Monday, May 24, 2010

The End

I briefly come out of retirement to discuss the finale of "Lost"...

Like "The Sopranos" before it, "Lost" ended after six seasons without answering many of its fans' most burning questions. I was among the minority that loved the ending of the "The Sopranos" and I'm also in the camp -- larger, I think -- that believes the ending of "Lost" wrapped up the show perfectly, or at least as well as we could hope for.

"Lost" had one advantage over "The Sopranos" in that the latter simply couldn't offer any kind of emotional uplift. "The Sopranos" featured a protaganist who was essentially a sociopath; Tony Soprano often knew what was right and chose wrong anyway. We rooted for him only to the extent that he was more likable than his equally amoral enemies.

"Lost", on the other hand, was populated by deeply flawed men and women struggling with their demons to do what was right. People, in other words, like us. The narrative at the heart of the show was in many ways the narrative of human history. Evolution has hard-wired us to put our own preservation above all else. And yet humans are social animals, and our own survival is dependent on our ability to cooperate with others. One of the show's early seminal moments was when Jack -- the show's hero -- urged his fellow castaways to live together or they would surely die alone. At that point they became a community, and the fate of one was tied to the fate of all.

But for a community to survive, its individual members must sacrifice -- sometimes their very lives. Self-sacrifice was a motiff that ran through the show up until the very end: Charlie drowning so that Desmond could be reunited with Penny; Sayid running to the other end of the submarine with the bomb to spare his fellow "candidates"; Jack giving his life to restore the light at the heart of the island which, apparently, saved the world as well as his fellow Losties.

On "Lost", sacrifice was the path to personal redemption, an idea at the heart of many religious traditions -- not the least of which being Christianity, whose themes were particularly prominent during the last few episodes of the series. Jacob's reluctance to take the drink from his mother brought to mind Jesus's exhortation to God to "take this cup from my lips." Jack opens his father's casket to find it empty, reminescent of the empty tomb that Christians celebrate on Easter. (Jack even asks his father -- named Christian, of course -- "Are you real?" much like the disciples who encounter the risen Lord after visiting his tomb.) And of course Jack makes a Christ-like sacrifice, not only to save his friends but, he believes, all of humankind.

There's plenty of Old Testament as well, like the allusions to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau in the story of Jacob and his twin, the Man in Black, and the hints of the Book of Job in their debate over the goodness of the other people on the island. But the show also relied heavily on Eastern religions, which teach that we strive toward spiritual unity with the universe, dying and being reborn until we reach a state of nirvanna. Time travel -- which I believe really happened to the characters on "Lost" -- is thus a metaphor not only for the castaways' attempt to escape their troubled past, but to make peace with their lives. The Man in Black tells Jacob "It always ends the same" to which Jacob replies "It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress."

Jacob was the island's protector -- its god, if you will -- and we can see in his successors a progression similar to the narrative that runs through Christianity. Jacob, who lorded over the island with inscrutable rules and indifference to the suffering of the people he used, yielded control to Jack and then Hurley -- the most caring and trustworthy of the castaways. Similarly, the mercurial and vengeful god of the Old Testament is transformed into a god of love and hope through the sacrifice of Jesus.

But it's worth noting that even in the Old Testament, the god of Israel is capable of great love and compassion, not only for his chosen people but also for the nations with whom they must reckon. In his persuasive book "The Evolution of God," Robert Wright explains that Yahweh's take on nonbelievers fluctuated depending on the political situation in Israel. When Israel was at the mercy of her enemies, or needed to form alliances, Yahweh grew tolerant of those other nations, more universal in his concern for humanity.

Wright sees the same pattern in other major religions, including Christianity and Islam, which accounts for the contradictions, for example, in how the Koran tells Muslims to treat nonbelievers. Sometimes Jews and Christians are fellow "people of the book"; other times they are infidels to be slaughtered. It's why the apostle Paul, trying to launch a new religion in a multi-ethnic empire, preached universal love and brotherhood, even though the historic Jesus likely did not espouse such a message.

Is this a case of religion influencing politics, or vice versa? Wright argues that it's a probably a little of each. The bottom line is that when human societies recognize the need to cooperate with neighbors with whom their religious beliefs conflict, then their religious beliefs become more accomodating -- bending to what Wright calls "the facts on the ground."

Wright sees in the sweep of human history soceities moving, in bloody fits and starts, toward increasing interdependence and mutual cooperation. It suggests that there is indeed a moral order to existence. And since it is our biological surival instincts, honed by natural selection, that push us toward cooperation, then this means the physical universe is part of this moral structure.

For Wright, this is a way to resolve the conflict between science and religion, faith and reason -- the debate at the heart of "Lost," between Jack and Locke, who was proven correct in his conviction that the island had a purpose for the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815. Bear in mind that Wright's formulation does not favor any particular diety or creed. People of science, like Jack, don't have to give up much ground. It doesn't challenge anything that we know or think we know about the physical world.

But it does not, however, allow us to believe in chaos. You can reject the designer, but you must reckon with the design. Jack understands this, finally, and it is all the more poignant that he can never tell Locke that he was right -- at least not in the land of the living. "Because you have seen me, you have believed," Jesus tells his disciple Thomas. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

That was John Locke. And because of that, he, too, is the hero of "Lost."

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Good night and good luck

This is the 827th post on this blog, which I started four years ago. I've decided that it's going to go on hiatus for a while, simply because there are too many other demands on my time. That doesn't mean I'll no longer be wasting time on the Internet, and I may even post something occassionally on my other blog, Dead Tree Blog, which is dedicated to books. In fact, reading is one of the things I'd like to do more of, and when I started that blog, it was with the intention that I would drop this one.

