Tuesday, March 25, 2014

From Heaven Above - A Review of Praying In God's Theater: Meditations on the Book of Revelation by Joel L. Watts.

As a child of the 1970's, I was exposed to Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth.  Few books over the past two generations have done as much damage to the Bible as this bit of dispensationalist silliness.  Along with other things, it was one of the things that chased me away from the church for a time.  The notion that people read Lindsey as authoritative still makes me shake my head.

In Praying in God's Theater: Meditations on the Book of Revelation, Joel Watts does the singular service of wiping the slate clean not only of Lindsey, but of the all-too-frequent responses couched as Biblical commentary.  Instead, Watts asks the one question that should begin any study: Why was this book written?  Rather than look to the correct but insufficient answers all too frequently offered - to help the early church through a time of persecution - he reads the text itself for answers.  His answer, shocking in its beauty, faithfulness, and novelty to modern readers, is that Revelation is nothing more or less than a view of our life as the faithful as seen from that heavenly Temple/Throne Room pictured in Chapter 4.  Rooting his reading firmly within the liturgical and eucharistic practices of the early church, Watts answers his question with the glorious suggestion that we read Revelation as our worship before God as we live it out here and now.

Praying the Scriptures is a venerable tradition, lost in the Protestant Era, in particular since the rise of higher criticism, that Watts uses to great effect.  Each chapter of his book offers first a prayer - some solo, some responsive - rooted in the text under scrutiny, with supporting texts from across the Scriptures (especially the Hebrew Prophets) - with a brief explication following.  The flow of the chapters follows the practices of the early church, with the Introit, the communal confession, the bringing forth of the Gospel, and so on.  The structure demonstrates Watts's contention that the text is rooted in the liturgy of our ancient brothers and sisters.

There is more to this book that form, however.  Watts's reading partners span the centuries and confessions of Christian life, and we are introduced to names that might be unfamiliar to our ears, including Isaac the Syrian and many Eastern saints and Patriarchs.  One conversation partner who appears often is St. John of the Cross.  Bouncing the Biblical text off the Spanish poet's writings on the mystical journey, Watts brings readers to the realization that there is nothing airy or dreamy about the mystic's journey.  Precisely because the text of Revelation concerns itself with the persecution and redemption of the whole church, Watts helps readers understand this drama has many layers, personal and communal and universal.  These many layers are best brought to life by considering the recorded journeys of those who lived their struggles in their lives.

And it is at this point that the centrality of the Eucharistic celebration becomes clear.  For the early church, for the faithful on their interior journeys, and for us today, the place where we lay the burden of our suffering and fear and sin before God is the table God has set before us.  In the offering of body and blood, of bread and wine, the whole story is made alive for us, to us, and finally in us, and we come before the throne, as St. John the Divine did, in a very real way.  In this way, too, Revelation reminds us that the struggles against the powers of this age do end: They end each time God offers us a place at the table set for us and we eat and drink not through our own power or merit, but because of the grace and forgiveness this table not just represents but embodies.

Watts's book is the kind of Biblical meditation I've long sought.  Respecting the text enough to wrestle with the words on the page, it nevertheless offers readers an opportunity to consider that same text as a living, breathing thing.  Watts shows how the text is still alive, how the Spirit breathes through the words on the page, filling us today, offering us that New Life that is the promise of the Christian life.  The prayers would work well in a liturgical study of Revelation.  The text itself would bear much fruit in small-group study, as well, opening readers to the power of worship, to the freedom and grace offered at God's table, and the solace we receive that our struggles - personal, communal, cosmological - are brought up in the life of the Father in the Son through the Spirit.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It is a joy to read something so fresh and new, yet filled with the Spirit of the communion of saints from ages past.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Nick Kristof Pops A Boil

It is ironic that I only now got around to reading the fallout from Nick Kristof's op-ed in last week's New York Times.  Ironic because his complaint is there are just not enough "public intellectuals" out there, yet I am only now to digging in a bit in part because of all the really good writing I have had to read.

For all that Kristof is King of Wrongdom - and Corey Robin's piece at Crooked Timber does marvelous justice to Kristof - the discussion at the linked piece demonstrates how being wrong can lead to a necessary discussion of real matters of importance.  Some of those matters are included by Robin in his article: the near-criminal neglect of excellent writers by the mainstream; the economic pressures on so many young faculty that limit their ability to devote time to engage more (yet so many continue to do so); Kristof's cliched insistence that academia favors bad writing, filled with jargon and arcana, over general accessibility.  It is in the comments thread - and here is where I think Crooked Timber stands out against the general rule, to whit, "Do not read comments thread" - that talking about Kristof gives voice to the real issues, issues about which Kristof does not write: the crisis in academia.

It is not the fever-dreams of the right about Leftist Academics indoctrinating our children.  It isn't the equally fevered nightmares of the Left (a much smaller group, to be sure) of the capturing of our institutions of higher learning by corporate power, inhibiting academic freedom in order to pursue a well-funded corporate-state agenda.  The real crisis of academia is the collapse of any sense of what, precisely, higher education is supposed to be.

As a society, we no longer value the most important thing a liberal education brings: a well-rounded citizenry capable of critical thought.  Higher education should at the very least give us the tools to be able both to understand and discuss important topics of public interest, as well as provide independent, critical insight on these same debates.  While these are ideals, to be sure, their pursuit is important to keeping the American project alive and kicking.  Their collapse has brought us to the point where we can't even talk with any clarity about what higher education is.

