I used to live for the Far Side and did a dance of joy when I heard about Gary Larson’s return. For a trip down memory lane (back into the ’80s), these are probably my three favorite classics: (1) “Faster Fifi!” because I can never stop laughing when I see it; (2) boa-baby because it’s just so sick; and (3) “Cow Tools” because it’s so famously controversial.
In Fuck it: Let’s Rank the Religions, Clickhole serves up the usual satire, ranking the world religions as follows:
10. All the others
Here’s my more serious attempt at the exercise, though with tongue-in-cheek elements too. Sue me, I couldn’t resist.
1. Unitarian Universalism. 5 stars. I became a UU because I agree with its seven core principles: (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in congregations; (4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; (5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within congregations and in society at large; (6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; (7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As UUs we ground these principles in humanistic teachings, science, nature and philosophy, personal experience, and sometimes even elements of the world religions.
Cons: Some UU’s are the greatest spiritual con-artists you’ll ever meet. We pretend that we’re religious (we’re actually more a social club), feign spirituality (whatever new-agism is in vogue), and cherish all religions (or at least pretend to) as having more or less equivalent worth, even knowing that it’s bullshit and that our secular values are far superior. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that UU’s are naturally humble and open-minded. We have egos the size of mountains.
2. Buddhism. 4 ½ stars. With its emphasis on meditation and mindfulness, Buddhism is a psychology as much as a religion, and in fact some of the spirituality of Buddhism is accessible in purely secular terms. Transformation through meditation doesn’t depend on the Buddhist faith, though they can go hand in hand. Even doctrines like reincarnation and rebirth have been easily discarded by many Buddhists without being seen as damaging the integrity of the religion. Though many scriptures have been preserved (the Pali Canon), there is no single holy book, which also helps account for its less dogmatic nature.
Cons: The lure of Buddhism is its philosophical maturity and benign tolerance that makes it stand out among the world religions. The cost is that Buddhism isn’t about a neat set of principles. You don’t “believe in the Buddha” for some benefit. Buddhism is about practice much more than belief, and it takes sustained effort to bring about enlightenment — if that comes at all — and it’s not easy.
3. Christianity. 4 stars. If the Buddha showed how to avoid suffering by rising above it (through detachment from the material world), the Christ reversed the cycle of suffering by rising from the dead. Christianity is arguably the religion which most strongly takes on the problem of suffering. The disciples considered persecution a badge of honor, which they were expected to go through without retaliating in violence. Even in the book of Revelation, the faithful don’t engage in holy war and are specifically told not to; they are to conquer the the Beast through witnessing and pacifist martyrdom. The concern for suffering accounts for Christianity’s attention to social justice, strong ethic of charity, and promises of the last being first. At the apocalypse wrongs will be righted and the dead will rise, and even if that’s a fantasy, it has yielded practical theologies about justice and mercy.
Cons: For all its ethic of charity and forgiveness and loving enemies, Christianity has some toxic ideas, the most virulent being homophobia. Unlike other transgressions, sodomy is seen less as a sin and more an indication that one is a reprobate beyond the pale. There has also been a heavy strain of anti-Semitism in Christianity, thanks primarily to the gospel passion narratives, though this has been reformed.
4. Judaism. 4 stars. What intrigues me most about Judaism is its tradition of arguing with and challenging God. Abraham bargained with God for the sake of decent citizens in Sodom and Gomorrah; Job protested the sufferings God dumped on him; etc. Arguments can even get physical, as when Jacob wrestled with an angel at the Jabbok River, and got his name changed to Israel (which means “one who wrestles with God”). The other two Abrahamic faiths (Christianity and Islam) require a complete surrender to faith/God, but there’s a lot more room for push-back in Judaism. God-wrestling is quite a different idea than being a slave to Christ or wholly submissive to the will of Allah. No doubt this tradition was strengthened over the centuries as the Jewish people kept getting the shaft.
Cons: Judaism has its toxic ideas like Christianity, but also that of sacred warfare which has made Zionism possible. While holy war has never been essential to Judaism (unlike Islam), and doesn’t command warfare to be waged beyond Israel’s borders, the injunction to “keep the land pure” is an ingredient that has been taken seriously in even the most dormant periods of the faith. In the medieval period, taking back the land of Israel remained theoretically possible, and the midrash practically shouts that “if the rabbis could have, they would have”. This is unlike the Christian crusades which grew out of many improbable factors and had no basis at all in Christian thought.
5. Taoism. 4 stars. Taoism values inwardness and non-action, which at first blush seems to be a great religion for those of us who believe there is no free will. Wu-Wei is “natural action” that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort, and produces a mental state in which human action is effortlessly aligned with whatever course life is taking. On the other hand, that somewhat misunderstands free will, which has nothing to do with activity vs. passivity; the option to be passive involves just as much a “choice” as that to be strenuously active. (It’s simply that these “choices” don’t involve free will.) Taoism emphasizes health and healing as goals to long life or even immortality, and not being hostage to petty fears. Then too the yin-yang principle of polarity — good and evil being part of one and the same system — commends itself against a more dualistic view.
Cons: At its worst or misguided, Taoism implies that people can’t make a difference (which again misunderstands our lack of free will) and encourages too much passivity. Being detached from our feelings can also be a problem when taken to extremes.
6. Shintoism. 3 ½ stars. The laid-back religion is animistic and centered around kami, or sacred spirits that take the form of animals, plants, rivers, lakes, whatever. People become kami when they die and are honored as such, which is nifty. Shintoism is a highly ethnic religion rooted in Japanese culture and bases most of its beliefs on four ancient tomes: (1) the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), (2) the Shoku Nihongi and its Nihon Shoki (Continuing Chronicles of Japan), (3) the Rikkokushi (Six National Histories), and (4) the Jinnō Shōtōki (a study of Shinto and Japanese politics and history). There’s no clear-cut right or wrong in Shintoism and so things are pretty grey. Shinto rituals are designed to keep away evil kami, on which see below.
