Joke’s Over. Now What?

There is a political ad going viral directed at getting out the Democratic vote and produced by this week.  Move On used to be good at what they do, but this hyperbole and melodrama is unsettling and they just lost points.  Something about Republicans destroying the future, and all Americans having to take “corporate names” or some such craziness.  Move On needs a new name:  COME ON.

While the last election demonstrated the country was through with the Republicans’ antics, Democrats are now equal opportunity disappointments.  Apparently the scorched earth tactics of the Republican party have been adopted — diluted, albeit — by the Democrats.  Defeating Republican candidates at any cost is now all that matters.  However morally, ethically, or intellectually bankrupt a candidate’s techniques are has become irrelevant to most of those running.  Some state races demonstrate that Democrats are willing to abandon their own party philosophy and keep their name on the Democratic ticket, but run on principles that are in some cases completely counter to progressive or even moderate Democratic thinking.  The jokes just aren’t funny anymore.  While the Stewart/Colbert rallies were at first amusing, now they simply seem grotesque reflections of a painful dissolution of all rational discourse. 

Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert are smart enough to know this, and in fact I’m hoping in their hip pocket is the ultimate “gotcha” — that’s right folks, it’s not funny.  Glad you’re paying attention.  Now what are you willing to do about it?

Image credit: Occult origins of The Joker

Hashtag: Lincoln

Yesterday there was a thought-provoking post on The Miller Times.  I read it, tweeted it, marked it as a favorite post, and moved on; at least I thought I moved on.  I woke up at 2:40 a.m. and these lines were still roaming around my brain looking for a place to rest:

I can’t help but think massive political protests/rallies/marches/shindigs/soirees have become arbitrary. We’ve got social media now, and sadly, a hashtag on Twitter goes a lot farther than 1,000,000 people standing united at the Lincoln Memorial. I admire the dedication, but the whole process is kind of antiquated.

This idea lingers because in just three short sentences it did more to jar my thinking about the impact of the social media revolution than anything I’ve heard anyone else say, including Bill Gates, the Google boys, and the rest of their ilk.  It helps me process why, even though I’m on board and the train has left the station, I’m still not sure where the trip is taking us.

The massive cultural shift that came with our super-connections and constant availability must be something as seismic as the dawn of safe, affordable, socially accepted forms of contraception taking root in the United States in the 1960’s.  It is nearly impossible for me to imagine an America where couples didn’t sleep together whenever they felt like it out of  the fear of unwanted pregnancies, and yet I know it’s the world where my grandparents grew up.  The tentacles of social change are elaborate and far-reaching from this single event, and of course not everyone thinks it’s all good.  I think it’s fundamentally great, but would agree that there are new dynamics in people’s lives that are not as simple as “great.”

This is much like I feel about the changes to everything we do now, with such a huge portion of life lived online.  The communication and education opportunities are incredible.  The avenues for better understanding remote corners of the world are expanded.  Many aspects of life are safer and more secure.  Used well, social media tools allow for phenomenal new levels of productivity.  And yet….there’s that pesky Lincoln Memorial thing.   It woke me up before the crack of dawn, and I’m guessing this morning won’t be the last time.

I’m glad I don’t have to get on a bus and go to Washington, DC, to be heard.  To be perfectly frank, I don’t have the time, money, or energy to participate in a march of any kind right now.  But as the last Esse Diem post about Good Will Hunting explores, I know what it’s like to stand at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.  I’ve stood there more than once, and it is an experience unlike any other.  I expected to feel small, and yet I felt enormous. 

Many people joke that Abraham Lincoln was fortunate to live in an age without television.  He was quite an unusual and some say unattractive combination of proportions and physical features.  History suggests he was soft-spoken, humble, and concise.  The words of the Gettysburg address are some of the most well-known, beloved, and nationally signficant words every spoken in the United States’ history.  From that address (emphasis is mine):

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Our world of online political and social action is real, and it is here.  We are not going back.  But if you doubt that Americans standing — being physically present — at the Lincoln Memorial still means something, I would say go.  Go alone.  It’s not necessary to get caught up in a demonstration or event.  Go when you can, and stand there with the image and yes, the actual presence, of the man who saved the union. 

