Sex in the City, But Lost in the Desert: Sex and the City 2

This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.

Sex and the city 2 poster Honestly? It would have been a lot easier to write the Marxist/ anti-capitalist review of “Sex and the City 2″ than the sex review. And I’m not even a Marxist. There is a bizarre dearth of sex in “Sex and the City 2″… and there is a lavish parade of repulsive, garish, bloated consumerist excess in the movie, on a level that could persuade the most ardent free-market advocate to storm the Palace and depose the Tsar. It would have been a lot easier to write up this movie for The Nation than for Carnal Nation.

But here I am at Carnal Nation. And there’s certainly enough sexual content in “Sex and the City 2″ to justify reviewing it here. That is, if there’s enough content in it of any kind to justify reviewing it anywhere. Or if “content” is even the right word for this vapid, glib, tedious mess.

Sex-and-the-city-movie The “story”: Four characters from a television show — Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte, and Carrie Bradshaw, a woman who has now soared to the top of my “most loathsome fictional characters” list, just a notch or two below Yahweh — attend an extravagant gay wedding, in shameless pandering to the fantasies of the show’s gay male fans; travel to Abu Dhabi on an extravagant all-expenses-paid junket, in shameless pandering to the luxury lifestyle fantasies of their recession-stricken audience; and experience serious life crises that get neatly resolved in fifteen minutes or less.

The thing is almost entirely incoherent. Which makes it tricky to analyze. It’s hard to unpack the viewpoint of a movie when it has the attention span of a butterfly on meth and can’t keep its view focused on one point for more than three seconds. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this incoherence itself — including the sexual incoherence — is, in fact, the crucial point.

Noth1 See, here’s the maddening thing. When it comes to the sexual “content” of “Sex and the City 2,” there are, believe it or not, a few germs of good ideas in there. There’s a germ about how straight men who get hit on by gay men don’t have to see it as threatening their sexuality — they can see it as a compliment that confirms it. There’s a germ about older women maintaining a proud libido, a confidence in their desirability, and an active sex life — in defiance of a society that keeps delicately suggesting that they give it a rest already. There’s an important germ that comes up more than once: a message about how relationships don’t have to be “one size fits all,” and how every couple gets to make arrangements that work for them. There’s even a gesture towards acknowledging the validity of non-monogamy. (Although I desperately wish to Loki and all the gods in Valhalla that they hadn’t described it as “I’m allowed to cheat.” “Cheating” means “breaking your agreements about monogamy.” If it’s mutually agreed-upon non-monogamy, it isn’t cheating. How hard is that to get right?)

So there are germs. There are what appear to be sincere gestures toward woman-positive sexual revolution. But the thing is such an incoherent, sprawling mess that these germs of good ideas never go anywhere. The “structure” of the movie — a series of barely-connected vignettes, in which complex life problems get glibly resolved as soon as they’re presented, quickly replaced with either another rapid-fire “serious problem/glib solution” story arc or a garish infomercial for the lifestyles of the rich and useless — completely belittles the germs of good ideas.

Sex-and-the-city-2-samantha The serious problems in “Sex and the City 2″ don’t just get resolved in dismissive and offhand ways. They often get resolved in ways that completely bypass the problems instead of addressing them. (Spoiler alert — that is, if you were still planning to see this movie after reading this review.) Samantha’s “My libido is a central part of my identity, but it’s waning as I get older” problem gets resolved, not by redefining either self or sexuality, but by her libido magically zooming back when the right guy appears on the horizon. Charlotte’s “I’m worried that my husband is going to screw our nanny” problem gets resolved, not by recognizing that you have to trust your spouse even when they’re around someone hot, but by the nanny turning out to be a lesbian. Etc.

Sex and the city 2 carrie aidan And when the problems do get handled head-on, the solutions are often so shallow and thoughtless as to be actually insulting. My favorite example of this — if by “favorite” you mean “most inducing of both rage and physical illness” — was the climactic scene at the end. (Super spoiler alert!) Carrie meets her old boyfriend Aidan in Abu Dhabi, and kisses him. Her husband, Mr. Big, is (understandably) upset about this. So the problem gets resolved (within about fifteen minutes of it being presented, as is typical in this movie) when she kneels in front of him on a footstool like an over-indulged child who’s been naughty, while he gives her a diamond engagement ring she’d specifically said she hadn’t wanted, and instructs her to repeat marriage vows he’s written for her. Ew. Just — ew. As part of a consensual kinky sex scene, if she’d knelt in front of him and he’d slapped her face and shoved his cock down her throat and ordered her to say “Thank you”? My feminist ideals would have been completely okay with that. As a real-world resolution to a serious problem in a contemporary marriage? It made me want to take a shower. One of those industrial waste accident/ Karen Silkwood showers.

