Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Tune Without Words

Someone recently asked me why I care so much. I was surprised at the question; surely events of the past decade and more have shown how important, even necessary, it is that we Americans become involved in our public life. While there may be little any particular individual can do to move and shape our discourse or events, it is more possible than ever now to stay informed, the prerequisite to participation.

There are days, though, that information is enough to make most people throw up their hands. Just from the past couple days:
- The suicide rate among active duty service personnel has "spiked", averaging one a day. Think about that for just a moment, and what it says about who we are as a people.
- There is one American prisoner left in the hands of the Taliban. Because he is on record as critical of the US military, of his fellow soldiers and superiors, and left a trail that indicates a desire to walk away from his duties, some have publicly stated their preference not to bring home this young man, held for three years now by religious and political fanatics. With evidence, including testimony from his parents, that his mental state may well have been fragile, what state might be be in now?
- Our elite journalists are quite open about their contempt for actual news and information that effects the American people. Rather than give people the news and information they need to make informed choices, they head to social media to complain that talking about a possible European currency collapse is just too dull.

The State of Florida is trying to strip people of their right to vote. The Congressional leadership refuses to act at the very time we need, as FDR said, "bold vigorous experimentation" in order to keep the American experiment afloat. Both major party candidates for the Presidency continue to mouth platitudes in support of the idea that, as the tired phrase has it, "America's best days lie ahead." Neither one evinces any interest in actually doing anything to make this possible. In the words of Jack Germond's and Jules Witcover's famous autopsy of the 1988 Presidential campaign said, it is nothing but blue smoke and mirrors.

Those who complain about Obama's abuses of power, from covert cyber-war against Iran to lists of targets for assassination, including American citizens overseas, are told to remain quiet. Those who complain about how beholden Obama and the Democratic Party has become to corporate interests, stifling any attempt to force legal and social accountability upon the very institutions that created and sustain our current economic doldrums are told to fear how much worse America might be under his rival.

All the while, the other major American political party, wedded to a voting base which holds as self-evident a series of propositions without any basis in fact, whether about the President and his policies or the efficacy of particular policies for the health of the economy or foreign policy, has become a ridiculous caricature of a serious political party. Precisely for that reason, it does indeed pose a danger not only to the Republic but to the world.

Yet, if all we are offered is fear; if all we are told is, bad as things are imagine the alternative, where do we look to hope, perhaps, if not for success then at the very least an end to failure? Hope does not rely on the ebb and flow of events. Hope sees the possibility that things may yet right themselves. There are always breaks in the clouds through which rays of light shine, offering the possibility that we may yet set ourselves on course. It isn't in politics or institutions or policies or power in which we should rest our hopes. Rather, in the openness of history, in the reality that, as free people, we may yet show ourselves better than our worst detractors claim we are.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

All One Life In A Single Moment

The summer of 2001 was a wondrous time for me and my family. I think my memories are colored by the horror of September 11, which makes that stretch of time, full of new music and laughter and beautiful days and pleasant nights and even a great place to work and live and a church family that celebrated all the joys, all the more precious.

For all that there was so much else to celebrate that summer, nothing compares to the afternoon of June 7. It was cool and drizzly most of the day, but by four o'clock in the afternoon the sun broke through the clouds. I remember it so clearly because about twenty minutes later, the sunk kissed Miriam's face for the very first time. Even before she had emerged fully, she had her first experience of the light and warmth of the sun on her face. Then the doctor set her tiny body on the towel. She looked so fragile, yet she cried with a joy and power her tiny size belied. The doctor tied off the cord and invited me to cut it. She was whisked away to the warming table so the nurse could clean her and check her on the Apgar scale. After a few minutes a clean, rosy-cheeked child was handed to Lisa, who was still crying. Lisa lay in bed and I stood beside her. Miriam, her eyes open but not really seeing much more than light, seemed to look around her, taking in this whole new experience called the world.

Less than half an hour after entering the world, Miriam showed what a quick learner she was as Lisa nursed her. With just a little prodding, Miriam got the hang of it, and lay there, enjoying her first meal as the sun, still slanting in the windows, lit her face.

The world in which Miriam was born was troubled; it has become even more so, something that keeps me awake sometimes, wondering what kind of world it might be in to which she will grow. As a father, my fervent prayer is it will be one that is far better than that with which we currently live. Part of me knows it will be; part of me fears it will not, perhaps, can not, be. Whatever the case may be, today is not a day for worry or fear as we celebrate Miriam's eleventh birthday.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Darwin On The Habits Of Parasitic Birds

Deciding that part of my summer reading will be a re-read of Darwin's Voyage Of The Beagle and On The Origin of Species, expect interesting highlights to appear on occasion over ensuing days. 

