Feb 19
Racist?  Us?

Racist? Us?

It’s hardly shocking that the New York Post is again making news with anything but its journalism (it’s well known no one puts the “blo” in tabloid quite like the Post), but I have to admit that this one is a doozy even for them. I’m not going to repost the cartoon (I don’t think the thing needs even more exposure), but in case you haven’t heard about this dust-up: the Post published an editorial cartoon on Wednesday showing two white cops, one holding a gun, standing over the bullet-ridden body of a chimpanzee. One of the cops, looking rather befuddled, says “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Hilarious, right?

But it gets better. Confronted with the utterly predictable backlash–from people who suggested that the cartoon might seem, you know, a bit racist and all, given the historical stereotype of African-Americans being represented as monkeys, and, you know, a bit illegal and all, given that the real force behind the stimulus bill was President Obama, himself an African-American, and so the implied threat is pretty obvious, and, you know, a bit ethically horrendous and all, given the history of African-American abuse at the hands of white police–the Post didn’t issue a typically weak apology, making bland references to the First Amendment before sneaking away to hide under a rock. No, confronted with the firestorm of controversy, the Post instead decided to double down:

“The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist.”

Offensiveness this, bitches!

Now I’ll fully concede that Al Sharpton is probably not the ideal person to be issuing statements about, well, anything, and particularly considering his own shaky record on telling the truth when it comes to racial matters he probably would have been well served to lay low on this one. But who chooses to criticize something really doesn’t have anything to do with the legitimacy of the criticism, and so I don’t really think this is much of a defense. More important are the first two sentences, which tries to link the cartoon to the recent chimpanzee attack in Connecticut and financial crisis and skirts the racial question altogether. I say “skirts” the question, because it actually doesn’t repudiate the criticism directly. In fact, it doesn’t have anything to say about the racial elements at all. Whether it’s a “parody” of a current news event (and by the way, what exactly is there that’s subject for parody in the chimp attack? Did it qualify as a Stupid Pet Trick in the cartoonist’s mind?) or is “broadly mocking” the stimulus package, these things have nothing to do with whether or not the cartoon was racist. The silence on this point is deafening.

But fine, let’s assume the cartoon was racist–again, hardly shocking coming from the cartoonist Delonas, who’s been reflecting his boss’s views for a long time now. The guy’s a no-talent bastard and should be fired, the newspaper should be (if possible) even more ignored than it is now, and on we go, right? But the real problem is the implied defense of the cartoon–it’s satire, stupid, don’t you get it?

Uh, no. No, I don’t, actually.

First of all, parody isn’t satire. Certainly there are parodic elements within a satirical work. But satire is intended to be subtle and clever, not stupid and obvious. Quite apart from the racial overtones (and a political cartoonist would have to be utterly tone-deaf not to recognize them in his work, even if he somehow wasn’t intending them to begin with), the cartoon takes two utterly disconnected events and ties them together in an entirely meaningless way. Is the point that white people hate stimulus package makers? Or that a monkey could have written something better than the lawmakers in Washington? It might be mocking something–racist cops, crazy chimps, stimulus package writers–but God knows what.

Second, and this is probably the most important issue, satire is intended to instruct through its example. What precisely is being taught here? What’s the lesson? Watch out if you create a stimulus package, or a couple of white cops will gun you down in the street?

Look, I’m all for good satire. And there isn’t any figure too important to be mocked. But when you produce something neither funny nor tasteful, which doesn’t make sense in any but the most offensive context and even at that is absurdly stupid, hiding behind the shield of “it’s obviously just parody” and “Al Sharpton is a publicity hound” is about as obnoxious as it gets. But given the fact that a public apology seems unlikely, I’d accept bankruptcy from the Post.

Now that would be funny.

Nov 4

Hope.

Posted by A Writer

 

That a group of bigoted slave-owners could have the wisdom and foresight to create a document, and system of governance, which could adapt to allow the descendants of the slaves they owned to someday become the chief executor of that document is an extraordinary occurrence.  There is no greater symbol of what makes America a truly unique country than that.  The United States of America has much wrong to answer for, and much I've brought up myself.  But there is much good about it as well, and on this evening I am proud to be one of its citizens.

Sep 29

Yes we can, and no she can’t.

