Sunday, November 30, 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

William S. Burroughs’ Thanksgiving Prayer—with Annotations

William S. Burroughs' Thanksgiving Prayer


“Thanks for the wild turkey and the passenger pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts. (1)

“Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison. (2)

“Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger. (3) Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving the carcasses to rot. (4)

“Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes. (5)

“Thanks for the American dream, to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through. (6)

“Thanks for the KKK. For nigger-killin’ lawmen, feelin’ their notches. (7)

“For decent church-goin’ women, with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces. (8)

“Thanks for ‘Kill a Queer for Christ’ stickers. (9)

“Thanks for laboratory AIDS. (10)

“Thanks for Prohibition and the war against drugs. (11)

“Thanks for a country where nobody’s allowed to mind their own business. Thanks for a nation of finks. (12)

“Yes, thanks for all the memories—all right, let’s see your arms!

“You always were a headache and you always were a bore.

“Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.”

--William S. Burroughs, 1986

***
Notes:
(1) Some 46 million turkeys will be eaten at Thanksgiving in 2008 (according to Emily Fredrix at Real Clear Markets), one for every 6.6 Americans

(2) “The Centers for Disease Control has found that roughly 6 percent of American women carry mercury concentrations at levels considered to put a fetus at risk of neurological damage.”

(3) The population of native Americans was around 48 million in 2006, of whom 24 percent live in poverty and 29 percent have no health insurance

(4) In the United States, wild bison number at about 20,000

(5) Last year Alaska offered $150 per freshly killed wolf

(6) The top-rated American TV shows are American Idol and Dancing with the Stars

(7) In response to media attention to (or hysteria over) illegal immigrants, KKK membership has surged and new groups have formed. Also the Klan is cooperating more with US neo-Nazi groups, according to the Anti-Defamation League

(8) Just one of many possible examples.

(9) The good Christians of Westboro Baptist Church

(10) Wangari Maathai and Boyd Graves: paranoid or not?

(11) Drug War Clock at Drug Sense.

(12) "’I think we need to be concerned with everybody, including our next-door neighbor,’ [Pat Rose, head of the FBI's Orange County, California, al-Qaida squad] said, adding the FBI gets frequent calls from people who want to tell them about situations like a Muslim neighbor who is changing his license plates or the guy who has nothing in his apartment but a mattress and five computers.” OC Register 05/25/2006

Monday, November 17, 2008

Unmitigated Disaster—Hyperbole and the American Language

After the 7/7 bus bombings in London in 2005, the news media stopped a number of citizens on the streets for their off-the-cuff reactions. I remember one Englishwoman in particular, who, when asked for her reaction to the coordinated attacks on her city’s public transportation system, responded, matter-of-factly, “Well, it is a bit of a bother, now, isn’t it?”

Ah, the British talent for understatement! Fifty-six people dead, including the four perpetrators, and it’s a “bit of a bother”! Her response is all the more refreshing for us Americans, for whom an unsatisfactory experience with a search engine is an “unmitigated disaster.”

Now over seven years later, I dare you to find an American who doesn’t still view the events of 9/11 as the most monumental catastrophe of all time—bigger than the failure of the Banqiao Dam in China in 1975 (which took 9 times as many lives immediately, with another 145,000 dying subsequently of famine and disease), bigger than Hiroshima (where in 1945, 22 times as many people died as in the WTC in 2001), and bigger than the Holocaust (9/11 times about 3,666)*.

Of course, the British stiff upper lip is something of a ridiculous pose, too, most effectively lampooned in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in a sketch on a British military officer’s sang froid over the fact that his leg’s been bitten off by a tiger (“A tiger? … in Africa?”).

In the United States, however, overstatement or hyperbole is the tendency, and the more tinged with violence, the better (“My boss will KILL me if she ever finds out”).

I suspect this fondness for exaggeration is somehow linked to the tall tales that enriched American folk culture back in the nineteenth century—Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, et al.—which were, in turn, probably inspired by the continent’s wide open spaces in the Plains states and CinemaScope and Technicolor vistas of the West.

Out of this rich crop of fictitious amplification, combined perhaps with immigrant dreams of assimilation and high ideals, came the superheroes—most typically, Superman, an illegal from the planet Krypton who came to embody Truth, Justice, and the American Way, as well as the divided souls of first generation immigrants, half American, half European.

