Monday, June 29, 2009

This is Your Life and It's Ending 30 Years at a Time

When I was in the fifth grade my teacher had us fill out a getting-to-know you survey at the beginning of the school year. Among questions like "What is your favorite color?" and "Who is your best friend?" there was another: "What is your ideal age?" I put down thirty as my answer. As a pre-teen this seemed like a good answer. Thirty isn't old but it would be old enough to be well past school and be leading an established life.

I had forgotten about this survey for a long time but with the countdown--and now arrival--of my thirtieth birthday, the question has given me pause. I refuse to treat my birthday as a funeral; this is and should be the celebration of my life. That means I take time to enjoy some of my favorite things: friends and family, music, medium-cooked steak, a bottle of Guinness, the film Jaws, the company of women.

But as I have gotten older, and especially upon hitting the three-decade mark, my birthdays have become a little more reflective. When I turned twenty-five I realized that life can be divided into thirds; life expectancy for men is about seventy-five years and the first twenty-five years are spent in training as a student, as an apprentice, as a citizen, as an intellectual, and so on. It is between the ages of twenty-five and fifty that most people will accomplish whatever will be their life's work whether it be art, research, family, or community service. From age fifty to seventy-five, life is generally spent working on the foundation established in the middle third of life. It doesn't mean that we stop working in the last third or we cannot accomplish new things. Some people are late bloomers, with their life's work accomplished in the twilight of their lives. But at this point we are often expanding upon whatever base we have established.

So, now at age thirty, I am looking at where I have come and where I am going. In some respects I have accomplished quite a bit; I'm educated and gainfully employed and I've even earned a few awards along the way. But on the other hand I have to admit that I've lost track of some of the long term goals that I set for myself. These are the things that will make a dent in the world beyond my immediate experience, the things that will define who and what I am, the things that will carry on after me. Like a hiker on a trail, this is a good point to take my bearings, correct course, and keep moving.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Army of God

When former President Bush called the War on Terror a "crusade," a lot of people winced at the implication of the word. But now it appears that he may have been very accurate. According to this piece in Newsweek by Kathryn Joyce, US military chaplains have become proselytizers and are going about distributing Bibles throughout the Muslim world with the intent of conversion.
Among the "endorsing agencies" is CFGC, which represents a conglomeration of independent Pentecostal churches outside established denominations. The group was accepted as a chaplain-endorsing agency by the Department of Defense in 1984, two years after it first applied. Since 1984, MRFF charges, Ammerman's agency has violated numerous codes that govern chaplaincies, including a constant denigration of other religions, particularly Islam, Judaism, mainline Protestantism and Catholicism, but also non-Pentecostal evangelical churches. In a 2008 sermon, Ammerman described a CFGC chaplain at Fort Riley, Kans., who demanded the 42 chaplains below him "speak up for Jesus" or leave his outfit. In a video for an organization called the Prophesy Club, CFGC chaplain Maj. James Linzey called mainstream Protestant churches "demonic, dastardly creatures from the pit of hell," that should be "[stomped] out." But the primary target of CFGC's ire is Islam. A 2001 CFGC newsletter asserted that the real enemy of the U.S. wasn't Osama bin Laden, but Allah, whom the newsletter called "Lucifer." A 2006 issue argued that all Muslim-Americans should be treated with suspicion, as they "obviously can't be good Americans." In a 2008 sermon, Ammerman called Islam "a killer religion" and Muslims "the devil."

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Marriage Trap

Sandra Tsing Loh, of The Atlantic, has written a piece on marriage, using her own divorce as well as the domestic lives of her friends, to argue that marriage is outmoded and out of sync with modern life. The piece reads a bit like a Sex and the City episode; all of her friends are white collar professionals who earn six figure incomes and they gather together for a weekly Girls Night, which of course includes wine and martinis. But there is some substance here, and Loh manages to capture a snapshot of contemporary marriage that does not bode well for its future. Consider this scene when one of Loh's friends, who Loh and company consider to have the perfect marriage, admits her dissatisfaction:
Leaning forward heavily across the bar, she swirls her glass and huskily drops the bomb: “I have to tell you — since we talked, I too have started thinking divorce.” “No!” we girls exclaim. With a stab of nausea, I suddenly feel as though now that I’ve touched my pool of friends with my black pen, a cloud of ink is enveloping them.

