Archive for August, 2010

Good People

There is a remarkable phenomenon I’ve been noticing intermittently for much of my adult life – one which is doubtless well known to serious students of sociology and anthropology but still baffles me.
The vast majority of us, I would think, are good people. Give me five minutes to talk with a small group of people whose language I can speak, and I will likely emerge from it having found a great deal of common ground, and quite possibly with a new Facebook friend or two into the bargain. However, all manner of ills appear to come from larger societal institutions.
I think this is why it is often possible for a person to hate on Republicans or Mormons or Texans, but it is much harder to hate a random Republican or Mormon or Texan should you happen to find yourself in conversation with them.
So why does this happen? This isn’t my usual rhetorical question, the opening for an internal Socratic monologue, but an actual plea for deep and considered insight from my readership.
Why is it that we can get swept up into such giddying whorls of baseless hatred, if we’re all good people?

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Sometimes, a movie or TV show is so ridiculously over-hyped that one feels more inclined to gouge out one’s own eyes than bother watching. Case in point: I have yet to watch an episode of LOST, largely because during its run so many people of my acquaintance entirely failed to shut the fuck up about it for more than an hour or two. Now that it is over, I may opt to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe.

And then there is Glee.

Glee has been over-hyped the bejesus out of. (I’m fully aware of the grammatical inconsistency of that sentence, but am including it in homage to a similar phrasing used by my boss recently.) The trailers I saw made the show look so bad that the prospect of watching a full episode seemed a torture worthy of Abu Ghraib.

And yet, against my will, it has become my guilty pleasure.

It is by no means a televisual phenomenon on a par with The X-Files or Firefly or The West Wing. With any of these shows, I can rewatch an episode several times, dissecting and discovering, coming up with new evidence of the sheer genius with which the show was done. These are the literature of television.

Glee, on the other hand, is the novel you buy at the airport while your departure time whooshes by with nary a call for boarding. It’s a fun, largely surface-level diversion which is certainly worthy of the time you invest in it, but is unlikely to stay on the shelf to be watched time and again. Refreshingly, it doesn’t try to be anything more than that.

The music and choreography is (largely) very well executed, the cast is (again largely) talented and the balance between humor and melodrama is (etc.) well maintained. There are a few moments of painfully obvious auto-tune, or where even the greatest suspension bridge couldn’t quite hold up the disbelief, but on the whole it is done well.

Plus, even were I inclined to give up at this stage, the prospect of an episode directed by Joss Whedon and guest-starring Neil Patrick Harris and Idina Menzel would keep me going for the next however-many episodes it is until then.

So… yeah. I guess, on top of being a “believer”, a “Browncoat” and a “Wingnut”, I am now officially a “Gleek”.

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The physicist Enrico Fermi once said “Where is everybody?” – specifically asking why, if the universe is filled with civilizations, we have yet to confirm or even detect their presence in any reliable fashion.

I’ve given the ‘Fermi Paradox’ a lot of thought over the last few years, and ironically the best answer I can come up with owes more to Star Trek than to astrophysics.

In the eighth Star Trek movie, First Contact, the human race is first contacted by another spacefaring civilization when we are finally at the point of developing faster-than-light (FTL) travel (in this case, warp drive). Indeed, until we have such a thing, any kind of cultural intercourse we could have with any extraterrestrial civilization would be one-sided. The ability to venture forth into the black in search of new horizons and new life is a necessary step to becoming part of any interplanetary community.

On a deeper level, it seems to me that the ability to build such a wonder would require a unification of purpose between the various races of humankind, since no single nation is likely to have the resources to build and operate a space station and interstellar vehicles by itself. Thus far, we have yet to advance sufficiently as to effect such unification. We engage in petty squabbles over post-tribal god-images, we scrape and claw at each other over abstract numbers which provide a mass illusion of wealth, we divide ourselves against each other over ideological differences which would be dwarfed by our unity of reason if only we allowed ourselves to see the latter.

Were you a member of a hypothetical alien race, would you look upon us as a species worthy of moving into the neighborhood?

In all likelihood, the first impulse we would experience upon contact with intelligent extraterrestrials would be to try to destroy them out of fear.

Is it any wonder that we have heard nothing?

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Seems lots of people are up in arms over the proposed building of the Park 51 Community Center, aka the “mosque at Ground Zero”. Of course, this is far from surprising, considering the Islamophobia which has held much of the nation for the last decade.

