Saturday, May 30, 2009

I Play Nurse, Part 5

Yesterday was a setback. Ripley wanted to play, and I let him. He grabbed a practically weightless toy I’d put in his crate as a pillow and ran round the couch with it in his mouth, his tail wagging, ready for fun.

What could it hurt? I thought, trusting his animal instincts to know what he was up for and, frankly, pleased to see him feisty again, after days of slouching and simpering.

So I tossed the toy up in the air, underhanded and light, but he miscalculated its trajectory, and so the toy hit him on the head … and he yelped as if he had been struck with a stick. His whole body trembled in the way it does when he’s cold, anxious, or hurt. So high energy level was no proof that his neck and spine were whole again. My mistake.

Fair and square, I had been warned that I should tightly restrict his movements for several weeks, but I was overly encouraged by his chipper attitude and strongly desiring to see my old friend back in top form.

He was shaking with pain, so I gave him one of his muscle relaxers and a glucosamine treat that a MySpace friend had recommended (thanks, Moosehammer!). Then I cut the end off one of my socks and used the elasticized part as a sort of neck brace, which I stuffed with Blue Ice strips—a modification of a recommendation of a Facebook friend whose whippet had had the same symptoms in January (thanks, Pam!).

I let him nestle next to my leg on the couch while I read, and in just a matter of minutes he was calm and restful … and he’s been more or less himself again for the past 24 hours. In fact, he’s back to giving himself long satisfying shimmies to limber up, which for quite a while now he’d been cutting short, because of pain.

So I hope we have both learned our lessons. We will see. Just minutes ago he grabbed his toy again and held it, staring up at me, his tail flapping back and forth. With some regret, I told him to put the toy down and get in his crate.

Post 500

This is my 500th post in slightly less than two years.

So let me take the opportunity to explain what blogging means to me.

First, it allows me to write—an activity I enjoy so long as I’m not doing it to specifications or for money.

It also allows me to write with a relatively low level of responsibility. In my blogs, I am not writing as a journalist, a scholar, a teacher, or an authority. As a blogger, my allegiance is only to the truth as I see it at this point in time, with minimal consideration of what others perceive to be fair, valuable, entertaining, or moral. My judgments here are not meant to be long-lasting. Unlike argument, which is mostly about logic—reasons and facts—a blog permits a more extemporaneous, thus disposable, essay towards what is true, important, lovely, and good.

In a way, what I’m doing here is writing personal letters to no particular person.

But unlike a diary or a journal, blogging permits at least the possibility of an audience—though I tend to think of readers of blogs as more eavesdroppers than a formal reading public.

Blogging allows a certain disregard for the audience that most other forms of public communication do not. In this respect, a blog lies somewhere between a journal entry and newspaper commentary. This disregard for the common reader is not entirely good for writing per se, because it encourages self-indulgence. It also gives the writer a blank check to be as offensive, mean, bigoted, ludicrous, sentimental, and moody as he or she feels at a particular moment, which may not accurately represent his or her more considered (and considerate) worldview or manners.

Blogs are always works in progress—and do not offer the final word on anything. And though the public often hungers for the final word, the open-endedness of blogs is one of their assets.

If you find this blog, I hope you enjoy it—or some parts of it, anyway. But by all means do your own feeling and thinking about the world for yourself—and always take what I write with a grain of salt—salt perhaps that can (I hope) enhance the flavor of your own responses to the events of your life.


Today is Barbara’s birthday. And while Barbara is off with Shane in Curaçao, the Netherlands Antilles—a trip to which I was somehow not invited (an oversight, I suspect)—today I will make an opportunity to find and buy for her some token of regard to give her next Saturday, which is when I get to celebrate her birth with her and Shane, for my benefit as much as hers.

Celebrating my own and my friends’ birthdays is among my favorite things to do. I think it was in the late 1970s that I decided that the calendar holidays were pretty much meaningless to me—spending big money to eat foods which are not my favorites, to honor gods I do not believe in, to support obligatory consumerist routines that are more maddening than merry, and, more often than not, to willfully ignore histories of exploitation, war, and genocide that form the dark underbelly of most official days of commemoration. Yes, that’s me, Mister Sunny Side.

Instead, my “traditions” are made up—and, in total opposition to real tradition, often extemporaneous and irregular. I do, however, manage to enjoy the Christmas season—even not minding the word “Christmas,” which is lovely, if artificial—although, for a few years now, my personal celebration of the beginning of winter has been to deck my bookshelves with irreligious ornaments (animals, snowmen, sugar plum fairies) and make cookies on the first Saturday of December. I also enjoy, money permitting, buying presents for the people I love.

A related point: In Paul Schrader’s unassuming 2007 film The Walker, Woody Harrelson—in a revelatory performance as an effete, DC society homosexual—is asked why he is always so polite. He answers, "It was my mother's answer to chaos and now it's mine," which strikes me as the best defense of any unnaturally refined behavior, whether it be to believe in gods, honor superstitions, vote, talk to pets, or sing Happy Birthday to oneself.

Of course, the world is chaos, and everyone cannot celebrate every birthday, and every day cannot be Christmas. Everyone knows this. How many times do I hear people defend their belief in God on the grounds that, without it, life and the world would have no meaning at all! But life and the world have no meaning apart from the meanings we imbue them with—which is why integrity is rational, mementos are valuable, and kindness is mandatory.

But back to Barbara, my most elegant and graceful friend (except when she’s a maniac). Today she is mumble-mumble years old—much, much younger than I. For her, this is a new year’s day—a better day for resolutions and kissing someone you love than the commonly celebrated first of January. Today is a day for her (and those who care for her) to answer chaos with the fact of her existence.

To cite another movie, Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen speaks of someone he loves as “God’s answer to Job.” Despite all the misery, disease, death, injustice, and chaos of the world, God could point to her and say, “Yeah, but I can also make one of these.”

But not only gods (assuming their existence) can create beauty and goodness and meaning and order. We can too.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Stranded (DVD Review)

Just watched the 2007 documentary Stranded on dvd with my friend Dave. The movie chronicles the 72 days a Uruguayan rugby team spent stranded in the Andes when their airplane crashed in 1972. Their remarkable story—sensationalized back in the 1970s because survivors ate the flesh of their dead friends, out of necessity—depicts the power of cooperation and hope in desperate circumstances.

I didn’t expect to like the film as much as I did. The re-enactments blend seamlessly with interviews (conducted by filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon, a longtime friend of the men) and photographs and film footage from the early seventies. And, while not shrinking from the horrifying details of the hard decisions forced on the young men, the movie manages not to exploit the lurid aspects of the tale, mainly by keeping its focus on the vivid sense details recalled by those who experienced them.

What especially impresses me in the film is its nearly Bressonian spirituality, as the men look back on the pivotal point in their lives, when they feared and even came to accept that their young lives were over.

What kept them alive? Apparently, a number of things—faith, anger, brotherly love, scientific knowledge, ingenuity, pugnacity, level-headedness, courage, realism, empathy, collaboration, sacrifice, sense of destiny, fear, despair, logic, and love of life.

I suppose what meant the most to me was how the men formed a makeshift society, instinctively sensing that individually they were powerless against overwhelming circumstances—the plane crash itself, starvation, severe cold, avalanches, and diminishing hopes of outside rescue or divine intervention. Whereas most survivor stories focus on individual resilience or providence, this film emphasizes relationships.

Several of the interviewees use the word “society” over and over to describe the bonds they formed, almost by animal instinct, to survive. Sometimes they even divided their two-month ordeal along lines of “pre-avalanche society” versus “post-avalanche society,” emphasizing the constant transformation of the group dynamic to suit each new challenge.

The society shifted quickly from hierarchy (with all eyes turning to the rugby team captain for leadership) to egalitarian interdependence. Sometimes their actions were instinctual—as when, after the avalanche, they clambered over each other like ants attempting to rescue as many of their comrades as possible. Sometimes they built consensus—as when, in reaching the hard decision to eat the dead, the sense of what must be done spread gradually and those who opposed such action as sacrilege came to be persuaded by their own values, that pragmatic usage of the human body was not inconsistent with the Christian eucharist. Sometimes they pooled together, deliberately strengthening a select few to pursue missions that would benefit them all, pampering them “like racehorces,” willingly sacrificing their independent interests for the common good.

