Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Last night, I stayed up until 2am finishing my ARC of Water to Burn, the second Nola O’Grady novel by Katharine Kerr. Despite being set in San Francisco and following the exploits of Nola, a psychic employed by a secret government agency on the side of Harmony, it’s not quite accurate to describe the series as urban fantasy. For one thing, an ongoing plot point from book one, License to Ensorcell, focuses on the discovery and exploration of deviant world-levels – that is to say, alternate and parallel realities both similar and dissimilar to Earth – populated in some instances by doppelganger inhabitants raised under vastly different circumstances. This puts the flavour closer to SF than fantasy at times, raising questions about the setting’s scientific theories and contributing to a rich sense of narrative possibility. The series is also distinguished by its strong sense of Earth politics: Nola’s offsider, bodyguard and love-interest since book one, Ari Nathan, is a high-level operative with both Interpol and the Israeli government. While some writers might be tempted to mention this merely by way of exotic background detail, Kerr actively incorporates it into events, not only in terms of Ari and Nola’s respective efforts to balance duties and secrets with their personal relationship, but also as a source of cross-cultural commentary and plot relevance. Just as Nola’s character is defined in large part by her family ties, psychic gifts, religious upbringing and Irish-American heritage, so too is Ari defined by his family ties, martial gifts, religious upbringing ¬†and Israeli heritage. Kerr has done her research, and if ever Nola lapses into forgetting that Ari, despite his perfect English, was raised in a different culture, neither she nor the reader is allowed to keep that ignorance for long.

Plot-wise, the events of Water to Burn follow closely on from the end of License to Ensorcell: the Chaos masters who orchestrated the events of book one are still at large, though their influence is being felt in difference ways. A twelve-year-old girl drowns when a freak wave seemingly pulls her from the shore; Reb Ezekiel, the self-professed prophet who ran the kibbutz where Ari spent his childhood, has been sighted in the city, despite having been thought dead for some years; and a shady businessmen appears to be blackmailing Nola’s affluent brother-in-law. Though seemingly disparate at first, these separate¬†occurrences all begin to tie in with the mysterious Peacock Angel cult and its Chaotic adherents, increasing in intensity as Nola and Ari get closer to the truth.

There are several satisfying differences that set this series apart from other UF works. Firstly, the romance: though Nola and Ari flirted and danced around each other for a significant portion of License to Ensorcell, by novel’s end, they’d reconciled their attraction and embarked on an actual relationship. There is no mysterious third wheel waiting in the wings to try and turn things into a love triangle; nor did Water to Burn begin with either party calling things off, thereby restoring a default state of unresolved sexual tension. Instead, they look for a new apartment and move in together, while Nola wrestles internally with her fear that ‘picket-stakes of domesticity’ ¬†are dropping into place in her life, confronting her past issues with commitment and abandonment. Given the fact that her other novels have cheerfully featured romantic, sexual scenes, the fact that Nola and Ari’s encounters are always hidden by a cut-to-black suggests ¬†that Kerr has made a conscious decision to differentiate the O’Grady books from the plethora of sexy, paranormal crime series already available. In this instance, the romance isn’t about wild, passionate tension, but rather about two defensive, similarly wounded people struggling to turn chemistry into love, with all the pitfalls, doubts and self-recriminations that involves.

The series also places a tremendous significance on family. Again, this runs counter to the usual intuitions about urban fantasy: Nola’s gifts are genetic and certainly contributed to her childhood woes, but she is neither an isolate orphan nor an only child. Instead, we’re ¬†introduced to the loving-yet-complicated network of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles – most of them similarly gifted, though in different ways – that make up Nola’s family. We know her mother is in deep denial about her own magical gifts, let alone everyone else’s, while her father, for reasons that are slowly being uncovered, was forced to leave his wife and children while they were still a young family, with consequences that are still being felt in the present. Nola has seven siblings, one of whom was murdered before the start of the first book; a strong relationship with her caring, religious Aunt Eileen; and a plethora of other such kinships, each one uniquely complicated in the way that only extended family can be. So far, we’ve only been allowed to glimpse Ari’s history, but his own upbringing has already proved crucial to the plot, and with Nola fixing to secretly contact his mother, it seems plain that sooner or later, his family secrets will be subject to just as much scrutiny as Nola’s.

Finally, there’s the issue of Nola’s eating habits. As the books are narrated almost exclusively from her POV, the fact that both Ari and her family members are concerned about her having an ‘eating disorder’ is brushed off in her thoughts as meddlesome paranoia. And yet, we also see exactly how much calorie-counting Nola really does: scrimping her portions, foregoing meals, declining various dishes at family gatherings, and generally keeping herself half-starved. It’s both a refreshing and a confronting move on Kerr’s part: refreshing, in the sense that so many heroines are described as meeting society’s physical ideals without any conscious effort on their part or narrative criticism about the value of said ideals, and confronting, because by the end of Water to Burn, we’re left in no doubt that Nola really does have a problem. Happily, our heroine seems to understand this, too, but issues of esteem are never easy to overcome, and we’re left with the knowledge that Nola has a long road yet to travel.

Water to Burn is an immensely satisfying second installment in the Nola O’Grady series. Rather than relying on sexual tension and violence as the backbone of her series, Kerr has instead built a rich, original, complicated world of politics both real and magical, parallel worlds, family ties, cultural clashes and work-in-progress relationships that cannot help but suck the reader in – and I can’t wait to read book three.

