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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


When Star Wars unexpectedly launched a cult following in 1977, the religious overtones of the word "cult" were significant. Volumes of fan fiction and piles of merchandise reflected the chord the movie struck with a faithful following. It wasn't just the zooming spaceships and flashing light sabers that seized viewers, it was a quasi-theological portrayal of a cosmic force of good over evil and the pilgrimage of a young knight with a holy calling (see Roy Anker on the trilogy's theology).

Twenty-two years later, The Matrix found a similar following with even more overt theological allusions and a none-too-subtle messianic theme. This time around, the age of video games, the Internet, and DVD's (a technology-drenched existence the movie was trying to call into question) extended the reach of the movie's intriguing ideas about reality, truth, and evil (The Matrix was the first movie to sell 1 million DVD's). The Matrix Reloaded, the first of two sequels, took in over $90 million over the weekend, the most lucrative opening weekend of an R-rated movie to date. Despite mixed reviews, the movie (with the trilogy's first look at Zion, the holy city) has inspired a new round of exploration of its theology and philosophy.

• Adam Gopnik's New Yorker review of The Matrix Reloaded tries to trace the philosophical heritage of the trilogy. Although he makes some mistakes in his treatment of Philip Dick, and ignores the role of William Gibson's Neuromancer in inspiring the term "matrix," the piece is a introduction to the history of the illusory reality theme in science fiction. He even brings in a medieval Christian sect called the Cathars.

The Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth—their Neo—had shown mankind a way beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief that swords do not exist.



Follow-up to last week's weblog on CEO salaries:

• I meant to round out my disdain for the state of runaway executive pay with this item from Seattle Weekly. A Boston-based group of upper-income workers calling themselves Responsible Wealth is speaking out for stewardship from an unlikely rung of the economic ladder, and counts Bill Gates Sr. among their supporters:


• The first two e-mails I received in response covered a range of reactions:

"Those who decry the salaries of CEO complain of greed, while indulging in greed's close relative - jealousy. Furthermore, if these CEO's made the same amount of money but gave sizable portions to charity, would there still be an issue?"

"I was troubled by the final paragraph of that section of your blog. I would guess that among your readers are a fair number of evangelicals and political conservatives, but the apparently obligatory need to close the section by stating that one is not aligning oneself with the "quasi-Marxist Left" or liberals was deflating. Is your readership really that incapable of seeing ethically bad behavior for what it is and calling a spade a spade, without running it through their political litmus test first (i.e. "Does this sound too liberal?")?"

John Hancock CEO's salary comes under fire, from the Boston Globe .


From the Washington Post:

BHOPAL, India—Digvijay Singh is by most accounts a modern-minded man. Educated as an engineer, the urbane and aristocratic chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh has won international recognition for his efforts on conservation, Internet access in rural areas, and affirmative action for women and the lowest castes. How, then, to explain his recent infatuation with cow urine?. … "There's a tremendous medicinal value," he said, adding that cow urine also makes "an excellent pesticide" when combined with leaves from India's ubiquitous neem tree. … Cows and cow products are sacred to Hindus, who represent 82 percent of India's billion-plus people. Touting the wonders of cow urine, analysts say, is part of Singh's strategy to neutralize the appeal of the Hindu-nationalist doctrine— called "Hindutva"—at the core of the BJP's platform. More broadly, it is an example of how the Hindu-nationalist agenda is coming to dominate political discourse in India, drowning out debate on other topics and sowing doubts about the country's future as a secular, pluralistic democracy.


On an ordinary Friday about 7 p.m., Matthew Medford dropped his wife off at Logan International Airport, but instead of heading north to the comfort of his suburban home, Medford took a detour. He found himself speeding through the bowels of the dark city and across the Charles River on a bridge illuminated by soft bluish lights—and is still in awe of the experience … Fast and easy—in a city of lousy directions, crazy drivers and insidious traffic jams, Medford's drive seemed almost un-Bostonian. Yet his experience has begun to be repeated thousands of times a day as the promise of the Big Dig—officially known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project—has finally begun to be fulfilled. The nation's largest highway project, which is burying Interstate 93 with significantly increased capacity underneath downtown Boston, opened a major tunnel in January linking the airport in South Boston to the Massachusetts Turnpike and siphoning thousands of cars off the city's center roads. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A41324-2003Apr16.html


Big Dig's pace, price is a cautionary tale, says the Boston Globe.