More to the point, the germs of good ideas are completely contradicted — plowed under, more accurately — by the lavish parade of repulsive, garish, bloated consumerist excess (I knew I’d get the lefty pinko rant back in here somehow!), in which human relationships get reified into consumer goods and services, and sex itself gets treated as a commodity and a status symbol.

The best example of this? The movie’s attitudes towards gender and sex in the Middle East.

Sex_and_the_city_2_11 For some weird reason, much of the movie takes place in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. (There’s about as much City in “Sex and the City 2″ as there is Sex — which is to say, not a whole freaking lot.) In fact, much of the movie is taken up with what amounts to an infomercial from the Abu Dhabi Tourist Board, with extensive (read: mind-numbingly tedious) visual lingering over beautiful and luxurious hotel rooms, fixtures, furnishings, services, pools, meals, bars, cocktails, clothes… and men.

And much of the movie’s sexual “content” consists of shocked disapproval at the Middle East’s backwards and draconian repression of sex — in particular, of femaleness and female sexuality.

Now, I’m not an expert on the Middle East. Very far from it. I don’t know enough about Abu Dhabi in particular or the Middle East in general to know what exactly the movie got wrong or right about it. (I would actually love to see this movie taken apart by a serious scholar or journalist of the Middle East. If anyone’s seen a review like that, please drop me a note.)

But I do know this.

Sex_and_the_city_2_12 There is a freakish disconnect — a cognitive dissonance bordering on the deranged — between the characters’ (and the movie’s) scolding attitude towards sex and gender politics in Abu Dhabi… and their eagerness to luxuriate in the city’s self-conscious, pre- packaged exotica. An eagerness that’s somehow both sycophantically adoring and smugly entitled. It’s apparently never occurred to them — to the characters, or to the movie’s writers and producers — that perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a connection between the treatment of women as property, the simultaneous coveting and terror of female sexuality… and their own luxuriant indulgence in the Arabian Nights fantasy.

They want to wallow in this fantasy, a plastic, carefully packaged fantasy of the exotic Middle East… and ignore the ways that the degradation of women is part and parcel of that fantasy. They want to be treated as fully human liberated women… and still treat other people and human relationships as commodoties and status symbols. They want to have their cake — their garish, over-designed, obscenely luxurious cake, served to them poolside by achingly beautiful and courteously servile men — and eat it too.

Sex-and-the-City-2-Photo1 They make me physically ill. They’re taking everything that’s good about the feminist rewriting of the sexual rules, and are burying it in a pit of garbage. They’re taking the idea of sensuality as a source of deep pleasure and human connection, and are mutating it into a luxury item/ status symbol, to be acquired and consumed. (I don’t think it’s accidental that the focus of the franchise has shifted from exploring sex and relationships, however vapidly, to drooling over expensive consumer products.) They’re fictional characters, for fuck’s sake… and they still make me want to start a class war, right this minute, against the bloated, useless, mindlessly entitled, obscenely rich monstrocracy.

Come on. Palace. Tsar. Anyone with me?

PZ Myers on “Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?”

Pz myers And now PZ Myers, of Pharyngula fame, has put up a post, They’re all still arguing against me!, commenting on my recent AlterNet piece, Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong? That’s the piece about whether atheism could hypothetically be proven wrong… and about how religion needs to provide, not only good evidence for its hypothesis, but a coherent hypothesis in the first place.

I still don’t agree with PZ. And I still think he’s missing the point. It’s not about whether any currently existing religion could persuade me that my atheism is mistaken — obviously not, if they could have done so, they would have — but about whether any hypothetical religion could persuade me. But I’m glad that he’s linked to my post — and has provided a forum for discussing it on his eminently lively blog. Check it out!

Jerry Coyne on “Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?”

JerryCoyneJerry Coyne, of Why Evolution Is True fame (the book and the blog), has put up a post today, Greta Christina on The Controversy, citing and discussing my recent AlterNet piece, Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong? You know, the one on whether atheism can be proven wrong… and how religion needs to provide, not only good evidence for its hypothesis, but a coherent hypothesis in the first place. (We’ve been talking about it here in this blog, too.)