It may not change the world in that moment, and it can’t be meaningfully hashtagged or blogged.  It can only be lived, that feeling of being so big inside yourself at the feet of President Lincoln.  Promise you won’t miss it — in real life.

Photo credit: Library of Congress on

How D’Ya Like Them Apples? IQ and Education

Someone asked me last week if I think the bell curve of intelligence quotient scores is even across political parties and political positions.  Without hesitation I said yes.  I don’t see any reasonable explanation for why IQ scores would necessary correlate to a person’s political opinions.  I do think, though, that the likelihood that our nation can even out with some moderate positioning on a range of issues is hampered by our struggles with educational attainment rates and public education dynamics in general.

How can we ever expect to communicate with each other to achieve more balanced and reasoned understanding when test scores and drop out rates indicate we are failing to establish even basic language skills?  And if we never leave the communities where we grew up to learn in an environment with a diverse representation of people from around the country and even the world, how can we develop appreciation for diversity and what people different from ourselves have to teach us?

In the midst of my pondering, I turned to Will.  Will always helps me figure things out.

Good Will Hunting is a favorite film in our house.  We ping back to it often, from personal reasons to conceptual storytelling to a love of Robin Williams in dramatic roles.  A quote that gets a lot of play on a regular basis is, “How d’ya like them apples?”

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall Will (Matt Damon) is trying to get the attention and admiration of Sklyar (Minnie Driver) in a bar frequented by Harvard University students.  An arrogant pretty-boy tries to embarrass him by asking him questions about books he’s sure Will has never heard of, let alone read.  Much to his dismay, Will knows the books.  Very well.  Well enough to end up humiliating the other guy, and well enough to get Sklyar’s phone number on a cocktail napkin before she leaves.  Outside the bar, Will knocks on the glass to get stuck-up’s attention.  “Do you like apples?” Will asks.  “What?”  the guy insides replies.  “I said, do you like apples?”  The guy shrugs and nods, confused.  Will slams the napkin with the newly inked phone number up on the glass and into his face.  “Well, I got her number.  How d’ya like them apples?”

The scene is a classic illustration of the disconnect between education and intelligence.  The entire movie pivots around questions of what it means to know anything.  In the apples scene, Will comes out on top.  He has exposed himself to great works of art, and he has a photographic memory that allows him to regurgitate on cue lengthy analyses of everything from sculpture to political theory.  What’s brewing underneath his cocky persona, however, is anything but educated.  We find out later in the story that he has, for good reasons, completely isolated himself from real life experience.  He lives in his head with the thoughts and lives of others running roughshod over his courage to engage life on his own terms, and to have a true education.

Sean (Robin Williams) nails him on it with this memorable monologue:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny… on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seeing that. If I ask you about women, you’ll probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…… But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman… and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that.

Will is a smart kid.  Smarter than smart.  But he is lashing out with information as a weapon rather than being willing to let other people teach him anything, and rather than allowing himself to be vulnerable to the many possibilities that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what life is really about.

Intelligence can be a wonderful thing, and fortunately we know now that there is more than one way to measure it.  Intelligence of any kind, however, requires the humility and depth that only participating in a shared environment of respect for real learning can deliver.  It starts in school, but it hardly ends there.

Actually, if you do it right, it never ends. And that mindset is the one that has the unique power to moderate the sound and fury of today’s political climate, regardless of what else a person believes.

When the Cavalry Doesn’t Come

Five years ago this week, as I watched Michael Brown stand shiny and clean on camera and receive one of the worst alleged atta-boys of all time, I knew in my gut he was being set up.

Life in the reality canyon.

I remember the physical discomfort between “Brownie” and the President.  I remember the way those words, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” came out of the mouth of the FEMA chief’s ultimate boss and the look on Brown’s face.  You can see in that instant he knows a hell of a lot more than he can share. It was painful.  The words were condescending, and artificial and inappropriate and awful on every level; and they highlighted a yawning reality canyon between those two men as well as between the federal government and the states.

