L.B.: The Last Temptation of Buck

Left Behind, pp. 292-298 (round 1)

"You are in deep trouble, my friend," Nicolae Carpathia says to Buck Williams. "And I want to help you if I can." So it seems we have come to the Big Temptation Scene.

I'm a bit disappointed, then, that Rosenzweig's suite at the Plaza Hotel was not established as a "penthouse." It ought to be.

The touchstone here is the temptation of Jesus, which we read about in Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 4:1-11). Jesus is taken into the wilderness, and then to the highest point of the temple, and then finally to the top of a "very high mountain" from which he could see all the world spread out below. It's a compact, powerful description of the meaning of temptation. Christian writers usually tap into the depth and resonance of this familiar archetype by alluding to this story when writing their own Big Temptation Scene. The absence of any such allusion here, then, is kind of jarring. I kept waiting for Carpathia to point out the window at all the splendor of the kingdoms of the world below and to tell Buck that all this could be his. But it never happens.

It's hard to say for sure whether or not LaHaye and Jenkins are even aware that this is the Big Temptation Scene. There are some indications that this is what they intend, such as when Buck hesitates to respond to Carpathia's offer, "his mind black with depression as if he were losing his soul before his very eyes." But mainly, throughout this section of Left Behind, the authors and their protagonist seem more concerned with saving his neck than with saving his soul. Buck hasn't been led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he has knocked at the devil's door in the hopes of brokering a deal.

That's why I think Buck's soul is at stake here. Perhaps not his soul in the sense that L&J think of it (an abstract, Cartesian entity detached and distinct from one's body and whatever actions it may take), but his soul as a reporter. This is what Carpathia asks for in exchange for saving Buck's life and Buck, as we read before, "was willing to try anything" to ensure he escaped unharmed. Here is the crux of the crossroads exchange:

"You believe they will kill you?"

"They killed Burton and they killed Tompkins. I'm much more dangerous to them with my potential readership."

"If this plot is as you and your friends say it is, Cameron, writing about these people, exposing them, will not protect you."

"I know. Maybe I should do it anyway. I don't see any way out."

"I can make this go away for you."

Buck's mind was suddenly reeling. This was what he had wanted …

Buck (we'll still call him Buck, even though Carpathia has switched to calling him "Cameron" all of a sudden) finally remembers that he's a writer with a vast "potential readership." He has the platform, and therefore the power, to expose the conspiracy. But with his next breath, he shows that he doesn't deserve such a platform. "Maybe I should do it anyway," he says.

Maybe? You can expose these people, take them down, Carpathia tells him, but they'll still probably kill you. That's Buck's cue. His next line shouldn't contain the word "maybe," unless it's "Maybe, but they can't kill the truth," or "Maybe, but that won't save them …" Then Buck would triumphantly reveal the cell phone he's kept hidden, which has allowed Marge Potter to record every detail of what Carpathia has said about Stonagal and Todd-Cothran.* That is how this scene would play out if Buck were really the hero-reporter the authors want us to believe he is. That is how the scene would play if Buck were either a hero or a reporter. But since he is neither, that's not how the scene plays out here.

"Sir, I need your help," Buck says. "But I am a journalist first. I can't be bought or bargained with."

And then, for the next four pages, Buck haggles over his price. (We'll get into the details of the bargain he strikes in a later passage.)

Buck's entire conversation with Carpathia here appears to be off the record. Just as the after-midnight phone call from the president doesn't seem to have struck the GIRAT as newsworthy, so too it doesn't seem that he intends to write anything about what he learns in his long conversation with the soon-to-be Antichrist about the inner workings of the international conspiracy led by Stonagal. That's probably just as well since, even after several pages of exposition-like stuff, neither Buck nor the reader has any clearer understanding of what it is that the conspirators are conspiring to do.

What we do learn is this: Through the judicious application of lots and lots of money, Stonagal is arranging to have his henchman Todd-Cothran acquire a seat on a reconfigured U.N. Security Council and to have Carpathia himself, whom he regards as a loyal pawn, appointed as secretary-general of the United Nations.

To you, sitting there in the real world, this may not seem like the most nefarious scheme. How much influence could a pair of compromised diplomats really have? But to appreciate the meaning of this, you need to remember that L&J don't think of the U.N. as a diplomatic forum for the nations of the world. They think of it as a kind of global government. The secretary-general is, to them, a kind of world overlord. (They seem to think the word "general" in that title entails military rank.)

We've already discussed this quite a bit, but there's one more ramification of this weird, planetary federation idea that we haven't yet explored. L&J, like most of their readers, live in America. They glance at the news, they have at least a vague notion of world affairs. So they surely have noticed on some level that neither their day-to-day lives nor the policies and practices of their government are in any way influenced by the latest proclamations from the global throne of Ban Ki-Moon.

