My friend and colleague, Pastor Noah Filipiak, interviewed me for his leadership podcast, “Behind the Curtain.” You can listen here. Most of the people he interviews are actually famous, so you might want to check it out.
My friend and colleague, Pastor Noah Filipiak, interviewed me for his leadership podcast, “Behind the Curtain.” You can listen here. Most of the people he interviews are actually famous, so you might want to check it out.
I got selected by the WordPress editors for their year-end round-up of the year’s best posts. Pretty cool. Thanks for reading.
Most culture war issues boil down to being about either sexual ethics or economic justice.
The trending paradigm on the Left is to push for more acceptance of a widening range of sexual practices—indeed, to frame the non-acceptance of those sexual practices as human rights violations on the order of violent fascism. On this view, the most just world would be the one in which everyone can have sex with whomever they choose regardless of the sex, gender, marital status of the two partners, or, indeed, of whether there are more than two of them.
At the same time they clamor for economic justice, whether its from the more moderate standpoint of liberalism, which wants to see more government instituted economic programs, or from a more radical standpoint, which wants to deconstruct “capitalism” altogether.
Meanwhile conservatives are fighting for “family values,” and want to see the sexual ethics of by-gone years legislated in hopes of curbing the cultural onslaught of proliferating sexual identities and the erosion of marriage-based sexuality as the norm.
And these same people trying to shore up the boundaries of sexual expression want to tear down the boundaries of “regulation” in the marketplace. In fact, they want to tear down the boundary between the market and the rest of life. Anything can be improved by “privatizing” it, even things that until recently hadn’t been considered commodities, like war, police protection, and schools. In their view, the most just world would be the one in which everything is a business, and everyone can carry out trade as they see fit, without any interference or moral guidance from the state or its regulatory bodies.
Of course, when I frame it that way (a way which admittedly lacks a lot of nuance and doesn’t mention all the folks opting for “magenta” over blue or red), it’s easy to see a kind of inconsistency in both ideological bents. That frame will also help us see what the two have in common, but let me hold off on that for a minute.
Both of these views of the world have a lacuna, a blindspot that keeps them from really attaining the more just and equitable world they say they want to attain.
The thing they both fail to see is this: Structural injustices and immoral expressions of sexuality are deeply connected to each other. In fact, they have a cause-effect relationship that runs in both directions.
Economic and power injustices create conditions in which people are more likely to choose or be forced into sexual/family brokenness. E.g., poor woman are more likely to get abortions, men who don’t have access to work with fair wages are less likely to stay committed to their families—and women are less likely to marry such men in the first place. There seems to be a strong correlation, between income and a couple’s ability to stay married. (And I would say, just observationally, that divorced couples with significant income also have the ability to mitigate some of the negative consequences of divorce, e.g. they can maintain two economically-viable households, so their children can still see both parents). Anyone who’s wanted to go on a date with their spouse but couldn’t afford a babysitter understands there’s a connection between economics and family stability.
Conversely, sexual immorality tends to perpetuate or exacerbate circumstances that keep people in poverty or limit their life choices. E.g. children raised in single-parent homes are less likely to go to college and more likely to do drugs, promiscuous young people are more likely to have children they are not financially or emotionally prepared to raise, women who procure abortions are more likely to commit suicide or inflict self-harm, etc. It could also be said that sexual transgressions visit upon children the same kinds of injustices that structural/economic injustices do at a micro-level. E.i., a child’s rights to live, be raised by her own parents, have to strong sense of self/identity, etc. are violated by abortion, adultery, divorce, etc.
So, from this vantage point, both sides are building up with one hand and tearing down with the other—their just doing it with the opposite hands.
What’s behind this counterproductive behavior? The thing they both lack is a genuine understanding of human dignity, because both begin with woefully incomplete understandings of the human person.
The Left’s anthropology is probably best crystalized in the thought of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s primary concern was with analyzing the abuse of power, and particularly how political and societal structures impose power on the body. Foucault was explicitly critical of humanist philosophies and the notion that there is any such thing as “human nature.” By undercutting humanist notions that there is a universal human nature that forms the basis of human dignity, Foucault effectively reduces human relationships to the operation of power and human beings to bodies—bodies which are sites of the exercise of power and the experience of oppression. Foucault’s influence on the radical Left is can be seen in their inability to move their discourse beyond discussions of power and the body.
The Right’s anthropology is typified by the likes of Ayn Rand. For Rand, the human person is viewed as an autonomous individual agent, who acts ethically when she acts on her own behalf. Because people are just living organisms, their fundamental goal is to continue to live; therefore, their primary moral obligation is self-preservation. Rand believed that the greatest good would be achieved by everybody acting in this way. Her influence on the Right is still pervasive, and apparent in the starry-eyed insistence that the Market will cure all ills—so long as we don’t impose any crazy “restraints” on it, like minimum wage, child labor laws, or universal healthcare. Because the Market, after all, is just the playing field where everyone is allowed to act in her own self interest. (My Christian readers should read this by Elizabeth Stoker Breunig on how ragingly un-Christian Rand’s thought is).
The problem (well, one of the problems) with both of these anthropologies is that they are unrealistically individualistic. For Foucault, the human being is a body imposing power on others or being imposed on by them. For Rand, the human is a living organism trying to stay alive. Neither recognizes that the fundamental reality that humans are not just individuals but members of families. Humans are conceived and birthed and raised by parents and nurtured into adulthood by families. This is not accidental to, but constitutive of our humanity. It is not peripheral to how we make economic or sexual choices.
Another way of saying this is that neither the anthropology of the Right or the Left has space for the category of love. The fundamental truth that humans are agents of love, who live in families and communities constituted by love, and make choices and decision based on love does not factor into the ideological grid of either side.
Try bringing the word “love” into a discussion of economic policy in a group of conservatives or a debate about race and oppression in a group of leftists and watch the blank stares you are met with. For folks operating under the influence of these ideological systems it literally cannot compute.
But it has to. Because it’s reality.
I don’t know know how or if love can become a category in our political discourse in the US, but I can’t imagine how we can actually make some progress toward a just and moral society until it does.
Your revolution is limited, bent, needs work
It’s more than hemp bracelets and a Che Guevara T-shirt.
—Mars Ill, “You Can’t Stop”
In 2007 the leftist political magazine In These Times featured a cover story entitled “Preaching Revolution” about a new generation of Christians that secular leftists “need to know.” On the cover: the iconic silhouetted image of Che Guevara made over with a crown of thorns. Jesus as Che. The story, which focussed heavily on Rob Bell (then at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI) discussed how the rhetoric of revolution and radicalism was out of vogue at the time with the secular left since it was viewed as too extreme to be practical, and meanwhile, ironically, that same rhetoric was gaining traction with this new generation of evangelical Christians.