Much has been written and expressed in other — often artistic — forms about how the nightmare of Hurricane Katrina removed any mask we might be wanting to put on our fundamental lack of progress around racial disparities.  I can’t disagree.  The literal black and white disgrace that was FEMA’s total disconnect with the very kind of situation it exists to manage is burned on our nation’s history.  No one can say the authorities on every level “didn’t know” it was going to be a disaster.  Extensive records exist that verify the proper people knew exactly what was poised to go down.

I still have no accounting for what exactly fell apart.  Michael Brown’s continued efforts to explain it only seem to make things worse by ripping off what frail bandage we had on the memories and yet leaving no more healing in its place.

Mike Hale of the New York Times said it well when he described Spike Lee’s portrayal of the aftermath (emphasis added is mine):

Released just a year after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” was a thrilling achievement: both intimate and magisterial, angry and eloquent, an indictment and a testament, it represented a high point in the career of its director, Spike Lee.

It was definitively racial.  But as a West Virginian, I saw more.  I do believe it was racial in New Orleans, but I feel some of the same kinds of nausea at home, where the U.S. Census measures our population at over 94% white.  I think the most powerful common denominator is a profound disregard for human life when that life is uneducated and living in poverty.

I want to believe that if some natural disaster befell West Virginia, that the cavalry would come.  That the nation would turn on the television and see our plight and send every resource to save us.  What I saw 5 years ago in New Orleans scared the hell out of me, because I no longer have that belief.  I think some populations are considered disposable and not worth the effort and expense, and as much as I don’t want to believe it, Katrina took away my suspension of disbelief.

The Sago mine disaster was a perversion of this grinding fear.  Every day in West Virginia (and around the world) human beings go deep underground and risk their health and their lives so I can use my laptop (see The Short Ladders for some stats on our state’s educational attainment, or lack thereof).  There is a lot of drama around rescues once people are in trouble, but very little evidence that the nation is serious about reducing dependence on coal or that most coal companies themselves see these human beings as something more than replaceable commodities.

I’ll conclude where I began, with the “heck of a job” video clip and Michael Brown.  I don’t know anything about Mr. Brown.  He may be a negligent incompetent monster, but that seems less likely than he was one man at the helm of a critically important federal agency that the powers that be had no real interest in leveraging during Katrina. 

The question remains why, and if it would have been the same story in the Hamptons.

The Crucible: Our national play

Most people are aware that “polls” show a truly bizarre number of Americans question whether or not the President of the United States is a citizen of the country he leads.  I don’t want to get into the specifics of this current climate of suspicion, i.e. from the partisan angle, but I do have another interest.  After reading this Timothy Egan column yesterday, I was left with a question he doesn’t address. 

Just a little bit of history repeating....

 Why do we do this all the time? 

Let’s start with the fact that our county is not very old.  By global standards we are still in utero.  So we don’t really have the track record as a society and as a people from a national perspective that some countries do; but what we have suggests to me that we are pretty freaky-deaky, haunted-house-lovin’, “what was that sound” kind of scaredy cats on a cyclical basis. 

Allow me to elaborate. 

Arthur Miller’s seminal play, The Crucible, is still studied in American high schools but apparently is not being particularly well taught.  If it were, one has to wonder if we seriously would be seeing columns like Egan’s.  Consider: 

The Crucible is a dramatization of the Salem witchcraft trials that took place during 1692 and 1693. Miller wrote the play as an allegory to McCarthyism, when the US government blacklisted accused communists.  Today it is studied in high schools and universities, because of its status as a revolutionary work of theater and for its allegorical relationship to testimony given before the House committee on Un-American Activities.  (EDG note: McCarthy’s activities are often confused with this House Commitee.  The McCarthy era and this House Commitee are two distinct historical references with related themes.  See links below.) 

I remember the way the hair on my body stood up when I learned about the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  About who Joe McCarthy was and what happened in the United States only the decade before I was born.  I could hardly believe it was real, but today as I live my adult life in 2010 I realize the next generation is going to have the same experience with what is happening right now

Perhaps the generations just after the Salem witch trials got cold chills, too.  It appears, however, that our goose bumps don’t last long.  We are very good at refusing to see ourselves doing the same thing over and over again, and of turning away from the obvious.  

