My lunch companion was once a student of theology (and hails from one of the ten most religious states in the nation, incidentally), and I told her I’ve long thought that if I were to write a mystical fantasy about Elvis, I would make the tenth anniversary of his death a key moment. It just so happens that that day, in 1987, was also the so-called Harmonic Convergence, the day proclaimed by New Age nuts like Shirley MacLaine to be the time when New Age consciousness would sweep the planet (unless it happened in 2000…or 2012…or…).
It also seems as though it was right around then that the trope of “Elvis sightings” and “Elvis’s ghost” stories became an enduring part of pop culture. Why not, then, declare the Harmonic Convergence a success? Clearly, it resurrected Elvis.
While Elvis may not have set up his mystical Kingdom in this world since then, he is part of an American pop culture that has largely taken over the planet (an acquaintance of mine knows an Italian would-be screenwriter who says even the Italians want to make films in English now, since Hollywood blockbusters dominate in so much of the world). Dinesh D’Souza has argued that the perceived threat of the American pop juggernaut — with all the sex and violence it contains — is a big reason that so many people overseas such as radical Muslims hate us, and that maybe we should thus give a more conservative tone to our cultural exports for both moral and tactical reasons.
Setting aside the moral considerations, I think this is completely backwards tactically. If American pop culture is such a juggernaut overseas precisely because it contains women in bikinis wielding machine guns and so forth — and if these images really have the power to erode people’s loyalty to retrograde Islamist regimes — then the more bikinis the better, I say. We might anger some terrorists in the short term, but long-term, they’ll all be dancing to our crazy rock n’ roll beach party music.
Without dropping any bombs, we’ve basically achieved the conqueror’s dream of turning them into us. And not in a wholly morally-arbitrary way. Those rock n’ rollers around the world are drawn to American-style displays because they smack of freedom. I hope D’Souza wouldn’t suggest, for instance, that we’d be better off strategically if the Muslim-Hindu punk bands who were recently in the news dropped the decadence and took up classical violin.
This is one culture war we can win — and hardly an unpatriotic or un-American one. As my friend Stephanie Gutmann, who has written about military matters, once said, U.S. soldiers are often very patriotic and conservative — and they sure love strippers.
Of course, D’Souza is wrong a lot. As I’ve lamented before, he started out sympathetic in my eyes, criticizing campus political correctness in his book Illiberal Education in terms that spoke to my own non-leftist-at-Brown experience. Since then, he has become an opportunistic professional sophist willing to jump on any high school debate-level argument or ironic jab that seems likely to get a chuckle out of less-than-analytical audiences who are already on his side on whatever his topic of the moment is (Reagan, the evils of biotech, the arrogance of atheists).
It should not surprise me, then, though it does sadden me, that he has recently stooped to peddling “near-death experience” stories (often tunnel vision and some dreamlike images of people — the sort of thing also easily induced by riding high-speed centrifuges for pilot training or for that matter by falling asleep) as if they are evidence of, as the title puts it, Life After Death. This is just sad — and very 1970s, I might add (which is around when many of the reports of near-death experiences he touts were first noted — when people weren’t busy chasing Bigfoot or making up fanciful explanations for ships getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle).
As a magician/psychologist named Richard Wiseman ably demonstrated to a big audience at an NYC Skeptics event Tuesday night (the day before our epic deli debate, in which Katz’s, though beloved, did not prevail), the big recurring problem with the human brain is that it easily anticipates certain familiar narratives and reads them into misleading or confusing events, leading to misinterpretations and hasty conclusions. Your eye follows where the coin seems to be headed — and thus misses the fact that it never left the magician’s hand. (Wiseman had a whole roomful of skeptics thinking he was an incredible reader of subtle body language, which he pretended to be examining to determine which of several suggested cards a woman was thinking about — when in fact he’d simply peeked at it without us noticing.)
Similarly, if someone tells you “I am about to describe experiences that may indicate an afterlife,” and you’ve already got a fairly Christian notion of what an afterlife ought to look like, you almost pride yourself on thinking “A-ha! That sounds like Heaven!” when someone says “I saw people all around me — people from my past.” A moment’s reflection, though, ought to make us realize that basically everyone you know is from your past, some of them even dead, but these people also appear in your dreams without you waking up convinced you must have non-materially intersected with their souls during the night. If atheist A.J. Ayer’s near-death experience involved more of a red glow than a white glow, D’Souza is only too happy to imply that Ayer may have been glimpsing the Bad Place instead of Heaven — while ignoring people who saw, say, a purple haze or lots of those squiggly lines you see when you close your eyes really hard.
I think the fellow named Bort in this article, who’s trying to sell a potato that has a cross-shape in it, probably has the most realistic attitude toward these sorts of read-into-it-what-you-will phenomena: Don’t believe they have much significance, but be ready to sell them to people who do.
Lest it sound like I’m suggesting that only religious folk fall for easy narratives — when in fact all of us do — I must note, as a professional debunker, the absurdity of recurring claims about the numerous sexual conquests of male movie stars and athletes, the latest being the Drudge-linked story about Warren Beatty supposedly having had sex with 12,775 women. Foolishly, the article uses all sorts of analogies to town populations to suggest how many women that is (and by implication how amazing Beatty must be). Not once does the article make the calculation that renders the whole story nonsensical: HOW MUCH TIME WOULD THIS HAVE TAKEN?
Let’s assume he bedded exactly 12,775 women over the course of say, sixty years years since he entered puberty. That would mean approximately one new woman every 1.7 days for his entire post-puberty life. I’m not saying that’s physically or logically impossible, but does anyone in his right mind think that’s what Warren Beatty has actually been doing? Are we to believe that even if he’s a sex maniac he never wanted to have sex with some women on many temporally-separated occasions? Are we to ignore the fact that he’s been married and had long-term girlfriends? Does he never take non-sexual vacations? Doesn’t he, you know, make films or something that I’d imagine can be rather time-consuming? Does he not have friends to visit or meetings to go to that do not involve new women to have sex with?
Would he not at some point find it easier to have a stable of, say, twenty women who had sex with him over and over again like a harem, if his powers of attraction are indeed so great, rather than having to continually scour new parts of town for women he hasn’t already been with? The whole thing’s ridiculous, and so are the old Wilt Chamberlain stories. And do we really think men as superhumanly indiscriminate as we’re asked to believe they are would keep careful statistics?
I’m generally happy with just one, myself.