The people wishing to build the mosque were no doubt aware of the furore which would ensue over this, and it cannot be denied that they were willing to provoke anger. Having said that, if after our near-demolition of Baghdad, a group of American missionaries attempted to build a Christian church there, we would see them as heroes.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves how we justify holding this moral double standard. The 19 hijackers actually involved in the 9/11 incident are hardly going to be worshipping at this mosque.

What would we say of the hypothetical missionaries above? “Despite almost crushing adversity, this brave band of people labored to build a place where Christians could worship in safety and tranquility, a place from which they could bring the local populace to understand that their purpose is not to maim and destroy but to foster peace and understanding.”

How many of our national news outlets are using language such as this to describe the builders of the Ground Zero mosque?

Let us consider for a moment the other establishments in the vicinity: an off-track betting parlor, a Starbucks, a strip club, a McDonald’s, and of course a shitload of street hawkers selling cheap plastic 9/11-themed tchotchkes. If this is to be considered ‘hallowed ground’, as Sarah Palin put it recently, let these also be removed from the vicinity.

Anything else is just pure Islamophobia.

This all comes back to our psychological tendency to see labels. We cannot look at a DeShawn or a Danisha without seeing ‘black’, at a Chihiro or a Chung-Tah without seeing ‘Asian’, at a Faroukh or a Fatima without seeing ‘Arab’.

If you assume a priori that a Mohammed is more likely to tarnish American society than a Masao, Malachi or even Mike, you’re in the label trap.

Regardless of what the President may have to say in favor of it, regardless of what the hysterical wing of the GOP may say against it, regardless of what Jews and Muslims at large may think of it… get out of the label trap and see for yourself.

Allow a small group of people to show you that Islam is not all about evil, and show them in return that you’re not all about prejudice.

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The political news out of Alaska is a lot less amusing today than usual.

A small plane carrying former Senator Ted Stevens (R) and seven others has crashed near the town of Dillingham. A family friend has confirmed that the 86-year-old senator, who served in public office for 60 years, was among the dead.

I never liked Stevens much as a politician; I disagreed with most of his political positions and was no fan of most of his budget appropriations. However, it is still saddening to hear of his passing.

Also, it is always disconcerting to hear of a plane accident causing the death of a public figure; there have been far too many of these for it to be a statistical accident.

Let’s hope that for all of the online mockery surrounding his ‘series of tubes’ comment, the media attempts to treat him with some respect and dignity, for the sake of the friends and loved ones he left behind.

Let us also hope that his former colleagues on both sides of the partisan divide can lay aside the politics of the moment and honor his memory rather than tarnishing it.

Last but not least, let us hope that those who passed along with him are not forgotten.

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Members of the National Surrealist Association protested in Washington DC early Monday morning, bringing local traffic to a standstill. The specific issue at hand was never quite detailed, with possibilities ranging from the color of Mountain Dew to the involvement of the federal government in cricket matches by mail.

Three members of the Association, who referred to themselves as Larry, Curly and Sauron, held an empty picture frame in front of the Capitol building, captioned with the phrase “When is a rhinoceros!”. Others hung thousands of left shoes from the White House fence, singing Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” in a round.
A spokesman for the group wrapped reporters in clingfilm, repeatedly screaming “Climb that beanstalk now, you fuckers!”.
Other than expressing annoyance at the traffic slowdown, however, District residents largely ignored the protest. “It’s actually still much saner than anything that happens INSIDE the Capitol building,” said one. “The only difference is that I’m not paying these guys to do it.”

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As any of my readers can imagine, I’ve been following the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case with a great deal of interest.

This was, of course, the case for overturning California’s Proposition 8. By this time, it will come as news to no one that the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, coming to the conclusion that there is no rational or constitutional basis for denying marriage rights to same sex couples, and indeed that the attempt to do so was unconstitutional in itself.

However, a (slim) majority of California voters supported the proposition in 2008. Does the judge have the right to invalidate the expressed will of the people?

That question, rather than any religious objection, is likely to be central when this case reaches the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legally, however, the answer is “yes”. The Constitution specifically forbids the individual states from enacting laws which deny equal rights to any of its citizens. As such, the proposition was invalid from the moment the ink was dry, and should never have been put to the vote in the first place. The fact that a majority of today’s voters supported it will be irrelevant in the long term, whereas the highest law of the land is designed to stand for ever.

I’d like to congratulate Judge Walker (who is, incidentally, both gay and Catholic) on a meticulously thought-out ruling which applied the rule of law to the proposition without allowing for any non-legal bias, much as the Supreme Court is supposed to (and may yet be called upon to).

Congratulations also to the California couples who have fought for so long against an uncertain future; this is a milestone for all of us, but you will be the ones to feel it most keenly.

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