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Sunday, February 27, 2011

They pitch horseshoes, don't they?

There's a lovely joke doing the rounds on Unitarian message boards and social-networking sites at the moment. It's been around awhile, but there's nothing like a new context to give a joke new life. A true story, apparently...

An American scientist once visited the offices of the great Nobel prize winning physicist, Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen. He was amazed to find that over Bohr's desk was a horseshoe, securely nailed to the wall, with the open end up in the approved manner (so it would catch the good luck and not let it spill out).

The American said with a nervous laugh, "Surely you don't believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, do you, Professor Bohr? After all, as a scientist..."

Bohr chuckled. "I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not."

Bohr was neither a bore nor  a boor.


Okay, it's chuckle-strength rather than weapons-grade humour. And the moral seems (to me at least) to be about open-mindedness, and a gentle rebuke to the closed dualism inherent in most discussions of science vs. faith.

'Boorishness' may be described as what happens when one analyzes a joke. However, after my ribs stopped being tickled by this, I had the distinct feeling there's more to this joke than meets the ear.

Essentially, this is a humorous application of  Pascal's wager. Substitute the unknowable 'luck' in the story with the unknowable 'God', and you get this:

Only the top left quadrant is value-positive; it's the pie in the sky when you die. I remember being enthralled for a long time by this neat schema. But look more closely:

1. Top right: arguably you haven't 'lost nothing'. You've wasted time and energy (and perhaps the respect of secular friends) by doing things like going to church when you could've been in bed reading the papers, or trying to lead an upright, moral life rather than, say, running Ponzi-schemes, or donating to charities rather than using that cash for cocaine and fast cars and chorus-girls.

Waste of a good cigar...

2. Bottom left: you're screwed. Forever. Your rebelliousness with your hedonism has been an exercise in futility. Hope you enjoyed its brief tenure, 'cause now comes the wrath of the almighty.

3. Bottom right: you were right all along! Well done, thanks for playing. Now you get to be smug with yourself while worms eat your face (though, of course, you won't know it). Perhaps a life of smug self-content is the best you can hope for?

BUT--all the above is predicated on a binary choice between NOTHING and a VENGEFUL God, one who will open a big can of whoop-ass on you for not believing in him. Which has always sounded a trifle insecure to me. A generous God who forgives is not in this formula. (But that's a different discussion...)

Not so, the horseshoe! The horseshoe either does or doesn't bring you luck entirely independent of whether you believe it does or not. It operates on the higher plane of its own terms, and doesn't require your belief to make it effective.

Bohr's horseshoe, like Pascal's wager, says: 'it makes sense to hedge your bets'. Which is fine, UNLESS IT'S YOUR JOB TO SELL HORSESHOES.

The seller can't be personally held to account for the efficacy of luck. How would the horseshoe owner know whether it was the horseshoe itself that brought them luck? By the same horseshoe logic, I could say I believe my coffee mug repels wild hyenas. Do you see any around? Presto! That'll be $5.95, please...

For that matter, does one always recognise luck as luck? After all, not everything which hurts is bad for us, nor is everything which feels good, good for us. Since there's no way to tell, why not buy the horseshoe? Why not hedge your bets?

Go on. You know you want it...
But turn the question around to consider agency: why SELL the horseshoe? Horseshoes can be bought without being 'sold', after all. People can hear of their possible efficacy and seek them out for themselves. If it's a good product, it should sell itself, no? Then, it is the buyer that has the agency in the process. Surely this is a more respectful stance.

This is why I'm reluctant to hard-sell belief in God. I can make no promises for the efficacy or accuracy of belief in the product. If I did, being dead presents the sternest injunction to anyone seeking to get their money back. I can never be held to account, and this is the condition of the charlatan throughout the ages.

I can only speak for myself, and while I'm not superstitious, I'd have no problem with Bohr's horseshoe on my wall. It would represent, for me, not superstition, but a frank admission of the limitations about what I can know. If that's good enough for Neils Bohr, it's good enough for me.

