“Hang Obama!” Is that always racist?

Correlation, causation, race, the President, and hanging

Once upon a time not so long ago, someone on the Internet expressed an opinion. I found my umbrage and took all of it. And, thinking I’m the Deathmonger Whisperer, I took it upon myself to gnaw on another huge leg of futility. I was fresh out of lamb, you see.

As one might gather from the title, the opinion expressed was none too subtle. One might even divine which side of the partisan divide excreted this little gem. Of late, I’ve taken to trying to engage rationally with those with whom I disagree…with tact and diplomacy. I know. I know. “Who are you, and what have you done with Frank?!” It’s only an exercise in futility if I actually hope to persuade someone to change their mind on an issue. Failing that, I’m learning a great many valuable things, not least of which is to vent expletives into the room instead of through my keyboard. It accomplishes just about as much, but it leaves the door open to genuine discussion.

The specific opinion expressed was that Obama is guilty of treason [citation needed] and should be hanged, as per the Constitution. Never minding for a moment that the Constitution only calls for Congress to determine the punishment without expressly stating how it should be carried out, much less that it should be death, much less that it should be capital punishment by hanging, I went with what to me (and a great many others) was the apparent (if not actual) racism implicit in the suggestion. To that end, I replied much as follows: Continue reading

LGBT

Tony Dungy is the Clarence Thomas of football

When he goes to bed tonight, Tony Dungy should offer a prayer of thanks that the US isn’t at the mercy of people like him.

Tony Dungy wouldn’t have drafted Michael Sam. But not because he’s gay! No, no. Because things will happen. You know … things.

Three thoughts.

1: Look! Look! See, Michael Sam is on TV being interviewed about non-football issues. He’s being a DISTRACTION! And why? Because … well, because Tony Dungy is in the media talking about how Sam is a distraction.

Don’t start no distraction, won’t be no distraction. Just saying. Continue reading

Conservatives

American conservatives: some of the most important history you’ve probably missed

Racism or abortion? You decide.

For the sake of history and truth, this might be the most important thing you read in quite a while.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right @ Politico

Short version: evangelical “community organizers” (recognize that dig?) and bearers of false witness initially tried to fire up the right wing evangelical “moral majority” (currently only approximately 26% of the US population…hardly a majority of any kind) in support of racially segregated schools. Patron Saint of the new GOP, Ronnie Reagan, who committed treason to win the 1980 election by interfering with the release of US hostages held by Iran (somehow omitted from this article), trotted out support of racial segregation but got punched in the political junk for it and backed down. Bob Jones University, the school that took the issue all the way to SCOTUS, eventually lost, and with the case any hopes of regaining its tax-exempt status in an 8-1 decision. That’s one helluva SCOTUS decision. The one justice that supported racial segregation? Ronnie’s SCOTUS appointee Renquist. Continue reading

Fear mongering for sex traffick? Surely that’s not what the GOP is about, is it?

I’d like to think even the GOP has limits, but sometimes I have my doubts

Lately the right-wing fear-mongering machine has been making much of news that 16 teen members of MS-13 have been identified in an Arizona border processing center. Let’s assume for a moment that this claim is 100% true. Further, let the curious reader check the Google search results for themselves to see if this is news peculiar to one side of our partisan divide here in the U.S.

There will be bad actors in every sufficiently large crowd. In this case, that’s 3 bad actors (hell, even especially bad) per 10,000 or 0.03% if we go by the commonly reported 52,000 child immigrants between October 2013 and June (less than a year). Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Sinclair Lewis imagines American dictatorship: It can’t happen here … can it?

“More and more, as I think about history…I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system, whatsoever.  But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.” – Doremus Jessup in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here

 

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (image courtesy Goodreads)

It may seem strange that I choose to write about Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian satire, It Can’t Happen Here, for July 4th, the high holy day of the American ideal/experiment. Lewis’s novel is, after all, about the subversion of American democracy into a dictatorship. Worse, that dictatorship, is controlled by the leader of a political party called, presciently enough, The American Corporate State and Patriot Party. If ever someone seemed a political seer trying to warn us to consider the results of our actions, Lewis is that seer and It Can’t Happen Here is his warning. Published in 1935, the novel both reminds us of the complicated economic and political stresses of that time and, in an eerie way, reads (for anyone who has been paying attention over the last decade) like the playbook of – well, of both the “corporate citizen” and “patriot” movements within American politics.

For those who don’t know the work of Lewis (and, sadly, that will be far too many), his stock in trade as a novelist was the closely detailed, wittily sarcastic satirization of American life and culture. His masterpiece, Main Street, looks at the smug conservatism of American small towns; Babbitt is an indictment of bourgeois conformity and the practice of “boosterism” (called by another name today, but as rampant now as when Lewis wrote his novel); Arrowsmith, an inquiry into how science, specifically the practice of medicine, is affected by “expected” definitions of success; Elmer Gantry, his attempt to expose the hypocrisy of too many “big time” religious evangelists;  and Dodsworth, a critique of the wealthy (whom Lewis found intellectually empty and self-absorbed). Continue reading

Media

Amusing ourselves to death: new Sciencegasm meme nails it

The public interest is what the public is interested in, bitches.

Thanks to Facebook, we all see new memes every day. Some of them are funny, some insightful, and a lot are of the preaching to the choir variety, which even though they’re right as rain, they occasionally get tiresome. Like a lot of us, frustrated as hell with the sorry shape of our society and the deteriorating condition of our planet and the sheer hopelessness of mounting an assault against the mountain of cynical, corrupt cash standing between us and a solution, I guess I suffer from bouts of what we’ll call Fact Fatigue. If we’re intelligent, I fear, the truth is too much with us.

