Archive for December, 2013

The Year in Review

Faithful followers will note that I haven’t been writing much the last few weeks since NaNoWriMo. Part of the reason was that in lieu of doing any top 10 lists of 2013, I decided to take some time and just read through everything I’ve written this year.

In the process, I realized that I used the same punchline in January as I did a few weeks ago. Nothing new under the sun, I guess.

It was interesting to look back, though, and I’m glad I did all this.  I’ve commented on quite a few of the issues of the day. I doubt there’s much I could say now that would surprise anyone who’s ridden along for the whole ride as I wrote my brains out (perhaps literally). There’s no point pretending I could ever keep my mouth shut, but more and more as I’ve considered posts on issues over the last few weeks, I’ve found that I’ve already said my piece (peace?) in earlier writings. So unless I change my mind about something, like I kind of did with Paula Deen vs. Phil Robertson, I figure: meh. So, basically, I think in the new year, readers can expect more of the same–just less of it.

Most of my writing energy is going to go into revisions for a while. I’ve got a little novel born this November that wants a coat of polish, so I’ll see what I can make of that. Then…well, there’s no shortage of novel ideas in the queue.

I’ll close 2013 by remembering the words over the entrance to the temple: know thyself.

After reading through the emanations of my mind over the last year, I reckon I’m pretty much there. In fact, way back in March, I wrote something that pretty much sums up my place in the cosmos.

Happy New Year, everyone. Take care of yourselves.

pulling weeds

watching the world through clouded, fish-thick waters
with eyes seared shut by something so awful you don’t remember it happening
like with dreams you didn’t hold on to tight enough
Inside,
the little voice that usually contemplates knocking out the kitchen wall to open up space
and coos away thoughts of the tens of thousands of future dollars in cost with assurances
that we’re going to live here decades more, after all
is now just a panicked chorus on repeat
of we can’t go back, we can’t go back, we can’t go back, we can’t go back

attendant

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.07.15 PM

skin polished unnaturally smooth
inflexible with plaster and varnish
she looks on
from eyes drawn carefully in coal-black lines
remote
inviolate
And you cannot know
if it really is her attention
that scrapes over you in the course of your commerce with her
or a facsimile, a careful performance of robotic precision

She leaves her self, the thing inside, absent
or removed
to keep it safe.

Pluralism, Twitter, and some show called Duck Dynasty

800px-Duck3

I remember once speaking out in class when I was in college to defend political correctness. My argument at the time was that, essentially, all the mid-90s furor over what labels to use when referring to people was really just a matter of courtesy. It was polite to avoid any term that someone might find offensive. Plain and simple, said nineteen year old me.

And while I still see a germ of truth in what I said way back then, I must admit, naturally, that it is not simple at all. Those battles in the culture wars weren’t just about not hurting people’s feelings; they were about trying to advance a particular agenda, a vision of a pluralistic America that negated the agonies of racism and oppression with jargon.

I see something similar in the wave of outrage currently swirling around A&E’s bafflingly popular series Duck Dynasty. In an interview with GQ magazine, the patriarch of the family at the center of the program said some pretty offensive things about gays.

First, the obvious: This gentleman, Phil Robertson, was wrong. Claiming a Biblical code that includes no sense of the nuance of the original Greek, he labeled homosexuality a “sin,” and dwelled rather crassly on the mechanics of gay sex, confusing as opponents of equality often do, a sex act with a personality make-up. His ignorance here is rank. Comparing a vagina to an anus, Robertson seems to argue that the logic of human anatomy is on his side. What he, and most anyone standing alongside him in this debate, fails to understand is that sexuality is not simply about the plumbing. It’s about the wiring in our brains, too, and some people are naturally wired not to form attachments, sexual or romantic, with the opposite sex.

Curiously, most of the furor about his comments has dwelt on the remarks about gays, but he made equally ignorant statements about race relations in the South, portraying African-Americans under segregation as happy and content. “No one was singing the blues,” says Robertson in those bucolic “pre-entitlement” days when no one had come along to foul the poor Negro mind with ideas about welfare or, you know, those pesky civil rights they’re always clamoring for.

