This New America

I was in the airport last Friday when the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage came down, and one of the first thoughts I had on that was, “Looks like I picked the right week to go to San Francisco.” And you know what? I was right! The city was, verily, bedecked in rainbow flags and happiness. After my events at ALA on Saturday I went with friends to City Hall, where the pride celebration was in full swing, and watched people being happy, all over the place (plus occasional hippie nudity, because San Francisco). It’s very rare to be in the right place at the right time, when history is actually and genuinely happening around you. But I was, and I was delighted in the happy circumstance that put me there.

I’m even more delighted that my country is now a better place than it was at 9:59am on June 26, when a minority of states still didn’t allow gays and lesbians the simple, basic right of marrying the person whom they loved and wished to spend their life with. Those days are now gone, thankfully, despite a few pockets of resistance, which I don’t suspect will last very long. Texas, as an example, is a place where the Attorney General is telling county clerks they may defy the Supreme Court; it’s also a place where two octogenarian men, together for more than 50 years, became the first same-sex couple to wed in Dallas County. Who do you think history, and Texas, will celebrate more: The two men confirming their decades-long love to each other, or the government official symbolically standing in front of the courthouse door to oppose their right to confirm that love?

Bluntly: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is going down in history as a bigot. So will Texas’ governor and lieutenant governor. So will Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and all the other politicians (and would-be politicians) who are thumping around now, pretending not to understand what it is that the Supreme Court does, or the legitimacy of its rulings under the Constitution, and pretending that their religion makes that feigned lack of understanding all right. Dan Patrick, the Texas Lieutenant Governor, has said “I would rather be on the wrong side of history than on the wrong side of my faith and my beliefs.” Well, Mr. Patrick, you’re not only definitely on the wrong side of history, but you’re also on the wrong side of your professed faith. Jesus never once said “be a bigot in my name.” If you believe He did, you might want to recheck your Bible. That admonition is not there, although the admonition to love your neighbor as yourself is.

On a related topic, this Time magazine article by Rod Dreher on orthodox Christians being “exiles in our own country” struck me as a bit dramatic. Not being in step with the mainstream of American life and opinion does not make you an exile, especially when you suffer no estrangement under the law. When the mainstream of American life did not include the idea that same-sex marriage was a viable thing, which was an opinion different than mine, I was not in exile in my own country — although same-sex couples may have been, as the law estranged them from the rights they should have had under the Constitution, now affirmed by the Supreme Court. The affirmation of those rights did not and does not take away rights from anyone who believes same-sex marriage is wrong. You may still believe they’re wrong; you just can’t stop those couples from getting legally married. Unless you think it should be your right to deprive others of their rights, everything’s the same for you as it was before. And if you do believe it’s your right to deprive others of their rights, then you’re a bigot, whether you cloak it in religion or not.

I suspect that this is the thing Dreher is really worried about, whether he’s aware of it or not — that the perception of certain religious sects will change from them being depositories of rectitude to cisterns of intolerance. Well, this is a fair concern, isn’t it? Over the last twenty years in particular, nearly every American learned that someone they cared about or even loved — a family member, a friend, a co-worker or neighbor or a person they admired — was not straight, or 100% conforming to society’s ideas of gender. Over the last two decades, Americans decided it was more important to tell those people they still loved them and that they deserved the same rights as everyone else, than it was to listen to those people who said, through their words and actions, that these people we loved represented some sort of threat. Your mom is not a threat to America, if she happens to be gay or bisexual. Nor is your dad. Nor your sibling, or your best friend, or Doug from Accounting or Jillian down the street or Ellen DeGeneres. Who are you going to choose to stand with? Your sister, or some dude at a pulpit demanding we believe the bowels of Hell will empty if she marries her girlfriend? Your sister’s girlfriend is awesome! That guy is a jerk!

Which is the thing: the religious sects terrified that they will now lose their moral standing lost that standing long before, when they said, in so many words, in so many actions, that the people we love and know and know to be good, and their desire to have the same rights as everyone else, are what’s wrong with America. Dreher laments we now live in a “post-Christian” America, but he’s wrong. The Americans who are standing with their loved ones and neighbors are in fact doing exactly what Jesus asked them to do, when he said that we should love each other as we love ourselves. It’s possible, however, that we live in a post-accepting-bigotry-cloaking-itself-in-the-raiments-of-Christ America. And, you know. I can live in that America just fine.

