The Lefty Pinko Wire Service

Alternet_logoI just found out about this recently, and I’m having the “Where have you been all my life?” reaction, so I want to tell everyone else about it.

It’s AlterNet. It’s sort of a lefty magazine/ wire service: a compendium of progressive news, opinion, and blogging from all over the Internets, with both original pieces and reprints from other sources. (What do you call a reprint when it’s online instead of in print?) They’ve got some serious heavy hitters: on today’s home page, I’m seeing writing from Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Julian Bond…

Gretatricorn…and me.

Me, me, me.

I just had my first piece go up on AlterNet this weekend — “Why Civil Unions Aren’t Enough”, reprinted from this very blog — and I’m thrilled beyond measure. (Of course they don’t include all the pretty illustrations that I use on my blog; but being on the same Web magazine as Julian Bond and Michael Moore kind of makes up for that.)

This could be a big break for me. It could get me some real exposure in new and exciting places. So keep your fingers crossed — I’m going to continue to send them my best lefty blogging, and hope to appear there more. Check out the site — it’s a great source of good, smart, thoughtful lefty writing, and with any luck, it’s going to make me a star.

Invisible Punishment: Hell as Social Control

FireHell has been on my mind. I recently dug up a list of all the places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about hell (there are quite a few), so hell is all up in my face right now. It’s one of the religious beliefs that I find most disturbing and most profoundly fucked-up — and I want to talk about why.

Part of it, of course, is that there’s no evidence for it. But that’s true for a lot of religious beliefs — arguably all of them — and not all religious beliefs anger me nearly as much as hell does. (The evidence problem is, however, a problem I’ll be coming back to.)

JusticePart of it is that it’s missing the entire point of punishment and justice. For me, the point of punishment is either to change people’s behavior — to show them that bad actions have bad consequences, and thus to teach them not to do it again — or to provide an example, to demonstrate to others than bad actions have bad consequences, and thus to teach them not to do it.

Hell completely fails on both counts. The permanence and eternity of it means that it utterly fails as a teaching tool. It’s not like you’re going to learn from your mistakes — the whole idea of hell is that, if you haven’t learned your lesson by the day of your death or Judgment Day, you don’t get any more chances. It’s like punishing a child by sending them to sit in the corner… for the rest of their life.

And as far as hell being an example for others… well, here’s where we come back to the fact that there’s no evidence for it. It’s not like the souls being burned and tortured in hell for eternity are on display for the rest of us to see, so we can go, “Oh. Got it. That’s what happens when you steal from your neighbor and cheat on your wife. Important safety tip. Thanks.” All we have is the word of some ancient texts, Jerry Falwell, and the guy screaming at us from the Powell Street cable car turnaround.

So it’s a truly lousy form of punishment. It takes all the good stuff out of the concept of justice, and turns it into pure revenge, simply for revenge’s sake. Simply because it makes people feel good to believe that bad people are being punished.

WaterboardingAnd then there’s the problem of how wildly disproportionate hell is; how it’s what Ebon Musings calls “infinite punishment for finite sins.” There is no math in the world that makes infinite torture a proportionate response to anything that any human might do on Earth. To punish even crimes like mass murder with burning and torture for infinitely longer than a billion years… it’s like punishing a parking violation with waterboarding.

But none of that is my biggest problem with hell.

My biggest problem with the idea of hell is that it’s such a powerful, insidious form of social control.

Here’s what the concept of hell does. It tells people, “If you behave in bad ways, if you disobey (God in theory, religious texts and teachers in practice), the consequences will be bad — extraordinarily bad, much more bad than anything you’ve seen or can even imagine. No, we can’t give you any evidence that this terrible bad consequence will happen — but take our word for it, you don’t want it to happen. In fact, even questioning its existence and asking for evidence of it is one of the most disobedient bad things you can do, and will get you sent there for sure.”

StoveNow. Think about how learning, and the idea of consequences, works in an ordinary non-hell-based context. In everyday life, if you’re reasonably sane and don’t have a personality disorder, you learn about what to do and what not to do by experiencing consequences or seeing them happen to others. Touching a hot stove burns you; hitting people gets them mad at you; drinking too much makes you hungover; saying cruel things to people you love makes you feel sick and sad; etc.

We also learn from one another, of course — our parents or friends say, “Don’t drink milk past the expiration date,” or, “For the love of God, do not see ‘Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo,’” and much of the time we’ll just take their word for it. But at least we have the option of verifying their statements. We can see for ourselves that when our parents and teachers told us marijuana would lead straight to heroin, they were talking out of their asses, and we can see for ourselves what the consequences of smoking pot are and make a decision about whether it’s okay.

Hell doesn’t work that way. Because hell is invisible, people have no way of deciding for themselves whether it’s real… and because hell is such a grotesquely appalling consequence, people will do anything to avoid it.

Therefore. If you can convince people that hell is real and that you are an authority on its existence and what they have to do to avoid it… you can make them do ANYTHING.

Anything at all.