As tuition skyrockets away from affordability, along with the expansion of a criminal student loan system that is well on its way to impoverishing an entire generation, as many commenters note at CT 70% of faculty are not tenure track.  Adjuncts and instructors hired often to teach three, four, even five courses at a time while saving cash-starved departments from paying full-time tenured faculty, these young men and women scramble to teach, research, and publish with no institutional support at all.  That so many do despite the immense barriers in their way demonstrates their dedication to the ideal of scholarship.  Far too many in positions of public authority hold higher learning in contempt, seeking all sorts of ways to undermine the university, from threatening the removal of whole divisions, such as the humanities, to the recent push for STEM not as a public good in and for itself but as an economic and financial good for those who pursue it.

We need to have a discussion about higher education that recognizes the current reality of underpaid, overworked PhDs without any support from an institutional base.  We need to talk about what the university should be in America now and the coming decades.  We need to ignore stupid things people at The New York Times write, even if they do the public service of lancing a particular boil.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Lesson Re-Learned

I don't normally read Ross Douthat's columns in The New York Times.  Like David Brooks, he occupies a space of valuable op-ed real estate to wave his freak-flag of pointless, narcissistic spite masked as insightful social commentary.  For some reason, though, I clicked a link from Twitter to today's offering, and I was rewarded with precisely the kind of awful writing I should have known I would read.

The column itself is an endorsement of yet another stupid book trying to help young parents understand that becoming a parent is, indeed, a good choice.  That such a thing should be deemed worthy of interest outside the halls of self-regarding upper-middle-class whiteness is beside the point for me.  Yet, it is precisely because this would be the target audience of such pabulum that Douthat is drawn to it.  What he does with it, however, is typical of his output: Rather than talk about parenting as the near-impossible task it actually is, yet rewarding in and for itself, Douthat decides to riff on a theme that is de rigueur for him: How much better Ross Douthat is than others in his same socio-economic cohort.  At least, how much better he believes himself to be than the imaginary members of said cohort that Douthat believes make fun of him and his life choices.

In that sense, this column is an archetype of all Douthat columns.  Rather than speak to the many ways our society makes parenting difficult at the best of times*; rather than a curious examination of why young couples might choose not to be parents; rather than wonder why we need yet another book reassuring parents the choice to become parents is a good choice; rather than all this, Douthat makes the entire column about why he, Ross Douthat, is better than those whose life choices are different.  Rather than write a column about family or social policy, Douthat writes yet another in a long string of columns about Ross Douthat.

What's disturbing about this particular offering, however, is Douthat's transparent narcissism.  There is no pretense that Douthat is going to speak to issues beyond his own private concerns as reflective of some broader trends.  The column is textbook narcissism.  His ending flourish - I'm a better person because I'm miserable being a parent! - has the added benefit of him trying to convince himself there is some truth there.

Deeper than the narcissism, however; deeper than the obvious fear that he has not, in fact, made a choice that brings happiness; deeper than these, however, is a kind of roiling envy mixed with anger.  Those in his, Douthat's, cohort who have chosen to eschew parenthood, Douthat imagines laughing at him for his own choice.  Leaping off the page is the fear they might be right.  As I wrote on Facebook, the words are stitched together in such a way they barely hold back this anger.  For this reason alone, this column is not just bad, but horrifying in a disturbing, creepy way.  As the world is all about Ross Douthat, those to whom his imagination leaps as sniggering at his becoming a father (as if anyone outside his friends and family care one way or another) are not people who have made different choices.  It isn't even, as his words claim, they are somehow less morally upright in their choices.  There is, between the words and paragraphs, the sense that Douthat sees them as some kind of threat.  That it is obvious Douthat fears they may also be correct in their choices makes this threat even more dire.

Never mind those against whom Douthat writes are creations of his odd mind.  Never mind that the complexities and difficulties of parenting don't seem to be a concern in a column ostensibly about parenting.  Never mind that not becoming a parent is a choice as filled with moral uprightness as any other.  Never mind all these things.  Seething, barely contained by the linguistic conventions of sentences and paragraphs, with punctuation serving as stitches to hold back the tide, is rage that others are living their lives as a judgment upon his choices.  It is really quite frightening to read.  One wonders how he operates day-to-day, interacting with others without flying in to blind rage at all the imagined slights to his life choices evident in our social life.

Having read this column, I, for one have at least learned not to read him again.  I will, however, wait for the inevitable break.  It is bound to come.  People with this kind of anger inside them usually do, somehow.

*In light of the verdict in the Michael Dunn murder trial, such a column would certainly have some resonance.  A teenager doing what teenagers do is murdered by a man terrified of a group of black teenagers being teenagers.  No matter what we do as parents, we cannot protect them all the time, and that should terrify anyone.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Man's Man

By now you've heard that Michael Sam, defensive lineman for the University of Missouri, came out last night. Almost immediately, the NFL responded to Sam's courageous outing with a cowardly display of anonymity and ridiculous gay-bashing tropes.

As for Sam's ability, you can find his stats here.  At 6'2" and 255 lbs., he is a bit small for an NFL's front line, but he's a good size for the defensive backfield, as long as he develops speed and agility.  In any event, I don't have the knowledge to speak more than that on how he might fit on a team's defense.  Rather, I'm far more interested in the whole nonsense about football being a "man's man" sport, as one anonymous NFL official said.

