Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cheap Treats

Today I felt not large but sufficient charges of pleasure from eight decidedly mundane things:

Writing checks to pay my rent, minimum monthly credit card payment, and cable, Internet, phone, and energy bills—though not having stamps enough to mail them off tomorrow.

Returning Laurie’s cake dish (thank you, Laurie), then eating lunch at the Blue Corn Café downtown and buying a couple of books at the Regulator Bookshop—Zoe Heller’s The Believers and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel.

Hearing someone (with apparent genuine interest) encourage me to “no, no, talk on” after I had modestly offered to shut up about my political opinions vis-à-vis colonialism, capital, greed, and destiny.

Laughing conspiratorially with colleagues over news that we, as faculty, are now expected to abide by community college dress codes and to enforce same with our students—we were particularly tickled with the idea of wearing burqas to class or determining whether students are springs, winters, falls, or summers in evaluating how they’re dressed.

Showing several students specific ways they can improve their argumentative essays (due at week’s end) and sensing not just one but several real gestalt breakthroughs in their thinking.

Watching the second disk of Season 1 of Gossip Girl—via Netflix—and trying to figure out how my disproportionate elation could ever be explained to those friends whose tastes and opinions I respect.

Feeling oddly pleasantly bummed out at the thought that I will never be able to see Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon on Broadway in Ionesco’s Exit the King, so thrillingly praised in last Friday’s The New York Times—but vividly imagining how indeed exquisite it must be, especially at this particular moment in history.

Cuddling with my dog, Tom Ripley, on the couch.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bruce Weber

Today is fashion photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber’s birthday. Weber’s 1977 photographs of a recumbent Jeff Aquilon revolutionized the ways male models were posed and photographed—and they closed shop on the stiff faux-action poses male underwear and swimsuit models struck in mail-order catalogues in previous decades.

The homoerotic aesthetic subsequently spread to a number of other fashion and editorial photographers—Ritts, Lalli, Meisel—but Weber’s distinctive traits are a classically inspired naturalness, a sense of accessibility, and an emphasis on skin tone and the symmetrical, even sometimes blandly beautiful faces of his models more than the oiled-up muscle flexing and ironic smirking that had previously typified photography of the male physique.

His work has been criticized as tendentious and fascistic, but the main (real) complaint has been its homoeroticism—and its unapologetic objectification of the male body along the same lines as previous photographers’ and artists’ objectification of the female body.

His inspirations were photographers like Herbert List, Wilhelm von Gloeden, and F. Holland Day—minus their gauzy dreaminess—and ideas of pastoral pansexualism explored in the nineteenth century by Thomas Eakins, Walt Whitman, and Edward Carpenter.

In the late 1980s his work became more self-reflexive, showing models “off stage” at fashion events and shoots. This period corresponds with his advertising work for Calvin Klein—a collaboration that eroticized both the Klein brand and male underwear—and drew controversy from religious groups and derision and parody from feminists, media critics, and social satirists.

Controversy continued as Weber created the images and aesthetic of A&F Quarterly for retailer Abercrombie & Fitch from 1997 to 2003—which drew accusations of pornography, sexism, and racism—though (I would argue) the real bone of contention was the normalization of the human body and sexuality in traditionally homophobic and erotophobic settings such as American sports, rural living, and (the tipping point for most critics) the celebration of Christmas.

As a documentary filmmaker, Weber has developed a unique magazine-like discursive style—in films like Broken Noses and Chop Suey—whose subjects (boxing, pop singers, Hollywood) express a pronounced though always subtle eroticism and the variety of Weber’s own tastes and obsessions—both clearly rooted in nostalgia for lost youth in general and Weber’s childhood memories in particular.

What’s New?

Limited as my skills in small talk are, one of the hardest challenges people routinely face me with is one most people find easy: “How was your day?” “What’s going on in your life now?” “Tell me about what you’ve been up to.”

The problem is that, as a college instructor, I lead an eventful but fairly repetitive life. For me, the news is papers to grade, committee meetings to attend, and lectures to prepare. Then repeat.

And a community college faculty’s salary, after rent, utilities, debts, and groceries, leaves little left over for those wild nights on the Sunset Strip I sometimes like to imagine for myself.

My life is boring.

The year before he died, Nobel-prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky published his essay “In Praise of Boredom,” to which Andrew Sullivan’s blog recently drew my attention.

In this essay, composed as a commencement address, Brodsky recommends,

“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface.”

My first thought is, Is this generalization true? It seems to be so to me, based, unscientifically, on my own life, which contains not only lulls but a wide range of other “things unpleasant.”

My second thought is, from the vantage of our present crises, Wouldn’t it be better, then, just to let the economy, the system, the government, the environment, the whole infrastructure of the nation and the world simply to fail? Won’t the rebound be a lot quicker if we simply give up on padding the fall?

Even if bottoming out is good for the individual soul, a further question is whether the same will work for societies. About this I have some doubts, but, on the whole, most aspects of the economy, system, government, etc., strike me as hopelessly corrupt, and perhaps (perhaps!) starting from scratch could not be much worse than what we have.

The natural world and the long stretch of human history seem at least as resilient as the individual soul. Of course, when governments and environments bottom out, the situation is generally known as a cataclysm—and the benefits of cataclysm, evolutionarily sound though they are, might be a difficult sell right now.

But back to boredom, relatively benign in the face of cataclysm.

Brodsky continues: “The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.”

Now this is the pessimistic embrace of the worst I admire in Russian writers. Despite a persistent but usually negligible sentimental streak, I am the Anti-Pollyanna. With Bertrand Russell, I say, “The secret to a happy life is to face the fact that the world is horrible.” On the whole my mindset has made me more contented than my hopeful, positive-thinking, and can-do acquaintances.

But what Brodsky touches on here is the spiritual quality of boredom—the zen of the doldrums—the perception of the vastness of time as a pure concept—the existential insight that there are just too many diems to carpe.

He goes on to say, “Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it teaches you the most valuable lesson of your life: the lesson of your utter insignificance.”

My utter insignificance. Here we are along with the Latin satirist Juvenal—and his Enlightenment admirers who meditated on the “vanity of human wishes”—long before Dr. Norman Vincent Peale added Enthusiasm to the trinity of virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.

The idea that, in the huge scheme of things, my individual actions are futile and, with apologies to It’s a Wonderful Life, my existence of no importance whatsoever, and that, as a system of personal faith, cause-and-effect is fallible, if not outright fallacious, is invigorating and weirdly reassuring.

Perhaps, after all, we do children a disservice by constantly assuring them of their special-ness, affirming their self-confidence, stoking their ambitions, and enumerating their entitlements. Given a couple of decades of such hype administered through mass entertainments, assertiveness training, doting adults, glimmering (though touched-up) role models, and catchy jingles, no wonder that, as we mature, even after we shed ourselves of belief in the tooth fairy, Santa, and perhaps even God, it’s such a stunning shock to us to face our own mediocrity.

The hard truth is that nothing new stays new—and taking nothing away from the pleasures of newness, it is unreasonable to expect the new car smell or whatever to last long, much less permeate every moment of our lives. How wonderful, then, that life offers us boredom as a corrective to our unreasonably high expectations.

Again, I find myself musing on my dog, Tom Ripley, as my guru and mentor. How many hours of the day does he stay cooped up in my one-bedroom apartment, doing nothing, occasionally sniffing the dusty corners of rooms, rubbing his back against the furniture, and cuddling up next to my leg to look out the window at the March winds blowing through tree limbs? Yet a more generally cheerful creature I have never met.

He doesn’t buy a new outfit every week. He doesn’t watch TV, much less complain about there being nothing on. He has no career path whatsoever, no vacation plans, no ambitions beyond his daily kibble and hopes of frequent contacts with other sentient beings, canine or other. Clocks and calendars mean nothing to him. The Sunset Strip means nothing to him.