The evangelical credentials of Rob Bell have since been called into question (and I imagine even at the time he would’ve been uncomfortable with the label himself), but that’s beside the point. What the article got right, and what continues to be true, is that there is tremendous appeal—especially among Christians who are younger than, say, 50—to the idea that Christianity is radical, countercultural, and revolutionary. (In fact, a quick internet search reveals that there are lots of churches literally named Revolution).
In the seven years since, this trend has shown no sign of abating. Countercultural Christianity is here to stay, at least for a generation or two.
Now at times, the language of radicalism is just being (what I’m sure the secular left would consider) co-opted. That is, it’s nothing more than marketing. In the US at least, there is a great deal of marketing value to the language of revolution and counterculture. It can sell computers. It can sell tacos. It can also sell churches.
Even politically moderate and conservative Christians have adopted it. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, is fond of the phrase he coined that Christians should be “a counterculture for the common good.” But, even further to right, the idea of being “radical for Jesus” or “resisting the culture” fits perfectly with fundamentalist theologies of cultural separatism and the persecution complex of more civically-engaged politically conservative Christians. It is not at all unusual to hear words like “revolution” or phrases like “radically living out the gospel” on the lips of the Mark Driscolls of the world.
At other times, the ethos of radicalism runs a little bit deeper than a sexy spray-on gloss. Take, for example, folks like Shane Claiborne who have successfully brought some of the elements of Christian anarchism and radical Anabaptist theology (e.g., voluntary poverty, solidarity with the poor, abstaining from governmental politics) into more mainstream expressions of Christianity. Then there is Jim Wallace, advocating for a politically-engaged but nonpartisan Christian leftism. There are a number of popular biblical scholars, including N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann, who have emphasized the anti-imperial message running through both the Old and New Testaments—and exerted a great deal of influence on preachers in the US and UK. Or, at the more academic level, there is the Radical Orthodoxy movement, where theologians like John Milbank are in serious dialogue with leftist philosophers like Slavoj Zizek.
The ideas and praxes of this second group are not always compatible, but they have in common a sense that a more faithful Christianity will be a more countercultural one. They employ language like “contrast community,” “counter-polis,” “resident aliens” and “peculiar people” to describe what the church should be. And they see their role as a prophetic one calling Christians to be more radical, more willing to look different.
My guess is that someone who came into my church on any given Sunday would count me as one of this new generation that is preaching revolution. Admittedly, I read and listen to and like a lot of the folks in that previous paragraph. I am also, admittedly, prone to framing Christian discipleship as countercultural. However, I think that the Christianity-as-counterculture move has its limits. And they are significant enough that they’re worth thinking about.
The first is the potential the rhetoric of counterculture has to backfire. It’s intended goal is to get Christians to be more radical. That is, to be willing, for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom, to live differently than the pagan world around them. But, in the post-cultural-revolution US, we Americans have a completely inverted relationship with conformity and rebellion, wherein our first impulse (collectively as a culture) is nonconformity or rebellion. I.e., we live in the complex and somewhat paradoxical situation in which rebellion is conformity to our cultural norms. Our culture is counterculture.
In such a situation, the “countercultural” Christian can have her cake and eat it too. That is, I can identify as radical and feel that I’m being countercultural while adopting views and practices that are actually embraced and celebrated by the culture around me. This can happen on a very superficial level (“I’m so rad ‘cause I have tattoos and listen to punk rock”) or on a deeper level (“Look at me counterculturally supporting gay marriage!”).
Nothing is inherently wrong with having one’s cake and eating it too, but, if genuinely radical discipleship is the goal, this situation is most definitely NOT shaping people to do that. When push comes to shove and actual nonconformity/rebellion/willingness to be persecuted and hated by the world is called for, I’m almost certain my tattoos will not have prepared me for it. If anything, those of us in this situation are atrophying our capacity for genuine resistance by stroking our own egos. The kid who buys the “WALMART SUCKS” T-shirt at Hot Topic is engaging in praxis that is shaping him to be a consumer, not praxis that is shaping him to resist consumerism. The pride with which he wears the shirt only makes it worse.
Case in point, the struggle that avowedly countercultural Christians increasingly have with fully embracing the (actually) radical sexual ethic of historic Christianity. The article mentioned above quoted Jim Wallace as saying of young, revolutionary Christians “[they are] breaking away from the Right in droves – but they will never be captured by the left. They’re going to challenge the left on a lot of things: For these Christians, sex is covenantal and not recreational. And they oppose abortion and they are not going to move away from that.” Seven years later, these words ring hollow. Many of the revolutionaries have indeed been “captured by the left” on sexual ethics, and very few are “challenging the left” on these issues. (Though see Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig for a refreshing example).
The second concern I have is that, depending on one’s social context and historical moment, Christianity isn’t always countercultural. There are always some points at which the values of the dominant order overlap with the values of the kingdom of God. But it seems that we countercultural Christians are conditioned to be opposed to, or at least suspicious of, anything “conservative” or “mainstream.” The danger in this is not merely that it sets us up for knee-jerk thinking, that it shapes us into haters who are automatically against whatever we perceive is part of the regnant order. The greater danger beyond that, it seems that folks for whom the countercultural-ness of the Christian faith is its central appeal are prone to choose being countercultural over being Christian when the two come into conflict.
Sometimes the way this plays out is that people allow a political ideology to shape their views more than the faith and then do a lot of biblical or theological gymnastics to maintain their ideologically-shaped views are Christian. But I also know folks who eventually left the faith altogether because other, more radical lifestyles/worldviews were more appealing.
Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be part of a revolution. I’m not ready to let go of the language of counterculture just yet. In fact, I think it’s a pretty necessary lens for viewing the Christian faith. But those of us for whom it’s our favorite lens need to do some careful thinking about how we use it, to make sure we’re using it to clarify, and not distort, what it means to be faithful to the kingdom.
If you own any kind of electronic device that has ever used iTunes, you may have noticed you received a gift from U2 last week. Or did you? The band’s thirteenth album, Songs of Innocence, “released” itself into the accounts of every single iTunes user.
Apparently, U2 wanted to give the music away, but they also didn’t want to give it away—because of the degradation of the value of music caused by giving music away. So, they asked Apple to buy it, reportedly for $100 million, and give it away to every one of their customers. (Of course those of us who aren’t Apple CEO’s or members of the Illuminati will never know how this deal was actually arranged, but…). Says Bono:
[Apple] bought it as a gift to give to all their music customers. Free, but paid for. Because if no-one’s paying anything for it, we’re not sure “free” music is really that free. It usually comes at a cost to the art form and the artist… which has big implications, not for us in U2, but for future musicians and their music… all the songs that have yet to be written by the talents of the future… who need to make a living to write them.
At first take, this seems generous of U2. It seems to subvert the transactional nature of capitalism, so it’s kind of sticking-it-to-the-Man-ish, or at least kind of like sticking the Man with the bill so the little guy can get some free music. U2, one of the biggest bands in the world is giving away their new album. They didn’t need to do that. Millions of people would gladly have paid good money for it. If it’s free to me, it’s a gift, right?
