Stan Lee recently passed away at age 95, and his death has inspired many fans to ponder his legacy. His death has also inspired some to remind us that Lee, like the heroes he created, was flawed. This piece is certainly about Lee’s legacy, but not about the man himself. Instead, this piece ponders the extent to which the characters and universes Lee created have taken on a life of their own as allegories and myths.
At first blush, such a proposition might seem absurd, disrespectful, or perhaps even blasphemous, depending upon your own religious background. But there has been a long connection between fiction––even superhero fiction, if you will––and religion. Take the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana, as an example. It’s the story of Rama, a divine prince who must rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of an evil demon-king. Hinduism influenced the story, but the story also influenced Hinduism. Some Rama devotees tattooed his name all over their bodies––a practice that continues today. About a thousand years after the Ramayana was composed, another of its characters began to be venerated as a deity: Hanuman, one of India’s most popular deities. Today, watching dramatizations of the Ramayana is considered a religious activity.
While comic book fans may not venerate Spiderman as a deity, it is still worthwhile thinking about Stan Lee’s creations through the lens of religion, because that helps shed some light on their impact on the modern world––and, as a result, his legacy.
The allegorical meanings of Stan lee’s creations have been well covered elsewhere. I’m not going to offer allegorical interpretations of specific characters or stories here. Instead, I suggest that Stan Lee’s oeuvre can be interpreted collectively as an allegorical exploration of the individual’s place in the modern, urban world. Lee’s characters are so compelling because they have escaped the sea of anonymity characterizing modern life. Unlike other superheroes, like Superman, Lee’s characters are not apotheosized, idealized humans. Instead, they are flawed. As flawed people, they must confront their own weaknesses even as they face overwhelming outside forces. They must constantly choose good, even when evil is the easiest and most compelling option. As readers, we can identify with the characters’ struggles, and we see our own impossible choices reflected in their lives. We see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, battling against the behemoths of bureaucracy and the specters of sickness and death.
Lee has also given us a new mythology. Mythic stories can’t really be interpreted on the reality-fantasy spectrum, because mythic stories aren’t about factual events. Obviously aliens never invaded Manhattan and obviously radioactive spider bites won’t give you superpowers, that’s not the question. Instead, mythic stories are dramatizations of the human experience, and their narrative structure order a chaotic world. We like myth because it shows us our fears and hopes in a different light. Lee’s superhero creations help us make meaning from the chaos of the modern world. They provide stability at a time of tremendous instability––they dramatize the difference between good and evil, and the importance of good’s triumph. They remind us that each human is unique and powerful in her or his own way, the lack of real radioactive spiders notwithstanding.
It’s fitting to think about Lee’s work in this way. He himself was not institutionally religious, but he still was interested in questions like the ones I’ve explored here. Ultimately, Lee was interesting in the questions that impact us most as humans, and his work offers some answers.Read More
Max Weber, one of the founders of the field of sociology, was interested in how certain people gain authority. There were three types of authority, according to Weber. The first two are pretty straightforward: legal authority (think a Supreme Court Justice) and traditional authority (think a village elder). The third is a bit more interesting: charismatic authority. He defines charisma as:
[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader … How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.
This is the authority of the tech leaders. Think about that quintessential tech guru, Steve Jobs. Even after his deaths, articles come out praising his leadership skills, his visionary forward-thinking, and his business acumen. He’s worshipped like a folk god or a saint––and if you think I’m exaggerating, then you should know his belongings are being auctioned off like capitalist relics. Articles about him open with biblical verses. His deeds are chronicled in almost hagiographic reverence. But here’s the thing––he was darn close to sociopathic.
Many tech followers don’t want to see that side of their leaders, though. They’re too blinded by the leader’s charisma. I’ve continually written about Elon Musk’s less-than-stellar qualities, and his quasi-religious vision for Tesla, Space X, and whatever other Tony Stark scheme he’s got cooking. Others are pointing out that Facebook’s leadership is toxic and engages in incredibly shady PR tactics, and Google employees recently walked out after it was revealed that the company protected executives accused with harassing women. But despite this, the majority of articles written about tech leaders are sycophantic, blithering nonsense.