Nature blesses animals with no need for boredom. We civilized humans, however, need boredom as a sort of reality check—a purgative to our inflated sense of self.

Life is precious, though often routine, seldom dramatic (even more seldom dramatic “in a good way”), hardly ever epic or even truly tragic (in the strict classical sense).

Life is more typically light comedy—but mostly, unsurprisingly, it’s just slice-of-life.

Let’s face it: there’s probably a good reason more sentences end in periods and question marks than in exclamation points.

“As music to your ears, this, of course, may not count,” Brodsky states; “yet the sense of futility, of the limited significance of even your best, most ardent actions, is better than the illusion of their consequences and the attendant self-aggrandizement.”

What’s new? Not much. Nice, isn’t it?

Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pervasive Language

On Sean Hannity’s Wednesday radio program, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) called for an “orderly revolution” to offset the “economic Marxism” of the Obama administration, in particular citing Thomas Jefferson’s much quoted call for a periodic revolution to keep one generation of Americans from being enslaved to the laws and constitutions of previous generations.

For a while now, for a couple of decades anyway, conservatives in the Republican Party have co-opted the terms “rebel” and “revolution”—words that still resonate positively with a good number of Americans. So pundits can remember Ronald Reagan as a “rebel,” and nobody raises an eyebrow.

One more sign of the debasement of the American English language, Bachmann’s call and similar calls promote turning back to the same business models and social roles we have followed into hell thus far and ignore that Obama’s “recovery” plans so far have done little that would please Marx (the real one, not the one that lives in the right wing’s imagination) except, perhaps, throw a few bones to programs that benefit the poor and needy. Those bones, apparently, are tantamount to all out “Marxism” to those whose notion of helping the poor and needy is to help the rich and grasping—so it’s no wonder that they might imagine “revolution” in terms of preserving the status quo.

Of course, these wannabe revolutionaries have had little to say about the previous administration's eight years of assaults on human rights and the U.S. economy. And, for a while now, I have given up my dream of George W. Bush and his arrogant gang’s ever being brought to trial for any of a number of crimes against the nation, its Constitution, its laws, its reputation in the world, its security, its defense, and its wealth, certainly not from the Republicans and not from the Democrats, Bush’s willing accomplices from the beginning. That dream was mere fantasy.

Year by year, I am convinced of George Orwell’s acuity in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which he claims that dying metaphors (among which “orderly revolution” must surely be listed), verbal padding, and hype effectively empty language of its content, leaving us with catch words and catch phrases incapable of holding any meaning whatsoever. So what becomes important about a word like “revolution” is not so much what it means as how attractive it sounds—and, used thus, it may be appropriated not only by those who promote change and progress but also by those who promote the obstruction of change and progress.

In summarizing these “swindles and perversions,” Orwell decries writing and speech that “consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Copy-and-paste language results in copy-and-paste intellects. Familiar word combinations please the ear and may even excite emotions, but they fail to draw fine distinctions or clarify exactly what the speaker means to say. As a teacher of writing, I am often impressed with how effortlessly some people can fill five typewritten pages with clichés and jingoism without ever saying anything in particular.

Such use of language hides rather than reveals. It abstracts rather than depicts.

Again, Orwell: “In our time [Orwell was writing in 1946], political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Of course, Orwell, a supporter of labor and non-totalitarian socialist change (while strongly opposing fascism and Soviet communism), is better known for his novel Nineteen Eighty-four, in which governmental “newspeak” proposes that “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery,” and “Ignorance Is Strength.”

I’m repeatedly reminded that we now live in a world which newspeak has swept clean of definition and meaning. Just yesterday I watched a movie rated “R” for “pervasive language.” In previous posts, I’ve mentioned my consternation at debaters of abstinence-only education, both pro and con, declaring their concerns that children today may be learning that “sex is OK.” What the hell does that mean? When I ask students to explain the precise qualities they most admire in their friends, most of them respond with identical phrasing: “My friends are there for me.” Well, OK then, that explains a lot, thanks.

When I express concern that they are not expressing themselves clearly, students often reply, “But you know what I mean.” Not exactly—and, besides, clear communication is more than the rhythmic accumulation of platitudes and tropes—and the burden of clarification and definition belongs primarily to writers and speakers, not readers and listeners.

I propose that “orderly revolutionaries” like Bachman and Hannity and even Obama and Clinton are, while indeed interested in change to varying degrees, principally involved in preserving “order,” equivalent in their minds to making minimal and perhaps merely nominal changes to the status quo. Now, I am not opposed to order—not at all—but neither am I convinced that it is synonymous with stagnation and obscurantism.

Those in power still want us to swallow the “trickle-down” theory of economy, under a new name. They are appalled and frankly scared of reports of widespread malcontent and anger—for them, it’s “class warfare” only when the underdogs fight back.

Savvy politicians are trying to co-opt some of the rage percolating in our culture with calls to revolution, all to pursue their own political ends—which are (guess what?) to sustain and perpetuate the powers that be.

So, to paraphrase Bachmann and others, let’s have a revolution that manages to change nothing, except perhaps the removal of the modicum of anemic “hope” poor and otherwise disempowered voters had in electing Barack Obama as President in the first place—a “hope” that the Obama administration has already watered down and sugared up to suit the sensitive palates of AIG, Chrysler, GM, Bank of America, and hedge-fund billionaires.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The American Dream: A Personal Virtual Quest

I’m thinking about the American dream. I’m not sure what it is.

Frankly, I’m ambivalent about nationalizing dreams at all, as it hints at groupthink and totalitarianism. I have my own dreams, thank you, and I suspect nobody can enjoy my particular kinks and aspirations quite as I do.

But “the American dream” has entered the lexicon, for good or bad. And it is always “THE American dream,” not “An American dream,” or, plural, “American dreams.” So I’m on a little pilgrimage right now, exploring what people think of the American dream.

Needless to say, I haven’t reached a conclusion yet for myself, and don’t hold much hope of reaching one, but here are some of the opinions I have encountered so far on the information superhighway.

Please comment—and add your own points of view on this wonderful but increasingly perplexing phrase:


Richard Stuebi:

The catch-phrase "American Dream" was apparently coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, who wrote that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement". It's worth noting that the original framing of the American Dream was on improved quality of life—upward mobility, based on merit, capitalizing on open opportunity.

However, a few years earlier in 1928, Herbert Hoover uttered a slogan in his Presidential campaign that ultimately became the shorthand phrase to most people for the American Dream: "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." In other words, the American Dream got co-opted from a libertarian notion of vertical mobility to a government-led promise to entitlement of geographic mobility.

[Interesting that the phrase was "co-opted" a good three years before it was "coined."]

Matthew Warshauer:

Traditionally, Americans have sought to realise the American dream of success, fame and wealth through thrift and hard work.

John Hockenberry and Farai Chideya:

Many may wonder that, as a nation, have we so corrupted the fundamental ideals of the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we instead find ourselves living through the American nightmare?

[Joe has a question here: Are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a dream? or rights?]

American Dream Coalition:

The American Dream Coalition’s mission is to support citizens and organizations that promote the American Dream of freedom, mobility, and affordable homeownership.

Thomas Kochan:

Many American families have not prospered in the new "knowledge economy." The layoffs, restructurings, and wage and benefit cuts that have followed the short-lived boom of the 1990s threaten our deeply held values of justice, fairness, family, and work. These values—and not those superficial ones political pollsters ask about—are the foundation of the American dream of good jobs, fair pay, and opportunities for all.

Paul Harris:

The American Dream of riches for all is turning into a nightmare of inequality.

Hillary Rodham Clinton:

We can tell voters that we are for renewing and securing the American dream, of a college degree, a home, healthcare, a secure retirement, and the chance to get ahead in a growing economy where rising bottom lines mean rising incomes for all workers.