Except the problem is, in the process of selling the album to Apple, U2 turned it into advertising. It’s fuzzy exactly how it’s functioning as advertising, but it’s not at all unclear that it is. It’s sort of an ad for the new iPhone. The debut single from the album was performed live for the first time ever at the product launch for the iPhone 6. And a video (called an “ad” on their website) for it, which can be viewed at apple.com, ends with an image of the Edge smashing his guitar which the viewer is seeing on a screen-within-the-screen of an iPhone 6 being held by a revolutionary fist.
It’s sort of an ad for iTunes. The aforementioned video for the first single is shot in the now-recognizable, heavily branded visual language of iTunes commercials: high-contrast, near-sillouettes of human figures against solid backgrounds.
And this time the colors of the near-sillouettes have been updated to the not-quite-flourescent-not-quite-pastel color scheme of iOS7 and 8 and employ Johnny Ive’s signature use of gradient. So it’s sort of an ad for iOS8 too.
All of which is to say, it is no longer an act of generosity. It is no longer surprising or countercultural that it is free. Because advertising is always free. Which is to say it’s not a gift.
But, you might protest, the fact that it became a commercial in the process of the business rigamarole that got it into my hands for free shouldn’t matter to me. How I got it doesn’t change the music itself. Except that it does. Try as I might to hear it as something else, “Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a commercial to me. It came to me as a commercial. It sounds like a commercial when I listen to it. I cannot NOT hear it as a commercial. The chunky, fuzz-toned guitar riff is still enjoyable to listen to, but invariably sparks a kind of Pavlovian association to the Apple brand and thickens a linkage between my aesthetic tastes (and, therefore, my desires) and Apple products.
[There’s a whole nother layer of this around the fact some of these songs are about U2’s punk rock roots and the fact that they are dragging their punk rock heroes into these advertisements, but the subsumption of counterculture by consumer capitalism is a theme I’ve already explored elsewhere, so I won’t go into that in this post].
I’m not hating on U2 here. In fact, I hate U2 haters. I like U2. My instinct is actually to trust that their intentions are entirely innocent (Get it?). But I’m not making a comment about U2 here at all. What I’m talking about is the gesture. The gesture of giving music away for free (even music that someone else paid you for) and what the possibilities are for the meaning of such a gesture in our current cultural context.
[Sorry, another thing about the punk layer that I’m not going to write about: Another way I’m not hating on U2 here is that I’m not saying that they are appropriating or a co-opting punk rock in a way that’s disingenuous or predatory. I’m old enough to remember that U2 has a legitimate claim to being a part of the punk revolution. They are not stealing Joey Ramone or Joe Strummer or reconstructing a personal history that isn’t true. They really did make really important, influential music that was heavily influenced by the original punk scene. Joshua Tree was mind-blowing and deserves the spot it has claimed in rock history.]
There may have been a different way that U2 could’ve given this album away—Radiohead and Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan have all tried slightly different models—a way that would’ve not turned the music into advertising. But even if they had, would the music still have retained the qualities of a gift? Would the gesture of giving it away still have meant what a gift means?
I’m doubtful. No matter how they had chosen to do it, there’s is no way a band as big as U2 operating in an economy such as ours could’ve given away their music such that it didn’t some how redound to their benefit (e.g., free publicity, increased sales of their other albums, concert ticket sales, etc.) Even if their intentions were good, the net result would be a scheme, a PR stunt, a “new business model.”
And the nature of a genuine gift is that it involves a sacrifice on the part of the giver. Generosity involves giving someone something beyond what you owe them or what they deserve without regard for the cost to yourself.
The reason this is so interesting in relation to U2 in particular is because grace—the religious name for this kind of selfless giving—is such a prominent theme in their music. The most obvious example being the song “Grace”:
Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name
Grace, it’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought
That changed the world
I believe in that kind of grace. And I believe that it did change the world. But I’m pretty sure me getting a free copy of Songs of Innocence has very little to do with that kind of grace.
Global capitalism and cloud servers might create the illusion that humans can do something genuinely generous for 500 million people, but I’m not convinced that’s even possible. And I’m certain that if it were possible, whatever that gift would be, it wouldn’t be an ad.
A few weeks ago, I posted this about white privilege–explaining how riding a bike for transportation has helped me to understand it more. And it has gotten quite the response. Way more hits than anything else on the blog. Reblogged all over the place. Almost 1,000 comments so far. Obviously, white privilege is something people want to talk about.
A lot of people said it was helpful, but lots of other people told me it was dumb or terrible or racist. So I’d like to respond to a couple of the arguments and critiques that I see as themes in the comments.
First, a lot of people pointed out that the analogy fails at the point where I choose to get off my bike. This is a really valid point to make. The experience I have as a cyclist—the disproportionate sense of power, the inequality of our road system, the fear of getting squashed—those all disappear for me when I get off my bike. For people of color, however, there’s no getting off the bike. I didn’t say that explicitly in the original post. But I understood that when I wrote it. So I really want to validate that that IS important to remember.
But I also don’t think it damages the usefulness of this analogy. The analogy still works at lots of other salient points. If you read through the comments, you can see where people made lots of smart connections and extensions of the analogy. (Warning: you will have to wade through a lot of dumb comments, I was pretty hands-off with the moderating).
Second, a couple of people were offended because they felt like the comparison was belittling. I just want to make clear: I was in no way saying that my experience as a cyclist is EQUIVALENT TO what people of color experience in terms of the level of inequality or the amount of struggle that it creates in my life. It was meant as an analogy, not a direct comparison.
The point was that having an experience where I am a) a minority, with b) significantly less power, who is c) trying to operate in a system that is designed around the majority—an experience that I don’t have very frequently as a white man—has helped me to empathize with folks who have those kinds of experiences in life for other reasons. I shared my experience because I know that other white people have trouble listening to privilege talk and analogy is a way of coming at it sideways and hopefully building some empathy.
In addition to those two critiques of the analogy, there were lots of other commenters pointing out other ways they thought the analogy broke down (or just unsubstantiated complaints that it was a bad analogy). To all of those folks, I guess I would just say, that is the nature of analogies. They show likenesses between two unlike things in a way that helps us understand one of them better. The two things being compared are necessarily not EXACTLY the same, otherwise there would be no point in comparing them. And on some level, this how all language works. We connect abstract ideas to concrete pictures so that we can better grasp their meaning. See, I just said “works.” Language doesn’t really work, but the concrete image of a person or a machine working helped you get what I meant. (Ah, I just did it again, “see” and “get” are not what’s actually happening when…You get the picture…Oh!) One commenter, Colubris, in response to someone who didn’t seem to get this, said all this much more succinctly (and sarcastically):
Yeah, metaphors can be hard. Keep working at it.
In short, if you didn’t like the post just because you were able to find some point where the analogy breaks down, your beef is with language, not with me.