Just don't ask me to sell it to you.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Well I'll be frocked...

"I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes."
--Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

"Clothes maketh the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."
--Mark Twain 

To frock up or not to frock up,
That is the question.

Can anyone help me with this conundrum? The norm amongst Unitarian ministers  in the UK is to 'frock up' in some sort of clerical vestments, and I've been willing, even eager, to fit in with the new context I find myself in out of respect to accepted local practices. When in Rome...

Heck, as a former actor, I actually LIKE dressing-up and costume and all that. You do weeks of rehearsal on a character, but it never comes together (at least for me) until the first costume run, wherein the clothes you wear begin to determine how you move, how you hold yourself, and so begin to work from the outside in, giving shape to what had so far been an unfinished portrait. Any man who doesn't normally wear a tie will just feel rather different when he slips one on. It's hard to know how to handle yourself in a board-room if you're wearing board-shorts. You know what I mean.

even being hacked to pieces, nothing says 'butch' quite like leather
Partly out of necessity, my default choice so far has been to use a borrowed academic gown. But it also suits me (phnar, phnar) because it's a relatively lo-fi option, thrown over a conservative suit. More hi-fi options abound around me--everything from the black-suit-and-dog-collar through to rather glam tailor-made cassocks (in seasonal colours), modest stoles with our "flaming chalice" branding on them, and blingy stoles with a collector's lot of all the world's religious symbols from the ankh to the yin-yang. To each his, or her, own.

Have we left anyone out?
 The borrowed academic gown (with optional institutional hoodie) is, I have learned, a trace symbol of Unitarian reaction against the established C of E set, usually posh, Oxbridge educated. There was a time when to be a member of a dissenting church meant you could not attend such institutions of higher learning, and suffered other class-based oppression as well, some of it physically painful. In short, it's a brisk two-fingers up to the ruling elite, as if to say "See? We're just as smart as you."

Would sir like to see something more off the shoulder?
 Which strikes me as rather pathetic now that I think about it--defining yourself by what you're opposed to rather than what you affirm. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for class-consciousness of the oppressed, but this protesting-too-much has the whiff of an inferiority complex about it. And we have nothing to feel inferior about. On the contrary, Unitarianism is not for sissies.

On the other hand, I've always thought of us as 'low' church rather than 'high' church. No smells, no bells, no iconography, no expensive vestments, and thus no sense that the pastor in the pulpit (him or her up at the holy end) was any different in kind from you in the pew. Put robes, collars, stoles on him or her and suddenly there's class again, a sense that the minister has been inducted into some highly selective gnostic priesthood that allows the wearing of special clothes. Not at all like you in the pew.
Now that's just GAW-jus...

When I think of the ministers who've most influenced me, I see guys in a blue blazer and tie, perhaps with a little lapel-pin logo, looking for all the world like your 10th grade English teacher. It wasn't what they wore, but what they said from the pulpit and did in the community that generated whatever moral authority they had. Mark Allstrom in a blazer and his disreputable black jeans. Roger Frith, blue blazer and khakis. Robbie Walsh, his quietly understated grey hop-sack suit. Jo Lane and her retro-yet-tasteful op-shop dresses and scarves.

You know...like these guys.
The more I frock up to lead services, the more I feel like I'm playing a part, that this isn't really me somehow. I caught a glimpse of myself the other day in the vestry, and there I was-- a sort of horribly miscast yankee Mr. Chips flapping about the playing fields of Harrow, a target for pity and pitched jaffas.

If he's so smart, why isn't he driving a Lexus?
What is all this frocking up, but an attempt to co-opt an ecclesial authority we've never claimed to possess? Were I to wear the dog-collar-and-black-suit ensemble, I would be indistinguishable on the street from a Catholic priest, and God bless them and all, but I really don't want to be mistaken for one. Why would a Unitarian even want to be? If you want to look like a priest, then be a priest. Or a vicar or whatever. Whence comes a drive to slip easily into an appearance of authority, unless you're deepest fear is that you ain't actually got it? And if that's what you fear, no amount of dressing up will ever convince you, deep down.