As has been mentioned previously, I took it upon myself last month to reread all fifteen volumes of Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry series – or rather, to reread the first thirteen books in preparation for broaching the final two. Reaching the end of a story you’ve been following since adolescence is always a precarious act: for any number of reasons, the potential for betrayal and disappointment is enormous. I won’t lie, internets. I was nervous. But despite those fears, the ending made me cry, the plot was skillfully was closed out, and I walked away with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Roald Dahl once wrote that “no book ever ends when it’s full of your friends”, and I’ve never felt this to be truer than in the case of Deverry, if only because the entire premise is one of reincarnated characters – as long as they keep being born, their stories will always continue. In final paragraphs appended to the glossaries and pronunciation guides of almost every volume, as well as in quick asides throughout the narrative proper, Katharine Kerr has adopted the voice of Cadda Cerrmor (as the last book names her) – a writer inhabiting modern-day Deverry who she credits as the ‘real’ author. It’s a small detail, but one which lends a wonderful balance to things. Through all its twisting timelines, the series is as much about the history of Deverry itself as it is the myriad lives of the characters, and by providing a glimpse of that country’s future, Kerr has imbued it, not just with a sense of lineage, but potentiality.

In that sense, there’s tremendous significance in the small details which help to close out the series. Though Branna’s invention of the spinning wheel and Neb’s discovery of germs might seem like small things when placed alongside dragons and the end of the Horsekin war, we still experience a little frisson of excitement on hearing them mentioned: ¬†a recognition of the seeds of modernity, and an unshakable sense that Deverry is one of those rare worlds which keeps on turning even in the absence of a reader. Though there are battles, false goddesses and magic aplenty in Kerr’s series, we’re never fooled into thinking that the fate of all Deverry hangs on any one of them – or rather, if it does, then not in the traditional way.

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right. Tolkien, as always, gets something of a free pass for having invented the trope, but even in his case, the whole point of Middle Earth’s elaborate backstory is that everything has already happened: the climactic battle with Sauron is literally the last hurrah of a world in decline, a handover between a magical, imagined past and our own, human future. But where Tolkien was fully cognisant of the shape of his own story, many subsequent authors copied his pattern without, perhaps, a full appreciation for its consequences. Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

The different cultures and races present in Deverry, while seemingly cast in traditional molds – humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, shapeshifters and hordes – are each dealt with in respectful, original ways. Though the elves have long since lost their fabled cities and are reduced to living as nomadic plainsdwellers, Kerr doesn’t fall into the trap of making their previous civilisation a perfect one, even though we still mourn its loss. Rigidly maintained caste systems and a fearsome body of magician-priests stood side by side with beautiful architecture and advanced magics, contrasting sharply with the comparative egalitarianism of their nomadic¬†descendants. Though an elven royal family has been maintained even down the long years of exile, it has never held any special power, being more a ceremonial acknowledgement than anything else. As the elves grow settled again, reuniting with their lost colonies and living openly alongside humankind, there’s a sense of genuine loss: not just for the end of an era, but in the slow, encroaching return to their old monarchy, as Prince Dar becomes increasingly important in response to the Deverrian respect for kings.

At the other end of the scale, the Horsekin and Gel da’Thae, while cast as the villains both historically and in the more present struggles, are never reduced to the role of¬†bogymen. Though undeniably savage in parts, their culture is whole and internally consistent, and as much damaged by their past actions in some respects as was the elven civilisation they destroyed. The bard Meer is a beautiful example of this, not only because he’s a genuinely compelling character, but because his blind devotion to false ¬†lore confronts us with the damage that results when knowledge is lost or destroyed, or when actions are undertaken in ignorance. To a greater or lesser extent, all the cultures of Deverry suffer this particular affliction. Records have been lost, oral traditions have become mired in half-truth, and the steadfast commitment of one character or another to their chosen way of life is always threatened when they encounter other cultures. Just as the shapeshifting Drwgi contrast the dwarves both elementally and in terms of identity, so too do the differing human communities – the free, isolated families of the Rhiddaer, the feudalistic Deverrians and the democratic yet slave-trading Bardekians – contrast each other. Though some¬†practices¬†and thoughts are held almost universally in contempt or esteem, there are always exceptions. Despite what the characters might believe, nothing is fixed.

This sentiment comes out particularly in how the series handles religion. Just as Raena and Rocca, devout priestesses of Alshandra, display pure, heartfelt faith in a being who, unbeknownst to them, only ever pretended to be a goddess, Meer’s trust in his sacred traditions provides a sharp counterpoint to the faith of Deverry men and women, whose deities, if not actually malevolent entities in disguise, were still only ever a product of belief, and not the other way around. Though the only true zealots we ever encounter are devotees of either Alshandra or Aranrhodda, we’re nonetheless forced to ask ourselves why we find their beliefs so discomforting. It’s not just the content of the rituals which matters, nor even, to a certain extent, the violence with which those beliefs are¬†pursued. Rather, it’s our knowledge of whether particular beliefs are true, beneficial, benign, false and/or hostile which ultimately shape our reactions. The dweomer of the Light is both true and beneficial- representing the great Light that shines behind all the gods – while the worship of most established deities, if ultimately false, is still benign. Aranrodda’s worship is equally false, but hostile, concerning itself with vengeance and malfeasance; the same is true of Alshandra, but to a much greater extent. At the far end of the continuum is the dark dweomer, being both true – the actual counterpoint to the Light – and hostile in its¬†practices. As Deverry is a fantastic place, we are in a uniquely objective position when it comes to passing such judgement on the beliefs of other people. In the real world, of course, things are never so simple – but then, the people of Deverry are all real in their own minds: they cannot judge as we do, and so act largely in ignorance of truths they cannot possibly know.