You might think this would cause them to re-evaluate their misunderstanding of the role and function of the United Nations, but that's not how they interpret this. They interpret this, rather, as evidence that the United States is uniquely able — due to our nuclear arsenal, our Second Amendment, and our ruggedly unilateral commander in chief — to maintain its sovereignty while every other country is subject to the global rule of the secretary-general. If not for our nukes, our guns, and a president willing to use them, then they believe we would be subject to global serfdom under the thumb of the U.N., just like our unfortunate neighbors in Canada and those effete Europeans are.

Lest you think I'm overstating, consider that LaHaye wasn't merely a member of the John Birch Society, he spoke at training sessions for them. (Here's the John Birch site on the United Nations.) Or consider LaHaye's own words, written in 1992 in his book No Fear of the Storm (as quoted in Michael Standaert's Skipping Towards Armageddon):

I myself have been a 45-year student of the satanically inspired centuries-old conspiracy to use government, education and media to destroy every vestige of Christianity within our society and establish a new world order. Having read at least 50 books on the Illuminati, I am convinced that it exists and can be blamed for many of man's inhumane actions against his fellow man during the past 200 years.

This is why the details of Stonagal's conspiracy are never really explained. For LaHaye, such details do not need to be explained. All that is necessary is some dark allusion to the Illuminati — or to international bankers, the U.N., Rockefellers and/or The Jews — followed by a knowing look. Say no more, say no more, know what I mean, ay?

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* Alternate version: Buck triumphantly points to the still-flashing speaker light on the desk phone. President Fitzhugh is still on the line and he's heard every word. If this scene comes near the end of the movie, then Fitz is a good guy and we have a happy ending president ex machina. If the scene is toward the beginning of the movie, then Fitz should be a villain in league with the conspirators, revealing that Buck is in even more trouble than he thought. This act would end with Buck's thrilling escape across the rooftops of New York.

  • Tonio

    Although I have reservations about “Da Vinci Code,” I do give Dan Brown credit for helping popularize the idea of the sacred feminine and helping encourage skepticism about orthodox doctrines. Anything that exposes the work of Elaine Pagels to a wider audience can’t be all bad.

  • hapax

    Yes, it can be all bad, when it “encourages skepticism” and “exposes people to Pagel’s work” by wild historical errors and flat out lies. Anyone who is intrigued by Brown’s “writing” (and I use the word in its purely mechanistic sense) to further investigate these ideas will find out that the book is a product of pure sphincter-flapping, and will be likely to dismiss the more provocative, scholarly, and reputable ideas he distorts as equally ludicrous.
    It’s sort of like thinking that a television commercial showing a fried egg will seriously convince anyone not to experiment with controlled substances.

  • the opoponax

    but hapax, fried eggs are good. drugs are good. see?
    that’s actually an interesting analysis of the book, and one i hadn’t considered. The Da Vinci Code presents information on a particular subject matter in a way that merely enhances the general suspicion of academic pursuits, the arts, and anybody who dares to question religious dogma. because anyone who is genuinely interested in the questions it raises will go do more research, find out Brown was bullshit, and conclude that thus all of this stuff must be bullshit. people who enjoy Code will read Pagels, realize it’s a lot more complicated than Dan Brown said it was, return The Gnostic Gospels to the library, and go back to church on Sunday as usual.

  • Geds

    because anyone who is genuinely interested in the questions it raises will go do more research
    Are you so sure of that, opo?
    To take a page from Da Vinci’s even dumber brother, I don’t think there was a huge upsurge in purchases of Scofield Bibles after Left Behind came out.
    I think we really underestimate the tendency to say, “Hey, this person wrote about it so s/he must be some sort of expert in the field,” and then believe in the author’s stance even with crappy fiction.

  • Ken

    >according to the Christian Goth websites (take a search sometime), Christian Goths are
    >very familiar with the concept of “friendly fire”.
    >
    Hm. I wonder if the Christian Goths got Raptured?
    Probably not. Rayford Steele LaHaye and Buck Cameron Jenkins have a fairly tight restriction on how an RTC should dress, act, and think (discussed at length in previous posts), and Christian Goths don’t even come close. (Though come to think of it, a Goth take on the same subject as Left Behind could get interesting. I remember the role playing game Rapture: The Second Coming incorporated a lot of Goth style and elements for its setting of That Great and Terrible Day.)
    “I believe that the Christian gothic/industrial community has been called for such times as these. Who else is more prepared to deal with dark days and painful times? You are a tribe of poet/priests and poet/warriors called to fight the darkness you know so well. Like Stryder and the Northern Rangers in The Lord of the Rings, you will be used to fight the shadows of fear and terror in the dark forests and murky swamps which lie outside the boundaries of the land of the Hobbits. Those Hobbits may never understand or appreciate the work you are called to do and the sacrifices God calls you to – but we do not fight the good fight for their approval. We do it because we already have His.”
    – Pastor Dave, Christian Goth site