I'm sure I'll check back in every once in a while, if only to offer my thoughts on the latest film I've seen, or one of my favorite TV shows. Otherwise, so long and thanks for indulging me.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Running scared

Last night at the Republican National Convention, Sarah Palin gave a speech that came straight out of right-wing talk radio, and tonight the party is displaying pictures of military cemeteries on a giant video screen as Lindsey Graham claims that the Democrats in Congress voted to surrender in Iraq.

Man, the Republicans must really be terrified of what's going to happen in the fall. Either that, or they have finally run out of ideas.

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Now that's change I can believe in

Obama ain't bringing a knife to this gunfight:

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

I'm not sure if I like this Kool-Aid

On the one hand, as some talking head noted this morning, Joe Biden, Barack Obama's recently selected running mate, can probably tell you how many homes he has without checking with his staff. He's spent 36 years in the Senate and though he won't be seen anytime soon standing in line for food stamps, he's of modest means compared to his Senate colleagues. That's significant when you consider how many elected officials manage to build a sizable fortune while serving in office. Biden's got integrity.

On the other hand, I've always regarded Biden as something of an arrogant windbag, and as Obama himself has correctly noted, experience doesn't always translate into good judgment, and Biden did not demonstrate the latter when, like Hillary Clinton, he gave George Bush his blank check for Iraq.

There's a third hand, which is that vice presidential nominees rarely if ever have much impact on the final outcome. They aren't difference makers. At best, they can boost your momentum, like Al Gore did for Bill Clinton in 1992, and at worst, they can kill it, the way Dan Quayle did for the first George Bush in 1988. (And what difference did that make in the end?) The days when a pick can truly blow up in your face, like Tom Eagleton did to George McGovern in 1972, are probably long gone. It's too hard to hide your skeletons anymore, and any presidential nominee nowadays that did such a poor job of vetting a VP pick doesn't deserve to get elected.

I heard one pollster this week say that Obama simply needed to pick someone who would make it through the first 72 hourrs without any problems, and so Biden, a rather known quantity, is a safe pick -- perhaps too safe, according to the AP's Ron Fournier:

He picked a 35-year veteran of the Senate - the ultimate insider - rather than a candidate from outside Washington, such as Govs. Tim Kaine of Virginia or Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas; or from outside his party, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska; or from outside the mostly white male club of vice presidential candidates. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't even make his short list.

The picks say something profound about Obama: For all his self-confidence, the 47-year-old Illinois senator worried that he couldn't beat Republican John McCain without help from a seasoned politician willing to attack. The Biden selection is the next logistical step in an Obama campaign that has become more negative - a strategic decision that may be necessary but threatens to run counter to his image.

Let's face it -- Obama has already demonstrated that he doesn't want to be another noble Democratic loser, and if his brand has to take a hit in the process, so be it. John McCain certainly doesn't seem to be fretting too much over the damage his reputation as a maverick is taking as he tries to make nice with the same evangelicals he spurned in 2000. Something tells me Obama already has the votes sown up of those who want a new kind of politics -- at least those who want it on the left. Sure, he could have made a more daring pick, and I might have been happier if he had. But for far too many voters, Obama is risky enough.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wasn't there a hobbit in that one?

Michael Machosky writes a paean in Sunday's Trib to a particular genre of '80s movie he dubs "Goonie Movies" in honor of "The Goonies." Few of the films Machosky mention stand the test of time, but that's hot his point: They were good popcorn films, with broader appeal than today's focus-group driven blockbusters.

While we may not see another "Goonies" anytime soon (which I don't think is a bad thing), we have witnessed the rebirth of a film genre that reached full flower back in the '80s: The R-rated comedy. I'm not the first person to herald the return of this species, which lately includes "Wedding Crashers", "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." Examples from the '80s that come to mind: "Caddyshack" and "Trading Places."

Now, the '90s gave us "American Pie" and "Road Trip", (the latter technically came out in 2000), both very funny, but those films largely were aimed at the same demographic they portrayed -- high school and college students. Today, even an ostensible high school comedy like "Superbad" seems made for people who have let a few years lapse since their last keg stand.

Of course, even some of the most memorable films from the 1980s bear the cheesy hallmarks of the era, like the montage -- "Wall Street" and "Tootsie", two very different films, each featured a split-screen montage -- and the original song that sounded like it came straight out of AM radio. (Not to mention the synthesizer-driven score.) It was indeed a memorable decade -- though not necessarily for the right reasons.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sorry, Wall Street Journal

It turns out the estate tax isn't quite the villian it's made out to be in the Steelers' ownership dispute:

On the surface, the estate tax seems daunting -- 45 percent on all estates above $2 million in value. With the Rooneys' 80 percent share of the franchise being valued at $800 million or more on the open market, that would seem to make the family liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in tax liabilities.

In reality, though, few estates pay the full estate tax rate, and there is almost no evidence that any family-owned enterprises have had to dissolve or sell out because of the federal tax, said Ben Harris, a senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center in Washington, D.C., a joint operation of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute.

The tax center estimates that 17,500 estates will pay about $23 billion in federal estate taxes this year, for an average payment of just $1.3 million. Even the wealthiest estates -- those worth more than $20 million -- will pay an average tax rate of about 22 percent, less than half the official rate, the center estimates.

"The destruction of family businesses is often used as a motivation for repealing the estate tax, but there is very little proof that many family businesses are devastated by the tax," said Samuel Donaldson, a law professor at the University of Washington and a nationally known expert on estate tax matters.

"There are very few ways to get around the tax entirely," he added, "but there are any number of ways to reduce the tax." (link)

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