Sexuality – particularly as relates to feminism – is another main theme of the books. Though there is no one definition of strength, many of the strongest characters are female, almost all of whom must struggle to follow their own desires in opposition to various cultural demands. A throwaway Cadda Cerrmor line in one of the later books, noting that the stories are set in a time before women learned to control their pregnancies through the dweomer, pointedly underlines the reality of life without contraception. If the series can be said to contain a dearth of women who are willing mothers, this is only because we’re witnessing a society in which willingness has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood, even for those who embrace it. Lacking any control over their own pregnancies in a society where producing heirs is paramount, women have children as a matter of course: not only is doing otherwise almost impossible, but wanting to remain childless is unthinkable. By¬†focusing¬†on women who actively challenge this mentality, Kerr might seem to modern women, who have a choice in childbearing, to be pushing an agenda: but in fact, she only demonstrates the process by which they came to have that choice. However we might judge a character like Dallandra, for instance, we cannot help but be pierced with rage and sympathy at the plight of Bellyra, a fiercely intelligent queen driven to suicide by a combination of royal imprisonment, a well-meaning but careless husband and, significantly, post natal depression.

Though possessed of original magic, brilliant characterisation and memorable storytelling, in the end, it’s the worldbuilding, history and cultural commentary I love most about Deverry. By creating a world with a unique sense of its own past, present and future, Katharine Kerr has succeeded in building a real place – a sprawling, fascinating realm adjacent to our own, and made accessible through the mother roads of mythology, imagination and truth.

Heading¬†just finished¬†Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, I found myself wondering, not for the first time,¬†why vampires, zombies¬†and werewolves make for such popular subjects. Even accounting for boom-and-bust periods, they still dominate in comparison to stories about other kinds of semi-human mythological creatures. Fairies, angels, demons, witches¬†and succubi all have strong followings, but what is it about shapeshifters, bloodsuckers and the undead¬†that we just can’t get enough of? Why are nagas, centaurs, sylphs, dryads, ifrit, djin and selkies (to name but¬†a few) so comparatively¬†underrepresented?

There’s no one aswer to that question, but as I was mulling things over, it occurred to me that, unlike any of the other creatures listed above, vampires, zombies¬†and werewolves exist outside of any specific¬†religious context. Historically speaking, they are creatures of folklore more than creatures of myth, and while many cultures have stories about shape-shifters, the concept is strong enough to stand apart. By contrast, succubi, incubi, angels and demons are all heavily embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition; witches have been¬†demonised by and therefore incorporated into¬†many religions, but are also associated with a variety of pagan and neopagan traditions in their own right. Nagas hail from the Vedic/Hindu tradition; centaurs, sylphs, dryads, hamadryads, oceanids and¬†nereids are part of Greek mythology;¬† fairies and selkies are from Celtic and Irish mythology;¬†and¬†djinn and ifrit are from the magic of old Arabia.

While religious and mythological origins are hardly a barrier to¬†the reimagining of fantastic creatures¬†for new stories¬†– indeed, they¬†frequently contribute to a rich sense of¬†worldbuilding – perhaps there’s an argument to be made that this selfsame quality also forces¬†writers¬†to¬†address the¬†traditional context of (say) angels¬†before a new schema can be introduced. Which isn’t to say that vampire (or zombie, or werewolf) stories don’t have¬†to tackle existing preconceptions of their main species, so to speak –¬†rather,¬†it’s a question of associated beliefs.¬†Zombies, vampires and werewolves don’t exist as part of any religious or mythological canon.¬†Mentioning a vampire protagonist does not¬†infer¬†the existence of old gods in the way that dryads or¬†demons might, and while there’s certainly a strong tradition of involving Christianity in vampire, zombie and werewolf¬†narratives, the fact remains that neither species¬†is an¬†intrinsic part of Christianity or the Christian mythos. Instead, their ungodliness has been extrapolated in retrospect, making it¬†comparatively easy to remove.¬†Challenging the ungodliness of demons, however, or questioning the saintliness of angels, requires a much more determined assault on established cannon.

Put simply, it is easy to turn¬†vampires, werewolves and zombies into secular protagonists – and therefore to adapt them to modern scenarios – precisely because¬†they lack concrete allegience¬†to established mythological frameworks. Other creatures and species, of necessity, bring more baggage¬†with them: there are stronger assumptions to be overwritten, and especially when¬†the existence of one race (say dryads) goes hand in hand with the existence of another (say centaurs), it is less common to try and¬†recreate dryads as the sole magical¬†species of a given story. Which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest – but it might go some way towards explaining why vampires, weres and zombies are constantly being reinvented, and why their mythological bretheren tend to dwell in¬†bigger, more magical¬†worlds.

What does everyone else think?

Consider the following story: the refusal of a Christian school to¬†train a Muslim teaching student. Rachida Dahlal, of Victoria University, was knocked back on her application to undergo work experience at Heathdale Christian College on the grounds of her faith. The university’s acting vice-chancellor pointed out that Mrs Dahlal, a devout Muslim who wears the hijab, had already been ‘counselled’ about Heathdale’s policy of ‘taking those whose values aligned to its own’, while school principal Reynald Tibben rather contradictingly stated that the school’s position was not that they had ‘anything against her or her beliefs’, but rather that their education policy was ‘nominal, it’s actually what parents want for their kids’, and that¬† hiring a Muslim teacher¬†would have been both ‘inappropriate’ and ‘confusing’ for students.