The movie does not luxuriate in emotion. Instead, with the same stoic, firm resolve that drove the rugby players, it accepts the ravages of chance and nature—it honors the victims and finds humility in the heroes … and dignity in the midst of unspeakable horror.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Happy 70th, Sir Ian McKellen

Genius writing, and a genius performance as himself on HBO's Extras.

A Response from NC Congressman David Price

Dear Dr. Marohl:

Thank you for contacting me about efforts to hold Bush Administration officials accountable for abuses such as the torture and illegal detention of suspects held in connection with our anti-terrorism operations. It is good to hear from you.

There is no question in my mind that individuals responsible for abuses, such as torture, illegal detention, extraordinary rendition, and other illegal acts, should be held accountable, and that we cannot afford to simply turn the page on this dark chapter in our history. The Bush Administration's policies and practices relating to detainees, particularly, and anti-terrorism operations in general, clearly crossed ethical lines and potentially violated both domestic and international laws. I believe that these practices must be fully examined, and that violations of the law should be prosecuted. Such accountability is necessary if we are to avoid a repetition of these mistakes in the future.

A more difficult question is how such accountability should be achieved. Some lawmakers have suggested a "Truth Commission" charged with investigating Bush Administration abuses and making recommendations on prosecutions. Others have suggested the hiring of a special prosecutor. Still others have argued that these two measures might create the impression of a partisan witch-hunt, and that we should proceed, cautiously, through existing mechanisms.

I am sensitive to the concerns that we not allow accountability to be confused with partisanship. True accountability should not be based on politics, but on a fair and impartial judgment against standards set forth in law. Even sharp policy differences should not be "criminalized." However, we must ensure that those differences do not take us beyond our country's basic values and the rule of law.

My guess is that efforts to achieve accountability will proceed along a number of courses. Congressional committees are well-equipped to carry out investigations of past abuses, and many have already been actively pursuing such inquiries. For example, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts has announced an ambitious plan of oversight hearings delving into Bush Administration abuses; the House Judiciary Committee has undertaken similar hearings. The Senate Armed Services Committee recently completed an "Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody," which you can access at the Committee's website: At the same time, both U.S. and international prosecutors have sought indictments for charges relating to detainee abuses. Most recently, Spanish courts indicted former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five top Bush Administration aides for their role in approving abuses committed against Spanish citizens held at Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. In addition to these efforts, options such as a Truth Commission or a special prosecutor are still on the table.

As we move forward, I am committed to pursuing accountability in a way that is not partisan but fair and rooted in the law. Again, I appreciate hearing from you. I hope you will continue to keep in touch on these and other issues before the Congress.



I Play Nurse, Part 4

The weekend was encouraging. Though still wobbly on his feet, Ripley has seemed cheerful and comparably agile.

I try to contain his (and my) over-confidence over his recovery, but I can not entirely keep him from jumping on my bed and the couch. As much as possible, I pick him up and put him on the floor when I leave the room. At times, though, he beats me to the punch and jumps to the floor on his own. And, unlike last Monday, he doesn’t seem to be in any pain when he does this.

One sign that he’s not feeling well appears to be that he retreats to his crate, preferring to be alone, instead of (as normal for him) close to me. He does this maybe two or three times a day.

He is practically saintly about his meds. This morning he seemed to remind me to give them to him, by taking a position next to the breakfast nook where I have been giving him his pills.

He took the last of his pain pills this morning, but has about a week’s supply of muscle relaxers left.

He’s a whippet (all legs and oversized ribcage), so he’s awkward to carry up and down the stairs when he has to go outside. I worry that I may be putting unhealthy pressure on his spine when I hold him. As much as possible, I try to settle his rump and chest on my biceps so that I’m holding him up from underneath, which (I hope) keeps me from squeezing him too hard.

I wonder whether he will ever be sure-footed again. I suppose not. He’s definitely better off now than he was last Monday, but I think his running and leaping days are over, the two things that always gave him the most joy in life.

As I started writing this, I thought I detected a new symptom. While he was lying at my feet on my bed, his left rear leg began to spasm, the thigh jumping as if he were about to stand, but his facial expression and body language suggested that the movement was involuntary. But the spasm stopped when he repositioned to cuddle against my leg, so perhaps he was only lying at an awkward angle, causing the flexing.

I have so rarely seen Ripley in less than perfect health that the last seven days have been emotional for me, reminding me of the feeling I had when, in the early 1990s, I saw my dad in a hospital bed hooked up to tubes and wires, after never having seen him sick, not even with a cold, for a day in my life.

I also have to remind myself daily that, according to the usual calculation, he’s about 90 in human years, so I need to gauge my expectations and hopes accordingly.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mass Culture as Weapon of Mass Destruction

Twelve years ago, Ralph Peters wrote, “Contemporary American culture is the most powerful in history, and the most destructive of competitor cultures [called elsewhere “noncompetitive cultures, such as that of Arabo-Persian Islam or the rejectionist segment of our own population”—emphasis mine].

Peters, now retired from the U.S. Army as Lieutenant Colonel, writes novels (under his own name and the pen name Owen Parry), essays, and newspaper columns.

In the same article, Peters cites celebrities like Bill Gates, Madonna, and Steven Spielberg and television programs like Dynasty, Dallas, and Baywatch for inciting international unrest by purveying “America’s irresponsible fantasies of itself … a devilishly enchanting, bluntly sexual, terrifying world” from which the normal Third-World citizen is barred.

But Col. Peters is not altogether hostile to this devilish enchantment. For most of the article, he praises American mass media—particularly action movies—as effective in quashing ideologies (inside and outside the U.S.A.) that resist exploitation by American-style corporate capitalism.

“The genius, the secret weapon, of American culture,” he says, “is the essence that the elites despise: ours is the first genuine people's culture. It stresses comfort and convenience—ease—and it generates pleasure for the masses. We are Karl Marx's dream, and his nightmare.”

I might add that we are also Aldous Huxley’s nightmare in Brave New World—a culture titillated by “feelies” while rejecting actual sex and turning human reproduction into technology … for profit. A populace enslaved and intellectually enfeebled by its gadgets and incapacity for the independent thought and effective cooperation needed to resist its masters.

He continues, making a point that Noam Chomsky (on the other end of the sociopolitical spectrum) agrees with: that current labor practices exhaust workers, leaving them fatigued and incapable of research into and critical thinking about current events—thus the average worker is drawn to the seductive fantasies of mass entertainment, an American specialty.

He says, “Secular and religious revolutionaries in our century have made [a] mistake, imagining that the workers of the world or the faithful just can't wait to go home at night to study Marx or the Koran. Well, Joe Sixpack, Ivan Tipichni, and Ali Quat would rather ‘Baywatch.’ America has figured it out, and we are brilliant at operationalizing our knowledge, and our cultural power will hinder even those cultures we do not undermine.” [Emphasis mine.]

Unsurprisingly, Col. Peters is taken less with Madonna’s “irresponsibly” open and assertive sexuality or the independent, neorealist stories of struggling masses or hapless individuals than with Hollywood summer blockbusters: “The films most despised by the intellectual elite—those that feature extreme violence and to-the-victors-the-spoils sex—are our most popular cultural weapon, bought or bootlegged nearly everywhere.”

Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris are, for Col. Peters, America’s answer to Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally, and Hanoi Hannah. Violence becomes the working man’s alternative to thinking about the information so readily at his fingertips—and his only tool in dealing with the reality of rising unemployment and poverty: “As more and more human beings are overwhelmed by information, or dispossessed by the effects of information-based technologies, there will be more violence.”

As highly individualistic, vigilante-style heroes begin to dominate the world’s imagination, Peters (rightly) predicts, nationalism will fail and terrorism will rise:

“We will see countries and continents divide between rich and poor in a reversal of 20th-century economic trends. Developing countries will not be able to depend on physical production industries, because there will always be another country willing to work cheaper. The have-nots will hate and strive to attack the haves.