Since then, Americans have produced Super Bowls, Super Tuesdays, supermarkets, super-sized fast food, superhighways, superconducting super colliders, Super Mario Bros., and supermodels. And on and on.

You name it and we have the biggest one (until fairly recently, anyway). And we can get it for you deluxe, jumbo, XXL, ultra, and extreme.

Add to this already rich mix, Madison Avenue—where hype and optimism became profitable as well as entertaining. American braggadocio, irritating to some and charming to others, spun out of equal parts P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Cecil B. DeMille, and Teddy Roosevelt. Now it’s an indelible part of how we communicate.

Today’s joint statement from a reunited Obama and McCain—now with TWICE the Hope and Maverickiness—starts thus:

“At this DEFINING MOMENT IN HISTORY, we believe that Americans of ALL parties want and NEED their leaders to come together and change the bad habits of Washington so that we can SOLVE the common and URGENT CHALLENGES OF OUR TIME. It is in this spirit that we had a productive conversation today about the need to LAUNCH A NEW ERA of reform where we take on government waste and bitter partisanship in Washington in order to RESTORE TRUST in government, and BRING BACK PROSPERITY and opportunity for EVERY hardworking American family."

Fuck qualifiers. They never were particularly inspiring anyway. Say it BIG or keep yer yap shut.



* Taking nothing away from the true tragedy of 9/11, of course, since tragedy cannot be measured in spoonfuls. But American self-absorption and exaggerated self-pity obscure the fact that fewer people died in the World Trade Center than died in the seaborne petroleum fire in the Philippines in 1987 (killing over 4,000), or in the release of 42 metric tons of lethal gas at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984 (killing 8,000 in the first two weeks, and subsequently another 8,000), or in the Great Smog of London in 1952 (killing 4,000 initially, with another 8,000 dying later of complications).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Prove It

To prove something means to put it to the test, not necessarily (in fact, seldom) to provide certainty on the matter. In that sense, the phrase “the exception proves the rule” makes sense, that is, a counter-proof gives us the opportunity to put a position’s logic on trial.

A good many things can’t be proved. They are, in fact, the very same things that cannot be disproved—life after death, the existence of a personal deity who creates and provides for all that exists, the assurance that your dog loves you, and so on.

To prove your position, provided it is a position and not a matter of verifiable fact, you must state your position precisely—that such-and-such exists, that it is good or beautiful or useful, that it means something, that it has causes and effects, or that we should conduct ourselves in particular ways because of it.

“The proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Experience and experimentation are the guidelines to solid proof.

It must be publicly testable. Your intuition and feelings and the way you were brought up may all be excellent ways for you individually to be certain about the world around you, but they don’t constitute proof. They are almost useless, by themselves, in reaching the sort of compromise and consensus that life in a democracy demands. (Note: The Athenians who gave us Western democracy also gave us logic and argumentation.)

Proof must be available to the senses—especially other people’s senses, not just your own—a tangible object, an observed event, a predictable and immediate cause or effect, a deduction from premises which are themselves available to sense and experience, a comparison to something already known, a settled definition, or something that can be measured or counted.

Ideally, proof does not depend on authority or expertise, but if authorities, experts, or eyewitnesses are allowed into an argument, they must be credible—that is, knowledgeable on the matter under discussion, honest, and disinterested.

And our conclusions must be valid—which means they must follow directly and inevitably from the proofs we use.

If something can be proved, it can be argued about—it can also be disproved. Some things—such as that the earth orbits the sun, that human life has value, or that every independent citizen in a democracy should vote—have been already proved to the extent that most people no longer argue about them—and the proofs against them have fallen into disrepute—but these matters have been argued in the past, and they could be argued again sometime in the future, should new, reputable counter-proofs ever appear.

Thus, some things that used to be unarguable—that torture is never justified, that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman, that what’s good for General Motors is good for America—have recently become arguable because circumstances and change have provided new evidence for putting these assumptions to the test.

A good measure of what a society is all about is what it chooses to put to the test—and how swiftly and how carefully controversies are put to rest.

It is not a good reflection on American culture, for instance, that the issues of abortion, civil rights, and the death penalty have been allowed to roil over decades with little or no effort to rise above prejudice, preconceptions, and self-interest to study these matters and test them according to fact and reason.