Thankfully, I had lots of people tell me that it did help them get white privilege for the first time, so, whatever its weaknesses, I think it works. In fact, I had folks say the analogy was “perfect,” that it was the “best analogy they’ve ever heard,” and that it “moved them to tears.” So, I think we can still trust the power of language, specifically metaphor, to convey meaning. Some white people said, “OK, I get it. Now what do I do?” My friend Noah wrote a good what-now? piece here (in which he cries a lot about me copying him).
Third, a lot of white folks said that the problem with my post was that it just whined about my experience as a biker and didn’t make specific connections to analogous experiences people of color face. E.g. John Klapproth of Anchorage, AK, who read the article over at Quartz wrote in:
You do not define, in any way, what white privilege is, nor do you give any concrete examples of white privilege. You make a nice comparison to bike riding but you don’t tell me what it is you’re comparing the bike riding too.
This is a valid critique of my post as an argument for the existence of white privilege. But my post is not an argument for the existence of white privilege. It is an attempt to help people hear the language without automatically getting defensive. A thought experiment to help create empathy in folks who might otherwise have trouble empathizing. It was a way of helping white people (other cyclists at least) to be open to the idea that in the same way they know they experience something on the road that drivers don’t see—because of their vantage point—people of color experience something in life that white folks have trouble seeing because of our vantage point.
To draw out all of the specific connections between cycling under-privilege and racial under-privilege would be to put me in the place of speaking for people of color, which I tried not to do. I let people speak from their own experiences in the comments. Some folks pointed out some more subtle things like media (mis)representation of black people or studies that show that non-white-sounding names on job applications are less likely to be called for an interview, but one commenter went right for the jugular:
The white privilege of not having your murder justified by showing “thug” pictures, pointing to marijuana use… and militarizing against peaceful protests in the name of said victim.
Fourth, a lot of people accused me of being racist for simply using the term “white” or bringing up racial categories at all. I can understand why some white people think the color-blind route is the way to go. But here’s the thing: most people of color are saying it’s not, so maybe we should listen to them. This is complicated, because “race”—as we’ve come to understand it in the US—is most definitely a socially-constructed thing. As a Christian, I am definitely a non-essentialist, i.e., I believe we are really all a part of the human race. And as someone in a “mixed-race” family, the socially-constructed nature of race is transparent to me. Within the confines of my home, “race” disappears. My kids don’t see me as a white dad, they just see me as dad. I don’t see them as my black kids, I just see them as my kids. As in, we literally forget about race. But we don’t live within the confines of our home. We have to go out into the world, where people say dumb things like, “What country were your kids adopted from?”, where I have to worry about how they might be treated and how it’s impacting their self-understanding, where, as one of them is about to be a teenager, I have to worry if he might get arrested for wearing a hoody, or worse, get shot.
So the fact that race is fictional—or as Henry Louis Gates says, race is a trope—doesn’t mean that just invoking the human race will make all the injustices it has caused or perpetuated go away. We have to acknowledge it still matters if we’re going to work toward a future where it matters less.
Lastly, a lot of drivers argued that I was just wrong about my experience as a cyclist, or made some kind of comment about all cyclists being jerks or drivers being justified in thinking all cyclists were, because most of them are. Like Mike S.:
….sometimes [drivers] are just frustrated that many bikers act like superior jerks who own the whole road and put multiple people at risk with bad behavior.
Ironically, even though these folks completely missed the point of the article, they accidentally proved it. Drivers who think that cyclists aren’t facing significantly more risk on the road, or that we don’t have to do more work to get to the same place, or that the transportation infrastructure isn’t made for cars with bikes as a mere afterthought, can only be speaking from a lack of experience of riding a bike for transportation. Thus, they demonstrate the point about white privilege–you don’t see it because the system is designed for you. (I’m really, really tempted to say they need to check their privilege here…but I won’t).
[Caveat: this post is rated P-13…at least].
In college I was a part of a group called Sexual Assault Peer Educators. We went to Human Sexuality classes and frat houses and talked about what constitutes rape, how prevalent it is, and how we can all help prevent it. I learned from that experience that it is not self-evident to everyone that nobody deserves to be raped, no matter how they dress. And after actually hearing guys says things like, “Hey, if you wave a piece of meat in front of a hungry dog, you’re gonna get bit,” I came to understand what is now called “rape culture.”
And I became even more concerned about how our culture commodifies sex and views the female body as an object of consumption. To me, it seemed relatively obvious that porn culture and rape culture go hand-in-hand. You make sex and the human body something to be bought, owned, and consumed for self-gratification, and you are contributing to a culture in which people think like the dude who made the meat analogy. Right?
Then a few years ago, I participated in a Take Back The Night march that was a response to a serial killing of women in my neighborhood, several of whom had been prostitutes. There was a group of radical feminists at the march, and I was surprised to learn they didn’t share my views about pornography. They thought that sex-work, as they call it, and pornography were actually liberating for women—spaces where woman can take control of their sexuality and actually exert power over the men who desire them. On this view, sex workers and porn stars are liberators, “transgressing” patriarchal norms of modesty and morality that keep women oppressed. And prudes like me—who think prostitution and porn are harmful to women—are actually part of the problem. What we need is not less porn and prostitution, but less stigma surrounding them.
Its not surprising that this line of academic feminist thinking—which lends itself so readily to consumerism—has been taken up by pop singers and their marketing teams. And divas who formerly would’ve been seen as playing for the wrong team are successfully packaging their wares as feminist.
Take for example Beyonce’s latest album, which purportedly contains “strong feminist themes.” The album is referred to both as simply Beyonce and as “the visual album,” which is about right, since it amounts to a video magazine of close-ups and glam shots of Beyonce in all manner of hyper-sexualized scenarios. Almost to a video, Beyonce is teasing, stripping, or telling-all, and almost never while wearing pants. Half the videos are marked “Explicit” on iTunes, and most of the ones that aren’t should be.
The lyrically content of the songs is equally erotic and explicit. Most of the lyrics I can’t even reprint here, but here’s a little sampling of what I can: “Drunk in Love” is actually just about getting drunk and having sex (“I get filthy when that liquor get into me”). “Rocket” is a collection of innuendos (“Climb until you reach my peak, baby/And reach right into the bottom of my fountain”) and not-innuendos (“Punish me, please”) that reads like a string of sexts. “Blow” is about just what it sounds like. “Jealous” is about wanting to cheat for revenge after she “cooked this meal for you naked.” And “Partition”…no, there’s nothing I can reprint here.
What’s noteworthy about this album is not its visually and lyrically quasi-pornographic nature (though dropping 80 minutes of high-def nearly-naked Beyonce all at once does ratchet this game up a notch). No. What’s interesting is the that two songs that bookend the album that attempt to frame it as a kind of feminist manifesto.