  • Tonio

    Hapax and Opopnax, you’re absolutely right about the historical inaccuracies of Brown’s book. Surely most rational readers, including moderate Christians, already knew or figured out that the book was fiction.
    “merely enhances the general suspicion of academic pursuits, the arts, and anybody who dares to question religious dogma.”
    I suspect that such suspicions are most common among the minority of fundamentalists, who would be least likely to question doctrine or to read Brown’s novel in the first place.
    “because anyone who is genuinely interested in the questions it raises will go do more research, find out Brown was bullshit, and conclude that thus all of this stuff must be bullshit.”
    I don’t think the book backfired as much as you suggest – I think there was an audience out there ready to make up its own mind about Christian doctrine. That might explain the later popularity of atheist authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
    I don’t know if I’m a typical reader, but I was able to appreciate Pagels’ work. The others come across as hucksters and fuzzy-minded flower children. But I discovered Bart Ehrman through my research. Another good book is Judy Mann’s “The Difference,” which makes a good argument for how orthodox Western doctrine has corrupted society’s view of women.
    In any case, just because Brown was wrong about Jesus doesn’t mean the Gospels were right.

  • Geds

    Ken:
    That paragraph from the Christian Goth site is amazing. I didn’t think I would ever see a single paragraph that I disagreed with on so many levels before.

  • PepperjackCandy

    Surely most rational readers, including moderate Christians, already knew or figured out that the book was fiction.
    Many people consider books that include real people, places, and events as an opportunity to learn about those people, places, and events, much to the dismay of tour guides in London, Rome, and Paris.

  • Bugmaster

    “Gothic/industrial community” ? I have a mental image of skinny wraith-like waifs in helmets, welding I-beams together… Actually, that’d be kinda cool.

  • Geds

    And it would be a hell of a lot more interesting than what they actually do…

  • 85% Duane

    .. which is interpretive stomp dance.

  • Melkor

    Oi! Duane! I resemble that remark….

  • Ken

    >Surely most rational readers, including moderate Christians, already knew or figured
    >out that the book was fiction.
    Many people consider books that include real people, places, and events as an opportunity to learn about those people, places, and events, much to the dismay of tour guides in London, Rome, and Paris.
    Around Easter of 2006 (when Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, History Channel, and National Geographic Channel went “All Da Vinci Code, all the time”) there were a lot of horror stories going around about DVC fanboys and their Stupid Fanboy Tricks. (And I’ve done time in D&D, Comix, Anime, and Furry Fandoms; I have seen Stupid Fanboy Tricks in action. They’re actually absurdly funny as long as they don’t happen to you.)
    The tour guide ones all centered around the tour guide making his spiel about the place on the tour, only to be interrupted by a DVC fanboy. “You’re wrong! THIS is how It Really Happened!” Then the copy of DVC comes out and the chapter-and-verse quoting began. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about tour guides punching out tourists who pulled this; I would have.
    But the most spectacular case of DVC fanboys mistaking fiction for fact came from some comment thread on some blog whose URL I can’t remember. It was supposedly a wedding rehearsal, and the staunch Catholic in the family attended — only to find it was an Intervention/Deprogramming, and she was the target. The family had read DVC and KNEW she had to be Opus Dei (as in Albino Monk Assassin); they even flew family in from across the country for what the target’s husband (who made the post) described as “a spiritual gang-rape”, with a lot of DVC-banging. Needless to say, this started a major family feud.
    This is rumor (probably urban legend), but after the movie hit the screen, the real Opus Dei had to field a few inquiries from BDSM types who wanted to join for the self-flagellation they saw in the movie…

  • Jeff Weskamp

    “I believe that the Christian gothic/industrial community has been called for such times as these. Who else is more prepared to deal with dark days and painful times? You are a tribe of poet/priests and poet/warriors called to fight the darkness you know so well. Like Stryder and the Northern Rangers in The Lord of the Rings, you will be used to fight the shadows of fear and terror in the dark forests and murky swamps which lie outside the boundaries of the land of the Hobbits. Those Hobbits may never understand or appreciate the work you are called to do and the sacrifices God calls you to – but we do not fight the good fight for their approval. We do it because we already have His.”
    – Pastor Dave, Christian Goth site
    Pathetic. Absolutely fucking pathetic.
    And yet, the earnest hopes of all the D&D/LotR fanboys who hope and PRAY for the End Times to start so they can be real-life “adventurers” (just like Strider and the Rangers!!!) is no more pathetic than the Left Behind fans who yearn for the U.N. to take over America so they can become real-life “Tribulation Force” militiamen fighting the evil forces of the U.N., shooting weapons and killing bad guys. Left Behind books #2 and #3 both include paragraphs rhapsodizing over weaponry, all-terrain vehicles, and how much fun it is to sneak around fighting the “enemy.” In both cases, the scenarios positively STINK of petty wish-fulfilment.
    Sorry your lives are so void of any emotional fulfillment, guys. But God won’t send the End Times just to rescue you all from your shitty, boring, meaningless lives. You’ve gotta do that for yourselves!