Likewise, it is not a good reflection on America or its leaders that they have been swifter in declaring a new war, in a matter of a week usually, with hardly a word of debate on the matter, than in fixing its infrastructure, which—from its education system to its levees to its prisons to its voting booths—has been sagging for decades now.

What we tend to focus on in this society—in the mass media and beside the office water coolers—is almost never what proves to be the matters of much importance.

Hurricane Katrina exposed the neglect we have paid to poverty and racism, and 9/11 revealed how slipshod our security is and how arrogant our view of the rest of the world is, and the current financial crisis draws our attention to the nation’s burgeoning debt and the greed and illogic betrayed by its sense of luxury and entitlement.

Yet up to all this, we fussed over (I choose not to say “argued”) whether O.J. was or was not guilty, or whether Lindsay is or is not a lesbian, or whether George W. Bush deserved his Yale degree or his honorable discharge from the Texas Air National Guard.

This summer, when McCain selected Palin as his running mate, how quickly our attention shifted from what qualified her to be vice president to how well McCain’s staff “vetted” her (i.e., followed standard operating procedures) and how funny she was and how much her clothes cost. Just for the record, her qualifications were matters that could, with some effort, be put to the test. Her sense of humor, to take the weakest link, is harder to prove or disprove. What her clothes cost was just a matter of verifiable fact.

Here’s my point:

We are a nation primed to act on impulse and feeling—not altogether bad things and certainly necessary to motivate action. But we lack the patience to put matters of great importance to the test, to ask for proof when it is needed and, instead, to ask for too many lurid and sensationalistic details when they are irrelevant.

What does that say about us, as a people? (The answer is not altogether bad—but it’s not flattering either, for a nation as rich and powerful as we—still—are.)

Do I know what I know because it “feels” true inside me, where it cannot be touched by reason or fellow feeling, or because I have confidence that, if I have to, I can put it to the test?

Both, I think (and feel).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Being Contrary

In the battle between reason and imagination, I vote for … reason and imagination. Not only that, but I vote for the battle.

Plato proposed a perfect republic in which reason would reign unchallenged—a perfect political society that would require no poets, because it requires no lies. Walt Disney proposed a well-kept and clean magic kingdom produced by imagineers—the interchangeable puppets of It’s a Small World as models of peace and unity.

I see something healthy in tension, though, and I’m not anxious to see the world in which either reason/logic/science or imagination/intuition/magic hold absolute sway. I like both Plato and Disney, by the way.

I can’t concur with Ayn Rand that “contradictions do not exist.” I cannot fully embrace Swami Vivekananda’s spiritual observation that “the apparent contradictions and perplexities in every religion mark but different stages of growth.” Though I’m no believer, my heart responds more to Thomas Merton’s view: “The very contradictions in my life are in some way signs of God’s mercy to me.”

I’m not much of a critical theorist, but I abhor the sentimental hopes some hold for a heaven of pure, unadulterated positive vibes. It sounds not only boring, offending my aesthetic sensibility, but also just plain wrong, offending my moral nature.

It also sounds like a defeat for both reason and imagination.

Without an antithesis, reason does not lead to progress—without rebuttal, you have no debate, and debate is crucial to a free society’s ability to interpret fact and educate its citizens to make necessary judgments.

Without alienation-effect or the simplified conflict of drama, imagination is simply memory—even more boring, a “photographic” memory—and we lose the power of fantasy to envision possible futures towards which to strive or against which to brace ourselves—we’d have no poets and artists to be, as Shelley called them, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I don’t think a utilitarian ethics or a purely pragmatic technology is possible or even desirable.

And, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not on the side of puritans on either side.

I’m irreligious and strongly oppose state-run churches and church-run states, yet a world from which all trace of religion was erased does not sound good to me. I also oppose a world of therapeutic solutions to every worry, every woe, every spot of the blues. I like escapism as much as the next guy, but a lifetime of uninterrupted amusement and instant gratification would cloy all capacity for desire and joy. I think liberty and security should remain in tension, too. Absolute security at the cost of freedom and absolute liberty at the cost of justice and equality are equally reprehensible—though, if I had to, I suppose I would opt for the second. But only if I had to.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my experience and environment have limited my capacity to reason or imagine purely. OK, then, perhaps. But it remains that I have yet no reason to believe a purely harmonious society can exist. And I cannot imagine a purely harmonious heaven or utopia where the individual human spirit could still survive.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Sanctity of Marriage