Since he’s one of the two main participants in the debate I’m exploring in this piece, I’m really tickled that he’s talking about it. And the comment discussion is interesting and thoughtful. Check it out!

Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?

Theres probably no god Is there any possible evidence that would persuade atheists out of our atheism?

And if not — does that make our atheism close-minded and dogmatic?

There’s been an interesting debate lately in the atheist blogosphere. (The media will no doubt point to it as a sign of a terrible schism in the so-called New Atheist movement; but really, it’s been a very friendly and civil conversation so far, among people who are fundamentally allies.) The debate revolves around whether there’s any possible evidence that could convince atheists to change their minds… and if not, whether that makes their atheism an unshakable article of faith rather than a reasonable, evidence-based conclusion.

PZ Myers, of the famed Pharyngula blog (almost certainly the most widely-read of all atheist blogs), recently asserted that he had made up his mind. The case for atheism was just too devastating, and at this point, no possible evidence could ever convince him that any religion was correct. Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution Is True, the book and the blog) has expressed strong disagreement. He thinks atheism is falsifiable — and he thinks that it should be. If there is no possible evidence that would convince us God was real, he argues, not even the most wildly ludicrous hypothetical chain of events you could dream up, then atheists really would be just as close-minded as believers claim. The debate between Coyne and Myers has extended its tendrils throughout the atheist blogosphere… so I’m getting in on the action.

I’ve written at length about how atheism is, and should be, falsifiable. I’ve even gone out on a limb, in this very publication, about what exact evidence would persuade me that God was real. And after reading Myers and Coyne and a whole lot of other atheists in this debate, and after thinking about it at some length, I’ve reached two conclusions:

1) I don’t agree with PZ.

2) I think PZ makes some seriously important points.

I don’t ultimately agree with him, but the questions he raises are making me re-think my position on this question.

*

Thus begins my latest piece on AlterNet, Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong? To find out where I stand in the Myers/ Coyne debate — and how I’ve re-thought my position on what religion would have to do to prove atheism wrong — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Is Atheism A Belief?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Is atheism a belief?

No.

*

I really wish I could just leave it at that. Maybe post a funny story about Einstein here instead, or show you some cute pictures of our cats.

But I suppose I can’t just leave it at that.

I believe Here’s the thing. One of the most common accusations aimed at atheists is that atheism is an article of faith, a belief just as much as religion. Because atheism can’t be proven with absolute 100% certainty, the accusation goes, therefore not believing in God means taking a leap of faith — a leap of faith that’s every bit as irrational and unjustified as religion.

It’s a little odd to have this accusation hurled in such an accusatory manner by people who supposedly respect and value faith. But that’s a puzzle for another time. Today, I want to talk about a different puzzle — the puzzle of what atheism really is, and how it gets so misunderstood.

Let’s start with this right off the bat: No, atheism is not a belief. For me, and for the overwhelming majority of atheists I know, atheism is not the a priori assumption that there is no God. Our atheism is not an article of faith, adhered to regardless of what evidence does or does not support it. Our atheism is not the absolute, 100%, unshakeable certainty that there is no God.

For me, and for the overwhelming majority of atheists I know, our atheism is a provisional conclusion, based on careful reasoning and on the best available evidence we have. Our atheism is the conclusion that the God hypothesis is unsupported by any good evidence, and that unless we see better evidence, we’re going to assume that God does not exist. If we see better evidence, we’ll change our minds.

Nasa_earthLook at it this way. Are you 100% certain that the Earth is round? Are you 100% certain that there are no unicorns? I assume the answer is a pretty heartfelt, “No.” I assume you accept that it’s hypothetically possible, however improbable, that unicorns really exist and that all physical traces of them have disappeared by magic. I assume you accept that it’s hypothetically possible, however improbable, that the Earth really is a flat disc carried on the back of a giant turtle, and that all evidence to the contrary has been planted in our brains by hyper-intelligent space aliens as some sort of cosmic prank.

Does that mean your conclusions — the “no unicorns/ round Earth” conclusions — are articles of faith?

No. Of course not.

Green_unicornYour conclusion that there are no unicorns on this round Earth of ours is based on careful reasoning and the best available evidence you have. If you saw better evidence — if there were a discovery of unicorns on a remote island of Madagascar, if you saw an article in the Times about an astonishing but well-substantiated archeological find of unicorn fossils — you’d change your mind.

