Sunday, May 17, 2015

Built-in disappointment with the next Star Wars

Star Wars had quite an effect on a generation. My wife and I wanted to see it the first weekend it was shown in theaters in 1977.  At the one theater in Salt Lake City showing the movie, we turned away at the sight of the lines around the block. We were more successful getting a seat a week or two later. We were immediately taken by the story and the characters. It was very fresh, and it transformed the movie industry for the decades following its release. The main thing we got out of it was fun. I liked the special effects, but what Sally and I most enjoyed were the characters and their interactions.

“Star Wars Reboots,” in the June, 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, is an article on how the creative team came together for the latest movie in the franchise, Star Wars Episode VII—The Force Awakens. I found the article interesting, and also noticed that for the most part, the team has been involved with Star Wars either as moviegoers, or as movie makers, for a long time. The team decided they wanted to get back to what made the original movie successful, so they have hired some of the original actors, and done a more retro-styled motion picture.

Another thing that struck me was the reverence with which the project was approached. It reminded me of statements by Roma Downey and her husband, Mark Burnett, when describing their Bible mini-series. Star Wars, in some minds, approaches the level of being a religious experience.

I have seen the sequels and prequels, but I never enjoyed them like the first movie. Using the Law of Diminishing Returns as a guide, I think we got less of the effect as each sequel progressed the storyline. The prequels, for me, are boring, despite a lot of gloss and CGI. Even though I have seen them, I I cannot remember anything about any of the movies released since 1999. My feelings about them are not disappointment. Disinterest might be a better word.

Unlike hardcore Star Wars fans, caught up in mythology, I saw them without major expectations. A documentary, The People Vs. George Lucas, goes into great detail describing fan disappointments at these later films, pinning the blame for their disappointment on Lucas. They should blame themselves for not observing another “law”: “Expectation is greater than realization.” What fans had done in 1999 when The Phantom Menace was released was to have it built up in their minds; they personalized it, but the film makers were not able to get in the heads of the fans, each of whom had his own vision. Then they actually saw the movie. Instant letdown. One fan described going back to see the movie several times, trying to convince himself it was as good as he wanted it to be. That is a good example of a true believer, akin to someone who believes in the Bible, but suddenly finds the foundation of his faith is showing cracks. He tries to heal those cracks. When I watched the documentary on Netflix I hollered at the screen a couple of times at fan revelations like that. It's only a movie, people!

Despite the fact that Lucas is now gone (he sold his company and the rights to all intellectual property to Disney for four billion dollars), and the onus is off him for the success or failure of the reboot, how can it not disappoint those fans that have built up the mythology of Star Wars into something that can only succeed in their own heads? People who hyperventilate over advance trailers or whose palms grow sweaty just thinking about taking their seat on opening day of a new Star Wars movie have already run the movie, or a movie of their own passions and fantasies,  dozens of times in their heads. Nothing can match up to that experience inside one’s self.

I am sure that what I am describing is already known to psychologists and mental health professionals, because it isn’t just to movies like Star Wars (or Star Trek, or Indiana Jones) that this phenomenon occurs. It also extends to other areas of a human being’s life: relationships, religion, politics, even conspiracy theories.

I doubt I’ll be filling a seat in my local cineplex when Star Wars Episode VII—The Force Awakens opens. I’ll listen to what others have to say about it, and a year from then I may watch it on Starz or HBO. Unlike those with unrealistic expectations I have none at all. In my personal, cynical view, I see it as less of a story than a major marketing tool to gain back the $4B Disney paid to have the rights to make it. And if any of the true believers ever stop their fantasiziing to consider that, then they will be truly disappointed.

