I learned something recently that caused me to totally re-think my view of something. And, for a change, it made something in life easier to understand.
Far too often in life, we learn stuff that just complicates matters.
Close to a year ago, I posted an essay that had to do with an organization which travels around the country, not unlike the barnstorming stunt pilots of yesteryear, but with one small exception. They don’t do what they do to entertain people. They do it to inflame people.
It’s your friendly neighborhood Westboro Baptist Church, except: they’re not friendly, they’re not from your neighborhood (unless you live in Topeka), and the last difference is what I just figured out.
As has been chronicled … well, actually, very honestly, since this outfit lives for publicity, I ought not even bother to write this, since it will just cause people to think about them when all our lives will be made better by not thinking about them. But … as has been chronicled in this space: this bunch of people finds any ol’ excuse to go somewhere and hold up signs which express their hatred for gay people. No, friends, it’s not disdain, it’s not disapproval, it’s not dislike, it’s hatred. That’s not a judgment call on my part; “hate” is in their frickin’ Internet domain name.
They demonstrate at events which, by their calculations, have something to do with gay people. Most commonly, it’s some “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” linkage of almost anything with the scourge of homosexuality. Usually, they can traverse just about any old distance from point A to point B by pointing out that by not immediately adopting laws and policies that make it impossible for gay people to go about their daily lives, or even to live in this country, then this country is promoting The Gay Agenda. Therefore that American event or American person or American organization over there must be the target of a demonstration. Well obviously.
(Friends, the only time I’ve been aware of a Gay Agenda is when a gay person might have been running a meeting I was attending. But I cheerily digress.)
So the Westboro Baptist Church has demonstrated at events like funerals of military personnel (the military has something to do with the US government, which does not immediately adopt laws, etc etc) … Kansas City Chiefs football games (yeah… I don’t know how to square that one either, honestly) … and last year at this time, the funeral of the eight-year-old kid who was killed by one of the Boston Marathon bomb explosions (okay, you really got me there; clearly I’d never make it past the initial WBC job application form).
This most recent protest destination is so much more straightforward and predictable, though. Kind of a gimme. An uncontested layup, if you will.
Derrick Gordon, a sophomore basketball player for the recently-resurgent University of Massachusetts Minutemen, came out last Wednesday. His teammates responded by expressing all kinds of support and admiration for him. His coach, former UMass player Derek Kellogg, helped him make that announcement to his teammates in a humorous and supportive way. A very very recent UMass basketball recruit has already commented positively about Gordon’s decision. Derrick Gordon is, after all, reportedly the first openly-gay male basketball player in the NCAA’s Division I.
Therefore, the WBC protesters are coming to Amherst to demonstrate. Late last week, they thought they’d be setting up their signs and such at the corner of Route 9 and University Drive, which is just about a mile and a quarter’s walk from the center of campus.
Within the last day or so, they changed their collective mind. Now they want to demonstrate on campus.
There are colleges and universities that forever will hold the absolute unbreakable record for most expressive and most numerous American student demonstrations. Whatever school you attend, it’s got a long way to go before it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Berkeley or Columbia in the 1960s.
But UMass-Amherst has been known to be fairly expressive, itself. Lately that expressiveness has gone more toward riots borne of disappointment with local sports teams … or of happiness with local sports teams … or of the mere presence of a party, for that matter. When I joined the UMass community in the mid-1980s, the nickname “ZooMass” was well in place, and it does not seem to have faded much. It has occasionally made us alumni sad; but it has not surprised us.
My point is: really, WBC? Of all the bears you want to poke … UMass?
Good luck with that.
Students have been cautioned, by administration and other groups on campus, to keep it light, keep it bright, keep it … civil. If you’re going to counter-protest, make sure (for the love of Joe Duffey) that you do it in a way that for once will put UMass student expression in the national spotlight for good reasons. Do up creative signs, stand three-deep across the street from the WBC protesters, face the other way, and stand in utter silence. It’s worked in other places before. (It’s also pretty unlikely. The greater Amherst area is nothing if not vocal.) Whatever you do, be a Jedi about it: y’know … fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, or at least to multiple arrests if you do this wrong.
But here’s what I didn’t know very well: the cautionary UMass Facebook posting that I read a couple of days ago reminded its readers that WBC’s point is to inflame people to the point that they feel compelled to make physical contact with them … at which point they sue the living snot out of the counter-protesters.
That’s where they make their bucks. That’s largely how they fund their “outreach” projects. Not with their weekly offering-plate revenue. They make money the old-fashioned way … they litigate. First Amendment, bay-beeee!
So, as I mentioned: the Westboro Baptist Church as an organization is not friendly, is not from your neighborhood, and … most crucially …
… it isn’t a church.