Mary Connolly:

It is crucial that the banking system modify their way of thinking or the government has to intervene and subsidize mortgage interest rates to allow Americans to essentially afford the true American dream—owning a home.

[Joe’s note: Googling “American dream of,” I find that “home ownership” is the Number 1 object of the preposition—often but not always according to realtors!]

Shirley M. Tilghman:

Universities have played a key role in the American dream of social mobility.

Peter Ames Carlin:

Krstic has spent these last few months balancing her ceremonial duties as Miss Oregon with her job as a dental hygienist, but her imagination has been elsewhere: tracing a vision of sashes and crowns and flowers. The American dream of instant fame, prestige and, perhaps, wealth.

Friday, March 20, 2009

No Giants, but Windmills

On the heels of the news that the loophole allowing fat AIG bonuses was deliberately written into the stimulus bill, with full support of the U.S. Department of Treasury, comes the revelation that at least 13 of the corporations receiving stimulus money courtesy of U.S. taxpayers owe back taxes—that is, they had not paid their fair share towards the public good that they are now benefiting from, not to say (more forthrightly) cynically exploiting.

Yes, I am back on my habitual rant against mammoth financial institutions and corporate capitalism, which, no, I neither trust nor believe are indispensable, despite a lifetime of hype over better tomorrows, what’s good for the country, invisible hands, and the privilege of “choice” and individual ownership of property.

And, again no, I tend not to blame the (yes, culpable) federal government for corrupting global capitalism, rather the reverse: for most of the nation’s history, big business and a wealthy elite have used the federal government to their own interests, not the common good.

“A banker,” said Mark Twain, “is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it starts to rain.” I would say “lease” instead of “lend.” And "wants it back" with interest ... and a user fee.

No expert in economics and possibly downright un-American in my distrust of profiteering, I probably have no right whatsoever to complain. OK, OK, I am part of the problem. There, I said it.

And, sure, the pure, spiritualized version of capitalism is indeed lovely, I admit it, where smiling faces exchange much needed goods and services, sprouting from perpetually fruitful cornucopia, based on individual needs—one bright face valuing more what the other bright face values a bit less, permitting a “profit” for both parties. My eyes well up with happy tears.

And it is no less (or more) a fantasy than the pure, spiritualized version of socialism—I concede that, too. Nothing is gained through idealizing or demonizing people or institutions, when the reality is fairly easy to see.

And while I am qualifying a claim that strikes me as just common sense (though it’s hardly common at all), let me also state that I think corporations and capitalism have done much good for the world and its citizens, too … though perhaps more as side effects than as their central mission.

But I would add that the most astounding of those contributions—such as computer, satellite, nuclear, and microwave technologies—have sprung from military (thus government) funding and state university research, which smart capitalists have acquired and effectively marketed back to the citizens whose tax money funded the studies and discoveries in the first place.

Having said all that, here’s my point ...

… that capitalism puts power, sometimes immense power, into private hands, creating and perpetuating unnecessary inequalities in a democratic republic, such as ours,

… that power tends naturally to protect its own interests, so once centralized in family dynasties or even modern virtual individuals such as corporations, power and wealth seldom leak out (or trickle down) to the general citizenry and, even then, mainly as means of galvanizing more power to those who already hold the larger portion of it,

… that the powerful tend to exploit the unpowerful, but …

… that the exploitation is almost always couched in terms of altruism and cooperation—so that those without power regard those with power as benefactors, protectors, and, most perniciously, indispensable realities, not acknowledging …

… that wealth and power alike are symbolic—that gold would have no value if, as in Thomas More’s fantasy Utopia, people simply would stop seeing any value in it, and that great armies would have no force if underpaid, underappreciated soldiers, always asked to risk more than they have to gain, would refuse to fight for vague, inconsistent, and ultimately false value claims, masking the interests of the already powerful to retain and enhance that power.

All of this is general and abstract, but the reality is ever present with us. The physical evidence to support this claim is part of the air we breathe daily. And while I am distrustful of revolution and promises of a perfect society, I do think real change still occurs and remains strongly probable for the future—despite there being so much cynical illusion of improvement, as new bosses replace old bosses. Real change occurs primarily through individuals’ practicing moral consciousness, consideration of the common good, as part of their own self-interest, and cooperation in taking the baby steps needed to make their world a better place for everybody in it.

And I say “their world” on purpose, not in the sense of ownership, but in the sense of responsibility and duty. We are not entirely dependent on the flagrant inequalities that we have come to accept as just the nature of things.

No doubt we do have a strong stake in some of the very institutions that sometimes oppress us (including not only AIG and the corporate structure, in general, but also an often arrogant and self-absorbed federal government), and we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the collapse of giants—even detestable, oppressive giants—does not pose considerable dangers for us little people, too.

But such giants have collapsed before, and the world kept turning.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Durham Wood

According to the April issue of Men's Health magazine, the one with Taylor Kitsch on the cover, Durham, North Carolina, where I live, is 6th among American cities least in need of Viagra. Durham makes a letter grade of A on the list. We're trailing Boston, Hartford, Washington, Atlanta, and Burlington, Vermont, but beat out San Francisco and New York City.

Nearby Raleigh, NC, earns a C+ at number 37, Charlotte too has a C+ (at number 32), and Greensboro is just plain sad with a D+ at number 66.

The list is based on CDC statistics on U.S. cities with high risk factors for erectile dysfunction (cigarette smoking, obesity, and diabetes) and good firm numbers on exercise and available medical help. I feel confident that I have done my part to help my chosen hometown's high ranking, but apparently personal testimonials were not part of the survey.

For the record, the limpest dick cities are Omaha, Nebraska; Modesto and Bakersfield, California; Anchorage, Alaska; Oklahoma City; Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas; Charleston, West Virginia; Lubbock, Texas; and, with the softest serves of all, Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of Oral Roberts University, where you'd think healing hands would be easy to find.

Can't speak for the other cities, but my friend Shane says we Durham dudes will be shooting for the number one spot next year.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Right and Wrong

Immorality is behavior that willfully sacrifices the interests, needs, values, and feelings of others for the sake of one’s own. Cheating on a spouse is immoral in the same way as underpaying employees in order to increase personal profits.

In many cases, immorality is relatively harmless. Not inviting your sad-sack friend to your party, knowing that, though he would appreciate the invitation, his presence would bum you out, is immoral—but it’s not likely to hurt him much and may please you and the other guests greatly. I can’t see much good in having too many scruples over such matters, but they do, in truth, meet my definition of immorality.

In the United States, we have few laws against immorality—and we shouldn’t have any, except when such behavior clearly threatens the common good—and in those cases, because the laws would impinge drastically on the liberty and free will of individual consciences, the burden of proof should be high.

Of course, in America, talk of morality is usually confined to the issue of sex, because Americans are uncomfortable with sex for pleasure, given our puritan, peasant, and pioneer value systems. In most Americans’ minds, the only conceivable justification for sex is procreation within the legal and religious institution of marriage.

Over the years, make-believe moralists have stretched truth and credulity alike in claiming rubbish such as that homosexuality poses a threat to children and society at large or that a woman who chooses to end a pregnancy is, in every instance, committing willful murder. Matters of personal conscience have been exaggerated as threats to national security or as the Holocaust redux. Thus, we have laws designed to curb or totally block certain behaviors that have no real or reasonable impact on the public or the common good.

Since such laws sacrifice others’ interests, needs, values, and feelings only to benefit the prejudices, hyper-sensitivity, and scruples of those who demand those laws—and ban or limit activities that have no effect on the lives or safety of those not directly involved, such laws are themselves immoral.

We hold money, however, in high esteem. What people do with their money (or for their money) has been somewhat less regulated than what they do with their gametes.

