Wednesday, August 25, 2010

No more churches!

From sea to shining seas, the land of the United States of America is scarred with the blood of martyrs, people who fell before a force bent on power and world domination. These cruel destroyers also pledged faith to a religion, and they claimed that this religion demanded that all other religions be expelled in the name of their one true God. More than that, they claimed their religion entitled them to the land of others, and required that they slaughter those who would not submit. Admittedly, even some of the more fanatical members of this religion would find genocidal slaughter unpalatable today. Nevertheless, I feel that all followers of this religion should be held responsible for the cruelty of particular individual adherents. These so-called "Christians" should be prohibited from building any more "victory churches" on the land of those who suffered, even if some surviving family members of the honored dead now consider themselves to be "Christians."

I write this to be sarcastic and facetious about the current debate over the Park51 project in Lower Manhattan. While I can imagine no better memorial to 9/11 than to erect a Sufi community center that honors and demands religious tolerance, the particular affiliation of Park51 is beyond the point. All religions are entitled to practice their faith freely as long as it does not involve murder. While I wish that I did not have to be harassed by Jews for Jesus on the New York City subways, we are supposed to tolerate the religious faiths of others, even if we don't like them or we object to activities undertaken by their followers. Although I was disappointed in President Obama's backtracking, I felt the need to post today because I was moved by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's speech last night on the Park51 project, the rights of Muslims to worship anywhere in Manhattan (rights hard-won by previous religious minorities including Jews, Quakers, and Catholics), and his send-up of Dumbledore. I believe that we are called to religious tolerance, and that Christians, of all people, should be realistic about, and sympathetic toward, the plurality of individuals who can adhere to one broader religious faith. More than that, the Constitution of the United States, which continues to rule over the blood of innocent individuals conquered in its name, nevertheless guarantees such freedoms. If you love the Constitution so much, then you have no choice but to support the building of a Muslim center anywhere, especially if it is, as Keith Olberman pointed out, not in fact at Ground Zero.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Anosognosia, Errol Morris, and a Failure of Imagination

Last week, I was reading a New York Times blog post by Errol Morris, who had made one of my favorite documentaries, The Fog of War. In a series of blog posts, Morris explored "The Anosognosic's Dilemma". In his first post, Morris defines anosognosia as "a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability." Morris then expands this definition to include studies that demonstrate how our own incompetence generally blinds us to that same incompetence. For instance, students who are bad at grammar often don't understand why they are getting bad grades and believe that they are really good at grammar. (I admit, certain public figures like Sarah Palin come to mind). Morris's anosognosia puts an interesting twist on the old quote attributed to Mark Twain, Artemis Ward, and a few others, "It ain't the things we don't know that gets us into trouble. It's the things we know for sure that just ain't so."

What matters most is that we think we are competent, and we fail to imagine the possibilities for our incompetence. While on a personal level, such a perspective can send me into a panic over my own potential incompetence, I was reminded of Morris's anosognosia today while I was reading another series of articles in the New York Times. One looks at the fraying social safety net in Spain. Another describes the way that civil employee allies have now turned against labor benefits. The third is Paul Krugman's editorial on the start of the third depression. One of the pair profiled in the article on Spain observed that the bankers should be paying for this bad economy, not him. The second article, profiling New Jersey, struck me with the early proposal that benefits for police officers (you know, those people who can make terrible mistakes, but upon whom we ultimately depend for loyal and uncorrupt service to the common good) be cut because they cost New Jersey too much. Then there was Krugman's ultimate point that tightening government spending will only lead to further unemployment; he doesn't mention bankers, but he does note that it is the unemployed who will suffer. I would like to add so will the underemployed as I have an overeducated, overqualified good friend working in a gift shop because she can't find a job in her field.