  • Jeff Weskamp

    I think the Da Vinci Code’s hero’s lack of French is a sign of a very American syndrome: the belief that Americans don’t need to learn any other languages. Everybody in the world speaks English already.
    This was one of the coolest things about Joss Whedon’s Firefly series. In that series universe, Chinese was the official language of the Alliance. So all the characters used Chinese phrases, and read Chinese newspapers. That really shook some people up! They think, “But, but, America will still be Number One even in the far future, right? They’ll all speak English, like they do on Star Treak, right?”

  • the opoponax

    But, Jeff, in order to get an academic graduate degree from any American university, you have to pass a test proving that you have what’s called “reading knowledge” of a foreign language relevant to your particular field and specialization. “Reading knowledge” generally being considered being proficient enough to read scholarly works in the original which are relevant to your research. If you can read scholarly journals in a language, you should at least be able to get a sense of, like, “The curator is dead,” or “The cops are on their way.” This actually could have been used to great effect in the book, but Brown chooses to ignore it and specifically state that Langdon speaks not a word of French, for no particular reason that I can recall.
    Also, as stated above, given Langdon’s particular specialty, it would be very unlikely for his grad student skillz to be in any field except French.
    @ Geds — i should have phrased that differently: Anyone who reads the books and is interested enough to do further research. didn’t mean to imply that everyone who likes the books will necessarily attempt to find out anything more than a History Channel documentary on the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ or whatever. but i do know that Da Vinci Code fueled TONS of tie-in books about renaissance art history, christian heresies, secret cults and societies, etc. at the time the book first hit the best-seller lists, i was working in a museum bookstore, and people would come in looking for titles that featured the Last Supper and stuff on Leonardo in general, with all sorts of questions about what they’d read in the books, which i oh so unluckily got to dismiss for them. some even came in looking for books about “symbology”.
    @ Tonio — “I suspect that such suspicions are most common among the minority of fundamentalists…”
    do you actually live in the US, and/or have you spent much time here? i ask this out of genuine curiosity and as a non-notebook holder, not to be snarky. because a general sense of anti-intellectualism, and a pervasive feeling against the arts (and to an extent, any questioning of American Hegemonic Dogma) completely permeates the country, except perhaps for the absolute most ivory tower-ish communities (Cambridge, MA, Berkeley, CA, maybe Ann Arbor, MI). i run in a relatively erudite crowd in New York City, cultural capital of the US, and still encounter it. and it’s so pervasive in the heartland that other than a very few small and insular enclaves (certain college towns, a city here and there), people have a philistine outlook as a matter of course. there is very little respect for intellectual or artistic pursuits in the US, except in ways they can be either profitable or put to practical use.

  • Geds

    I second opo’s rant against American “culture.”
    Although it’s interesting being from Wheaton, IL, formerly the Holy Land West (Colorado Springs, CO has taken over). I’ve actually seen Wheaton College become something that actually deserves its reputation as “the Christian Harvard” (an ironic statement, considering that most of the Ivy League schools started as private Christian institutions) over the past few years and I’m convinced it’s because of the school’s proximity to Chicago and the fact that it’s pretty much impossible to keep yourself cloistered away when you’re so close to a place like Chicago (what with the University of Chicago, Northwestern, DePaul and whatnot).
    It’s why schools like Bob Jones, Oral Roberts and Liberty tend to be in bufu while Regent and Patrick Henry are rigidly controlled. It’s possible to find places where there is a genuine culture and that invariably seeps in, but with Americans if they have to try to find it, they won’t.

  • Bugmaster

    Is American culture really this bad, though ? I ask because I’ve formed an opinion very close to opo’s, and I don’t want to believe it :-( Is there some statistical means of verifying or debunking this ?