“… Beyond traditional crime, terrorism will be the most common form of violence, but transnational criminality, civil strife, secessions, border conflicts, and conventional wars will continue to plague the world, albeit with the ‘lesser’ conflicts statistically dominant. In defense of its interests, its citizens, its allies, or its clients, the United States will be required to intervene in some of these contests. We will win militarily whenever we have the guts for it.

“… The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault.” [Emphases mine.]

No wonder, then, that the attacks on September 11, 2001, so closely resembled—in their gaudy visual spectacle—a Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay film. No wonder, then, that the shock-and-awe bombings of Baghdad looked like a video game. No wonder, then, that President Bush found it expedient to dress up like a Top Gun cadet to boast about the U.S. victories in the Middle East.

But what do we do when the mass entertainments and independent (non-embedded) investigative reporters begin to sway in another direction—away from grandiloquent, corporate-inspired logos on the evening news (so effectively lampooned on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report), and away from multimillion-dollar spectacles of computer-generated stunt work and testosterone-fueled explosions?

What happens when new, inexpensive computer and recording technologies make it possible for Joe Sixpack, Ivan Tipichni, and Ali Quat [the stereotypes Peters so arrogantly calls on to denigrate working classes and “noncompetitive” have-nots] to make their own documentaries and narrative films—telling their own stories, not just the propagandistic fantasies of corporate-owned, corporate-controlled, and corporate-idolizing mass media?

What happens when blogging and YouTube allow unsponsored, not-for-profit expressions and analyses of current events? What happens if and when the public wants to see more humane, empathetic, and cooperative images of American life?

Writing in the Spring 2009 Journal of International Security Affairs, Col. Peters complains that, once undefeatable, we Americans no longer have the guts for military victories to ensure the success of our economic interests and “cultural assaults.”

For this, he apportions blame everywhere from “academic theorists” to the end of the military draft to atheism to fewer bloody noses in school playgrounds, jaundicing America’s backbone. Further, we have “cheapened” our respect for war itself—“our enemies view the home front as our weak flank.”

But the worst thing of all, he says, is the “killers without guns”: “There will always be a hostile third party in the fight, but one which we not only refrain from attacking but are hesitant to annoy: the media.”

So however bloodthirsty American media make us citizens of the world and however much their airbrushed images of wealth and glamour make us dissatisfied with our ordinary lives, pushing us to terror and despair, there are chinks in the empire’s best secret weapon!

What’s a good neocon militarist to do?

Col. Peters strongly implies a solution: “Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win.”

But, first, let’s kill the independent media … literally: “Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media.” [Emphasis mine.]

Given his uncanny (no, “creepy”) foresight twelve years ago, Col. Peters’ new report raises chilling prospects for American democracy in 2013 … if not sooner. A “democratic” nation that declares war on its “partisan media”! —By which, no doubt, Peters does not mean Fox News, CNN, or PBS, on which he regularly appears as an expert on military and cultural affairs.

And, as Jeremy Scahill reminds us, 189 journalists have been killed while on duty covering the Iraq war alone—at least 16 of which killed by U.S. forces.

But it looks like Peters, at least, is already thinking the “unthinkable.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Play Nurse, Part 3

With Ripley, I am torn back and forth. He is better, and then he is not better.

About six last evening, the electricity went off. With no power for reading, dvds, or surfing the web, I went to bed early and lifted Ripley into bed with me, reasonably certain that he would not jump out of bed, given his weak condition. I was right. Either the illness or the medication kept him quiet and (I hope) comfortable all night.

The electricity was still off this morning. I carried Ripley downstairs and noticed he could barely keep his balance standing in place. I got ready and left for school, after putting him in his crate along with his bed, a quilt, a blanket, a throw blanket, and a couple of his toys.

During my office hour at school, I checked my home e-mail, not certain whether I’d have power at home later. A friend and fellow whippet-owner from my years in Savannah wrote me via Facebook to say that her dog (Ripley’s uncle) had had almost the identical problem, and a blue ice pack held to his neck twice a day by a shrunken men’s turtleneck sweater had done wonders for him. She also reported that Ripley’s brother (owned by the teaching colleague who owned and bred Ripley’s parents) had had the same symptoms and been cured with steroids. So there are options, she said.

I googled “whippet AND neck disease” and found a complex, rather technical article on the dangers the whippet’s delicate spine poses for the breed. It did not cheer me up or encourage me at all.

When I returned home, the electricity was back on, and I found Ripley calm and alert in his crate. When I let him out, he tried to give me his usual frenzied welcome, but I told him no and easily settled him down. I carried him outside again, again hating to see him so unsure of his feet—how much of this is illness and how much is the drugs I don’t know.

Back inside, I reheated some leftover enchiladas and ate them on the living-room floor. Ripley lay beside me while I watched a documentary on TV. Then I felt he was shivering, and I figured his muscle relaxer had worn off and he was in pain. I tried to pry open his jaw to poke the pill down his throat, but his teeth clenched, almost as if soddered together. His eyes looked panicky. I pretended that he had hurt me, and the trick worked: he opened his mouth, and I pushed the pill past his tongue.

In a matter of a couple of minutes, the shivering stopped, and he licked my nose twice. When I came into my bedroom to write this, he ambled in and curled up on the quilt in his crate and fell asleep.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I Play Nurse, Part 2

Last night I slept on the floor with my ailing dog. With his muscle relaxant and painkiller, Ripley managed a full night’s rest and woke up a little hung over.

He was so out of it that I did not put him in his crate when I left for my classes, certain that he would not be overly active while I was gone. He seemed pretty settled on the blanket and quilt we had used as bedding overnight.

When I got home after work, he greeted me with cheerful energy, even though he was a bit wobbly on his feet and at about one-fourth his usual ardor. And still his right paw is bent at the wrist, as if partly paralyzed. At least, he was in no pain, and he seemed to have more flexibility in the neck, where the vet believes the disc problem is.

I took him outside, and when we returned, he ate some food and I gave him one half of a methocarbamol. I called Maria over at Park Vet and told her the good news. She said it was good news, but right now it was the pills making him feel better, so he would be tempted to over-exert himself. So I sat with him on the floor and watched TV while heating frozen chicken enchiladas in the oven.

When I noticed he was shivering again, I figured he was either hurting again or cold and put the quilt over him. He stopped shivering after a few minutes and settled back into inactivity, which (we are hoping) has healing powers. Sleeping, he lies on the crumpled blanket, neck stretched out like a baby bird receiving worms.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I Play Nurse

My dog Ripley (12-and-a-half) is sick, and I'm distraught. He's being very brave, though.

This morning, before I headed off to work, he was yelping every time he jumped off the bed or couch and could not seem to maneuver his front right paw—almost as if it had gone numb on him (he kept trying to step on the back of it, rather than the padded bottom).

I think this problem has been slowly creeping up on him, and I've been attributing it to old age. Distressed whining for attention, uncharacteristic clumsiness, shorter playtimes. But as recently as this weekend he was happily playing fetch.

When I came home from work, he was shivering and looking so fragile that I rushed him to the vet. The doctor supposes it's some kind of neck disease (spinal disc problem of some sort, common to sighthounds, she says). She pointed out that his neck is not as limber as it would be in a healthy dog. She gave me some pain meds to give him and told me to restrict his movement. She did say that, otherwise, he was looking in fine shape for his age—something for me to clutch onto, I guess.

I’m embarrassed to say that I could not afford the vet bill, but swore to bring the money at the end of the month when I’m paid. Such is the life of me.

So I'm carrying him outside and back to do his shits and pisses, twenty-nine pounds of him, since he cannot manage the stairs. He can, in fact, barely walk. He still takes treats, so his appetite is apparently unaffected.

I also reassembled his crate and was weirdly moved when I told him to go to his crate and he did—even though he hasn't heard that command since he was a puppy.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What Is Homophobia?

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, as proclaimed by the 2006 International Conference on LGBT Community Human Rights.