When we get threatened, we freak out.  Full-on, outta your mind, freak out. 

As a people, it seems we are perfectly willing to take the very slim chance that we are right in our suspicions, and to risk a phenomenal amount of character “capital” in the process. 

In Salem, it was a similar gig.  Throw a suspected witch in the lake.  If she drowns, she wasn’t a witch.  If she floats, she’s a witch.  Burn her. 

In the play, the character John Proctor is pressed to death.   This was the process of placing giant slabs of rock on top of a human being to try to force confession and/or to kill the person.  When asked if the allegations against him are true, Proctor says only two words:  “More weight.” 

This is not a partisan issue.  It can’t be.  This is an American issue.  We must turn the page on this crazy behavior and call it out wherever it crops up.  We know we’re prone to it.  We have some nasty tendencies, that is obvious.  But we are also young, and we have time to grow up into a nation better than this. 

No more weight.

The Discomforts of Freedom

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I am usually better-than-average in my comfort zone with the complexities of the U.S. Constitution.  Not that I am a legal scholar, but I tend to see the difference between what is making people uncomfortable and what is actually constitutional without too much trouble, and it doesn’t raise my blood pressure most of the time.  It is true, however, that nothing about the Constitution is designed to make us comfortable.  It is designed to challenge us to be a free as we can be without violating the rights of others.

The most powerful and influential thing I ever heard about the idea of “rights” is this:  When we say that someone has a right, we have simultaneously said that someone else does not have a right.

When we say that someone has a right, we have simultaneously said that someone else does not have a right.

It’s a troubling sentence, but very important to process every time we throw around talk about “rights.” In the United States when it comes to the highest law of the land we have to focus on the Constitution and what this country is about, not on what makes us comfortable.  If I have a right to smoke cigarettes unrestricted, that means that no one else has the right to breathe clean air.  If you have the right to hit your child, that means your child do not have the right to an absence of violence against them.  One can see how this goes down a snarly road quickly, but one can also see how the Supreme Court starts slicing and dicing the nation’s most difficult cases.  Don’t tell us how you feel.  Tell us which Constitutional rights are at stake.

A few decades ago in the sleepy college town of Davidson, North Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan applied for a parade permit.  The town approved their permit, and then essentially the entire town abandoned Main Street and gathered on campus for a community picnic.  The Klan marched, alone.  I don’t think they ever came back to Davidson, at least not in a manner expecting endorsement and attention.

The construction of a mosque very close to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York has challenged me in unexpected ways.  I want to say I’m cool with it, but I’m not, at least not from the perspective of how I feel.  But it doesn’t matter how I feel, it only matters what rights the Constitution preserves and protects.  There is a baked-in irony in the attitude that “allowing” this place of worship on “our” holy ground only celebrates a radical Muslim victory against the United States.  The greatest victory any enemy of our country could ever achieve would be to turn us into something else, to so terrorize and shake our foundation that we rationalize stepping away from what makes us unique, from what makes us a destination that people around the world risk everything to reach.  Grief over the 9/11 attacks will never disappear, but that grief cannot be enshrined as a national religion.  The Constitution prohibits that, and we should all be deeply grateful.

Freedom of religion ensures that this mosque can be built, at ground zero or anywhere else.  The President of the United States said he “would not comment on the wisdom” of the decision to build, and that is probably the best thing he can say.  It doesn’t matter how anyone else feels about it.  It is a protected right, and it should be allowed to proceed in peace.

I am also allowed to ignore it after today, and to take my picnic somewhere else.  That is my right.  And I wouldn’t trade any of these rights for anything, especially not for a society where I am never challenged and always comfortable.

Update: I made a mistake when I referred to the issue as being about a “mosque.”  Several times today I saw items that clarified this proposed construction is about a community center with a space reserved for worship.  I think this probably doesn’t change many feelings, but anything that can be done to talk about the facts is important.  This is what I get for reading CNN headlines, right?  I also saw this link posted by someone on Facebook:  What a great reminder that headlines aren’t citizens, and New Yorkers are some of the last of us to get up in arms about diversity!  A good read for some good perspective………