Cons: The worst thing about Shintoism is those evil kami. People who die holding a grudge strong enough to keep them attached to the physical world become vengeful spirits (as portrayed in The Grudge and other Japanese horror films), and it’s nigh impossible to escape them, or bargain with them, if they want to tear you apart. Just watching The Grudge damn near gave me a heart-attack.
7. Jainism. 3 ½ stars. A religion that teaches the supremacy of non-violence (the opposite of Islam) has a lot going for it. Whenever people tell you that all religions are equally malleable and prone to violent permutations, you can refute that claim with many examples, but Jainism is Exhibit A. It is impossible to derive violence out of Jainism, which is why it’s never happened. The swastika symbol may cause a double-take, but until Hitler perverted it, the swastika was a positive symbol. In Jainism it stands for the four states of existence: heavenly beings, human beings, hellish beings, and flora/fauna. The Five Great Vows of Jainism require the renunciation of (1) killing anything living, (2) lying, (3) greed, (4) sexual pleasure and (5) worldly attachments.
Cons: Pacifism is a huge plus, but at their extreme the Jains are pacifist to the point of dysfunction. Some of them watch where they place their feet every moment for fear of stepping on bugs, insisting on devices such as mosquito nets instead of insect repellent, smoke, or liquid traps. The stringent asceticism of Jainism is also a bit much for me. Sexual and worldly pleasures are a good part of life.
8. Hinduism. 3 stars. Hinduism is so diverse in its theoretical premises and actual expressions that I hardly know how to rank it. Yes, all religions are diverse in certain ways, but Hinduism is an extraordinary pastiche of monism, theism, monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism — all of these are built into the Hindu worldview. It doesn’t have a founder, it’s based on an impersonal Supreme Reality (Brahman), and the multiple personal manifestations of that reality as God (as Vishnu, Shiva, or Kali, etc). Basically take your theology of choice, and chances are it will find some legitimate basis in Hinduism. There has been a strong tradition of freedom of belief and practice in the religion, and that’s its greatest plus. (In this entry I would include Sikhism, the fifth largest world religion, which grew out of the Bhakti Hindu movement and has elements of Sufi Islam.)
Cons: The tradition of tolerance is great but isn’t anchored in a coherent system. And there’s the flip side: because the Hindu pantheon is so diverse, it has evil deities who demand nasty shit. Like the goddess Kali. The Thuggee (where we get the word “thug”), for example, were a brotherhood of thieves and assassins who pretended friendship with travelers in India before killing them. They were Muslim in origin, but later became associated with the Hindu death cult of Kali. Forget the cartoon portrayal of the Kali cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. For a realistic and thoroughly unpleasant portrayal of Hindu sacrifice read The Song of Kali.
9. Islam. 1 star. Muhammad wasn’t anything like the Buddha or Jesus. He was a warlord, and all the Islamic sources (the Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith) require believers to follow the jihad example. The only ambiguities in the Qur’an are the few passages advocating peace, but they are (a) all too few, (b) subordinate to the many passages which supersede them (the doctrine of abrogation), and (c) are understood to apply only when Muslims are outnumbered and have no chance of winning a war (reflecting the early time of Muhammad’s career). The precept of Islam is clear: perpetual war against all who deny the prophet, the subjugation of infidels (and women) under rule of a caliphate and oppressive sharia law. This has always been the historical norm for Islam and it remains obligatory in all schools of Sunni and Shia thought. There are obviously moderate Muslims, but no form of moderate Islam.
Cons: See above. Islam is saturated with dangerous and toxic ideas. Of all the religions it has done the most damage throughout history, yes, even in Umayyad Spain, which supposedly saw a “golden age” for Islam, but which is a myth.
10. Scientology. 1 star. How anyone takes it seriously is beyond me. It’s science fiction dressed up as religion, but a mentally abusive religion that robs you blind. The #1 goal of the church is to become filthy rich — richer than the goddamn pope. There is no top level in the religion as claimed; when you reach the top of the Bridge (OTP 8) you find out there are more levels after all, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Psychology and psychiatry are condemned, because there is no such thing as mental illness. Church leaders stop their followers from getting proper medical help, and in some cases have caused suicides because of it. Scientology teaches that the individual is responsible for everything and has the power to heal him or herself with church “technology”. Seriously.
Cons: See above. Everything about this religion is a con.
Three years ago, Pastor Steven Anderson infamously explained why men should urinate standing up, based on the passage of I Kings 14:10 and five other Deuteronomist texts. I’ve only now become aware of a sequel diatribe he delivered last year, Pisseth Against the Wall, Take 2, in which our beloved pastor continues railroading effeminate Germans, modern “sissified” versions of the Bible which censor manly images of those who “piss against the wall”, and — above all — women who micromanage the lives of their husbands in the bathroom. Unbelievable.
This segment comes from the tail end of the sermon, Show Thyself a Man.
For perhaps a more reasonable defense of why men should resist the trend in Germany (and France, and Holland) and continue to urinate standing up, see The Naked Scientists.
(A Guest Review by Leonard Ridge.)
Before I describe my own vital contribution to the achievement, simple modesty requires me to point out that Biblical Cranks, by Loren Rosson, for all its flaws, merits more attention than would normally be granted to a scholar-wannabe’s attempt to prove himself in the middle of a mid-life crisis. My own role in the book’s creation simply owed to being in the right place at the right time.
In the summer of 2008 I arrived unannounced at Loren’s apartment, passing through New Hampshire and wanting to catch up on arthouse flicks, not having seen my friend in months. Three full minutes after ringing the bell I looked in on a stranger: a bleary-eyed, emaciated skeleton out of Edgar Allen’s Poetry. More stunning was the phantom’s speech, incorporating obscenities every other phrase, as in, “Fuck, Leonard, like where the fuck you been, man, shit, man, thought you’d blown me off for good.” I squinted; yes, this was Loren — hideously distorted under bloodshot eyes, puffed cheeks, four-day stubble, and unkept hair that bore a passing resemblance to the mophead used on my kitchen floor.