As Michael Sam has demonstrated superior skill as a defensive player, being named SEC defensive player of the year for 2013, he can obviously do the job.  The argument against drafting him all centers on ridiculous ideas about masculinity.  The notion that being gay somehow makes one less "manly" should have been buried long ago.  Alas, among too many it continues to hold some weird sway.  As I don't really subscribe to the whole thing, I'm not even sure what "man's man" means, in this context.  Are these large, muscular, athletic men so fragile in their sense of their own sexual and gender identity that the mere presence of an out gay man threatens them in some ontological way?  Do they fear that he would come on to them?  If he did so, are they afraid they might say yes?  I'm at an utter loss as to what that argument being made means.

Michael Sam is a man's man by most folks' definition.  That he happens to be attracted to other men means absolutely zero.  His teammates at Mizzou certainly couldn't care less.  The idea that being gay makes one less "masculine" in some indefinable way was never really intelligible.  At this point, being trotted out as it is makes its basic silliness all the more apparent.

Good for Michael Sam for doing what he did.  The NFL front-office people are making asses out of themselves, scrambling anonymously to put the kibosh on his dream of playing in the NFL just because he's gay.  What I'm hoping is there is enough of a public outcry that at least one team steps up, drafts him, and gives him a chance.  He has the ability to play some defensive position in the NFL.  He should be given that chance regardless of his sexual orientation.  I think all those men's men in the locker room can handle it.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Race, Gender & The Super Bowl Halftime Show

Time flies, I guess.  This past week, I heard the unbelievable news that it's been 10 years since the "wardrobe malfunction" that destroyed Janet Jackson's career.
Looking at this photo, I'm still amazed at the national furor, including FCC fines and what amounted to the end of Janet Jackson's musical career, all flow from this moment.  A boob pops out and the world went nuts.

Last year, Beyonce performed at the halftime show, and I was really surprised at the comments I saw on my Facebook newsfeed attacking her dress and appearance as somehow wrong.
What, I still wonder, is wrong with the way she's dressed?

The fact that the incident in 2004 cost Janet Jackson her career, while Justin Timberlake continues on his merry way says so much about who we are.  That Beyonce singing and dancing in a costume little different except perhaps in color and material from a ballerina's became a focus of moral outrage says so much about who we are.

The fact that this year's halftime show will feature Bruno Mars, an ineffectual white man, says so much about who we are as a country.

As a side note, that so many continue to be outraged at Miley Cyrus's very calculated sexualizing of her own behavior while too few in the mainstream press note the blatant racism in her MTV appearance says so much about who we are.

I'm so tired of people offended by women's bodies.  I'm so tired of people not being offended by the maltreatment of African-Americans.  I'm tired of the American madonna/whore complex.  I'm tired of the impossible standards African-American women are forced to meet. and the all-too-public slut-shaming when they fail.  I'm just sick and tired of our American neruoses around race and gender and sexuality.

I suppose the fact Beyonce's career hasn't been changed by her appearance last year is a sign of progress.  That she has to endure a flood of hateful slut-shaming because she dared wear an outfit that was comfortable for her to move, though, makes me tired.

Just A Moment

I've always felt that parenting is a matter of balance.  Too much of anything is bad.  Bringing a person from childhood to adulthood without major trauma is difficult enough; trying to do so with the understanding that there's a large element of chance involved is enough to give most people pause before contemplating it.  It's important to have discipline.  It's also important to know when it's time to let go and believe that all the things you've said and done as a parent have made a difference.  Last night was one of those moments.

I remember the conversations Lisa and I had after Moriah was born.  A big life-milestone is dating.  We were firm: 16.  Right on schedule, last night Moriah headed out the door with a quiet, smart, good looking young man whom she had asked out to what Rockford Christian High School calls their "Lips" dance.  Not the greatest name in the world, I know.  It's a Sadie Hawkins dance, really.  The school doesn't call it that, though, because they do not want school kids left behind because some girls didn't ask them out, or because their girlfriends go to another school.  Most of the school treats it that way, and Moriah executed her plan to ask this young man out perfectly.

As the father of two girls, there are always comments that surround dating: "You should get a gun."; "You doing a background check?"; yadda-yadda.  I remember when Miriam was born, a man who was the father of two grown daughters gave me something called "Rules for dating my Daughters".  At the time I found it quite funny, with lines such as, "If you pull in our driveway and honk your car horn, you better be dropping something off, because you're not picking anything up."  Now, on reflection and with several years parenting my daughters, I find this kind of thing awful.  By the time a child has reached dating age, if you don't trust her enough, and trust yourself enough as a parent, to accept that she will make good judgments when it comes to dating, then being a macho bully only demonstrates your utter failure as a parent.

I've talked to Moriah.  I listen to her.  Sometimes, I listen to conversations she and her sister, 12, have.  I think they don't know I'm paying attention, but I do.  Since she was younger, I've been impressed with her common sense.  I told her just a few days back about a time when she was 10 or 11 and her sister was 6 or 7.  They wanted to play outside on a sunny summer afternoon.  There was talk in our neighborhood of a person or persons about acting suspicious about children.  My wife and I had already had a talk with the girls about talking to strangers, but I was concerned.  I opened my mouth, then said, "OK," and set the boundaries for their play.  About 15 minutes later they came back inside.  I asked what happened, and Moriah told me that they were following our rules; a stranger was in the yard, so they came inside immediately.  I hopped up, went outside, and it was the meter-reader.  I went back inside, chuckling, and told the girls how proud I was.  At that point I knew I had little to nothing to fear, at least at their end, from a stranger approaching them.

Which, of course, is part of that nagging fear every parent has.  You can prepare your child, teach them, give them rules and boundaries, and someone comes along and acts in ways for which you cannot predict or prepare.  All a parent ever can do is so much.  The rest, as they say, is life unfolding, with a whole lot of prayer.