Again, this is rank ignorance, folks.

A&E’s reaction to the flap was very similar to the spirit of the proponents of “political correctness” in the 90s. They saw something offensive and they tried to stamp it out. They suspended him from the show.

Robertson has been quoted as saying that these people have “no moral compass.” Were that true, though, A&E would’ve looked the other way, tacked some disclaimer about the views of the Robertson family not reflecting the views of the corporation and continued counting the inexplicable millions that this show apparently generates.

But they reacted differently. They do have a moral compass. So does Robertson. The two just point in different directions.

A&E is part of the pluralistic world of the twenty-first century and, as such, the decision makers there wanted to send a strong message about this type of ignorance. Despite the caterwauling from right wingers about free speech (something they venerate quite selectively), this has nothing to do with the first amendment. Implying that A&E can’t stop broadcasting a show with someone they find offensive would be demanding they surrender their free speech rights.

Still, there is something unsettling in the knee-jerk response to that-which-we-do-not-approve-of. Take another example that was recently in the news–though, admittedly, not nearly so much as the Duck Dynasty case.

Apparently a PR exec named Justine Sacco tweeted the following on December 13th:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

On the surface, this comment reads as every bit the ignorant swill as Robertson’s, but I’m not so sure. Unlike his rather predictable “white trash” bias, I’m not comfortable passing judgement on Sacco’s remark. There are all manner of possible readings, but all of them involve some degree of irony. I don’t know who Sacco imagines her Twitter audience to be, but it seems possible to me that she could have followers who know that her joke could be just as much a commentary on notions of race as racist. It’s pretty easy to misread 140 characters.

But, our outrage cannot abide any such subtlety. Phil Robertson could, maybe, lose his lucrative show. I’m fairly certain, though, that he and his family will not suffer unduly for the loss. They’ve already banked quite a bit of cash through their arrangement with A&E and, if worse comes to worst, they could just go back to supporting themselves solely by doing whatever it is they do with ducks–which was the point of the show, after all.

Justine Sacco, though, may have a harder time. She wasn’t a public figure–Yes, she worked in PR, but my understanding is that this was not a company twitter feed–but nevertheless her tweet has now cost her her job.

I tend to think that the purpose of this outrage–in both cases–is not to silence people, not to suppress free speech, but to communicate that vision of a pluralistic world by sending a clear message against racism and intolerance.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think that message is so clear.

It might come off sounding a little bit like, “Think our way, or else!” I don’t think that society has any vested interest in that sort of dynamic. In fact, even a casual student of history can see  where a society with that mindset ends up.

So perhaps Ms. Sacco deserves a chance to explain herself without being canned.

And maybe A&E is wasting a golden opportunity. Instead of killing Duck Dynasty and disappointing its (surprisingly many) fans, why not engage Mr. Robertson? Why not invite some social thinkers from outside his sphere down to the duck plantation or whatever the heck this show is about and film that. Let’s see old Phil talk to some real life gays who can explain that it’s not all about the plumbing or maybe some black folks who remember Jim Crow and might be able to broaden his view of things.

Engage, instead of squash.

I, too, want a world where ignorance like Robertson’s is a thing of the past, but it matters how we get there.

 

Depression

Franklin set the onion ring down and looked out at the gray mist behind the buildings in the distance.

“Mark,” he said to his friend sitting across from him. “Do you ever feel like you might be done?” His friend chomped a bite of his half-pound burger with slow, grinding motions and looked at him, eyes set narrowly in an inquisitive gesture. “You know, like ever take a look at your life and say to yourself, ‘You know what, I’ve peaked. I’m never going to do anything better than what I’ve already done. My life is pretty much as complete as it’s ever going to be.’ And maybe, maybe when you answer that, you realize that you could’ve answered that way a long time ago. Maybe really, your whole contribution, whatever you’re going to add to the world was pretty much as good as it was ever going to get like, maybe five or six years ago. Like at work–all your best ideas were when you were young, climbing up. Now, you’re pretty much just a manager, sorting out other people’s ideas. So, really, anybody could do that. Had kids, and in the early years, maybe you didn’t inspire them to be Beethovens or whatever, but you kept them from turning into serial killers or anything like that. So now, if you were gone, then they might be sad for awhile, but things would pretty much turn out the same for them as if you were there. So, you know, that’s about it. You’ve done what it was for you to do. And really, you could drop dead or just sit on the couch munching every kind of Pringles you can get your hands on, and the march of time and the universe and all that would go on pretty much unchanged. Do you know what I mean? Feeling just kind of done? Over?” Franklin picked up the onion ring again. “Do you ever feel that way?”

