The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Hairspray" and epistemology

I deeply appreciate the way the Christianity-Islam discussion wobbled a bit, and then straightened out by itself, never devolving into acrimony despite the extreme provocativeness of the subject. But please notice the most important thing: as soon as someone appeared with knowledge of the contrary position, the entire discussion elevated.

I’m not trying to sway anyone’s opinion about Islam and/or Christianity. Only about feeling confident in any discussion where the opposite position is not well represented.
Please also note that I didn’t say that you can’t determine whether Christian or Islamic countries are wealthier or healthier (in fact, one of my favorite metrics, Infant Mortality, makes it clear that there’s a difference). My comment is that it hasn’t been proven to my satisfaction that the difference is due to innate differences in the religions themselves.

Note that I suggested Infant Mortality as a measurement to determine the value of Universal Health Care. And, predictably, opponents of UHC brought up the many pre-conditions that might influence this. Sauce for the goose.

I’ve always considered the Koran to be more Old Testament in feel. Lotsa slaughter, and fun for the whole family. But unless you want to say that the “Peacefulness” of the text is a measure of its value, you’d have to say that the New Testament is better than the Old—and by extension, Christianity better than Judaism. (Oh, wait! There are PLENTY of people who feel exactly that way about Judaism. Although I’ve never, ever heard someone say the New Testament is “Better” than the Old. I HAVE heard people speculate that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New. That logic has always seemed torturous to me, the symptom of someone who expects reality to look the same from every direction.)
So, please—at no time do I suggest that others should change their beliefs on this subject. I’m just saying that I will never, ever accept the judgment of group A against group B if it contradicts my own intuition. I also admit that part of the reason for my apparent inflexibility is that the acceptance of the “Look at their inferiority in Metric X” argument to denigrate a class of people legitimizes that same argument in other contexts. I believe that the usage of a mode of argument is habitual—we will use it again and again to shape and clarify our world view.

My belief: that to use such an argument with Muslims increases the likelihood of using it with blacks, women, gays, Liberals, Conservatives, whatever. One of the things that bothers me is the human tendency to exploit and dominate, and then blame the resulting damage on the victim, and actually use the damaged state of the victim to legitimize the original assault.

I’m not saying this happened with Islam. I’m saying I’m unconvinced that the differences—which exist in my opinion, as well as yours—are intrinsic to the religion, and not the result of varying cultural or geographic conditions, the result of competition between Christianity and Islam, the result of comparing two differing periods in their parallel development, or any number of other factors I simply have no knowledge of—in the same way that “Guns, Germs, and Steel” presented a view of race and social development that required the integration of vast amounts of information concerning the spread of domesticable species of grains and animals, and the difference between the east-west spread of the Eurasian land mass, and the North-South orientation of the African.

So ultimately, this isn’t a discussion about Islam and Christianity. It is a discussion about the human decision-making process. You make your decisions by sorting information one way. I make decisions by sorting another. As long as you are happy with the results of the decisions you have made, and feel that it reflects an accurate map of reality, damned good for you.

And you will notice that there is more than one conclusion that intelligent people of good faith can derive from the same data set.

In my mind, one of the differences is that thing that I said differentiates Liberal and Conservative: the question of whether existence precedes essence, or essence precedes existence. Here, it is related not to an individual human soul but to the nature of a belief system—but it’s the same mode of thought applied to a different arena.

I submit that my theory, or instinct, is that someone who believes that the current state of a belief system is indicative of its essence is more likely to believe that the current status of an individual human being (or group of human beings) is indicative of THEIRS. Clearly, I’m stating I don’t believe there is a certain connection, but I’m not saying there’s no connection at all, either. Just that I need more data, and I will never accept the sole opinions of those who would benefit (in the sense of “mine is better than yours”) in making up my mind.

Here’s what you might want to do: you could say: “wow. Steve was really damaged by what he perceived to be racial injustice and stereotyping. He’s grown rigid and blind in this arena. Pity.”

Or: “Wow. Steve held on by faith and intuition to a non-stop assault on his sense of humanity. After decades, he finally was able to support an emotional position intellectually. And he believes that it is the moral and wiser thing to do to extend that same faith to other groups and individuals, until his heart and head agree that that faith is unjustified.”

I’m sure there are other ways to look at it as well. Just want to make it clear that this is NOT a religious or political discussion, at root. It is epistemological, not cosmological.
See “Hairspray.” It may be the best musical since “Grease,” and in some ways, it’s better. Of course, that’s personal preference. The curious thing is that John Waters, who brought us “Pink Flamingos” and the spectacle of a 300 pound transvestite eating poodle dooty, created an odd parable in the original film “Hairspray,” dealing, with subversive style, with the grotesque underbelly of the 50’s and early 60’s—a period many still look back on as some kind of high point in American culture, which was filled with state-sponsored hate for others.

To make a musical out of this cynical comedy was something of a stretch. That it works is astounding. This story of a bouncy chubby girl who “Can’t Stop the Music” and yearns to express her inner slo-mo explosion of talent and energy…and the repercussions when she pushes to integrate the “American Bandstand” style music show she adores…is powerful story material in a way few musicals can match.

And casting John Travolta was an absolute genius move. Travolta, who has made some REALLY bad movie decisions (uh…turning down “Chicago”, anyone?) here shines as the mother of said bouncy, chubby dancing machine. Watching “her” perform a soft shoe with Christopher Walken was a moment as devastating in its own way as watching Effie singing her show-stopper in “Dream Girls.”

This is a film about energy, aliveness, joy in motion (like “Footloose”), tolerance, and allowing human beings to find love in any way they can. It is loving, and life-affirming, and excruciatingly funny, and that rarest of things these days: a REAL musical, that utilizes the fantasy trope of “this character is revealing her essence in song and dance” that was missing from weasely movies like “Chicago” that feared to simply let the characters break out into song. In my mind, the only good musical to underperform at the box office was “Little Shop of Horrors.” The others were strange hybrids without singers and dancers who could really sing and dance, or without the slightest sense of translating the stage to the screen (“The Producers” or “A Chorus Line.”

The Hollywood musical is back. Thank God. And “Hairspray” is the best example of it in thirty years. Not the best film made from a musical, or with music. (I’d probably give that to “Chicago”.) But the best toe-tapping, bouncy real musical I’ve seen in a generation.

What incredible fun. An “A”

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