Posted by A Writer

 

This isn't a political blog, but political issues will sometimes intersect with the interests of what I talk about here…and given the stakes of the U.S. presidential election this year, those issues are magnified big-time.  This election has attracted far more interest than normal for all sorts of reasons–trying to overcome the eight year disaster which is the George Bush legacy, the financial crisis, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the first African-American presidential candidate ever nominated for a major party in the U.S., and of course the first female candidate nominated for president.

Er–oh.  Yes.  Of course Sarah Palin is actually the first female candidate nominated for VP by the Republican party.  My mistake…but in my defense, it's a pretty common one.  Since Palin's nomination last month, based on media coverage and the breathless enthusiasm of conservative pundits ("she's just so REAL!!!!11!!!") you'd think she was the Republican standard-bearer, with poor old John McCain bringing up the rear.  And this is kind of the root of my concern–her nomination, which says so much more about the state of one part of American politics and, down the road, the state of American education as well.  Why is it such a big deal?

Because this person is by far the least qualified VP candidate on a ticket in the last century…perhaps beyond (though Schuyler Colfax had his own problems, of course!).  And because her boss is 72 years old, with a history of malignant skin cancer.  That's why.  And perhaps, even more importantly, because both facts–and this isn't hyperbole, kids–are being utterly buried by the McCain campaign as fast as it can shovel the dirt, as well as some other rather smelly stuff I won't describe in detail here.  The pick is a cynical lie, and a transparent one at that.

In the interests of full disclosure: I'm clearly left of center on the political front, though I'm nothing close to a lockstep Democrat.  Though I have my own concerns about Barack Obama, it was fairly clear to me as the primary went on that he was quickly learning from his mistakes, was potentially inspirational both symbolically and otherwise, and was a refreshing change (i.e. neither astonishingly stupid nor smugly arrogant like a certain "Decider" I could think of) from the norm, and thus I was happy to vote for him.  And quite aside from my disagreements with McCain on a whole host of issues (really, why is one's inability to keep a Navy plane in the air a qualification for the highest level of public service?), his destructive and incredibly disingenuous campaign had pretty much turned me off as it was.

And then he nominated Sarah Palin, and (for me) all hell broke loose.

Now there are all sorts of things I could say about the transparent pandering of the pick.  There are all sorts of things I could bring up about the Republican party, which has spent much of the last hundred years fighting to undercut rights for all distinct groups including women, suddenly discovering the horrors of sexism (how dare they ask Sarah a question!  Deference, please.).  And don't get me started about the obsession with assuaging the religious right.  But for me, what this truly comes down to is this:

She's just not that bright.

Once the true believers have gotten over the gasps of horror and shocked exclamations of dismay, please let me explain.  I'm not talking about simple intelligence–the ability to understand a casual witticism, the capability of drawing logical conclusions from available evidence (though I'm not sure about the whole dinosaurs and people thing, but let that pass), the skill of forming coherent sentences.  Palin's obviously no fool; she wouldn't have ended up governor, with a pitifully thin list of accomplishments that would make Dan Quayle laugh, if she were.  She's obviously got political sense and savvy–and besides, anyone who can vaguely juggle five kids and a major public service job has got to have something upstairs.  No, I'm referring to something far more insidious: a lack of interest in the world outside.  She's just not very intellectually curious, or even vaguely intrigued, in things outside her very limited expertise.  How else do you explain not getting a passport until last year–when she was already in her mid-forties, and (as both she and her handlers continue to inexplicably cite, as if they're not in on the joke everyone else makes of this) living next to Russia?  How else do you explain a total inability to understand basic economics–or what the relationship between the credit markets and the consumer is?  How else do you explain a lack of knowledge of her own running mate's economical reformer credentials (well, okay, that's partly because he doesn't have any, but at least she could get on the same page with what he claims he's done, right?)?

Is it the five colleges thing?

The bottom line is that Sarah Palin seems like a nice person, and that's obviously part of her appeal.  She's so real, enthusiasts gush.  And while I'm not sure how many Americans shoot moose and race snowmobiles on a regular basis, I'm sure they can identify with the concept of a hockey mom as much as a soccer mom.  So she's got some family troubles…so what?  Everyone has those, right?  She's just like me, people say.  

And that's precisely why she would make a great therapist.  Or social worker.  Or minister.  It's important for people in those professions to be able to directly identify with their clients.