Mark, still holding the burger, leaned to his left enough to reach the straw of his soda with his mouth and took a sip. With the chunk of meat, bun, lettuce, mushroom, bacon and everything else washed down, he opened his mouth again and said, “No.”

This Week in Republican Evil

The Right is sick.

Look to Republicanism of the past–of Eisenhower who built the interstate highway or even Nixon who proposed something quite similar to “Obamacare”–and you will not find anything resembling this current brand of American conservatism with its depraved attachment to an absolutist anti-government ideology. Any given week brings a slew of sheer idiocy from the talking heads of the Tea Party-bent, but this week was particularly foul.

Take, for example, the exchange on–you guessed it–Fox News between Bill O’Reilly and Rick Santorum. O’Reilly, acknowledging Nelson Mandela’s greatness while deriding him for being a “communist,” prompted Rick Santorum to reflect that, “[he] stood up against a great injustice and was willing to pay a huge price for that. That’s the reason he’s mourned today, because of that struggle that he performed. But you’re right, I mean, what he was advocating for was not necessarily the right answer, but he was fighting against some great injustice, and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives, and Obamacare is front and center in that.”

This is the narrative that these people fight, tooth and nail, to promote.

And it is one giant lie.

A well-funded lie. This myth of the big, evil government harkens back to the Reagan Republicanism, it’s true, but it has grown and mutated since then. No, not “mutated.” Mutation is a natural process that proceeds by capitalizing on random change. This shift in the ethos of the Republican party has been genetically engineered by massive influxes of cash from truly evil men.

As a palpable example, consider the agenda of the State Policy Network uncovered this week. This innocuous-sounding group is really just a confederation of various “think tanks” and 501c groups that have been used by big-money donors to conceal their efforts to reengineer society. The web of money sliding back and forth between nonprofit groups and their rich donors trying to shape policy while skirting effortlessly the laughably ineffective regulations meant to keep these groups out of the actual election process is mercifully not entirely invisible. We know that these groups command millions upon millions of dollars and thanks to a few brave souls actually practicing the nearly-lost arts of real journalism, we know where some of the money is coming from. The sources aren’t too surprising. Rich, anti-government fiends like the Koch brothers are paying for this agenda to save citizens from “government dependency.”

And herein lies the hypocrisy of these people.

Government dependency is an unspeakable evil–among the poor. Naturally, the Koch brothers’ fortune’s continuity is every bit as “dependent” on government as is an unemployed mother’s food stamps. Government regulates intellectual property, maintains order, promotes commerce through roads and even tax incentives, codifies their business models by protecting their liability as members of corporations, etc. etc. The Koch brothers and their ilk have no problem with government when it preserves their brand of capitalism.

What they resent and wage war against is government doing anything that does not directly benefit them.

I suppose in their twisted imaginations, this is just and right. After all, they are paying for it. Why shouldn’t they get exactly what they want out of government (and nothing more)? Low wages (Let ’em suffer–that’s their fault for not inheriting daddy’s fortune). No environmental interference (screw the future). No healthcare (um…I really don’t know how they rationalize this one–how can it ever seem just for people to waste away financially and physically in the richest society in human history because of illness?).

They act and speak as though government was evil. But what is evil? If the human condition is defined by both our reason and our empathy, then evil must be that which abandons both.