The album opener “Pretty Hurts” indicts our culture for its obsession with physical beauty and its narrow definition thereof (“Perfection is a disease of a nation…Blonder hair, flat chest/TV says, ‘Bigger is better,’ South beach, sugar free/Vogue says, ‘Thinner is better”). Pointing up how destructive media images of beauty are to the psyches and self-perceptions of women, Beyonce laments:
It’s my soul that needs surgery
Plastic smiles and denial can only take you so far
Then you break when the fake facade leaves you in the dark
You left with shattered mirrors and the shards of a beautiful past
The solution offered to all this superficiality and pressure to be perfect is to learn self-acceptance. The song asks “When you’re all alone by yourself” (seems a bit redundant) “are you happy with yourself?” And Beyonce finally answers, “Yes” as the song closes. With that, the stage is set for all of the indecent exposure that follows to be understood as a demonstration of the fact that Beyonce doesn’t hate her body like the media tells her that she should.
Now, I don’t doubt the genuineness of Beyonce’s own personal journey with self-image and body-hatred. But the idea that this collection of videos is a) a vehicle through which she discovered her own inner beauty/learned not to find her self-worth in her appearance, and therefore, b) some kind of feminist statement of freedom that should be liberating for other women too, and therefore, c) a work of art that somehow subverts the patriarchal media machine that objectifies the female body—is absolutely, positively ludicrous.
And here’s why: First, the idea that Beyonce does not conform to traditional conceptions of beauty, or that in “celebrating” her particular body, she is somehow challenging or subverting the media’s definition beauty/femininity, is just laughable. Who doesn’t think this woman is beautiful? She is, as Jay-Z told us when she started “wearing his chain,” “the hottest chic in the game.” True, skinny, white 15-year-olds are still used in Ralph Lauren ads and high fashion runway shows, but that is not the “dominant paradigm” of beauty in our culture. Beyonce is. Huge eyes, thick lips, flawless skin, toned stomach, big curves in all the right places. Beyonce possesses not a single feature that lies outside of the ideal of what the media was already telling women is beautiful. I can’t imagine that women who are overweight or abnormally tall or have problems with acne suddenly felt permission to love themselves in way they never had before when they first saw these videos.
Second, even if Beyonce were “ugly” or “fat” by media standards, the idea that she is doing something liberating or feminist by proudly displaying to the world every nook and cranny of herself is, again, just ridiculous.
Now, I’m all for people being comfortable with their bodies and agree that those of us who don’t or can’t look like some media proffered ideal should still love ourselves and our bodies. But proudly exposing and flaunting a body that (supposedly) doesn’t conform to the media ideal is no less superficial than flaunting one that does. Beyonce doesn’t say or do anything on this album to demonstrate she’s found her value or self-worth in something other than physical beauty and shallow sexuality. Her answer to “pretty hurts” is not “You are loved because you are a child of God” or “Your value comes from your whole person,” it’s simply to redefine “pretty” (which we have already established she does not actually do). So when Beyonce brags to us in “Rocket” that she’s “proud of all this bass” [camera shot: close-up of her butt], she’s still a woman finding her self-worth in her ass.
This becomes glaringly clear in the other bookend. Near the end of the album, the song “Flawless” incorporates a long sample from the TED talk of African feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she laments, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men…we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…” I don’t know how Adichi intended these comments, but as they are appropriated by Beyonce, they end up a kind of self-contradictory mess.
The song’s title is a mantra of self-affirmation. It tells us that Beyonce, now through to the other side of her journey of self-acceptance and sexual empowerment embraces herself just the way she is (“I’m flawless!”). And she wants other women to be able to do this too, inviting them: “Say, ‘I look so good tonight.’”
But ultimately she can’t resist framing her flawlessness in comparison to other women: “I know when you were little girls, you dreamt of being in my world,/ Bow down b*tches.” Well, maybe that’s because the kind of sexuality Beyonce is trying to claim for women, the kind that’s like what men have, is inherently competitive, superficial, and destructive.
Bow down, b*tches? So Beyonce’s journey of feminist self-actualization ultimately arrives at a place where she can call other women b*tches because of how flawless she is. Hm.
Despite Beyonce’s reporting that “this album is all about honesty,” these videos, and their accompanying lyrics, are all about objectification, which is actually a form of dishonesty. Regardless of Beyonce’s own role in the writing of these songs and production of these videos, their effect is to separate her body from the rest of her and turn it into an object of desire for consumers to purchase and use to their own ends. This is fundamentally dishonest. And ultimately, Beyonce isn’t being honest with herself if she thinks that just because she is the agent of her own body-hawking she is somehow empowered by it. This makes about as much sense as saying that cutting or eating disorders or suicide are empowering. Self-harm is still harm. Self-objectification is still objectification.
Which brings us to Lady Gaga. Gaga has built an empire on dressing and undressing her body in various transgressive ways that shock and provoke (oh my, a meat dress!) And because of this, she’s hailed as a smart, self-aware feminist of the future. (There’s even a whole book written about this). But if we scratch beneath the patina of avant-garde affectation and irony, Gaga’s just as guilty of self-objectification.
Let’s take “Do What U Want,” the second single off of her latest album, Artpop, as an example. The song is supposedly smart because it operates on two levels. On one level, it’s a thumper of a club song about drinking and sex, with Gaga giving us permission over and over again to “do what [we] want with [her] body.” On another level, it’s Gaga critiquing the media for objectifying and misrepresenting her.
Write what you want/Say what you want about me/
If you want to know/I’m not sorry
…You can’t stop my voice/Cause you don’t own my life/
But do what you want with my body
So she wants us to know that she’s in control here. Even though we can buy her body and use to our own ends, she’s the one who decided that. And she won’t give us the stuff that really matters (her heart, etc). “Do What U Want” is supposedly Gaga asserting her autonomy over an oppressive media machine that would seek to subjugate her.
Except guess which level of meaning the marketing of the song is based on? The video–which, to be fair, was never actually released, but clips of which were leaked online–looks to me a lot like porn. In it, Gaga plays a (naked) patient to R. Kelly’s doctor, who has a party with a dozen “sexy” nurses and Gaga’s limp, anesthetized body. (Get it? He’s doing what he wants with her body. Clever.) This is intercut with shots of her being photographed wearing a paper dress that she progressively rips apart until she’s naked and writhing on the floor.
The cover art for the single is a close up shot of a G-string-wearing Gaga bent over with her butt in the camera. The shot is slightly overexposed, in the photographical sense. According Gaga, it represents the fact that her “ass is all she chooses to give us.”
Do you see what she did there? As with the song, she wants us to think that the meaning of the cover art is entirely based on her intentions. She can choose what she’s giving us. She’s saying, ”I know that this looks and sounds and smells exactly like the kind of pop music that objectifies women. I know that it contains a duet with a guy who was once arrested for making child pornography and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. I know that on the surface level the lyrics are about me degrading myself and allowing myself to be degraded in the back of a club. But [wink, wink] if you’re smart, you know that this actually means the exact opposite of all that.”
So the difference between degrading objectification and liberating art boils down to whether or not the author intends it to be ironic?
At the end of the day, avant-garde porn is still porn. And porn is still something that contributes to, rather than helps to dismantle, rape culture. The human body, male or female, is not something that can be objectified or commodified or sold without being degraded and dehumanized. Even if the one doing the objectifying and commodifying and selling is the person to whom the body belongs.