Here is where some of my cynicism comes from. The director/co-writer is J. J. Abrams, who took the television series, Lost, and its interesting premise, and by the end of the series had alienated his viewers before driving the series over the cliff with a bad, contrived ending. That is the guy Star Wars fans are pinning their dreams on.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Racist bile, 1868 style

It has been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the 13th Amendment. It has been 50 years since the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. But racism, sad to say, still rears up, and because of social media and improved technology, more and more it ends up online or on television, filmed by bystanders. Racism today is generally decried as bad, but there was a time in America when even public figures got away with racist remarks. It has been a growing process, or a painful learning curve, to get people past making public pronouncements of their own ignorance.

But even after living around racists and racism for decades, I was still unprepared when I found this book online at the Internet Archive. Page after page is filled with the kind of vicious and vituperative venom that might seem over the top in a Ku Klux Klan brochure, although I am sure that brotherhood of racists would probably co-opt some of the quotes from the book. This is slander to a whole group of human beings.

When reading The Negroes in Negroland on the California Digital Library of the Internet Archive, I had at once a reaffirmation of the basis for deep racial divides in America, and also that as a matter of unwritten public policy, we may not have moved far beyond these stubbornly held beliefs of the “inferiority” of races other than white European.

This book could poison anyone reading it, especially if they were looking to have their prejudices reinforced. The “compiler,” Hinton Rowan Helper, of North Carolina, only picked quotes that conformed to his point of view. There are no comments or quotes as far as I could tell that give a conflicting view of other races. I could not read the whole wore me down with its barrage of hate, but if you look up the book you can look at any page without hope of finding any form of praise for African-Americans.

The year 1868, when this was published, was only three years after the Civil War ended, and the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment ending slavery. Slaves had been freed, but to what? They had no education, and no place to go. It was not like post-Emancipation that they could suddenly apply for a job as a home builder or deputy sheriff and be welcomed with open arms. In many cases slaves had no education at all; they were illiterate, and the white man’s country was a hostile place.

I have my own feelings about why our society has been poorer for its prejudices, but I also understand human nature. It is just in the nature of some to feel superior to others based on how they look or act.

I have “clipped” some especially egregious examples of the hateful sludge between the covers of this book. If it offends anyone, then that’s good. It should offend. It was not written with any other purpose than to dismiss black people as being somewhere between human and animal...and mostly animal.

Quotes from the introduction pretty much sum up the author’s attitude:

Invoking God at the end is a specious way of bringing in Diety for the purposes of backing up one’s prejudice. Another is calling on physical racial differences and the supposed difference between blacks and whites. As in, “God must have cursed this race! Look at how different they are from us!”

If that hate-filled list of buzzwords and overkill in expressing disgust of “negroes” is not enough, those of mixed race are not free of disdain and loathing:

Finally, and I could not help but include this, because the description of the black’s singing voice makes me think of a legacy of African-American singers, from the early twentieth century to today, whose voices have changed American music, making it popular all over the world.

In its biography of Hinton Rowan Helper, the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, speaks of Helper’s books:
“ . . . three of which were extremely racist and unleashed intense hatred towards the Negro race. His writings contained rational, progressive, and farsighted viewpoints and ideas as well as irrationalities and illogical ideas which sometimes sounded like the ravings of a maniac. Historians John Spencer Bassett and J. G. de R. Hamilton have portrayed him as a man of keen intellect with a touch of genius which at times bordered on insanity.”
Helper was born in 1829, and died in 1909.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Milking the right-wing politics with Ezra Taft Benson

Ezra Taft Benson was the 13th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also called Mormons or LDS), from 1985-1994. He was old when he died, 94 years of age. (I just read that the average age of LDS leadership is now 80.)

This incredible picture of Benson was taken in the 1950s when Benson’s job was Secretary of Agriculture for the Eisenhower administration. Born on a farm in Idaho, Benson had the qualifications for the job. He was very influential in government policies that are still being practiced today.