  • PepperjackCandy

    Brown chooses to ignore it and specifically state that Langdon speaks not a word of French, for no particular reason that I can recall.
    So that everything (puzzles, conversations, etc.) has to be in English. Which, as you know, was favored by (insert name of anti-RCC conspiracy here) used because it has no relationship to Latin at all.
    :headdesk:

  • the opoponax

    @ Geds, re “Christian Harvard” — isn’t Harvard the “Christian Harvard”? I mean, they still have their own divinity school. oh, wait. Real True Christian Harvard… i get it now…
    @ Bugmaster: i give you this short dramatic work, entitled “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up, Opoponax?”
    Setting: Flyover Country, USA
    Dramatis Personae: Authority Figure (parent, teacher, counselor, well meaning relative); The Opoponax (me).
    Act I
    authority figure: What do you plan on majoring in college, Opoponax?
    the opoponax: Theatre or film, I haven’t decided yet.
    authority figure: Oh. [pause] Well what do you plan to do with that kind of degree, exactly?
    the opoponax: I dunno. Maybe be an actor or make movies or be a film critic or something cool like that. I haven’t really figured it out yet. And hey, I could always change my mind, right?
    authority figure: Oh. [pause.] Well is there money in that? What are you chances of getting a job in something like that, anyway?
    the opoponax: I dunno. I’m just interested in it. I have plenty of time to figure out what I want to do when I grow up, right?
    authority figure: You know, Soandso over there was in Annie Get Your Gun at Flyover Community Theatre last year. She’s an English teacher at Flyover High now. She majored in education up at Flyover U. Is that something you’d be interested in?
    the opoponax: Um. [pause] Maybe? I really want to go out of state for college, anyway. And I don’t think I really would want to be a teacher, especially for high school. Especially here.
    authority figure: You sure are ambitious, aren’t you? Maybe you should be a pre-law major, and then you could go to law school and be really rich someday.
    the opoponax: Er. [pause] Yeah, sure. Maybe.
    FIN
    disclaimer — this conversation took place so many times between the ages of 10 and 18 that i can’t recall any one verbatim exchange. this is purely a dramatic reenactment.

  • Geds

    Real True Christian Harvard
    Exactly. That’s why I like to point out the irony…
    I also have similar stories to yours, opo. It’s tough being a history major and dealing with that, “So are you going to be a teacher?” question. I value the education I received and the fact that history and religious studies courses at the surprisingly underrated Western Illinois taught me an awful lot about how to think and write and argue and research, but it’s really stinkin’ hard to convince people that my education is valuable. Nobody quite seems to get that if you have a job listing that asks for an English or Journalism major that position can also be quite competently filled by a History major, since we do all the same things.

  • the opoponax

    yup. also, the idea of telling a 12 year old she shouldn’t bother to have any dreams or goals because they probably won’t make her rich in another 15 years is just wrong.
    the especially sad thing is that it gets ingrained in you — i can’t tell you how many times since becoming “an adult” that i’ve been on the opposite end of that conversation, trying to explain to a younger sibling or cousin that you can totally major in studio art or music performance or whatever, and still get that same job for a record label or graphic design firm you’d be going for if you majored in design or music management (or even jobs more tenuously connected like journalism or nonprofits or education, if you attended a liberal arts school), because you pretty much study all the same things, anyway.

  • 85% Duane

    .. which basically amounts to surfing the internet all day and then complaining when our company goes out of business.

  • Bugmaster

    So, now I’m curious, what did you end up majoring in, opo ? How did it turn out ? I’m curious because I’ve never had to make this kind of decision (dreams vs. money), because I got really lucky — my dream discipline, CS, got really profitable by the time I started applying to colleges. Hmm… now that I think about it, if I ever have any children (the horror ! the horror !), I’d probably discourage them in the same way… “What ? CS ? you want to work 20 hours a day at a dead-end job, getting kicked around all your life ? Why would you do that to yourself ?”

  • the opoponax

    anthropology. which i STILL got tons of “but that won’t make you rich, you should change to X.” which is why i know it’s not just the arts but also academia and really any kind of pursuit that isn’t hand-to-mouth practical.
    seriously, my mom once proposed i switch to the nursing program, because there’s such a huge demand for nurses across the country, and the starting pay is really good. the fact that i have no interest whatsoever in any career in the medical field didn’t even occur to her. just “why get a degree that will earn you $25K your first year out of school when you could get one that will earn you $40K?”
    as far as how it turned out, my junior year i started working for an art gallery for fun in my spare time, and then the a few months before graduation i got a (paying) job for a film production company. along the way i picked up lots of practical artsy skills like graphic design, styling, art handling, scenic and construction, so specializing in the art department seemed like the obvious choice. aside from my general liberal arts background (research, writing, cultural literacy, and the like), what i do for a living has nothing to do with what i studied in college.

  • the opoponax

    anthropology. which i STILL got tons of “but that won’t make you rich, you should change to X.” which is why i know it’s not just the arts but also academia and really any kind of pursuit that isn’t hand-to-mouth practical.
    seriously, my mom once proposed i switch to the nursing program, because there’s such a huge demand for nurses across the country, and the starting pay is really good. the fact that i have no interest whatsoever in any career in the medical field didn’t even occur to her. just “why get a degree that will earn you $25K your first year out of school when you could get one that will earn you $40K?”
    as far as how it turned out, my junior year i started working for an art gallery for fun in my spare time, and then the a few months before graduation i got a (paying) job for a film production company. along the way i picked up lots of practical artsy skills like graphic design, styling, art handling, scenic and construction, so specializing in the art department seemed like the obvious choice. aside from my general liberal arts background (research, writing, cultural literacy, and the like), what i do for a living has nothing to do with what i studied in college.

