Sir Thomas More (image via Wikipedia)
       Kim Davis (Image via Gawker)

Every once in a while you just get a stroke of luck as a blogger.  I was thinking about Thomas More because of my post last week, and then the news this week has been dominated by the story of Kim Davis, the Kentucky Clerk of Courts who refuses to certify marriage licenses for gay couples in her county.

For background: More refused on religious grounds to acknowledge King Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn.  He resigned his post as Chancellor because of his refusal to compromise his beliefs.  That wasn’t good enough for the King, who ultimately had him executed over his continued refusal.

I’m not even a religious person, but I do kind of admire More’s guts.  Somebody really did need to stand up to the King.

Fast forward about five centuries: Kim Davis also refuses to recognize marriages on religious grounds.  Is she an outstanding example of defending one’s principles, like More?


Notice the bit above where More resigned.  Davis refuses to do that.  She is effectively saying that her beliefs trump the rule of law.  More never said that–he just said that he would not carry out something that violated his beliefs, and refused to be part of a system that required him to do so.  Davis is trying to have it both ways: be part of the system and put her beliefs over and above the system itself.

And that is the difference between being a principled martyr taking a stand and somebody just trying to make a scene.

I watched the movie The Other Boleyn Girl on TV last night.  It tries to portray Anne Boleyn as a manipulative, scheming character, but the problem is she’s actually one of the most sympathetic character in the movie.  I think the overall point was about how terrible and unfair the aristocratic system of politics-by-who-marries-whom,  but since Anne is a prominent victim of that, it’s odd to make her an unlikeable character.

The performances were quite good, but the characters felt empty, especially the personality-free Mary Boleyn.  My thought was “well, no wonder she’s ‘the other Boleyn girl’–she’s not as interesting! So, why do we care about her again?”

I’ll admit that I’ve never been terribly gripped by the that period in history–not sure why.  I think it’s because almost every man seems to have been named “Henry” or “Thomas”, which makes things hard to follow.  You have Henry the VIII, who had issues with the Church, and because of it was at odds with Sir Thomas More, and then you have Henry II, who also had issues with the Church and because of it was at odds with Thomas Becket.  It’s easy to get confused.

Anyway, back to the this movie.  It’s weird because on the one hand I guess it’s for people who find that period in history romantic or something, but simultaneously the point of the movie seems to be that it was a terrible time, when everybody had to do bad things to get ahead.  It was a movie for people who like “Merrie Olde England”, only it condemns that as a brutal period.

It doesn’t examine any of the characters in depth, the way, say A Man for All Seasons does with Sir Thomas More.  It’s just an empty period costume drama. (Speaking of costumes–what is up with these shoulder pads?) It’s based on a book by Philippa Gregory, which I have not read but which apparently has issues with historical accuracy.

Slate has an article about a guy named Neal Stephenson calling for more Utopian, less Dystopian, science-fiction. The idea is that people need to be more optimistic about the future in order to be motivated to invent things.

I’ll comment on that anon, but first a language lesson. Quoth Wikipedia:

The word [Utopia] comes from the Greek: οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) and means “no place”. The English homophone eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (“good” or “well”) and τόπος (“place”), means “good place”. This, due to the identical pronunciation of “utopia” and “eutopia”, gives rise to a double meaning.

So, when Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, he was making a sort of pun in the title. Now you know. And “dys” is apparently Greek for “bad”, so when they say that, they’re really dyssing something. (Sorry.) I like these double-meanings, but people have kind of forgotten about that nuance. (It’s like the subtleties of language are being lost. Someone should write a dystopian novel about that.)

The problem is that most Utopian fiction is boring. There’s nothing interesting about a place where there are no problems. (Which is, in a sense, a problem. Someone should write a dystopian novel about that, too.) Even worse, it comes across as somebody preaching to you about what they think society ought to be like. I have enough of that as it is.

Also, would-be inventors can be forgiven for fearing that even their most brilliant efforts will be all to the bad. May I present Alfred Nobel and Robert Oppenheimer?

The only way to make an interesting Utopian story that I can see is to have some external threat appear in the Utopia, and destroy it. It’s best if the threat is from the present-day of the writer of the story. (This is kind of the plot of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited, in which a bunch of Englishmen show up and ruin a Utopian island.) And even this is pretty heavy-handed as a satirical technique.