Although gone now for twenty years, Benson represents for me the power of church leadership in determining the faithful’s secular activities. Like politics. He was a Republican, and not just a Republican, but a right-wing Republican, even in a period when Republicans were much more moderate than they are now. Benson was affiliated with the right-wing group, the John Birch Society. He promoted that group’s political agenda, even while serving as a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Sometimes members of the LDS church listen to highly placed church authorities as if they were speaking for God. By the time men like Benson become members of the Quorum of the Twelve they are obviously well-versed in church beliefs and doctrine, but also policies. Officially, they are not allowed to tell church members for whom to vote, and it is made clear to them. No stumping for candidates from the pulpit, in other words. I believe Benson stepped over the line of official church political neutrality when asked for his opinion on Democrats. And because of his status as an apostle, church members’ ears perked up. 
In February 1974 Apostle Ezra Taft Benson was asked during an interview if a good Mormon could also be a liberal Democrat. Benson pessimistically replied: ‘I think it would be very hard if he was living the gospel and understood it.’ — John Heinerman and Anson Shule, The Mormon Corporate Empire, p. 142
Since that quote was widely distributed in the 1970s the normally moderate Utah Republican Party has been taken over by the radical right, and while it would not be politically wise to quote apostle-before-he-became-church-president-Benson during debates on public policy in the legislature, what Benson said over 40 years ago is understood, and is deep in the bosom of the true believers. Its philosophy rules today’s Utah Republican party.

A recent poll conducted by one of the local television news organizations asked Utahns, broken down into categories, Mormon, non-Mormon, Republicans, Democrats, whether they thought the LDS leadership has too much influence on Utah’s legislators. The results were what I would expect. Most Mormons said no, non-Mormons and Democrats said yes, they have too much influence. I am firmly in that latter camp.

A few months ago some over-eager Mormon bishop opined that Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader from Nevada, a Democrat and also a Mormon, should be hauled up before church authorities and, based on his political actions and beliefs, charged with various offenses against the faith. That bishop was slapped down quickly because he violated church policy, but if he said it, then a lot of people just like him were already thinking it; they just would not speak it out loud. Because of those opinions that Democrats are somehow not living their religion, it must make Mormons who are also Democrats a very lonely group.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

John Keel's self-induced inner cosmology

I am a UFO skeptic. I know the popular versions of the UFO mythology, and I’m not a believer. I still read a lot about flying saucers, but I am more interested in the people who write about flying saucers than I am in reports of sightings. John A. Keel is a case in point. (Keel, who was born Alva John Kiehle in 1930, died in 2009. He is probably most famous for his book, The Mothman Prophecies, made into a film with Richard Gere.)

I am fascinated by Keel’s books because I am fascinated by Keel. When it comes to believing, Keel veers from the standard set of UFO beliefs (“flying saucers from outer space”) and goes into what I would call an “everything that fits” belief system: paranormal, religious, technological, conspiracy theories, all part of his explanations of the UFO phenomenon.

Why UFOs  is a 1976 Manor House paperback reprinting of Keel’s 1970 book, Operation Trojan Horse. In it Keel states:
“. . . ‘illusion-prone spirits’ are responsible for nearly all of the UFO appearances and manipulations. The flying saucers do not come from some Buck Rogers-type civilization on some distant planet. They are our next-door neighbors, part of another space-time continuum where life, matter, and energy are radically different from ours.” [Page 273. Note, all page numbers are from the Manor House edition of the book.]
In the chapter, “Do Flying Saucers Really Exist?” he writes about the wide variety of types and shapes of UFOs reported:
“With very few exceptions, no two UFO photographs are alike. I have received hundreds in the mail and have been shown hundreds more in my travels. I have yet to personally handle two exactly similar photos taken in two different areas . . . I have rarely heard two independent witnesses describe separate seemingly solid ‘hard’ objects in the same terms . . . There seem to be as many different kinds of objects as there are witnesses. Yet I have managed to reassure myself again and again that the witnesses were reliable and were describing the objects to the best of their abilities.” [Emphasis mine. The “abilities” of witnesses has been a subject for study for decades, and witnessing is a highly subjective thing.]
    “. . . we must assume that UFOs come in myriad sizes and shapes. Or no real shapes at all . . . if the phenomenon has built-in discrepancies, then no one will take it seriously.”
[This is the time when I slip in my own UFO “sighting,” from almost 60 years ago. I still don’t know what I saw, but I know what it looked like. See: "Flying Saucer Boy".]

