Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why Do They Hate America?

This is damn good. And she can sing.

Too bad she's a non-real American music-redistributionist who pals around with piano-playing moose.

Check Your Sources

This is why it's so important to teach kids in high school and college how to find, quote, and attribute sources...and how to hold others accountable for the accuracy of their research.

I know it's only Ann Coulter, but it's a good object lesson:

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann histrionically described Todd's hoax as "a narrative straight out of Reconstruction-era, race-based fear-mongering: a black man, 6-foot, 4-inches, attacking, sexually assaulting, fondling, mutilating a young white woman." His expert pontificator on race was The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, who said the Pittsburgh hoax was "the blood libel against black
men concerning the defilement of the flower of Caucasian womanhood. It's been with us for hundreds of years and, apparently, is still with us."

Okay, let's go to the videotape. Here is the actual Olbermann report, with Robinson's guest punditry. As any sixth grader would be able to interpret, neither man believes in the incident--in fact, this show aired after the incident had been revealed as a hoax. They are discussing an accusation that the McCain camp had pushed the racial assualt story before the police had even released a report of their own. They are not reacting to the incident credulously and with outrage. Their anger is directed at the cynical, manipulative pols who are trying to play on ancient racial fears.

This is why they taught you to do your homework, people. Don't just skip to the answers. Sometimes, the answers lie.

Plus ça change, plus ça le même chose

...which is just an elitist (i.e., French) way of saying, "same old, same old."

Here's a map of projected presidential voting, next Tuesday:

And here's a map of Union-supporting vs. Confederacy-supporting states, circa 1861:

The song remains the same...except for those damned Dakotas and their neighbors.

All thanks to Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic Monthly for making the comparison.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Higher Education

See the college debate blow-up below, unless you have issues with strong language.

The two people "arguing" are, by the way, college debate coaches. Professors. People with doctorates. Just so you know.

The comments below the clip on YouTube claim that what this video is all about is racism or reverse racism.

Interesting. For me, it's about what "debate" has decayed into, even on our college campuses. And it's about how a "professor" carries him (and her)self in public, as a model of the life of the mind and the pursuit of intellectual inquiry. But that's just me.

Clearly, whatever set this thing off was a big deal, and led to high emotions. By the end of the video, someone trying to make a point about it all is crying. I grant that this was hot.

But isn't a university--and a formal debate--supposed to be a place where hot issues of great import can be dissected and analyzed rationally, somewhat coolly...and with a level of maturity that would exclude, say, mooning your opponent?

Or is everything--everything--from talking with your classmates to formal debate to TV news to presidential campaigns --is everything in our public life now Kindergarten?

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Gates of Repentence

In my twenties, I used to go off into the woods somewhere at Yom Kippur and try to reflect in some place of awe and wonder on the year that had just passed--a waterfall or a mountaintop, or something like that. I didn't belong to any temple, and was pretty disaffected from organized religion in general. I had gone back once or twice out of feelings of guilt and responsibility, only to sit in the very back, among strangers, not knowing any of the Hebrew and wishing that I could have a Genuine Experience of...something.

So...the woods. I would drive up into the North Georgia mountains (I was living in Atlanta at the time), the base of the Appalachians. It was terrain that reminded me of what passed, in my life, for sacred space--the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where I had spent the summers of my childhood. I would stay overnight in a bed and breakfast near a state park, and set out, early in the morning, for a hike. The isolation of the drive and the night was a nice break from the chaos and noise of my life back in town, full of the usual twenty-something drama and angst. By morning, I would be used to the quiet. And I would set out for a walk, breathing in the mountain air, watching the light filtering through the leaves, and hearing nothing human anywhere near me.

When I got to wherever I was going, I would stop, and sit, and recite the shema quietly to myself. And then I would talk--quietly, under my breath, but audibly. Having had the time and space to think through the past year, I was ready. So I talked through all of the mistakes and screw-ups and near-misses I could remember, and vowed to do better in the coming year. And then I would head back to my car, and back to the city.

I haven't done that for many years. Now, with a wife and two children, I belong to a temple and I go to services. I know the Hebrew better than I did in my twenties, and I know enough people in the congregation not to feel a stranger. But still, I wait for a moment of genuine religious feeling. And still, I find it missing.

At our congregation's Kol Nidre service, the evening service that begins Yom Kipuur, two cellos play the central tune as a duet, separating the two singings of the prayer. It is beautiful and haunting--and it is the one truly evocative and emotional moment of the holiday for me.