When it comes to the issue of dating, however, a parent has all sorts of resources.  As I said above, there's listening.  There's talking.  Paying attention to the things your child says when he or she doesn't think you're around.  Watching how he or she acts in other situations.  Paying attention to the social climate in which your child lives and moves.  These are all things a parent can do.  When the moment comes and your daughter says, "I want to go out with this boy," as a father you have all sorts of choices.  For me, it was simple: "What's his name?"  If you've been paying attention, you already know the answer to that question, as I did.  If you've been paying attention, you've heard the talk about what kind of boy he is.  Most of all, if you've been raising your daughter in a way that not only keeps those lines of communication open, but also in a  way that allows you to trust her, say, drive a car, get a job, even head out on a cruise with another family, then the whole matter of watching her put her arms around a boy, let him slip that corsage on her wrist, then head out the door to school and the dance isn't a moment of fear.  At least the neurotic fears.  Last night, I watched all that happen and I was not only happy for Moriah.  I was proud of her.  The girl has extremely high standards, and here was a young man she felt reached them.  A quiet, shy,  slightly awkward boy trying to look grown-up in his shirt, slacks, and tie that matched Moriah's dress - I've only ever met two teenage boys who never looked awkward in those situations, and they both went to school with me - I smiled and shook his hand, remembering my own fears as a teenage boy meeting girls' fathers.  And the whole time, I was thinking, "There she goes."  I could have been gruff.  I could have cried.  Instead, I smiled, trusting her because of all she's already shown me; trusting him because I knew that was part of trusting her; most of all, for once in my life, trusting myself that I'd raised Moriah well, and the proof of that was all here in this moment, just a moment of time, a moment of life, that showed us all that things will never be the same.

It wasn't easy, that moment they slipped our our front door.  It passed so quickly if I hadn't been paying attention I might have missed it.  It was a good moment, though.  And I'm still smiling inside because I know that the most important thing, my daughter's happiness, is more important than my own neurotic insecurities.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear

It's a long story how I ended up doing it, but I dragged my old journals out from the place I stashed them when we moved last summer and, for the first time in years, sat down and read them.  You can read me tweeting the experience here.

The first thing I did was look at what I was holding.  It was a spiral-bound notebook, purchased in January, 1984.  I used it to take notes for the class Modern American Fiction.  I know this because I have the course, the professor, the meeting time, and the building and room number scrawled on the inside front cover.  I also have my name and dorm room there, too.  On the outside back cover, I'd written the date, time, and topics for the final exam for the class.  These details, unimportant really in the scheme of my whole life, seemed to glow a bit.  This artifact from a time before home computers or cell phones or digital synthesizers or anyone outside Arkansas who knew who Bill Clinton was or anyone outside his family and friends  who knew who Barack Obama was; before front-wheel drive and automatic transmission became standard (you still had to pay extra for them on cars back then); before Ronald Reagan finished his first term as President - this thing had been.

In the late summer of 1984, I sat down, drew a line through all that information and printed "Journal, August 17, 1984 -" and left it open-ended until I had filled that particular notebook on April 17, 1986.  Which I duly noted.  I must have removed the pages on which I'd taken notes.  On the top right-hand of the very first page I wrote the date.  I started to write:
I find it increasingly imperative that I keep a record of thoughts, impressions, happenings, etc. so that in case I need reference for future activities, plans, etc. it will be here.  Also, to check out historical information in 40 years, this will be important.
I was off by a decade.

At first blush, what I discovered as I read these was an earnest young man, learning about the world, about himself, and trying to navigate among friendships, relationships, while having few of the requisite skills to do so.  I'll admit to being embarrassed by quite a bit in here, if only for its flagrant naivete.

Of course, there's more.  I'm ashamed of one particular instance of just plain ugliness toward another person.  If I had the chance, I'd not only apologize in person, but do whatever penance that person felt I deserved.  Just a couple short sentences, but so full of sheer disgusting . . . just ugh.

I remember spending much of that summer reading.  A whole lot of history.  Post-WWII-era history.  That's when I first read America In Our Time by Godfrey Hodgson.  When I started journaling I was reading Missle Envy by Helen Caldicott.  Just before that, I'd read Jonathan Schell's The Fate Of The Earth so the whole nuclear war thing was heavy on my mind.  That's reflected in a lot of what I wrote about the politics of the time.  The Republican National Convention, handing another term to Ronald Reagan, was about to start, and while we forget it now, the nuclear freeze movement was popular if not very effective.  To say I had my consciousness raised is probably accurate.

Most of what I feel, reading a couple weeks worth of entries, is compassion tinged with sorrow.  The person who wrote those was struggling in so many ways.  Writing a journal, for all the pretentiousness of my very first paragraph, was a lifeline with no one to catch it.  As I said to someone on Twitter, it's odd to hear my 18 year old self speaking to me and not able to speak back.  There's a lot I wish I could tell him.  There's a lot I wish I could do.  Of course, I can't.  Even if I could, as I admitted, my 18 year old self would take one look at me, shake his head, and go about not quite getting life right for quite a long time.

I did have a thought, before I actually sat and opened and read that journal, of doing some transcribing, thinking it might be fun.  The fact is, I just can't do that.  It isn't the things about me that would be revealed.  I've already been candid about the banality of what I wrote, the bathos of some things, and most of all the immaturity of the person one can read between the lines.  I'll also admit that I write about smoking pot and hashish.  Yes, I did.  What's horrible isn't having done that.  What's horrible is the guilt I expressed at having done so.  Some innocent fun - and it was, trust me - with friends, and I spend quite a bit of time in holier-than-thou mode afterward.