For those who might question¬†Mrs Dahlal’s¬†choice of Heathdale to begin with,¬†her decision was based on the proximity of the school¬†to her home, and its position as one of few institutions offering both French and mathematics, her specialty subjects. Given also that it was her choice, and made in full knowledge of the school’s denomination, Principal Tibben’s guff about her likely discomfort during morning prayers seems frankly condescending. Would he have been so concerned about hiring an¬†atheist? Would a Jewish¬†applicant have been equally off-limits? In Mr Tibben’s eyes, would¬†the presence of such people¬†have proven¬†similarly ‘confusing’ to students? Or is it just the fact that Mrs Dahlal’s faith is visible through her hijab, and not merely an internal ideology? More and more, it seems, society is struggling with the notion of discrimination; but what this case exemplifies – and yet what few people are willing to acknowledge – is that any set of beliefs associated with a specific ideal is, by definition, discriminatory.

This is not something we can legislate away. The vast majority of human interactions are predicated on conflict: disagreements over a favourite film, the appropriate price of food, who has the greatest claim to which resources, which is the best way to discipline children, how the universe began. At the far end of the scale are grandoise religious and philosophical abstractions, while at the other are trivial matters, debates that no sane person would try to legalise. But the middle regions are often indistinct, a blend of all such concerns, and it is here we live our lives. Politically, socially, sexually and legally, we have moved forwards in recent decades, making headway against racism, sexism, homophibia, explotation of children and religio-cultural discrimination; and yet despite its presence at the forefront of many such debates Рif not all of them Рthe discrimination inherent in religious systems has remained the elephant in the room.

Put simply: if a person believes that their own religion¬†is unshakeably correct to the exclusion of all other systems, and then refuses to hire a worker on the grounds that they are living outside of God’s rule and will set a bad example to other employees, passing a law to prevent them from doing so becomes tantamount to declaring that the logic which underpins their faith is wrong. The same thing lies at the heart of all the legislative drama over gay marriage: how do you allow someone freedom of religion while simultaneously declaring that certain of their religious or ideological¬†tenets¬†constitute a violation of human rights? There’s not an easy answer. But to anyone who believes in the separation of church and state, different religious beliefs¬†should be¬†equally accommodated – or refused – under the law, be they derived from shari’a, the Talmud or the Bible. Defending¬†the values of one faith on the basis of its historical relationship to the nation is neither objective nor helpful: instead, it only serves to embed a lopsided definition of discrimination and entitlement¬†in our cultural identity.

Which brings us back to Heathdale Christian College, and the reason why, in our secular state, Reynald Tibben should be found to have acted wrongly: because although¬†a fair¬†state¬†must allow the existence of both¬†secular and¬†denominational schools, it should have no vested interest in preventing overlap between the two. Just as state schools hire teachers of all faiths, so too should their denominational equivalents. The difference between such institutions should be purely a matter of extra religious instruction, not the individual disposition of¬†their teachers. Because if things¬†are otherwise – if we state that a school has the right to hire or fire teachers on the basis of their personal¬†values¬†– then we may as well say that other Christian principals are equally¬†within¬†their grounds to fire teachers for apostasy, for expressing agnosticism or for religious conversion. The fact that Mrs Duhlal practises Islam does not affect her ability to¬†speak French or teach mathematics, just as the Christianity of her students should not affect their ability to learn. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to please everyone.¬†At the most basic level, discrimination simply means choice: to differentiate between one thing and another. We load the word with negative connotations, conflating it with prejudice¬†in all instances, but saying that our society disciminates against racism is just as valid a useage as complementing someone on their discriminating taste. Because discrimination, be it deemed neutural, positive or negative, figures equally in choice, legislation and religion alike. And the sooner we start to confront that fact, the better for all of us.

There is a saying: those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

In light of human nature, I feel moved to posit a companion phrase: that those who know history are still capable of repeating it, particularly if they thought it was a good idea the first time round.

With that in mind, here are three recent, related, news articles:

1. The tradition of Albanian sworn virgins;

2. The rise of hymenoplasty among young French women; and

3. The advent of American purity balls.

As far as the history of womens’ rights is concerned, I’m a remarkably privileged person. I wasn’t raised to believe that sex before marriage was bad (or, conversely, threatened with shame, penalty, violence or social exile should I indulge in it). Although I’m happily married now, I had a choice about how to live my life, with whom and under what circumstances. I was taught that women and men are equal.¬†I live in an era of contraception and¬†sexual freedom, and believe these are both good things.¬†And because of my friends and family; because of my¬†Australian citizenship, race, socio-economic status and – yes – atheism, I’ve never had to fight for this to be the case. ¬†

In a nutshell: I take these freedoms for granted. To a certain extent, I can’t help it – because I’ve never had to seriously defend them. Oh, there were times early on at primary school when boys would tease or exclude me from games because I was a girl, and therefore The Enemy, but the fact that I was persistent, assertive and more than a little tomboyish meant that, nine times out of ten, I¬†won them over. As a teenager, I butted heads with blokes about the social role of women, and as a university student, I went online and debated feminism (of a sort) with Christian Evangelists, but these were all theoretical debates, and¬†society¬† – I knew – was On My Side. Day-to-day, I’ve never been kept back, excluded, ridiculed, restricted or punished for being female: my gender has never earned me a separate set of social rules or expectations. Unlike my mother, I’ve never had a bank laugh at me for trying to take¬†out a loan as an umarried woman. I know these are recent developments, and I’m grateful for them. Should the need arise, I’d be ready to come to their defence. I also know women in most of the rest of the world aren’t half so lucky.

But what I struggle with – what I really struggle with – is the idea¬†that glass ceilings, sexism and¬†patriarchy still exist, not overseas, but in my society. The idea that western democracies can still have double standards where women are concerned feels…wrong. Logically, I know it’s true. And despite a wealth of inner scepticism, it’s not that I’m sceptical when I hear of it – not in the least. It’s just so far¬†removed from my own experience that it’s like finding a sweatshop under the local council.