Why do I connect these economic crisis pieces to Morris's anosognosia? In a republic populated with Tea-partiers decrying our exploding budget and our government spending while still demanding social security checkes, I have been intrigued by our unwillingness to pay more taxes (and our unwillingness even to suggest anything reasonable sounding to do about the economy). I do not think taxes should be raised on everyone, but those of who are gainfully employed and economically stable should be willing to pay more. I think Joe Biden was right that paying taxes is a civic duty, and one we should take pride in. I have also been intrigued that, as Krugman describes, despite historical examples, our world seems hell bent on repeating past mistakes and reducing government spending when we need it most. But I have been most intrigued that our government was willing to spend money to bail out banks but not to restart say the Civilian Conservation Corps, which my grandfather, who recently past away, prized as among the best experiences of his life. I understand that we don't want to pay more money for tax bailouts, and I still want heads to roll Marie Antoinette style from the banking industry. But why on earth would we cut the benefits of police officers in order to address the economic crisis? Why on earth wouldn't we demand the creation of more jobs?

These questions then led me to wonder about the acrimony of our current political climate, and that is where I return to anosognosia? What are the alternatives we have failed to consider, either because of political divisions (an inability that I share, an inability to think outside of certain political ideologies about acceptable economic responses), or because we are no longer deep thinkers in the age of the iPhone? Where has our imagination failed us? Is our incompetence so grave that we cannot recognize the possibility that we could be grotesquely wrong? Will historians in some distant era be left to ponder what we could have done differently if only we had broadened our frame of reference? Will they diagnose us with a collective anosognosia?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Of imperialism and expansionism

As a child, one of my favorite films was Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In ways that I did not fully understand at the time, I enjoyed its meditations on the end of the Cold War as much as its special effects and Klingon make-up. In one scene, a Klingon delegation is dining aboard the enterprise, conversing about what it might mean for there to be a peace agreement between the Federation and the Klingons. Having played a bit where one Klingon character quotes "to be or not to be" and another character cites Shakespeare's Hamlet as the source, the conversation turns to the challenges before the Klingons in making peace with the Federation. Christopher Plummer's General Chang states that "We [the Klingons] need breathing room," to which Captain Kirk responds by suggesting that same statement was made by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

I have taken this little jaunt because Kirk's response intimates the fine line that exists between a people stating they "need breathing room" and a people heading out upon a campaign of imperialist expansion. I note this because after reading about the Texas School Board's curricular alterations, it became clear that some of these Texas schoolboard members seem to think that "American expansionism" is somehow benign, noble, and patriotic, while "imperialism" is somehow bad and therefore not an apt description for the U.S.'s nineteenth-century campaign across the continent. I offer up Kirk's observation that to need "breathing room," which as Frederick Jackson Turner long ago described as the undergirding drive of frontier settlement, may also entail "bad," viral, imperialist expansion. While the Texas schoolboard both wishes to rewrite history (and to write out important figures like César Chávez), they are also making semantic distinctions that must mean something in their particular subculture, but they are semantic distinctions that can seem meaningless from another point of view (like say you are Arapaho, Apache, Navajo, Cherokee, etc...U.S. expansionism is the same as imperialism and still has the same consequences). My point here is that the Texas School Board is so concerned with (white) liberal misinterpretations of history that they miss the ways that their own words and views can be misinterpreted by people different than themselves.

In a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, Jonathan Zimmerman notes that we all read history from our particular, biased location, and perhaps it would be fair to demand that U.S. history courses teach "both sides" of U.S. history. Yes, I agree that we all interpret history from a biased standpoint, and that multiple perspectives on history should be presented in class; that more importantly, students should be taught how to think about history and how to read historians critically. That said, I have not fallen so far down the postmodern rabbit hole that I think all readings of history are equally valid because some are just wrong by virtue of what they intentionally hide and leave out. I am also more of a postmodernist than Zimmerman because I think any approach to U.S. history that presumes an overarching narrative can't be good history. In his editorial, Zimmerman posits that there are two sides to the history of the U.S., when in fact there are more, and the only two sides he presents are conservative and liberal patriotism. There are many other perspectives besides just these two, both of which are guilty of eliding certain historical particularities in service of a greater grand narrative. Zimmerman is correct that there are many problems with how U.S. history is currently taught in high schools, but the solution is not to teach less history as the Texas standards suggest.