“When asked by Chris Wallace [on Fox News Sunday] what ‘conservative solutions’ the GOP would bring to their current minority-party status, [Rep. Mike] Pence said social issues like ‘the sanctity of marriage’ will remain the backbone of the Republican platform.” (1)



Sanctity “1. Holiness of life or disposition; saintliness. 2. The quality or condition of being considered sacred; inviolability. 3. Something considered sacred.” (2)



Sacred “1. Dedicated to or set apart for the worship of a deity. 2. Worthy of religious veneration … 3. Made or declared holy … 4. Dedicated or deveoted exclusively to a single use, purpose, or person … 5. Worthy of respect; venerable. 6. Of or relating to religious objects, rites, or practices.” (3)



Congress shall make no law respecting an 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.” (4)



"In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." (5)



Marriage is thus something more than a civil contract subject to regulation by the state; it is a fundamental right of free men. There can be no prohibition of marriage except for an important social objective and by reasonable means. No law within the broad areas of state interest may be unreasonably discriminatory or arbitrary.... The right to marry is as fundamental as the right to send one’s child to a particular school or the right to have offspring. Indeed, ‘We are dealing here with legislation which involves one of the basic civil rights of man. Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race.’ (Skinner v. Oklahoma, supra, at p. 541.) Legislation infringing such rights must be based upon more than prejudice and must be free from oppressive discrimination to comply with the constitutional requirements of due process and equal protection of the laws.” (6)



"Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." (7)

***
(1) “GOP Leader: Rebuild Party Around Sanctity of Marriage.” 9 Nov. 2008. The Huffington Post.

(2) “Sanctity.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2000.

(3) “Sacred.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2000.

(4) First Amendment. U.S. Constitution.

(5) United States. House of Representatives. Defense of Marriage Act. H.R. 3396 (7 May 1996). 104th Cong., 2nd sess.

(6) California. Supreme Court. Perez v Sharp (1948).

(7) Proposition 8 (“Eliminated Right of Same-sex Couples to Marry”) Amendment to the Constitution of the State of California, 2008.



Note: I am aware of the difference between an “amendment” and a “law.” However, even amendments, on the federal or state level, are obliged to operate in the interests of protecting the rights of citizens and not cavalierly to interfere in either individual citizens’ rights or the operations of individual religious organizations to pronounce what is or is not sacred, holy, and consecrated within the doctrines and rituals supported in those organizations.

Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Not to Care about Politics Is Conservatism

Just finished reading a good student essay on Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” quoting a source saying that the poem does not indicate so much the conservative bent of the poet’s mind as his disinterest in politics altogether.

The essay reminds me that, with few exceptions, lack of interest in politics is a large part of what conservatism is.

Politics is the science of acquiring or challenging power to effect change in a society.

Liberals seek power ostensibly to liberate people from undue coercion and limitation of their natural rights … by the state, by the church, by the “tyranny of the majority” (to cite de Tocqueville and Mill), by the wealthy or otherwise super-privileged, and, more recently, by corporations.

Liberals, unlike anarchists, look to the state “to secure these rights” (to cite the Declaration of Independence) … even from coercion by the state itself—theoretically the function of divided government and the Bill of Rights. In doing so, they often extend the influence of the state over private lives in ways that alarm anarchists, libertarians, and, for that matter, a lot of people who don’t know what to call themselves.

Libertarians and anarchists consider themselves the “true” liberals—either seeking to radically limit the powers of the state or transfer those powers to syndicates, unions, communes, or other small working communities of choice—or, for anarchic purists, to each and every individual to fend for herself or himself.

A keen interest in politics drives all these people.

It drives reactionaries, too. Like liberals, libertarians, and anarchists, reactionaries want to acquire power to change society—more particularly, to re-acquire power to change society back—or return it to traditional points of authority: the aristocracy, the patriarchy, the monarchy or dictatorship, and/or God (or those acknowledged to be God’s vicars or proxies).

About the only groups of people who find no need to care about politics are those who believe change is unnecessary, because for them the status quo is good enough already, or those who believe change is impossible or out of the control of ordinary individuals.

Into the latter group I clump together cynics and opportunists, who see power strictly as a playground. Although they lack political ideals (or at least have set them aside as impractical), they follow the forms of politics, not so much to change society, but rather to enrich or empower themselves.

I would also include in this group those who have burned out or lost hope.