As a society, then, we have generally tolerated liberties in the use of money that we have not tolerated in the use of our bodies. No doubt, many who would defend companies’ right to reckless downsizing, for the sake of the bottom line and on the basis that owners can do with their properties what they damn well please, would oppose a woman’s terminating a pregnancy even if she does so because pregnancy poses an economic hardship on her and, in the long run, on the potential life she carries.

What, then, is morality? I like to think it is not just the avoidance of immorality. In my mind, morality means to make room for the interests, needs, values, and feelings of others. Morality, though, does not require me to sacrifice my own interests. Morality obliges me only to benefit others to the extent that it is in my power to do so. It means to give as good as I intend to take … to strive to profit others, not just myself and my own kind.

Unfortunately—and this is the way the world has always been thus far, to its own detriment and to the retardation of social progress—the moral are sitting ducks for the immoral. At the heart of immorality is the desire to take advantage of others’ good will and basic decency, to turn a profit on them, to bust their cherries, and, most insulting of all, to blame the victim for not realizing that this is the way the game is really played.

Somehow, progress occurs: slaveries are abolished, human rights affirmed, cruel and unusual punishments made somewhat less cruel, witch hunts cease, tyrannies collapse, liberties increase and spread. The individual life, dedicated to do right, may suffer "slings and arrows" and "the spurns / That patient merit of th'unworthy takes," to cite Prince Hamlet, but history and society are better for it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Doritos® and NCAA®!

In high school and college, I felt loyalty to my schools’ teams only when I personally knew one or more of the players. I’m amazed when, at about this time of year, I see friends and acquaintances around these parts, decades out of school, get apoplectic about NC State, Duke, or UNC basketball. With some people, I’d be risking bodily harm even to voice this concern to their faces.

It’s basically all in fun, I know that, a way to vent, to aerobicize one’s loyalties and group identifications. To some extent, I wish I could join in on the fun. Really, I do. But another part of me remains not just disinterested but distrustful—as if, as Noam Chomsky suggested, such sideline enthusiasm for team sports is just indoctrination in the herd mentality, groupthink brainwashing, and conditioning to respond favorably to jingoism.

I might go a little further—and say such concerns can be distractions from the business of a democratic republic. As the Roman satirist Juvenal so famously put it—with heaps of irony: “Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things—Bread and Games!” (Satire 10, trans. G.G. Ramsay, 1918)

Or, to modernize, Doritos® and NCAA®!

Arguments about ideas, especially ideas that strike me as important and about which I’m curious—such as religion, culture, the state of the world, or politics—are very worthwhile. I thrive on reasonably heated (but mostly reasonable) discussions.

Another thing (but related): I’m not a good partisan. I’m really just not much of a joiner at all—sometimes just clicking a “send” icon to rally with Moveon.org is more than I’m prepared to commit to. I’m sorry if this offends—and I assure you I’m anything but wishy-washy—and I abhor unthinking relativism and the “paralysis of analysis.”

Still, I do not have a mindset compelled to bend every newfound fact to a pre-existing ideology. I try not to be a knee-jerk liberal or a knee-jerk anything. I do not feel bound to bottom lines, constitutions, creeds, manifestos, or scriptures. I haven’t decided yet whether this deficiency makes me more or less a person of integrity.

In breaking his ties to an anarchist organization, William Morris, the Victorian artist and socialist, wrote, “Men absorbed in a movement are apt to surround themselves with a kind of artificial atmosphere which distorts the proportions of things outside, and prevents them from seeing what is really going on.”

I stopped being a “true believer” of any sort by age 29. Though I am registered to vote as a member of the Democratic Party and happily voted for Obama last November, my mind is more dialectic than partisan, so I’m more a small-letter politico—democrat, republican, anarchist, radical, socialist, libertarian—which is to say “not actually a politico at all.”

I like to challenge (rather than to confirm) my ideals, principally by taking frequent long, hard looks at reality and seeking challenging input from knowledgeable people with varying values, interests, and affiliations.

It’s good to resist whatever conditioning one’s had to take sides automatically, without checking each position by the facts, without mulling the facts over. No doubt it makes life more difficult and sometimes more lonely not knowing what colors to wear, to have to wait to see who plays the better game before deciding whom to cheer. And sometimes I take shortcuts, but always with a sense of bad faith and guilt. (And, by the way, letting distrust corrode into cynicism is the worst kind of shortcut.)

Distrust of certainty, cant, and jingoism is healthy. Can you really respect anyone whose whole philosophy, whose whole politics, whose whole values, fit on an 11x3-inch bumper sticker?

Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I suppose we have Lenin and Stalin to blame for making “socialism” a bad word, and the cold war for making socialism sound antithetical to democracy and the American dream.

Still, it’s lazy usage of the word to accuse President Obama of being a “socialist,” as conservatives have been doing since last fall, under the spell of Joe the Plumber, just as calling George W. Bush a “capitalist” in the usual sense of the word misses the word’s defining points.

By all accounts Bush was a piss-poor investor and entrepreneur (still, to his credit, according to Snopes.com, he never actually said the French had no word for entrepreneur), having survived in all his pre-political business dealings on the coattails of his father and family connections, and, as U.S. President, turning a $200-billion surplus into $400-billion deficit, hardly a high watermark for ideological capitalism.

Likewise, Obama’s “socialism” benefits the Haves somewhat more directly than the Have-nots. Republicans call it “socialism” perhaps because it does not exclude the Have-nots entirely. More than Bush, Obama at least has experience in pulling himself up by his bootstraps.

It’s also a mistake to call the present collapse of capitalism as consequently and effectively socialism. “Capitalism” and “socialism” are indeed opposite terms, but it makes no sense to assume that the collapse of one is necessarily a triumph of the other. Lurking variables do appear to exist.

Arguably, the collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated a good bit of the mess Wall Street finds itself in now, so much depended on the cold war to prop up both sides of the “conflict,” just the opposite of what the long-held false dichotomy would suggest.

Since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the frisson produced by tension between workers’ interests and investors’ interests has been the (tenuous, at best) basis of global economic strategizing. And the current economic collapse could just as easily swerve America to fascism or feudalism as to socialism or communism.

The stimulus packages, all varieties of them, are designed to keep gigantic financial institutions and multi-national corporations afloat. The collapse of these entities will cost jobs for ordinary working people, but probably no more so than the collapse of the European aristocracy did in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Yesterday, I watched Roberto Rossellini’s television film The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, recently available on DVD. It shows the French monarch’s building of Versailles and adoption of sumptuous finery in dress as deliberate ploys to stave off the inevitable forces of the bourgeoisie and democratic ideals, much as the Reagan-Thatcher high style in the 1980s, combined with sugary doses of nostalgia, were deliberate diversions from the faltering economy, which most people felt comfortable blaming Jimmy Carter for, mainly because he had dared to suggest wearing sweaters and turning down thermostats.

A culture built on superficial luxury and debt is a monarch’s and a dictator’s and a CEO’s bastion against forces of history, change, and equality.

Rossellini’s film begins showing ordinary workers commenting on how a good position with the king is affecting the amount of time husband can spend with wife, since work in the palace, though well compensated and prestigious, requires slavish devotion and little time for leisure … or a personal life.

When one loudmouth mentions that England had just successfully beheaded its king and seemed none the worse for wear, he is hushed up since all their income, including the loudmouth’s, is tied to the interests of the French aristocracy.

Such is the defense of the various stimulus packages, too—critics should shut up since “everybody has a stake in the fate of AIG.”

Calling the President a socialist seems a bit arch to me, since from FDR to Reagan to Clinton, Presidents of both parties have been propping up an untenable free market, seen as such by even leading capitalists like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century, with a variety of tricks co-opted from the old aristocracy.