Max Weber helps us understand why that is. Scholar Eileen Barker has applied Weber’s concept of charismatic authority to new religious movements. In her analysis, charismatic authority is particularly powerful––and capricious––because it is not bound by tradition, law, or bureaucracy as the other types of authority are. Charismatic leaders, by virtue of their own mysterious authority-granting magical charisma, get to set the rules that everyone else plays be.
If Barker is right, then in the end these CEOs and tech demagogues are doomed to fail. As is the case with all charismatic leaders, they will eventually be overthrown by more solidly-grounded legal authorities.Read More
I deleted my Facebook account in 2008. I had been an early adopter, since my university was one of the first allowed to use the site. I loved it when I first made my account. Like my classmates, I agonized over my profile––a habit that carried over from the AIM profile days. I carefully cultivated a list of favorite books and music, I chose the perfect picture (and then took it down, and then chose a better one, and then finally went back to the first). The first few years were fun, but Facebook hardly had an impact on my life. It was just too small.
And then Facebook opened to public schools. People did not like that. Some just liked the elitism of Facebook at that time. Others like how small it was. Facebook further angered users when it rolled out the news feed function. I distinctly remember feeling disturbed when I saw all of my friends’ activity laid out in that timeline. So-and-so is now in a relationship? What the hell, we’d been poking back and forth for a month!
When the great Opening happened in 2008, I knew my time on the site was limited. First some people from high school found me, and that made me feel very uncomfortable. I was not a cool guy in high school, and I didn’t want to feel beholden to that version of myself. When my grandmother found me, I knew it was time to go. It’s not that my grandma isn’t a gem of a woman, because she is, it’s that I don’t like my life being on display. So I deactivated and never looked back.
In the ten years since I deactivated The Facebook (ah, the good old days when “The” was still there), I’ve watched it grow as a dispassionate outsider. It was interesting to see it spread around the world, but I didn’t think much of it. That changed when I saw it cause schisms within my own friend groups––an online social network was disrupting real life social networks. And then the 2016 elections happened.
In the last two years, Facebook’s reputation has taken a major dive. Once the hottest place to work, young computer programers are less interested in working there than ever before. Major media outlets are doing exposés on the companies terrible practices, such as John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and The New York Times’s latest piece. The latter has revealed the internal malfunctions of a company that once seemed unstoppable. Critics are beginning openly to attack its leaders:
“Zuckerberg and Sandberg built one of the most revolutionary communications and information tools in the world, and one of the best business models in the internet age. They also deliberately made rotten choices repeatedly, and by choice, not through naivete. Facebook for too long ran on a kind of autopilot. It was wildly successful, and that made Zuckerberg and Sandberg believe that they could do no wrong and that any criticism was plain wrong. ”
Between 2008, when Facebook opened to everyone, and today, the company outgrew itself. It became the Roman Empire of technology, spreading too far and too fast without cementing issues at home. Like the Roman Empire, Facebook is heading for a major state change––remember, the Roman Empire didn’t actually collapse. It just sort of…died out and changed into something entirely different.Read More
Michael Avenatti, porn star Stormy Daniels’ attorney, has been arrested on charges of domestic violence. After he posted his $50,000 bail, he made a brief statement, according to ABC news: “I have never struck a woman. I never will strike a woman. I have been an advocate for women’s rights my entire career and I’m going to continue to be an advocate. I’m not going to be intimidated from stopping what I’m doing.” Further, Avenatti has also called the statements “bogus” and “completely fabricated.” According to the Guardian, “The victim in the case had visible injuries, according to officer Tony Im, a police spokesman.” Avenatti has hinted at a 2020 presidential run.
To recap the scenario so far: President Donald Trump had sex with a porn star called Stormy Daniels, and then he paid her (and another woman) hush money to keep their affair quiet. According to a recent Wall Street Journal piece, new evidence “raises the possibility that the president of the United States violated federal campaign-finance laws” with that hush money.