Take the idea of purity balls, for instance. The article mentions talk of making a similar thing for boys, but only as an afterthought.¬†The problem isn’t with encouraging teen abstience: it’s in the execution and the mindset. Because only girls are targeted. There is no balancing idea that mothers keep the virtue of their sons: rather, it harks back to the day when men passed their daughters on to other men, and the women went quietly. One father, at least, drew a line at the idea of Indian-style arranged marriages, just wanting the parents to be involved, but presumably this can happen without attending a¬†purity ball. As a system, it seems more likely to encourage parental veto of potential suitors than not – mostly because these dads use the word¬†suitors to begin with, a term which¬†connotes the necessity of permission. And where permission can be granted as a matter of course – by gum, it can be withheld. ¬†

‘Purity’ isn’t a helpful word, either, because more than promoting abstience until¬†such-and-such a¬†time, it actively¬†suggests dirtiness, or wrongness, in the alternative. This, I suspect, is the¬†core of why abstinence-only sex education programs¬†fail: they consider virginity more important than waiting until you’re ready. This isn’t a semantic distinction. As a religious concept, virginity means considerably more than¬†not having had sex. It implies¬†waiting, not until you’re ready, but until marriage, committing to this ideal rather than simply being sensible about the circumstances of your first time. Because, sooner or later, there will be a first time. Exalting virginity rather than talking about¬†being comfortable¬†– which, of necessity, means talking about actual sex – isn’t a great approach. And purity balls, as an extension of the concept, are hardly a step up.

They’re¬†a step down, in fact, because they’re only aimed at girls. Unplanned pregnancies aren’t fun, especially for teenagers, but the idea that female virtue needs to be guarded that much more closely because women give birth overlooks the whole notion of male involvement as anything other than guardians.¬†It says¬†that because¬†boys can’t¬†get pregnant by slipping in the abstience stakes, there’s less (or no) need to worry; the fact that¬†they can still impregnant girls is, apparently, the girl’s problem. Jumping to another glaring anachronism, the whole ‘purity ball’ concept hinges on daddy giving his daughter to a strapping lad, as opposed – say – to someone else’s daughter. That, methinks, is a whole ‘nother issue for the type of folk likely to attend purity balls, but damned if it doesn’t rate a mention. ¬†

Hymenoplasty – surgery to reconstruct the appearance of virginity – is another concern. In France, young Muslim women in particular have been paying to have it done before their weddings, which raises an interesting question of sexual progression vs. traditionalism. Clearly, their husbands-to-be place a value on virginity, as one notorious court-case has made clear; but the women themselves, comfortable with sex outside of marriage, need only the semblance.¬†Need, not want: this is a key point. They feel they’ll be punished for having had sex, and¬†sadly, in some instances, they will be.¬†

The last sworn virgins in Albania¬†are now old women; they’ve lived their whole lives as men, on the condition that they never have sex. In some instances, it was all they could do in a patriarchal society where their family had lost the male head of the household; others, doubtless, chose as much from sexual orientation as a desire¬†for social standing.¬†Oddly, the basis for this system was the¬†appropriate weregild – blood-price – paid¬†for the deaths of different people. Women were¬†worth less¬†than men; but virgins were worth the same. Logically, then, a virgin was as good as a man, and for as long as she stayed a virgin, a woman could live as a man.¬†As ever, there’s no¬†extra worth for a virgin male, because¬†regardless of where on the globe you are – France, America, the Middle East, Albania –¬†virginity is only praised in women. Sometimes, we pretend otherwise. But not often.

And in this spirit, we have father-daughter purity balls.

In this spirit, we have hymenoplasty before traditional weddings.

In this spirit, we have women only equal to men through celibacy – and even then, they cannot live in equality as women, but must take on the role of men.

Because in this spirit, women are not equal.

Writing on his blog about Dua Khalil, a 17-year-old girl beaten to death in an honour killing while a mob looked on, Joss Whedon had the following to say:

“How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I‚Äôm no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn‚Äôt buy into it. Women‚Äôs inferiority ‚Äď in fact, their malevolence — is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they‚Äôre sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished.

“…I can‚Äôt contain my despair, for Dua Khalil, for humanity, for the world we‚Äôre shaping…I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red.”¬†

Because no matter how civilised or enlightened we think ourselves, if we want our daughters to be pure and virginal above all else, and if we punish them for straying, then this is where we are headed. 

And history, as Shirley Bassey sang, keeps on repeating.

At my Long-Suffering Husband’s insistance, we rented The Invasion last night. I’d read more than one dud review and was therefore sceptical, but the end product, if not blindingly original, was at least well-executed and entertaining. Based on¬†Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the premise is¬†classic sci-fi horror: humans infected by an alien host become little more than emotionless copies of their former selves, spreading malaise through the populace while a few savvy¬†protagonists fight back. Morally, the film queries the fundamental nature of humanity,¬†asking whether our innate predeliction for violence could ever be removed without rendering us a different species. In this respect, the¬†execution is strongly reminiscent of¬†the main plot-arc of Angel, Season Four,¬†which culminates, in the penultimate episode Peace Out, in an almost identical scenario:¬†a declaration of world peace after an alien, assimilatory force takes control on a global scale, followed by the¬†successful¬†application of a vanquishing panacea. In both instances,¬†our heroes are left with uncertainty as to whether restoring the human race was actually the right choice; and in both instances, this¬†uncertainty is validated by the fact that the¬†invading¬†force was comparatively benign, leaving the memories and personalities of the populace intact, but removing all¬†aggression.