Scarcely able to contain my shock, I allowed myself to be pulled through the doorway and pounded jovially on the back, when came the overpowering reek from his breath, the odor of which I judged to be gasohol. “Sit the fuck down, man, I’ll get you some.” I fell into a sofa stained by pizza sauce and various bodily fluids, and as Loren proceeded to mix a ghastly concoction of liquors (the “gasohol”), I wondered how in the nine hells he’d reached this state of affairs.
Serving me the gasohol in a filthy glass — and knocking back what must have been his own eighth or ninth shot of the poison — Loren confided that his latest project was a treatise on scholarly cranks of the bible. The unfamiliar names of Yuri Kuchinsky, Andrew Tempelman, Geoff Hudson, Eric Zuesse, Leon Zitzer, Robert Conner, James Tabor, and Ben Witherington III floated from his slurred speech, barely comprehensible around his bitter grievances against a world that failed to appreciate his talents. At the time I had only a vague notion of the scholarly crimes which could be laid at the feet of these people, not only because I don’t read much in the field, but because Loren wasn’t putting two sentences together around his self-pity: “Lenny, man, I can hardly blow my horn anymore, ya know, like shit man, just wanna get something done, man, but like, can’t find my fuckin’ voice, ya know…” He wasn’t working on this book, just dreaming about it while his liver put in the overtime.
After tolerating forty-five minutes of this “speech”, I gave it to him both barrels. What I said to Loren must remain forever confidential, but suffice to say that from that day to this he has managed to conduct himself like a responsible citizen and not a denizen of seedy brothels. Nor does he drench his conversation with vulgarity. He respects his liver. I only wish I had succeeded in deterring him from writing a tediously cheap diatribe against “scholars” who merit little if any attention. The world would be better served by Loren’s ideas on the New Perspective instead of knocking down straw men. But at least he applied himself in front of the keyboard, and this book is the end result.
And despite its haughty tone and frequent lapses into ad hominems, ad hoc arguments, and ad nauseum exaltations of the Context Group, Biblical Cranks manages to keep its head above water at least some of the time. The sour vindictive chapter about Leon Zitzer should have been edited out of the book completely. No one has the right to treat another human being that way in print. That accepted, Loren’s effort to show the dangers of a little knowledge is sobering: with “scholars” such as these, the world is in no short supply of conspiracy theories and apologetics — and comic relief.
What’s there to say about James Crossley’s new book? Not much. Misguided in every aspect of its intention, actually misguided at its core, this resolute display of polemic masks ambitions the author will never realize. His targets? Media hounds, bloggers, and academics, all who supposedly share a lot in common despite their opposite politics. If you’re a biblioblogger who has stereotyped or attacked Arabs in any way, if your reporting of hot-button items (like the Temple Mount) even remotely smacks of partisanship, or if you’ve refused to openly condemn Anglo-American foreign policy given half a chance, then you’ve probably taken a hit or two in this book.
Take the insufferable Loren Rosson. You can get a pretty good idea as to how he is critiqued in his own review for the Nashua Public Library. Loren’s review is kind enough, but then why shouldn’t it be? His politics are almost as bad as Crossley’s, so it’s hard to understand the fuss between them. Crossley doesn’t like stereotypes? Too bad. If he spent a considerable amount of time living abroad in various areas he’d feel differently. Loren respects those he stereotypes? Good. He can go back to Africa and stay there.
It burns me to see liberal multiculturalists set apart in debate, when underneath the smoke-and-mirrors they’re essentially on the same page. I’ve complained about Loren and the Context Group in the past. Crossley is no better. He shoves reality into the dirt and pounds it to within an inch of its life. When the screed is over, we’re left feeling raped, having endured 199 pages, ultimately, for what? A crash course in Political Correctness 101? How to be good little anti-Zionists? To be impressed by the way Crossley scores points against countless bloggers, while going to bat for (of all people) Jim West? To learn that the “Jewish Jesus” isn’t so Jewish that he doesn’t feed supersessionist interests? (Bill Arnal already taught us that.) Patronizing nonsense, all of it, but bound to find favor in circles that send me running to the nearest office of the Euston Manifesto.
Skip this crazed monstrosity and read a cheap spy novel instead. I couldn’t get through it without interludes of exercise and fresh air, and I’m still feeling soiled.
This video-clip gave me more laughs in four and a half minutes than I’ve had all week. Pastor Steven Anderson (Faithful Word Baptist Church, Tempe, Arizona) sermonizes on the phrase “him that pisseth against the wall” in I Kings 14:10. The phrase is also found in I Sam 25:22, 25:34; I Kings 16:11, 21:21; and II Kings 9:8, and is the Deuteronomist’s contemptuous way of referring to males destined to be slaughtered on account of “evil done in the sight of the Lord”, usually by Israel’s own king. “Those who piss against the wall” are simply translated “males” in most bibles, but the former is what the Hebrew text really says. As Tyler Williams notes, the Deuteronomist is “contemptuously comparing males to dogs who piss against the wall”.
Pastor Anderson favors the accurate translation over the sanitized versions but — astoundingly — takes it as a positive image for men in general: “God said that a man is somebody who pisses against the wall.” He then railroads Germany for policies which forbid men to urinate standing up in public restrooms, and laments that “this is where we’re headed in America today… We got pastors who pee sitting down. We got the President of the United States who probably pees sitting down. We got a bunch of preachers, we got a bunch of leaders who don’t stand up and piss against the wall like a man!”
If you don’t believe it, watch it right here. I laughed so hard I was pissing my own pants — and sitting down, which according to our God-fearing pastor leaves much to be desired in the eyes of the Lord.
UPDATE: Don’t miss the hilarious comments under Paul Martin’s post.