Regardless, the America we do live in now lets anyone person marry any other person who they love. I like this America. I am glad I live in it.

The Big Idea: Sam Munson

If I knew nothing else about the book, I would give a thumb up Sam Munson’s novel merely for the title alone: The War Against the Assholes. Fortunately, there’s more to the book than the fabulous title, as Munson explains below.

SAM MUNSON:

What animates The War Against the Assholes philosophically (its author asked, rhetorically and pretentiously)? I am too close to the book to speak with critical authority, here, but I suppose there are two questions or two groups of questions.

Why do clerical, hierarchical ideas of magic dominate our thinking on the subject in literature? From the unfortunate Lucius, protagonist of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, to the eager students at Hogwarts and Brakebills, we can find a deep-rooted view of magic as governed by learning, by essentially academic ability: mastery of rituals and formulae, penetration into theories of physics and biology, philological skill.  This view — which it is quite reasonable to find so widespread, being, it seems to me, anchored in the real-world history of magic — informs even departures from the trope, where magic that exists outside the ambit of a secret clerisy carries with it a tint of darkness, excites suspicion, and often undoes its practitioners.

As a lifelong poor student and reader of novels of the fantastic, I found this preponderant view fascinating and also provoking. The basic principle of magic, as it has been understood historically and in literature, is the unmediated effectuation of one’s will. It seems psychologically unlikely, to say the least, that defeating the immutable physical laws of the universe would leave one much attached to the reclusive and repetitive tasks scholarship entails.

This is doubly true, it seems to me, in the case of young people, of adolescents – a perennial subject in fantastic works. Here the fidelity of literary magic to historical magic diverges: the magical young appear most often as studious, serious, well-intentioned, and highly moral bearers of a world-shaking imperative (the discovery of which is inseparable from their initiation into magic). The youth of this world, sadly and joyously, are free of such burdens by nature; if they bear them they amount to little more than an affectation. And how could they not? To be young is to be more or less a sociopath, more or less a fragment, more or less nothing; add to this the world-defying power magic by definition brings with it, and the idea of

being at once a young magician and scholarly do-gooder seems like a contradictio in adjecto. I do not want to cite any such figures by name; I do not want to be invidious, here — merely to point out that this is a trope and as such warrants investigation. Why not posit, for example, a theology of magic that rests far more on the ability to harness willpower, irrespective of academic ability? Why not posit a formal theory of magic that does not rest on reliable tools — fetishes or incantations — but rather on the particularities of the magician’s personality? Why would magic, being the effectuation of a will, necessarily be uniform from one practitioner to another?

The magicians who form the narrative core of The War Against the Assholes practice that form of magic — and they and their colleagues suffer massive and violent oppression as a result, albeit oppression totally invisible to larger, non-magical society. Mike Wood, the narrator, is an academic failure, a violent football player; his close colleagues are, for the most part, his equals in animal cunning and suspicion of received authority. Their opponents, the titular assholes, are the academic magicians, servants of authority. This antinomy is of course an oversimplification – compromise, often at a murderous cost, forms another central narrative strand in the book. But the idea of approaching the formal side of building a magic not from a clerical standpoint but from an anticlerical one, I admit, was a task that drew me on and on into the book.

This of course leads into the other central question: whence authority? Whither authority? Does it proceed from expertise or from innate virtue? Does talent justify its own excesses? Is the power to command purely and solely resident in a system or does it spring from the person commanding? The hierarchical world Mike and his colleagues struggle against is opulent — they own, for example, a private magical academy on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one that obtrudes into an enormous forest in another reality, making them masters in two worlds, not just one. They nepotistically promote their own kind above objectively more talented magicians. And they greet any threat to their authority, even a comparatively mild one, with orders-of-magnitude-greater-than-necessary violence and speed.

Again, this tension is not meant to be taken as a formula for moral understanding: Mike is a child of real-world privilege, as are all of his younger colleagues (his older ones less so), and their insurgency is colored by concomitant anxieties. The war he and his friends conduct is blessed by no obvious superiority to the war being fought against them. Authority comes, as much for Mike as for his opponents, from the will to seize it.

At least he’s not an asshole, though.

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The War Against the Assholes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.