And its shenanigans manage to help give churches in this country, who may be trying to contribute positively to the world, and trying to, you know, help people … a bad name. At just about the point where all of us in the church gig business are trying to figure out how to re-bolster the dwindling population of “churched” Americans.
I’ve said two things before, in this space, in the direction of the Westboro Baptist Church; and I’ll paraphrase them here, again:
 thanks for nothin’. And …
 the Pioneer Valley? Really? The People’s Republic of Amherst? Down the road from Northampton??
You sure you wanna poke that bear?
There are just some places that are hard to go back to.
These places can be physical locations on Earth; or virtual places, websites and televised collections of pixels and such; or pockets of memory.
You can drive past certain buildings or signs and wish you hadn’t. You can bring up a webpage in your browser and wish you hadn’t. “A memory stirs…” and you can wish it hadn’t – and wish it would just sink back down below the surface and stay put, thanks.
I used to work in that office building. We took an walk through that park. He grew up in that town. I’d rather not watch that young singing sensation again. Oi, that was an embarrassing moment – well, at least after tripping over that cord, I didn’t hit my head on something.
Indeed, dear reader, if you’re conjuring up examples of your own places best not conjured … I bet the great majority of them are relatively small matters, in the grand sweep of human civilization. Whether or not they were small to us at the time – and chances are, if external things trigger strong internal reactions, they weren’t – it’s unlikely that they registered on the Richter scale outside our spheres of awareness.
For most of New England, though (and because we New Englanders are who we are, we assume that this also implies “for most of the inhabitants of planet Earth”), Boylston Street in Boston is a very much less trivial place to go back to, today.
And most of New England wasn’t even there. We may have been watching on television, a year ago this afternoon, as two homemade bombs went off, not far from the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three people and injuring two hundred and sixty others. We may have heard about the explosions second-hand, from a friend or a news anchor.
But lots of folks were. Actual Marathon runners. Spectators, along the street and in the bleachers. Police officers, whose activity for so many years seemed to be merely standing and keeping the enthusiastic spectators from inching too far out onto the street as runners passed by. Race volunteers, who usually only dealt with medical issues like dehydration and exhaustion. TV reporters, who usually only raised their voices in response to a Kenyan or Ethiopian runner finally separating him- or herself from the pack.
In the space of 12 seconds, last April 15th, the Boston Marathon finish line – heretofore merely paint on the street – became more than a historic landmark. Since eleven minutes before three in the afternoon that day, it has been an image that has brought back memories of violence, and chaos, and injury, and outrage, to a great many of us – whether we were nearby or not.
I’m not sure what it would be like to have been there … and then to try to revisit the site – whether today or next Monday, or any day really. Last year, for some curious and unknown reason, I knew of an unusually large number of friends who were running the Marathon. Some were running in the name of charitable causes; some were running to see if they could do it; some were running because it was Boston, and you gotta run Boston if you’re serious about this sport. I think some had already finished at 2:49 PM. Some were not too far from the blasts. Some hadn’t made it to Boston yet. Many, thanks to where on the course they were at the time, never even made it to the finish line; they were diverted elsewhere, because at the time no one knew whether any more loud bangs were coming. It took awhile that day, but they all did check in to let us know they were okay.
To my knowledge, none of them were right there. “And yet,” the local news anchors and the national sports reporters would intone (probably already have), with great emotion and Don LaFontaine-ish-ness … “we all were right there.”
A few nights ago, as I screened my copy of the 2013 Boston Red Sox official World Series DVD, it got to the chapter wherein the Sox had started the season relatively well, and were about to play their traditional Patriots Day / Marathon Day morning home game. Fade from black … to a shot of Boylston Street from beyond the finish line, on Marathon Day 2013, just before the explosions.
And I looked away, briefly, and reflexively – even though I hadn’t come close to being there. The, quote, scene of the crime, unquote.
I think I have all kinds of respect for the people who actually were there and will be back there next Monday regardless. To differing degrees for each of them, it’ll be a challenging place to to go back to.
“We were all there.” Well, no, we all weren’t. For those who really had been, I imagine that the mere posting of new and commemorative Facebook profile- and cover-photos (like I did this morning) won’t be quite enough to settle this matter.
This week, a tiny corner of the Internet flipped its lid. And that lid-flipping reminded me of some writing that I did awhile ago about first impressions.
Recently, a documentary has been produced on the subject of geocentrism. I confess: I had to go look that one up. Not many words in the English language give me pause – which I don’t say with hubris; it’s just that in my life, I’ve read a lot, so I’ve banged into arguably the majority of useful English words. Geo-, having to do with earth. -Centric, having to do with perhaps an overemphasis upon.