What is “homophobia”? Well, definitions differ, hence some confusion. I once had a student who wrote a well-intentioned but unironic essay on securing the rights of “homophobes,” since homophobes are born that way and, though homophobia is condemned in the bible, these people have a right to live their lives freely, even though the majority disapproves of them. An amusing idea, but I think the writer thought homophobia was homosexuality.

Dr. George Weinberg coined the word in his 1972 Society and the Healthy Homosexual, defining it simply as the “dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals—and, in the case of homosexuals themselves, self-loathing.”

A colleague of Weinberg’s, Kenneth Smith, conducted one of the first studies of homophobia, creating a kind of inverse “Kinsey scale,” initially determined by student responses to nine yes-or-no items, randomized among a number of other questions on opinions:

1. Homosexuals should be locked up to protect society.
2. It would be upsetting for me to find out I was alone with a homosexual.
3. Homosexuals should be allowed to hold government positions.
4. I would not want to be a member of an organization which had any homosexuals in its membership.
5. I find the thought of homosexual acts disgusting.
6. If laws against homosexuality were eliminated, the proportion of homosexuals in the population would probably remain the same.
7. A homosexual could be a good President of the United States.
8. I would be afraid for a child of mine to have a teacher who was homosexual.
9. If a homosexual sat next to me on a bus I would get nervous.

Most of us can guess which items require a yes and which a no to qualify someone as a homophobe by this scale.

It’s also interesting to note that present-day opponents of gay rights, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Pope Benedict, James Dobson, Rick Santorum, and Antonin Scalia, may not qualify as homophobes at all by this test (I don’t know, since I haven’t seen their responses—though, in public statements, they oppose same-sex marriage or compare homosexuality to bestiality). In fact, some who oppose gay marriage—like Barack Obama and Rick Warren—have gone to some lengths to distance themselves from charges of homophobia.

Respondents on the high end of Smith’s scale (i.e. very homophobic) were also the most likely to answer yes to apparently unrelated questions like

1. “My country right or wrong” is a very admirable attitude.
2. It is only natural to find the thought of mental illness disturbing.
3. Sexual fidelity is vital to a love relationship.
4. Although I don’t always like to admit it, I would like friends to see me with a big house and fine car after I graduate.

These correspondences suggest, then, what is fairly widely accepted now—that homophobes are chauvinistic, obsessed with norms and normality, monogamous, and bourgeois.

They are also more likely to be racists and sexists. But I’m only guessing. Interestingly, though, Weinberg and Smith situate homophobia as a kind of mental illness (thus comparable to homosexuality, according to the APA until 1973) and explore no correspondences to racism and sexism, analogies that are, among the left today (and possibly the far right), practically truisms.

Among the psychological symptoms of homophobia that Weinberg lists are demand for control, indisposition to permit freedom of choice and behavior, rigid sex-role expectations, insecurity about one’s own masculinity (or femininity), and aggressiveness.

Of course, in 37 years, the English language has changed, and the word “homophobia” has taken on additional traits—politicized traits as opposed to psychological ones. For instance, Wikipedia includes “discrimination” against homosexuality and those perceived as homosexual as a form of homophobia, putting it on par with racism. The Center for Media Literacy defines it as “fear of homosexuality as expressed by demeaning images in media texts”—an idea explored in the book and film The Celluloid Closet and upheld by GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—modeled on the Jewish Anti-Defamation League).

How do I define homophobia?

Much as I’m intrigued by the psychological dimensions of fear and hate, I tend to view it through a narrow lens of ethical values and political liberty.

As I use the term, loosely, homophobia is the intent to restrict matters of conduct and self-representation as regards homosexuality only.

I tend not to call people homophobes unless they deny certain behaviors to gays and lesbians that they permit for straight women and men, or assume the prevalence of certain behaviors in gays and lesbians which they ignore among straight people. Celibacy, for instance, is not homophobic unless only homosexuals are expected to be celibate—which is, in fact, the stance of some Protestant denominations. A mean or ridiculous portrayal of a homosexual character on TV is not homophobic unless only homosexuals are portrayed as villainous or silly.

Strictly speaking, then, perhaps I, like others, misuse the term, because I’m talking about hate and prejudice, most specifically as expressed through verbal or physical violence and curtailment of rights, not just uncontrollable psychological fear (phobia).

Bashers are not necessarily afraid of the people they insult or assault or of homosexual acts (though some studies suggest that most anti-gay violence is committed by repressed, self-loathing homosexuals). And I don’t think the killers of Matthew Shepard are any more mentally unbalanced than those who would target Muslims, Jews, or immigrants. Sure, fear may play a role in the insult or attack, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause.

On this point, I’m inclined to agree with Andrew Sullivan. As he expressed it in his blog on Friday, “They can keep their kids away, they can tell them I'm wicked, that I will go to hell, that my love is an illusion, that my life a sham. But give me equality under the law. No more; no less. And may your God go with you.”

Sunday Beefcake

Obama, Democracy, and Torture

I’m not the sort of person who expects a whole lot out of democratic processes.

For instance, I’m not a guy who votes for somebody for President and then expects him (or, perhaps someday, her) to fulfill his fondest dreams of what the country should be or expects every item on some idealistic checklist* to be crossed off within four or eight years.

I have idealistic aspirations, yet, I think, realistic expectations.

But it strikes me as basically wrong that the nation (its government and its people) should entertain the defense of torture.

Torture is the most conspicuous violation of our traditional and moral concepts of liberty and human rights. All by itself, torture has been widely regarded as sufficient cause for declaring nations and individuals to be enemies of the people of the United States.

Until recently, torture marked the dividing line between civilization and barbarity—between enlightened modernity and the dark ages.

Until recently, nobody—not individual citizens, not ranking members of government—needed a working definition of “torture,” no more so than they needed a working definition of “pain” or “inhumanity.” Even in the definitions that were needed—as for “cruel and unusual punishment”—torture was understood to be the line that should not be crossed.

Besides that, torture is widely recognized to be ineffective. Our soldiers have been trained to resist torture—so no doubt other combatants are similarly trained. Those who have suffered torture in the past have often admitted to giving false and deliberately misleading information, just to stop the torture.

Nowadays, psychologists tell us that the inclination to torture even non-human animals is symptomatic of sociopathic and psychotic tendencies.

What is it, then, about our nation today that causes its Democratic and Republican governmental office-holders to sanction torture or to contort the English language to redefine torture as something other than torture? Are we now a nation of sociopaths?

To speak of fear as a justification is to forget that most of us don’t accept fear as justification for any other premeditated crime. It is also to ignore that, based on the evidence, most of the controversial acts of torture occurred in 2003, in preparation for the invasion of Iraq, not in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The American government evidently used torture to justify the war in Iraq, not to safeguard frightened citizens at home.

Now President Obama wants to suppress evidence of this torture and to exonerate high-level officials who formally approved and pushed for torture. Why would the democratically elected representative of a free and humane democracy do this? Have we all seen just too many episodes of 24, too many sequels to Saw, too many dogfights?

In fact, the President’s very effort to suppress the evidence strongly suggests that it is persuasive and incriminating.

This and this alone is the one action that Obama pursues that I cannot imagine a justification for.

Sure, maybe nobody—not even he—can put the humpty-dumpty economy back together. Maybe adequate health care for all is pie-in-the-sky fantasy (I don’t think so, but I can certainly understand why many others do). Maybe, despite his campaign promises to the gay and lesbian communities, the timing is not yet right for equality in marriage and the military (but if not now, then when?) Maybe top-secret documents to which only the President has access affirm that we should open a third-front war in Iran.

These are issues of great importance to me, yet I can at least imagine justifications that, though unconvincing to me, might satisfy somebody else, particularly someone with marginally different values and interests.

But not to stand up to terror? What could justify that? Our fear? (Can we show our faces and claim that we torture human beings out of fear?) Its effectiveness? (The overwhelming evidence refutes its effectiveness.) Politics? (Can any of us proudly stand behind the use of torture just because it’s bipartisan?)