It’s worth taking the comparison further. Jasmine, the assimilatory power in Angel, requires¬†the¬†loss of two human lives to enter the world. While manifest, she consumes¬†approximately ten lives every few days, but these are willing victims whose deaths involve a painless, beatified moment of transcendence. In The Invasion, the only alien violence is¬†towards those who are immune or still human; it is implied,¬†but not¬†demonstrated, that the former are¬†killed, while the latter are purposefully rounded up and infected. Similarly, Jasmine’s acolytes seek to kill the¬†few who resist; the remainder are peaceably converted.

Within the context of both narratives, the heroes are justified for several reasons: there is no freedom to reject the change; hostility is shown to outsiders; deaths are accepted as part of the process; and in each instance, the alien/assimilatory claim that those changed are still fundamentally human is challenged by the emergence of a hive-mind, not quite on par with, say, the Borg, but nonetheless profoundly different to the usual human experience. On the other hand, Jasmine and the Invaders also seek justification: any deaths they cause as part of assimilation are minimal compared to the daily injury humanity wreaks upon itself, and are in any case a one-off; human personalities remain; all religious differences are eradicated; and global violence has, effectively, ceased. Post-victory, it is these arguments which cause our protagonists to doubt the wisdom of their choice.

Objectively, it’s an interesting moral dilemma. As a species, we prize personal freedoms even when they grant individual licence to be unpleasant, vindictive and ignorant, because we struggle to¬†find a workable moral basis from which¬†to allow positive freedoms while disallowing¬†their negative counterparts. This is further compounded by the fact that, particularly as regards culture and religion, we’re far from a universal definition of ‘positive’ freedoms – sexuality is a particular sticking point, both in terms of orientation and practice. Even more challenging is the fact that¬†freedom of and from religion becomes innately problematic if sublimated to a set of universal human rights: as things stand, and as they are likely to remain standing, it is impossible¬†that¬†any such code not infringe on individual belief, which opens a whole new can of worms. Inevitably, our greed for¬†personal freedom denies the idea that, as part of the bargain, we might have to change our minds; and yet, day¬†to day, this is exactly how the world works. It’s a system we simultaneously laud and resent, finding balance in the margins and grey areas: small wonder, then, that the idea of some powerful, all-encompassing assimilatory force sweeping in and wiping the slate clean both lures and terrifies.

Historically speaking, we’re rightly mistrustful of any human agency attempting what Jasmine¬†and the Invaders almost succeed at, Hitler, Stalin and¬†Robespierre having demonstrated what atrocities such plans necessitate in the hands of our own¬†kind. But when we put an alien or¬†external agency in charge, the hypothetical becomes more serious: not only are we removing the possibility of the new order being destabilised by human malcontents, as such dissention cannot actually¬†exist, but we’re voiding ourselves¬†of blame.¬†Proportionally,¬†our main fear is a kind of technical genocide: if none of the social, cultural or behavioural hallmarks of humanity remain – or at least, if lack of violence and passion¬†irrevocably alters their application – then has humanity been destroyed? It’s an uneasy thought, as well as¬†discomforting: that our¬†innate selves are fundamentally tied to our aggression. Even if this is one factor among many, to lose it would be to absent a¬†crucial aspect of ourselves. Which begs the (much harder) question: in a world where, potentially, we can be a less-violent other species, is being human for the sake of¬†being human¬†actually a defensible choice?

The problem, as with all hypotheticals, is that we have no test scenario: along with violence, we don’t know what else we’d lose. Anecdotally and, to a certain extent, culturally, there’s a belief that our aggression stems from the same place as our creativity and passion: that without anger, we couldn’t love, or dream, or hope. Emotionally – and we are emotional creatures – it’s a compelling fear, and one which, on an intuitive level, is hard to combat. In an odd way,¬†it’s a bit like the dilemma of the criminal justice system: let a guilty man walk to save innocents, or condemn innocents to be sure of incarcerating the guilty? Ultimately, I’d opt for the former: for better or worse,¬†I’d rather keep our flaws than lose our virtues, and so – I believe – would most of us.

Narratively, however, we still need reassurance on this point: which is why both Jasmine and the Invaders are selected against by subtle, but deeply intuitive, markers. Beneath her human face, Jasmine has the appearance of a monster: only those with immunity to her powers can see it. The metaphor is one of rottenness, internal corruption; if she isn’t truly beautiful and¬†conceals the fact, then she cannot be¬†trusted, and¬†so – horrifically, in one sense –¬†we feel better about her destruction. Similarly, dogs don’t like the Invaders: they bark, whine, growl, attack and are subsequently killed for their trouble.¬†After tens of thousands of years¬†of co-evolution, it’s deeply ingrained in the human psyche to trust the intuition of dogs: as part of our family pack, they warn us of threats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a story in which¬†our canine companions¬†happily lick the hands of attacking aliens; and so, because we¬†trust the wordless sense of dogs, we know the enemy are Bad.

In the end, we justify our species by providing a pro for each con: love for anger, passion¬†for rage, creativity¬†for cruelty. But that, to¬†paraphrase Terry Pratchett, is the fundamental essence of humanity: where the falling angel meets the rising ape, we are what’ve always been.¬†

Half angel. Half devil. All human.

In her book A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom examines the history of marriage and its cultural evolution. “How,” she asks, “did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today?” Not having read the whole book, I’m not in a position to comment on¬†its conclusions, but when I¬†saw this article on corporate dating services, her query was the first thing that sprang to mind.