Stormy Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, sued Trump for defamation when Trump denied the payments. Avenatti then trickled information out to the media and promised to reveal facts that would further humiliate Trump. This catapulted him into the national spotlight.
Once in the national spotlight––which he got by suing the president of the United States on behalf of a porn star––Avenatti began to position himself for a 2020 presidential run.
Now, Avenatti is being investigated for domestic violence.
Let’s all just take a moment to reflect on the episode of Days of Our Lives that is our political climate. It should not come as a surprise, after all Trump did host his own reality show––and he had a pretty sweet cameo in Home Alone Two. The 2016 election season was a media circus, and since the election late-night shows have been a race to bash Trump. It’s easy to believe that the worlds of politics and entertainment are blending more than they ever have before.
But that’s just not the case. We tend to be shortsighted and think that the world now is terrible compared to what it once was, and that our political climate is a total mess, everything is going to the dogs, there’s nothing good on the radio anymore, and you know in my day we had to walk ten miles in the snow to get to school. For better or for worse, politics has always been a spectacle. The Washington Post refers to the Lincoln-Douglas debates:
“Yet the Lincoln-Douglas debates were also a traveling circus. Thousands of spectators, playing hooky from their monotonous farms, flocked to each small-town venue from the surrounding countryside. Bands played. Cannons boomed. The candidates literally led parades to the stage.”
We should also remember that Joe McCarthy was an incredible showman, and that Ronald Reagan was an actor. There’s nothing new in principle happening in current politics. We’re just more focused on it than we have been in the past.
More about politics.Read More
In case you didn’t know, California is on fire. And it’s on fire in a quite a few places. Sadly, the Camp Fire has claimed fifty-six lives (and counting), making it the deadliest in the stat’s history. The state-wide death total is fifty-nine. I lived in California for most of my life, and I can’t remember fire seasons as chaotic and horrific as the last two or three. If it’s true that fire seasons are getting worse, that might explain why there seems to be so much chaos surrounding this year’s wildfires. If you’ve been following the news, you might have gotten a sense of what I mean.
California is a land of contrasts: ocean and desert, mountain and valley, incredibly rich and extremely poor. The fires have made those contrasts even starker, especially the latter. According to a recent piece by Vice, California’s wealthy have a private firefighting force to help mitigate the worst of the fire’s damage:
AIG’s Private Client Group’s Wildfire Protection Unit, for instance, is made up of AIG employees who are certified through state or local authorities. In addition to protecting homes with flame retardants, these AIG employees respond to fires and map homes in real time as wildfires approach.
Keep in mind that Vice’s title is bad journalism and downright shameless: “Rich People Pay for Private Firefighters While the Rest of Us Burn.” Don’t conjure the wrong mental image. It does not seem that private firefighters out hosing down every rich person’s house––though Kanye sprung for that service. It seems that most just use the preventative services. Vice is vague about that point.
Other critics are suggesting that we just let Malibu burn. “Make your home in Malibu, in other words, and you eventually will face the flames,” writes Mike Davis. Malibu, Davis writes, was ecologically built to burn, and pretending otherwise is silly.
Victims of the wildfire are looking for someone to blame. A group of victims are already suing PG&E, even though fault has not yet been determined. Others are celebrating what blessings they do have, like the miraculous survival of a Model T:
When he is finally allowed back in, Mr. Westbrook will find a neighborhood in ruins. Houses are gone, trees stripped, power lines flattened. But there are odd patches of normalcy, testaments to the unpredictability of a wildfire. Down the block, an old Chevrolet El Camino was untouched. A festive lawn decoration in Mr. Westbrook’s yard survived. And so did the Model T.
More news.Read More
The “Nones” are on the rise in America. “Nones” have no religious affiliation, and as of 2014 (some of the last really good survey data is from 2014) about 22% of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. This is not necessarily a paradigm shift in American religious history. There have always been vast numbers of Americans uninterested in religion. Historian of religion David Hall points out that these “horse-shed” Christians (called that because they tended to hang out and chat in the stables rather than participate in religious services) have been a part of our country since the founding.