Such conservatism, like the poet Wordsworth’s, may derive from horror and outrage at the excesses or hypocrisies of past revolutions and idealism. The French Terror, for instance, moved a good many English romantic idealists to the right in Wordsworth’s day. Most, I dare say, simply threw up their hands and shrugged their shoulders.

Of course, the former group, who actually like things as they are, are the true blue (or red) conservatives. Their disinterest in politics is meant either to leave well enough alone or to preserve their own interests, which are embedded in the status quo. This is the group most properly called “conservative” and its values are those of the average American—quite literally “average”—all criticism, discontent, idealism, or sense of moral irony burned away in the crucible of the arithmetic mean.

I emphasize “average” because most individuals are not average. Most people want at least some aspect of the society they live in to change, but their values are offset by other people’s values and thus usually neutered … in opinion polls or in election years. It is only when the sum total of individuals in society is statistically processed and redistributed that we have the “average” American, who is, as I said, basically conservative … and largely a mathematical fabrication.

The people we normally think of as “conservative” are actually “reactionary” … at least on most issues. They want to return to the good old days … before Roe v. Wade, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, R-rated movies, rap, the Second Vatican Council, Playboy, the New Deal, and Watergate.

Up to and including a fair share of the recent election, reactionaries have been effective in mobilizing the truly conservative side of American society, largely by appealing to its fear of change, even though the reactionaries want change as much as the liberals and the radicals do.

The liberals and the radicals at least have history on their side. The change the reactionaries want, though, is undocumented in the annals of history. Even the dark ages of the medieval era, the most successful instance of backwards change in history, were different from whatever preceded the classical world.

It is America’s conservative nature that, wisely or too cautiously, demands that its politicians be moderate, promise not to change things too much, or make concessions to opposite interests at the same time.

I think these demands are overly cautious. With rare exceptions, America since World War II has feared the future. It lost or hugely diminished its supplies of frank vulgarity, iconoclasm, can-do spirit, audacious laughter, and big-heartedness, replacing them with political correctness, teleprompt pieties, victim mentality, canned laughter, and identity politics.

As a culture, we have chosen “no” over “yes.” That choice is the heart of conservatism—even when it calls itself compassionate or moderate, even when it thinks it’s progressive.

Of course, no-politics does not equal no change in society. No-politics simply relinquishes the power of change to the corporate-owned media, corporate-funded politicians, and elites who take government loans but won’t lend any money back to you and me.

If the last eight years has taught us anything, it is the essentially destructive nature of choosing beer-drinking buddies as Presidents (especially those who reportedly kicked the hooch 20 years ago) or mistaking escapism and deliberate ignorance for liberation and innocence.

Friday, November 7, 2008

God, Blacks, and Homos

In 1970 I sat in a school assembly at a private Christian high school in Hialeah, Florida, to hear a biblical defense of its policy of excluding black students—a policy that had begun to be an issue for many of the white students.

The first explanation was general—that God intended the peoples of the world to be separate and pure—first evident in Noah’s famous curse against his son Ham, traditionally believed to be the father of the African races: “Cursed be Canaan [Ham’s son]; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (Gen. 9.25). This chestnut had also been used in the antebellum Baptist churches of the South to defend the enslavement of black Africans. Now it was used to defend segregation.

Further, the speaker pointed out that, throughout the Old Testament, God commands the Israelites to keep themselves separate from the inhabitants of the land He has given to them. God Himself promotes racial division—even genocide—to ensure that Israel will remain morally and ethnically “pure.”

The speaker also pointed out that blacks had their own churches and thus were capable of forming their own Christian schools, if they liked, separate but equal. The speaker even boasted that our school contributed generously to a number of black congregations around Dade County.

Last, the speaker invoked the apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Romans: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14.14-15).

The speaker affirmed that, for himself, nothing was actually “wrong” with intermingling with people of other races, but there were brethren of tender consciences who could not abide the presence of black people in their white church, and it was out of consideration for these weaker Christians, so easily offended and grieved, that the racial divide ought to be maintained.

The irony here is explosive. The quoted passage, in its whole context, is in fact a direct rebuttal against the Old Testament teachings of separation. Paul is calling for Jews and Gentiles to come peaceably and lovingly together. And he further urges the Roman churchgoers to welcome minorities into their midst and accommodate their somewhat overwrought dietary scruples. But here our speaker used these words to defend racial discrimination as a sop to the bigots, for whom integration was indeed “unclean”—though, of course, the speaker himself was no bigot, he assured us.