What good is a democracy if that democracy decides to go ahead and do what the overwhelming majority recognize intuitively to be wrong?


* I fully understand that the American people have widely variant values and interests and would compose widely different versions of such a checklist. In my case, the checklist would entail (for starters)

1. baseline health care, housing, and education for every legal denizen of the U.S.A.;

2. compulsory education in civics, economics, and ethics, respectfully reflecting myriad points of view and encouraging independent critical thinking regarding currently accepted practices in government, wealth distribution, and morality;

3. equal rights and access to privileges for every citizen, regardless of race, ideology, social status, or life style;

4. open and egalitarian justice system—where plaintiffs and defendants are received and heard on a level playing field, regardless of race, ideology, social status, or life style, where surveillance and torture are not used to pursue political ends or to expedite governance;

5. equitable and fair distribution of the responsibilities of maintaining order and governance of rights and liberties—in areas of revenue/taxation, military service, access to public office, and voting;

6. the proprietary interests of the American people in all technologies, therapies, and inventions funded or largely funded by taxpayers’ money—without relinquishing these patents or the profits from them to private interests without fair and adequate compensation;

7. compulsory justification of any governmental or large corporate use of force or abridgement of human rights and liberties, with clear stipulations that such use and abridgement always have definite benchmarks or time limits;

8. absolute freedom of expression, so that every denizen of the country can express any impression or notion he or she can articulate and any opinion he or she can back up with reason and data—entailing all due responsibilities for such freedom;

9. ensured adequate care (of all types) for children, the infirm elderly, and anyone who, without care, would be hopelessly incapacitated, e.g., by poverty, mental or physical illness or impairment, violence, natural disaster, membership of maligned minorities, etc.

10. active protection and conservation of natural resources and engineered infrastructure of demonstrable importance to the American people;

11. strict preservation of liberty and recognized human rights (as enumerated in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Human Rights) and active expansion of that liberty and those rights, as needed and recognized as the culture changes;

12. absolute intellectual freedom of the press, science, religion, educational institutions, and the arts—entailing all due responsibilities for such freedom;

13. elimination of all laws and regulations whose contributions to the common good of the people cannot be demonstrated and proved; and

14. diligent yet reasonable protection of national borders and maintenance of a military for national defense, under civil (but never private) control.

Friday, May 15, 2009


I’m beginning to “clear,” as the Scientologists call it, on the topic of politics. I am “at cause over” my primitive feelings on the subject. Cutting the techno-religious jargon, I’m beginning to just not give a shit. No, that’s not right either—I’m anything but apathetic—but I’m beginning to see a light, if not exactly the light.

Politics changes very little in the world. And very seldom. And the chances that decisions and compromises American political figures make will ever (ever) be of some benefit to me individually are very (very) slim.

I’ve written my second letter in a week to my two senators, Kay Hagan and Richard Burr, first to urge action on the torture memos and, yesterday, to complain that both of them voted down a proposal to cap credit card interest rates at 15%.

To write them, I ran (twice) through a gauntlet of silly multiple-choice “options” on issues on which people may have concerns. Unsurprisingly, “torture” and “credit cards” do not appear on either senator’s list. Those check lists infuriate me anyway—like those aggravating FAQs on Amazon that manage to answer every question I don’t want to ask, before (at last!) opening a page that lets me write and e-mail my own goddamned question.

Burr, a Republican, has ignored both e-mails, as he did an earlier phone call a few weeks ago, also on the topic of torture—silly me, I’m under the naïve impression that torture is an important issue, even when stacked up against matters like Dijon mustard use and homosexuality’s similarities to pedophilia and bestiality.

Hagan, a Democrat, ignored my phone call, but sent me the same canned “response” to each of my e-mail queries:

Dear Friend,

I wanted to take a moment to thank you for contacting me to share your thoughts and opinions. Since taking office, I have received an overwhelming number of calls and emails from North Carolinians like you who are ready to take an active part in our government. I appreciate each and every call and email. With our country facing some of its toughest challenges in a generation, your phone calls and messages are an important factor guiding my work here in Washington. Please be assured that we will get back to you as soon as possible regarding your specific concern.

I would like to take this opportunity to share my website with you. Please visit http://Hagan.Senate.Gov to find contact information for my offices and to stay updated as my new state offices open. You can also find information there about what I've been doing in North Carolina and Washington. It is an honor to serve as your United States Senator, and I appreciate your patience as I transition into this new role. I sincerely hope you will not hesitate to contact me at any time to share your concerns and voice your opinions on our country's most pressing issues.

Kay R. Hagan
United States Senator, North Carolina

Trust me. I’m not holding my breath about her getting back to me. I’m not positive, but I got almost the same response a year ago from Elizabeth Dole, Republican, whom Hagan replaced. Dole must have left the boilerplate in the office computer.

So several deep breaths later, I’m facing up to the likelihood that Chuang Chou was right:

Running around accusing others is not as good as laughing, and enjoying a good laugh is not as good as going along with things. Be content to go along and forget about change and then you can enter the mysterious oneness of Heaven.

I’m facing up to the likelihood that Jesus was right:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.

And I’m facing up to the likelihood that my old hero Voltaire (or his character Candide) was right:

All I know is that we must cultivate our garden.

And, last, I’m facing up to the likelihood that another old hero, Mark Twain, was right:

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Toto, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not Out of Kansas Yet

I’m getting a new look at The Wizard of Oz. Right now, a fair-sized section of “hope you can believe in” has been pulled back to reveal the old quack Professor Marvel, who was hidden there all along—torture, surveillance, high finance, and (despite a recent epistolary assurance to the contrary) the same old same old in health care reform. (I don’t make predictions, but my guess is a good chunk of “reform” change will wind up in the pockets of insurance companies and big pharma—mind you, just a guess.)

I wouldn’t go so far as to deny that Obama has brought some Technicolor rays to our black-and-white world.

Sure, as far as same-sex marriage is concerned, we see some encouraging changes—on the state level (not federal)—from which, shamefully, in my opinion, the new wizard is holding himself just as aloof as the old wizard, under whose watch these state legislative and judicial reforms emerged. And, to be fair, the religious right no longer feel quite as empowered as they did a year ago in resisting these changes, despite a monstrous, shocking victory in California six months ago.

(It is good news indeed that my gay sisters and brothers who want to get married are increasingly enabled to do so—though, I should add, I personally have no desire to get married, and legal and economic inequities towards single people—gay or straight—remain unopposed.)

And while not having quite gotten around to dumping “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—and even continuing to enforce it (ask Lt. Dan Choi!)—Obama still promises further inroads on gay rights … “some time.”

And, sure, the Guantanamo prison-slash-interrogation center is scheduled for closure in just eight months. Fantastic news for those of us with a feeling for human rights fresher than the year 1215! But, at present, closure of the infamous (and barely legal) detention center has no funding.

On the other hand, we have seen a proposed 15% cap on credit card interests defeated this week 60-33 in the Senate—denying indebted consumers the type of safety nets Washington is shitting itself to give to failing banks and other lending institutions. Twenty-one (21!) of the nay votes were Democrats; five more Democrats did not vote at all.

Not to suggest that, for one minute, I placed much confidence in the Democratic Party to stand up for the people against big capital … much less to Republican bullies and loudmouths.

Now, just like Bush, Obama is trying to block disclosure of photographs of Americans’ torture of detainees, on the understandable grounds that they may “inflame anti-American sentiment” (but only just as understandable now as when the Bush White House made the same argument). Meanwhile, the nation engaged this week in the “single deadliest US airstrike” on Afghanistan since 2001—one of a series of attacks designed ostensibly to weaken al-Qaeda while politically proving Obama’s commander-in-chief cojones. So 100 civilian lives have no anti-American propaganda potential?

Also out from behind the curtain is Obama’s indifference to US and international conventions in choosing not to go after the high-level members of the previous administration who blighted America’s global reputation and moral integrity by promoting and condoning inhuman and ineffective techniques of torture (including Cheney and Bush—as well as culpable Democrats).