No, it isn't what is revealed about me.  The simple fact is, as this was never intended to be read by anyone but me, I name names of people and detail relationship matters that, honestly, I don't think are anyone's business.  Rather than embarrass anyone else, I'll let my previously brilliant idea die a quiet death from common-senseitis.

I am curious, though.  Anyone out there keep a diary or journal?  If so, have you ever gone back after years or decades and read what you wrote?  What was your reaction?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Things I Don't Understand

That title holds a multitude of things, of course.  From advanced mathematics through the music of John Zorn to arc-welding, there are far more things I will never understand than things I do.  For right now, however, I don't get this and related phenomena.  Quite apart from the obvious aesthetic Stalinism; quite apart from the bulk of Goldberg's column that goes on to disprove his thesis (as Edroso notes); quite apart from dumping more garbage on the dessicated corpse of "respectable" conservative thought; I really don't understand how it is possible to approach life this way.  When I watch a movie, or listen to music, or see paintings, or whatever, I never ask myself, "Is this liberal?  Does it advance liberal politics at all?"  I do these things to be edified or entertained, or perhaps both.

Right away, obviously, I would add that of course how I receive and perceive any art form is informed by my politics, among other things.  I do not, nor have I ever, used a political hermeneutic as my primary, or even tertiary, criteria.  Just to take music as an example, I want to be moved and entertained, usually in equal measure.  I enjoy meaningful lyrics, sure; I also love songs about sex and partying, too.  Most of the time, what I enjoy is a combination of music and lyric that resonates on an emotional level.  I just couldn't care less about the politics either of a song or its writer or performer.  To take an example from a rough contemporary, I still enjoy Megadeth's music even though Dave Mustaine has turned in to a bit of a right-wing crank.  I couldn't care less about that, any more than I care, while listening to Kind of Blue or Nefertiti, that Miles Davis physically abused his wife.

Which leads me to the whole "related phenomena" part above.  Last week, in a search for something about which to write, conservatives decided to go after Lena Dunham.  Now, I don't nor have I ever nor would I ever watch Girls.  From what I've read, both critically and otherwise, there seem to be many problems with the show, not least how it is possible aimless 20-somethings somehow manage to live in New York at a time when that has become difficult for all but the wealthy.  In any event, the attacks on Ms. Dunham have little to do with the substance of the show; rather, it seems too many on the right hate-watch the show just to be turned off by Ms. Dunham's propensity to disrobe.  Of course, they don't question whether such nudity makes any narrative or aesthetic sense.  Rather, they personally attack her looks.  One gets the feeling reading stuff like this that these men all feel that filmed nudity exists solely to excite them.  Lena Dunham not having a model's figure just doesn't seem to do it for these poor men or their simultaneously withered souls or penises.

Now, here's what I don't understand.  If they dislike it so much, if the mere glimpse of Lena Dunham's naked body so disgusts them, why do they watch it?  Turn off the goddamn television.  Watch something else, Game of Thrones, maybe, where there are enough good looking naked women to keep them alert, happy, and erect for minutes on end.  Since they don't criticize Girls for political or social reasons, but rather just want to complain that Lena Dunham doesn't do it for them, the whole exercise is worse than pointless.  It's disturbing in a stalkerish kind of way.  The folks who write these pieces, and they appear with enough frequency almost to constitute a genre, sound like that guy who appears on social media, harassing women they barely know, carrying on about a lack of attention, carrying on to the woman's friends about alleged vices and faults (I think we've all seen examples of these kinds of breakdowns; they are simultaneously sad and frightening).

Most of the time, I just wish these folks would find something else to do.  Hate-watching a TV show then taking to the internet to express your hatred at the hours of video you've just watched . . . that isn't what people do.  You won't ever read a post here carrying on about the hours I spent listening to Yanni.  Do you know why that is?  First of all, I wouldn't subject myself to the time needed to write such a post.  I also know that Yanni has many fans out there who enjoy his music.  Just because I dislike it, and can articulate why I dislike it, doesn't make me a better person than Yanni's fans.  In fact, doing that would make me look like an asshole.  Just like folks who write posts excoriating "liberal" Hollywood, or Lena Dunham's body, or whatever it is.  Find a hobby you enjoy and write about that.  Go to a movie to have fun.  Read a book with the simple goal of enjoying a story and enjoying getting wrapped up with the characters and their lives.  The political hermeneutic is just nonsense.  The hate-watching is just creepy.

Speaking In Tangled Tongues (Sorry For How Long It Is)

A couple weeks back, a man with whom I grew up posted something about Pres. Obama on his timeline on Facebook, and one of his FB friends posted a one-word comment: "Terrorist".  Now, the gentleman who posted the OP had already demonstrated, how can I put this, only a flirting relationship with reality, posting things from Infowars.com, among other places.  It wasn't the post that bothered me.  It was that one-word comment, and the fact it wasn't challenged, that pushed me over the edge.  I went ahead and with a heavy heart blocked further posts from this person.