  • Tonio

    Opoponax,
    I’ve lived in the US all my life, and I’m well aware of the anti-intellectualism that you describe. I’m a huge fan of Harlan Ellison and he has attacked that phenomenon in many of his nonfiction pieces. I’ve met plenty of men who regard male college graduates as effeminate because they don’t do “good, honest labor.”
    My point about fundamentalism had to do with your phrase “general suspicion.” I read that phrase as referring not to simple opposition to intellectualism, but to the specific, paranoid belief that intellectuals and artists are actively working to subvert America. That is the belief that seems to be most pervasive among fundamentalists and the commentators to pander to them, such as Ann Coulter. A moderate Christian might suspect Dan Brown of simply trying to make money with questionable theories about Jesus. A fundamentalist might assume that Brown is deliberately trying to destroy Christianity.

  • Geds

    Bugmaster:
    Somewhere upthread you asked the question of whether or not opo’s (and, by virtue of our seeming agreement on such things, my) opinion of the state of cultural affairs in the country is valid.
    The problem is that the question is hard to parse and the results are harder to prove. There are plenty of little pockets of immense culture (often in the so-called “blue states,” although as a Chicagoan who went to school in the nether regions of the state of Illinois, I can tell you that defining an entire state by Presidential ballot is a mistaken idea). We have amazingly good schools for any pursuit, we have a lot of brilliant authors, academics, musicians and moviemakers. On a macro level you could point to Harvard, The New Yorker, and publishers like the various university presses and places like McSweeney’s and say that a lot of America has culture.
    Unfortunately, we also have the World’s Worst Books, The Da Vinci Code, and, y’know, FOX. Those tend to get better distribution.
    Moreover, we have a lot of small towns. I went to school in Macomb, IL, a town of 20,000 people that was the biggest metropolitan area for about fifty miles. In Macomb there was a two-screen movie theater, a used book store, a Christian bookstore (that went out of business my last semester out there) and the Wal-Mart. That, plus whatever passed through Western Illinois University (which had a surprisingly good cultural program. They brought in a lot of jazz acts, a few big stage acts and even had the Russian National Ballet in to perform Swan Lake when I was out there) was it for culture.
    I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the book section at a Wal-Mart, but it ain’t pretty. There are a few bestsellers (Da Vinci Code, World’s Worst Books, etc.), a lot of random paperbacks and whatever flavor of the month self-help or vaguely Christian (Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, etc.) crap happens to be out. It’s garbage.
    Now, I’m sure that there will be the old, “But now we’ve got the internets,” argument, because Amazon solves all problems. It really doesn’t, at least not where reading is concerned.
    You need to have a bookstore, a good bookstore, to really develop an appreciation for reading. Some books have to be picked up, looked at and opened to be understood (I experienced that with Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). Other books disappoint and just don’t work. If you don’t have a chance to feel and read them, you can order them and get really disappointed about the idea of ever doing that again.
    Once you’ve developed an understanding of reading or an author, Amazon or whatever is a great resource. But that rarely, if ever, happens spontaneously.
    I can’t tell you how depressing it was to not have a good bookstore while I was out in Macomb. I would literally stand in the book section of the Wal-Mart and be saddened or angry.
    There are a lot of Americans in Flyover State, USA who live in small towns and have a Wal-Mart or less to depend on for reading, or any, material. It’s possible to develop culture if you live there, but you have to work for it. Not only do you not have access to books, you also probably can’t easily get to plays or concerts (if you’re lucky you’ll have a WIU, but then you’re a slave to what they can bring in and, trust me, it’s not the same no matter how you slice it) or museums or art galleries or even a really good restaurant. It’s depressing, really.
    Of course, there are those who live near all of those things who still don’t do partake. For them I can offer no excuses.

  • Ken

    I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the book section at a Wal-Mart, but it ain’t pretty. There are a few bestsellers (Da Vinci Code, World’s Worst Books, etc.), a lot of random paperbacks and whatever flavor of the month self-help or vaguely Christian (Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, etc.) crap happens to be out. It’s garbage.
    That came up at a LosCon author’s panel several years ago. What happened was that a couple years ago Wal-Mart centralized all their book buying and distribution at corporate HQ, replacing the previous system where each store manager ordered their own stock for the book sections. In place of this local buying/stocking, a central ordering and distribution point for all Wal-Mart book sections for the entire country.
    And what did Wal-Mart HQ use for their central planning of book section orders? Why, whatever shows up atop the NYT Bestseller List, of course!