UPDATE (II): And certainly don’t miss Pastor Anderson’s sequel diatribe on the same subject, delivered two years later (April 2010).
In the spirit referenced here, I welcome guest critic Leonard Ridge to speak about the honor-shame culture of the bible and contemporary multiculturalism. Leonard hasn’t been pleased with the things I’ve been saying over the past year and wants to set the record straight. So without further ado, I’ll give him the floor.
Shame on Rosson and the Context Group: The Fallacy of Multiculturalism
by Leonard Ridge
Thus speak two members of The Context Group:
“The awareness of multiculturalism would require us to be sensitive to differences among cultures… If we wish to understand the persons of the ancient Mediterranean world, persons from the world of Jesus and Paul, we should be prepared to learn entirely new ways of perceiving so as to assess those persons on their own terms. Otherwise, we will be perpetuating the long-standing problem of being “Ugly Americans”, a phrase coined to describe the utter failure of U.S. personnel at the beginning of the Vietcong insurgency to understand the ways of that mysterious culture.” (Bruce Malina, Portraits of Paul, pp 2, 4)
“To comprehend [the New Testament authors] is an exercise in intercultural understanding. We wish to understand them in their otherness, perceiving their horizon to be situated where it should be, separate from ours, with a separation that persists in spite of our conversation… For an “I” to dialogue with a “You” entails a respect for the alterity, the radical otherness, of the other; there is no need to try to reach agreement. It is our attitude to the other that produces genuine dialogue and communion.” (Philip Esler, New Testament Theology: Communion and Community, pp 86-87)
… and thus speak those who rightly decry the above multiculturalist agenda:
“The multiculturalist “preservation impulse” is identical to the fascist one, except that it’s addressed to members of non-dominant, often oppressed, groups… [But] the logic and rhetoric of multiculturalism actually undermines its stated goals. We should reject the preservation impulse, along with the notion that a culture can even have an authentic identity. The only truly emancipatory move is to instead embrace the relentless force of cosmopolitanism (pejoratively called “cultural genocide”) — which takes place in the world’s racially and culturally integrated urban centers.” (Nick Woomer)
“Safety demands that religions be put in cages when absolutely necessary… A faith, like a species, must evolve or go extinct when the environment changes… Many Muslims agree with this, and we must not only listen to them, but do what we can to protect and support them, for they are bravely trying, from the inside, to reshape the tradition they cherish into something better, something ethically defensible. That is — or, rather, ought to be — the message of multiculturalism, not the patronizing and subtly racist hypertolerance that “respects” vicious and ignorant doctrines when they are propounded by officials of non-European states and religions.” (Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, pp 515-517)
Loren Rosson is practically a walking advertisement for the Context Group, the body of biblical scholars who have devoted a Herculean amount of labor to help us understand — and more importantly, “appreciate” — the honor-shame culture of the bible. In that culture what other people believe about you, and how they perceive you, is far more important than what is actually true. Questions of innocence and guilt are sidelined, and concerns for truth and the preservation of individual rights take a back seat. But if this world seems primitive and barbaric to us, then, according to Loren and these scholars, it is we who need to readjust our perspective, not vice-versa. Their wisdom fits in with the wider multiculturalist agenda which has been dividing the liberal left for some time.
Multiculturalism may sound progressive, but it’s not. It celebrates ethnic diversity simply because it is diversity, uncritically approving ethnic pride, groupthink, honor-shame codes, and all so that people can “comfortably be themselves”. By-products of this agenda include moral relativism, hypertolerance, and a patronizing racism that end up doing far more damage than good. On top of that, there is the irony observed by Nick Woomer, that while “multiculturalism looks very enlightened and liberating, it is being expropriated to serve a reactionary right-wing agenda”.
Well guess what? That’s exactly what’s happening in biblical studies. Evangelicals like Ben Witherington, David de Silva, and J.P. Holding have taken turns championing the work of the Context Group, and no surprise. What better apologetic tool for eliciting sympathy for primitive biblical teachings? If Jesus condemned divorce in order to protect the honor of families (as Context Group members say), that plays right into the hands of modern Republican “family values”. (Contrast with the claims of John Dominic Crossan and Elizabeth Fiorenza that Jesus was an egalitarian who criticized divorce in order to empower women.) If we can sympathize with the way a culture uses invective and polemic (as in Rom 1:18-32), then we can perhaps get even more comfortable with our own religious bigotry. That a group of scholarly rebels (the Context Group) has found wide favor amongst conservatives — rather than, say, their liberal cousins on the Jesus Seminar — should be a cause for concern.
An insightful scholar named Chris Heard — clearly one of Loren’s betters on the biblioblogs — has noticed the same thing. He says:
“I run into a lot of conservative Christians, especially among my students, who act like cultural relativists with respect to ancient Israel alone, or the ancient Near East generally, but not with respect to contemporary cultures — yet I can find no consistent basis for this. Might an honor-shame culture operate in such a way that it socialized its members to believe that honoring one’s adult male guest took precedence over ensuring your children’s wellbeing? Yes, and if that’s the case, it should be well understood when evaluating relevant texts and stories from that culture. But that does not mean that it should be endorsed any more than slavery, polygamy, or pogroms should be endorsed. Cultural moral relativism really bugs me, but selective cultural moral relativism bugs me even more.”
And that’s the irony. Liberals have embraced relativism for the sake of oppressed groups whose voices tend to go unheard, and conservatives have done so more narrowly for the sake of their own creed. The bible just happens to be relevant to both — to the former in terms of its origins, the latter in terms of contemporary interpretation. Is this lost on Context Group members? Does history teach them nothing? Once the minority voices of the early Christians became co-opted by the state in the fourth century, they became lethal, and Jewish people suffered for centuries because of it. Do we really want to be so wonderfully open-minded about minority groups and third-world cultures who speak the language of intolerance and outdated virtue as much as their oppressors — just because it’s fashionable to be “culturally sensitive”?