Joan_of_arc_burning_at_stakeYou can get them to give you money. You can get them to go out and convert more followers for you. You can get them to suck your cock. You can get them to turn against their children. You can get them to vote for your friends. You can get them to go to war against your enemies. You can get them to torture, to kill, to tie people to stakes and set them on fire, to blow themselves up in crowded places, to commit mass murder, to commit mass suicide. And of course, you can get them to never ask questions about you, or whether what you’re saying and doing is right, or whether this hell place even exists.

Anything. The combination of hell’s invisibility and the extremity of its horror makes it a singularly effective form of manipulation and social control. It’s a terrifying consequence that people will avoid at all costs… and they have no way to look at the world around them and ask, “Hey, is that really true?” Then when you add the “doubting hell’s existence will get you sent there” meme, it makes it even more powerful by making it self-perpetuating. And all of this is especially powerful, and especially troubling, when it’s directed at children… whose brains are, as Richard Dawkins points out, built, for very good evolutionary reasons, to believe what adults tell them.

Part of me gets it. It is awful to think of wicked people thriving, living their lives out in comfort and never suffering the consequences of their badness. I hate that Ken Lay died of a heart attack before he could rot in prison. Part of me wishes I believed in hell, so I could believe he was there.

BiblefireBut the idea of hell is an evil, hateful idea, and it’s not one I want in my world. It exists for one reason and one reason only: to scare people into doing what you tell them, to squelch questioning and dissent. It takes people’s innate fears — and maybe worse, their ability to trust and learn from one another — and manipulates them to create obedience. It is an idea that has nothing but contempt for people’s autonomy. It is an idea that has nothing but contempt for people, period. It is social control, pure and simple. It is completely at odds with the idea of a compassionate, loving God. And any religion that has it as a central theme has a tremendous amount to answer for.

Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”: Atheism in Pop Culture Part 5

Boatmans_callI really like this song by Nick Cave. It does a beautiful job of tapping into religious emotions and images and language, while still being entirely godless. And I love that it’s a pop love song that begins with the line, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” It’s from his record “The Boatman’s Call,” and it goes very much like this:

Into My Arms
by Nick Cave

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know darling that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

Into my arms O Lord
Into my arms O Lord
Into my arms O Lord
Into my arms

And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you
To each burn a candle for you
To make bright and clear your path
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms

Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

And I believe in Love
And I know that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
So keep your candle burning
And make her journey bright and pure
That she will keep returning
Always and evermore

Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

My First Non-Monogamous Relationship: The Blowfish Blog

Please note: This post, and the post it links to, contains references to my personal sex life — not very explicit ones this time, but family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff at all may want to skip it.

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog (where I’m doing some of my best sex blogging these days), with the rather self-explanatory title My First Non-Monogamous Relationship. It’s an unusual and (I think) interesting piece, and it begins thus:

It wasn’t the non-monogamous marriage I’m in now.

It wasn’t my first and very short-lived marriage, in which my husband-to-be and I unsuccessfully cruised in singles bars trying to pick up women.

It wasn’t even my first serious adult relationship, in which my boyfriend unilaterally decided that we should be non-monogamous, spouted non-monogamy platitudes to defend doing anything at all that he wanted including ignoring me to chase other women, and then went into a weeping rage when I wanted to sleep with one of his friends. (Thus turning me off non-monogamy for some time.)

It wasn’t any of those.

It was when I was about eight.

Like I said — a little unusual. To find out how the rest of the story goes, visit the Blowfish Blog. Enjoy!

Greta’s Reading at “Perverts Put Out,” Sat. July 28

This Saturday, July 28 — the evening before the legendary Dore Alley Street Fair — there’s going to be another in the excellent “Perverts Out Out” erotic reading series — and I’m in the lineup once again! It should be a great evening, with writers including not only moi, but Charlie Anders, Gina de Vries, Thea Hillman, Mattilda (Matt Bernstein Sycamore), Kirk Read, Lori Selke, horehound stillpoint, and emcees Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard.

So if you want to hear me and a bunch of other good sex writers read about, you know, sex, then come to CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission Street in San Francisco, this Saturday, July 28, at 7:30 pm. Admission is a $10-15 sliding scale. And if you’re one of my blog regulars, please come introduce yourself. Hope to see you there!

Atheism in Pop Culture Part 4: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Just so you know: I’m kind of getting all my Harry Potter blogging out in one swell foop, so I can get it over with and move on. I think this is my last one. No spoilers here, but if you want your reading experience of the new book to be completely unsullied, you may want to skip this until you’ve read the book.

Deathly_hallows_4_3You didn’t think I’d be able to keep atheism out of this, did you?

I suppose it’d be more accurate to call this “Skepticism in Pop Culture.” Although I do think it’s interesting that, for all the magic and ghosts and afterlife in the Harry Potter series, there’s a conspicuous absence of any sort of divinity. Another reason the Christian Right hates it, I guess…

Anyway, when I was reading the new Harry Potter book, this passage jumped out at me as a perfect and hilarious example of great skeptical thinking, and I wanted to pass it on.

“Well, how can that be real?”

“Prove that it is not,” said [X].

[Y] looked outraged.

“But that’s — I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist?… I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!”

“Yes, you could,” said [X]. “I am glad to see that you are opening your mind a little.”