The problem is that she's not doing any of those things.  She's running for Vice-President of the United States of America, one old man's heartbeat away from the Presidency, and she needs to be taken on a United Nations tour like she's the freaking president of the Chamber of Commerce.  Look, folks: I'm all for down home common sense and folk wisdom.  But this job, to be potentially the second most powerful person in the world, doesn't need someone we could meet at the local general store.  It requires the best of the best, the smartest, the most able, literally the cream of all our crop.  Now the tension between meritocracy and democracy in this country is nothing new; for centuries we've struggled to find the balance between equality for all and getting the best and brightest.  But part of that balance has been struck by our tacit understanding that we ultimately elect the best we can, not the most like us we can.  Should they understand what we're going through?  Of course–that's a necessity for good leadership, as it's always been.  But requiring our leaders not simply to understand a certain life but live it themselves is tipping the balance to mass opinion: the Wikipedia/American Idol culture, where what we think is true is more important than what's actually true.  And somehow, over the past eight years, we've gotten the idea that electing our friends and neighbors is a better idea than electing the best we can find.  But where else should we advance this theory?  Science?  Education? Medicine?  ("Sure, you say that's a goiter.  But frankly I don't agree with you, and neither does my friend here.  He says it's cancer, and he thinks we should operate right now, and he's my friend, so I'm afraid you're out of luck.  But thanks so much for your input, Doc.") 

The truth is that Sarah Palin represents the worst retreat to the feel-good generation I could imagine, all part of the race to mediocrity which upholds ignorance as a badge of honor and knowledge as a sign of dangerous, "exclusionary" elitism.  I believe that the majority of Americans are now starting to get this–McCain's collapse in the polls mostly has to do with his economic missteps, but he hasn't been helped by Palin's cringe-inducing interviews, which have started to bother even people who like the whole "hockey mom" persona–but the fact that it's taken this long to make the point is a bit disturbing.  It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with sexism, and everything to do with elitism–the elitism which we ought to require of our leaders, the way we require it of our military generals, our doctors, scientists, and teachers.  No one likes to be made to feel stupid, or patronized.  But reveling in one's relentless average-ness isn't the answer either, and picking a running mate to appeal to that mindset in others is even worse.  Education is founded on the idea of striving for something more than what you are, of learning about the world, of bringing light to the dark places of the intellect.  For me, I want a leader just as interested in that journey as I am, not someone whose idea of foreign travel begins and ends with a snowmobile trip to Canada. 

Though I hope such a trip crosses over some Bridge to Nowhere.  It seems like such a shame to waste the image otherwise.

Jul 8

Anyone who's been on the Internet for any length of time knows all about the dreaded flame war: that peculiar form of conflict where people get unreasonably irritated at other people, either via E-mail or (more often) a public message board, start firing off increasingly insulting messages like they're going out of style, and eventually get so out of control they either drag the entire virtual community down with them in flames or get banished from the forum with extreme prejudice.  I've been lucky enough to stay out of these kinds of things for the most part (Smokey Bear was a big childhood influence, I guess), and it had been a while since I'd seen one.  But I just got through watching another regional conflict nearly spiral out of control, and boy, did it bring back memories of the good old days.

The specifics aren't really important, and besides, it'd be kind of hard to change the names to protect the innocent.  To sum up: person A (we'll call him/her Innocent Bystander, or IB for short) asks an innocuous question about an unknown entity (UE for short).  Persons B, C, and D (we'll call them The Opinionated, or TO) all weigh in with their opinions that UE probably isn't a good option for IB.  Suddenly Person E (a rage-filled individual–RFI, of course) suggests, pretty defensively, that TO don't know everything and shouldn't be attacking UE.  Both TO and IB assure RFI (aren't acronyms fun?) that they're not attacking UE but simply calling a spade a spade.  RFI demands that UE be allowed to respond to being called a spade.  TO, IB and everyone else (EE) says this is a bad idea.  RFI calls most of TO a bunch of ****** and demands they have the guts to speak to UE.  TO tells RFI to grow up.  RFI calls TO…

Well, you get the idea.  In the end the second finishing option was chosen, and off RFI went into the sunset, to EE's relief.  But the whole business left me thinking about the motivation of the flame war.  I was getting pretty philosophical about it, in fact, until the basic question hit me:

Why the hell do I care?