Commenting of a species of South American starling that practices a form of parasitism, Darwin wonders less at the how of the behavior than at the why. Offering up observations another naturalist made concerning the cuckoo, a common British bird known to have similar behavior, Darwin writes the following:
Many theories, even phrenological theories, have been advanced to explain the origin of the cuckoo laying its eggs in other birds' nests. M. Prevost alone, I think, has thrown light by his observations on this puzzle: he finds that the female cuckoo, which, according to most observers, lays at least from four to six eggs, must pair with the male each time after laying only one or two eggs. Now, if the cuckoo was obliged to sit on her own eggs, she would either have to sit on all together, and therefore leave those first laid so long, they they probably would become addled; or she would have to hatch separately each egg or two eggs, as soon as laid: but as the cuckoo stays a shorter time in this country than any other migratory bird, she certainly would not have time enough for the successive hatchings. Hence we can perceive in the fact of the cuckoo pairing several times, and laying her eggs at intervals, the cause of her depositing her eggs in other birds' nests, and leaving them to the care of foster-parents. I am strongly inclined to believe that this view is correct, from having been independently led (as we shall hereafter see) to an analogous conclusion with regard to the South American ostrich, the females of which are parasitical, if I may so express it, on each other; each female laying several eggs in the nests of several other females, and the male ostrich undertaking all the cares of incubation, like the strange foster-parents with the cuckoo.

Charles Darwin On The Effects Of Slavery

To my mind, there are three individuals who epitomize different aspects of Victorian England at its height. Charles Dickens gave voice to the qualms about industrialization, urbanization, and class warfare all the while speaking with the voice of bourgeois moral rectitude. William Gladstone helped create the conditions for British economic and political power with a career in Parliament that began before Queen Victoria took the throne and lasted until her dotage. As Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister (the latter four times) he typified a kind of evangelical high-mindedness that lay thick over a country that assumed its power was ordained by God rather than as an accident of history. Charles Darwin gave the world the archetypal Victorian scientific theory, getting as much wrong as he did right, all the while setting the groundwork for how we understand the development of living organisms.

Before he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, while doing several years of research on roundworms, he also published a travelogue, a genre most loved by Victorian Britain as it settled in to the comfort of superpower status. Hired as the naturalist for a five year expedition aboard the H. M. S. Beagle, Darwin traveled through the Atlantic islands, South America, then on to the Galapagos. He kept a journal, collected hundreds of specimen samples on which he conducted experiments (many of which would be considered cruel by contemporary standards), and enjoyed the comforts a middle class British gentleman had come to expect from a world that granted British hegemony. His memoir of the trip is filled with notes on the geology of the places to which he traveled; inventories of interesting flora and fauna, including habits and practices of species that were generally not well known to British scientists; he also included many asides on the customs, habits, and social conditions in the lands through which he traveled. Early in the voyage, while in Brazil, he was crossing a river on a ferry pulled by a slave of African origin.
I may mention one very trifling anecdote, which at the time struck me more forcibly than any story of cruelty. I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavoring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.
Not a stranger to typical middle class 19th century bigotries, Darwin still had insight enough to understand precisely what occurred in the exchange with the gentleman in question. There is some humor in Darwin calling the slave "uncommonly stupid" then going on to describe himself acting quite stupid, to the point of accidentally threatening the man, who seemed to understand the rules of communication in his land far better than did Darwin. All the same, Darwin shows us it is possible to overcome, at least in some fashion, the limitations of his own prejudices. Seeing this man cower, Darwin realized not only his own error, but the conditions in which he found himself. Would that we had more such people today.

Monday, June 04, 2012

To All Facebook Users: Learn About The Internet

I am an enthusiastic user of social media. I find Facebook and Twitter wonderful vehicles for getting and staying in touch with others, whether people from my past with whom I'd lost touch, or people I've come to know via electronic media, or just folks close by, getting an insight in to who they are apart from our regular encounters. All the same, I am aware of the medium's many faults and limitations, not the least of them the possibility that one gets a false impression of who all those "friends" are on the other side of the digital veil. Just as I assume the persona that others encounter when they read my tweets and status updates shows only a glimpse of a facet of who I am, I never believe I "know" those whose statuses I read. I assume I am getting a tiny hint, perhaps, of a deep passion for poetry, say; perhaps a secret love for painting or auto racing; even several years of Facebook statuses would fail to give me any interesting insight in to who the people I encounter there are.

At best, I might hope for the surprise that the rough-and-tumble, tattooed military vet has a soft spot for all those sickeningly sweet kitten pictures that float around the internet; perhaps I might find out that the young woman who seems so upright and devout also enjoys letting her hair down, rocking out with Stoly and dancing the night away at various watering holes. Not one to judge others, I find these insights more fascinating than anything as all of us do the grunt work of negotiating with others and determining for ourselves who we are.

I am also amused by the steady trickle of complaints about various policies Facebook implements. When they switched over their homepage format to "The Timeline", I sat and chuckled, reading all the people who posted what amounted to one long whine that Facebook might dare change without consulting them. Personally, I like the timeline format, finding it, if nothing else, an easy way of differentiating one's homepage from the usual news feed.