Thank God Sinead O’Connor was willing to speak this truth to Miley Cyrus. In her words, “Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”
I know I’ll be accused of slut-shaming and not being sex-positive, but, oh well. Somebody’s got to say it: Nobody is being liberated by the idea that porn is feminist. Nobody is being liberated by these quasi-pornographic pop videos. Not Beyonce, not Lady Gaga, not the other women who watch them or have to live in the culture now poisoned by them.
The phrase “white privilege” is one that rubs a lot of white people the wrong way. It can trigger something in them that shuts down conversation or at least makes them very defensive. (Especially those who grew up relatively less privileged than other folks around them). And I’ve seen more than once where this happens and the next move in the conversation is for the person who brought up white privilege to say, “The reason you’re getting defensive is because you’re feeling the discomfort of having your privilege exposed.”
I’m sure that’s true sometimes. And I’m sure there are a lot of people, white and otherwise, who can attest to a kind of a-ha moment or paradigm shift where they “got” what privilege means and they did realize they had been getting defensive because they were uncomfortable at having their privilege exposed. But I would guess that more often than not, the frustration and the shutting down is about something else. It comes from the fact that nobody wants to be a racist. And the move “you only think that because you’re looking at this from the perspective of privilege” or the more terse and confrontational “check your privilege!” kind of sound like an accusation that someone is a racist (if they don’t already understand privilege). And the phrase “white privilege” kind of sounds like, “You are a racist and there’s nothing you can do about it because you were born that way.”
And if this were what “white privilege” meant—which it is not—defensiveness and frustration would be the appropriate response. But privilege talk is not intended to make a moral assessment or a moral claim about the privileged at all. It is about systemic imbalance. It is about injustices that have arisen because of the history of racism that birthed the way things are now. It’s not saying, “You’re a bad person because you’re white.” It’s saying, “The system is skewed in ways that you maybe haven’t realized or had to think about precisely because it’s skewed in YOUR favor.”
I am white. So I have not experienced racial privilege from the “under” side firsthand. But my children (and a lot of other people I love) are not white. And so I care about privilege and what it means for racial justice in our country. And one experience I have had firsthand, which has helped me to understand privilege and listen to privilege talk without feeling defensive, is riding my bike.
Now, I know, it sounds a little goofy at first. But stick with me. Because I think that this analogy might help some white people understand privilege talk without feeling like they’re having their character attacked.
About five years ago I decide to start riding my bike as my primary mode of transportation. As in, on the street, in traffic. Which is enjoyable for a number of reasons (exercise, wind in yer face, the cool feeling of going fast, etc.) But the thing is, I don’t live in Portland or Minneapolis. I live in the capital city of the epicenter of the auto industry: Lansing, MI. This is not, by any stretch, a bike-friendly town. And often, it is down-right dangerous to be a bike commuter here.
Now sometimes its dangerous for me because people in cars are just blatantly a**holes to me. If I am in the road—where I legally belong—people will yell at me to get on the sidewalk. If I am on the sidewalk—which is sometimes the safest place to be—people will yell at me to get on the road. People in cars think its funny to roll down their window and yell something right when they get beside me. Or to splash me on purpose. People I have never met are angry at me for just being on a bike in “their” road and they let me know with colorful language and other acts of aggression.
I can imagine that for people of color life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.
Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.
And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car. E.g., I ride on the right side of the right lane. Some people fail to change lanes to pass me (as they would for another car) or even give me a wide berth. Some people fly by just inches from me not realizing how scary/dangerous that is for me (like if I were to swerve to miss some roadkill just as they pass). These folks aren’t aggressive or hostile toward me, but they don’t realize that a pothole or a build up of gravel or a broken bottle, which they haven’t given me enough room to avoid–because in a car they don’t need to be aware of these things–could send me flying from my bike or cost me a bent rim or a flat tire.
So the semi driver who rushes past throwing gravel in my face in his hot wake isn’t necessarily a bad guy. He could be sitting in his cab listening to Christian radio and thinking about nice things he can do for his wife. But the fact that “the system” allows him to do those things instead of being mindful of me is a privilege he has that I don’t. (I have to be hyper-aware of him).
This is what privilege is about. Like drivers, nice, non-aggressive white people can move in the world without thinking about the “potholes” or the “gravel” that people of color have to navigate, or how things that they do—not intending to hurt or endanger anyone—might actually be making life more difficult or more dangerous for a person of color.
Nice, non-aggressive drivers that don’t do anything at all to endanger me are still privileged to pull out of their driveway each morning and know that there are roads that go all the way to their destination. They don’t have to wonder if there are bike lanes and what route they will take to stay safe. In the winter, they can be certain that the snow will be plowed out of their lane into my lane and not the other way around.
And it’s not just the fact that the whole transportation infrastructure is built around the car. It’s the law, which is poorly enforced when cyclists are hit by cars, the fact that gas is subsidized by the government and bike tires aren’t, and just the general mindset of a culture that is in love with cars after a hundred years of propaganda and still thinks that bikes are toys for kids and triathletes.
So when I say the semi driver is privileged, it isn’t a way of calling him a bad person or a man-slaughterer or saying he didn’t really earn his truck, but just way of acknowledging all that–infrastructure, laws, gov’t, culture–and the fact that if he and I get in a collision, I will probably die and he will just have to clean the blood off of his bumper. In the same way, talking about racial privilege isn’t a way of telling white people they are bad people or racists or that they didn’t really earn what they have.
It’s a way of trying to make visible the fact that system is not neutral, it is not a level-playing field, it’s not the same experience for everyone. There are biases and imbalances and injustices built into the warp and woof of our culture. (The recent events in Ferguson, MO should be evidence enough of this–more thoughts on that here). Not because you personally are a racist, but because the system has a history and was built around this category “race” and that’s not going to go away overnight (or even in 100 years). To go back to my analogy: Bike lanes are relatively new, and still just kind of an appendage on a system that is inherently car-centric.
So–white readers–the next time someone drops the p-word, try to remember they aren’t calling you a racist or saying you didn’t really earn your college degree, they just want you to try empathize with how scary it is to be on a bike sometimes (metaphorically speaking).
One last thing: Now, I know what it is like to be a white person engaged in racial reconciliation or justice work and to feel like privilege language is being used to silence you or to feel frustrated that you are genuinely trying to be a part of the solution not the problem but every time you open your mouth someone says, “Check you privilege.” (I.e., even though privilege language doesn’t mean “You are one of the bad guys,” some people do use it that way). So if you’ll permit me to get a few more miles out of this bike analogy (ya see what I did there?), I think it can help encourage white folks who have felt that frustration to stay engaged and stay humble.
I have a lot of “conversations” with drivers. Now, rationally, I know that most drivers are not jerks. But I have a long and consistent history of bad experiences with drivers and so, when I’ve already been honked at or yelled at that day, or when I’ve read a blog post about a fellow cyclist who’s been mowed down by a careless driver, it’s hard for me to stay civil.