A couple days ago, another person posted something about "Benghazi", referencing Hillary Clinton.  When I noted that all the claims on the little meme-poster were factually inaccurate, the poster confessed that he understood that.  He was opposed to Mrs. Clinton running for President.  Then he asked, probably rhetorically, what it mattered.  Putting on my smarm suit, I proceeded to say the difference is this simple (and here I quote what I wrote from memory): Would this person prefer I stop being his friend and tell everyone the reason was he molested dogs, or that I told everyone he was just too damn tall (he's 6'4" or 6'5"; not really too tall, but I hope you get the point)?  If you wish to oppose Mrs. Clinton's possible candidacy, there is so much on the real public record one could use.  Why contribute to the ever-growing flood of absolute nonsense that makes it ever more difficult to have any kind of political discussion without having, yet again, to point out that some folks toss fanciful nonsense around as if it were real.

I will make a move far too many people (including me, most of the time) make and say this is not limited to the American right.  Glenn Greenwald's one-person campaign to erase any and all differences between Presidents Bush and Obama, at least when it comes to issues of foreign relations, is without doubt one of the most irritating and fanciful bits of political theater around.  What makes it even more irritating is, just like with folks on the right who want to criticize the President, or Mrs. Clinton, or whoever else, there are very real reasons to take Pres. Obama to task for his policies regarding on-going military actions, the continuation of Bush-era policies on gathering data on American citizens, foreign surveillance and the far-too prevalent classification of material and information.  These are serious issues; Greenwald, however, is not a serious critic.  He's a crank, standing on a soapbox, calling the President a criminal, that the exertion of American power is a bad thing in and of itself, that surveillance of foreign leaders and diplomats is not just criminal but a moral offense.

Let's just take this last for a moment.  In the documents Edward Snowden stole then dumped without thought or review was evidence that, during the Bush years, the National Security Agency listened to Angela Merkel's cell phone.  Ms. Merkel was, befitting the Chancellor of a foreign nation, put out by this revelation.  There was some chatter between Chancellor Merkel and Pres. Obama on the matter.  The whole time, I was thinking, "Really?"  Listening to the phone calls foreign leaders make is exactly what the NSA was created to do!  It's the kind of thing any country with the capability not only would do, but does!  All the hand-wringing and badgering about foreign surveillance ignores a simple reality - these are the kinds of ugly things countries HAVE to do.  Anyone reading this thinking the Chinese, the Russians, the European Union, and the Israelis  - to name just a few - aren't doing the same, or at least trying to do the same, to our leaders is certainly welcome to believe that.  They shouldn't be let near sharp objects, however.

Like the right's tsunami of crap, the whole Snowden affair and its adoption by some on the Left has created a climate in which it has become impossible to talk about the real issues precisely because the nonsense has become far too deeply intertwined with reality, separating the two is nearly impossible.  I'm hardly a fan of the President continuing the unConstitutional practice of sending American troops in to combat without a formal declaration of war; I'm even less a fan of the use of UAVs in countries with which the US currently has formal diplomatic relations, and those countries have repeatedly demanded we cease such actions (Pakistan and Yemen are two such).  I think far too much information in government circles is classified.  It would be far better if the default position was public disclosure, rather than to classify than go back and review.  These are all discussions we need to have, just as Pres. Obama and Mrs. Clinton need serious, legitimate criticism that doesn't involve, "BENGHAZI!!!" or "DRONES!!!!"

I know Bob Cesca at The Daily Banter has been doing a whole lot of pushback against Greenwald on the whole Snowden affair, not least debunking pretty much every outlandish claim Greenwald has made, not least that he - Greenwald - is a journalist, precisely because, being a real journalist, Cesca demonstrates how a journalist works by showing just how foolish Greenwald's claims, repeatedly shown false yet repeated no less frequently than the birtherism of the right, continue to be.

For the most part, though, this tiny cri de coeur of mine won't matter that much.  It won't matter not least because there are two potent weapons on the side of the constant nonsense - power and money.  At some point reality always wins.  It would be preferable if we reached that point with a soft landing, however.  As it is I just don't see that happening.  The rude awakening coming will be shocking, and that's sad because it isn't necessary.  Like Mitt Romney on Election Day last fall actually stunned by his loss despite all the polling the previous couple weeks that showed him falling further and further behind the President, existing within a bubble of falsehood might feel safe.  When reality pops that bubble, it can be truly shocking.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

We Should Never Feel Discouraged

This morning, like most mornings, I sat and read some things on the Internet while sipping my coffee.  I have really enjoyed reading the blog Lawyers, Guns, & Money.  Their posts are smart, the comment threads interesting and often very funny, and unlike the other quasi-academic blog Crooked Timber there is far less pretentiousness afoot.*  This morning's read included this, a look at a couple columns from two right-wing writers, David French and Victor Davis Hanson.  I read the originals and the comments and, as has been my wont over the past few months, I became bone-deep sad.  Not for the writers, certainly; their nonsense about unhappy liberal men and . . . whatever point Hanson was aiming for and missed (liberals watch reality shows to make fun of people that Hanson spends a couple paragraphs ridiculing because it makes liberals feel superior to the rubes Hanson spends a couple paragraphs calling rubes; that was all I got from whatever-it-was Hanson wrote; again, doesn't The National Review have editors that could have handed this back to him and said, "Victor, there's a germ of an idea here.  Come back to me after a couple more rewrites."?)

I wasn't sad, either, because two men flaunting their neuroses, with little coherence, are getting paid for it.  That's why it's called "wingnut welfare", after all.  At least they're gainfully employed, and Hanson, for one, certainly doesn't seem to relish the thought of driving trucks over frozen lakes or crab fishing in the Bering Sea (neither do I; I wouldn't spend time and energy belittling them, the work they do, or the combination of local weather and climate conditions, and social and political conditions that make their jobs horrific; I have nothing but respect for these people, while Hanson . . . not so much).