Rather we must ask more of the generations ahead than have been asked of the generations behind; they must learn the histories we have known while also being taught how to read them critically and how to craft their own perspectives. I think that is some of what Zimmerman is getting at, and that would be a good idea as long as it doesn't presuppose that there are two simplistic sides to U.S. history, a (white, elite, male) liberal view and a (white, elite, Christian) conservatie view. Then perhaps students can critically read the myth of expansionism for what Captain Kirk knew it to be; just because someone claims they need "breathing room" doesn't mean they aren't imperialists. It means that they have a semantic universe where expansionism is somehow neutrally valued while imperialism is valenced negatively, even while an outsider to that semantic universe would not see such a distinction.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Give to Haiti

In reading up on responses to that fascinating "We are the World" video, I discovered the tragically ended "ill doctrine" blog of Jay Smooth and the new "nil doctrine" blog. It's good stuff. The video above says more, and better than I could say, about giving to Haiti. The video below is the most appropriate response to John Mayer that I've seen.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Massachusetts, please vote for Martha Coakley

What is up with Massachusetts? I get that the Democrats are often too lily-livered, that the Healthcare bill lacks the teeth we would want, that they did not go after the banks hard enough, that they did not spend enough money bailing out our economy, and that we continue to fight a losing war in Afghanistan for reasons Rudolph Giuliani can't even remember anymore (how many terrorist attacks happened under George W. Bush, Rudy?).

I have been away from the blogging both because I've been busy, but also because I've been tired of watching us all act like idiots. People on the right demonstrate an ideologically driven short-term memory, people in the center demonstrate an even greater short-term, fly-by-the-seat-of-one's-pants sensitivity, and people on the left have a short-term memory, lack-of-common-sense about how to fight on, unite, and compromise when necessary. After a couple of great months at the end of 2008, I returned to being sick of being a U.S. citizen, or being member of the human race really.

This sudden turn of events that are pro-Brown in Massachusetts made me even sicker. This weekend John McCain sent out a brief email soliciting support for Brown by saying "one of America's first colonies started in Massachusetts with a small group of citizens determined to lead and resolved to make a difference. Together they made history and overcame impossible odds when nobody thought they could. On Tuesday, we have an opportunity to do it all over again." Are we really going to let conservatives write the history of Massachusetts? I would like to remind Massachusetts readers that they made the mistake of sicking Mitt Romney on the world, but they were also home to some of the greatest liberal thinkers and actors in U.S. history. For all their scandal, the Kennedys served the U.S. faithfully, loyally, intelligently, and, yes, liberally for so long. Don't let Ted Kennedy's dreams of healthcare reform die with him. Don't forget that John F. Kennedy was a liberal who called Martin Luther King, Jr. in prison. Don't deny the radical visions of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Massachusetts first legalized gay marriage, proving that some states in the U.S. really could support equality for all. Instead of caving to the inchoate babble of the rest of the U.S., Massachusetts should show what the rest of the U.S. can learn from the legacy of Massachusetts liberalism.

Really, do you want to return power to the do-not-tax, but spend-in-debt-to-China, cowboy-diplomatic, socially asphyxiated Republicans who got us into two wars and a global financial meltdown? Our economic, military, and terrorism woes are the fault of Republicans, a party whose 2008 vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, didn't think Massachusetts was "real America." The Democrats' problem is that they have no ability to stand together and fight for what needs to be done to turn this country around, and so yes, we have a compromised healthcare reform bill. But some reform is better than nothing. Please, for the love of that "America" that fought for equality and justice for all, please vote for Martha Coakley.

And this is why I haven't been blogging in months. Listening to the political conversations in the U.S. makes me sound just as angry, sound-byte, simplistic, and trivial as everyone else. Please let 2010 be a better decade.

Friday, October 09, 2009

What was the Nobel committee smoking?