“You can’t!” Renata cries. “Ian — he’s the perfect father! The perfect husband! Look at this … kitchen!”

It’s true: the kitchen is a prime example of Ian’s contribution to their union. He based the design of the remodel on an old farmhouse kitchen they saw during their trip to Tuscany, and of course — carpentry being another of his hobbies — he did all the details himself, including building the shelves. One of the room’s marvels is how ingeniously and snugly all the specialty kitchenware is housed — the hanging copper pots, the garlic press, the mandolin, the lemon zester, the French press coffeemaker …

“Ian won’t have sex with me,” Rachel says flatly. “He has not touched my body in two years. He says it’s because I’ve gained weight.” Again, we stoutly protest, but she goes on. “And he thinks I’m a bad mother — he says I’m sloppy and inattentive.”

The list of violations unfurls. Last week, Rachel mistakenly gave the wrong medication to the dog, a mistake Ian would never make. She also forgot to deglaze the saucepan and missed the window to book the family’s Seattle flights on Expedia, whose chiming bargains Ian meticulously tracks.

Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.

Rachel had even asked Ian point-blank: “Do you want a divorce?” And Ian said absolutely not — they must show discipline and work at the marriage (again with the work!), since any domestic upset could negatively affect the boys, who were now facing a particularly fraught time at their new school, where they have an extraordinarily challenging roster of extracurricular activities and a quarterly testing schedule.
What I take from this (admittedly one-sided) story is that marriage has become a prison instead of a partnership. In Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club and its film adaptation (which I still think is the finest and most accurate portrayal of manhood in contemporary society) the narrator has become so emasculated by consumerism and the daily grind of life that he and other males have resorted to beating each other up to recover their manhood. It's an exaggerated version of what has happened in this excerpt.

Loh's conclusion is that people should avoid marriage. I don't know if that is true; not all married couples are miserable. But maybe we should stop looking at marriage as some kind of necessary or natural outcome for individuals or couples. Marriage grew out of a biological necessity to reproduce and raise children and later evolved into a social system for conferring property. Now that marriage and child raising are not mutually inclusive and women are no longer used as pawns of their father's estate, we have to ask just what people are getting married for. There are obvious legal reasons (the ones gay rights activists are working for now) but beyond that the answer may be buried within Loh's article. She references a study by Andrew Cherlin, who noted that there is a disconnect between our professed values and our actions:
In World Values Surveys taken at the turn of the millennium, fewer Americans agreed with the statement “Marriage is an outdated institution” than citizens of any other Western country surveyed (compare the U.S.’s tiny 10 percent with France’s 36 percent). We are also more religious — more Americans (60 percent) say they attend religious services once a month than do the Vatican-centric Italians (54 percent) or, no surprise, the laissez-faire French (12 percent). At the same time, Americans endure the highest divorce rate in the Western world. In short, although we say we love religion and marriage, Cherlin notes, “religious Americans are more likely to divorce than secular Swedes.”
The answer seems to be that we are stuck in a nostalgic bear trap in which we expect that once the wedding bells ring, the vows are spoken, and the rings are exchanged, we will live happily ever after. And of course that's not true.

So how do we fix this? Can we fix it? Loh might be accurate in her choice of words: avoid marriage. Don't rush into it. Try to live without it. Cohabitate with significant others rather than tying the knot. Don't make a big deal of it if you do. And lower your expectations of partnership.

I believe this will be easier for men to do than women, since men are generally socialized to be reluctant to enter marriage anyway. That means it is up to the women to take this bull by the horns. Young women in particular need to stop fetishizing their weddings and making life goals beyond walking down the aisle. Otherwise we'll continue to propagate an institution that is dissolved half of the time and even when it continues, the individuals involved are unhappy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Baby Be-Bop Banned

Francesca Lia Block, an award-winning author of young-adult books (the "Weetzie Bat" series among them), has known for a while now that one of her novels, "Baby Be-Bop" is at the center of a controversy in West Bend, Wis.