FDR’s welfare programs are largely credited with saving the U.S. from Soviet-style communism on one hand and German- and Italian-style fascism on the other. Similarly, building Versailles kept the aristocracy in debt to the king (thus stifling political intrigues) and French workers too exhausted to analyze what exactly their own interests and rights were, much less rise up in protest against their oppressors.

In Western democracies, civil rights have been recognized when (and only when) civil disobedience and unrest have threatened profits or, worse, threatened to pull open the curtain and reveal the flimsy mechanisms that keep the “economy” blinking and buzzing.

The West has tended to stand up for human rights elsewhere in the world when its own economic interests have been threatened, though inevitably human rights and safety are invoked as the main rationales for war.

The stock market has been shaky for some time now, and though it has been the practice of the American right wing to blame this propensity for decline on insipient socialism and “big government,” it seems to me that big government, in the form of laissez-faire liberalism, has always worked more in the interest of preserving the viability and stability (or the illusion of these) of self-consuming industrial and capitalistic forces than in the interest of the American people in general.

Friday, March 13, 2009

How I Work

How Stuff Works has horoscopes, believe it or not. So according to astrologer Jill Phillips, here's how I, born on March 25, work, in italics, along with my commentary on same:

An Aries born on March 25 is naturally shy, even though they possess the ability to shine at any gathering. At times, they display strong social skills and may be the life of the party. But in reality these individuals draw strength from a rich and creative inner life.

The shy part is on target, but I can't recall ever being the life of a party. I do like positive attention, though, but apart from captive audiences in a theater or classroom, I'm usually at a loss how to draw it. "Rich and creative inner life" is right too, especially as a euphemism for pornographic fantasizing and daydreaming boys'-own-adventure stories featuring me and my dog, Tom Ripley, usually set in outer space.

Given their emotional depth, it isn't unusual that March 25 people express much of their energy through relationships. They may have a great many social friends but few close ones. Although their love life is often turbulent, romance is always their primary form of experience. They are able to bring out the best qualities in a loved one.

I have never been accused of being emotionally deep. Typically the number of my close friends comes close to equaling that of my social friends. My social circles have always been fairly small, consisting of people I generally prefer interacting with in small groups or one on one.

Sex is a huge motivator for me. I am pretty much obsessed with the subject of sexuality, in particular my own sexuality. It's always been an obsession with me and, on occasion, a compulsion.

"Turbulent" is a nice word for my love life, if one understands the word to mean "disturbed," "disruptive," and "potentially violent." I do bring out the best in my loved ones, though, usually at the point they walk out the door forever.

March 25 individuals usually develop a social life outside of the family circle. However, they do not expect their children to follow in their footsteps. They much prefer championing independent-minded youngsters who have the determination to go their own way.

As a non-parent, I can speak only as a teacher here, and as a teacher I am slavishly devoted to fostering independent-minded critical thinkers, even those who take strongly conservative, puritanical, and corporate-capitalist positions, i.e. in every way opposite my own deeply felt values. I think it's safe to assume I would be much the same as a parent, though I can imagine that, with my own flesh and blood and/or namesake, I might be a little more prone towards micro-management.

March 25 natives often flout conventional wisdom about health and fitness. They pride themselves on being able to get by with little sleep. They lead an active dream life and need to funnel their problems and stresses through dreaming.

This is very true of me. I'm a terrible patient when sick and generally impervious to good advice on diet and exercise. I eat and do pretty much what I like and find it difficult to embrace any sort of regimen.

And I don't like to sleep, and the only excuse for sleep, in my opinion, is to dream, and my dreams tend to be vivid, both Technicolor-y and Kafkaesque, impractical in the extreme and inimical to calm and restfulness.

People born on this day have a strong desire to be famous. Since fame is not always possible, many of these individuals are satisfied with being widely known within a circle of colleagues.

The best I can say about this point is what I have already said: that I enjoy attention, though I'm queasy about the usual strategies for garnering it. Also, I blog, and the self-promoting and self-absorbed natures of blogging are especially clear in the entry you are now reading.

There are few goals that March 25 people cannot achieve. Goals take on the weight of a quest, and dreams become vivid and dramatic. They inspire others by the grandeur of their hopes and dreams.

Though I occasionally inspire (or am told I inspire) the occasional student, I can't say that I am naturally a motivator. I am usually more goal oriented than process oriented, but in the areas of life for which most people set definite goals, say career paths, investments, and long-term relationships, I am just the opposite: process oriented to the point of apparent indifference over where I'm heading.

I am a dreamer, though, as already emphasized, and can usually be counted on to provide a quirky perspective, which others find humorous or perceptive or impertinent ... or, on occasion, inspirational.

You should embrace: Positive outflow, emotional resonance, being young at heart

You should avoid: Pessimism, looking backward instead of forward, being sullen

Amen, to all that.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Watchmen (Movie Review, More or Less)

As I write this, Watchmen, which opened locally last Friday, is listed on IMDb as the 152nd top film of all time, right under Fellini’s 8 ½ and right above the Coens’ The Big Lebowski.

Just for the record, I never read the graphic novel on which Watchmen the film is based. I should also disclose that I saw director Zack Snyder’s previous hit 300 in the theater and was entertained—mainly by the cool-looking ancient rhinoceros and bulging CG pectorals—but underwhelmed overall by its chic fascism. Snyder gets a lot of credit—from the films’ marketers, if not from film critics—for his “vision”—the more remarkably because his films reportedly add little more than animation and sound to their paper-and-ink sources.

The film, I have to say, is a knockout for its first two hours, roughly 75% its total running time—jumping between flashbacks and a fictitious present, an alternative 1985, in which Richard Nixon enjoys his third term in the Office of the President, while facing a JFK-like missile crisis with the Soviets over occupation of Afghanistan. Not a whole lot is done with the political (and metaphysical) undercurrents of the plot; they are more “visionary,” i.e. eye candy, than substantive or intellectual.

No critic I have read has so far reviewed the movie enthusiastically. RottenTomatoes awards it a modest 65%. But I had heard that a nine-yard-long blue, glowing penis plays a prominent role in the film, so I tore off for the local cineplex. Besides, even the bad reviews gave me the impression that the story is prettily realized, with a high potential as high camp.

The movie is an odd mix of good, understated acting (Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson) and bad character makeup (strange that in the era of CGE, Hollywood makeup is now actually worse than it was in the eras of Jack P. Pierce and William J. Tuttle), mixed together with some unconvincing line readings by supporting actors who show every sign of being pals to whom the film’s producers owed favors or, in the case of the usually competent Matthew Goode, vice versa.

The plot (and probably you already know this) centers on the murders of retired masked crime fighters, a conspiracy to knock off ageing but still colorful heroes, whom Nixon has forced into retirement to restore the work of justice to police and courts. Personally threatened, the heroes begin to conspire (or at any rate discuss at length whether they ought) to reemerge from the shadows to defend themselves and, perhaps, to save humanity.

The gist of all this, along with the film’s most sympathetic characters, is politically reactionary, in a Reagan-era Rambo sort of way. Obviously, the film endorses vigilantism over government-based law and justice. But the plot is just muddled enough that the theme of vigilante revenge remains rather more muted and innocuous than your typical Dirty Harry movie … or even last year’s The Dark Knight.

Less innocuously, the film rehashes the stereotype of super villains not-so-subtly coded as “gay”—and blatantly degraded for being “intelligent”—a prejudice (the latter) that has never hurt box-office receipts or, until last November, political candidates. The film’s only lesbian crime fighter gets whacked during the opening credits (which also solve the mystery of the JFK assassination), and, to add insult to injury, we are later informed (by a winsome bigot) that her death is just punishment for her unsavory life style.

Also, Asians and blacks are not only marginalized, but routinely presented as recipients of the heroes’ harsh (and sometimes insanely violent) meting out of payback. See an almond-shaped eye or dark skin, and you can literally count the seconds before it’s squished, shredded, sizzled, or vaporized.