The media, meanwhile, have responded to these revelations with little heart, brains, or courage … with the continues-to-amaze exception of stand-up comics!

Obama—God help me, I still like him (and do not in fact believe in God)—needs to put some ruby slippers on his rhetoric. And fast!

I admire the man’s style, manners, and his political savvy. But only what he says appeases the left; what he does appeases the right. In trying to show he’s no “socialist,” he panders to war-mongering, corporate capitalist interests. He panders with a great deal of dignity and wit, I have to admit, but it’s time for him to make direct and deliberate domestic and international policy changes of substance.

I can’t help but worry that Obama is squandering the window of opportunity he has had since February. The good news is that, for now, the far right and religious right are in shambles—but they are regrouping … fast … and with a vengeance.

My worst fear (hopefully groundless) is that their present whining over socialism, terrorist threats, higher taxes (after a tax cut, no less), teleprompters, and Dijon mustard will turn the tide entirely back to the dark ages many of us were hoping to escape.

The wicked witch could still use a good bucket of water—and the flying monkeys need a good talking to. Americans are ready for change, equality, liberation, hope, whatever you want to call it. But it (none of it) will come by following the same road we’ve been on for decades now already.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ou sont les Butt-Naked Hotties d'antan?

In yesterday's blog, boy culture announced that Mavety Media Group is discontinuing the publication of gay porn magazines, some of which were my essential reading way back in the 1970s and 1980s, titles like Torso, Mandate, and Honcho, as well as Playguy and Inches. The publisher's straight titles, like Juggs, are still scheduled for future publication.

No doubt the twin influences of a bad economy and the rapid growth of online porn are hurting the gay porn industry, in all its offline varieties, along with distinguished periodicals like the New York Times and Vanity Fair, both of which are hurting and now struggling to survive.

Not to strike too hysterical a note, but I'm inclined to think that, if the nation's newspapers disappear, especially the New York Times, the whole culture will collapse. Our democracy was built and still depends on information acquired through investigative reportage, not just opinion-venting via blogging or simply propagandistic consensus-building via news releases direct from corporate and government sources.

As for the disappearance of print porn, I have milder emotions, except to say that these periodicals (from the early days of clandestine physique magazines, delivered in brown envelopes, to the relatively open display of titles like Mandate at news stands) represent an important and fondly remembered part of gay history and the American liberation movements, which, along with the photos of apple-cheeked buddies wrestling and 11-inch uncut dongs, also covered news items benchmarking the slow progress of rights, toleration, and community for homosexual men.

Miss Inequity 2009

Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA pageant, announced today that Carrie Prejean will be keeping her title as Miss California, despite recent disclosures of photographic evidence that she has posed nude for photographers and (worse?—hard to call) had a boob job.

I can understand people liking beauty pageants. I don’t like them, but I also don’t like golf, crying babies, or Brussels sprouts—no reason to banish any of them from the face of the earth.

What I can’t understand is why anybody considers beauty pageants important. So it’s a little odd, I guess, that I am now expressing an opinion about a pageant contestant.

From the evidence I’ve looked at, Prejean was, as she and her supporters claim, more sinned against than sinning. Celebrity-drooler Perez Hilton asked her a calculatedly inflammatory question, whether she approved or disapproved of California’s recent vote against same-sex marriage.

The question wasn't exactly unfair, but it perhaps over-estimated the gravitas of the annual event, auspiciously staged this year at the Hard Rock Resort and Spa in Las Vegas, Nevada. Not exactly the United Nations, Perez.

In the YouTube clip I saw, shortly after the event, it is clear that Prejean is momentarily flustered by the unexpected question. It is equally clear that she attempts to make a fair-minded-sounding and inoffensive response, but finds herself also obliged to speak her mind honestly—she favors opposite-sex marriage.

That answer probably cost her the crown to Miss USA—though, to be sure, it’s difficult to judge whether it was the content of the answer or its discombobulated delivery that shot her down.

One can easily imagine that, if a similar brouhaha had occurred in, say, 1959—with a negro judge asking a segregationist contestant from Illinois whether she approved or disapproved of Deerfield citizens blocking the building of interracial housing, for example—, the outcome could have been similar.

Of course, such a thing would not have happened in 1959 for a number of reasons, mostly because it would be over a decade before non-white judges or contestants made a showing at mainstream American beauty pageants. The question would never have been asked.

Anyway, we don’t ordinarily think of beauty contests as forums for political debate—too bad, really, especially when you consider that in ancient myth Paris’s (not Perez’s) judgment of such a contest caused the Trojan War.

There are exceptions. In 1974, when Rebecca King won the Miss America title, viewers complained in large numbers that King had not gushed and cried when crowned—a huge letdown for fans of mawkishness. Instead, she had accepted the prize with matter-of-fact composure, befitting a real queen. Then, after receiving the crown, she publicized her support of legalized abortion. An even bigger shit storm followed that revelation.

It seems likely that Prejean and her supporters are also right to suspect that the leaking of the compromising photographs was politically motivated, planned and carried out by gays and gay-friendly unnamed sources. I have no proof really (and neither do they), but for matters as trite as this, do I need any?

Prejean would have my unqualified sympathy if she were not now making a kind of career out of being a conservative martyr (a “free speech” martyr I could have tolerated … barely—add “martyrs” after “Brussels sprouts” in my list above) and stumping for the National Organization for Marriage (a deliberate misnomer, like “Operation Iraqi Freedom”).

I am always bored by debates in which the participants simply vie for the high moral ground, instead of judiciously inspecting and interpreting the known facts.

And I could even buy a bit more into the media coverage of Prejean if it weren’t that the Miss USA pageant ranks several rungs lower than the much needed reforms of Wall Street, health care, and the government’s policies on torture and unsupervised surveillance, and, let's face it, lower even than the upcoming new seasons of True Blood and Mad Men.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Billionaire Lowlife Grave Dancers

“Lowlife grave dancers like me will make a fortune,” chimes billionaire J. Christopher Flowers, former golden boy of Goldman Sachs, quoted in the May 6 New York Times, speaking about the breaks the current banking crisis gives to wealthy opportunists. “The government has all the downside and we have all the upside.”

Since the collapse and near-collapse of a number of financial institutions last year, private equity managers like Flowers and the Carlyle Group are snapping up small national banks in hopes of getting their hands on charters that will enable them to take over the larger struggling banks—with the federal government’s help, if possible.

Looks like another instance of “disaster capitalism,” to borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase for the manipulation (and perhaps instigation) of global catastrophes in order to reap immeasurable profits.

Such ventures are much easier when the capitalists are in bed with government decision makers, of course, as anyone associated with the Carlyle Group could tell you.

The Carlyle Group, as you may know, is a global private equity investment firm based conveniently in Washington, D.C., close to the vein it likes to tap. Its assets include doughnuts (Dunkin’ Donuts), rental vehicles (Hertz), ice cream (Baskin Robbins), and missile launchers (United Defense Industries).

Carlyle’s United Defense took $1.8 billion in government contracts in the first year of the Iraq war. Altogether, Carlyle-owned companies won $9.3 billion in government contracts without placing a bid. Coincidentally, employees and board members of the Carlyle Group include representatives of the key families in recent world history—Bush, Bin Laden, Sarkozy—along with former British Prime Minister John Major and former Time magazine editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine.

Now its predatory eyes are set on small banks.

“Morganization” is the more flattering name sometimes applied to such grave dancing, after John Pierpont Morgan, the railroad tycoon who, during what Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner unflatteringly nicknamed the “Gilded Age,” took over insolvent businesses (including banks) and found ways to make them profitable again.

When the Federal Treasury faltered in the final decade of the nineteenth century—the infamous decade of the robber barons and the (depending on whom you read) collapse or near-collapse of American capitalism—President Grover Cleveland picked Morgan to save the day, procuring heavy investments from the Bank of England and the Rothschilds in Europe, plus helping to think up the neat trick (so controversial at the time it lost Cleveland a third term) of replacing the gold standard with fiat currency (i.e. cash based not on gold but just on the fact that the government accepts it as payment).

