For the past several months I’ve been receiving e-mails from fans of my novella, City of Truth, asking how I feel about the recent Ricky Gervais comedy, The Invention of Lying.
The parallels between my novella and Gervais’ movie are many. Both posit societies in which mendacity is unknown. Both sport plot devices that turn on terminal illness. Both exploit their central conceits to spin out jokes ranging from the restrained to the obvious. In City of Truth, a prominent clinic is called the Center for the Palliative Treatment of Hopeless Disease. In The Invention of Lying, a retirement home is labeled A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.
Is there something unsavory afoot here? City of Truth first appeared nineteen years ago in England, Gervais’s native country. Since 1993 the American trade paperback edition has been in print, and several independent film producers have optioned the property over the years.
That said, I honestly don’t believe that any conscious or overt plagiarism has occurred, and I’ve been advised by several Hollywood insiders that I would be wasting my time to take my case to court. Moreover, as a secular humanist, I must admit that I’m glad The Invention of Lying got made. While I found most of Gervais’s movie tedious and unfunny, I thought the second act did a marvelous job of articulating the “Emperor’s New Clothes” essence of the God hypothesis.
I'll conclude these meditations by thanking those bloggers who’ve compared The Invention of Lying with City of Truth and judged my novella the more resonant effort.
SCOUNDREL OF THE YEAR
So there I was, all set to convert to Judaism, my war with God having finally ended, and then along comes the imperially pious Senator Joseph Lieberman. Sorry, Yahweh. Tough darts, Adoni. The deal is off. If You cannot be bothered to inform Mr. Lieberman that You are personally revolted by his gelding of health-care reform in the United States, then I’m going back to worshipping trees.
“I have a responsibility to my constituents, really to my conscience, to be here on something as important as health-care reform,” Lieberman told the congressional newspaper The Hill, explaining why, on a recent Saturday – that is, Sabbath – afternoon, he subjected himself to a four-mile, snowy walk to the Capitol from his Georgetown synagogue.
Translation: “I have a responsibility to the numerous insurance companies of Connecticut to guarantee that this bill will maximize the profits they reap from human suffering, and while I was once vociferously in favor of a Medicare buy-in, there was ultimately no way I could reconcile that position with my inveterate narcissism.”
To their eternal credit, several Connecticut rabbis have stepped forward to remind the senator that his faith does not necessarily countenance such cruelty. Alas, these worthies are of the Reform and Conservative persuasions, and so their pleas failed to penetrate Lieberman’s deaf Orthodox ears. It occurs to me that the sort of Judaism observed by Lieberman is depressingly consistent with the practices recommended by the God of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, that fiend who seems to have no particular problem with child sacrifice but who in His dubious generosity is willing to let the Israelites “ransom” their first-born with cattle and shekels.
Now and forever, Senator Lieberman, the blood of innocents is on your hands. But, sad to say, apparently not on your conscience.
SPEAKING OF SCOUNDRELS
I cannot wrap up The Passionate Rationalist for 2009 without mentioning the visit that Michael Behe, avatar of Intelligent Design, made to Penn State in March. He arrived under the auspices of an undergraduate organization called the Science and the Bible Club, whose “main purpose” is to “research connections and relationships between science and scripture.” Although their website doesn’t say so, I would infer that the Science and Bible Club is a branch of the nationwide Lewis Carroll Cabbages and Kings Society, whose main purpose is to research connections and relationships between paired entities that have no conceivable connection or relationship to each other.
Behe’s presentation was open to the public, and so I gritted my teeth, girded my loins, left the house, and, accompanied by son Chris, walked to the Thomas Building. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I thought perhaps Behe would attempt to wow the crowd with the more technical aspects of his “argument” for Intelligent Design Implicit Onto-Theology, discoursing on certain biological puzzles that he believes cannot be addressed except in reference to the supernatural. But no. Instead Behe chose to waste everyone’s time with a smug PowerPoint presentation trashing Richard Dawkins, dissing Charles Darwin, celebrating the irreducible complexity of mousetraps, and setting us straight about Mount Rushmore: if you believe this second-rate piece of sculpture didn’t happen by accident, then you are tacitly assenting to theism.
In short, an embarrassing, disingenuous, and self-serving performance, topped off with Behe whining about Judge Jones’s landmark decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the case that put the lie to IDIOT and dealt Behe such a humiliating personal defeat. Evidently Jones’s 139-page opinion included certain rhetorical flourishes that he failed to attribute to their original author, a scientist who testified on evolution’s behalf. If that’s the sourest grape Behe can find in Jones’s magnificent essay, I would say that, as a device for impoverishing the minds of school children, IDIOT has reached its apex and has nowhere to go but down.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
The evening ended on a happy note. During the Q & A session, a handful of students – presumably not members of the Science and Bible Club – stepped forward to challenge the presenter. I would paraphrase their wonderfully impertinent questions as follows: “Why are you lying to us, Dr. Behe?” “Why are you attacking a caricature of Darwin’s idea, as opposed to the idea itself?” “Why do you deliberately misrepresent the intentions behind recent laboratory experiments keyed to evolutionary theory?”
Evidently the biology courses taught at my local university are something to write home about. These young men and women had their facts straight. I personally don’t care whether we ever win another damn football game, but I was proud of Penn State that night. Bless you, kids. You brought a tear to my eye.
I didn’t get to ask my own question of Behe, but I did approach him at the lectern afterwards. “Doesn’t the natural history of the AIDS virus suggest that Darwinian evolution is more than the inconsequential sideshow you make it out to be?” I inquired. Behe proceeded to best me with the Argument from Because I Said So. I threw up my hands and said, “Okay, you got me, God created AIDS – though that fact makes me wonder about His alleged benevolence.”
Whereupon a student, presumably a member of the Science and Bible Club, turned to me and said, helpfully, “It’s a fallen world. Of course there’s an AIDS virus. How could it be otherwise?”
Foolishly, I decided to pursue the conversation. “Does that mean that the scientists working on an AIDS vaccine are blasphemers? Are they miscreants arrogantly tempting to undo the sin of Adam?”
The student said nothing but instead marched merrily away, eager to lend her deaf ears to Joseph Lieberman.
Merry Solstice, everyone!