The Laboratorium
August 2003

Song Land, My Land


I have in my possession a map of Songland. Who knew that Connecticut and Rhode Island could be so poetic?

Roy Moore and the Wrong Reason


See, I used to think that Roy Moore was just a little strong-minded in his religion. Now I think he ought to be disbarred for willful stupidity.

There are any number of reasonable things a reasonable person might believe, when it comes to that 5280-pound monument (5280 pounds . . . 5280 feet in a mile . . . concidence?) So far as I can tell, Justice Roy Moore does not subscribe to any of them.

God does not want the Ten Commandments on display in American courthouses. Though the Bible is perhaps not entirely consistent on this score, Matthew 6:5-6 contains a fairly strong admonition against public prayer, and Jesus frequently takes himself away from the company of the disciples when he prays. And then, of course, there's Luke 20:25 and that whole business about rendering unto Caesar. There are certainly plenty of Christians who believe that the separation of church and state is a good way of keeping the state from corrupting the church.

The Constitution (wrongly) forbids the display of the Ten Commandments in American courthouses; we should fix the Constitution. Establishment of religion is like flag-burning, racial slavery, intoxicating liquors, and baby-killing: if We the People think our Constitutionally-inscribed moral values are wrong, we can certainly fix matters. There's a perfectly good amendment process written into the Constitution. How good? We've used it twenty-seven times so far: that's an average of about once every eight years. We could certainly erase that sentence from the first amendment, or perhaps clarify its boundaries a bit.

The Constitution (wrongly) forbids the display of the Ten Commandments; our duty to God supersedes our duty to the Constitution. Now, as a "judicial officer[] . . . of the several states," Justice Moore has taken an oath (or affirmation) to uphold the Constitution, but the duty to God is something of a trump. So he's perfectly entitled to go outside the system and start engaging in civil disobedience. We've got a good, solid, American tradition of it: from abolitionists to anti-abortionists, religious Americans have opposed themselves to laws they believed to be morally flawed.

The Constitution allows the display, but Judge Myron Thompson (wrongly) thinks the Constitution forbids it; we'll shut up and appeal. Well, actually, Judge Myron Thompson and a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. But we have a legal system that permits a second round of appeals; the Supreme Court still has a chance to step in. All that's at stake is the visibility of the monument pending the appeal.

But no, Justice Moore has vowed not to let that monument be moved, in defiance of a federal court order, and apparently also in defiance of an administrative order of the other eight Justices on the Supreme Court of Alabama. Whatever long-shot oddball jurisdictional arguments might have preserved Justice Moore's power from the federal injunction are probably dead in light of his fellow Justices' position.

Which is to say that Justice Moore is simultaneously claiming to act in accordance with the law of the United States and defying the United States legal system. But you can't have it both ways; Justice Moore, of all people, should recognize this much. If you think that divine law trumps human law and that human law made without the guidance of God's commandments is more likely to err, then it follows that sometimes the human law will be wrong.

Perhaps an ordinary citizen can get away with this sort of containment of multitudes. But judges in this country are charged with the application of human law, as articulated by human institutions. We've had a thousand years of practice in the art. I'm fine with people saying we ought to uproot those thousand years and put God directly in the decision-making process (though I hope they never prevail). That's their right, to have such an opinion, just as it's my right, to have my own. A lot of people who voted for Roy Moore hope and expect him to do just that. And yet he claims that he's applying the actual law of this country in his actions, a claim that is false on its face.

You don't get common law without precedent; you don't get Constitutional law without federal jurisdiction. Law without the legal system is not law: it is some theory of justice wrapped up in naked power politics.

At least George Wallace stood for something: he stood for states' rights and for segregation, and he could paint you a picture of how the world would work if his values held sway. But Roy Moore doesn't have that kind of courage; he's so wrapped up in winning the fight over his monument that he's entirely willing to sell God short when it's tactically useful.

Moore's Eleventh Circuit briefs, after all, tried to make the case that the monument wasn't that imposing, and didn't really endorse a religious point of view. Don't be saying that too loudly, though, Roy, or you'll make Baby Jesus cry. And now he's making his stand as Chief Justice Moore, not as a Christian with a conscience: it's funny how his personal values take a holiday every time he tries to provide a legal justification of his actions. He's acting like a lawyer, arguing simultaneously on behalf of inconsistent theories, in the hopes that one of them will stick to the wall. Anything to win the case, principle be damned.

This case isn't about the law, but it's not about God, either. It's about Roy Moore, a man who puts the "contempt" in "contempt of court."

Temporal Video Game Anomaly


Question for the cognoscenti: is there a song in DDR whose first steps are "Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right?"

Contra was a Konami game, too . . .

Email Bag


Two nice observations this week in my inbox.