Government is simply our collective response to society’s challenges. It is how we choose to organize ourselves. Asking for smaller, more efficient government is a rational plea–one that past Republicans championed while still using government to serve the nation’s vital interests. Deriding government as evil and inherently wasteful is itself an evil. Not only is this anti-government ideology one that selfishly endangers a multitude to serve the interests of a few–failing the empathy test–but it is also irrational.

The Koch brothers and the other Tea Party sugar daddies have profited from an American prosperity that blossomed after World War II. That monstrous prosperity was built by a vigorous and strong middle class. Unions, a strong social safety net, investments in infrastructure, and ample funding for education created that unprecedented prosperity, and they were paid for by a tax structure that would turn these fiends sheet-white if it were enacted today. Yet even with a top tax rate three times as high as today, the rich prospered, because society prospered.

It wasn’t enough to satiate the greed of men like the Kochs, though, and slowly, over two generations, the ultra-rich and their ideological stooges–from detached intellectuals like Milton Friedman to rank buffoons like Santorum–have let them chip away at the foundation of our society. The costs we have all paid are now well documented: skyrocketing inequality, job exports, financial instability, and worsening environmental degradation.

These men are systematically destroying America to ramp up their profits.

If they could, they would burn down the world to sell off the ash.

Evil.

What if Obama Were Mandela?

iz1q3t9ZeJvgI used to wonder as a young man what the world would have been like if Martin Luther King Jr. had not been struck down by an assassin’s bullet–if he had been able to continue as the face of the Civil Rights Movement and extend the campaign against poverty that took him to Memphis that fateful April day.

Would King, so visible a symbol of progress in America, have had a chance to become the country’s first African-American president? If so, what kind of president would he have been? We cannot know, obviously, but we can certainly say that he would have been unlike any politician we have seen since. So possessed by compassion for the downtrodden, what might his term have been like?

Last night, President Obama–America’s actual first African-American president–made remarks about Nelson Mandela’s passing and the example of the South African revolutionary’s leadership after his long imprisonment. I often think that King and Mandela were cut from the same cloth. I hear a resonant synchronicity when Mandela tells us that, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart,” and when King agrees that, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Obama spoke, with his usual eloquence, about the impact of Mandela’s life on the world, and on his journey. I wonder about the American president in the wake of the passing of the South African leader because, while I have supported President Obama by and large, he is not the president I hoped for in 2008. I wonder now what might have been if Obama had truly modeled his presidency upon Mandela’s example.

What if he had visited Tea Party rallies to placate the fearful, paranoid right-wingers so terrified by his ascension to the Oval Office? What if he had approached the intransigent and entrenched Republicans in Congress with the determination to break through with constant negotiations like those that made Lyndon Johnson the master of the Senate–dealing and wheeling and talking and talking more, until his opponents just couldn’t stand to disagree with him anymore.

What if?

What if he was the revolutionary? An iconoclast constantly fighting against the money in politics? Against the inequality that plagues our society? For love, instead of power?

But it was not meant to be. Instead we got a carefully calculated pageant of political showmanship essentially defending the status-quo. No bold new direction. A slight course correction at best.

Upon Mandela’s passing, the Onion lambasted our popular view of politicians, eulogizing the South African as the “first politician to be missed.” It was a misnomer, though. Mandela was no politician. He was a visionary, a paragon. 

Obama on the other hand, is a politician. A politician who, in maintaining his predecessor’s declared war against an emotional state, has dropped drone-carried bombs on Pakistan, not to keep America safe–if anything, our drone war in Asia prolongs the struggle with Al Quaeda–but to preserve political capital, to deny Republicans their common line of attack against Democrats, that they are weak on foreign policy.

Taking human lives as part of a political calculation, Obama has to show he’s strong and has balls enough to kill people thousands of miles away.

But he should have turned to Mandela’s example, who showed the world he was strong by reaching out his arm to his enemy, to the very people who had oppressed him, who had locked him away for demanding that his own government respect his inalienable rights.

That was strength.

Obama has pledged to think about Mandela’s example every day.

Well, sir, I have to say you’ve got a lot of thinking to do on that score.