Just three months ago, Morgan’s namesake J.P. Morgan Worldwide Securities Services was selected by the Federal Reserve to oversee the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) purchase program. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Back in the day, Morgan’s fingers were in a lot of pies. Morgan was instrumental in the development of business consolidation and the modern concept of the corporation, as well as the early globalization of the marketplace. Morgan was also the principal financier of Nikola Tesla’s pioneering experiments in electricity. But whereas Tesla’s vision was to provide free power to all, Morgan accurately predicted the windfall that privatized energy would be in the twentieth century and formed General Electric instead. (Tesla, more or less a footnote to history now, still inspires some sympathy—or contempt—as the idealistic genius who tore up a contract with Westinghouse that would have made him, like Morgan, a billionaire.)

Even to mention such debacles draws accusations from the corporate mass media and its minions that one is engaging in class warfare. Of course, the charge is made only when the underdogs are snapping back at the top dogs. Top dogs, of course, can profit from actual bombs-and-missiles warfare, sacrificing countless lives on both sides, usually the lives of underdogs, and the media continue to paint them as national benefactors, no matter how many graves they boastfully dance on.

Right now, according to the New York Times article linked above, all that blocks the private equity firms is federal law, which would be more encouraging if it weren’t dreadfully clear by now that corporate interests and fantastically wealthy individuals can sway American lawmakers with just an arched eyebrow, while the media paint them as humbly beseeching the American people’s mercy and good favor in a time of national crisis—same old same old.

Now there’s a great push by private equity managers to get Washington to change the law that technically forbids ownership of banks by nonfinancial companies, law inspired in reaction against some of the excesses and strong-arm tactics, way back when, of men like Morgan and John D. Rockefeller—whose personal wealth bolstered crumbling U.S. banks against an array of panics stretching back to the end of the Civil War, to these speculators’ own considerable profit and some weakening of antitrust laws.

But blocking the way of the would-be grave dancers are (1) Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner, a man sometimes described as enthralled by (and probably to) the financial industry, and (2) the Federal Reserve, the two-headed (private and public) U.S. banking system, which Dennis Kucinich recently quipped was no more “federal” than Federal Express. This gives me small hope, indeed.

It would seem, as best as I can tell, that the odds favor the fantastically wealthy, again; and, as J. Christopher Flowers exulted four months ago, the government will get the shitty end of the stick (the part we non-billionaire taxpayers get to hold for all our heroic efforts at “saving the economy") and the weasels will get “all the upside.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

JK from 1998 to 2006

Living My Life Faster - 8 years of JK's Daily Photo Project from c71123 on Vimeo.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Book Review)

My friend Dom sent me a paperback book as a birthday present—as just one among a number of precisely thoughtful presents she likes to send me from time to time, like CARE packages.

My birthday was in March. Unlike the other presents, the book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, arrived late. It was late because she wanted the author to inscribe it to me (he wrote on the title page, “To Joe Marohl, A fellow Proustophile! I hope you enjoy … Jonah Lehrer”)—because, I suspect, she thought I would think the 27-year-old writer is cute.

And I sort of do.

The book is a wonder. It is not focused on the great novelist Marcel Proust alone, but covers eight figures of the modern era—Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf included. From the compositions of these original minds, Lehrer extracts details relating to recent scientific discoveries about the human nervous system.

The book has opened my eyes to the fact that my humanist heroes, like Whitman, Proust, and Stein, followed the scientific discoveries of their day with not only great interest but also some expertise. But, more importantly to Lehrer’s thesis, their imagination of human nature was decades before their time. In some cases, science has only recently discovered proof of what the poet Whitman intuited in the nineteenth century.

For instance, we learn from Whitman that all the body is mind, which is not restricted to the brain at all, and the sensations it pulls in become ingredients of a self—the subjective consciousness, or soul. Lehrer relates a series of experiments that suggest, for instance, that the hand "knows" some information before it even reaches the brain.

From Eliot, we learn that human individuality springs from the interplay of nature and nurture alike—environment and DNA together give shape to our neurons. From Escoffier, we learn the complexities of taste and smell; from Cézanne, of vision; from Stravinsky, of hearing. It turns out that the modernists were right in weaning us from objectivity and teaching us new ways to perceive the real world.

Lehrer’s point is that linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky is accurate in stating, “It is quite possible—overwhelmingly probable, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”

Recent research proves that early science’s positivist confidence in systems and natural laws was naïve. The mind is more haphazard, self-contradictory, and creative than any step process can map out. We are, after all, infinitely variable and free—and constantly changing. The subjective self we come to imagine as the center of the universe has no location at all. Instead, it is a process and a synthesis.

“The self is simply our work of art,” Lehrer explains, “a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity. In a world made of fragments, the self is our sole ‘theme, recurring, half remembered, half foreseen.’ If it didn’t exist, then nothing would exist.”

One reason Lehrer’s book and ideas enchant me so is that they undertake the three aspects of existence I find most compelling now—sensation, consciousness, and language. Chapter by chapter, Lehrer constructs the compelling argument that “what we call reality is merely the final draft” of what the “multiple channels” of the human mind pull together experimentally, and then, like good writers, or editors, tidy up in draft after draft, interpreting and revising our individual perceptions throughout our lives.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dom DeLuise, 1933-2009

"Throw out your hands!!
Stick out your tush!!
Hands on your hips
Give them a push!!
You'll be surprised
You're doing the French Mistake!!
--song from Blazing Saddles (1974), sung by Dom DeLuise and chorus boys

He made me chuckle--mainly because he laughed so easily himself. I first noticed him with Doris Day in The Glass Bottomed Boat. He was always a bright spot in the midst of a lot of schlock, but he did good work with Mel Brooks--and in Fatso and, as the Pope, in Johnny Dangerously. I don't know whether he was gay, but he was naughty and sweet, which is as good as, in my book.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Problem with Success

Almost anything worth doing well is nearly impossible to do at all. This maxim applies to governments, corporations, small groups, and individuals.

For example, mechanical reproduction is, if not exactly easy, highly likely to succeed. Even reproduction on a huge scale—e.g., making and dispensing 550 million nearly identical Big Macs every year—does not require a gift for physics or the culinary arts, and yet perfect success is all but guaranteed. However, its very success is a clue to its triviality.

On the other hand, teaching young adults to think independently and logically—as well as clearly—is imperative in a working democracy. It is also, alas, only barely within the bounds of possibility. As an English teacher at a community college, I speak from experience.

But impossibility is no reason to stop trying.

The most important tasks in life—leadership, health care, peace making, “knowing thyself”—are only imperfectly achieved. In the overwhelming majority of cases, we don’t even get close.

So in a culture predicated on success—even worse, repeatable success—we sometimes find EZ-ier substitutes for the most important tasks.

Instead of leadership, we may aim for popularity or rapid off-the-cuff decisiveness. Neither substitute has a tenth of the value of genuine leadership—but the makeshifts have the advantage of being both easily measured and more likely to produce identifiable effects. This is the stuff of bureaucrats, though, not leaders.

Health can be downgraded to a regimen of pep pills and painkillers. “Knowing thyself” can be shrunk down to shopping till you drop. An attractive façade, instead of a firm foundation. A “purpose-driven life,” not holiness. Stabilization, not peace. Quantity, not quality.

For me, the problem with success—or the business model of success—is that it discourages true excellence. So what, if we get the box checked next to “met expectations” or “exceeded expectations”? We may be relieved to think that a program or methodology can ease us towards our goals, but we forget that anything we have ever done really well in our lives—the thing that made a genuine difference and made us who we are now—was not accomplished by following steps. Or even by setting ordinary “expectations” as a gauge.

Or I don’t think so. I may be speaking only to myself here.

I’ve read a few how-to-succeed books and always come away mildly disappointed. They are full of platitudes—sometimes useful reminders of the obvious—and case histories of people who have reduced their lives to some sort of system that others can sign on to. I end up shrugging my shoulders and saying, “I just can’t color between those lines.”

I’ve also read a few biographies of people I count as geniuses. Here, the general impression I get is that these people cared little for success. They had passions, ideas, and obsessions—even madness—but no career path whatsoever.