In fact, why the hell does anyone care?  What's at stake here?  Sure there are the occasional discussions about politics, ethics, or baseball (about roughly equivalent value, I'd say 😉 ) that have big time consequences.  But in the vast majority of cases the discussion topics are only slightly more important than the arguments people have about them.  I get it, I get it: humans like to argue.  We enjoy competition–even conflict.  We like to win.  But no one actually wins here, because the fundamental tenet of the Flame War Code is that you never, ever acknowledge someone to be right about anything.  Really.  Take a look at one of these flame wars and see what happens around page five of the fifteen page thread: even entirely impossible propositions ("if you weren't such a ********* you might understand a little ******* logic, you ******* ****") get treated like arguments that need to be rebutted ("I do understand ******* logic, you ****** *****; if you weren't such a ***********, I'd…")  At this point no one even remembers what the hell the argument was about in the first place.  It's gotten real personal.

So the question remains: why?  What makes it personal?  And I think a quick look in the mirror tells us the answer:

Because they're laughing at me.

That's really what it comes down to.  Our irrational fear that someone somewhere thinks less of us, or at least the virtual version of us.  Or maybe it's not all that irrational after all.  E-mail and instant messaging has made the use of the :) ubiquitous, and has helped cover a multitude of sins–or at least insults–by making everything right before it not such a big deal.  It's the universal sign for "just joking."  And we go along with it, but not always willingly–because there's a part of us that wonders if the joke was being made because the other person believes it's true, deep down.  What made him/her think of that to begin with, we wonder.  And once you've started down that road, friends, it's awfully hard to get off before you reach Destination Paranoia.  Suddenly anything anyone says about you online is coming from a position of truth, and how many other people are going to believe what that person says, and…

And all of a sudden there is a bogeyman coming to get you.

Given this kind of setup, it's no wonder people respond the way they do in a flame war.  The goal isn't to beat the other person's arguments, let alone have a rational and productive exchange of ideas: the goal is to annihilate the other person, to obliterate him/her, to destroy her utterly before he/she does the same to you.  And when you're in a war of annihilation, there is no strategic victory.  Kill 'em all, and let God (virtually speaking) sort it out.  Now this isn't to say that the flame war doesn't have its place.  It can be amusing to watch, and the best ones are legendary entertainment.  But that entertainment comes at a price, because anytime we laugh at one or the other person for his/her ridiculous overreactions, we're confirming the fears that made a normally sane and rational person behave like a two year old in the first place.  And when we then find ourselves getting drawn into a heated argument, what's our reaction likely to be?  

They're all going to laugh at me!   

All of this is not to say that we can't get into a high-stakes discussion online.  It's simply to suggest that we think carefully about our motivations, and other people's.  Maybe there isn't any physical harm from a flame war, but there sure as hell are emotional scars, even if they're coming from a silly argument…and that means we've got to tread a bit more carefully through the online forums and comment sections of the world, even if we can't see the person writing angry messages to (at?) us.  The next time someone calls you a *******, you might want to consider responding with something like this:

You may be right.

It's true, non-committal, and non-escalating.  It might not save the world, but it'll go a long way to stopping one more conflict that we can do without.

Mar 5

Hit points = -10.

Posted by A Writer

 

I just heard that Gary Gygax passed away, and it actually hit me a bit harder than I might have thought it would.  For those of you who didn't spend many of your teenage years (and a few years after that, okay?) hanging out with friends with a bunch of junk food, Mountain Dew and way too many dice, Gygax was the creator (co-creator, but he was really the brains behind the operation) of Dungeons and Dragons, the mother of all role-playing games.  D and D's gotten a bad rap over the years, first for allegedly drawing young people into cults, Satanism and suicide (often all at once!) and then for building an ultra-nerd culture which directly led to even more dangerous pursuits like, say, World of Warcraft.  It's also spawned a whole host of imitations, most of which are far inferior to their predecessor, and a few of which highlight some serious problems with the original game.  But when the game first came out in the mid-70s (after a few months for people to get used to the idea), it forever blew up the notion that games were about as interesting as your grandmother–she was nice, right, but how many times could she show you the same tintype of her great grandfather from the Civil War?–and about as old.  D and D told gamers to forget about boards, pieces, even boxes; just gather a bunch of friends, get a lot of sheets of paper, pencils, and dice, and let your imagination do the rest.  And once it took off, there was no looking back–even if the boards, pieces, and boxes eventually came back, since D and D is always about the bling.