The last 45 minutes, when all is resolved and love conquers (almost) all, sags in a bad way. I’ll spare you any particular spoilers. I won’t say the ending is predictable, it is not, but it’s convoluted as hell—and not in a way that invites stimulating post-credits conversations over pie and coffee, though clearly the story strives for high seriousness in the resolution.

Despite my not having much good to say about this movie so far, I did enjoy it, perhaps least of all for Dr Manhattan’s blue but perpetually flaccid penis.

My favorite parts of the movie were the glimpses of heroes circa 1940, their baggy flannel costumes in sharp contrast to the sleek neoprene muscle-huggers of the later heroes. I, for one, would like to have seen more of Mothman, a vaguely effete superhero with clumsy wire and acetate wings, who goes nuts and gets carted off to the funny farm. And the Bettie Page-like Silhouette, the previously mentioned lesbian, deserves better than a cameo appearance and early exit.

Watchmen is quirky, and quirkiness counts for a lot with me. I’m also a fan of pastiche, and this film packs loads of it. The movie risks inviting ridicule on a number of occasions and mostly but not always manages to dodge it. I often say that, lover of fine cinema and classics that I am, I can also enjoy a movie for its noisy soundtrack and pretty colors. Watchmen is enjoyable in exactly that sort of way.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Jon Stewart, American Hero

Sunday Beefcake

Friday, March 6, 2009


Here’s a quiet toast, on a Friday evening, my bottle of Stella Artois in hand, to the girl who’s too tall, the boy who’s too glamorous, the hippie kid smelling of weed and looking Pre-Raphaelite, the born-again teen unfashionably defending an abstinence-only life, the hipster who’s too old and the cynic who’s too young.

“Man is physically as well as metaphysically a thing of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors, and a misfit from the start,” exclaimed Ralph Waldo Emerson, a magnanimous man, in his essay “Beauty.”

I salute you, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and you, Walt Whitman, and you, Flannery O’Connor, and you, Nathanael West, and you, Geoffrey Chaucer, and magnanimous men and women everywhere. You understood the feeble material we’re all made of.

I toast the fussy, marshmallow-skin woman who breaks a sweat looking for the owner of a misplaced purse; the earnest defender of a painfully simple idea, in whose mind the idea is the only idea, and so he gets to sleep the sleep of the righteous and certain; the mastodon-sized boy with weak, sad eyes steamed in steroids and right-wing rage; the fat kid who knows the answer to a science question. The black girl with catwoman eyes and long straight hair and fishnet stockings under a leather skirt. The white boy stammering and endlessly apologizing, unable to speak a single word above a whisper.

The old woman who just does not understand, here’s to you. And you, English teacher with the Louise Brooks hair, amateur pornographer and lover of Dorothy Sayers. And you, deflowerer of young girls, teacher of art, with your sailboat, your drumset, your Cinelli bicycle and refrigerator full of imported beer. To you, broad-shouldered and sunflower-faced woman, impenetrable, anxious, brimming with love you don’t even know where to put, to you punk-styled Vietnamese boy who doesn’t like to date Asian women, I send my love.

The pale, practically albino girl with red hair whose eyeballs seem to stick to her eyelashes when she’s nervous. The bagger at Harris Teeter who I swear to God looks retarded but whom I still wouldn’t kick out of bed. Cheers to you both. I salute the elderly Buddhist with a library of JFK conspiracies. And you, old friend, gone with AIDS, but not before you got me out of plaid pants and too-tight shirts. You, conscience-stricken confessor of a murder years ago, I’ve kept your secret. And you, Mr. S., best teacher ever in grade school, who fiddled with boys’ penises after telling a smutty story—an experiment, we were told—whose secret I did not keep, who was fired, and to whom my mother nevertheless allowed me to walk over and say a final farewell.

Here’s a toast to the flat-topped history professor with a wife who baked bread, who collected stereopticons, who told me, “Never complain because 80% of people don’t give a shit and the other 20% think you’re getting exactly what you deserve.” To the teacher who built his own house and kept his wife pregnant, although his eyes lingered hungrily on the faces of young men.

You bet your life, I’m toasting you.

To the laugher at his own jokes, the gossip everybody secretly loathes, the doomed sleepy-eyed son of two suicides, the West Virginia boy whose grandfather was saved from an eternity in hell by a mule he had thrashed nearly to death, the girl with too much eye makeup who condemned girls who wore too much eye makeup, the collector of autographs, the large hairy boy with the soul of a flower, the drunk narcissistic poet who met Derek Walcott, the father who yelled at his son only once ever and that was for not recognizing a goddamn Phillips head screwdriver, the one-armed mother who scared her son by pretending to be Frankenstein, the mother who approved her daughter’s learning how to masturbate, the black boy who played the xylophone and collected small animal organs in jars of formaldehyde, the kid whose name really was Ben Hur, the woman who’s still trying to please the father who molested her, the boy who wanted to be Jonny Quest and who looked almost exactly like him except he was not a cartoon, the woman who picked her lifelong career out of a library book, the woman who made hot pepper jelly and listened to Ruth Etting records, and the ugly, rather mean girl at school who graduated from Barbizon School of Modeling and Personal Development.

Cheers to you, misfits, freaks, losers, creeps, lost souls, sissies, retards, sinners, ne’er-do-wells, fatsos, bitches, phonies, wannabes, bullies, nutcases, sad sacks, outsiders, victims, scapegoats, pervs, misanthropes, nerds, geeks, weaklings, trolls, old maids, odd ducks, and deadbeats. Chin chin.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Profit Motive

I am not, never was, a believer in the profit motive. How long have I heard it said that the profit motive is what makes the world the wonderful place it is? No, I don’t believe it.

Why must everything the U.S. government proposes, for the past two decades at least, be filtered through the beneficial effects of someone making a profit from it—whether it’s providing housing for the poor, healthcare for everybody, art for our souls, even overseas wars for oil and death—or, OK, to be a little charitable, a “model of democracy in the Middle East”?

Even as we try to save the economy from utter collapse, we insist that somebody somewhere manage to make some money off doing what, from what I understand, would be equal to feeding five thousand people on five loaves of bread and two fish.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never ever turned a profit in my life, to my knowledge. Not one that had any dollar signs attached, anyway. I was the kid whose parents bought all the World’s Finest Chocolate bars he was assigned to sell as fundraising for this or that school project. I am the man who, when offered an annual salary almost ten years ago—a very modest salary, by any account—blurted out spontaneously that I would take the job for even less. Who in today’s America underbids himself?

Right now, with the highest university degree for my specialization (Doctor of Philosophy) and just over 30 years of experience in my chosen profession (college teaching), I have an annual salary equal to the starting salary of a police officer or an assistant human resources director in my state (North Carolina). No, I’m a piss-poor profiteer.

And, guess what, I’m okay with that. By and large. And, guess what else, I give as much bang per dollar—I’d say even a bigger bang—than the average Fortune 500 CEO pulling in $14.2 million a year.

Fundamentally, then, I am incapable of understanding why better must always mean bigger, or why, so long as I can live well on the rewards of my labor, I would need to make more ten years from now than I made ten years ago. (Which reminds me—if we’re in a depression now, when are movie tickets going to be a nickel again and a steak dinner, a quarter?)

I cannot think of the artist, musician, actor, writer, etc., who is famous for producing his or her best work because of the desire either to match or outstrip a previous success—or to create a sure-fire moneymaker. Yes, I know William Shakespeare was a businessman—actor, playwright, and theatre owner—but we rank his work by qualities other than its box-office receipts. And though history provides us with no clues as to his motives, it’s just hard for me to believe the man wrote King Lear mainly to capitalize on the public’s interest in nihilism and eye gouging.