No matter your point of view, modern marriage is in a state of flux. Is it broadening to include homosexual couples? Might polygamy, as was recently asked, evetually become legal? Should our definition of the term remain purely religious? Is marriage on the out, as indicated by rising divorce rates and the attraction of remaning in a de facto relationship? Or is the union overdue for a revival? These are all relevant questions, but even accounting for wide gulfs of disagreement, most people would still acknowledge that marriage, more than anything else, should be about love. Socially, we disdain the notion of marrying for convenience, to the point where that phrase – a marriage of convenience – now carries negative connotations.

So how, then, does the Simply Drinks Exclusive Dating Agency fit with our perceptions?

In keeping with current social norms, the¬†accepted¬†schedule¬†is to fall in love first¬†and¬†maybe get married later. But we baulk at the reverse: the idea of getting married for whatever reason, and¬†only then falling¬†in love. For reasons that might trouble us to articulate, it smacks of wrongheadedness. Why would we want to risk unhappiness? Isn’t it, well,¬†cold¬†to get married without any thought beyond pragmatism? And this, here, is the nub of it: pragmatism. For thousands of years, marriage was, for various socio-cultural,¬†moral and religious reasons, a largely pragmatic institution. It was the done thing; and, more, a thing to be done by a certain age, or before any illegitimate children¬†could enter the picture. It was how families¬†made alliances, gained lands, played politics, ended feuds, claimed kingdoms and produced heirs, because these were the lynchpins on which society was founded. Love was all very well, as the troubadors sang, but in popular mythology and literature, it was¬†frequently tragic.

Nowadays, our belief is that, what with women in the workforce, single¬†and unwed parenthood being destigmatised and no societal pressure to get married at all, any idea of pragmatism in wedlock should be outdated. All you need is love, as the singer sang. But despite our deepest hopes, this isn’t the case. As a species, we aren’t that great at distinguishing love from lust, and psychologically, we seem troubled by the idea that fiery passion is, as a matter of course, transmuted over time. We want to believe that¬†love will be enough, that any deliberate thought¬†of pragmatism need not sully our hands: that we need no stronger foundation for wedded bliss than what we feel in the moment. Love conquers all, as the poet wrote.

But there have always been multiple considerations. What makes Simply Drinks different from other dating services is the level of screening that takes place: the idea that someone, somewhere is carefully vetting potential applicants in accordance with a list of desired attributes Рnot love, not lust, but basic physical acceptability, financial status, and a certain level of intellectual interest. And from a distance, the process resembles nothing so much as the marriage brokering of past centuries: entering into a relationship, not because of how you feel together, but because of what, potentially, that union brings. The fact that the service is tailored to the rich and, dare we assume, powerful only helps the comparison, as it was noble families who traditionally kept a closer eye on what (or who) a marriage would bring the clan.

Recently, Sam de Brito blogged about a phenomenon which is, in various permutations,¬†becoming more and more common: perfect man syndrome, or the¬†idea that today’s singles seem to be getting pickier about the qualities they look for in a potential mate. Previously, I’ve been content to shrug the issue off, but in light of Simply Drinks, I’m wondering¬†if¬†such high standards actually¬†reflect¬†a desire, however unconscious,¬†to make pragmatic –¬†and not purely romantic –¬†matches.

If this is the case, then it’s easy to see where things fall down: society tells us that we must marry, first and foremost, for love, thus throwing a not-inconsiderable barrier in the path of would-be marital pragmatists. Just as older cautionary tales involve disobedience and recklessly marrying for love, their modern equivalents¬†warn of the other extreme:¬†marrying lovelessly, and the dangers thereof. To be trapped in a loveless marriage is¬†one of our great social fears, and while I’m enough a child of my time to share the sentiment, it’s worth noting that on one level, the very phraseology suggests that the whole of marriage should concern love,¬†and¬†that if¬†it dies, then only a shell remains.

Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to Jane Austen.¬†Beyond the fact of¬†narrative quality,¬†Pride and Prejudice¬†is romantically timeless for one simple reason: by the end of the story, Elizabeth and Jane have married, not just for love, but with undeniable pragmatism. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is confronted with the prospect of opting, as her mother did, to marry poor for love, and the picure painted is a stark one: yes, there was love, but when it comes to feeding, clothing and caring for multiple children in Cheapside, money has something to recommend itself. The balance of each story, one feels, is a struggle to be both loving and pragmatic: fortunate for Austen’s heroines, in that they inevitably find what they’re looking for, but the dichotomy is real.

At the end of¬†nine paragraphs, it feels like base commonsense to say that the best marriages should be founded on equal parts love and pragmatism. Day to day, there will always be practical considerations, and as most people have an idea of what they want¬†from life, it makes sense to find someone who’s heading in the same direction. Personalities are all-important: just as some will inevitably find happiness in marrying purely for love, others are better off taking the path of Jeff Bridges in The Mirror Has Two Faces (only without Barbra Streisand). But unless we stop and look at the history of marriage in all our talk of renovating it,¬†we’re in danger of moving from one extreme concept to another: privileging love above what it brings to the relationship, confusing balance with¬†lovelessness and compromise with failure. Me, I’m happily married to a loving husband, but when we chose to tie the knot, it wasn’t just for love. We each have goals the other can help fulfill, and, more importantly, wants to help fulfill: we have plans beyond being in love. And if that degree of pragmatism makes me wrong, then baby – I don’t wanna be right.