And that’s the deal with atheism. If atheism is a belief, then any conclusion we can’t be 100% certain of is a belief. And that’s not a very useful definition of the word “belief.” With the exception of certain mathematical and logic conclusions (along the lines of “if A and B are true, then C is true”), we don’t know anything with 100% certainty. But we can still make reasonable conclusions about what is and is not likely to be true. We can still sift through our ideas, and test them, and make reasonable conclusions about how likely or unlikely they are. And those conclusions are not beliefs. If that’s how you’re defining belief, then just about everything we know is a belief.

Faith Religious belief, on the other hand, is a belief. If you ask most religious believers, “What would convince you that your belief was mistaken? What would convince you that God does not exist?”, they typically reply, “Nothing. I have faith in my God. Nothing would persuade me that he was not real. That’s what it means to have faith.” This isn’t true of all believers — some will say that their religious belief is based on evidence and reason and could be falsified — but when you press them hard on what evidence would persuade them out of their belief, they get very slippery indeed. They keep moving the goalposts again and again, or they keep changing their definitions of God to the point where he’s so abstract he essentially can’t be disproven, or they make their standards of evidence so impossible that they’re laughably absurd. (“Come up with an alternate explanation for the existence of every single physical particle in the universe. Everything — down to the minutest sub-atomic particle known or surmised presently, to everything yet to be discovered in the future — must be accounted for up-front each with its own individual explanation.” I’m not kidding. Someone actually said that.) Their belief might be falsifiable in theory… but in practice, it’s anything but. In practice, it’s an a priori assumption, an axiom they start with and are not willing to let go of, no matter how much overwhelming evidence there is contradicting it, or how many logical pretzels their axiom forces them into.

And that’s conspicuously not the case for atheism.

100% Now, a few atheists will contradict this. A few atheists do say, “Yes, I’m 100% persuaded that atheism is correct.” But when you press them on it, they almost always acknowledge that yes, hypothetically, there might be some God hypothesis that’s correct. Even if it’s not a God hypothesis that anyone actually believes in, or even if it’s only the most detached, deistic, non-interventionist, “for all practical purposes non-existent” God you can think of… when pressed, even the ardent “100-percenters” acknowledge that there’s a minuscule, entirely hypothetical possibility that God exists. When they say they’re 100% convinced of their atheism, they mean that they’re 100% convinced for all practical purposes, given the best information they currently have.

And that’s still a conclusion — not a belief.

So is atheism a belief?

No.

*

Violet Once again, I dearly wish I could just end it there. Fill out the rest of this piece with some tirades against the religious right, or tell you an inappropriate and irrelevant anecdote about my sex life. (Or show you some more pictures of my cats. They’re very cute. I promise you.)

But I’m afraid I can’t.

Because we have a somewhat knottier question here, a question that muddies this issue and makes conversations about it a giant, slippery mess.

We have the question of what the word “belief” even means.

The word “belief” has multiple meanings. It can mean a basic tenet — in other words, a doctrine or dogma — especially in a religious context. But it can also simply mean an opinion or conviction: something thought to be true or not true. It can mean “trust or confidence” — such as, “I believe in my marriage.” And, of course, it can mean “deeply held core value, something that’s considered to be fundamentally good” — such as, “I believe in democracy.”

That’s true for a lot of words, of course. Plenty of words have multiple meanings; some even have meanings that are almost the opposite of each other. But because this particular word is so central to religion and the debates about it, it come with an inordinate amount of problematic baggage.

Blurred line When they’re debating atheists or defending their religion, religious people often blur the lines between some or all of these different meanings, slipping back and forth between them. In trying to defend the validity of their own beliefs — or to slur atheists with the appalling (if somewhat baffling) taint of having faith — religious people often conflate these different meanings of the word “belief.”

They mix up the “opinion or conclusion” meaning with the “doctrine or dogma” meaning, to make any reasonably plausible conclusion seem like unsupported dogma… or to make unsupported dogma seem like any other reasonably plausible conclusion. They mix up the “core value” meaning with the “doctrine or dogma” meaning, to make any passionate conviction seem like stubborn close-mindedness… or to make inflexible adherence to dogma seem like a strong moral foundation. They mix up the “trust and confidence” meaning with the “doctrine or dogma” meaning, to make any act of confidence without absolute certainty seem like irrational blindness… or to make belief in that for which there’s no good evidence seem like a loving act of loyalty, and to make atheism seem suspicious and cynical.

