Thursday, May 27, 2004

KEEPING COOL: Are you like me? Do you ever go two days at work getting practically nothing done because you got sucked into an intense online debate? (Ah, you all can probably compose a post in less than an hour.)

Let’s see if I can make this long story short: The National Council of Churches issued a pastoral letter urging the U.S. to change its Iraq policy: specifically, to hand off authority to the United Nations. Not huge news, frankly. This letter was sent to Mark Kleiman, who made a peevishly dismissive response on his blog. Kleiman’s blog post started small conflagrations in two or three other blog locales, notably The Village Gate / The Right Christians, where I stuck my two cents in.

The upshot has been some harsh words and bruised feelings. The founding father of The Village Gate is the Rev. Allen Brill, whom I have liked, admired, and identified with in his effort to project a progressive Christian voice. Allen feels, and I share the feeling, that he’s beset from two sides. On one hand, right-wing Christians have hijacked Scripture and tradition for nefarious purposes, and have tainted the image of the church in the American body politic. On the other hand, secular progressives are often ignorant about, indifferent and sometimes hostile to the concerns of religionists who are trying to work in concert with them.

Reaching out to the secular left is the need Allen feels most acutely. When a lefty blogger directly or indirectly rebukes him, like Kleiman did this week and Atrios did a while back, Allen has been hurt and, frankly, has lost his cool on occasion.

So Allen’s hurt, Kleiman’s pissed, Patrick Nielsen Hayden is pissed. Me, I guess I got a little pissed myself over at the Village Gate. I won’t rehash what I posted there.

Over the last six years, the Web has rekindled my interest in writing. I’m grateful for this. But there’s a pitfall for me: the adrenaline rush of the flame war. Some of the posts I’ve written that were, not the best, but the most satisfying and cathartic, were written in righteous anger.

This blog is part of my ongoing project to find my subject matter and my voice as a writer. Earlier this spring I started and abandoned a whole series of blog essays. I abandoned them because I realized what I was doing was running around the Internet with a chip on my shoulder, looking for things to take offense at. That’s no way to be healthy or happy, or a good writer.

Religion is a subject I have to be wary of. I’m interested in it, maybe even passionate about it, but I have the chip on my shoulder about it. I don’t want my voice to be one of victimhood or fake wounded honor.

I don't think Allen's hurt was fake. The acre of subject matter he farms is well-defined, unlike my acre. In this Council of Churches blogstorm, Mark Kleiman was in the wrong, basically-—he made a gratuitously rude and ill-informed post. But Allen fanned the flames and got singed by the blowback. In the process, a pretty good thing he had going got damaged.

Monday, May 10, 2004

QUEER THEOR(I)ZING FROM A STRAIGHT GUY: I posted in a discussion of homophobia over at and I'm so darn pleased with myself that I'm going to reprint it here.

I agree with rafalah that "for many christians homosexuality makes an easy target because it is a 'sin' that they personally don't struggle with. Any supressed guilt and shame that surrounds their own sexuality can be funneled outward to a "Thank God I'm Not Struggling with THAT sin" finger pointing. In other words, it is just too easy to condem something they don't feel."

Maybe it's just me, but I read a lot into the fact that liberals use the term "gay and lesbian" and conservatives most often use the term "homosexual."

Conservatives are focused on the plumbing: on the specific bedroom practices of gay men and women. The Latinate term keeps the focus on the sexual, and also puts people at a clinical distance about a topic that makes them feel squeamish.

In some cases, people are in denial or fear of their own feelings of same-sex attraction. But not across the board: even for many "confirmed" straights, sexuality is both a) intense and b) intimate, even secretive.

[EDIT: I perhaps should have included here a statement, or confession: while I like to think of myself as straight-but-not-narrow, I am still uptight or insecure enough to feel a momentary shock when I read or learn of somebody whose sexual preferences are a lot different than mine. Aren't most people capable of being shocked this way? The question is, do you control that feeling of shock, or do you indulge it and let it carry you away?]

Nobody has mentioned the "gay recruitment" phobia -- that gay parents / teachers / ministers are going to recruit children into the evil gay lifestyle. Conservatives don't want to allow marriage to be added to the gay "travel brochure" and add to the recruitment incentive. Two observations:

1. There's an irrational horror (for some people) of having a child or other family member adopt a style of sexual intimacy that is very different than one's own.

2. This is a kind of cowardice. Gay people who are open about their "minority" sexual status are by definition brave, and somewhat threatening to the large segment of people who are timid about sexual matters, who perhaps are unclear about their own sexual selves, who in particular hate the idea of talking about sex with their own children.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

THE DIVINE MISS PARTON: I promised a Dolly Parton post a coupla weeks ago. Sorry for the delay. The washing machine ate my post. Seriously. Notes on a piece of paper folded up in my pants pocket and forgotten…

A few weeks ago I caught a little bit of the debut episode of the Jessica Simpson / Nick Lachey variety show. However “of the moment” Ms. Simpson is, she draws quite a bit on ‘70s nostalgia. Cher is obviously a touchstone; the whole husband-and-wife variety show schtick is a conscious ripoff of Sonny & Cher. Also, the show dusted off the old duet “Islands in the Stream,” with the almost lifelike Kenny Rogers reprising the baritone part, and Jessica in the Dolly Parton role of Perky Blonde with Ample Cleavage.