But when I’m not so civil with a “privileged” driver, it’s not because I hate him/her, or think s/he is evil. It’s because it’s the third time that day I got some gravel in the face. So try to remember that even if you don’t feel like a “semi driver,” a person of color might be experiencing you the way a person on a bike experiences being passed by a semi. Even if you’re listening to Christian radio.
So I want to explain why, as a Christian, “sex-positive” is my new least favorite word, even though I am myself a very sex-positive guy, and I believe that Christianity is also very sex-positive. But I’m going to need to back up a bit to get there.
Christianity is essentially a form of humanism. That is, at its core it is concerned with the dignity of the individual human being and the flourishing of humanity as a whole. However, unlike secular versions of humanism, Christianity recognizes humans as beings in relation to the transcendent, to something—and, specifically, Someone—beyond the material realm.
A truly humanistic humanism must begin with an account of humans that is accurate. And humans are not merely physical/material beings. We have, to use traditional language, souls. We are indwelt by the eternal and we yearn for the eternal. We have a destiny, a telos, that includes, but is not limited to the physical. And so our highest and greatest good, our flourishing both as individuals and as a human community cannot be reduced merely to physical health, material prosperity, and just power relations, however important those things might be.
And yet, in post-Christian, pluralistic Western society, the secular worldview has now set the rules of engagement in the public square. And one of those rules is that moral claims—any “should” or “ought”—must be made without reference to the transcendent. Moral claims must be grounded in empirical evidence and be commonly agreed upon by all (or at least a voting majority). Thus, Christians, who are essentially humanists and have a desire to see human flourishing for all people and not just Christians, are now put in the awkward position of having to make a case for their account of human flourishing in secular terms.
It turns out this is impossible. (Go figure: you can’t explain a vision of human flourishing that is rooted in the transcendent without reference to the transcendent.) But Christians have still been doing their darnedest for the past century or so. At first, it worked…at least some of the time. Because enough of the fumes of transcendence still lingered in the air our culture breathed that even if we didn’t talk directly about God or the bible or the afterlife, we could still sort of pantomime enough in their direction that people picked up on it. But the thinner those fumes got, the harder it got. (Mixed metaphor, I know).
As it has gotten harder, some Christians have respond by just retreating from the public square, but others have just pushed harder at this impossible task of making a compelling case for the “oughts” of the Christian vision without making reference to the transcendent. And the result has been, well, less than compelling. (Again, big surprise). And in the sphere of sexuality, this has been particularly difficult as the mindset of consumer choice and libertarian freedom has come to exert increasingly influence on our views of sex.
See, a Christian with one hand tied behind her back (the hand that would be pointing up to the transcendent/God) is forced to work with just one hand (the hand that only points around to the material/empirical realm). So she is forced to make the case that the Christian sexual ethic will result in more human flourishing than alternative ethics by pointing to “consequences” and “rewards” on the material/plane plane. I.e., to make the case that this ethic of reserving all sexual activity for marriage and maintaining life-long monogamy will avoid more consequences (unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, emotional trauma, etc.) and net more rewards (fulfilling sex life, fewer abortions, stronger marriage, etc.).
Now, I happen to think that this is true. And I think a fairly persuasive case can be made for it. See for example, Wendell Berry’s classic essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” (which is not entirely without reference to the transcendent, but puts most of the emphasis on how we have lost sight of the inherently communal nature of sex and its “consequences”). However, if someone as skilled and winsome as Mr. Berry can make a case for it, it’s also true that most of the time, the Christian, laboring away one-handed, ends up looking like a fool or a maniac.
More often than not, this one-handed approach comes off as what has recently come to be called “sex-negative.” Having agreed ahead of time not to use her transcendence hand, she hacks and slashes with her “immanent” hand, hammering on the “consequences” of extra-marital sex and the “rewards” that fornicators, masturbators, and pornography-users will miss out on. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. If you do X, Y will be the consequence. She appears to be (and maybe often is) using fear and shame, rather than being, well, sex-positive. The non-Christian observing all this feverish pointing at consequences interprets the Christian as saying—to use the words of one recent sex-positive blogger—SEX IS BAD! DON’T DO IT!
Meanwhile, the secularist, whose core moral convictions (self-expression is a moral good, personal autonomy trumps almost all other considerations, liberty is increased by maximizing choices, etc.) are not only allowed but do not even have to be argued for because they are just part of the Enlightenment air we all breath (i.e., she’s playing with two hands) can talk about sex in the context of these moral goods and calmly make some suggestions about “moderation” and “safety” and come off looking like a sane, common-sensical person who is just really, you know, sex-positive and has my flourishing at heart.
This so-called sex-positive approach has so much traction in our post-Christian cultural milieu, that even a lot of Christians seem to be jumping on board. Turns out mom and dad were overstating the consequences of premarital sex. Turns out our virginal wedding nights weren’t the awesome experience they built them up to be. Turns out we’ve got all kinds of lingering body-shame and sex-guilt from all the scare tactics of our youth pastors. Maybe this level-headed, be-safe-and-responsible-and-do-what-works-for-you approach is a better ethic than the crazy, ol’ fashioned Christian one.
But here’s the thing: I think that many of us (certainly the Christians, I would hope!) believe that humans are spiritual beings, that we do have a soul. And something as powerful and emotional and holistic as sex must involve that part of us. And so we need to untie that other hand if we’re going to really talk about sex. We need to talk about the transcendent if we’re going to make sense of it.
In particular, I think we need to introduce the word “sacred” to the conversation. See, the real reason the Christian sexual ethic puts such serious boundaries around sex is not because its afraid of the “consequences” of illicit sex. It is because it understands sex to be sacred. Sex is one of the rare and special things God has given us that is sacramental, it is a “thin place,” a portal between the material and the transcendent. Or maybe a better way to say that is: a place where God has promised to take up the material into the transcendent.
And even more than that, Christians believe that marital sex is a kind of “icon of redemption.” That the mutual giving and receiving of the spouses in conjugal love is a kind of lived picture of the love of God in Christ for us, the Bride, the Redeemed. And so a way of participating in the mystery of Redemption.
If any of that is even half true, then sex is holy ground. It’s a place where we take off our sandals to acknowledge we are in the presence of something beyond us, something mysterious and powerful and not of our own making. Something sacred.
This is hardly being sex-negative. Sacred things have lots of boundaries around them and strict rules for how they are used not because they are dirty or because using them is shameful. Just the opposite: because they are holy and wonderful and good. To say the fine china is only for special occasions is not a negative view of the china. To say only the priest can enter the sanctuary is not a negative view of the sanctuary. To say that children should be protected and kept safe is not a negative view of children.