Then, there are the complaints that Facebook, as a corporation, might dare use information it gleans from our posts and clicks-through on ads both to target advertising to users as well as to create data that marketing firms and others might use in their research. How dare they! A corporation acting like . . . a corporation! I have to laugh out loud (for real, not LOL!) when people couch their protests at such indignities in the name of privacy. If you have any expectation of privacy, or object to anyone using any image, word, sound, or other content put up on the internet without any express consent, my advice is simple enough: Get off it.

If you don't want people knowing you have a secret passion for porn, don't sign in to those websites using your Facebook account. If you're having an extra-marital affair, don't put pictures of you and your hoped-for future trophy wife frolicking in Cabo on Flickr. If you don't want your neighbors to know you drain a twelve-pack of beer every day, don't tweet, "Well, another platoon has fallen."

In other words, use some common sense. I have nothing against people who check out porn, or who carry on with those with whom they're not married, or anything else. If you do those things, then use the internet to communicate things about them, don't sit and bitch when this stuff suddenly becomes well known because it's your own fault.

Furthermore, while I agree to a point with Rob Horning's many articles and essays on the manipulative aspects of social media, I also believe he overdetermines it all just a bit. Were our identities so fragile that we were little more than the sum total of our status updates or photos or likes or tweets, we would be pitiable indeed. If true, how would it be possible to mourn such a state because there would be no access to a place outside from which to bewail such a diluted, inhuman reality. The fact is, social media are only as powerful and determinate as we allow them to be. Both individually and collectively, we need to exercise not only common sense and restraint, but a sense of proportion when it comes to how we use these marvelous tools for communicating. They are just tools, for all they give us access to other people and information about the world and a variety of ideas and thoughts and perspectives.

They are also borrowed tools. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google +, Flickr, and other social media are not ours; we use them under the terms set by those who do own and operate them. As such, the control over information we place on them disappears because the information ceases to be ours once it is up there.

Which brings me to a larger point. For all that the internet has created opportunities for people to collect and disseminate all sorts of information, the best part of the internet still seems to elude so many of its users. Once stuff is up here, it's up here forever. Anyone, anywhere, at any time in to the distant future has access to it. Whether it's a photomontage of your vacation to Paris or the love letters you've emailed to the next door neighbor, letting him know your husband has left for work and he can come over for some nooky, it's all there and no amount of pressing "delete" makes it go away. If someone wants to access it, they can and probably will. You don't want anyone to know about the fling with the dude next door? Don't use the internet to communicate about it! You don't want people to find out you're not quite as holy or unholy or bad or good or straight or gay as they might think you are? Then I suggest you don't post material on the internet that might lead them to discover this is the case.

A while back, I posted about my awe at how ignorant some people are about things on the internet. A gentleman from South Carolina had verbally attacked Sandra Fluke, then became enraged when those tweets were shared on various websites. He threatened legal action. He was one of far too many people who have not quite understood that the internet is a public forum. All those folks bitching about Facebook don't quite get it, either. Or, perhaps, their own sense of themselves is so fragile, they fear what others might think of them should some deep dark secret about them suddenly receive a blinding glare of light. Either way, I have only one wish. Please, for crying out loud, remember where you are. Use some sense. Don't create a situation wherein you feel vulnerable because something you wanted kept private becomes public knowledge.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Place-Holding Invitation To Share What You're Listening To

See what I did there, ending the post-title with a preposition? Bad me.

Back in January, I mentioned internet music/radio site Spotify. I have come to love it in many wonderful ways, not least because it allows listeners to create all sorts of playlists. Because I'm simple-minded, I have just one, though, unimaginatively called "My Faves". It currently holds 341 tracks, to which I keep adding all sorts of goodies all the time. Below are ten songs, only the first of which is non-random, because when you open Spotify, you have to choose a song with which to begin, then the shuffle takes over and who knows where you'll land.

The challenge, should you choose to accept it, is this: What are you listening to? Pandora? Spotify? Slacker Radio? iTunes? What's on your playlist, either on purpose or by accident? Please share with me because I'm a nosy-nelly.
This Beat Goes On/Switching To Glide - The Kings 
Midnight Rider (Live at Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame) - Allman Brothers Band 
Mellow Down Easy (Live) - Black Crowes 
Subdivisions - Rush 
Soulful Terrain - Eric Johnson 
Boys Don't Cry - The Cure 
Bad Moon Rising - Creedence Clearwater Revival 
Avalon - Roxy Music 
Pretty Lives - John Wesley 
September - Earth, Wind, and Fire

For those paying attention, that last one is doubly evil. It's a song about losing your virginity, by a band named after three of the four classic elements; Maurice White was a big follower of astrology, and linked it to ancient Egyptian and sub-Saharan African religions. So, paganism, which everyone knows are just demons in costumes.

And Robert Smith of The Cure was androgynous which violates some verse in the Bible that no one can point to.

Virtual Tin Cup

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