No, I was and am sad because far too much of our public discourse seems stuck in trivialities.  Liberal men are unhappy?  OK, I'll accept the survey findings.  As not a few commenters at LGM noted, French doesn't make any distinctions based on the racial make-up of respondents.  Assuming that "liberals" would include a healthy dose of African-Americans, Jewish voters, Hispanics, and other minorities, it might well be that liberal unhappiness has something to do with systemic, institutionalized racism and less with emasculating harpies masquerading as women?  Another point the folks at LGM didn't note is liberals tend not to be bombarded with the near-constant alternative-reality of FOXNews and other right-wing news sources** and we are therefore dealing with a crappy economy, the frustrations of a broken political system for which there is no immediate fix, and, obviously, the right-wing noise factory that never shuts down.

Last week, 1.3 million Americans lost their unemployment insurance benefits.  Congress is intent on gutting the Food Stamp program.  Republican Congressman and former Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan wants to take one of the most successful social programs we have, Medicare, and destroy it by turning it in to a voucher program.  We have many, many things that need doing, or fixing - which is also doing, I suppose - and far too much intellectual energy is spent talking about emasculating feminists (as if that particular trope weren't a bit dated) and elitist liberal snobs (again, old and busted stereotype).  Our soldiers, airmen, and Marines keep dying in Afghanistan toward no end that seems clear, at least to me, and people are still carrying on about Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty.  To employ a cliche I despise, the oxygen is sucked from the room by trivialities.

Of course, some folks are talking about things not only I believe are important like people having enough money to feed themselves and their families and pay the rent, but things that really are important like people having enough money to feed themselves and their families and pay the rent.  Far too few, alas, seem interested in getting busy and changing things so that folks have money to feed themselves and their families and pay the rent.  It's much easier to get carried away by something Melissa Harris-Perry said, or the latest serving from that word-salad bar manager, Sarah Palin.  Frustrated by the inability of our public discourse to move anything forward, we take aim at easy targets, supporting or decrying something some marginal public figure said in order, at the very least, to assuage our frustration at accomplishing anything else in the public sphere.  We can't get Congress to reinstate UI; we can at least make clear how silly the latest FB post from Sarah Palin, highlighted by Media Matters for America for liberals to laugh at, really is and just how silly she is as a public figure.

This is why I'm a sad discouraged liberal.  I know I shouldn't be.  I have a full, rich life; a beautiful wife and family I love and who love me back despite everything; a job I enjoy that fulfills me (and frustrates me, as all jobs do).  While I type this, I'm watching a woodpecker at our suet feeder, a few juncos on the ground pecking at seed, and evidence the seed corn I put out yesterday for the rabbits and squirrels has been put to good use.  These are things to celebrate, especially as the upper Midwest is only slowly shoving that arctic air to the east and I worry about the animals and birds trapped outdoors.  I shouldn't be discouraged for all sorts of reasons.

And I've forgotten, due to lack of use, how therapeutic writing can be.  Becoming busy over the past six months, I've forgotten how much better I feel after the exercise of taking my inner frustrations, giving them some kind of shape on a computer screen, and putting them out there for others to share.  I have that in common with French and Hanson, at least; the difference, I suppose, is my self-awareness that this is what I'm doing.

*With the possible exception of contributor Erik Loomis's occasional posts on craft beers.  I have decided that, at least in the US, treating beer like we used to treat wine is a class-marker.  I'd love to take the time to make clear what this means, but for now, just go with the image of early-20th century white upper class Americans enjoying "The Charleston" while stripping away the context that actually made early jazz such a dangerous music.

**Two things.  First, Fox is on everywhere you go.  Doctor's offices, dentist offices, hospital waiting rooms.  Hell, I sat for a couple hours in a small airport in northern Florida in September and there were monitors there playing . . . Fox.  Last spring, for work I had to swing over to FOXNews online and sat in wonder reading headlines that were as bizarre as anything I'd ever read.  The world described by Fox isn't the world in which any people actually live.  I'm surprised folks who watch Fox manage to get out of bed without injuring themselves and others.  I'm being serious here; the level of disconnect is profound, and not a little disturbing.  It's why FOXNews isn't carried on Canadian cable; the Canadian government has this quaint rule that states you can't call yourself a news service in their country and promulgate falsehoods.

Monday, December 30, 2013

So How Was Your Christmas?

A week ago today, we piled in the car and drove 12 hours to my hometown.  Our first family Christmas in my childhood home in 20 years of marriage, in part because my wife isn't serving a church so Christmas Eve is free from obligations.  I managed to run in to some old friends and distant family while back there, which is always nice.  Plus I saw or spoke to all my siblings; in fact, the only one I didn't see was my brother, and we had a nice phone conversation Monday evening.  My older sister and her daughters and my youngest sister and her (grown) children were at our parents on Christmas Day.  On Friday, we piled in the car again and drove to my oldest sister's house.  That late afternoon we went snowmobiling for the first time.  My nephew, old enough to be his cousins's parent (he's 36; my girls are 16 and 12), took them out first, then after I got the hang of it, I took each in turn.  Watching their faces while we rode, hearing them scream for joy - it was great.  My youngest sister and her son and daughter arrived a bit later and that evening and the next morning we had epic, Safford Family Uno games, invoking our late, lamented Aunt Joan who made Uno . . . well unique.  You had to be there; trying to explain to the younger generation was difficult.  You were dearly missed, though, Joan.  Her daughter, my cousin Claudia, was also missed; we mused on who sang "The Happiest Girl In The Whole USA" (it was Donna Fargo), a song popular one summer my sister and cousin spent much time together.