  • Ken

    This was one of the coolest things about Joss Whedon’s Firefly series. In that series universe, Chinese was the official language of the Alliance. So all the characters used Chinese phrases, and read Chinese newspapers. That really shook some people up! They think, “But, but, America will still be Number One even in the far future, right? They’ll all speak English, like they do on Star Treak, right?” — Jeff Weskamp
    Yes, they will, and they’ll have Transporters, and Replicators, and Phasers, and Holodecks, and aliens (just like humans but with funny foreheads) on every planet of every star, and…
    One of the essays in the collection Finding Serenity puts partial blame for killing Firefly on Eugene Wesley Roddenberry. Star Trek established formula tropes for popular space-opera SF as Lord of the Rings established the “Elves, Dwarves, etc” tropes of subsequent fantasy; conventions that hardened to the point of dogma defining the genre. Firefly took just the opposite route, coincidentally similar to early Traveller — small-ships, free-traders, limited future-tech, and humans. So “it wasn’t really SF”. Firefly’s roots were also the Western — that uniquely American mythic genre that’s now fallen into disuse, replaced by the curled upper lip and ironic quip of the Seinfeld Sneer. (Could diverge onto an urban-vs-rural culture, Blue-vs-Red state attitude tangent at this point.) And it was “naturalistic”, i.e. realistic to the point of grittiness instead of the shiny sleekness of Trek tech.
    But one fact remains: In a naturalistic spacefaring future, for every big shiny Enterprise doing its official thing, you’re going to have hundreds of thousands of Serenitys making their rounds, trying to survive, and getting into and out of trouble.
    Mal: “We’re still flying.”
    Doc Simon: “That’s not much.”
    Mal: “It’s enough.”

  • Geds

    Ken:
    Your Wal-Mart story is the sort of thing that makes me want to hurt people. It’s not just a bad idea, it’s a self-perpetuating bad idea.
    Also, there’s probably truth to the Star Trek creating dogma thing. It’s also funny, since as you go deeper in to the Star Trek shows, they themselves get grittier.
    I never got in to Firefly, but I’ve always been a big fan of Babylon 5 and it’s spin-off Crusade. Those shows managed to keep the big, flashy space ship concept as a central idea, but spent a lot of time exploring the worlds surrounding (or even the subsets within) those central places. Things tended to get ugly really fast once you started going to those places…

  • Tonio

    “the Western — that uniquely American mythic genre that’s now fallen into disuse, replaced by the curled upper lip and ironic quip of the Seinfeld Sneer. (Could diverge onto an urban-vs-rural culture, Blue-vs-Red state attitude tangent at this point.)”
    Ken, I suspect the Western fell into disuse simply because Americans feel less connection to the Old West than their ancestors. As I understand it, the genre arose when America was undergoing rapid industrial change and when the “frontier” was still a recent memory. Perhaps city dwellers longed for the freedom that the romanticized Old West seemed to offer. Reminds me of how white Southerners romanticized the Old South for decades after Reconstruction. Reminds me also of how the 1950s became romanticized by conservatives and by others weary and frightened of the turmoil in the decades that followed.

  • hapax

    Geds: “There are a lot of Americans in Flyover State, USA who live in small towns and have a Wal-Mart or less to depend on for reading, or any, material.”
    Umm. I’ve spent almost my entire life in small town Flyover USA, sometimes in towns that would count themselves blessed to have a Wal-Mart, and they all have this amazing building called *a public library*. Lots of books, movies, music, that you can touch and sample and listen too and read. And the amazing thing is, you don’t have to buy anything — it’s all TAX SUPPORTED!
    (whistles innocently, waiting for the ScottBot’s circuits to explode)

  • Geds

    You’ve got a point with the public library thing, hapax.
    I grew up in Wheaton, IL, home to the Wheaton Public Library, which consistently scores in the top 10 of public libraries in the country. It’s a damn good library. I haven’t been there in a couple of years and they’ve remodeled it since then, but I often found that the community college had a better library if I wanted to do research and the various bookstores had better access to fiction materials.
    Meanwhile, I have little, if any, personal experience with local libraries in smaller towns. However, libraries tend to lose funding rather quickly when times get tight and they tend to be at the mercy of the buying habits of head librarians/boards/local electorates. And, in my experience out in the wilds of western Illinois, a lot of little towns don’t even have one, anyway.
    I admit it was a greivous oversight to forget to mention libraries, but I also don’t think those are the magic bullet that solves the problem.