On this same occasion, a classmate of mine rose to her feet to support the speaker’s reasoning. Her voice quavering, she too quoted scripture, “‘What communion hath light with darkness?’” What could be clearer? God wants whites and blacks to be separate.

So, this week, I’m reminded of the compassionate conservatives and God-fearing Christians who, without an ounce of hate for gay men and lesbians, so they say, chose to deny basic rights and legal privileges to homosexuals, i.e. marriage and adoption—on the grounds of certain parts of the Old Testament that condemn sexual impurity (almost as much as the scriptures condemn racial impurity and promote genocide)—and vote in policies not only for their own inbred, paranoid congregations and schools, but for the whole state of California (or Florida, or Arizona, or Arkansas).

And further they defend this singularly un-Christlike action by claiming to defend the children, as well as the tender-conscienced bigots, failing to consider that perhaps one in twelve of those children will grow up to love his or her own sex—and that easily one in three of those bigots have sex hang-ups that would make the average hooker blush.

The more “liberal” among them, including our new president elect, his competition, and the current President, offer the consolation of civil union—separate but equal-ish. Some, like Governor Palin of Alaska, pat themselves on the back for disagreeing (however un-emphatically) with extremists who would grind the gays down into the mud.

How do these righteous souls justify their anti-gay rhetoric?

They are God’s people, easily grieved and offended, protective of their children and their weaker brethren.

They are the majority and can do what they damn well please to minorities (even if, in other respects, they too are minorities).

They have the right not only to disapprove of and condemn other peoples’ lives, they can, within whatever legal boundaries still exist, persecute and destroy those who live such lives …

And—this itself must be some kind of miracle of divinely regenerating love—while their boot heel rests on the brow of the despised homo, they can proclaim themselves to be God’s martyrs for righteousness, abused, persecuted, and unjustly reviled … by the makers of South Park.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Everybody’s Tearing Up

Yep, hearing that Obama had definitely won the day on Election Tuesday, I teared up. Couldn’t help myself. Really. I saw the magic number, 270 electoral votes, had been reached, and the waterworks just sprang.

The vote appeared momentous, not just because on some level it can be taken to symbolize a triumph over centuries of bigotry and injustice in this nation, but also because it promises to reconcile America with the world.

Everybody’s tearing up.

YouTube will soon have to offer tissues for every deeply moved celebrity or wannabe celebrity posting footage of going verklempt when or shortly after he or she first heard the happy news.

The extra-sensitive may even take their show on the road—finding moments in any conversation during the next few days to recall the moment they heard the announcement and go misty-eyed all over again—or, failing in that, simply and reverently affirm that they, too, like Colin Powell, wept—or very nearly almost wept—when they heard that Obama will be our next President.

These are moving times—and the prevailing gauge to validate our choices, our votes, our sincerity, is our feelings. America has elected somebody named Barack Obama as President, somebody a shade or two darker than the previous 43 US Presidents, somebody who can pronounce the word “nuclear” correctly.

A friend who stayed up late that night to watch Obama’s acceptance speech complained, but ever so reticently, that she was disappointed at how “cold” the President Elect appeared. He must have been very tired after months (years!) of campaigning, she offered by way of explanation. Still, she said, he had looked a lot more “kindly” before he won. Perhaps it was dawning on him what a load of shit he was inheriting from the previous administrations.

I’m reading today of gay activists who are tearing up, too. Tears tinged with a hint of hurt and betrayal, even anger, mixed with their pride in a new America capable of rising above the issues of race. Gay activists who worked hard to elect Obama but found their own causes, same-sex marriage and adoption rights, slapped down in four states—and by the same good people, black and white churchgoers, who voted against bigotry to elect Barack Obama.

Dan Savage wrote in his blog on Wednesday:

“African American voters in California voted overwhelmingly for Prop 8, writing anti-gay discrimination into California's constitution and banning same-sex marriage in that state. Seventy percent of African American voters approved Prop 8, according to exit polls, compared to 53% of Latino voters, 49% of white voters, 49% of Asian voters.

“I'm not sure what to do with this. I'm thrilled that we've just elected our first African-American president. I wept last night. I wept reading the papers this morning. But I can't help but feeling hurt that the love and support aren't mutual.