Twister1If atheists say, “I don’t believe in God,” religious people will reply, “See? Atheism is a belief!” (Overlooking the fact that “Not believing in X” isn’t the same as “Believing in Not X.”) If atheists say, “I believe in evolution” — meaning, “I think evolution is true” — religious people will jump all over it, saying, “See? Atheists believe in evolution, just like I believe in God!” (Overlooking the fact that evolution is a conclusion supported by a massively overwhelming body of hard physical evidence from every relevant branch of science, and that religion is supported primarily by logical errors, cognitive errors, misunderstandings of probability, an excessive tendency to trust authority figures and things we were taught as children, and the demonstrably flawed cognitive process known as intuition.) If atheists say, “I believe in something bigger than myself,” religious people will reply, “See? See? You have beliefs! Therefore, your atheism is a belief!” (Overlooking the fact that atheists having beliefs is not the same as atheism being a belief. Sheesh.)

Even if it’s patently clear from context which definition of “belief” we’re using, it’s way too common for religious followers to twist it around into the definition that best supports their… well, their beliefs.

And because of this, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that, when atheists are discussing our own ideas and feelings and conclusions, we should stop using the word “belief.” I’m trying to wean myself off of it, and I’m encouraging other atheists to do the same.

Dictionary If we want to say that we think something is true, I think we should use the word “conclusion.” (Or “opinion,” depending on how certain we are about what we think.) If we want to say that we think something is good, I think we should use the word “value.” If we want to say that we have trust or confidence in something, I think we should use the word… well, “trust” or “confidence.” I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that the word “belief” is irrevocably tainted: there’s no way to use it in discussions with believers without the great likelihood of being misunderstood. Deliberately or otherwise. So whenever it seems likely that our use of the word “belief” will be misunderstood — and it seems that any use of the word “belief” is likely to be misunderstood — we should endeavor to make our language as clear and precise as possible.

It’s impossible to prevent religious believers from twisting our ideas. It’s impossible to prevent religious believers from putting words in our mouth, and pretending that we said things we clearly never said and don’t think.

But we don’t have to help them.

Why Get Married?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Rings When you get into debates and discussions about same-sex marriage, there’s an opinion you’ll almost certainly hear if you wait long enough:

“Why should anyone get married?

“Why,” the argument goes, “should the state be involved in people’s private romantic and sexual relationships? Why should personal commitments be a public matter, something people throw big expensive parties for so their friends and families can watch? Why should people make promises to stay together for the rest of their lives — promises with legal responsibilities attached, no less — when they know that so many marriages end in divorce? Why are we spending time and energy fighting for same-sex marriage? Why aren’t we abandoning the institution of marriage altogether?”

As someone who is married (Ingrid and I are among the roughly 18,000 same-sex couples in California who got our weddings in after the courts legalized same-sex marriage and before Prop 8 eradicated that right), I’d like to try to answer that question.

I need to start by saying: I am not — repeat, not — evangelizing for marriage for everyone. Quite the contrary. I do like being married — I love being married, in fact — but I am passionately opposed to marriage by default. I am passionately opposed to the way our culture treats all romantic relationships as if they were on a single train track to a single, ideal destination… and as if they’re failures if they never reach that destination, or have a different destination entirely, or get derailed from that track. I don’t think marriage is right for all couples. I don’t even think it’s right for most couples. (And I don’t think couplehood is right for all people.) In fact, while my value for the institution of marriage has gone up in the years since I’ve been married, my feelings against marriage by default have actually grown stronger. Partly because I’m more aware of what a serious, life-changing decision marriage is… and partly because I feel like “marriage by default” trivializes the decision for those of us who actually gave it serious thought.

But I do like being married. I love being married. I think marriage, while certainly flawed, while certainly steeped in a troubled history, has great value.

So I want to try to answer the question: Why? Why do thoughtful, non- default- decision- making people get married? Why is marriage valuable?

Or, to be more accurate: I want to answer these questions. Because I think the “Why marriage?” question isn’t one question. From what I’ve heard and read from opponents of marriage, it’s at least three questions: Why codify a private romantic relationship with a legal, state-sanctioned contract? Why make explicit, spelled-out promises about the nature and future of said relationship? And why throw a big party to celebrate the first two?

SF_marriage_license The Contract

Why do I want my relationship with Ingrid to have the force of a legally binding contract, with a sizable collection of legal responsibilities and rights attached to it? Why do I care whether the governments of the State of California and the United States of America recognize that relationship?

Because Ingrid and I are family.

And we want that fact to have legal recognition.

Ingrid is my family. As much as my blood relatives are. More so, in fact. Our lives are more intertwined, our thoughts and feelings are more mutually understood, than my life and thoughts and feelings are with any of my blood relatives.