Two items clipped from the Canadian Globe and Mail:

• The U.S. flag is required to follow a 10-to-19 height-to-length ratio, according to a 1912 ruling by President William Taft. But hardly any do, notes Whitney Smith of Winchester, Mass., founder of the Flag Research Center (and said-to-be coiner of the term "vexillology," or the study of flags). "You'll find manufacturers are going to make what[ever] they want," which is usually a ratio of either 2-to-3, 3-to-5, or 5-to-8, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The exception, he added, are Stars and Stripes flags made in Canada, where all flags are made in the elongated 1-to-2 ratio. In other words, the commercially available American flags that most closely resemble the "real" thing are all made in Canada.

• More on pangrams, sentences that use the alphabet from A-Z:

"Try this one," writes Jim Mitchell of LaSalle, Ont. " 'Pack my bags with five or six dozen liquor jugs.' I was a radioman in the RCN in the early 1960s. 'The quick brown fox [jumps over the lazy dog]' used to be sent over the radio teletype broadcast when there was no message traffic. One day the 'Pack my bags … ' came over. I guess someone in Halifax had little to do."

"Dmitri Borgmann, in his book Language on Vacation, offered: 'Waltz, nymph, for quick jigs vex Bud,' " notes Stewart Brown. "This is a very fine pangram, using only 28 letters, i and u being repeated, but it is marred by use of a proper name. I have modified this to: 'Waltz, nymph, for bad quick jigs vex,' which now repeats a and i. Because this has only 28 letters, avoids proper names and is a logical sentence, I submit it as the best pangram yet devised."

Previous Scrapbook: the autonomy of television writing


For links with an * you can log in with member name and password of "bcread"

• If Flight 93 had left on time and gone unchallenged by passengers, September 11 may have gouged an even greater wound in Washington, D.C. than in New York City. One think tank scholar wondered what would happen to government in the vacuum following an annihilating attack on Washington. He is convinced that Al Qaeda is coming back for the Capitol building and has lobbied lawmakers to make a backup plan. "Operating under the deceptively soothing name Continuity of Government Commission," the Atlantic Monthly reports, "these political insiders and constitutional scholars spend their time debating macabre questions: Precisely how many House members must die to trigger a state of emergency?"



Here's one museum in the nation's capital that isn't about the nation:

D.C. finally gets a city history museum, says the Washington Post.

You say you want to be governor? Once the preferred launching pad for a presidential campaign—you get to call the shots, while Congressmen have to quibble and compromise—state executive mansions are not enviable places right now, says Time. With 49 governors required by state law to balance their budgets, and their "rainy day funds" all but run dry, collectively the states are short $100 million. California's Gray Davis, once a rising star in his party, is looking at a 24 percent approval rating, and 24 newly elected governors are receiving a rough introduction to their jobs.



My Chicago Tribune story last fall on women running for governor en route to the White House

The dollar is down, and that's good news, says Business Week. The U.S. dollar soared in the nineties against foreign currency, expanding the trade deficit by flooding the country with cheaply priced imports. Now the dollar has plunged 23 percent against the euro since January, and 12 percent against the yen. In the short run that will be a drag on the U.S. economy, Business Week says in an adjacent column, but already the declining dollar shows signs of raising foreign profits by U.S. companies and boosting the stock market.

http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash … .


-The Canadian dollar and Mexican peso have rebounded too far for their countries' own economic good, says the New York Times.*

-New U.S. $20 bill to be tinged with color, says the Washington Post.

• Each year, they attract more Americans than the major pro sports combined. But what good are zoos to animals? Do zoos advance the cause of research and preservation, as they claim, or are they just another diversion in an entertainment culture? Jeffrey Hyson, who is writing a history of American zoos, leans toward the latter in an op-ed in the Washington Post. "In recent years . . . zoo boosters have increasingly insisted that they're moving away from outdated notions of recreation and entertainment and embracing the nobler goals of conservation, research and education," Hyson writes. "Truth be told, however, a shortage of funds and staff prevents most zoos from making more than minimal contributions to the cause of wildlife preservation.


• We watched the war with Iraq from our living rooms, while embedded reporters saw it from the front lines, but few saw it the way Richard Dillon did. As supervisor of Mortuary Affairs—which recovers and attends to the remains of dead soldiers—he may have had the "hardest job in the army," says the Weekly Standard. At his station in a backstretch of the Kuwaiti International Airport, death arrives with a relentless and awful ordinariness, without the flashes and noises of TV news reports, but perhaps with more poignancy. "It is a place. … where all the editorial-page flapjaw about 'sacrifice' becomes haltingly, disturbingly real," says writer Matt Labash in one of the best-written first-person accounts of the Iraq conflict. "'I've seen the face of nearly every person that's died in this war,' Dillon says. 'It's more than just another war to me.'" http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles … .


What it was like to be embedded, by Chicago Tribune reporters.*

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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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