In Sanity

31 10 2010

I had been planning to attend the big rally Saturday, but the logistics didn’t work out for me. This is a pity, because what I saw of the event on TV and online looked like a total blast.

In the aftermath of the rally, the usual suspects have been grousing and complaining about ephemera in a vain attempt to discredit the rally and any potential political impact it may have on Tuesday’s election. These people are either partisan hacks, have no appreciable sense of humor, or completely missed the point of the rally- or maybe all of the above. These same people who complain about the current administration and refer to the President in spectacularly pejorative terms also objected mightily because Jon Stewart called the President “dude” on the air last week. Based on this, I’ll venture a guess that the partisan hacks who are demonstrably unaware of their own hypocrisy would be similarly immune to the message from yesterday’s rally.

There was, in fact, a message for those who could unclog their mental arteries to hear it. Several messages, really. The biggest message came from the stage, of course, but a large number of smaller messages could be found in the scads of silly posters and signs held up by people in the crowd. For one thing, those signs were properly spelled. For another, the signs were usually funny.

Back to the message. Jon Stewart ended with a wonderful speech, which I reproduce here (thanks to Di Atribe from FARK for the transcription) with a couple of highlighted phrases I think are significant:

So. Here we are. We’ve had some really incredible musical performances here today. I hope you’ve enjoyed them. We’ve had what some would classify as comedy, as well. And now I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity. Uh, if that’s OK. I know there are boundaries for a comedian pundit talker guy, and I’m sure I’ll find out tomorrow how I have violated them. I’m really happy you guys are here. Even if none of us are really quite sure why we are here. Some of you may have seen today as a clarion call for action or some of the more hipper, more ironic cats, a “clarion call” for “action.” Clearly, some of you just wanted to see the Air & Space Museum, and got royally screwed. And I’m sure a lot of you are just here to have a nice time and I hope you did. I know that many of you made a great effort to be here today and I want you to know that everyone involved with this project worked incredibly hard to honor the effort that you put in and gave you the best show that we could possibly do. We know your time is valuable and didn’t want to waste it. And we are all extremely honored to have had a chance to perform for you in this beautiful space… on the Mall in beautiful Washington DC.

So uh…. What exactly was this? I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult or that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do. But we live now in hard times, not End Times. And we can have animus, and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictonator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and Theocrats. But those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more. The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we get sicker, and perhaps, eczema.

And yet, with that being said, I feel good. Strangely, calmly, good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror, and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist, and maybe taller. But the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass shaped like a month old pumpkin and one eyeball. So why would we work together? Why would you reach… Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin-assed, forehead, eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists, actively subverting our Constitution? Or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate. And how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get stuff done. The truth is, we do. We work together to get stuff done every damn day. The only place we don’t, is HERE [motions to Capitol Building] or on cable TV. But Americans don’t live here or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, or Conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often, something they don’t want to do. But they do it. Impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

Look… look on the screen. This is… this is where we are, this is who we are, these cars. That’s a school teacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car… a woman with two small kids, can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car… it’s swinging, don’t even know if you can see it. The lady’s in the NRA and loves Oprah. There’s another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car is a Latino carpenter. Another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is US. Every one of the cars you see is filled with individuals of strong beliefs and principles they hold dear. Often principles and beliefs that are in direct opposition to their fellow travelers. And yet these millions of cars must all find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, 30 foot wide tunnel, carved underneath a mighty river. Carved by people, by the way, who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Ah. Well that’s OK. You go, and then I’ll go. I’m sure at some point, there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned, and not hired as an analyst. Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together and the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the Promised Land. Sometimes, it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.

If you wanna know why I’m here, and what I wanted from you, I can only assure you this: You have already given it to me: your presence is what I wanted. Sanity will always be, and has always been, in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today, and the kind of people you are, has restored mine.”

Can somebody please tell me why we have to hear this sort of positive message from a comedian and not our chosen representatives? Why can’t our political class be more like these two gentlemen instead of fear-mongering twits?

Perhaps it is time to do without a “political class”- by which I mean the professional politician. Far too many of our elected representatives have never held a job outside politics. We could still hold elections, but the pool of candidates would be selected like a jury pool from among eligible voters. Make public funds available for political advertising, divided equally among the candidates. Build a series of barracks in the Capitol for our elected representatives to live in when they’re working, and reduce their pay to the national average income. Forbid elected officials from accepting any gifts of any sort from anyone while in office, and apply strict term limits to all offices, to ensure regular turnover in the government. It would not be perfect, but would help rid us of the scourge of the professional politician.