In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, master filmmaker, the movies now recognized as his masterpieces—chief among them, Vertigo—were hardly financial successes at all. Put Vertigo and Slumdog Millionaire on any reasonable scale and see which one proves to be the greater artistic achievement. And need I mention Orson Welles? Or Van Gogh? Or, for that matter, who even dares compare present-day charts-topping hiphop to the socially conscious and politically motivated rap of Public Enemy back in the 1980s?

In the realm of science and medicine, I hear the profit motive invoked more routinely. My understanding is that, decades ago, science was a public venture financed by nonprofits or the government, often in cooperation with institutions of higher learning. Now it’s almost entirely profit-based. I ask you—shall we compare the Salk vaccine to Viagra?

And, back in the day, didn’t scientists use to pool their knowledge to find a cure for tuberculosis or build atomic bombs ahead of Hitler? In my recent past experience as a medical writer and editor, though, nearly all the information I looked at was the patented property of the pharmaceutical company that sponsored the research … and no matter how significant the data looked objectively, if the corporate execs could not figure out a way to squeeze a couple of zillion bucks out of it, it was boxed and warehoused somewhere deep underground next to Indiana Jones’s lost Ark of the Covenant.

So, no, frankly, I don’t understand why insurance companies have to be included in the loop if the federal government were ever seriously interested in providing baseline health care to every American man, woman, and child. And I don’t understand why contractors make so much money off the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and why then even more contractors are hired to figure out just where the hell all the money is disappearing to.

And I don’t know why so many people think it’s a good idea to funnel government funds into gigantic corporations on the pretense that this is the most economical and “free” way to get much needed loans to mom-and-pop businesses, when, in fact, those same corporations turn around and refuse to loan money to moms and pops.

No, I don’t believe. I’m an unbeliever in free enterprise, free market, laissez-faire, trickle-down, all of it. (Nor do I believe in the federal government that we’ve had since at least the 1940s, upon which, as President Eisenhower once warned us, the globally heavy thumb of a “military-industrial complex” presses down hard.)

I don’t believe the poor are to blame for the current economic fiasco for signing their names to bloodletting high-interest mortgages in order to buy homes of their own.

I don’t believe unions or American workers or environmentalists are chiefly to blame for the collapse of the American automobile industry either.

I don’t think the current mess is the fault of millions of new “stockholders,” mostly coerced into the stock market as company after company shut down their retirement plans, who have little time after 8- to 12-hour work days to watchdog the goings-on in hundreds of companies thus far kept afloat by the cumulative effect of these inexperienced capitalists’ meager savings.

And, obviously as a teacher, I tend not to blame teachers or teacher unions for the disastrously weak skill and knowledge levels of America’s school children—and tend to recognize many of the critiques of the same for what they are—bald-faced attempts to destroy public education in America and thus turn every school (except for pricey private schools) into a mere training post for cheap, acquiescent labor.

Furthermore, I find criticisms directed against the “cultural elite” and academics—comprised almost entirely of folks like me who aren’t trying to top last year’s record-setting profits—and are hardly “elite” in the sense of class or net worth—are disingenuous attempts to stymie intellectual freedom and the free flow of ideas in a nation much in need of clear analyses and new ideas right now.

What we have is a society and a culture that need fixing. What we do not have right now is a profit opportunity, and what we do not need right now is craven adherence to forms of capitalism that are clearly exhausted and no longer functional.

No, I do not believe that “what is good for General Motors is good for the country.” It’s not true now, and I don’t believe it was ever true.

John Ruskin wrote, “There is no Wealth but Life.” I believe American culture has, for the past 50 years anyway, been squandering life in the vain pursuit of wealth. Right now, more than a bailout, American needs a “revival”—not of the religious sort, since religion long ago stopped being anything but a shill for power and wealth—but a revival of common sense, common decency, and a clear concept of the common good—literally the common-wealth.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

North Carolina's Marriage Discrimination Bill

This afternoon I sent off the following e-mail message to my state legislators, Larry Hall and Bob Atwater:

"As one of your constituents here in Durham, I urge you to strongly oppose Senate Bill 272 [House Bill 371], which seeks to insert discriminatory language into the state constitution by making marriage between a man and a woman the only legal domestic union in North Carolina. I have read the bill, and far from convincing me that there is a need for such an amendment (or legislation), its argument is that NC alone among the other Southeastern states has not yet voted on this issue. The bill has no goal other than the promotion of anti-gay prejudice and, if preservation of the institution of marriage is its true intent, it provides no shred of evidence that flagrant discrimination and inequality are the right and best means of accomplishing that end.

"If anything, North Carolina should strive to rise above its geographical neighbors in promoting human rights, acceptance of diversity, justice in the distribution of legal privileges, and separation of church and state. The state and its citizens have bigger challenges to address in the coming years than to play to the scruples and insecurities of people who oppose social progress and positive change.

"Please vote against the proposed marriage discrimination bill. I look forward to your considered response and will follow the voting with interest."


Here is the full text of the bill in question:


Whereas, of the 15 states in the Southeastern U.S., only one has failed to pass constitutional amendments defining marriage as "the union of one man and one woman." Florida voters approved the question on the ballot in 2008, leaving North Carolina as the only state in the Southeast that has taken no decisive action to pass a marriage amendment; and

Whereas, the 14 states in the Southeast that have passed marriage amendments have done so with an average rate of passage exceeding 75%; and

Whereas, in statewide poll numbers released May 20, 2008, by the John William Pope Civitas Institute, 71% of North Carolina voters support the passage of a State Marriage Amendment, while 26% are opposed. Among African-American voters, support for the marriage amendment was at 86%; and

Whereas, for the last five years, bills calling for a State Marriage Amendment have been introduced in the North Carolina House and the North Carolina Senate, but state lawmakers and the public have not been given the opportunity to vote on this critically important legislation; and

Whereas, the California Supreme Court's May 15, 2008 ruling that recognized a constitutional right to same sex marriage in that state will have significant implications across the nation, although it was reversed in that state with a constitutional amendment approved by the voters; and

Whereas, the threat of similar lawsuits in North Carolina increased significantly in 2008 when the North Carolina Court of Appeals granted visitation rights to the estranged same sex partner of a lesbian woman who conceived a child through artificial insemination. (Mason v. Dwinnell.) In the introductory remarks to the opinion, Judge Martha Geer writes, "It is important to first observe that the factual context of this case — involving same sex domestic partners — is immaterial to the proper analysis of the legal issues involved." In other words, the court considers the "sexual orientation" of the parties involved in this child custody case to be irrelevant. This rationale is strikingly similar to that used by the California Supreme Court when they said, "Furthermore, in contrast to earlier times, our state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation...";

Now, therefore, The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts:

SECTION 1. Article 14 of the North Carolina Constitution is amended by adding the following new section:

"Sec. 6. Marriage.
Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."

SECTION 2. The amendment set out in Section 1 of this act shall be submitted to the qualified voters of the State at an election on November 3, 2009, which election shall be conducted under the laws then governing elections in the State. Ballots, voting systems, or both may be used in accordance with Chapter 163 of the General Statutes. The question to be used in the voting systems and ballots shall be:

"[ ] FOR [ ] AGAINST

Constitutional Amendment to provide that marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."

SECTION 3. If a majority of votes cast on the question are in favor of the amendment set out in Section 1 of this act, the State Board of Elections shall certify the amendment to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State shall enroll the amendment so certified among the permanent records of that office.

SECTION 4. The amendment set out in Section 1 of this act becomes effective January 1, 2010.

Bush’s Memos

Yesterday the Obama administration released a number of “secret documents” from the Bush years. These documents gave the President of the United States dictatorial powers in the war on terrorism. Since the “war on terrorism” cannot be defined as an actual war, Bush gave the Presidency powers undreamed of by Roosevelt and Lincoln—even Nixon—all of whom inflated Presidential powers beyond the limits set by the U.S. Constitution.