Loren — the Context-Group stooge of the biblioblogs — appears to think we should. He lends an alarmingly sympathetic ear to things which should horrify anyone in their right mind. He says, for instance, that the honor-shame code only seems oppressive to those of us who live in the west, implying that our indignant reactions to honor-rapes/killings are misplaced. He uses safety-disclaimers, of course — he doesn’t want “to excuse what’s going on in India and Pakistan, rather to understand the rape-phenomenon and the values from which it derives” — but the underlying message is loud and clear. What Loren really wants, like Malina and Co., is for us to loathe ourselves more than anyone or anything else — that is, our cultural imperialism; our western arrogance.
It’s because of people like Loren and the Context-Group members that the Euston Manifesto has been recently drawn up, for truly progressive democrats who:
• decline to make excuses for, or to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy… and draw a firm line between themselves and other left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces
• hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone; violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context
• reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser violations of human rights which are closer to home more deplorable than foreign violations that are flagrantly worse
If putting such a manifesto into practice would make us “Ugly Americans” — as Bruce Malina worries about in the opening citation of this post — then, Christ-on-crutches, we need to be ugly about this. Dennett and Woomer are right. It’s time to call out multiculturalism for what it is, an inverted fascism that exacerbates problems relating to intolerance and the violation of human rights. It’s time to recognize honor-shame cultures as inherently inferior — and say so, damn it, without piling on sweetness and disclaimers. It’s time for those cultures to evolve. And it’s high time to view the people of the bible — even the occasionally counter-cultural Jesus — for what they were: primitive and wrong about most things, part of a world whose passing should be our goal.
I wrote this audio commentary in March 2004, inspired by a similar spoof written by Jeff Alexander and Tom Bissell for The Fellowship of the Ring. I follow the story of Frodo and Sam in the next two films, and, likewise, with all the politically-correct sanctimony I can muster. Don’t read this if you’re easily offended — or if Zinn, Chomsky, and Said are precious to you.
Audio-commentary for The Two Towers & The Return of the King:
The Story of Frodo and Sam
by Loren Rosson III
We begin at the feet of Emyn Muil, where Gollum is getting ready to pounce on the sleeping hobbits. It’s important to remember that Gollum was once a hobbit, and that backbiting is a favored tactic of this race (recall Merry and Pippin leaping onto the back of the cave-troll and stabbing it from behind). Frodo and Sam, of course, are engaged in their own sleazy tactic of feigning slumber, so as to surprise Gollum in turn. As we proceed through this commentary, it will become abundantly plain that Frodo and Sam are vicious cowards — a far cry from the heroes they’re usually made out to be. Now Gollum rightfully curses them as “thieves”. He speaks nothing but the truth. Bilbo stole his ring, and Frodo has no more legitimate claim to it than his uncle ever did. Look at this cat-fight — all three of them grabbing, biting, kicking each other. It’s all below-the-belt and very typical of hobbits.
Now we have this outrageous spectacle which lays bare the propaganda surrounding “Samwise the Brave”. This is Samwise the Sadist, pure and simple — choking Gollum, yanking him through rock and dirt, thoroughly indifferent to his screams of agony. So all of Galadriel’s gifts are instruments of violence, even a rope, which goes a long way toward dispelling the myth of elves as peace-loving people. And notice how Frodo’s outward display of “pity” is a facade which masks his true motive for removing the rope, as he suddenly realizes he can exploit Gollum as a guide to Mordor. Someone of genuine pity would not have permitted a starving and emaciated creature to be choked and dragged over the ground to begin with! Frodo is actually worse than Sam, because his evil is cunning and veiled. While Sam is openly sadistic, Frodo secretly revels in sadism until it conflicts with his own needs.
The Dead Marshes
Cut now to the Dead Marshes, where Frodo and Sam continue their shameless exploitation and terrorization of Gollum. Notice how Gollum cringes in front of Sam like a whipped dog, calling him a “nice hobbit”. Gollum lives in a perpetual state of terror, much like an abused wife, never knowing when Sam will lash out at him. He has been abused and mistreated everywhere and by everyone — Sauron, the wood-elves, Aragorn, Gandalf, and now the hobbits. It’s analogous to a teen-ager who has been continually bullied by his peers and scorned by his parents and teachers. Should we be surprised when Gollum later tries engineering the death of the hobbits anymore than by the shootings at Columbine High School?
Now look at this. Gollum’s neck is on the line as he leads the hobbits through the Dead Marshes. Sure, let him test the waters. Let him sprain an ankle. Let him take a plunge down to those horrible spectres. And despite this, it is Frodo who incompetently falls in! So there is at least some poetic justice in this world. Gollum rescues Frodo — showing far more decency than either hobbit has shown him — and so we’re again forced to ask why he is supposedly so bad.
This next scene really makes me mad, where Frodo taunts Gollum with his real name, “Smeagol”. It’s obvious that he’s making fun of him — making him feel ashamed of the creature he’s now become. Nobody wants to accept Gollum for who he is, but Frodo goes out of his way to reinforce the creature’s self-hate by implicitly mocking him.
The Black Gate
Here we come to the Black Gate. The Black Gate. We’re right back to fear — fearing the other. Anything from an unknown culture is invariably black. First it was black riders on black horses; now it’s a black gate. The racist implications are obvious.
Notice how Frodo really has no idea what he’s doing, and that he’s too paralyzed by xenophobic cowardice to make a responsible decision in any case. He’s been duped into destroying a worthless ring by Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, who have poisoned his mind with litanies of racial hate. So now that he’s come to the front door of Mordor he can only perceive its inhabitants as monsters — even the men, whose eyes are “slanted” so as to appear Asian. Again, the racism is transparent. Now Gollum is genuinely concerned for Frodo, because he knows from first-hand experience how deadly Mordor can be: he has suffered unspeakable torture inside. His fear of Mordor is very reasonable (as is his fear of just about every other place, like Mirkwood Forest, for the same reason). By contrast, Frodo and Sam have an irrational fear of Mordor based on prejudice, hate, and the lies fed to them by Gandalf. See, watch how Frodo feverishly grabs at the opportunity to postpone his entry into Mordor as Gollum advises him of an alternate route. It’s ridiculous. Gollum doesn’t mention the Tower of Cirith Ungol, but Frodo isn’t so stupid to think that any pass into Mordor could be unguarded. Whether it’s the Black Gate or some other fortress… And look how he patronizes Gollum for “being true to his word”, which keeps up the pretext for postponing his pointless quest.
Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Now it’s Samwise the Cruel, jeering at Gollum as he struggles to catch fish. “Stinker” is the sort of name-calling we would expect from a juvenile, which says a lot about Sam’s maturity level. The hobbits are bullies down to the core of their beings. Frodo was mocking Gollum with his real name, and now Sam insults him with a make-up name. The creature’s self-hate is reinforced left and right. But now we come to the crux of the matter as Frodo proceeds to give Sam a tongue-lashing for picking on Gollum. The ensuing argument between the two hobbits is revealing, because Frodo is simply projecting his own problems onto Sam. It takes one to know one. He sees himself in Sam, because he harbors the same despicable thoughts, even if he is more covert in expressing them. “When people condemn others they condemn themselves”, and no incident in the film better illustrates the proverb than this one here.
This is heartbreaking: Gollum’s fit of schizophrenia. We should pause now and examine more closely the source of animosity between him and Sam. Why do they constantly bicker with each other? Why is Sam so spiteful? Why, moreover, does Gollum desperately want to perceive the equally spiteful Frodo as his “friend”? I would venture that the answer to all these questions lies in the burning desire both Sam and Gollum have for Frodo. It is abundantly obvious that Sam has wanted to fuck Frodo up the ass from the word go. And who can blame him? Gollum is probably impotent, but his psychological lust is made plain from the way he continually fawns on Frodo — recall the way he kept rubbing his hands all over him at the Black Gate? It’s jealousy, pure and simple, but someone like Sam has no excuse for engaging in such petty rivalry over perceived threats to a friendship. Is he so insecure? Is he sexually frustrated? Is there a conflict between his desire for Frodo and that for Rose, or is he simply bisexual? These are the kind of questions we need to be asking ourselves.
Now this scene really pisses me off, and you don’t have to be a vegetarian to appreciate why. We’re supposed to be disgusted by Gollum’s “barbarism” as he plunges his teeth into raw rabbit. But Sam is no better! There is no proper or humane way “to eat a brace of coneys”. Would the poor rabbits have cared whether their carcasses were subsequently eaten raw or cooked? Don’t they have a right to live as much as any creature? Like all free-folk of Middle-Earth, Sam has a veneer of cultured civilization, passing off his own barbarisms as enlightened etiquette. The hypocrisy is gargantuan, the cruelty astounding. For Gollum to retaliate by calling Sam a “stupid fat hobbit” may be sinking to the hobbit’s own level, but the insult isn’t entirely inappropriate. For this is Samwise the Sick; Samwise the Slob.
The Forbidden Pool
Faramir’s interrogation reveals how deceitful hobbits are by nature. But before we get to that, notice in passing Sam’s snotty retort about being Frodo’s gardener. Faramir is asking legitimate questions, and Sam is being a juvenile smart-ass. But Samwise the Snot pales beside Frodo the False, who claims that Boromir was his friend: a bald-faced lie. Frodo resented Boromir from the get-go, since he constantly threatened his prestige as the symbolic leader of the Fellowship. Yet Frodo is a coward at heart and never really wanted to be the Ringbearer. Boromir finally called his bluff, aggressively, for which Frodo could never forgive him. Catch the gleam of satisfaction in Frodo’s eye as Faramir tells them his brother is dead. It’s there all right, if you look carefully.
As if deceit weren’t bad enough, we get treachery at the Forbidden Pool. Frodo’s plea that Faramir spare Gollum’s life is subterfuge so as to allow him the satisfaction of snaring the creature himself. Then too, he still needs a guide to Mordor (a moment of honesty there). Now just look at the cunning smile on Frodo’s face as he beckons Gollum like a dog. He obviously relishes this sort of trickery. And…Jesus Christ! Look at this! These are men of Gondor, and look how they treat an unarmed captive: shoving a bag over his head, throwing him down, kicking him in the gut, punching him, and throwing him against the wall. Is this the kind of behavior we should expect from (supposedly) the most advanced and enlightened society of humans in Middle-Earth? Apparently so.
The detour to Osgiliath, absent from Tolkien’s books, is entirely pointless and used only for the sake of propaganda, portraying Gondor as fighting a “defensive” war. Are we really to believe that Faramir and his men haven’t been on the offensive in Ithilien? What is Henneth Annun other than a secret base from which to launch preemptive strikes and covert operations? This is warmongering and militarism at its worst.
Observe how Frodo and Sam have internalized the violence which has enveloped them ever since they left the Shire. Sam attacks Frodo (does he want to rape him?) under the pretense of “saving” him from the Nazgul, and Frodo retaliates by screaming like a Neanderthal and putting Sting to his throat. At this stage of the story it has become conclusively evident that friends are more lethal than enemies. Recall Arwen greeting Aragorn with a sword to his throat, the Lothlorien elves welcoming the Fellowship at arrow-point, and Legolas (defending Gimli) coming within a hair’s breadth of shooting Eomer — nothing more than a knee-jerk projection of his own anti-dwarf impulses. The free folk of Middle-Earth seem hell-bent on destroying themselves, let alone phantom enemies from Mordor.
Now it’s Samwise the Crybaby. He can dish it out but can’t take it. And look, he can’t even face Frodo — so ashamed of crying — that he turns his back on him and starts rattling off a ridiculous and sentimental monologue about archaic heroism. In the end it comes back to war. Frodo wonders (quite rightly), “What are we holding onto, Sam?”, and Sam responds (quite predictably), “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.” Worth fighting for. Of course. The hobbits have become warmongers like everyone else.