  • the opoponax

    regarding libraries:
    yes, small towns will tend to have some sort of public library. but there generally won’t be much selection, and what is there tends towards childrens books, classics, bestsellers, and nonfiction/reference. you’re unlikely to head over to a small-town library and find the latest issue of McSweeny’s Quarterly, or a comprehensive selection of contemporary poetry, or critical theory texts, or more obscure titles locals aren’t likely to ask for. you’d be unlikely to find the work of the past few years’ major prizewinners (Booker, National Book Award, Pulitzer, Nobel, unless the titles are major bestsellers outside of their critical prestige). while some of this is available through inter-library loan, unless your small local library is part of a much larger network that includes major urban areas, how likely is it that the other libraries in the county or state will have what you’re looking for?
    furthermore, the way libraries stock and display books doesn’t encourage people to branch out into a form they might not have been familiar with before. you generally go in looking for a particular title or genre, or work by a certain author. libraries aren’t geared towards browsing in the way bookstores are, because they generally don’t care whether you pick anything up or not. they’re not in the business of tempting you to look at something you normally wouldn’t. even if your library can get you Christine di Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies on interlibrary loan through the big state university, how likely are you to have heard of this book?
    which also relates to why Amazon doesn’t work well as a fix for the lack of good bookstores in rural America — again, great if you know what you’re looking for, not so much for getting people to branch out. Billy Ray Jones out in Flyover, Arkansas, will click over to Amazon, order the latest Dan Brown or Harry Potter, and never know or care that Amazon can also get you a subscription to the New Yorker, or the offerings of Softskull (R.I.P) and Semiotexte. at least in a good bookstore, you might see something on a table or in a display and pick it up, even though it might be a bit of a departure for you.
    The funny thing is that i have the same complaint about the ubiquitous red-state chain Books-A-Million. the entrance to the store is crowded with displays for the NYT bestsellers, quite literally a wall of garbage in the case of my hometown outlet. you have to navigate beyond all the bells and whistles to find anything of real substance, and the literature, poetry, history, etc. (AKA “real books”) are stocked on dry shelves with no eye-catching displays or even an occasional forward-facing cover to attract the eye. there are never tables set aside for non-bestsellers or side-of-shelf displays highlighting a subject area or literary movement you may not be familiar with. Their stores are designed almost explicitly to keep people away of anything of real value, and draw the eye only to Danielle Steele and Left Behind. it’s as if the book distributors and marketers deliberately want to take the focus off anything that might actually be quality, so as to fool people into thinking that John Grisham is our generation’s Hemingway.

  • Drak Pope

    This is why I love Prince William County, Virginia. Their libraries have everything! It’s like the government wants people to read books! Eerie!

  • Jeff

    you generally go in looking for a particular title or genre, or work by a certain author. libraries aren’t geared towards browsing in the way bookstores are, because they generally don’t care whether you pick anything up or not.
    This might be true for non-fiction, but most libraries I’ve been to are more likely to mash all the fiction together, regardless of genre, than the local bookstore. Since the works are usually sorted by author, you’ll find one author’s works and the works of others with simular last name (regardless of genre) nestled together. If a person has any curiosity, they’ll look at any books that look interesting. (If they don’t, they won’t find those books or magazines under ANY circumstances.)
    Sonoma County is not a large library system, but the Sebastopol branch (where my mom lives) can get their hands on pretty m uch any generally available book.

  • Bugmaster

    My library experience got a lot better when they finally introduced the interlibrary loan. It was like the World Wide Web of Books. My local library didn’t have much in the way of fiction or reference materials…

  • hapax

    opoponax, seriously, what public libraries do you go to? And when were you last there? I’ve worked in public libraries in (counts quickly) seven different small towns, and they all had selections far more diverse than any but the largest bookstore. Admittedly, they weren’t as well equipped for serious research as a university library, but most of them were able to compete pretty well with a community college library. And I’ve never worked in one that wasn’t hooked up with a world-wide ILL system. (For that matter, you can go there yourself. Go to http://www.oclc.org or http://www.worldcat.org)
    As for “libraries … generally don’t care whether you pick anything up or not. they’re not in the business of tempting you to look at something you normally wouldn’t.” Uhh. I don’t even know what to say. Encouraging people to pick up materials, tempting them to look at things they normally wouldn’t, is pretty much the definition of my entire professional career. It’s certainly in the first line of every mission statement of every public library I know. And, in sheer practical terms, every public librarian knows that the only way they can compete with fire departments and trash collectors for tax dollars is to market, market, market their collections and services.
    And, with respectful courtesy, I’d like to point out that you have a pretty snobby attitude towards what materials “small-town locals” are likely to have heard of and request. Libraries here in Flyover Country not only subscribe to McSweeney’s, we even have folks who write for it. Imagine that!

  • Phughessonofv

    Has anyone ever put the goverment of America in the place the UN takes in this story? Think about it. Who else could have the might to unilaterally take over the world? China, maybe.


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