Geocentrism, as a concept, is at odds with heliocentrism. Heliocentrism has to do with the idea that stuff revolves around the sun. Therefore …
Wait wait wait wait. Geocentrism: a belief that all cosmic stuff revolves around the Earth??
Is this not still 2014? Have not Copernicus, Kepler and what remains of NASA not weighed in on this issue?
For context, we note that this is the year 2014, and yet science has been taking it on the chin lately. There are a bunch of people in positions of policymaking authority who are challenging the scientific method and its recent results (e.g. stuff we’ve had figured out since the seventeenth century) … and whether they’re doing it for political reasons, or at the behest of organized religion, or because they genuinely didn’t pay attention in class all those years ago … well, I bet a lot of my science teachers have been grinding their teeth a lot.
Enter this particular documentarian, or polemicist, or whatever we shall wish to call him. Robert Sungenis is his name, and he funded the making of this film called “The Principle”, whose tagline is “Everything we think we know about our universe … is wrong.”
That tagline smacks of Buzzfeed hyperbole, of course, and that stands to reason, because otherwise who would pay two eyeblinks of attention to a science documentary? I mean really.
But Sungenis had previously published a book called “Galileo Was Wrong, The Church Was Right”, which claimed to “give Scripture its due place and show that science is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Just so we’re clear on who and what we’re dealing with here.
The makers of “The Principle”, backed by Sungenis’ money (which, even before Citizens United, has aphoristically talked), have been accused of a number of procedural no-no’s, not the least of which is “quote mining”. That’s an editing technique: cherry-picking bits of information and assembling them so they appear to support one view, even if in their context those bits of information would support no such view. I wonder where I’ve heard of that happening before …
Statements were allegedly taken from an interview with noted theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss that made him appear to be supporting the idea that everything astronomical revolves around the planet Earth. Krauss issued a statement that put a super lot of distance between himself and “The Principle”. Its tone of recoil was reminiscent of many muskets I have seen at Fourth-of-July parades: sharp and unmistakable.
Krauss’ statement insists that he was featured in the film without permission, and that he concurs with the scientific community’s contention that geocentrism has been debunked. He hoped that people would ignore it; “maybe then it will quickly disappear into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.” A number of other scientists who were in the film also have insisted that they were misled about “The Principle”’s agenda, and that they would never have taken part had they known about it.
One of the producers of “The Principle”, in a publicity statement interview this week, said this about Krauss’ participation: “Lawrence says he has no idea how he ended up in our film. I can tell him how he ended up in our film. He signed a release form, and cashed a check.”
What has gotten me to the keyboard, though, is the similar apparent participation (and subsequent reversal of gear) of the nice lady who contributed a very small amount of narration to the film’s promotional trailer.
Her name is Kate Mulgrew, and she portrayed the captain of the nearly-ill-fated Federation starship Voyager, a decade and a half ago.
She is an actor. Significantly, she is an actor who has participated in “Star Trek”.
When you do that, you become part of a piece of entertainment which, for all its inherent fluffiness (it IS part of American television entertainment), has gotten credit for causing many, many Americans in the last half century to think about science. Several US astronauts have cited their childhood viewing of “Star Trek” as one of the major influences in their lives that caused them to consider science as a profession.
“Star Trek” is a lot of things, and as science fiction, one of those things is fanciful. Light-speed travel is something that, according to august scientific minds, only light can do; so the initial premise of the show (warping around the galaxy, rather than just crawling around the solar system) is presently a scientific non-starter. And most of the techno-babble that Spock and Data, and Scotty and Geordi LaForge, and just about every other Trek character ever, spout when faced with a cosmically daunting plot-resolution challenge is – to be charitable – somewhere between intensely theoretical and a writer’s desperate invention. “In this one particular episode,” say the producers, “we have to be able to transport Captain Picard from one ship at warp speed to another ship also at warp speed without lowering the deflector shields (which goes against a rule that’s been in place since we were on NBC in 1967), because otherwise the severance package for Patrick Stewart after we kill off his character will bankrupt the studio outright.”
But “Trek” has invited many people to go look up some actual scientific things. So by no fault of any “Trek” actor’s own, they are part of that show’s legacy, which includes advocacy for and advancement of the study of science. Thanks to the importance that American society puts on entertainers, those “Trek” actors often become more prominent symbols of scientific study than do a lot of actual scientists.
They’re not scientists, though.
One of the things that actors do is portray characters. Someone who plays the part of Jack the Ripper presumably does not espouse the views of Jack the Ripper in real life. (Or if they do, they tend not to get a lot of acting work after that.) Someone who portrays Gen. George Patton may actually in fact be a screaming pacifist.