As my parents are, in my father's own words, ancient - at 92 and 89 he's not far wrong - it was nice to have one last Christmas at the old homestead, to have so much of the family gathered together, to have little sniping and grousing (there's always some with family), and to return home with warm feelings about the people and events.  You never know what things like this are going to bring, so the overall consensus that all involved had a good time, if too short, made this a great Christmas.  I'll always cherish being in the living room at my parents' house, in my usual spot, on Christmas morning, as my nephew passed out presents.  I think watching two of my sisters dancing to "Cherry Hill Park" by Billy Joe Royal is one my single favorite moments.  I found it on my phone after one of them mentioned it.  I hadn't heard the song in years and my sister took my phone and the two of them proceeded to have a great time embarrassing their children, and delighting their youngest brother.  We're all middle-aged farts now, but it's nice to remember when we were younger.

So that was my Christmas, 2013.  A year of transitions and changes and busyness and new realities ended with a week of family nostalgia that wasn't marred by over-exposure.  For that I'm grateful.  I'm also grateful for the two Adorno volumes, Essays on Music, and Philosophy of New Music, as well as the essay collection Music in Christian Worship.  Oh, I also bought Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia and Te Deum by Paul Westermeyer.  Lots of music reading ahead.

Hope your Christmas was peaceful and joyous.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Getting Our Hate On

Of the myriad reasons not fleshed out the other day when I wrote that I would be writing less (and here I am writing three days in a row, because nothing makes more sense than that), one of them is a kind of helplessness in the face of millions of people spewing whatever sits in their brainpans out on the Internet.  Whether one peruses the comment threads on news stories or blog posts; the various and sundry left-wing, right-wing, moderate and fringe political sections of the internet; or even Facebook and Twitter; as far as the eye can see every sort of opinion is aired, without any sense that things on the internet are not private, and the whole world can see your words.

The past three days have brought us, first Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty saying some pretty horrible things.  I've said what I want about that.  This morning, this LGM post and this Edroso post "discuss" Jonah Goldberg's latest, in which he gay baits a character in a commercial.  The depth of disgust, projection, and seething hatred on display - and the comment section is a festering stew of foulness - is enough to put you off your waffles first thing on a Christmas season morning.

Yesterday, however, there was a display of worldwide, day long hate that was quite disturbing.  If you hadn't heard, Twitter exploded in a ragegasm of epic proportions over an insensitive, bigoted tweet from a young woman named Justine Sacco.  You can see the on-going phenomenon here.  She has deleted her account.  The Tweet Heard 'Round The World, quite literally, has been captured for all time:
Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!  
A PR executive at an internet holding company that owns OKCupid and other popular sites, Sacco was on a long international flight to Cape Town, South Africa and, for reasons that will probably never be completely explained, sent out three tweets.  The first concerned being seated next to someone who was deodorant-impaired; the second was a dig at the British; then the last tweet before boarding her 12-hour, wifi-free flight.  That her life would never be the same after landing became apparent early yesterday.  Her tweet went viral, and her followers exploded from a couple hundred to almost 8,000 by last evening/early morning in Cape Town.  She lost her job, discovered hundreds of thousands of people calling her all sorts of horrible things, and even had Buzzfeed digging through her Twitter account to find "The 16 Tweets Justine Sacco Regrets".

Far from defending the content of her Tweet, I think it displays a kind of ignorance and low-level bigotry that far too many Americans carry around with them.  The difference between all of us and Ms. Sacco is her Tweet got picked up and spread around the Internet, then to major news outlets like The New York Times, her company was forced to act, and she went from a successful business woman to international pariah in the amount of time it takes to fly from one great city to another.  I think losing her job was the correct action; a PR executive who tweets the things Ms. Sacco did displays a lack of judgment that is truly astounding; her former employers, IAC, do have to protect their image, after all.

On the other hand, I cannot endorse the deafening rage that continues to pile upon her.  Compared, say, to Phil Robertson, a figure in a television program, or Jonah Goldberg, a political columnist, Ms. Sacco is a private individual of whom no one had heard before yesterday.  The hours-long spewing of name-calling, conjectures about how intoxicated she might be, the sexist comments calling her a "bitch" and "cunt" was not only ugly beyond imagining; it was out of all proportion to the offense contained in her Tweet.  The pile-on was like Orwell's "Two Minute Hate".  I have to admit more than little compassion for Ms. Sacco, not least because her life became something upon which the whole world could create whatever it wanted without any knowledge the furor existed.

There seems to be some deep well of rage and hate within us.  We direct it at all sorts of targets only marginally related to anything of importance.  I think this is so not least because our political system is completely unresponsive to the demands for action the people express, regardless of party or ideology.  Precisely because ours is a nation of inaction, this seething, roiling cauldron of frustration needs to escape; Ms. Sacco, alas for her, was just in the way.  I have no idea how she will manage now; any future in her chosen profession, Public Relations, is certainly out of the question.  That thousands of people have called her every sort of foul name certainly can't help.  That she has become a stand in for very real and foar more entrenched structural racism is so sad; as at least one person Tweeted last night, "You know what's racist? The education system in Mississippi."  We have real, serious structurally racist matters in this country; the insensitivity of one mid-level corporate executive is, in the scheme of things, meaningless.

The outpouring of rage directed at her, however, is meaningful, if only in a disturbing way, for what it tells us about who we are.

Virtual Tin Cup

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