Back to Keel:
“In other words, we have thousands upon thousands of UFO sightings which force two unacceptable answers upon us:

“1. All the witnesses were mistaken or lying.
“2. Some tremendous unknown civilization is exerting an all-out effort to manufacture thousands of different types of UFOs and is sending all of them to our planet.

“I think that some ‘hard’ objects definitely exist as Temporary Transmogrifications. They are disk-shaped and cigar-shaped. They leave indentations in the ground when they land. Witnesses have touched them and have even been inside of them. These hard objects are decoys, just as the dirigibles and ghost planes of yesteryear may have been decoys to cover the activities of the multitudinous soft objects. They hold one of the keys to the mystery.

“There are countless sightings of objects which changed size and shape in front of the viewers or split into different smaller objects, each going off in a different direction . . . Over and over again witnesses have told me in hushed tones, ‘You know, I don’t think that thing I saw was mechanical at all. I got the distinct impression it was alive.’.”
Perhaps whoever wrote this imaginative script for a 1978 issue of the comic book, UFO and Outer Space #14, had read Keel’s book.

The dirigibles and ghost planes Keel mentioned are covered in another section of the book. There was an airship mystery going on in the later part of the 1890s. Some witnesses claimed that man-made airships, looking like what we came to know as dirigibles, were floating over cities and farms in America. Some of the “witnesses” claimed to have spoken to the pilots or crew. The most remarkable thing is that these supposed sightings were made a few years before the Wright Brothers made their first successful flights in heavier-than-air craft. Unlike hot air balloons, the airships were supposedly powered by motors. The ghost planes were described as looking like airplanes, yet when examined on the ground they had configurations not seen in known aircraft.

A very fanciful version of the airship was published as a dime novel. The Wikipedia entry, Mystery Airship, covers a lot of the same ground as Keel. Keel admitted some of the airship stories could have been hoaxes, whereas the Wikipedia article presumes most, if not all, were part of a larger series of hoaxes of the time.

In Keel’s hypothesis, they were controlled by these beings from another dimension, time and space. They made them to look like objects we would be familiar with. Keel describes these entities as “ultraterrestrials,” creating objects that would be familiar to people of the era. In Biblical days they would be seen as flying chariots, for instance.

Yet he ends the chapter from which I have quoted by saying, “It’s a mixed bag. You can take your choice. Every belief can be supported to some degree, but in the final analysis, when you review all of the evidence, none of them can be completely proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” [Pages 130-132.]

While Keel isn’t willing to admit the stories are probably fakes, or at least misinterpretations of evidence, he does say they would be impossible to prove.

Many things that fit into Keel’s own criteria for the entities fooling humans are part and parcel of the larger UFO picture. Even spiritualism is worked in. Although he believes many mediums are fakes, Keel didn’t equivocate when telling of certain spiritualists or mediums he believes are not. He then goes on to tell us stories of “little people” (including some bat people — holy Weekly World News!), and even a famous case studied by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Cottingley Fairies. In a paragraph which begins with a rhetorical question, Keel asks why these entities have not been photographed, he answers himself with, “They have. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle performed a lengthy investigation into one set of photos of fairies taken in England by a couple of children. Apparently they were authentic.” [Page 215.]

Actually, the photos weren’t. They were taken in 1917. To the modern eye they are obvious fakes, and one of the perpetrators finally admitted in the early 1980s to the hoax. Apparently, perhaps swayed by the reputation of the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Keel showed a startling gullibility. Since Keel’s book was published over 10 years before the hoax was finally admitted to, one wonders about Keel’s reaction to the news of the belated confession.