The difference is, he makes this look good.
Maybe it's all the years spent preaching in the no-nonsense, DTE, GSOH Adelaide church, but I think we're trying just too hard here, and being more true to the antiquarian letter of our past than to its essential spirit--egalitarian, non-conformist, de-mystifying religion in the post-enlightenment world. Class envy runs deep though, so I doubt it will change just because some blow-in newbie mounts a case against the urge to frock up.

I accept that maybe this is just about me and my comfort zone, and that my reluctance to change may come off as intolerance. But I honestly think  I've given it a fair go, tried it on, and on reflection I just can't wear this stuff with integrity. And if you're going to stand up every week and speak your truth from your core, you'd best feel at peace with yourself.
While we're at it, why not go the whole pooch?

Monday, February 7, 2011

A thirty second ad that features the death of a man's soul

I know my moral revulsion at the incorrigible shilling of actors is becoming something of a hobby-horse.

Readers new to this blog may want to refer to the earlier posts ("Haggling over the price" and "What, and give up show biz", parts 1 and 2) for a better developed, considered, and slightly more articulate treatment of the issue.

The following spluttering, inchoate fury I'm about to unleash, was a result of this Groupon Superbowl ad, which, in case you missed it, is linked here. You really need to see it to believe it.

I worked with Tim Hutton on one of the last films I did. We each played the respective fathers of the two young Capulet/Montague lovers. Bizarrely, he, the American, played an Australian farmer, and I, the nominal Australian, played an American exec. But that's show biz.

This publicity shot may prove prophetic

I can't say I got to know him well. He kept himself aloof in a Hollywood-star-not-mixing-with-the-locals kind of way. But reflecting on it now, I think this actually was shame. Here he was, from a venerable Hollywood acting family, having done some great work (Taps, The Falcon and the Snowman) reduced to a supporting role in a low-budget, foreign location vehicle for Alexa Vega. His was meant to be a 'featured support'--you know, where one's name ends up at the end of the title credits after the gravitas-laden "and...".

There are all sorts of reasons established actors do gigs like this. Maybe he just liked the script (not likely). Maybe it was part of a multi-film deal his agent cut and pasted together (plausible). Maybe he knew the director's father (which was entirely possible, as the director was about 12). But thinking about the project now, and seeing this ad, I can only think he needed the work and wasn't in a position to be fussy.

Or thoughtful. Maybe he thought the ad was trying to be knowingly ironic about conflating the political plight of Tibet (one of the largest crimes against humanity in our lifetime) with crass yankee multiculturalism about interesting new cuisine. You know, the kind of dim-witted cozy liberal view that multiculturalism is cool because it means you can have a choice of dozens of international taste sensations at your local food court. Maybe they were trying to send that up.

But it just comes off crass and callous, and the Tim Hutton whose career was eclipsed by his 80's co-stars Tom Cruise and Sean Penn (each respectively in the aforementioned films), should have the ear to discern that. And if he does have the ear, why did he take a gig so obviously tasteless?

Superbowl ads are renowned as an art-form in themselves, and as hugely expensive in terms of air-time, and hugely profitable in terms of audience reach. So it's hard to escape the conclusion that Groupon simply found his price.

I started this rant promising moral outrage, but at this point of writing I just find it sad. He'd've been paid so handsomely that there'd be no need to do low-budget Australian flicks (at least for a few years) and slum with the local talent. A buck's a buck, and there is just no answer to that logic anymore.

But if you look at the ad again, and look at his eyes during the delivery of the crass segue line, you might see what I do, a fleeting sense of "Oh, well, what the hell..." and that right there is where you actually see the man's soul die. Now that's entertainment.

Director Adam Cook, as witty a fellow as ever you're likely to meet, used to joke about collective nouns for actors and directors. A "sneer" of directors,  a "whinge" of actors. And we laughed because these reflected part of the truth of our shared experience of both.

But I now propose a new collective noun for actors of Tim's ilk: a "shill" of actors. Whaddya think?