Another thing that actors have to do is eat. For that to happen, they need money. And most actors (I hear) have a great deal of experience with poverty, or at least with knowing that they’ll never retire and draw a pension. Every job is finite. Even while you’re working on one project, you’re looking for the next one. Only the most absurdly lucky actors finish a job knowing that they’re set for life. Guaranteed, very few people probably knew who (for example) Nichelle Nichols was, before she spent three TV seasons opening hailing frequencies for Captain Kirk. Now? She’s part of that Trek legacy, and her name gets her in the door – the same door that would slam in the faces of the vast majority of working actors.
So even the terrific actors like Kate Mulgrew, who will forevermore draw residuals from being Captain Janeway, are conditioned to take work whenever they can find it.
And sometimes, I imagine this can get them into tight spots like this.
A website that breathlessly reported Mulgrew’s “Principle” trailer narration said, “To be fair to Kate Mulgrew, she’s not a scientist, and as an actor she’s not required to make sure that her paychecks are coming from factually accurate sources. But you’d hope that she’d be a little more discerning as a former member of the Starfleet Federation. After all, Star Trek did and continues to do so much for the advancement of science and space exploration, and getting involved with a movie that outright denies one of the most fundamental facts about our solar system is upsetting, to say the least.”
On her Facebook page, Mulgrew released a statement disavowing the film. “I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused.”
I’m split on this one.
I’m somewhere between “say it ain’t so, Joe” and “do your homework”. I’m working to find out whether her contribution to this film is anything more than the opening voiceover sentence in the trailer. The Internet Movie Database lists her as “Narrator”, but doesn’t get any more explicit.
The comments that followed Ms. Mulgrew’s Facebook apology post contained an awful lot of (forgivable) blanket-condemnation of the documentary producers and blanket-approval of Ms. Mulgrew. A lot of “Star Trek” fans rose to her defense.
“Oh thank God. I felt so betrayed there for a little bit.”
“Kate Mulgrew’s part, so far, is that one sentence about everything we know about the universe being wrong, at the very beginning of the trailer. And, again, that sentence could be about anything. All they have to do is fill the narration with vague statements like that, then put any images they want over it. And include commentary by geocentrists making it look like she’s supporting their statements. … Because the only part of the script that she’s going to get is the narration. And since the documentary isn’t out, and all you have to go on is the trailer, those of you who insist on giving her crap about it really have no idea what you’re talking about. You just like kicking people when they’re down. You gotta be mad about something, and this is it.”
“The trailer I saw was a blatant hack job. You shouldn’t need to apologise, you’re a victim of a fraudster and should have support from your fans. Thank you for clearing it up, I hope you aren’t too badly affected by this.”
“[E]veryone makes mistakes and gets reeled in by the worst of people, accidents happen. [T]he fact that you admitted your [sic] wrong and told us you don’t believe in what was said is enough. [L]ive long and prosper[.]”
“No need to apologize. You’re an actor. It’s what actors do. If Patrick Stewart narrated Doctor Seuss, that wouldn’t mean he’s promoting a fear of green eggs and ham. Your fans understand. Don’t sweat it.”
Additionally, the follow-up post by the website which had initially posted about Mulgrew’s involvement with the project was entitled “OH THANK GOD: Kate Mulgrew Is Mad About the Geocentric Documentary, Too”.
Some Facebook commenters weren’t quite as starry-eyed though.
“I think sometimes people forget that actors, by definition, say things they don’t believe for a living.”
“Didn’t you read the words on the page? I get you did this for the money, but still do not claim to be ‘misinformed’ when the words were on the page you were READING!”
Finally, this comment was combination reality check and fanboy defense:
“This reminds me of the Congressional committee that had Meryl Streep testify on agricultural matters. She was an expert because she played a farm wife in a movie. Come on, people. You regard Kate Mulgrew as a Voice of Science because she played a starship captain once? And it’s her *duty to you* to do in-depth research on *every* script she’s offered so she doesn’t accidentally *deceive* you?”
Maybe not, but it may represent an added layer of responsibility when you’ve been part of “Star Trek” and you’re considered, rightly or not, a science role model.
Perhaps what this boils down to is our desperate discomfort about finding that one of our first impressions might be mistaken, and/or finding that something or someone we admire isn’t as admirable as we thought (if all that indeed turns out to be so). And, justifiable or not, the feeling of betrayal that we as fans feel about the objects of our fandom.
It’s unnerving when it seems possible — even for a moment — that, to paraphrase the tagline of “The Principle” … everything we know about our favorite actor … is wrong.