And without marriage, Ingrid and I would be, as far as the law is concerned, strangers.

I’ve seen opponents of marriage dismissively say things like, “Well, sure, of course you want the right to visit each other in the hospital, and the right to inherit from each other without a heavy tax burden, and the right to not testify against each other in court, and the right to make medical decisions for each other if one of you is incapacitated…” As if these things were trivial. They’re not trivial. As much as I love my blood relatives, I don’t want them making medical decisions for me if I’m unconscious in a hospital bed. I want Ingrid making those decisions. Ingrid knows me better than anyone has ever known me in my life. She is my family. I bloody well want the state to recognize that fact.

(And yes, you can get powers of attorney and living wills and whatnot, to address some of these legal issues. The unfortunate reality is that these are often ignored if they go against the wishes of blood relatives. Besides, if I’m unconscious in a hospital bed, I don’t want Ingrid to have to root through our boxes marked “Important Papers” trying to find our powers of attorney, just so she can give instructions about me to the medical staff.)

Family is more than a personal relationship. It’s a legal relationship: it has an impact on society, and it has a sizable collection of legal responsibilities and rights attached to it. Ingrid and I are family. We want that recognized.

Wedding vows The Vows

This one seems like a no-brainer to me.

Why do people want to make promises to each other? Why do people want to think carefully about what their important relationships mean, to make decisions about them, to spell those decisions out in words?

Why wouldn’t they?

Of all the events and decisions connected with our wedding, writing our vows was probably the most intense… and the most meaningful. Sitting down for hours talking about what our relationship meant, how it would be different once we got married, what exactly we were and weren’t promising each other, which bits of the traditional understandings of marriage we agreed with and which bits we rejected, etc. — and putting these conversations into precise, carefully chosen words — that by itself, probably transformed our relationship more than anything else about our wedding. (Weddings, I should say. Due to the shifting laws about same-sex marriage in California, we’ve now had three.) And I think that would still be true, even if these vows had never been recognized with any sort of legal standing, and even if we’d said them completely in private.

I’m frankly baffled when marrying couples don’t write their own vows: when they personalize every aspect of their wedding, from the font on the invitations to the bridesmaids’ hair ornaments, but leave the actual promises they’re making about their lives together up to social convention. In fact, there’s a part of me that thinks we should do this with all our important relationships: that we should sit down with our close friends and family, and talk about what we expect from them, and what they can expect from us. And when it comes to the single most important relationship of my life, I feel even more strongly about that. By several orders of magnitude.

Dancing at wedding The Party

This one seems like a no-brainer to me as well. But for an entirely different reason. Having an excuse to throw a huge, extravagant dress-up party, where the food and the drinks and the music and the decorations and our dresses were all carefully chosen to be special and meaningful and wonderful, and we got to be the center of attention for hours… who wouldn’t want that?

But I realize that not everyone likes throwing parties as much as Ingrid and I do. So more seriously, and more to the point: There is something about not only making a promise, but having that promise witnessed by the people closest to you, that makes it more intense. More powerful. It’s like putting your money where your mouth is.

And there’s something more. Like I said earlier: Ingrid and I are family. And getting married meant more than just making a private commitment to each other. It meant blending our families. It meant, as we said in our vows, taking each other into our families, and taking each other’s families as our own.

Our blood families… and our chosen families.

So it made sense that these families — blood and chosen — should be present when we made that promise: to witness it, and to celebrate it, and to be part of it.

Our relationship isn’t just private. It affects the people around us. It changes how we interact with the world. It throws people together who would otherwise be strangers. So when we decided to take this step, to think carefully about what we wanted to promise each other and to put those promises into precise words, it made sense to involve the people affected by those promises. Our blood families, our chosen families… yes, even the State of California.

I say yet again: I am not evangelizing for marriage for everyone. Marriage is a big deal, and it’s not something to do just because everyone else is doing it and it seems like the next thing to do.

But if you’re wondering why some people do it — other than because everyone else is doing it and it seems like the next thing to do — I hope this helps you understand.

Good Lydia News — and Passing On Your Chin Skritches

Good news about our cat, Lydia. As regular readers of this blog know, our cat Lydia has been having serious health problems: she was recently diagnosed with cancer, and has also been having serious problems with her appetite and digestion, which were a problem on their own and were also making the cancer difficult to treat.