I got into D and D pretty much right as it was reaching its zenith, and when I started playing it (Keep on the Borderlands was my first adventure, by the way, and it was pretty freaking awesome at my age…though it's pretty dated, looking at it now) I couldn't believe how cool the concept was.  I loved fantasy anyway–Tolkien was especially my bag–and here I was getting to actually be a wizard.  Awesome.  And besides, it tied together everything I liked best growing up–hanging out and playing games with friends.  And as I got older, I discovered that I was a pretty good DM (that's Dungeonmaster for those of you who aren't up on the lingo), and pretty good at running adventures…both because I was pretty good at retaining obscure rules for which the game was famous, and because I could ditch the rules when needed so as to create a more dynamic adventure.  It was a pretty productive time for me from that point of view–I was starting to learn how to pull together storylines, ideas, and characters to create a new world, and you better believe it helped me much later, when I was starting to create worlds in literary form.

Yes, in those early days D and D was pretty much the greatest thing ever.  Of course it couldn't last–we actually kept it going longer than a lot of people did, and to this day I still play sessions now and again.  But it's never going to match those marathon once a week deals in my friend's basement, or sometimes in the living room of my house, cracking up over stuff which wouldn't make much sense outside the game context.  Like this time one guy grabbed a Trident of Yearning and leaped into the nearest body of liquid, which just happened to be a pool of acid.  Man, that was some funny sh…er…right.  Like I said, you had to be there.  But it's one of my fondest memories, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. 

Of course, there were a lot of problems with D and D, both as a game and a pastime.  On the game side, it tended to the formulaic….dwarves, elves, dragons, you know the drill.  There wasn't a whole lot different about the game's setting, although later on it started to wander pretty far afield…flying ships, desert wasteland planets, stuff like that.  After D and D was sold to Hasbro, it had a pretty steep drop-off, and it really wasn't a pretty sight–the game got dumbed down, cartooned up (and not the good kind!), and basically beaten badly by a lot of more sophisticated competitors.  On the pastime front, it certainly did contribute to a feeling of isolation at times.  Why live your own life when your level 15 wizard is that much cooler?  And since D and D tended to appeal to more sensitive, intelligent and even oddball types, playing it soon got to be a badge of dishonor–leading to even more "nerd" jokes than before.  I always found this odd–I love sports too, but I never understood why painting my face blue and going to a football game without a shirt in sub-zero weather was cool while playing a game where I used my *gasp* imagination was nerdy–but there it was.  Besides, it wasn't really a physically active thing anyway, unless you were one of these people.  God help you if the kids ever found out about something like this.  

But still, D and D has always had an undeniable pull.  A few years back I was in a store in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (original home of D and D), owned by Gygax's son–who invited me to play D and D with him and his father that evening!  I turned it down because of other plans, but I've always felt a little bad about it.  I would have loved to see what the father of role-playing would do in front of one of those cool altars with jeweled eyes.  I'm sure all of this makes me some kind of latter-day geek, but I can't even tell you how tired I am of labels, pretty much of any kind.  All I know is D and D got my imagination fired up in a way nothing else did during those years, and it deserves a lot of credit for not letting me sink too far into my own head at that time.  For me, and I suspect a bunch of other people, D and D will always be associated with cool stories and good times.  And for that alone, it's worth all the weirdness and odd people and cult accusations that have sometimes gone with it.

I'd like to imagine Gygax somewhere in his version of heaven–playing at a game table with friends, laughing his ass off over some conversation with an obnoxious goblin or something.  Come to think of it, that's not such a bad afterlife for anyone.  Rest in peace, G.G.  Thanks for the dungeons, and the dragons, and even the dice.  And for the rest of you non-converts, throw whatever charges of nerd-ism at me you like.  I've still got my Ancient Katana, and I've got my lucky twenty-sider right here.

Feb 13

 

Unless you've been living under a rock (and if you have, I hope you didn't need a subprime mortgage to get it), you've probably heard about the whole Roger Clemens steroids fiasco.  Clemens, a supremely gifted baseball pitcher (probably one of the five best to ever play the game), was named in the Mitchell Report on steroids as a user, largely based on the testimony of his former trainer Brian McNamee.  The story's much more juicy (pun sort of intended) than that, of course; Clemens has commenced an all-out assault on McNamee (who admittedly isn't exactly a choir boy), who in turn has thrown Clemens' wife under the bus (told you this was good stuff).  Clemens hasn't been shy about doing the same thing to his wife, actually, and his mother or anyone else he can find to blame.  Even his best friend has bailed out on him.  Yep, things aren't looking good for Clemens, and the possibility of a federal perjury charge is getting more real every second. 