In short, if Christians can talk about sex on both the material and the transcendent planes, then I think we have the most sex-positive account going. (What other tradition recognizes all the aspects of sex—self-expression and bodily pleasure and human love and procreative power—and ties them all to a coherent vision of the world as created and redeemed and sustained by a loving God?) So as a pastor, I’m going to keep telling my people not to use porn or prostitutes, not to have sex before our outside of marriage. Not because I’m afraid of sex or squeamish about it or think its dirty. But because I’m sex-positive. Because sex is sacred. And I want to help them keep it that way.
I am a Lego parent, twice over. So it was pretty hard not to enjoy The LEGO Movie. All of the clever references about how kids play with Legos and what kinds of junk get mixed in with their Legos are really funny to me. And of course the visual effects of the movie are just really impressive. (Not awesome, but really impressive.)
But trying to come to some sort of resolution about what I thought about the message of the movie is sort of making my head spin.
In a sense, it is a perfect illustration of our postmodern predicament. I mean, it’s a movie about a mass-produced consumer product—a toy, an entertainment—and while the film pretends to be about some real human themes like belonging and rebelling against authority and authentic self-expression v. conformity–it ends up ultimately being about none of those things but really only about Legos…and playing with Legos. Like everything about our postmodern moment, the film is mired in layers of meta, and the gestures that it makes toward transcendent meaning are in fact just distractions from the fact that it really only points back to itself. (Thus, the decidedly un-awesome title, The LEGO Movie, is really quite telling).
If I were going to invite three people to a conversation about this movie to help me get a grip on it and stop my head spinning, they would be Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Frank. (I would invite Marshall McLuhan too, but I’d like to also be able to follow the conversation myself).
Chabon, a writer and a dad, wrote an essay a few years back lamenting the advent of cross-marketing into the Lego world. In the days of his youth, prior to the introduction of the licensed mini-figure, Chabon remembers, a box of Legos could literally become anything a kid imagined. Legos did not come with pre-imagined characters from existing story worlds (Lego Batman, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Star Wars, etc.), and the point of Legos was not to replicate a scene from some existing movie by building a model designed by an adult. Kids could make up, whole-cloth, worlds and characters and scenarios, exercising genuine imagination. Chabon writes how miffed he is by the “authoritarian nature of the new Legos,” and the fact that playing with them is more like solving a puzzle with a singular solution that has already been provided than actually creating anything.
But just as you think Chabon is going to end the essay as a lament on the triumph of marketing over imagination, the inevitable dumbing down of the next generation of late capitalism, he pulls it back and offers hope. His kids, he’s noticed, once they follow the instructions the first time and build the corporately predetermined sets, don’t leave them that way. That’s not the way kids actually play with Legos, he realizes. No, once they’re built once, they get broken up and tossed into the box and mixed all together into a giant postmodern Lego chowder. And his kids cross-pollinate all these cross-marketed sets. (E.g., his son liked to put a Lego ghost costume on a Lego Green Goblin minifigure, set it on a horse with a light saber to do battle against a Darth Vader minifugure [also on a horse] bearing a bow and arrow). Chabon sees this pastiche (I’m tempted to say “this brick-olage”) on the part of his children as revolutionary. The childish imagination cannot be trammelled, it transgresses the “structure of control and implied obedience to the norms of the instruction manual.” In short, Chabon’s final scoreboard reads: kids/humanity/freedom/imagination: 1; authority/control/corporations/conformity: 0.
But so here’s the first head-spinner: The LEGO Movie, produced by the aforementioned corporation/authority that is the target of Chabon’s critique, appears to have the very same message as Chabon. The movie’s supposed main theme is that conformity, synecdochized by the trope of following the instructions, is bad. The main character, Emmet, is a portrayed as a nob, a total dufus, held up for our derision and mockery. And his despicable characteristic is that, in a world of conformists, he is the most conformist of them all. At one point he stands in a long, robot-like line in order to buy a $36 latte, to which he responds, “Awesome!”
Conversely (in the supposed message of the film), genuine self-expression and rebellion against authoritarian structure is good. When Emmet is first tested to see if he is a Master Builder, he asks “Where are the instructions?” Wrong question. Master Builders don’t use instructions, man. They can see through the structure of this world—like Neo in The Matrix—to visualize the potential of all the bricks around them. They deconstruct the existing, imposed instructions-generated structure and reconstruct it into imaginative solutions to their problems. The Master Builders inhabit a world—Cloud Koo-Koo Land—completely unlike the pristine, bland worlds ruled by President Business (the villain, obviously). It’s a colorful, zany mishmash of de/reconstructed sets. A world where Lego Batman and Gandalf and Shakespeare and Unikitty are friends with a pirate with a shark for one arm and a canon for the other. I.e., it is just the kind of world built by Chabon’s kids.
I.e. the movie pretends that its message is the same as Chabon’s: Don’t follow the (our) instructions! Don’t be a conformist! Rebel against, you know, like authority and marketing and stuff!
I say “pretends” because, in actuality this seeming proclamation of Chabon’s revolutionary chant is really just a way for them to close the door on the way out he has provided from their “structure of control.” It is a move by which this resistance is entirely absorbed/incorporated/neutralized.
The best illustration that the movie has absorbed and neutralized Chabon’s resistance is, of course, the toys. By which I mean not the toys in the movie, but the merchandise—the real-life, physical toys marketed and sold in conjunction with the movie. This movie ostensibly about not following the instructions or building the predetermined sets or being a mindless consumer of course has a whole array of licensed, predetermined sets for sale—complete with instructions—so that kids can recreate scenes from the movie about how they should be imaginative and not just recreate scenes from movies. And these boxed sets, since they are made up of toys representing characters & scenes from the movie, come pre-pastiched and pre-mashed-up and pre-de/reconstructed. It appears Chabon’s solution, his escape route from corporate, authoritarian, imagination-crushing consumerism has been swallowed up by said corporation, chewed up, and spat back out as merchandise.
Which brings us to head-spinner #2: As I said to my wife when we were shopping for LEGO Movie Legos for our 9-year-old’s birthday, “You realize that these are not toys. These are meta-toys.” Because the film’s toys are not so much toys per se as they are references to “real” versions of themselves. E.g., if you go out and buy a Benny the Astronaut mini-figure today, it is not just an un-ironic, “direct” Benny the Astronaut toy. No, it comes with a pre-broken helmet and a pre-scuffed space logo, because it is a toy version of a film version of a toy Benny the Astronaut. Yup, it is the toy of the movie character of the (same) toy. So, like the title of the movie of which they are the merchandise, the toys are actually references to themselves. (As in, the original Benny the Astronaut was a reference to actual astronauts, but the LEGO Movie Benny the Astronaut is only a reference to a Lego astronaut).
If all this recursion and self-reference seems clever but otherwise meaningless—sort of like a hall of mirrors—it’s not. In fact, these layers of meta are the crux of the whole matter here. They are the move that keep us from asking for anything more than “bread and circuses” because they make us feel like we’re leaving the circus when we’re just moving to a different seat. But that’ll have to come in the next post. (In case you’re wondering, I am going to connect this to God/religion/theology eventually).