I am a Reform Jew, and it is a 100+ year old tradition that was started as a reaction against mysticism and mumbo-jumbo and outdated rituals. But in far too many cases, it left us with dry, lifeless services, where we say the same thing three times (spoken in Hebrew, then spoken in English, then sung in Hebrew). Why so much repetition? Well, probably because my grandparents' generation banished Hebrew, and my parents' generation brought it back, but without bothering to ensure that my generation learned it. So we do the Hebrew because we think it's right, and we do the English so that we can understand it. And then the cantor sings it, so that...well, I guess so that the cantor can keep his or her job.

And in the cause of pluralism and progressive politics, the words have too often been stripped of any power. We recite a prayer called al chet, to enumerate our wrongdoings as a community. But instead of saying "we," (as in "we have lied,") our prayerbook now says "some of us." Because, you know, maybe I didn't, or maybe you didn't, and why should we blame everyone?

Well, because that's the point. We're confessing as a community.

And one of the Rotten Things in this prayer, according to our prayerbook, is something like (I don't have the book in front of me) "some of us engaged in xenophobia." What's next? "Some of us were not as tolerant of the differently abled and the weight-challenged as we should have been, to encourage self-esteem"? I don't know what the original Hebrew was, but I'm betting it was something like, "We have hated the stranger in our midst." Now that's something with some real meat--something to feel bad about and try to remedy.
I mean, seriously, people, what is ritual without a little poetry?

I have sacrificed religion for churchiness, and it's a shame. I would like to find my way back to the religion. I've tried, half-heartedly, once or twice in recent years. But going for a quick walk in the park, while still embedded in one's crazy life, doesn't quite do it. It's hard to find the time and the space, in a life smothered in obligation.

But maybe next year. For now, there are, at least, the cellos.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debates Are Pointless. Debates Are Not Even Debates.

I watched as much of the town-hall-y debate as I could stand, which involved a precise mathematical calculation of when I was going to pass out, minus an hour to watch House (yeah, it was a rerun. Who cares? I have ten of them saved, thanks to the USA channel's eternal House marathon). I got to see McCain call Obama "That one," and, really, that was enough for me.

Am I the only voter in the country who is tired of presidential candidates using these forums to score points off each other, rather than explain what they think needs to be done? I'm so tired of the "But he voted 120% of the time for blah blah blah," or "And my opponent failed to blah blah blah." Enough. He's a liar and a spinner and a hack. You, alone, stand between us and ruin. Point taken. Move on.

And am I really, truly meant to believe that these two gentlemen (who, by the way, keep telling us how often they work "across the aisle") cannot and do not agree on ANYTHING, EVER? It's absurd. I know they do. I curse the handlers on both sides for forcing their puppets to pretend that there is no common ground, no zone of agreement. How I would have loved either candidate to have said (perhaps on climate change), "We agree on this one, and we look forward to working together, regardless of what job either of us ends up having, come January."

Obama tried during his nomination speech. He said lovely things about how the issues that we obsess over in campaigns are, by and large, issues where common ground is available. We can find common ground on abortion, on gun control, on gay rights. Most of us actually live there, in a sensible middle-ground. But politics is not about coming together to solve problems. That's policy. And we don't do that anymore.

Also, I'd like to institute a police light and siren controlled by the moderator, for use whenever a candidate refuses to answer a question, like when neither Fine Gentleman was willing to say whether health care in this country should be treated as a commodity. Of course they didn't want to answer it--I get that. And I get why--because it would force them to talk about health insurance companies, and whether they should continue to play such an enormous role in raking in cash, raising costs, and screwing up our care. Do providers of health care deserve to make a living? Of course they do. Is it absolutely required that we have a middle-man sitting between them and us, as consumers? One would think that a National Health Care Debate would raise a question like that. But one would be wrong.

And, finally, how are events like this--tightly controlled, narrowly defined, and negotiated to the point of suffocation--supposed to give us insight into anything relevant? All we get are repetitions of what we already know, to reinforce our previously held opinions about everything. I watch that stupid approval meter on CNN, and when McCain speaks, Republicans are happy, and when Obama speaks, Democrats are happy, and so what? I know that, thanks to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, we've come to believe that our presidents must be protected from spontaneous interactions with the public or the press, but come on. Must we coddle these candidates like infants?

You know what I want? I want the Thunderdome (two men enter, one man leaves. And Tina Turner as moderator). But since I can't have that, I'd settle (happily) for a non-mediated, non-negotiated free-for-all, with anyone able to ask anything, and no time limits, and genuine argument between the candidates to see what they say and how they react as real people put on the spot, and (please, God) plentiful boo-ing from the crowd. And perhaps a little dramatic waving of pitchforks, just to keep them honest.

Please? Once?