Ah, the multi-media, only-one-name-necessary pop diva. Nowadays, it’s Britney, Beyonce, and J-Lo. In my youth, we had Cher and Barbra and Bette—and, come to think of it, Dolly. Add it up: Recording artist, songwriter, movie star, TV producer (evidence of her business acumen), author (two books). The lady is a multiple threat. These days, while Dolly may not turn up in the pages of People magazine very often anymore, she has moved back to her roots, signing with the respected small label Rounder Records, and making a couple of spare but critically well-regarded bluegrass and gospel tinged albums. She racked up a Grammy award for one of them.

(Pun intended.)

I had been thinking about Dolly Parton anyway (more than I had in years) since the family and I took a trip last month to the Great Smoky Mountains, including a visit to Dollywood, the theme park to which Dolly lends her name.

Dollywood is no tribute to Dolly’s artistry, believe me, but business-wise it sure seems to be a going concern. Long lines and traffic jams? Check. Obscene prices for admission and junk food and crummy souvenirs? Check. But as a pure fun factory Dollywood delivers the goods. My kids don’t know Parton from Salvador when it comes to Dollies, but they all had a fine time. My oldest dragged me onto the Tennessee Tornado, and it is as stomach-churning a roller coaster as any I can remember. (Daddy don’t enjoy coasters like he once did.)

As your white-trash-culture correspondent, though, I kept an eye open for signs of Dolly’s imprint, and they’re not hard to find. First off, there’s an attraction called Chasing Rainbows, “a state-of-the-art interactive museum collection that chronicles Dolly’s rise to fame.” There’s little touches like “the park’s most-visited restaurant Aunt Granny's (named for the nickname by which Dolly's nieces and nephews call her).”

It shouldn’t surprise me by now, but it still does, to go out in public in red-state America and see so many people wearing their religion on their T-shirt. There was a lot of this at Dollywood; the fact that it was Easter week probably added to it. In certain ways, the park signals its church-friendliness: there’s a gospel music exhibit in the park, and the Dollywood mission statement refers to “Christian values and ethics.”

And how often have you said to yourself, “What this amusement park really needs is a house of worship right in the middle of it”? Well, I have good news: Dollywood has got the Robert F. Thomas Chapel, named for the doctor who delivered Dolly at birth. More good news: there is no height restriction to enter the chapel.

Everywhere, you see “authenticity” pushed to the limit and beyond. There’s a train ride, the Dollywood Express, that takes you on a short loop back into the woods behind the park, a five mile trip. The “conductor” makes a point to tell his riders that this is a working narrow-gauge steam engine, actually used in the construction of the Alaska Highway. Nice, but then the train carries you on this groaner of a trip “back in time” and shows you some pseudo-historical trackside displays: the fake hillbilly shack, the fake moonshine still, the little fake fiberglass animals.

There were a handful of live music performances in the park that day, and the one I took most notice of was a band whose name I forget, but they were described as “Celt-a-billy.” It was one guy playing bagpipes, pretty much straight Scottish style, but he was backed by three or four guys playing bass drums and pounding out a huge rock-and-roll backbeat. It was Clannad meets the Broadway musical “Stomp.” Odd. But not all bad. And they had a crowd cheering like crazy for them.

Maybe just to qualify the white-trash joke I made above, I feel compelled to mention that not every person I saw at Dollywood was white. 95%, but not 100%. I never realized before how popular and wide-reaching east Tennessee is as a vacation spot. I believe I read somewhere that Great Smoky Mountain is the most visited US National Park. Judging by the license plates and t-shirts I saw, Dollywood draws folks from Georgia to Illinois. There were loads of people from Ohio (a pretty easy journey down I-75).

As a hillbilly-American myself, I saw a lot in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg that brought me down: roadside litter and out-of-control development marring the natural beauty, the godawful tourist schlock, the dinner theaters featuring sub-“Hee Haw” style comedy revues. Dollywood is not the sole driver of tourism in the Smokies, but it seems the biggest single driver. Maybe Dolly Parton should have to answer for the orgy of Tennessee kitsch. But I can’t condemn her. Every town in Appalachia is struggling to make a living, after all. And Dolly is authentically kitschy, if such a thing is possible. Going back to her Porter Wagoner days, she’s always been the way she is.

It’s a little late now to do my Johnny Cash tribute, but when Johnny died, I thought, is there anybody out there who didn’t like this man? The eulogies came from every direction. Liberal and conservative, urban and rural, casual fan and aficionado—everybody had a reason for loving him. For breadth of appeal, Dolly Parton is almost his match. She knows who she is and is proud of it. She crossed over, but she maintained her integrity. I can see why Jessica Simpson might want to tap into some of that good-old-girl mojo.