The Morgul Vale
Frodo is drawn to the city of Minas Morgul as if he wants to be enlightened for the first time. What, after all, is there to fear? What do we really know about the Nazgul? We’re supposed to believe that the Ring is malevolently propelling him forward, but that’s rubbish. The Ring has nothing to do with it. Frodo is having a moment of genuine curiosity about Nazgul culture. But true to form, Samwise the Chickenshit “snaps him out of it”, yanking him back into his world of xenophobic hate. (Gollum pulls him back too, though we must recall his good reason to be frightened of Mordor’s minions.) Now Frodo cringes at the blue flame suddenly leaping from the tower, but I think we see envious awe mixed with his fear. The Tower of the Moon would be among the Seven Wonders of Middle Earth if the free peoples weren’t such biased rednecks.
Whoa! Catch this spectacle of the Witch-King descending on his fell beast. Now it burns my tongue to say that, because “Witch-King” and “fell beast” are offensive deviance labels telling us more about those who use them than the beings themselves. They demonize the other and perpetuate fear. Indeed, the hobbits are now racked with terror — though not from any superstitious Black Breath. The Nazgul shrieking scares them in the same way a rabbi singing the Torah scares a Nazi. It’s foreign; something alien. It’s impossible to overstate the racism being presented here. The Morgul-King actually strikes me as a figure of dignity (and his poor army is fighting a defensive war, recall from Osgiliath). If his spiked appearance and dragon-steed look scary to us, then perhaps we need to readjust what we think is scary.
The Stairs of Cirith Ungol
Now Gollum gets a feverish look in his eyes as he fixates on what is rightfully his. He should snatch the Ring and bolt instead of helping Frodo up the stairs, but he does the noble thing anyway — and in the middle of being cursed and yelled at by Sam. Gollum justly demands to know why Sam hates him so much. What has Smeagol ever done to him? Besides going out of his way to do everything the hobbits want! Notice his genuine compassion for Frodo followed by an acute analysis of “the fat one”. He knows that Sam is a gluttonous thief who has been projecting bad intentions onto him. In many ways Gollum is the true wizard of the story, offering Frodo better counsel than Gandalf ever did — as he does now with his sagacious prediction that “the fat one” will try to steal the Ring.
Which is exactly what happens next. As they break for sleep, Gollum launches the first stage of his plan by throwing away all of the lembas bread and sprinkling crumbs of the evidence on Sam. Granted this is deceitful (Gollum’s hobbit nature taking over), with what choice is he left? He’s constantly terrorized by Sam and wants him gone. I actually thrill to Gollum’s character when he accuses Sam of eating all the food and stuffing his face like a greedy slob. He’s more a cunning fox than an actual villain. It’s understandable that — Jesus, will you look at this? Sam is beating the shit out of him. The sadism is here is intolerable, and even Frodo is genuinely appalled. But the jig is really up when Sam tries to appease him by making a lame offer to help carry the Ring — “share the load”, as he preposterously puts it — and gets banished for the thief that he is. He panicked and let his true colors show. It doesn’t matter that Gollum’s particular accusation is false, because it is based on a truth far more profound: that Sam is a gluttonous thief who has indeed coveted the Ring all along.
Gollum is now free to launch the second stage of his plan. He directs Frodo into a tunnel which we know leads to Shelob’s Lair. But “lair” is another deviance label. It predisposes us to view the occupant as a monster before we even meet her. Should we call hobbit holes “lairs”? (They’re actually quite similar: curving walls, underground, labyrinthine.) This is Shelob’s home, be it ever so humble, and Frodo is an intruder. Look how he’s horrified by the sticky webbing and sight of so many snared creatures. But this is how spiders survive as a species. There is nothing malicious about it, especially when done in the privacy of one’s home. (More cruel and offensive is the killing and stewing of rabbits in their own habitat.)
Here comes the queen herself. Look how beautiful and majestic she is. But we’re supposed to cheer for Frodo as he brandishes the Phial of Galadriel, screams an elvish curse, and flees like a coward down the labyrinth. Would we cheer for an intruder of Bag End who shoved a lantern in Frodo’s eyes and shouted at him as he stumbled out of bed? Who then sashayed through his kitchen, smashing dishware — just as we now see him slicing apart this beautifully intricate web-lattice? I certainly don’t cheer for his narrow escape, anymore than for his subsequent murder of Gollum by throwing him off the cliff!
This part, on the other hand, makes me cheer with loud righteous joy: Shelob’s revenge. It’s one of the few times we get to see the innocent paying back the guilty in spades. Look at Frodo’s mouth foam. If this hobbit doesn’t deserve to be spider-feed, no one does… I take that right back. There’s another hobbit who more than deserves the same fate, and he’s back for more: Samwise the Speciesist. Sam is as fat and poisonous as Shelob, armed with venomous insults (like “filth”) and an endless supply of dirty tricks. Hobbits actually make good adversaries of giant spiders. They know all the sly tricks in the book, every feint, when to back-bite, and where it counts the most. See how he deviously dodges, rolls away, leaps, somersaults over the spider’s back, kicks, dodges, jumps, rolls — never engaging combat, evading like a craven, until finally, more by accident, Shelob lands on his upraised sword. And now he gets aggressive, sure, backing her against the wall with intent to murder. That’s what hobbits do: kill enemies when they’re down. Thankfully for Shelob, the wall has an escape route. This entire episode is about two malicious juveniles tormenting a spider, and their arachnophobia being made to look heroic.
Now this epilogue makes me vomit every time, where Sam gushes crocodile tears. He is thoroughly incapable of forgiving Frodo and only came back to kill him (and Gollum) and then take the Ring for himself. Naturally the camera doesn’t show him pocketing the Ring at first opportunity. Look at the dawning horror on his face when the orcs arrive and declare Frodo not dead. “Not dead? Samwise, you fool.” Translation: “You should have stabbed him, Samwise, just to be sure.”