Besides that gullibility, Keel teases us with stories that set up a tantalizing premise, but go nowhere:
“. . . after I had launched my full-time UFO investigating effort in 1966, the phenomenon had zeroed in on me . . . My telephone ran amok first, with mysterious strangers calling day and night to deliver bizarre messages ‘from the space people.’ Then I was catapulted into the dreamlike fantasy world of demonology. I kept rendezvous with black Cadillacs on Long Island, and when I tried to pursue them, they would disappear impossibly on dead-end roads. Throughout 1967 I was called out in the middle of the night to go on silly wild-goose chases and try to affect ‘rescues’ of troubled contactees.”
After setting us up with that laundry list of odd occurrences he slaps us with this:
“More than once I woke up in the middle of the night to find myself unable to move, with a huge, dark apparition standing over me.” (Page 255.)
What!? A “huge, dark apparition”? And what did said apparition do? We aren’t told. Keel just drops it there, with no explanation, not even telling us what he thought it might represent. Since he survived to write of it, obviously it did nothing. Perhaps the fact that he woke up to find the apparition looming over him might indicate it was a nightmare? After all, someone with all of that adventure in his life must have a mind whirling like a centrifuge, even in sleep.


Another of those tantalizing tales that go nowhere is this one:
“When a UFO would land on an isolated farm and the ufonaut would visit a contactee, he or she would call me immediately and I would actually converse with the entity by telephone, sometimes for hours. It all sounds ridiculous now, but it happened.” [Page 256.]
I would like to know if Keel recorded any of those reputed conversations (the cassette recorder was in use in those days; I know, because in 1967 I had one), or if not, if he kept notes, and if he did what might have been said. We are given a situation with no further explanation. Do we just accept Keel’s unsubstantiated word? He must have expected we would, having read that far into his book.

Finally, on another personal note, I find Keel’s view of religion and stories that come from religions interesting. He tells of the “visions” of Fatima and Lourdes as if they really happened, and the story of Joseph Smith and his “first vision” as being a real occurrence. In Keel’s versions, though, the visions were not holy beings descended from heaven, but ultraterrestrials out to trick humans. To what end? We don’t know, and at least Keel admits that.

My impressions from reading Keel’s books (not only this, but his others), is that wherever there are out-of-this-world things happening, they happened to, or because of, Keel. These books are all about Keel. What was it about him that made him a magnet for these ultraterrestrials, with their looming dark apparitions or mysterious phone calls from entities in the middle of the night?

My suspicion is that Keel, if not making it up, was at least hallucinating parts of it, and in the ways of all humans from birth, was connecting the dots of otherwise unrelated subjects. His brain came up with a complex cosmology of his own devising.

Does anyone else accept these stories at face value? Did cults spring up around Keel like they did around Joseph Smith and the original Mormon Church, or flying saucer contactees like George Adamski? In reading various versions of Keel’s life I don’t see that. So we might say that Keel was that proverbial prophet crying out in the wilderness. He told us what he thought, and what he “witnessed,” but it wasn’t enough to build a large, self-serving organization of devotees and true believers.

 In The Encyclopedia of Alien Encounters by Alan Baker, published in 2000 when Keel was still living, the entry “John Alva Keel” in part says:
“In spite of his eccentricities, Keel has contributed an enormous amount to the study of anomalous phenomena, and while he still belongs firmly at the outlandish fringes of ufology, his bizarre speculations have at least opened the minds of some to the possibility that UFOs and associated phenomena may represent a more complex reality than is generally supposed. As Jerome Clark states:

“Even his admirers were sometimes willing to acknowledge . . . that his conclusions outdistanced his evidence by some considerable margin, that his historical, psychological, and social analysis was amateurish, that the extreme kinds of experiential claims on which he was fixated were hardly characteristic of the UFO phenomenon as a whole, and that his speculations were laced with paranoia. Yet no one denied that as a teller of scary stories he could be wonderfully entertaining.”
Scary stories, maybe. Outlandish, yes. Entertaining, definitely yes.

John A. Keel, 1992.