Then, perhaps, we would no longer need a pair of comedians to hold rallies to highlight the general insanity of our current political system.

Current status: Amused

Current music: Numb by Linkin Park


9 10 2010

The polarization of American culture (such as it is) is complete. Everything you do is guaranteed to offend someone, and this is somehow a Bad Thing™.

The above strip is where I got the title for this post. For those who aren’t aware, it’s from Bloom County, by Berke Breathed- one of the better things to have come out of the 1980s.

For whatever reason, far too many Americans are taking personal offense at largely inoffensive bits of objective reality. Worse, these same people are demanding that the rest of the Universe be offended as well. When this invariably fails to occur, the original offendee becomes … well … offended. And so the cycle continues.

The perpetually offended seem to go out of their way to create situations at which they can take offense. Simply declaring oneself offended by something has be come an acceptable means of shutting down any potential opposition, so this cheap ploy has found a home in what passes for politics in the US these days. Occasionally, the media gets into the act, and we get to see what this country has become.

Case in point: some total psycho-bitch in Michigan sent a text message to her neighbor a couple of years ago, asking if Psycho-bitch’s kids could come over to play in the bouncy-castle the neighbors had rented for their daughter’s birthday party. When she didn’t get an immediate response, Psycho-bitch took it personally, and began harassing the neighbors. When the neighbor’s wife died of Huntington’s disease, Psycho-bitch decorated her pick-up to look like a coffin, and made a point of leaving it on the street in full view of the grieving household. When the neighbor’s seven-year-old daughter was also diagnosed with Huntington’s, Psycho-bitch photoshopped the dying girl’s face onto a skull and crossbones and put it on her Facebook page- along with a photoshop of the girl’s dead mother in the arms of the Grim Reaper. Not content with this display of over-the-top vindictiveness, Psycho-bitch told the little girl- to her face- that she couldn’t wait for the little girl to die.

This is what the polarization of public discourse in this country has wrought. Totally inappropriate over-reaction to even the slightest manufactured slight or insult is now the normal order of business. It has come to the point where Psycho-bitch felt it was acceptable to taunt and mock a dying little girl for an imagined slight from two years previous. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but this sort of behavior used to be unacceptable in a civilized society. Have we fallen so far?

It isn’t all bad, of course. The reaction of most people to the news story about the incident was instant outrage. Public anger at Psycho-bitch is growing, and getting steadily worse since she appeared in two TV interviews. In the first interview, Psycho-bitch smugly and defiantly confirmed that she had taunted and mocked a dying seven-year-old girl. Her demeanor suggested that she had absolutely no empathy for the dying little girl or her family. Some brave soul made sure the news got to the folks on 4Chan, who immediately decided to teach Psycho-bitch a lesson. Various forms of internet harassment have ensued, which have rapidly grown to include some actions with serious consequences. Psycho-bitch and her husband may lose their jobs, and will never be able to order a pizza delivery in Trenton again.

On the other side of the internet coin, a large number of people online have been pouring money into a charity set up with the help of a local toy store to give little Kathleen Edwards all the toys she could ever want for her remaining time on Earth. Any toys left over will be donated to local childrens’ hospitals, and the toy store owner has promised to give the Edwards family 10% of the total received.

Suddenly coming to the realization that there might be actual consequences from her actions, Psycho-bitch went back on TV to “apologize”. Actual content of said apology amounted to “I’m sorry the little girl’s feelings were hurt. Can I get my life back, please?” Her husband also apologized for his wife’s “brutal honesty”. Non-apologetic apologies won’t wash. There are apparently lines which people still should not cross, and taunting a dying little girl is one of them.

Speaking of Psycho-bitch, let us examine what she and her husband are up against. Not too long ago, the spokesman for a company in India boasted that his company had- at the behest of RIAA and MPAA- conducted a Distributed Denial of Service attack at Pirate Bay. The Anonymous folks at 4Chan decided that he needed to be taught a lesson, and made it so. Two days later, that same spokesman went online to beg Anonymous to call it off. Their own site had been completely shut down for those two days, and the company executives had been receiving harassing emails and phone calls. Before that, internet communities took part in hunting down a little girl in Serbia who had been filmed throwing puppies into a river. In a few days, these network ninja raised a $50,000 reward for information leading to her identification. She was arrested less than a week after the video went viral. These same stalwarts thought little of taking on the government of Iran during the turmoil over the corrupt elections two years ago.

Note that those examples took place outside the US. The US has many flaws, but information about almost everyone in the country is available online, and it’s generally more accessible than the same data in other countries. Hours after Psycho-bitch appeared in her first interview, her address, phone numbers, workplace, and just about every other public reference to her had been widely posted online, and the weight of internet opinion was beginning to be felt. The internet communities can be quite powerful if they let loose the civilized restrictions on their behavior. Psycho-bitch did not break any laws with her stupidly vindictive actions, so the Law could not punish her. So the internet is taking the role of public outrage and punishing her. Thus far, the punishment has been mild harassment, but this has been enough to put Psycho-bitch and her husband in peril of losing their jobs.

So why did Psycho-bitch and her husband think their behavior was acceptable? What could have convinced any nominally-intelligent person in this country that taking offense over such a trivial non-offense justified mocking and taunting a dying little girl? Let’s take a look at the opiate of the masses- television.

Journalism may not necessarily be extinct, but the remaining examples of actual journalistic integrity are few and far between. There may not be a viable population of actual journalists remaining. Roughly ninety percent of the “news” on TV is actually what Phil Foglio referred to as a “journalistic, infotainment-like art product”.

Bias in media is largely unavoidable, but is not necessarily a bad thing- so long as the consumers of media products are aware of the bias and take it into account. Pandering to the lowest common denominator may also be unavoidable in a profit-driven industry, but this is much more difficult to deal with. By pandering to the lowest common denominator in search of advertising revenue, the media organizations are creating a self-fulfilling downward spiral of idiocy. Stupid people are more likely to be swayed by commercial advertisements, so advertisers will demand media products to appeal to stupid people. Since media organizations want to make money, they will create products for the “blithering idiot” demographic. People with average intellect or those whose brain cells are not dying of loneliness begin avoiding most media products, thus giving the blithering idiots more proportional representation among consumers of media products (and the advertising therein), so we end up with drek like American Idol and Sarah Palin.

Politicians have been complicit in this drive to the bottom of the barrel. Smarter people tend to demand actual competence, while their intellectual distant cousins are content with sound bites and manufactured outrage. Witness the cheap theatrics employed by both major political parties during the last few weeks as we approach the mid-term elections. When politicians who stoop to cheap theatrics and dirty tricks get rewarded with votes, the other professional politicians in this country will clamber all over themselves to put forth cheap gimmicks, sound bites aimed at the mentally lazy, and similar garbage in order to gorge themselves at the public trough without having to actually work for a living. The media cheerfully gives these parasites airtime in order to get more stupid viewers to pimp out to the advertisers.

In the end, the result is a country becoming increasingly Balkanized and divided against itself. Not out of villainy, but rather through the incompetent pursuit of profit. Profit is not in itself bad, but the blind pursuit of short-term gain at the expense of long-term economic viability is nothing less than criminally stupid. It is possible to do well while doing good. It isn’t quite as easy as merely increasing this quarter’s net receipts.

Until and unless we stop pandering to the lowest of the lowest common denominator, this sort of behavior will become more and more common. Social pressure can put a stop to this trend, but that means demanding better from our government and media, and punishing them when they don’t comply. When civilized behavior breaks down without breaking the law, there is normally little recourse,  so we get Psycho-bitch. If we can’t deal with the polarization of public discourse in this country- if we can’t disagree without being disagreeable- then we deserve her. All of us.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Sweet Disposition by Temper Trap


3 10 2010

Thanks to the US military, I’ve spent about 20% of my life overseas. I have generally enjoyed these sojourns away from the US. Among other benefits, extended travel away from home makes one appreciate home that much more.This is not to say that America is the greatest place on Earth (although I’d rather live here than anywhere else I’ve been), but rather that the experience of travel helps one appreciate what one has grown accustomed to- and taken for granted.

That said, there are some truly amazing places I’ve visited. The sixty-odd cities I’ve visited in twenty countries all have their ups and downs, but some are almost entirely up. Haifa, Israel is one such city. The Israelis I met were all very friendly, and the food was remarkably good. One of my friends said that Haifa was his version of Heaven on Earth. He said it had everything: beautiful women who speak English, like Americans, and carry guns. I have to admit the IDF bar we discovered and spent a considerable amount of time in lent a great deal of weight to this opinion. On the other hand, Haifa wasn’t at the top of my personal list. That honor goes to Antalya, Turkey.

I like Turkey. The Turks are generally quite friendly, very polite, and the merchants take “No” for an answer. The food is awesome (Doner Kebap), the women are breathtakingly beautiful, and I love to bargain. Antalya has all of this in spades. Every region in Turkey has their own version of Doner, and I find that I like the Doner in Antalya best. I also like the fact that a trip with my friends through the Old City was not nearly as harrowing as similar trips through Arab cities. We found a delightful bar in the Old City which was quite small by Western standards- basically the size of the living room in a modest house in the US. The customers all sat around a single low table to eat and drink. Later in the evening, some of the locals dropped by and played live music. Altogether a wonderful experience.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Alexandria, Egypt. The city is unbelievably filthy, and the whole area reeks from the raw sewage the locals dump into the river and sea. My first visit, a man came up to me with his 10-12 year old daughter in tow, and tried to sell her to me. I had to threaten him with violence to make him go away and leave me alone. Walking in the city is taking your life in your hands- if the traffic doesn’t kill you, some of the buildings might drop large chunks of their structure on your head. On the other hand, you can get anything in Alexandria for a price.

A word about currency. I have a lot of coin and paper money from the countries I’ve visited, most of which is worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Despite the fact that every country officially mandates using their own currency, the dollar is welcome everywhere. This is important to remember, since the currency you buy on the first day of your visit will probably be worth considerably less the day you leave. Worse still, some foreign currency has literally no value outside the country. Israeli Shekels and Egyptian Pounds are two of these. Even currency which supposedly has real value outside the country probably won’t be worth what you paid for it. The official exchange rates bear no relation to any putative value these currencies have. Carry dollars or Euros for most such countries.

When I lived in Italy, for example, we would play the Exchange Rate Game. This was before the creation of the Euro, so Italy was still using the Lira. The exchange rate fluctuated from week to week- and sometimes from day to day. When the dollar was up against the Lira, we would buy lots of Lira. When the dollar was down, we didn’t buy Lira. Managing your purchases according to the international exchange rates on such a small scale is unlikely to let you score big gains, but you can live quite comfortably on the local economy by paying attention to the rates.

Travel is said to broaden the mind. My personal experience bears this out, but this is not necessarily a universal result. I made a point of trying to learn a little bit about the countries I visited and did my best to learn a little of local languages, too. Even in France, making an attempt to speak their language helps when dealing with the locals (except in Paris). In my experience, most people will forgive your atrocious accent and wince-producing grammar as long as you make the attempt. Far too many Americans act as though everyone on Earth should speak English, and if you shout English at the locals, you can be understood. In some places, a large percentage of the population may, in fact, speak English (often better than the Americans), but yelling at them defeats the purpose. For really basic utility, you need to be able to speak the following ten words or phrases in whatever local language is applicable: Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank you, Yes, No, Where is, How much, Beer, and Toilet. If you plan on staying in a foreign city for any appreciable length of time, you’ll need to go far beyond these basic words/phrases. Here’s a hint: find someone who speaks the local language and English, and ask them for help in learning basic words and grammar. Practice your pronunciation. It isn;t easy, but it pays real dividends.

Another hint for Americans abroad- haggle. Many countries prize haggling as an art form. Most of North Africa and the Middle East have this custom, and it’s worthwhile to learn. In Turkey, for example, the merchant will invite you in to the office and bring in sweets and coffee (or tea). You can spend considerable time working your way to a mutually agreeable price, and it’s actually a lot of fun. This sort of social interaction will improve your standing with the local merchants (at least a little bit), and can often save you a surprising amount of money. By the way, whatever gimmick you think you’ve come up with to help you with your haggling, the merchant has almost certainly seen it before. As long as you are aware of this, and play the game with good humor, you can enjoy the experience.

That, in my mind, is the best thing about travel: enjoying the differences between people. If you insist on behaving as if your local customs are the Laws of Nature, you won’t enjoy your trip. Worse, you’ll piss off the locals. Visiting another country is like visiting someone’s home. Act like you would if you were a guest in someone’s house. Even if you don’t agree with your host’s customs, at least respect them. You will definitely enjoy your stay a lot more, and you might even learn something. It seems to me that Americans in general could stand to learn a lot more about the rest of the world.

Current status: Meh

Current music: Peg by Steely Dan