Now loyal readers might be double checking their address bar at this point.  This is a blog about language, literature, and music, not sports, after all…and a good thing too, since as much as I like sports the last thing I want is to start holy wars over whether Duke is better than North Carolina, or whether Ali would have beaten Tyson in their primes.  (Answers:  None of the above, and yes.)  But this week I've been inundated with news about the Clemens business, and today it reached its zenith with a hearing in front of Congress.  My take on the subject doesn't have much to do with the hearing itself, though, or whether the Rocket was using some additives in his jet fuel or not (seems like a whole lot of evidence against a whole lot of furious denial to me, but hey, it's not like the state's got a perfect record on this stuff).  No, I've been far more interested in the coverage…what different people say about the exact same event, and why.  Because the sports media, which naturally can't get enough of this business, is falling all over itself to classify what's happening early and often, with ever more ridiculous headlines:

"Clemens blames all but himself."  (Straightforward, to the point.) 

"Hearings: Untruth and consequences." (Cute.)

"Clemens shelled by Congress." (Now we've gone to Saving Private Ryan?)

"Is Clemens the Antichrist?" (Okay, this isn't really about the steroids business, but I love it anyway.) 

Wow.  Put these all together and you seem to have some serious consensus against the guy.  And it's not just the headlines; read the articles themselves and you'll see the writers lining up to savage the guy they couldn't stop praising a year ago:

"Question by question, disputed answer by disputed answer, Roger Clemens' house of lies came tumbling down upon him Wednesday…Clemens had nothing, just pathetic ramblings…and throwing everyone from his agents, to his mother, to his wife under the bus of blame."

"Wednesday was a day of losers. While the Mitchell report withstood its stiffest challenge yet, baseball lost. Roger Clemens lost and Brian McNamee lost. Clemens had his day under oath in front of the country, and he spent it flailing, splashing against relentless waves of facts he could not calm, even after 4½ hours."

"Clemens was a much more compelling personality….[he] spoke with passion and energy, and with what sounded like heartfelt conviction… He made a tremendous witness."

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  What the hell happened to the savaging?

It turns out, kids, that ultimately truth really is in the eye (or the pen?) of the reporter.  For Dan Wetzel and Howard Bryant, Clemens' appearance was an utter failure, "pathetic," "flailing," and the work of a "loser."  For Jayson Stark, though (who hasn't exactly been Mr. Objectivity throughout his career), Clemens was "compelling" and a "tremendous witness."  Same place, same time, same hearing.  Different Clemens.  

Why do I feel like I'm in a bad remake of Sliding Doors?

Of course, everyone knows that truth is ultimately dependent on those who perceive it.  It shouldn't be surprising that different observers will have different takes on the same event.  But the issue, ultimately, doesn't concern them–it's about us.  When you can have one person alternatively described as "pathetic" and "compelling," at the exact same moment, how are we supposed to parse the difference?  Check up on your sources, you say; do some research and discover the truth for yourself.  Well, sure…you can find out all you want about the backgrounds of your reporters, and decide whether one person's distant relationship by marriage to a given newsmaker taints his reports on that newsmaker or not.  Or you can go to one of the million online news sources and watch everything for yourself.  Maybe you'll let the meteorologist slide (he's probably not in bed with the hurricane, right, so at least he's not taking any kickbacks from Mother Nature), but anything which could even have a tinge of subjectivity gets vetted by your crack analysts (er…by you, in other words).  Problem solved, right?

Well, maybe.  Maybe you figure that you've got the education, the knowledge, the background to be able to get a sense of truth or falsehood from someone doing steroids, or testifying at trial, or describing wartime atrocities.  You're a well-rounded citizen, right?  But what about the deeper levels of knowledge?  Do you know enough to decide whether a medical professional got kickbacks from a pharmaceutical company, which might affect her prescription for your medical condition?  Do you know enough to figure out whether your special ed coordinator really is interested in the welfare of your child, not in getting the principal off his neck about his tendency to run over budget?  Are you savvy enough to know whether mechanics are telling you the truth about how safe or unsafe your brake pads are?

Uh-huh.  All of a sudden the Renaissance man theory is getting a bit strained, isn't it?

The point is not that you should be content to sink into the typical blissful ignorance which often characterizes a lot of your fellow citizens (and don't act shocked, all of you reading this feel the same way occasionally.  Smile).  We could all use a lot more healthy skepticism.  But it's clear that the position of objective fact-finder, the person whose job is to report on reality and put it in a context we can all use, is rapidly vanishing.  In its place we have a lot of very opinionated people (walk into any bookstore and you'll see their proxies screaming at each other from their respective bestseller tables) with very definite impressions of reality, and not a whole lot of ways to distinguish between them.  (We all know Ann Coulter is a lunatic, but what's the deal with Jon Stewart?  He seems trustworthy–I certainly trust the guy–but is that reasonable?)  And that leaves us either to become experts on everything–not very likely–or determined to know nothing, since at least that way we won't get fooled again, at least in theory.  The result is that we cede the field to the ones who very much know what agenda they want to promote, and truth suffers as a consequence.

Maybe this sounds too maudlin and sentimental, like I ought to be crying for the loss of the Walter Cronkites and Edward R. Murrows of the world.  And maybe it's too much of a stretch to see some overzealous sports journalists going at it and worry about the fate of veracity in 2008.  But spin it however you like, there's something more than a little troubling about the he said/she said mentality that seems to be infusing all aspects of our world, from pundits to the ordinary people who listen to them.  Whether Clemens had something injected in his butt so he could throw a baseball faster may not really be important in the large scheme of the universe.  But whether we'll ever be able to get a fair-minded appraisal of how likely the possibility is–whether Clemens is indeed compelling or an Antichrist–without needing a medical degree to be sure, is.

The truth is out there, friends.  Just make sure you've got all of your search equipment in order when you set out to find it.

Jan 7

Andrew Olmsted’s last post.

Posted by A Writer

I stumbled across this entry at Kristin Nelson's bloga posthumous entry from Andrew Olmsted, a soldier who's had a blog for the past five years of his time serving in Iraq.  He wrote this last entry and instructed it be posted in the event of his death, which happened on January 3, 2008.  There is something eerily haunting and deeply powerful about this entry, and try as I might I can't think of anything sarcastic or pithy to say about it.  In fact there really is little to say at all; I had never heard about Olmsted until now, and I'm not sure if I would have agreed with him politically, but this isn't about soldiers, or politics, or even opinions about why we should or shouldn't have gone to Iraq in the first place.  This is really just about one writer's final words, and I think for today we'll let him speak for himself.  I'll have another post up soon.

Jan 1

Happy 2008!

Posted by A Writer

 

Hope your New Year's Eve is a safe one–thanks for checking Rewritten Reality out, and sticking with it!  I'll have a longer post to you shortly.

Dec 27

Yo hablo diversity, I swear.

Posted by A Writer

 

If there's anything the holidays are great at, it's giving you the chance to reconnect with loved ones, friends and family…

…even if they're bigots.

Well, not bigots, exactly.  Actually my family is pretty cool by and large, compassionate, caring, and smart.  It's probably because my family is all those things that I find the dinner table exchanges that often happen a little tough to take.  Let's take an example, shall we?

Cousin:  The problem is that you don't have any standards any more.  Anyone can just do whatever they want.  I mean, the deli I go to every day for lunch, I can't even order a sandwich anymore.  They installed this system where you order your food through a computer thing.  You know why?

Me:  Why?

Cousin:  So they could hire people who can't speak English.

Me:  Uh…

Cousin:  That way they don't have to pay benefits.  And the immigrants there, they don't have to pay Social Security taxes or anything.

Me:  But that's not true–Social Security gets taken out of their checks before they get them.  And if they're illegal immigrants, they can't collect Social Security, because they can't register for it.

Cousin:  Oh.  [Pause]  Still, though, why can't they freaking speak English when they come here?

Me [getting up]:  Oh, look, the ham's ready!  

This is pretty much the extent of a conversation I had with a family member during Christmas, and on the drive home (after I got over being horrified) I started thinking about what would cause this kind of an attitude.  This is the kind of guy who would–in fact, who has–helped a total stranger whose car had rolled over get out, helped get his kid out, and stayed with him until the police arrived…and gave him his cell phone number in case he needed a place to stay that night.  And the kicker?  The guy was Hispanic, with a heavy Spanish accent.  

What the hell?

