February 10, 2016

"The Sparrow" as Prejudice and Tract

Disliking a work of art is not a common occurrence for me. My response to art is usually either (a) positive or (b) indifferent. I may not like a book, but what do I care if someone else gets something out of it?

I think of this in relation to one of the questions that James Lipton puts to his guests on Inside the Actor's Studio: "What is your least favorite word?" The answer is usually something like "prejudice" or even "moist." But these words are not offensive; they're simply performing their humble duty of representation.

There is a type of word, however, that does not simply represent but acts. Some of these so-called speech acts are benign, like promises. But some words are weaponized. These are words whose only function is to, at the moment of expression, harm the hearer, usually by highlighting the hearer's membership in a vulnerable group (racial, sexual, etc.). These are words worth hating.

So it is with works of art. I guess it's not new to assert that some works of art are harmful; it's what Hitler said about "degenerate art" and Rudy Giuliani said about Beyoncé! It's just that I don't usually assert that. So Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow sticks out.

The Sparrow was written in 1996 and became a kind of cult classic, beloved among progressive, brainy sci-fi fans. The novel is set in the mid-twenty-first century in a time of environmental degradation and social inequality. A group of disparate individuals is chosen to be the first team to seek out alien life on a promising far-off planet. Several years later, the team returns—with only one member remaining, a Jesuit priest who is highly traumatized and announces that everyone else is dead.

What happened on the planet is fed to readers over the course of the rest of the novel in flashbacks. As a novel, it has good points and bad: The writing is interesting, even if the characters all tend to have the same kind of voice. The reader learns the peril of even benign missions to other cultures. The great mystery of what happens to the Jesuit priest is a weak point since it can only be one of a handful of things, so drawing it out feels lame. In the afterword, Russell says that her intention was to take a character who believes in God's individual attention and put that character through a kind of personal Holocaust, in an effort to demonstrate that faith shouldn't be invested in God's intervention in our personal life but rather in God's moral precepts. In that same afterword, she touches on another theme, which is the source of my reaction to this book: the role of procreation in moral development.

The Sparrow is unique in that the villains of the novel are a class of individuals who are childless. And they aren't simply childless individuals who happen to be villains. They are villains because they are childless. As childless people, they are without any investment in the future. They live for aesthetic and sensual pleasures. They are entirely without conscience. They are self-absorbed, highly cultured, and utterly devoid of moral feeling. This was weird for me to read, as a childless person myself. Our culture (like most) has attitudes toward people without children, but those attitudes are usually off-hand and coded. No one comes out and says, "People without children are bad." No one except Mary Doria Russell, apparently.

The disturbing nature of this portrayal has two aspects. First, it's false. Fiction can be made up but it should still be true. There are people without children, without any "investment in the future," who nonetheless lead lives of generosity and, well, investment in the future. Teachers who are beloved by the young students. Citizens who fight for the environment. Albanian nuns who run orphanages in India. And there are likewise people with children who throw bags of trash out their car windows, sit around the house toking cigarettes and pouring secondhand smoke into their children's lungs, who take the small, vulnerable bodies of those very children and do unspeakable things to them. Russell is more like Ayn Rand than any other novelist I know in this regard: She creates an imaginary world that is intended to reflect on our world but that grossly misrepresents reality. It's a tract masquerading as a novel.

The second problem is that Russell picks on a vulnerable group. The idea of the childless as self-centered didn't come to her in a fit of inspiration; it's a stereotype—and an ugly one. Although people sometimes choose not to have children, many people want children and don't end up with them. Those people are reminded daily of what they're missing out on: personal experiences that can't be summarized in any blog post and also a certain societal status. And yet despite people's (in my opinion correct) feeling that those who don't have children are unfortunate, often the attitude is not sympathy but hostility.

A small example: A book club of mostly moms in my neighborhood read Eat Pray Love a few years ago. In this memoir, the childless and husbandless Elizabeth Gilbert travels the world to find herself after a painful divorce. She has beautiful experiences and profound revelations and ends up happy and invested in life. Do you think the reaction of the book club to this story was "Good for her! She found happiness despite her troubles!" Or "She's not lucky enough to have children, but I'm glad she at least had these fun times!" If you do, you don't know humans. No, it was, "Well, sure, if I didn't have children and responsibilities, I could traipse around the world as well." Huff, huff. It's as if the these moms considered themselves both (a) superior in fortune and happiness and (b) the only truly worthy recipients of sympathetic attention because of their burdens and responsibilities. Concomitantly, the childless woman is both (a) inferior in fortune and happiness and (b) unworthy of sympathy or good will. I don't want to exaggerate because Gilbert's book was a huge bestseller, so not everyone felt that way. But I bet that most of us recognize that uncharitable feeling, hopefully in others and not ourselves.

Another example: A good friend of mine was telling me about a teacher at her sons' elementary school that none of the parents liked. This teacher was perceived as not being very warm or accommodating. After a listing of the teacher's faults, she described how this group of moms all agreed that because the teacher didn't have kids of her own, she was not "kid-friendly." I—her childless friend—kept waiting for her to tell me how she spoke up and defended the teacher against this charge, but no. My friend's point was that it was true: This woman's faults were not due to her personality or lack of experience or any of the other factors that could influence her teaching style; they were due to her childlessness. Being childless made her a bad teacher.

This premise—that teachers without children are inferior teachers—is so ludicrously, obviously untrue that it's almost laughable. But social science has shown that, when analyzing a person's fault, humans are quick to attach the fault to the trait of the person that is most out of sync with the group identity. That is why when 20 Muslim men commit a horrific act of violence, we attribute it to their being Muslim and not their being men, despite the fact that being a man is far, far more closely correlated with violence than being Muslim is. This outlier-blaming seems to be a kind of value-neutral tendency among humans, something that comes to us instinctively. But there is almost always an element of bad faith as well, a kind of pleasure that humans get from reaffirmation of their own membership of a high-status group at the expense of a low-status group.

So Russell's novel combines three kinds of statements that should never be combined: (1) a lie (2) that is hostile (3) to a vulnerable subgroup. This is terrible thing to do. Years ago I saw a videotape of Jerry Falwell standing in his pulpit on Sunday morning and telling his parishioners, "Gay people will kill you as soon as look at you." That trifecta is the basis of every genocide in history and innumerable small acts of hatred as well, from "The Jews eat Christian children for Passover" to "Your Tutsis neighbors are responsible for killing the president and must be stopped." The publication of a novel with an offensive thesis is not the worst crime in the world. But The Sparrow should be recognized for what it is: an Ayn Rand novel in which the source of evil is not the charitable people of the world but the childless.

February 2, 2016

Catastrophe and the Artist-Centered Production

The shattering of media into small shards—blogs, podcasts, and nontraditional producers like Netflix—is a beautiful thing. The Portlandia model is creative talents writing, running, and starring in low-cost productions. My new fave in this model is Catastrophe, produced by Amazon. It's created by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, about a couple who get pregnant after a one-night (well, one-week) stand and decide to stay together. So clever. So funny. Sweet. And so, so dedicated to avoiding clichĂ©s. Plus, Carrie Fisher as Rob's mom!