But there are a few significant things to consider about the rising number of people who are openly unaffiliated. First, throughout American history, most people were at least nominally religious. But now, at least 7% are atheist and agnostic, and a further 15% are unwilling to affiliate with organized religion. That’s a big chunk of people who are entirely separate from the social and political influence of churches.
Politically active atheists are celebrating this change. Noting that most irreligious vote Democrat, this atheist blogger hopes that the non-religious will begin to cancel out the staunchly Republican evangelical bloc. That may or may not happen, but we can certainly expect to see partisanship increase as the number of outright atheists (currently around 3% of Americans) increase and become more politically active.
Second, the very way we think about religion is starting to change. In a recent post, I explained that Americans often tend to conflate religion with belief (or faith). While that makes some sense for Protestantism, it doesn’t work so well for other religions. There’s a famous scholarly article, for example, that argues that religious rituals don’t even require meaning, let alone faith. That’s a bit extreme for the point I’m making. What I’m trying to convey rather, is that if we’re going to understand how religion is evolving during the next fifty or so years, we are going to have to rethink what we consider religious. And to do that, we’re going to need a much more sophisticated understanding of what religion is and why we understand it the way that we do.
Finally, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated might have a broader political impact than simply voting blocs. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, for example, advocates for the separation of church and state, and frequently offers legal support for those wishing to end mandatory school prayer groups and other religious actions, practices, or items mixing in with government. As more Americans leave the church, and as church-goers push back, we can expect to see more contests over this issue.
More about religion.Read More
On November 7, the NRA fired off a tweet heard round the world.
Hours after this tweet, a former Marine took a handgun into a country western nightclub in California and murdered twelve people.
San Francisco doctor named Judy Melinek, forensic pathologist, read the tweet before heading into a perform an autopsy on a gunshot victim. From the Chronicle:
“We do our jobs every single day, and our job is to be an expert on what bullets do to bodies,” Melinek, a 49-year-old mother of four, told me this week. “We’re the ones who are called to the scene (of homicides). We are the ones who testify in court about the pain and suffering that happens because of gun violence. We’re the ones who see the consequences of lax gun policies.”
Incensed by the NRA’s tweet, she fired off her own:
By the time she was done with her autopsy, her post had gone––as it were––viral. Other doctors began to chime in. Dr. Marianne Haughe wrote: “I see no one from the @nra next to me in the trauma bay as I have cared for victims of gun violence for the past 25 years. THAT must be MY lane. COME INTO MY LANE. Tell one mother her child is dead with me, then we can talk.” Doctors began to post graphic pictures of gunshot-related surgeries––blood-spattered gowns and masks, bloody rags on floors, and bullets in metal pans.
The drama was sparked by a paper outlining a public health approach to reducing firearm deaths. CP Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs and Public Policy Robert Doherty, co-author of the paper, commented: “All of our recommendations are supported by a comprehensive review of research on the causes of gun violence, & policies that could reduce it. Where the evidence is limited, we said so,” he wrote. “All of our recommendations were reviewed and approved by ACP physician-members who serve on our health policy committee, several of whom are gun owners.”
It’s hard to say how impactful the twitter onslaught will be. The NRA has heretofore been immune to criticisms, even in the wake of their terrible replies to mass shootings. It’s unlikely that these doctors’ tweets will leave the liberal echo chambers where they’re currently reverberating. That being said, doctors and nurses are still among the most respected professions in the nation. It’s possible that their criticisms might be more effective than others––if they’re heard.Read More
In the previous section, I claimed that Francisco Mejia Uribe’s argument that we need to think more critically about news sources was a good but based on terrible evidence: William Kingdon Clifford’s essay”The Ethics of Belief.” I demonstrated that Clifford’s essay was entangled with anti-Catholic bias and rooted in Protestant ideas about the nature of humanity and human …Read More
In the first part of this piece, I summarized Francisco Mejia Uribe’s argument from the Aeon piece “Believing without evidence is always morally wrong,” taken fromWilliam Kingdon Clifford’s essay”The Ethics of Belief.” The upshot of that piece was this: Bad information leads to bad beliefs, and bad beliefs lead to bad actions. The moral of Uribe’s article is a good one: think more critically. The problem is that the author did think through his argument or his subject matter as thoroughly as he should have.