Gay marriage is now legal in California.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a long overdue development. The claim that marriage is just for men and women has always rung hollow, not in the least because no religion or culture ‘owns’ the concept. Marriage wasn’t exported to the rest of the world by a particular group: rather, the idea has flourished with variety in almost every human culture. The Christian argument that gay marriage is invalid because God dislikes homosexuality is, ultimately, hypocritical: people are already married under the auspices of different, scripturally untenable traditions, religious or otherwise, but nobody is protesting those. Unless the dissenters start taking placards to Hindu ceremonies, they’ve already acknowledged that the state has a right to legalise marriage in a non-Christian context. Protesting homosexuality is, in this sense, mere semantics.

 

Whether the church must preside over gay weddings is a different issue ‚Äď one, methinks, which is best left to a case-by-case basis. Or would be, if not for the uneasy truce between discrimination law and religious tradition. This, perhaps, is the legalistic nub of the problem: if the church were to be treated like any other organisation, then any refusal to ‘serve’ couples on the basis of sexual orientation would count as discrimination, with all the liabilities that entails. Going back a few decades, it’s the equivalent of hanging a ‘no blacks’ sign in a shop window. It’s a no-brainer to say that political uproar would follow any instance of the state trying to force a church to marry a gay couple against its will ‚Äď and yet, a similar uproar would result if shari’a law were allowed to trump that of the state.

 

Socially, we’re at a turning point. Overseas as well as at home, western nations have begun the institution of universal human rights: protection from racial, religious or sexual discrimination, women’s rights, the rights of the child. In many cases, this has involved colliding head-on with previous religious or cultural mores: the idea of rape inside marriage, for instance, remains non-existent in many countries; in others, the marriage of girls as young as ten or thirteen is still common practice. But more and more, we are reaching a point at which, if we are to remain faithful to the idea of innate, universal rights, we must actively contradict religious doctrine ‚Äď our own, as well as that of others.

 

Due to a combination of religious, historical and socio-cultural factors, many such rights are already part of western law, while still allowing for difference between individual nations. In many instances, Christian practice has already changed to accommodate these rights: the investiture of women bishops, the availability of contraception, the right of divorce and, in some cases, the legalisation of abortion are all examples of this. But with the exception of women in the church, the scriptural arguments against these things tend to be contextually extrapolated, rather than explicitly forbidden. Even divorce, while frowned upon, is ultimately permissible in a number of instances.

 

Homosexuality, however, is expressly called a sin. The most doctrinal leeway to be found is in forgiving it, as one might forgive theft or murder. With this in mind, it is almost miraculous to consider how much the gay rights movement has achieved. But still, the church has not been required to alter its own position. This is the wall foreign aid workers have run up against time and again: the idea that an injustice, if backed by religion, cannot be assailed in the usual fashion. At some level, total change is always circumscribed by ‚Äď ironically ‚Äď the universal right to freedom of religion, the worst incarnation of which, as with freedom of speech, is the freedom to be purposefully bigoted.

 

Sooner or later, the system needs must bend. There are three potential outcomes, only one of which seems even vagely palatable. But until that day comes, I’ll be content with such progress as comes my way. California now allows gay marriage – and I say, good on ’em.

 

Why is it that crazy cultist websites always look like they were made in MS Paint by a self-flagellating epileptic? Is there a bigger visual banner you can wave to announce your lunacy than one involving bright red moving text over a tiled picture background? Does being a conspiracy theorist preclude good taste? Or are they even crazier than we thought?

The first time I encountered the lizardman theory, it was written in bright purple on a blue background, haphazardly left-justified, intererspersed with¬†underlapping photos of crystal caves¬†and put together by a chick called Raven.¬†Coupled with¬†the utter absurdity of the argument, her frenzied layout stayed fixed in memory long after the site had ceased to exist – which perhaps was the point. The above link is equal parts garish and insane, and should not disappoint.¬†(I’d pick a favourite quote, but it’s difficult to choose between Angela Lansbury being a lizard-person, a self-confessed starseed from the Pleiades system, and a warning not to let lizardmen live in your aura.)¬†

Jack Chick rates a mention, if only because his content is so palpably borrowed¬†from the Land of Screaming Lobotomies. Unless you have a high pain threshold for ignorant religious polemics, I’d keep well clear, as this brand of nuts has a tendency to choke the consumer on their own¬†bile.¬†Note the cluster of videos and busy graphics near the top of the page, followed by columns of miniscule text – plain fare, compared to¬†other examples, but still far from¬†commonsensical.

Giant headshots of the Glorious Leader are another mad staple, as in the Raelian movement. This group believes, to paraphrase bluntly, that God is an alien who parted the Red Sea via space-based laser cannon. (Extra points for combining aspects of orthodox Judaism, intelligent design and Indian mysticism in the one go.) Hutaree, by contrast, features old-school, rapid-scrolling Bible quotes, apparently as a means of inciting people to join the U.S. military in preparation for the End Times. Spooky!

Conspiracy theories surrounding the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre are rife. This stunning example boasts a bold visual contrast between black and yellow backgrounds, red borders and almost two full pages of blank white space – classy! Toss in a reference to fake planes and an opening statement of defiance against the propagandising of media cartels, and you’ve got a recipe for obsolescence.

Finally, no list of internet weirdness would be complete without a reference to Atlantean reiki healers. The idea that there was a technologically advanced, spiritually enlightened, crystal-power-source-using society in the ancient Medieterranean is an oldie but a goodie, and one that shows no signs of dying out. Note the DaVinci picture insert at top right, suggesting a subtle Dan Brown influence.

Of course, if you want to read about past-life Atlantis from someone who clearly doesn’t realise that Traci Harding writes fantasy/fiction, there are other avenues of inquiry.

 

Note: This post began life as a comment on Sean Wilson’s blog.