that can strike to the heart of a hardened atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss.

Taking the Black: the Night’s Watch and the Supreme Court

Facebook quizzes don’t allow for much nuance, but then people don’t seem to care about that anyway. For example, in the quiz “Which Supreme Court Justice are You?”, a questions asks, “How would you characterize the Constitution?”, and offers two choices:

A. The Constitution is dead like the white-walkers. Its meaning is as set in stone as Mount Rushmore.

B. The Constitution is alive… like Jon Snow. The intent of the founders is clear, but its application in the present should evolve like the latest iPhone.

Imagine if someone posed equally stark alternatives in characterizing Paul’s belief in the resurrection:

A’. Jesus rose in a new body completely distinguished from the old, without flesh or bones or blood. His corpse remained on earth when he was resurrected.

B’. Jesus rose in the same body, with the glorified physicality implied in the gospels. (I.e. with the same holes in his hands and feet, per Luke 24:39 and John 20:27.)

Scholars of Paul might write in a third choice:

C’. Jesus rose in the same body, but with the flesh and blood so transformed that it had lost reference. Biology isn’t antithetical to spirituality but undergoes a metamorphosis so that the body becomes angelic-like and androgynous, as when God created it in Genesis.

We need an analogous C-choice for the role of our jurisprudence in America. I wouldn’t compare the Constitution to White Walkers or Jon Snow returned from the dead — maybe more like the Night’s Watch:

C. The Constitution is resistant like the Night’s Watch. It is open to extensions and modifications and even corrections, based on original meanings.

One of the reasons the Supreme Court is the highest authority and final arbiter is the fact that is — or should be — as neutral as possible (again, sort of like the Night’s Watch, which takes no sides in politics). Justices aren’t supposed to pass or enforce laws, only referee them to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, “Jon Snow” justices are becoming the norm.

Take last year’s case, King v Burwell (June 25, 2015), in which Chief Justice Roberts saved Obamacare in a way he had no right to. He played the executive and legislator in order to resolve a tension between a statutory text and the statute’s structure and purpose. But when a statute is ambiguous, the court is supposed to defer to the interpretation of the implementing agency; Roberts simply arrogated the role to himself. I sympathize with his reason, especially since I support Obamacare. He and the liberal justices were obviously trying to save the Affordable Heath Care Act in 36 states, in a rather quick and dirty way. That’s horrible precedent. Process matters, and this is why people have criticized Obama’s own acts of executive overreach (Hillary Clinton will be even worse). I may personally like the end result of King v Burwell, but I don’t approve the decision.

What makes that decision so ironic is Roberts’ dissent the very next day, in Obergefell v Hodges (June 26, 2015). He objected to gay marriage by bashing the sin he had just committed — judicial overreach: “The question is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law.” But the question of gay marriage does involve Constitutional precedents, the most important one being a logical extension of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The freedom to contract has always been understood as a liberty protected by the Constitution (the right to voluntarily enter into agreements that restrict one’s future options in exchange for benefits, as employment contracts and marriage contracts are), and to deny gay people the benefit is discriminatory. The court, again very logically, used the Equal Protection Clause as it had in the past to legalize interracial marriage and allowing the marriage of incarcerated prisoners.

The chief justice was a libertine Jon Snow in King v Burwell, and a primitive White Walker in Obergefell v Hodges. The man in black would recognize his limited role in the former and engage the text in the latter. Interpreting the law requires reservation and gumption, and knowing when to apply each.