First, alert Lab reader Tobias noted that my discussion of blanks in firing squads was incorrect in one critical detail. In his words:

In a discussion in the New York Times (many years ago), a letter-writer explained that firing a blank FEELS different from firing a real bullet, so in a firing squad, each person knows whether they fired a real bullet. The function of the blanks is to allow each participant to claim that they fired a blank and did not kill anyone.

This twist, of course, makes the metaphor even better, for values of "better" meaning of "darker and more twisted." It takes the comparison from one that suggests a general lack of knowledge and turns it into one that suggests the concealment of ugly, murderous secrets.

Following up on a much older Lab post, Ric wrote in to add a few good ideas to my Muppet casting suggestions for Lord of the Rings.

His suggestion that Oscar the Grouch would make a good Saruman is right on the money. They're both cranky and contemptuous towards others, they both have a thing for loud metallic clanging noises, and they both make real trash heaps out of their homes. Slimey the Worm as Grima Wormtongue is also a stroke of genius.

Thanks, Tobias and Ric!

No Man Earns Punishment


For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was every piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of _deserving_, of the idea of _earning_, and you will begin to be able to think.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

No Rational Form of Organization


He explained to Atro that he now understood why the army was organized as it was. It was indeed quite necessary. No rational form of organization would serve the purpose. He simply had not understood that the purpose was to enable men with machine guns to kill unarmed men and women easily and in great quantities when told to do so. Only he could not see where courage, or manliness, or fitness entered in.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

No Coinage But Power


The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

People of Inherent Authority


There are people of inherent authority; some emperors actually have new clothes.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

General Temporal Theory


You _can_ go home again, asserts the General Temporal Theory, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

Improbability Of The Real


The sister planet shone down upon them, serene and brilliant, a beautiful example of the improbability of the real.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

There Is a Bird


He was looking at the world as misunderstood by the mind: the bad dream. There is a bird in a poem by T.S. Eliot who says that mankind cannot bear very much reality, but the bird is mistaken. A man can endure the entire weight of the universe for eighty years. It is unreality that he cannot bear.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

Going Under a River


To go under a river: there's a strange thing to do, a really weird idea. To cross a river, to ford it, wade it, swim it, use boat, ferry, bridge, airplane, to go upriver, to go downriver in the ceaseless renewal and beginning of current: all that makes sense. But in going under a river, something is involved which is, in the central meaning of the word, perverse. There are roads in the mind and outside it the mere elaborateness of which shows plainly that, to have got to this, a wrong turning must have been taken way back.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

Creatures of Seadrift


What will the creatures made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking?

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

Revue Review


I'm back from Seattle, where I was more immersed in popular culture than is my usual wont, mostly thanks to Mike. A report on certain especially interesting artefacts:

Richard Taylor: Mike and I watched a few of the featurettes on the Fellowship of the Rings Extended Edition DVD and became mildly obsessed with Richard Taylor, the seriously obsessive mad scientist behind the non-digital effects in the movie. There was just something insane about the way he insisted on perfect historical accuracy for this movie about a wholly fictional world.

I think the point at which we realized Taylor was power-mad was when we heard about the chain mail. The mail for the movies was made out of PVC pipe, sliced into rings, painted metallic, and then hand-woven into garments. They used something like three million of these rings; the assembly was a full-time job for two men for two years. One of them referred to it as the best job he'd ever had.

Mike thinks that if the movies had been made a decade from now, Taylor would have genetically engineered some of the special effects. I think that it's a good thing the movie didn't have any truly huge explosions, or Taylor would have made some nukes.

Camp: The night after I saw this film with Mike, he went back with another group of friends and saw it again. I misread the web page he pointed me at; I thought we were going to see a documentary about a performing arts summer camp. It turned out to be a meta-musical: a movie musical about kids who are at a camp where they put on stage musicals. Though the summer-camp world has been providing teen comedy fodder for years, this movie is camp of a different sort: there's something dark and twisted at its heart, something a little bit of a non sequitur.

High point: the two fifteen-year-old divas whose quarrel reaches poisonous proportions during a performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch." Low point: realizing, after talking about how much the songs were recogizably the work of Stephen Trask, that he wrote nothing but the underscore.

Carissa's Wierd: Are breaking up, in news too sad to contemplate for long.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: Another of Mike's TiVo-fueld obsessions, a wonderful show, and the most genuinely uplifting thing I have seen on television in a long time. Compared with the sordid and calculated pettiness of most major-network reality shows, it's refreshing to see the genuine pleasure that the Fab Five take in giving each week's straight guy a dose of style and confidence. But for all that, the show never dips too far into sentimentality: there's always a catty remark waiting, always that moment when the Five stare sadly at the screen while their protege shaves before showering.

Not To Answer Them


To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus _proof_ is a word not often used among the Handdarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free. To learn which questions are unanswerable and _not to answer them_: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin

What Cannot Be Said In Words


The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this _in words_.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin