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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What to Do

Earlier today, I loaded the samples from Next in the Series onto my iPod and listened to them to see whether they would make serviceable podcasts. They are short and decently produced and perhaps of a better quality than most podcasts currently available. The result was mixed. There was something missing from the pieces, and it seemed to me to be something missing mostly in the writing.

None of it really worked.

Now, part of that might be the medium. It is possible that they were just bad scripts for audio and might work in some other format. It's possible, but I don't think so.

I think the problem is that I have to stop trying to be funny. That's not to say that I should eschew humor entirely, but that I should just let it slip out whenever it comes to me naturally. I should avoid doing what one must do when writing professional-type comedy: Go for big laughs several times a minute.

As I've been working on Drayton these last almost three years, I've had to learn how to cut the jokes and to write differently--more subtly and seriously. I think this is a lesson that I have to take to my other writing endeavors. Even though I'm a funny writer, I'm not a comedy writer. Even though I'm capable of writing jokes--sometimes damn good jokes, too--I shouldn't.

I think that, at the end of the day, the problem with those pieces wasn't that they were bad, it's that they weren't as good as I could make them. And the reason for that was that I was always writing jokes.

At least, that's what it looks like from Parnassus today.

Monday, September 10, 2007


As I've looked back over my previous post, I've come to realize that there could be some confusion as to my intent. When I said that I was dropping out, I meant simply dropping out of the news cycle, not running away from blogging.

The problem with being immersed in the news cycle is partially explained by this article in Vanity Fair that shows how badly the media porked Al Gore in the 2000 election. I was particularly struck by one thing that I had either forgotten or never knew because wasn't reported by the dreaded MSM: As of the first debate in 2000, George W. Bush didn't know that Social Security was a federal program. Any news organization that overlooked that to focus on Al Gore sighing should be run out of business. Of course, that would include roughly all of them, and running them out of business would save numberless trees and free up many hours of valuable TV time for sitcoms and idiotic reality shows.

The fact is that these news services did the nation a huge disservice by promoting the 24 Lies About Al Gore. How much deadly farce would we have avoided in the past six years had Gore's margin of victory in Florida been large enough to be tamperproof? It's hard to tell, but we would probably be living in a much saner, safer, and freer society than we currently do.

And we have to wonder, which boob will they give us this next time? (I'm assuming that only a boob can win since the lesson of 2000 is that competence for the job is not a criterion.) And, personally, I have begun to wonder what effect my watching this mess day-in-and-day-out will have on anything. And the answer is: None. The only effect that will come from my nonparticpation in the news cycle will be a mild stabilizing of my blood pressure, something, as shown in the pie chart in USA Today, that I am completely in favor of.

Back in the early '90s, I dropped out of the news cycle. I stopped reading the paper and stopped watching the news. And lo and behold, I was none the worse for it. My life didn't fall apart. My thoughts could drift to larger, more meaningful things than just whatever the scandal of the moment was, and when a friend of mine would come to me and say, "Did you hear about...?" I could answer, "No," and then give him an entirely different perspective than whatever was current in the media. This usually led to really interesting discussions that gave both of us a refreshed outlook. Both he (nominally a conservative) and I (allegedly a liberal) found that we agreed on much more than we disagreed on or than the media would have led us to believe. People having rational discussions and finding common ground doesn't make a good story.

And so, I will still be blogging when a thought occurs to me. The only difference will be that the ideas might be a little bigger or subtler and not needlessly weighted by the flickering show of current events.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Dropping Out

I have just finished deleting all the news feeds from both my My Yahoo! and iGoogle homepages. I have also unsubscribed to The New York Times Select service and will no longer be getting emails from The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

In other words, I'm done.

Keeping abreast of current events is widely held to be wise and good. My mother's favorite pastime was pouring over the day's newspaper from stem-to-stern. She'd also make sure she watched both the local and national news programs at 6pm, and the local again at 11pm. She got these habits from her father, and there is no way of knowing how far back the tradition goes.

But not any more.

My readings of the Taoist sages Lao Tse and Chuang Tse have long since taught me the futility of keeping up with current events, and I have to say that keeping up with the news has done nothing to make me happier or wiser. Writing politically minded essays has done nothing for me or the world. It's all bombast and word games.

The simple truth is that people's minds can't be changed. They are going to believe what they are going to believe. Arguments and rationality do nothing.

The only hope lies in art. A decent piece of art aims not at the head, but at the gut and the heart. A good work of art can change a person not by changing their politics, whatever that really means, but by opening their heart in compassion and engaging their sympathy and their humanity.

And so I go forth as an artist, avoiding the temporal and trying to understand the eternal. I have no idea what effect this might have on this blog. Maybe it will improve it. I have no plans to kill it quite yet, though.

I'll see you on the other side.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


I didn't want to write this, but I've seen too many articles in which the points I'm about to make apply in the last weeks, days, and hours, that I cannot avoid writing about it. Then maybe I can shut the hell up like I'd like to.

In the last few weeks, the fundamental flaw in modern American conservative philosophy has made itself plain to me.

It really hit me when I was thinking about the limitations of Libertarianism. Now, there are issues on which I actually agree with the Libertarians, more so, actually, than I do with the Neocons, so their basic assumptions were easier to examine. I understood and sympathized with their point of view in certain areas, therefore, it was relatively simple to apply that viewpoint to other subjects to see how they turned out.

And that's what revealed the flaw.

The fundamental problem with conservative thought is its reliance on simplistic economic notions, such as, "The Wisdom of the Marketplace," and "Greed is good." This is an attitude that leads them to social Darwinism (despite a pronounced distaste in well-known conservatives for biological Darwinism) and other notions that stress competition above all other qualities. They live in a fantasy world in which the race is always to the swift and the laurels to the just. Those of us who live in the real world know just how wrong those ideas can be.

What further struck me about this line of thought was that it encouraged an unending attack on the idea of community. To the conservative mindset, we are never a community, but merely an assemblage of individuals, all out to best the others, striving for survival in a lonely, existential struggle. This is not only a cynical and bleak worldview, but it fails to take into account a very basic aspect of human nature.

That is that we are a herd animal.

One of the most primal instincts in humans is the instinct to belong. We create tribes with social structures and rudimentary governments whenever we form groups and always have. We are, by our very nature, social and cooperative, not solitary and competitive.

Now, the people who rail against government misunderstand what government is, especially government in a representative democracy. They see it as being an oppressive force that exists somehow outside of society. It is a demon and must be fought so that the marketplace can properly be preserved. The truth, of course, is that government exists, in modern democracies, to work the will of The People. We are the government, and when we war against it, we war against ourselves. This is the point of elections and participation. Ronald Reagan was wrong. Government isn't the problem. People who think that government's the problem are the problem because government is the most outward expression of our community.

We can see this attack on the idea of community in several issues and events of recent years. The first, of course, was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. When Mr Bush made his speech and asked us to go shopping instead of asking us to sacrifice and to fight on the home front, he was refuting the idea of America as a community. And when, other than in those shocked and hollow days following the attacks, was America more of a community? Never in my lifetime, and never since World War II. We came together as the tribe America and that solidarity was wasted by indifference to its power and grandeur and importance.

The response to the devastation of the Gulf Coast region by Hurricane Katrina only two years ago last week also demonstrated a profound indifference to the concept of community. The slow response, the preferential treatment given insiders like Trent Lott, and the disdain practiced and witnessed (by Barbara Bush, most famously) toward the refugees (which is what they were if we want to use plain English) all show an inability to recognize that a part of our community, our tribe, was endangered. Compare the response to Katrina with the response to the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906. San Francisco was rebuilt and hosting a Wold's Fair in 10 years. Can we hold out the same sort of hope for New Orleans?

According to Paul Krugman in his column, "Katrina All the Time" that appeared in The New York Times on Friday, August 31, 2007,

"Less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding, as opposed to emergency relief, has actually been spent, in part because the Bush administration refused to waive the requirement that local governments put up matching funds for recovery projects — an impossible burden for communities whose tax bases have literally been washed away."

Is this how we treat our fellow citizens, fellow members of our community?

Mr Krugman goes on, in that column, to refer to the crisis we are suffering in the area of health insurance. The basic problem that we face in regards to health care is that we approach this most fundamental of communal concerns as a commodity. It is not. Although, to the shallow person, it may seem that another's illness is his own problem and not the concern of the community, one must only look slightly below the surface in order to see the fallacy of that outlook. Illnesses untreated are illnesses that are allowed, nay, encouraged to spread. Illnesses reduce productivity and efficiency of the society as a whole, and using emergency rooms (as Mr Bush so famously offers) as ersatz clinics reduces their efficiency in dealing with the desperately injured that they are designed to care for.

Of course, Mr Bush, the alleged Christian, needs to learn a lesson from Jesus: "What you do to the least of them, you do to me."

Jesus, of course, understood the concept of community, and the early church that rose after his death existed as a collection of communes, that is, social organizations that survived through cooperation and mutual concern. There is nothing in the four Gospels, that I am aware of, that advocates ignoring the sick, attacking the poor, or forsaking the downtrodden. There is quite a bit, on the other hand, about opening one's heart in compassion and treating others as we would have them treat us.

A previous Krugman column, one entitled, "A Socialist Plot," (NYT 8/27/07) compared providing universal health care with providing public education, and public education is another area in which people show a shortsighted disregard for community. Quite often one will hear someone fulminate over having to pay property taxes that support schools to which they have no children to go. This is blinkered and miserly. We should, all of us, be happily supporting our schools. If looked at communally, it is easy to see that every member of a community benefits from good schools, regardless of whether they have children to go there or not. Well educated children will end up contributing far more back into a society than they ever took out. Also, students who are well educated and who have a variety of extra-curricular activities will be less likely to become involved in drinking, drugs, sex, and crimes, all activities that people who foam at the mouth over their property taxes also tend to complain about.

Of course, I am in favor of nationalizing elementary and secondary education and rolling back the property taxes now collected for their support in favor of another tax scheme, possibly a national sales tax (and, yes, I know that's regressive, but a regressive tax might actually work to give the poor and middle class bigger voices in education). Public education funded and administered on a local level has resulted in poor schools that function with widely divergent criteria, curricula, texts, and approaches. Education is, for the nation as a community, too important to pursue in such a patchwork, haphazard, and unequal fashion. By not approaching education as a national concern, we undermine ourselves intellectually and competitively and renounce our obligations to ourselves as a community.

But enough. I could go on for many paragraphs, many more than I have already erected, without changing a single mind on this. It is too easy for us to see ourselves as eternally separate and isolated. It is far too easy to look at our neighbor as being "the other" or the guy down the street or the person in another city. We can stand apart in a series of toggled positions and identifications: liberal, conservative, religious, irreligious, pro-this, anti-that. And it will all get us nowhere.

Monday, September 03, 2007

My Response to the Latest Stanley Fish Blog Post

Stanley Fish has written on the inability he perceives liberalism to have in having tolerance for religious faith. My meager response follows:

There is actually an older source than either Milton or Mill for the notion of separation of church and state: Jesus of Nazareth. He said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's." (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26)

2000 years before Stanley Fish, Jesus was able to point out the fallacy of Professor Fish's argument. Professor Fish assumes that religious inquiry and political action are activities that exist in the same sphere: public. However, the realm of the spirit is inherently private and personal, and while it will undoubtedly influence the political and public outlook of an individual, it is not and should not be a public expression in and of itself.

Jesus is also the best source for wisdom on what to make of those who would move their spiritual quests from the private realm to the public: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6) The meaning here, to me, is clear. The TV preachers, the Ayatollahs, the President who sees his administration as being ordained of God are all hypocrites. By making their spirituality (if true spirituality it be) so needlessly public, they subvert it.

For it is possible to be spiritual and political and to keep both in their proper place. In that case, spirituality and even adherence to a set of particular religious dogmas can be a helpful and healthy thing. The private informs and illuminates the public. Unfortunately, the reverse is quite often the result of mixing the two, and the public political ideas come to dominate the personal and spiritual.

Professor Fish does, though, discuss a difficult sticking point for many who would identify themselves as "liberal." As tempting as it is to sometimes wish to deny others free speech because we believe their religious and political beliefs intolerable, we cannot. For when we do, we are the hypocrites praying on the street corners. Even those who understand religion to be a sword rather than a balm must be allowed to speak, and we must try to engage them with rationality, regardless of the frustrations involved in doing so. It's not easy, but that's how it is.

Finally, if Professor Fish does not think that George W. Bush is a religious extremist, he is living in a fantasy world. His entire description of the balancing act he claims that American politicians have to walk is absurd and indicates that he must have been either unconscious or sequestered during both General Elections in 2000 and 2004.