The Tower of Cirith Ungol
Cut to the tower chamber, where Shagrat and Gorbag are feuding over Frodo’s mithril vest. Convict behavior, to be sure, but that’s essentially what the orcs are: inmates of an over-crowded prison. They’ve been sealed away in Mordor all their lives, faced with harsh economic sanctions, in a miserable habitat of cliffs and wastelands. If I were an orc living in these conditions, I’d be looting and torturing foreign yuppies myself.
We’re meant to see the orcs as evil and full of discord, but the truth is they are desperate. Economically deprived people become enviously possessive and prone to strife, which is the sad outcome of this scene. A brawl here, a fall there, and before we know it, the orcs are massacring each other. They’re trapped in a cycle of violence through no fault of their own.
Cut back to Sam. Victory over Shelob has gone to his head, and he thinks he can take on the world. His rage is endless, and he wants the satisfaction of rubbing Frodo’s nose in the fact that he got the better of him before gutting him with his own sword. So he turns into a fantasy — Samwise the Superman, leaping turrets in a single bound, flying up the tower stairs, roaring like The Hulk, and dispatching three orcs single-handedly. But if Sam is a superhero, I’m a Balrog. That he can invade the tower so easily and take on multiple attackers without getting scratched just proves that orcs aren’t dangerous. They’re a peace-loving people who have been conditioned into violence by warmongering neighbors. Notice, by the way, how Sam is perfectly visible, even though we know (from the books) that he’s wearing the Ring.
Now Sam bursts into the top chamber and murders Shagrat, feeding his rage and Superman fantasy. Frodo rejoices, unable to believe his eyes — and unaware of being just seconds away from following Shagrat into the Great Beyond. But something stops Sam; and it’s not Frodo’s lame-ass apology. He’s utterly transfixed by the sight of his friend naked from the waist up. He’s practically drooling. He hands over the Ring, mesmerized, and we can almost feel his hard-on, hear his panting, as Frodo slides the chain around his neck. Wrath has given way to lust. It’s no longer a sword he wants to run through Frodo. He’s prepared to “be friends again” for a chance to nail him up the ass until he screams.
The Slopes of Mount Doom
As the hobbits make their way across Mordor, we see the Great Eye looming in the distance. This is supposed to fill us with fear and trepidation, but the Eye of Sauron is no more menacing than the Wizard of Oz. Quite the contrary: Sauron is a wise and beneficent entity who would only ask people to take a long and hard look at themselves. On the slopes of Mount Doom, Frodo and Sam are forced to do exactly that — and they hate what they see. Frodo sees a gullible fool duped by a fascist wizard into destroying a completely worthless ring; a pawn in a political power-game; a tool of war propaganda. It’s no surprise that he can’t recall the taste of food and sound of water, because the Eye has blinded him to everything except that which matters most right now: the cruel facts. The Eye is truly horrifying in this sense; it’s terrifying to see oneself for the first time. Sam is faced with his own demons. He sees a sadist with a whole catalog of sins — gluttony, greed, wrath, lust — and as he cradles Frodo, he breaks down and cries, shamed (for the first time in his entire life) by the knowledge that all he wants to do at this moment is rape his best friend on the mountainside.
Now things get interesting. Sam suddenly wants to prove his worth, as if breaking his back for an empty quest will atone for a lifetime of crimes. Defying the Eye (and the bulge in his pants), he begins carrying Frodo up the mountainside — Now this is truly ridiculous. Gollum is dead. He was murdered by Frodo outside Shelob’s home. If Peter Jackson wants us to believe that he fell 5000 feet only to spring out of nowhere like a boogieman at this last possible moment, then he’s been smoking too much pipeweed. “Gollum” is just part of Sam’s denial to keep the fantasy going. “Gollum” allows him to play Samwise the Superman. And that’s exactly what he does — attacking his hallucination in order to exonerate himself as a hero.
The Cracks of Doom
But what about Frodo? As he stands at the Cracks of Doom, the Eye once again asks him to look inward. And staring at the Ring, he sees it for what it is: not a Ring, but a ring, a worthless trinket, yet the cause of so much bloodshed. The truth is outrageous and has him shaking in tears. Cursing Gandalf for his perfidious lies, he hurls the ring into the fire, where it is instantly destroyed. And of course nothing happens. Nothing at all.
But we see things through the eyes of Sam, whose Gollum-fantasy has gone into overdrive. The capering illusion should be dead twice over — smashed in the head with a rock and disemboweled by Sting — but it’s back and ready for more, clubbing Sam from behind and knocking him to the ground. Through the haze of his “pain”, Sam looks ahead to see Frodo claiming the Ring. He watches a nonexistent Gollum struggling with an invisible (but in fact perfectly visible) Frodo, who loses finger and Ring to the mirage; Frodo pushing the creature off the edge, then falling himself; and Samwise the Superman pulling him to safety. Pure rubbish, but this will be the hobbits’ story when they return home.
Now Sauron is thoroughly dismayed. He has managed to get two members of the most malicious race in Middle-Earth to examine themselves, but with results less than promising. The hobbits will only tell lies when they leave Mordor — that they tried their best, but Sauron got the Ring back from them, and more military power is needed than ever before. War and racism will go on. Frodo knows the truth about Gandalf and the elves, but he will never have the balls to expose them. Sauron sees only one option remaining: self-destruction. If he kills himself, the orcs will at least have a temporary reprieve from war. The fascist powers will think they have won, and a new age of “peace” (i.e. cold war) will begin, restoring at least some political and economic balance. So Sauron desists… the Eye implodes… Barad-dur comes crumbling down… and Frodo conveniently erases from memory everything the Eye helped him see. For he has apparently destroyed an evil Ring after all; and he will go down as the savior of Middle-Earth.
UPDATE: It looks like Alexander & Bissell did another spoof for The Return of the King, but not for The Two Towers.