A few days ago, she found out that it might be burned at the stake. "Baby Be-Bop" is on a list of titles that a local group calling itself the West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries objects to seeing in the public library. In February, the group asked the library's board to remove a page of recommended titles about gay and lesbian issues for young people (including "Baby Be-Bop") from the library's Web site. Then they demanded that the books be moved from the youth section of the library and placed with the adult collection, "to protect children from accessing them without their parents' knowledge and supervision."
All of this at first sounded like the usual banned books nonsense, the kind that eventually subsides when the groups involved find another cause to be outraged about. But in this case the protesters found ways to subvert the system:
When the board refused to immediately comply with the requests of West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, the town's common council voted not to renew the contracts of four recalcitrant board members . . . Now an outfit called the Christian Civil Liberties Union has gotten in on the act, suing the library for, according to the West Bend Daily News, "damaging" the "mental and emotional well-being" of several individuals by displaying "Baby Be-Bop" in the library. Since attempts to label the novel as "pornographic" have failed, the (somewhat shadowy) CCLU hopes to brand it as hate speech, in part because it contains the word "nigger." The complainants, described as "elderly" by the newspaper, claim that Block's novel is "explicitly vulgar, racial [sic] and anti-Christian." They want the library's copy not only removed but publicly burned.
In this story there are a couple of important points to be taken. First, protests don't always just go away and censorship movements can win, especially if no one stands up to them. It is often the case (and I have done this as well) that those of us who care about freedom and free discourse often roll our eyes and ignore calls for censorship from local groups, believing that if we just ignore them, the protesters will go away. And sometimes they do. But when calls for censorship are organized and active, as they are in West Bend or as they were in the lead up to the Proposition 8 vote in California, we should be vocal in our opposition.

Second, most of us can name our elected officials working at the federal level and we often make a big deal about their actions and decisions, but what goes on at the local level is largely unnoticed. Consider how much time local television news casts and even local newspapers (which are dropping like flies) spend on local news. Coverage is rarely in depth and when we go to vote for local positions the names on the ballot are often unrecognizable. But these local positions matter; these people are in a very direct position to influence our lives. And further, when someone enters the political system they don't always stay local. In the mid-1990s Barack Obama and Sarah Palin got involved in their communities as an organizer and as a city council member, respectively. Look where they are now. And now imagine if the members of the West Bend Christian Civil Liberties Union were put in charge of nuclear weapons and health care.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Puritan Cocktail

I just finished reading the book America Set Free by Count Hermann Keyerling. There were lots of intersting quotes to pull from the book, but I thought this one was fun:
I wish some one who really knows would write both the history and the psychology of the cocktail. It certainly is one of the most extraordinary inventions every made. Not only that it numbs instead of stimulating—its essence is the mixture of the incongruous and the incompatible. I think there is a very profound intention underlying this: the cocktail is intended to do harm and not really please the taste. It is, in a word, a somewhat eccentric expression of Puritanism.

A Generation of the Educated Poor

On, Amy Benfer writes about the cost of financing a college education, and how increasing costs and student loan interest have created a generation of graduates who are trapped in an economic rat wheel:
Everyone benefits when the population of a university, especially the best ones in the nation, are made up of the kids who are there because they earned their place based on their own work, not the education or income of their parents. This is democracy 101, folks . . . But those graduates who have decided to forgo more lucrative fields for social service have learned the hard way that no good deed goes unpunished. Income-based deferrals and forebearances may provide temporary relief from monthly payments, but meanwhile, the interest accumulates at rates "ultimately so costly as to amount to usury," as Robert Appelbaum, lawyer and founder of the Facebook group Cancel Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy, pointed out yesterday in the Times. He availed himself of a forebearance for his law school loans while working in the public sector, then "watched as the amount I owed ballooned by nearly $20,000 during the time I served the community." As Appelbaum points out, we've created a generation of the "educated poor, with student loan debt making ever more college graduates and young professionals unable to buy a house or start a family or a small business."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Joan Walsh on The O'Reilly Factor editor Joan Walsh went on The O'Reilly Factor to confront Bill O'Reilly face to face about his part in creating the atmosphere of hate that may have lead to the murder of George Tiller.

After her appearance, Walsh wrote a reflection on her appearance. She presents an interesting dilemma; on the one hand she could have skipped the offer to come on the show, but that would have been rather cowardly. On the other hand, if she came on the program, it was very likely to end in a shouting match that might be edited in post production to make her look like an idiot or something worse.