If you know me and read this blog, then you know that I strongly support President Barack Obama, even though I don't always agree with him. I would love to see Barack Obama achieve many of the goals he has laid out: withdrawal (not just a draw down) of U.S. troops from Iraq, peace in Afghanistan, the closing of Guantanamo Bay and a U.S. that adheres to international human rights law, increased global dialogue as part of diplomacy, increased understanding between different religious communities, and the elimination of nuclear weapons. I believe that he could accomplish some of this in the next fifteen years as president and as a past-president, but I'm not sure that his mere presence on the world stage is enough to deserve the Nobel Prize. More than that, I think it ill-advised for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to any sitting president in charge of a major military power (U.S., China, Russia, Israel, etc.) unless they really have brought about total world peace in the last year. But the U.S. has the largest military of any country in the world and is fighting a war on two fronts while Guantanamo remains open. Barack Obama is not a private citizen as Jimmy Carter and Al Gore were when they won their Nobels. He is the leader of the United States of America, in charge of the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, and that office should not be rewarded.

That said, Barack Obama gave a terrific and gracious speech this morning. He seems to recognize that he hasn't earned this honor yet, and hopefully the Nobel Peace Prize will spur him on in pursuit of peace, nuclear disarmament, and dialogue as he suggests.

Even though I don't think that he deserves it quite yet, the U.S. should reckon itself lucky to have a president that others find symbolic of the ideals of peace. After eight years of war-mongering leadership, that is a pretty fantastic change. Felicidades to us!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Melrose Place, 1992. What happened?

When I was in New York last month, I ran across several ads on bus stops and phone booths for the new Melrose Place. These ads had charming, subtle catch-phrases on them, like "Tuesday's the new hump day" or "Tuesdays are a bitch." I admit, I didn't recall the old Melrose Place to be a particularly subtle series, but I thought these ads were tacky even by Melrose Place standards.

Because I hadn't seen the original Melrose Place since I was a child, I decided to watch the first season for free on I was shocked to discover that the show didn't actually start off as the crazy prime time soap opera filled with wicked villains that existed in my memory. The characters were full of ordinary brokenness, sad childhoods, unfulfilled dreams, and lots of ABC after-school special plotlines. The show starts with the sexually harassing boss that gets sued in the end. The offending harasser was not even a resident at Melrose Place; it's one of the poor young residents who has to cope with being harassed by her boss and rescued by her roommate. When some of the characters do something bad, it's out of stupidity or irrationality or accidental cruelty, but deep down they are all good people capable of apologies and redemption. Even the doctor, Michael Mancini, whom I remember as viciously evil, is just a kind of goofy and insensitive husband in those first episodes, capable of being devoted and loving when required. And the sex, well, there was some sex early on, but it wasn't exactly steamy. And the show tried to tackle serious topics like discrimination against Matt because he's gay, tensions between African American and Anglo Angelenos in the wake of the riots (the show first aired in 1992), domestic abuse, student loan repayment in a weak job market, and twenty-somethings lacking health insurance. It was amazing to see that the characters were realistically struggling to make ends meet. Of course, virtually none of the original characters could live in the apartment complex now in a much more expensive Los Angeles (even in a recession). A taxi driver, a receptionist, an aerobics instructor, a waitress, a mechanic.

So how did Melrose Place go from the ABC after-school special for twenty-somethings to the prototype of soap opera? I don't know; I haven't watched that far into the show. I do wonder if it's when Heather Locklear shows up, but I also wonder about what caused the shift (besides the beautiful blonde vixen). Was it a move to get better ratings? Or did viewer tastes change leaving behind the 1980s and moving into the 1990s? Was it about Bill Clinton and the end of Reagan-Bush; did the change in presidents signal a change in era, a higher desire for steamy subplots and catharsis watching truly wicked villains? What about 90210? Was 90210 a family-friendly drama once upon a time too that became the master of melodrama only after a while?

I haven't seen the new show; I doubt it's premiered yet. But the ads suggest that it will start out with high melodrama, outrageous villains, and plenty of sex from day one. What was the shift in popular culture that accounts for the very different series starts?