Assuming my cousin isn't a lunatic, or hasn't watched Sybil one too many times, there's got to be some explanation for this disconnect.  What causes him to be a private Samaritan and a public Know-Nothing?  Because it is that private/public split, I think, which is at the root of the illegal immigration debate which has reached such a fever pitch in this country.  Show me a Republican candidate who wants to fire off a new salvo against the country's porous borders, and the way immigrant labor is destroying our economic and moral authority in the world (I think this might have more to do with that second issue, but I digress), and I'll show you a Republican candidate who employs more than one of these on his staff.  The dirty little secret no one wants to discuss, of course, is that immigrant labor, legal or otherwise, currently makes up much of the workforce for those jobs which we'd rather forget need to get done.  It's fine to claim that American workers are just falling all over themselves to get these low-paying jobs, but the truth tells a different story: for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, the immigrant population (which has been largely excluded from other positions) has been more willing to take the jobs the rest of us haven't.  

But I don't think this really gets to the crux of the matter.  No, beyond economics, beyond resentment for perceived wrongs, beyond just plain old simple racism, I think what really underlies this issue is what my cousin was suggesting while passing the mashed potatoes and gravy: they don't speak English.  Now that was fine, I think, so long as it was a problem confined to the border areas; hell, we all like Tex-Mex food, right (sure, even my cousin)?  But when non-native English speakers began showing up in the Midwest, Northeast, and other areas previously considered bastions of, er, the "America for Americans" attitude, all of a sudden everyone became fascinated in keeping the English language safe for democracy, or something.

Now on one level I can't object to this phenomenon: I teach English in college, I'm a writer, this whole freaking blog is about "literature, language and life rewritten," so obviously I like English.  I even like the English.  And on a basic level, I do think it's important that people who plan to be here long term work to learn the English language during their time here, for their sakes as much as anyone else's.  But my objection to the "English NOW!" people is a much more complex one:

1.  English is an exceedingly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn.  Its rules are constantly subject to exception, it's (see what I mean?  Smile) forever adopting and assimilating words, phrases, even rules from other languages, and it often doesn't read the way it's spoken…all of which makes it a lot harder to pick up than just sitting in a couple of classes or listening to a few tapes.  In other words, it takes time, far more time than we're generally willing to give.  Add that to the problem of having to culturally adapt to a new environment, which foreigners who come here are often much better at doing than we are when going elsewhere, and you can see that the "why can't they speak freaking English" theory isn't a particularly good one.  And speaking of the ugly American

2. …we really have very, very little right to say anything about anyone else's ability to adapt to us.  If you've ever traveled and been embarrassed by an American tourist loudly complaining about the lack of English speakers–in Greece–you'll understand what I mean.  As with other aspects of our foreign policy, we could use some serious humility lessons before we get all hot and bothered about having ATMs give options in Spanish.

3.  There is something particularly hypocritical, and mean-spirited, about the anti-immigrant, pro-English crowd who are themselves all immigrants or descended from same.  I'll leave for now the point that none of us are native Americans except for, well, Native Americans.  But what about the immigrants whose families themselves showed up here a hundred years or fewer ago?  What about the O'Malleys, the Santorellis, the Kaplans, the Beauchamps?  Do any of those people, whose fathers and grandfathers fought their way through the mistrust and suspicion of those who thought they were taking their jobs, stealing their women, speaking strange languages (hmm, why does this sound familiar?), have any right whatsoever to slam the country club door shut now?

An admittedly rhetorical question, with an admittedly clear answer: no.

Now none of this is to suggest that schools should drop English courses and just teach languages based upon regional conditions.  For many reasons, simplicity among them, it just makes sense that English should remain the dominant language of a country which still mostly speaks it.  But demanding that every immigrant who arrives in the U.S. must immediately drop everything and sit in language classes until they "get it" is not only unrealistic but ineffective and, frankly, hypocritical in the extreme.  And given America's sorry history of treating those it views to be different as very, very different, it would seem to me we ought to be especially careful handling the situation now.  In the meantime, we'll just have to muddle through those bizarre holiday dinners the best we can.  If worse comes to worst, I guess we can all just talk sports instead.

Hey, at least we'll be getting to what really matters!

Dec 25

 

And I've got nothing sarcastic, funny, or righteous to add to that.  I'll have a longer post out on the 26th or 27th at the latest…until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Anything Else Which Applies to everyone!