It’s hard for me to imagine any of them—Swift, Johnson, Jefferson, Wilde, Einstein, Proust, Woolf, Turing, Wittgenstein—touting merit badges, prizes, commendations, or 4.0 GPAs. Even when they received accolades, they didn’t seem to attribute any importance to them.

None of the people I now admire keep up with the Joneses (unless their name is Jones) or have role models. It apparently never occurs to them to measure themselves against other people or to set their sights on any one definite goal. They seek what is important to them, not success per se.

Geniuses—or even regular schmucks like me living their lives outside conventions—aim for enigmas, sublimity, mysteries. They have callings, not careers. They aim for the inestimable and the unreachable—not the cheese in the middle of the maze. Therefore, in a real sense, they always fail—though their failures may later define other people’s concepts of success. Achievers climb ladders built by geniuses who never reached their destinations.

But with the growth of the business model of success in the twentieth century—from Dale Carnegie to Norman Vincent Peale to Zig Ziglar to Tony Robbins—we see a correlating decline in poetry, the arts, and intellectual brilliance, even while business, technology, and marketing acumen has reached a sort of zenith. Until just recently, we were surrounded by so many stories of unparalleled success that we were beginning to believe that success is the air we breathe.

So, then, have we given up on what is worth doing well, just because it’s nearly impossible to do at all?

(On a darker, more jarring and anticlimactic—and perhaps irrelevant—note, I’ve sometimes pondered why, in the modern era, so many artists and creative types have taken their own lives—Vincent Van Gogh, Vachel Lindsay, Hart Crane, Sara Teasdale, Walter Benjamin, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, Yukio Mishima, Diane Arbus, William Inge, John Berryman, Richard Brautigan, Primo Levi, Chet Baker, Jerzy Kosinski, Bruno Bettelheim, Kurt Cobain, Gilles Deleuze, Spalding Gray, Hunter J. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and on and on. What previous century saw such a vast self-immolation of its brightest lights? Was it something peculiar to the century?)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Screen Test

Nation of Narcissists

Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by grandiose posturing to disguise a weak self-esteem. Narcissists exhibit the following symptoms:

—thinking they are superior to other people

—assuming that others ought to automatically go along with their schemes

—believing they are exceptions to rules

—exaggerating their accomplishments and abilities

—expecting approval, never accepting blame

—failing in relationships

—ignoring feelings, needs, and values other than their own

—indulging in fantasies of their importance, power, and irresistibility

—insulting those whom they think are inferior, but overly sensitive to others’ criticism

—resenting others’ good fortune or success, but assuming that others envy them

—setting impossible standards and goals

—taking advantage of others’ good nature, weakness, or gullibility

—wearing a mask of toughness, coolness, or emotional detachment

If these sound familiar, the reason is that we Americans are a nation of narcissists. Yes, this is me in my apocalyptic mode. Sorry.

Not that there’s anything wrong with healthy self-esteem. But narcissism has nothing to do with healthy self-esteem, which is generous, cooperative, egalitarian, and not easily threatened or insulted; in fact, the two conditions are opposites. Narcissism is the exaggerated pretense of self-esteem to hide insecurity, guilt, anxiety, inner conflict, and fear. Narcissism is a mental illness.

We Americans chant, “We’re Number One!” because we feel like number two, a feeling that has escalated since World War Two. Our victory over fascism was indeed cause for celebration—but the Holocaust is a painful reminder of how long we dawdled before reaching out to help other people in desperate circumstances (our allies, no less), and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a reminder that we created a weapon with the potential for global destruction and our responses to aggression are not always proportionate.

What is more, we perhaps sense that the racism, lust for power, and exaltation of the will we saw in our enemies cut close to the bone of our own disposition.

Especially after the first war with Iraq, we Americans demonize France because, as a people and a government, the French have not been prone to jump when we say jump. Also, America and France are a case of competing narcissisms. France, after all, gives us the word “chauvinism.” Each nation is attracted and repelled by what it sees in the mirror posed by the other.

We Americans are blasé about accusations that we practice torture, imperialism, and unfair competition because, in general, we do not feel bound by the same rules and standards by which we judge other nations and governments.

We Americans go around the world tooting our own horn and wonder why the world doesn’t still give us a six-gun salute for saving its ass in 1945.

We Americans break our pacts and treaties—with the Indians who were on this continent before there even was an “America,” and with the rest of the world, too: Kyoto, Geneva, Vienna, the Platt Amendment, and so on. We imagine that our breaches of trust are rationally, perhaps even humanitarianly motivated, but we seldom offer evidence to back up our assumption that America is and ought to be an exception to the rule—even to rules we strong-arm others to follow.

Our mass entertainments—spectacular epics patterned on those of pre-WW2 Italy and Germany, not to mention imperial Rome—reveal the splendor and decadence of our self-imagination. Their manic yet phony optimism—glamour, happy endings, superimposed laugh tracks, bling, breathless color commentary—belie a fragile ego propping itself up with fantasies of exaggerated muscle, control, and allure.

We are easily impressed with the fantastic and the pretentious. We tend to under-value simple realism in film, art, and literature, perhaps because we desperately want to escape reality.

Likewise, we under-value character in favor of image. Where once we spoke of renaissance and revival, we now speak of makeovers.

If all this sounds like unfair America-bashing, keep in mind that I’m an American too, likewise subject to the nation’s cultural flaws and neuroses. But I think it’s time we seek help. We can’t expect others to stage an intervention because, despite recent calamities, we are still dauntingly powerful and, besides, many of those in a position to diagnose our mental illness look forward to the entertaining spectacle of our imminent nervous collapse.

Already, it’s been a pretty fascinating show—what with Bush dressing up as cowboys and fighter pilots, Obama clinging (like Bush) to the unconstitutional notion that the Presidency is somehow exempt from the nation’s laws against surveillance without judicial oversight, throngs of thousands protesting not so much for the moral wellbeing of the nation but for their own piece of the pie, corporations deemed “too big to fail” receiving massive aid even while persisting in snuffing out the little guys (not excepting even their employees), and frightened and superstitious bigots demanding that rights and legal privileges be retained by only them and those like them—all accompanied by maudlin tears, hymns to liberty and hope and democracy, state-of-the-art production value and special effects, the waving of flags, and the thumping of sacred texts.

America is a nation of narcissists—alienated in our cubicles, gated communities, and narrow beliefs and cocooned in our thousand-dollar entertainment systems and the reverberations of deafening ghetto blasters. As a people, we have been practicing “social distancing” long before H1N1.

Thus, we are less capable of seeing and defending the common good (what is generally good for everybody). Many of us (though, thankfully, not all, perhaps not even a majority) have lost the ability to make sacrifices for the good of the collective whole.

Many of us have lost the ability to argue an issue without stooping to ridicule, name-calling, emotional acting-out, even acts of violence. We respond to criticism as if it were an attack. We respond to lack of conformity as if it were criticism.

We teach our children pride and entitlement, but not math, science, history, arts, logic, manners, and languages (not even an adequate grasp of the one language they do know)—thus equipping them with plenty of self-esteem, but few tools for achieving actual excellence.

We claim to be moral and religious, but most of what we know and feel is simple human prejudices, some of which are not even addressed in our sacred texts. We condone torture but condemn cleavage on TV. What the fuck?

We are a sick culture, and we have, in our century of power, infected the world with our sickness. We are on the verge of collapse. Right now the collapse looks inevitable. If and when it comes, we will need to be a people strong in character and honest, healthy self-esteem. We have mismanaged our wealth and power and moral high ground—and now, with these lost or steeply declining, we appear ill equipped to face the challenges that lie before us.

Right now, our best hope seems to be that collapse will be an impetus for the growth of character, integrity, and human decency.

What do we say to the collapse, any minute now, of a 400-year-old culture built on genocide, slavery, and the polarization of wealth and sustained by hypocritical fanfare about rugged individualism?

To quote a recent notably arrogant and narcissistic world leader, “Bring it on.”


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