According to the Bush memos, the executive branch has the power to cancel Americans’ “unalienable” rights to protection from warrantless search and seizure and to free speech and a free press. Moreover, 92 videos of CIA interrogations have been destroyed—severely diminishing the chances of officially settling whether or to what extent the United States has engaged in torture.

In one memo, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Woo states, “The current campaign against terrorism may require even broader exercises of federal power domestically."

Current Attorney General Eric Holder spoke before the release of the documents, saying, “Too often over the past decade, the fight against terrorism has been viewed as a zero-sum battle with our civil liberties."

Although I am pleased that such memos are now matters of public record, what they reveal is no new news—we all knew this stuff—the Internet has been buzzing with it for years. The practices were so widespread—and flagrant—that the Bush administration’s connivance against American democracy and liberty was hardly a “secret.”

More disturbingly, we knew this, and the majority of us did not care. On many occasions, students in my argumentative writing classes expressed their willingness, even eagerness, to set aside their rights for (the illusion of) safety and security from terrorists—who, over the years, lost any existential reality and became more mythic—bogeymen to scare us with, instead of the very real Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, who were untouched by these unprecedented powers and remain alive and active to this day.

Even before 2001, I had students who, in the middle of the Clinton years, complained that Americans have “too much freedom.” Sometimes, they were speaking against attempts to spread rights, protections, and privileges to under-represented minorities (i.e. gays and lesbians). Sometimes, they were speaking about moral and cultural laxness in general—easy divorce, sexy Calvin Klein ads, wife-swapping hillbillies duking it out with Jerry Springer—the same decadent values the Taliban cites as evidence against Western-style democracy. Sometimes, I suspect they were speaking about the growing visibility and self-assertion of non-white Americans—hinting at, but never forthrightly naming “the fear of a black planet.”

In response, I would quote Noam Chomsky—who said that freedom of speech for only ideas and opinions one approves of is no freedom of speech at all, that for freedom of speech to mean anything it must apply precisely to speech that offends, appalls, disturbs, and frightens us.

I would also caution—along lines I had been taught in my evangelical and military-based childhood—that it is easy to give up rights: all you have to do is shrug your shoulders and not care. But to gain rights once lost requires struggle, sacrifice, perhaps bloodshed.

Whatever I said, it didn’t work. My powers of argument and reason, such as they were, were inadequate to the task. I was swimming against the current, spitting into the zeitgeist, which clearly was moving towards authoritarianism—more specifically theocratic totalitarianism—a Nobodaddy in Chief who could provide the nation with free, unfunded infrastructure and security against anthrax and dirty bombs, so long as people just pipe down, toe the line, keep their knees together, and zip it up.

And I, no less a part of the problem, despaired. I wrote too few letters to Congress—and sometimes, when I did, I simply signed somebody else’s petition or plopped a twenty-dollar check in the mail to lobbyists and political candidates who were, I assumed without actually believing it, looking after my interests for me.

The founding fathers were, for the most part, landed gentry with a dream of liberty and democracy that the actual nation has been slow to grow into. To some extent this dream has been stunted by the decline of the agrarian, secularly enlightened, and romantic worldview that spawned it.

The Declaration of Independence coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the capitalist manifesto, The Wealth of Nations. Industrialization separated family members, pitted worker against worker, replaced natural cycles with clocks and flow charts, and robbed regular citizens of the time to research and debate current issues in order to make informed, individual decisions that affect their interests and values. Consumerism and hypnotizing mass entertainments have robbed ordinary men and women of the desire to understand, much less seek, the common good and their children of the education, objectivity, and attention span to enact the common good with humane, reasonable laws.

All is not lost, though. The effects of capitalism and advanced technological work have not all been negative. There are pockets of resistance and common sense. There are new tools and resources, undreamed of by the first Americans. If not a majority, a substantial minority of American and world citizens are not seeking a friendly tyrant or a compassionate conservative or a high priest or even a new federal Mom and Dad. Even if Obama himself proves incapable or unwilling to effect the kinds of changes the nation needs on the governmental level, his election last November indicated an strong popular discontent with the direction the nation is taking, and people still have the power to imagine, proclaim, protest, subvert, and rally together for mutual interests.

Our biggest enemy is not a government intent on advancing its own empowerment at the cost of its citizens’ rights and liberties, but a citizenship too despairing or too self-absorbed or too cynical or too distracted or too hotheaded to affirm and advance the cause (and dream) of unalienable rights and liberty.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Do You Want?

Last night Laurie and I had dinner at a Durham restaurant, Revolution, which opened last December, spending a good bit more money--$85 each, for drinks, appetizer, entrée, and dessert, including tip—than we intended to, but enjoying the excellent food along with the excellent conversation. The place was booked solid—we ate at the crowded bar—and our waitress said the place stays busy, suggesting that the local restaurant-going crowd has not been much affected by the economic crisis.

The place is one of those concrete and stainless steel places with hardwood floors, sleek rectangular design, with large television monitors surveying the activity back in the kitchen. (I just found out online that it’s the official VIP spot for the Durham Performing Arts Center.) Laurie and I shared pork dumplings and steak tartare for starters. I had lamb and she had beef for the entrée. Dessert was apple crisp with rum raisin ice cream for me, and salty chocolate pie for her. Definitely a place we’d both like to go back to, once we restock our checking accounts.

Our conversation covered a range of subjects—movies, home ownership, love, children, writing—but a good chunk of it was spent on discussing the question of what people want—people in general, our friends, finally ourselves.

Our answers to the question were complementary—she wants inner peace, I want to experience my present life vividly with few guards up.

In effect, we want the same thing. To be at peace is to be in tune to “the now” and, as Laurie and our friend Shane put it, to say “yes” to life. To be open to possibilities, to choose not to define too certainly what you want the future to be or what you think will make you happy or fulfilled is, on the other end, a path to inner peace.

I have of course been in situations where I needed something—a job, for instance—and so wanted a definite outcome to my actions—but on the whole I’ve lived the last 35 years of my life doing what pleases me or serves my sense of who I am moment by moment and discovering later, almost by surprise, where that takes me, good and bad.

Do I want love? Sure, if it comes. I have had (and lost) love on several occasions. I know it’s a mixed bag of elation and vulnerability, excitement and loss of control, joy and jealousy. I feel sorry for anyone who has never known love, but I also pity anyone enthralled with the idea of love to the point of an addiction to numbing, overly calculated nonstop relationships—what some call the “game of love.” I’m not good with games.

Do I want money? Of course. But only if it comes from being who and what I am and permits me to remain myself—which is less a matter of not changing than a question of whether I make my own change or let outside factors overly influence it.

Do I want to be alone? No. I need people—if for no other reason, as tools by which to sculpt my life. Alone, I am the rough material—the marble slab—but people (and events—chance, comedy, tragedy)—are the instruments of change and growth, through conversation, argument, assistance, opportunities, love, resistance, etc. As an extreme introvert, I fantasize life on a desert island or in a vessel in outer space, but that’s fantasy, and it always involves an unrealistic self-sufficiency and a number of “cheats,” such as the ability to conjure up a fantasy sex partner at will.

In college, I determined that I would read and study as much as possible (I do genuinely enjoy books), but if someone called up with an idea of something we could do together—and it was affordable and otherwise feasible—I would always abandon books in favor of human experience.

What do I want? I want inner peace. I want to avoid ruts, routines, narrowness of vision, knee-jerk reactions to a rapidly changing world. I want openness—the liberty to be true to myself, regardless of consequences or the judgments of other people. I want love and friendship, not for their own sakes, but for the joy and challenge of the moments shared with other people. I want enough money to carry on. I want to do good—I would like to be the person whom other people feel that their lives are better for knowing and being around.

I want to gather moments and impressions for my stockpile of memories, which are the raw material I use to make the meaning of my life.

Sunday Beefcake: Christian


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