We went ahead with the surgery for her digestive problems on Saturday — and it went extremely well. She got through the surgery with no trouble, she is bouncing back surprisingly quickly, her appetite has already improved, and her mood is already better than it was before the surgery. (Although some of the chipper mood may be the Fentanyl patch…) We won’t know for sure until she’s had a few days to recover, but we are now extremely hopeful that, once her recovery from the surgery is complete, the digestive problems will be behind us, and the cancer will be treatable.

They also did some exploration of the cancer while they were doing the surgery, and it looks like it’s not as advanced as we’d feared it might be. The mass they saw earlier on the ultrasound turns out not to be cancer — it was just adhesions and fatty tissue. They did a biopsy on the cancerous lymph nodes as well, and we’ll have a better picture of what exactly the cancer is and how to proceed with it when those test results are back.

So good news all around. We still have a lot of cat care ahead of us, which is going to continue suck some time and energy, but it seems as if we may be heading towards a more even keel.

And both Ingrid and I want to thank you for your very kind thoughts during this truly lousy time. The support of this community means a lot to us. Many of you said to give Lydia chin skritches and belly rubs for you: she doesn’t much want her belly rubbed right now, what with the major abdominal surgery and all… but we spent many hours on Sunday watching the World Series (GO GIANTS!) and passing on your skritches to her. Here are photos. We’ll keep you posted. Thanks again.

Lydai 1

Lydia 2

Lydia 3

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Decisions Are Made By Those Who Show Up: Why Voting and Calling Congress Isn’t a Waste of Time

Your vote counts When I first wrote this piece about a year ago, I wrote it specifically to encourage people to call or email their Congresspeople or other elected representatives. But it applies just as well to voting. So I’m recycling it here today. I’m concerned that progressives in the U.S. may not turn out very heavily in tomorrow’s election, since a lot of progressives are very disillusioned with politics and government right now… and since and there’s not an exciting, charismatic, history- changing candidate running for President. I don’t care. Vote anyway. This piece talks about why. Just replace “calling Congress” with “voting.”

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Okay. The title is a bit off. A more accurate title would be, “Why Calling Or Emailing Congress, The President, And Your Other Elected Officials Not Only Isn’t A Waste Of Time, But Is One Of The Most Important Things We Can Do To Take Back Our Supposedly Democratically Elected Government.” But the Writer’s Union would have my head if I went with a title like that…

PhoneI’m writing today to ask you to write and/or email your Senator, your Congressperson, your President. Your governor. Your mayor. Your city council. Your school board. If you don’t live in the U.S.: Your Prime Minister, your Premiere, your MP, your Assemblymember, your Deputy, whatever.

Not on any particular issue. Just in general. On whatever issue you care about.

And I want to argue that this is not a waste of time. I want to argue that this is one of the single most effective political actions we can take: not just to change this policy or that policy, but to change the entire way our government works, and the amount of power we have in it.

When I wrote my recent piece exhorting readers to call/ email Congress and the President about the public option for health care, many of you followed through, with a heartening degree of enthusiasm. But a surprising number of politically aware, politically astute people were strongly resistant: not to the public option for health care, but to the very idea of contacting their elected officials at all. They thought their voices wouldn’t be heard or cared about. They thought it was a waste of time.

I want to persuade you that it is not a waste of time.

And I want to persuade myself as well. I don’t call or email my representatives nearly as much as I think I should, and I’m writing this partly to remind myself to do it more.

Here is my thesis.

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Empty voting boothsThe fact that Americans feel so alienated from our government? The fact that so many people don’t vote? The fact that most people don’t call or email the President or their Congresspeople to tell them how they feel about important issues? The fact that so many people think politicians don’t care about them anyway, so there’s no reason they should bother getting involved?

This plays directly into the hands of the very people we don’t want running the show.

This is one of the main reasons government is so much more responsive to hard-line extremists and big-money corporate interests than it is to the majority of people it’s representing.

This is one of the main reasons government is so screwed up.

When very few people get involved in politics — when very few people even bother to vote, and even fewer bother to call or email their elected representatives — then the few people who do bother are the ones who get listened to. The hard-line crazies get to set the terms of the debate. Them, and the people with money.

Baptizing of americaWhy do you think the extreme religious right was so successful, for so long, in setting this country’s political agenda? They were successful, in large part, because they had an extraordinarily well-oiled machine of millions of inspired people who would make phone calls and write letters at the drop of a hat. When the folks on the mailing lists of the religious right got a call for action telling them to call or write their Congressperson, they didn’t lapse into cynicism about how no politician really cares about them
 and they didn’t lapse into soul-searching about whether they were sufficiently educated on this issue to express their opinion. They bloody well picked up the phone and called.