ApolloLet me just say: I love Y. One of my favorite characters in the book. And they’re completely right. One of the most common fallacies in defenses of the metaphysical, paranormal, and spiritual is that, because you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, therefore it’s reasonable to believe that it does… that because you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, the proposition that it does exist and that it doesn’t are equally likely.

English_teapotAnd that, of course, simply isn’t the case. The classic example is Bertrand Russell’s china teapot orbiting the Sun: you can’t prove that it doesn’t exist, but the theory that it doesn’t exist and the theory that it does aren’t equally likely.

It’s like I said in my piece, The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely. Even when you can’t talk about proof and certainty, you can still talk about evidence and likelihood. “Well, it could be true” and “You can’t prove anything” are arguments best left to ten year olds and stoned college students.

Tip of the hat to Friendly Atheist. This quote had jumped out at me, too, but I had to copy it from F.A.’s blog, since Ingrid has the book now and she’s in Chino.

The Fake Spoilers?

Deathly_hallows_3So what’s been your favorite fake Harry Potter spoiler so far?

Mine is the one from the Daily Show: Harry gets decapitated by Ron, who turns out to be Voldemort’s evil robot son. Although I’m also fond of the one I made up for Ingrid: Harry dies on Page 10, and the rest of the book is filled up with personal ads.

So what are your favorite fake spoilers — either ones you’ve heard, or ones you’ve made up?

Abbey Road or Let It Be? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Deathly_hallows_4_2WARNING — SPOILERS!

Well, sort of.

I don’t actually talk much about the details of the book in this post. But if you haven’t yet read “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and want to read nothing at all about it until you do, I suggest that you not read it — especially since we might talk about the book in the comments.

LordoftheringsOnce upon a time, back in the old days of this blog when we were debating the relative merits of Harry Potter versus Lord of the Rings, I hit upon an analogy that I thought was very apt. I said that Harry Potter was like the Beatles and Lord of the Rings was like Wagner… and that, while I acknowledged that Wagner’s music was certainly greater than that of the Beatles by whatever objective standards might exist, I still didn’t personally like it. I still found it bombastic and heavy and humorless. I still enjoyed the Beatles more, by several orders of magnitude. And I believed that this was a reasonable and defensible position.

I still do, by the way.

Meet_the_beatlesSince then, I’ve carried this analogy quite a bit further. I think the Harry Potter books are, in fact, a lot like the Beatles — something that started out as a well-done, tremendously fun, significantly-better-than-average bit of pop fluff that somehow tapped into a deep and wide vein in the culture, and that over time evolved into something more than that, into something that approached art — often awkwardly and clumsily and with a reach that exceeded its grasp, but nevertheless exploring interesting deep waters with pleasure and skill, and worthy of serious attention and consideration. (While at the same time still hitting that deep vein of pure pop culture fun.)

A_hard_days_nightI even had specific books matched up with specific Beatles albums (although not one-to-one, obviously, since the Beatles made more than seven albums). The first three books are the happy, poppy, early Beatles, with Book Three, “Prisoner of Azkaban,” being the pinnacle of that period in the same way that “A Hard Day’s Night” is. Book Four, “Goblet of Fire,” is the tired, fallow, grinding-it-out, “Beatles for Sale/Help!” low-point.

RevolverAnd Books Five and Six, “Order of the Phoenix/Half-Blood Prince,” are the “starting to evolve and come into its own, as something new and worth paying serious attention to” books, a la “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper,” and “White Album.” (Ingrid points out that the analogy isn’t perfect, since the musical equivalent of the long, rambling, confusing, self-indulgent battle scene at the end of Book Five would be a 17-minute guitar solo from Rush or Yes or Spinal Tap, something the Beatles never did… but on reflection, I think “Magical Mystery Tour” might count).

Abbey_roadLet_it_be_2So ever since I read Book Six, I’ve been waiting for Book Seven with some trepidation. Would it be “Abbey Road” (the last Beatles album recorded) — a beautiful, inspired, nearly flawless example of the band at its best, and a grand and fitting note to go out on? Or would it be “Let It Be” (the last Beatles album released) — a messy, sloppy, kind of sad anticlimax with a few high points?

Abbey_road_2I’m happy to report that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is Abbey Road. All the way.

It’s not quite flawless, to be sure. It’s certainly heir to many of Rowling’s usual foibles, including long awkward exposition passages, important plot points that are confusing or poorly thought-out (the whole thing with the wands at the very very end I thought was total bullshit), and obvious sops to the audience.

Harry_potter_and_the_deathly_hall_2But on the whole, I think it’s an extremely strong book. It’s got action, romance, politics, philosophy, moral complexity, humor… all well-executed and in good balance. It’s a serious page-turner — I pretty much didn’t do anything from the time I started it to the time I finished it except sleep, eat, and read. It’s even reasonably tight… well, for a Rowling book, anyway. And while the basic arc of the book is very much what you might expect, there are some serious surprises and shocks along the way.

I want to reserve final judgment until I’ve had time to let it gel (and until I’ve re-read it at least once). But right now, a day after finishing it, my initial assessment is: Best book in the series.