The root of the problem begins with the context of Clifford’s 1877 essay. The essay cannot be understood outside of its historical context, which in turn has implications for its contemporary significance. “The Ethics of Belief” emerged from “The Higher Criticism” or the historical criticism movement of the mid-to-late eighteenth century. The scholars of this movement turned a critical eye to the Bible, using historical methods to challenge the traditional, religious interpretations of the text. In brief, they challenged the belief-centered or faith-centered approach to the Bible––and eventually, as a result, the world. With that context, it’s easy to see how Clifford’s attack on belief without evidence emerged from this movement. William James, a pioneer of modern psychology, challenged Clifford’s attack on belief with his own defense of it––a defense that’s still cited by religious people today.
Clifford’s essay was thus rooted in the way he and his contemporaries thought about religion––and indeed about the world in its entirety. Like many people today, Clifford assumed that religion was synonymous with belief. As startling––and even counterintuitive or downright wrong––as it might sound, religion is not just about belief, and it certainly does not come from belief. Although Clifford was criticizing the over-credulity of his religious contemporaries, in his attacks on belief he was himself reinforcing its importance. In other words, by challenging the centrality of belief to religious life, he was making it the subject of debate. When William James replied to Clifford, he helped solidify belief’s role as the primary aspect of religious life. But belief is not, as I noted above, central to religion. Belief is central to a religion: Protestant Christianity.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to Martha, “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die (John 11:25).” Since the Reformation, Protestants have channeled their focus towards “belief.” This is known as sola fide, or “justification by faith alone.” They emphasize this in order to distinguish themselves from Roman Catholicism, which holds that ritual actions are as important as belief. Even in the late 1800s, anti-Catholicism in England (where Clifford was from) and America held enough sway over the social milieu to cause Clifford and his contemporaries to overlook the importance of actions. As good post-Enlightenment Protestants, they worried entirely about the life of the mind. Both Clifford and those he was arguing against agreed that the mind and the beliefs that took root there were the first principles of social life. You believe first, and then you act. The problem with Catholics, they felt, was that they were primitive––they used action instead of belief. Belief alone was sufficient, as long as that belief was proper.
Already we begin to see the problem in using Clifford’s 1877 essay to make any kind of point about modern society: the essay itself was mired in religious polemics and assumptions rooted in a particular time and place. With this foundation in mind, in the next piece I will argue that Uribe’s ultimate point is entirely moot, which is all the more detrimental because he’s still right! We do need to be more critical readers and more thoughtful citizens, he just (unfortunately, again) did not properly model critical reading or thoughtfulness.
More about news.Read More
Written by Francisco Mejia Uribe, an executive director at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, Aeon’s “Believing without evidence is always morally wrong” is a response to the “fake news” epidemic. Mr. Uribe and I are in total agreement here, as you’ll notice if you red this morning’s article about critical thinking and fake news. In this article, I respond to Mr. Uribe’s argument the spirit of critical reading, critical thinking, and friendly debate. The goal is not to suggest that he’s wrong, only to explore the ideas he presents, their consequences, and their alternatives.
First, what’s does “Believing without evidence” (“Believing”) argue? The article uses a philosophical essay called “The Ethics of Belief,” written in 1877 by William Kingdon Clifford. In a nutshell, Clifford argues that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Uribe uses this principle to argue that “[f]alse beliefs about physical or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten our survival.” From Clifford, Uribe extrapolates that it is not only our own mental and physical states that suffer from over-credulity, but it is out entire social networks. That happens because “careless believing turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars [sic], conspiracy theorists and charlatans.” Bad information leads to bad beliefs, and bad beliefs lead to bad actions.