I think the high or low point was when he shrieked at me, "You have blood on your hands!" At one point he also either told me to "Shut up" or "Be quiet," I can't remember. (If I'm wrong about that, when I see the clip, I'll correct it. UPDATE: Actually, he shouted "Stop talking!") He called me "vile." I think I said he was vile, too. There were a couple of "I know you are but what am I?" moments that I'm not totally proud of. It was a kaleidoscopic nightmare, a TV acid trip, and I don't do acid. It almost seems like O'Reilly does, but I don't think so. The man is driven by demons. God bless him and save him.
I credit Walsh for her decision to go on the show; she's right that if she declined she would have been acting like a punk. Did she convince anybody or move the debate forward? It's unlikely that the viewers of The O'Reilly Factor are looking for an honest debate and more likely that they are looking to watch a vocal feminist get verbally pied on the air. So, no. But even if it is a losing battle within the context of the show, the act of standing up to people like O'Reilly is worthwhile because it interjects the opposing argument into the airwaves and allows it to be isolated and posted on blogs like this one.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Right Wing Blitzkrieg?

Are right wing conservatives feeling so marginalized that they are now acting out violently?

Today a lone gunman linked to a white supremacist group killed a security guard at the Holocaust museum. It is apparently an isolated incident, but according to this article, the number of hate groups in America is now at an all time high and hate crimes against Hispanics have gone up forty percent between 2003 and 2007. The piece quotes Mark Potok, Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, as attributing the rise to the recession, the election of the nation’s first black president, and the immigration debate.

Two weeks ago, the murder of Dr. George Tiller got major press, as did the alleged killer's recent claim to the Associated Press that "there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal."

The ramblings of a lone madman? Perhaps. But as this report from The Rachel Maddow Show indicates, acts of violence and intimidation against clinics offering reproductive services have increased over the past six months:

Here are some other items we know:
I don't think we are seeing any kind of coordinated effort. But clearly there is enough gun powder and anxiety in the culture to create an explosive situation.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Fallujah the Video Game

Newsweek has a story about a new video game called Six Days in Fallujah, being developed by Atomic Games, in which the player takes on the role of a Marine and fights his or her way through a recreation of the actual battle.

The battle in Fallujah was among the bloodiest in the Iraq War, and the families of the soldiers killed in combat are understandably upset by the idea that their son or daughter's death will be turned into entertainment. Predictably, the company is arguing that they are creating the game to honor the troops who died (that is the default answer for any commercial exploitation of military deaths) and Atomic has worked closely with military officials who were there to guarantee authenticity.

There is a lot to comment upon here. My initial surprise and disgust at Atomic creating a game about Fallujah was rooted in my overall revulsion about the way this war has, and still is, being conducted. The war has largely been a gold mine for war-profiteering companies like Blackwater and Halliburton, and Atomic is acting similarly.

On the other hand, is this really any different from war films like Saving Private Ryan, which presented the horrors of D-Day as entertainment? Perhaps at the most basic level it is similar, but a narrative film is assembled in such a way that, if successful, it brings the audience to some sort of epiphany about themselves or about the subject. A game, by its very design, turns survival and killing into objectives to be completed in order to win. This removes any awareness or acknowledgement of how the battle fits into the larger scheme of the war or to the politics of the region, to say nothing of the ethical or moral implications of the battle, the Iraq conflict, or of war itself.

To again play devil's advocate, completing violent objectives irrespective to political or ethical implications is exactly what soldiers are expected to do and in that respect the game is giving its players that experience. And further, there was a media blackout of what happened in Fallujah and the public still does not quite realize just what happened there. Any telling, whether in game or narrative form, can serve as a document that will preserve the event and enlighten us.

But I again return to the importance of the medium that the battle of Fallujah is being put into: a video game. A video game cannot and should not be taken as a substitute for being on the battlefield, and it is a valid concern that a gamer will think that he or she understands what it means to be a soldier, to have faced death, to have taken life, and to have the lives of his or her comrades taken by playing a video game. To be fair, I should say that I have never been a soldier or in a war zone. But I have played Guitar Hero and I can confidently say that I don't know what it is like to be a rock star or a musician.

And this gets to what I think is the deeper, more important issue to Newsweek's story: the mediums through which we come to know about the world often shape our understanding of the world. This video game might be able to tell us about the layout of the city of Fallujah or how the United States waged its campaign there, but what is important is understanding what the battle of Fallujah means. A video game, by its very design, is likely to communicate to its players in terms of objectives completed, making the reasons for (and possible arguments against) the battle or the Iraq War overall, invisible to the viewer.