“I do know this, though: I'm done pretending that the handful of racist gay white men out there—and they're out there, and I think they're scum—are a bigger problem for African Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color.” (1)

The issue, of course, is not so much race as it is fear, ignorance, and hatefulness, which know no racial boundaries, but often find sanctuary among the righteously monotheistic. And, of course, black homophobia poses the biggest problem for black gay men and lesbians.

My previously mentioned friend tried to reason with me over my own disappointment over the failure of Obama supporters to care about the civil rights of homosexual men and women, saying that justice needed to arrive first for the blacks, the women, the Hispanics, etc., before it could trickle down to the queers (not her word choice, of course)—out of respect to the chronology of historical injustices.

But I disagree. In 1624, just five years after the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, the first American sodomite, Richard Cornish, was executed, also in Jamestown (2). And nearly a 100 years earlier, in 1530, further south in Panama, Balboa fed 41 native-American sodomites to his dogs, “a fine action of an honorable and Catholic Spaniard,” so wrote a contemporary, Antonio de la Colancha (3). Even if we take a number according to history, as we stand in line waiting for social and political justice, gay rights should be at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights for all.

So while I too feel swept away by my emotions this week—not least of all because we are still stuck with 76 more days of George W. Bush—it’s imperative that we regain our clear and unclouded eyes to face the issues the country yet faces—wars, a tanked economy, crumbling infrastructure, greed, cynicism, and, yes, bigotry against homosexuals.

Obama’s election is not, after all, a happy Hollywood ending—it is the beginning of something, something that I hope will contain moments of glory and triumph, while inevitably burdened by a great deal of cultural warfare, moral equivocation, and, dare I say it, politics as usual.

***

(1) Savage, Dan. “Black Homophobia.” Slog 5 Nov. 2008. http://slog.thestranger.com

(2) Goodheart, Adam. “The Ghosts of Jamestown.” New York Times 3 July 2003.

(3) Qtd. in Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1992. Pg. 137.

FX Master Ray Harryhausen, on King Kong and Mighty Joe Young




Ray Harryhausen (b. 1920), childhood hero of mine via the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and numerous libido-revving films like Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, and One Million Years B.C., here discusses his early interest in stop-motion animation and his break into film-making.

A Silver Cloud with Rust Lining

Me, I’m elated by Barack Obama’s win. I wasn’t one to be dazzled by every aspect of the man’s style and certainly not all his stances, but in the last months I came to feel he has the makings to be the best President this country has ever seen—and the nadir George Bush reached in the last eight years makes Obama’s promise shine all the brighter.

The Bush Administration have brought the country low—bankrupt, globally despised, torn between two wars, baselessly arrogant, fearful (no, terrorized … and by its own government!), stripped of essential civil liberties, and contemptuous of the poor, the aged, and the ill.

Whether I’m right or wrong about Obama right now, he needs to be great just to offset the mess we’re all in. More to the point, it is the American people, as a whole, who need to exhibit greatness, for no elected official, however novel or charismatic, can do the work of rebuilding the nation’s character.

My hopes, such as they are, are wrapped on the new President’s being everything I think he can be.

Still, for me, though, the great disappointment—in the midst of my current high—is that California appears to have passed Proposition 8, negating the court’s decision earlier this year permitting lesbians and gay men to marry whom they please. Arizona and Florida have passed similar measures, either banning or reinforcing an existing law banning same-sex marriage. Arkansas voters decided to ban gays from being able to adopt children.

As speaker after speaker recalls Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream at what one hopes can be the dawn of a better America this morning, we must face the truth that electing a mixed-race President is a gigantic step forward, indeed, but pushing others back down at the same moment reveals that America has yet preserved its ugly side—in its homophobia and religious fear and bigotry.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Voted, Didn’t I?

CNN.com reports that damp ballots due to rainy weather today caused problems in key swing states like Virginia and my own state, North Carolina. In Cleveland, Ohio, another key state, the ballots didn’t include the part for voting for a President. Three precincts in Missouri received the wrong registration lists this morning. Robocalls and e-mails told voters in Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas to vote tomorrow—a repeat of the tactic Republicans used in the last two or three elections to trick black voters, generally assumed to vote Democratic. Lines were 375 voters long in Atlanta today (1).

Who wants to stand in line for ten hours to vote? By all definitions, the American voting machine has declined to third-world standards.