Uribe makes a particularly fascinating point when he suggests that Big Data has the potential to create a feedback loop: bad beliefs fed into search engines and other fodder for big data will produce more and worse beliefs. In sum, Uribe applies Clifford’s essay to the technology age in order to argue that we all need to think and read critically, so we don’t fall prey to bad information that builds bad beliefs and then, as a result, bad actions.
Uribe’s intention with the article is a good one. But the foundations of it are shaky at best because, ironically, Uribe himself fell into the very trap that his article warns about. Specifically, Uribe failed to contextualize Clifford’s essay, and as a result he reproduces not only some of the questionable elements of the essay but also the problems that have resulted from those elements in the last 150 years. Tomorrow, I will post my response to Uribe. It’s a long treatment, as I aim to treat his arguments with respect, so it’s better as a standalone piece.
More about news.
Take a second and really try to answer those questions before reading on.
The title of the song is “We Both Go Down Together.” The question is, are the characters’ feelings mutual? Maybe you’re starting to guess where this is headed: What evidence is there that the woman is in love with the narrator? What’s really going on in this song? A rich, spoiled boy saw a poor girl and decided he loved her. He “laid [her] down” while she “wept,” but her “soul was willing.” How did he know her soul was willing? How can we trust him? The answer is that we can’t.
The reality is there are two possible interpretations of this song. The first is straight forward. The narrator and the woman are really in love, and they’re forced to commit suicide or be separated. The second requires a bit more thinking. The woman has no choice but to have sex with the rich, powerful young man. He forces her to commit suicide with him rather than live under the thumb of his parents, so he asks her to come over and enjoy the view from his veranda. When she gets there, he pulls her off.
It takes work to come up with that interpretation, however, and sadly most people are not interested in that kind of mental labor. According to a recent study, laziness is the root of the “fake news” crisis, not political bias. Media consumers don’t want to do the work to think for themselves, they want the interpretations handed to them. As the example above shows, the truth is out there, it just takes work.Read More
This Veteran’s Day marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. As is tradition, President Trump flew to Paris to commemorate the event. In years past, presidents have visited the U.S. Cemetery to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers. President Trump canceled his visit to the cemetery due to rain: “Mr Trump was supposed to participate in a wreath-laying and a moment of silence at the site, but heavy rain prevented him from arriving via helicopter to the site, which is more than 50 miles east of the French capital.”
The cancellation drew widespread criticism, both at home and abroad. French President Macron made a thinly-veiled criticism of Trump: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying our interests first, who cares about the others, we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great, and what makes it essential: its moral values.”Conservative MP and grandson of Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames, tweeted the following:
Members of previous administrations, such as Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser and David Frum, President George W. Bush’s former speechwriter, both criticized Trump. Rhodes particularly challenged Trump’s citation of “logistical difficulties.” Rhodes said that he planned Obama’s trips to the cemetery every year, and every year he had a contingency plan for rain.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s critics have had a field day. Pictures of Obama speaking in the rain are circulating around social media platforms, with commentators noting that Obama wasn’t afraid of speaking in the rain and implying that the real reason that Trump canceled the cemetery speech was because he was afraid of the rain. Critics have also pointed out that the cemetery was only an hour drive away from Paris, and Trump could have easily ordered a motorcade.
Interestingly, his supporters have not done much to defend Trump’s decision. Fox News has taken an interesting tactic. Note the lede of this article:
At a rain-soaked and chilly observance of Armistice Day at the Suresnes American Cemetery outside Paris on Sunday, President Trump praised the “American and French patriots” of World War I, in a speech that sharply contrasted with the political tone of an earlier address by French President Emmanuel Macron.
This article is about Trump speaking at a cemetery much closer to Paris. It goes on to note the various criticisms of Trump lodged by several world leaders––especially his nationalistic tendencies and America-first policies. But what’s most interesting is the first few words: “rain-soaked.” The article points out that Trump was not, in fact, afraid of speaking in the rain.Read More
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