Something I took to heart in graduate school was the idea that stories are a way for storytellers to say "This is what life is like." Whether it is a grand political idea enmeshed into the narrative or just allowing the good guy win in the end, stories are political. These ideas work on our audiences, who will largely accept or reject stories based on whether or not the truth of a work is perceived as authentic. This is true of all forms of art, video games included.

Of course, one of the effects of art is that it, when it is a part of a larger system of images and ideas, it forms a fabric of what we call "normal" or "reality." And in Newsweek's article, this brief mention of art-imitating-life-imitating-art blew my mind:
Capt. Read Omohundro, who led a Marine company in Fallujah and lost 13 men there, acts as a kind of quality-control manager for Six Days . . . Omohundro says many of his troops would play shooter games on their Xboxes or other consoles after patrolling all day in Iraq. "It seems pretty natural to me that these guys would want to have their war documented in a videogame."
This cyclical image of violent behavior is bizarrely fascinating but also a testament to how we have become a video game culture. From Guitar Hero to Twitter to Youtube to Second Life, we have created avatars for our entire experience of life, replacing the earthy and the physical with the digital, which brings with it an entirely new understanding of reality, one where privacy is nonexistent, where life is experienced in soundbites and montage, where our communication with other human beings is conducted through the fragmented language of text messages, where everyone wants to be a rock star but no one wants to learn to play guitar, and where our self-worth is measured in Google hits. We are, to paraphrase a Marilyn Manson song, mechanical animals.

To be clear, Six Days in Fallujah is nothing all that new. There have been economic exploitations or retellings of military campaigns going back to ancient times. But now, in the context of the digital age, this video game does stand as a sign post of where our sense of reality has arrived: a place where politics, art, and commerce boil together in a post-modern soup.

I wonder if an Abu Ghraib video game will be next.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Olbermann: Fox News Complicit in Murder

In the following video segment, Keith Olbermann makes the case that Fox News is in part responsible for the murder of George Tiller, an abortion doctor who was gunned down in the sanctuary of his church:

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I have steadfastly argued that incitement is not a valid argument for restricting freedom of speech. Even in the classic case of shouting fire in a crowded theater, it is incumbent upon the listener to exercise their personal responsibility and not stampede out of the space with disregard for the safety of others. If incitement were really credible, then anyone could use incitement from others as an excuse for illegal behavior.

However, I think Olbermann is onto something here. If a group of people are given misinformation about an individual, such as accusations of murder or child molestation, and are characterized as an imminent threat to the community, it should come as no surprise that this person faces violence and discrimination. With that, we can argue that those who fan the flames of fanaticism do bear some ethical (if not legal) responsibility.

What Fox News reported was, at least at the most basic level, factually true; Dr. Tiller did perform late term abortions. But the way it was reported, comparing him to Hitler, nicknaming him Tiller the Killer, and insinuating that he had performed illegal abortions, violates any credible concept of journalistic integrity.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Confession of Reverend Weakland

As a native of southeast Wisconsin and having come from a Catholic background, the revelations in the memoir of Reverend Weakland, the former archbishop of the Milwaukee area diocese, have been rather interesting to observe. In his book, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, Weakland comes out of the closet as a homosexual and admits to aiding and abetting sex offenders within the clergy.

The admission of homosexuality is not a big revelation; as a Catholic priest, his sexual orientation ought to be irrelevant because he is supposed to keep it in his pants anyway. Of course he couldn't and he didn't, and as Weakland retired from his post as archbishop, there were allegations that he had used church money to pay off his gay lover for silence.

But this second revelation is much more interesting as it reveals just how coldly naive the church was and is about sexuality. According to Weakland, he believed that the victims of sexual abuse would forget or "grow out of it."

Weakland's claims of naivety are coming under criticism, but if he did in fact believe this (and that is credible given the admissions made by other priests involved in sexual abuse) it gives a lot of insight into why this issue was able to snowball the way that it did and how ill equipped they were at dealing with these kinds of issues. This also parallels nicely with my earlier post about Reverend Alberto CutiƩ and his romantic relationship with a woman. Christianity broadly and Catholicism specifically have trouble with the notion of love because within this religious tradition love has been used as a prison instead of a framework.