I may not be able to trust my memory on this, but I don’t remember national elections having so many fuck-ups 30, 20, even 10 years ago. Sure, I heard reports of “fixed” elections and “stuffed” ballot boxes, but nothing like the routine travesty voting has been since 2000.

It’s not as if voting is a brand new institution here. We Americans should be old pros at this by now. The 2005 legislative elections in Iraq ran more smoothly than today’s elections in the USA.

A colleague at work blames the fact that elections depend too much on volunteerism to manage the voting process. “Amateur hour,” he calls it, shaking his head in disbelief. This is not the Special Olympics, folks; it’s American democracy. Surely, the states can round up enough dough somehow to improve their voting procedures and infrastructure—perhaps by selling World’s Finest Chocolate bars door to door or something.

Attempts to interfere with American citizens’ right to vote—through political dirty tricks, or brain-numbed hooliganism, or simple finger-in-the-nose incompetence—should be branded as treasonous and prosecuted accordingly.

Isn’t voting the lynchpin of democracy? If it is, what does it say about 21st-century Americans that we are so bad at it now?

American public officials, elected or not, who can’t manage the relatively simple matter of ensuring every registered voter’s right to vote on election day every two years cannot be trusted to balance the economy, to protect our borders, to maintain public roads and highways, or to ensure our other civil rights as citizens.

I shouldn’t have to look at the purple thumbs of Iraqi voters with envy, people.

I don’t for a second buy officials’ excuses that they have been “surprised” by the large voter turnout this year. Please. If McDonald’s can serve over 47 million customers every goddamned day (2), with minimal glitches, the states should be able to prepare themselves for whatever numbers of voters show up once every four years to elect a President.

Failure to operate an efficient, just, and equitable election process is tantamount to proof that a state’s bureaucrats are not competent enough to keep their jobs. Fire the nincompoops. Period.

***

(1) “Scattered Problems Reported in Historic U.S. Vote.” 4 Nov. 2008. CNN.com.

(2) “FAQs.” McDonald’s Canada. http://www.mcdonalds.ca/en/aboutus/faq.aspx.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Numbers on ExxonMobil: Some Perspective

Thursday, ExxonMobil posted record profits for the third quarter: $14.83 billion. This beats the company’s previous record three months ago and ranks as the biggest profit of any American company in history (1). This, in a period of economic slowdown.

That’s approximately 100 times the amount of money Barack Obama raised last month (2).

That’s equivalent to the 12-month salaries for 354,000 high school teachers or 237,355 registered nurses (3).

That’s enough to keep 334,174 prisoners in their cells for a year (4).

That equals the production budget of The Dark Knight times 82 (5).

If distributed equally amongst all 81,000 of ExxonMobil’s workforce, each employee would earn over $728,000 this year, above and beyond his or her annual salary (6).

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson earns a salary of $21.7 million (7). But that’s only 7% of what the Obama campaign picked up in September alone, and would pay the annual salaries of only 500 teachers and nurses, and keep only 488 prisoners in their cells, and produce only the first 12 minutes of The Dark Knight.

***

(1) Smith, Aaron. “Exxon Mobil: Biggest Profit in History.” 30 Oct.2008. CNN Money.com http://money.cnn.com/2008/10/30/news/companies/exxon_earnings/index.htm?cnn=yes.

(2) Stoddard, Ed. “Obama Fund-raising Seems to Defy Financial Crisis.” 20 Oct. 2008. Tales from the Trail. Reuters. http://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/2008/10/20/obama-fund-raising-seems-to-defy-financial-crisis/.

(3) “Occupational Employment Statistics.” May 2007. Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov.

(4) Associated Press. “Cost per Prison Inmate by State.” 19 Oct. 2008. OregonLive.com. http://www.oregonlive.com/newsflash/index.ssf?/base/elections-0/1224436757242730.xml&storylist=orlocal.

(5) “The Dark Knight.” 18 July 2008. Dark Horizons. http://www.darkhorizons.com/2008/darkknight.php.

(6) “Employment Data.” ExxonMobil. 2008. http://www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/about_who_workforce_data.aspx.

(7) Associated Press. “Exxon Mobil CEO Gets $21.7 Million Pay Package After Record Year.” 10 Apr. 2008. KTEN.com. http://www.kten.com/Global/story.asp?S=8148522.

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