Decisions are made by those who show up.

And if we want to be making the decisions, we have to show up.

There’s a larger, more systemic way that this plays out, too. The fact that people feel jaded and alienated by politics and government? It’s a textbook example of a vicious circle. The less that people get involved in their government, the less politicians have to worry about the voters
 and the more they can suck up to big money contributors. And the more that politicians suck up to big money contributors, the more alienated and jaded people get about government… and the less likely they are to get involved.

Figures mouseThis circle isn’t going to get broken by elected officials. And it sure as hell isn’t going to get broken by corporate interests. The only way it’s going to get broken is by citizens picking up their phones or getting on their computers and telling their elected officials, “If you want my vote ever again, you freaking well better vote for X.” And then Y. And then Z. Over, and over, and over again. The only people who can break this circle are you and me.

Not getting involved doesn’t make government better. It makes government worse. It plays right into the hands of the corporate intererests, who find it easier to get laws written their way when there aren’t all those pesky citizens to worry about.

And it plays right into the right-wing “keep government small and taxes low” rhetoric — otherwise translated as, “Keep taxes on rich people and big corporations low; keep regulations on business to a bare minimum if that; and keep government services for poor and middle- class people stripped to the bone.” People’s cynicism about government, their belief that it never helps them and doesn’t have anything to do with them unless it’s screwing them over, and it’s always better to have it small and weak since it sucks so badly? That’s one of the strongest cards in the right wing’s hand.

FirefightersI’ve written about this before, and I’ll write it again: Government is — in theory, and at least some of the time in practice — the way a society pools some of its resources, to provide itself with structures and services that make that society function smoothly and that promote the common good. And it’s the way a society decides how those pooled resources should be used. It’s one of the main ways that a society shares, cooperates, works together, takes care of each other — all those great ideals we learned in kindergarten. Government is roads, parks, fire departments, street sweepers, public health educators, emergency services, sewers, schools. Government is not Them. Government — democratic government, anyway — is Us.

But for government to do all this and be all this, not just in theory but in practice, we need to start seeing government as Us.

ControlAnd calling/ emailing your President, your Senators, your Congressperson, your governor and your mayor and your dogcatcher, is one of the most powerful things we can do to turn government from Them into Us. It reminds our elected officials that they work for Us, that they’re there to represent Us. And maybe just as importantly, it reminds us of that, too.

If you want to look at it idealistically: Many elected officials get into politics because they want to make a difference, and want to represent the will of their voters. And those officials are desperately wishing for citizens to kick up a stink on important issues: it makes it easier for them to fight special interests, and it lets them know that we’ve got their back. (It’s a whole lot easier to tell your big campaign contributors, “No,” when you can say, “I’m really sorry, but my phone is ringing off the hook about this one, and if I don’t support/ oppose it my voters will have my head.”)

But you can also see this in a completely venal, Machiavellian view… and still come to the same conclusion. Squeaky wheels. Grease. Many elected officials don’t much care about making a difference… but they bloody well care about getting re-elected. Politicians assume that if people care enough about an issue to call or write about it, they’ll care enough to vote the bums out on election day. If enough people call or write, it can override the voice of big- money special interests
 even for the most self-serving politician in the world.

So that’s the general principle. Participatory democracy. You know, the principle that this country fought a revolution for.

NapAnd yet a lot of people who agree with the principle still don’t follow through in practice. A lot of people who passionately support the idea of participatory democracy still don’t pick up the phone or get on the computer to, you know, participate in it. (Including me a lot of the time.)

Why is that?

I posted this question on Facebook the other day. I asked, “If someone asks you to email your Congressperson, and you don’t, even if you care about the issue — what stops you?”

I wasn’t asking to judge or criticize. Hell, I do this, too. I decide that I’m too tired, too busy, that if I responded to every “Call your Congressperson” email I got I’d never get anything else done. But it does bug me. It’s such a simple thing to do, and it can make such a huge difference, and I’m trying to figure out what, specifically, keeps us from doing it.

So now — again, for my own benefit as much as anybody else’s — I want to respond to some of the answers I got to this question. I want to remind myself, and anyone else reading this, that the reasons for not calling or emailing your elected officials, as understandable as they may be, simply aren’t anywhere near as compelling as the reasons for calling and emailing.

(Here’s Part 2 of the original.) Again, it talks more about calling elected officials than it does about voting… but I think it’s still relevant.