Every once in awhile, though, somebody sends one around that’s so on-point you can’t ignore it. Today, for instance, it was my friend Heather Sowards-Valey (she of Fiction 8 fame) sharing this one from Sciencegasm: Continue reading

PTSD and moral injury are as old as mankind. (Image: Public Domain)

Warriors suffered from PTSD in the Middle Ages, too

After the Norman Conquest, bishops devised an ingenious way to deal with the component of PTSD known as moral injury.

PTSD and moral injury are as old as mankind. (Image: Public Domain)

PTSD and moral injury are as old as mankind. (Image: Public Domain)

Often a component of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, moral injury is defined thusly by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing or harming others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death or dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations.

Continue reading

20 years ago today: OJ’s famous ride

Remembering one of the most bizarre moments in American popular culture history.

JFK’s shooting. The Challenger explosion. 9/11. Where were you?

Our history occasionally presents us with events so iconic, tragic, traumatic, or perhaps flat-out weird that we can always tell you where we were when they happened (or when we found out). June 17, 1994 was one such moment for many of us: OJ Simpson’s 60-mile, low-speed chase through LA in the famed white Bronco. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys: is it the tale – or the teller?

Gaiman’s work owes something to Vonnegut, something to Douglas Adams, something to Sir James Fraser, and probably something to Hitchcock - and Monty Python…

I offer the following quote from a Wall Street Journal piece by Lev Grossman I cited last fall in an essay on storytelling and the Modernist tendency to force readers to struggle with artist’s literary experiments:

Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

In an essay about current reading habits and the disappearance of “serious literature,” I offered the following advice from Henry David Thoreau, a serious literature kind of guy:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

At the behest of several friends I’ve been moving away from my stodgy, comfortable literary fiction tastes and trying new writers strongly recommended by family, friends, and colleagues – among these have been the delightful Douglas Adams and the interesting, though not as interesting as I’d hoped, Terry Pratchett.

Neil Gaiman has been an oft mentioned choice  as someone “you really must read, Jim.” And so, having come across a copy of his 2005 novel Anansi Boys at a local second hand book store, I decided to give Gaiman a try. And while I can honestly say it’s a delightful and enlightening novel in many ways, I could not make a case for Anansi Boys as great literature.

The novel revisits characters from Gaiman’s (thus far) magnum opus American Gods.  In this book Mr. Nancy’s (Anansi, a mythical character who is a spider – the weaving of webs of story, communication, ideas is an integral part of the novel) sons, named Charles (called “Fat Charlie” for most of the work) and Spider, discover that they are brothers. This knowledge leads to complications involving embezzlement, murder, and romance. Suffice to say that it all works out in the end – Fat Charlie becomes Charles and discovers that he has some of the magic of a god within himself while Spider, who is part brother, part bother, part doppelganger, part bon vivant (like his father) finds a humanity he didn’t know he had. This realistic part of the narrative is interpolated with African-Caribbean mythology that both provides overview of the “human” story and allows Gaiman to play with magical realism while at the same time gently poking fun at that style of narrative. I am not entirely sure if Gaiman means to poke fun at magical realism. Perhaps he is exploring its possibilities within the fantasy framework. But if he is having a giggle at MR’s expense, I like him the better for it.

Some reviewers have called Anansi Boys a combination of Douglas AdamsP.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python. It’s more – and less – than that. Gaiman has obviously knows his mythology, and much of Anansi Boys provides lesson for readers about non-Western mythologies. He does so, too, in ways that both entertain the reader and that make sense within the narrative and offer gloss to the text that helps readers understand that, for example, the villain is a recurring character who will appear again and again in stories because it is an archetype. This he does always well, sometimes brilliantly – and for the astute reader who grasps the implications of what Gaiman is explaining about good and evil, this glossing infuses the tale with the creepiness of a great fairy tale.

Where the novel is not always pleasing is in the comic “realistic” narrative that drives the entire book. Fat Charlie – who does learn (that he has godlike abilities like his father and brother); who does meet a helper (Daisy Day, a beautiful cop who also becomes his love interest); who does gain a “magic sword” (his father’s Fedora) – who becomes a hero in the best Proppian tradition - is a clear riff on Arthur Dent (with some Bertie Wooster thrown in – likable enough, slightly doltish, maddeningly tolerant of mistreatment despite his protestations otherwise. And Spider owes a good deal to Zaphod Beeblebrox. So there’s that. There are jokes galore (some laugh out loud funny) and silly situations worthy of a Python skit. But it all seems done before. And as well or better elsewhere.

There’s also another problematic element (and maybe this is just me), one that occurs often in work with recurring characters/themes (the dreaded “series” that every science fiction and fantasy author seems intent upon). I spent the last 50 pages or so sensing that Gaiman was “setting up” the next work wherein these characters will appear. Now Gaiman is deft, indeed, a brilliant writer in many ways, and this was subtly and skillfully done. But I’m an astute reader and a pretty clever writer myself. So this bugged me. It was more noticeable in a work from a writer of Gaiman’s reputation – and skill – than it should have been.

Ultimately these flaws seem to me to make Anansi Boys fall short of the giddy heights of a work like Stoner by John Edward Williams. That is not to say that Gaiman is not a brilliant writer and that Anansi Boys is not a superior read. It means this: Neil Gaiman is indeed a wonderful writer and I look forward to reading further in his oeuvre. What it means is that for me, Anansi Boys is not one of those treasures Thoreau mentions above.

But Gaiman may a member be of Thoreau’s “natural and irresistible aristocracy.” Proving that will require, however, further investigation.

ArtSunday: LIterature

Tristan and Isolde: Gottfried von Strassburg is All About the Love…

 Gottfried reminds us that love is complicated – and, we can assume, chemical, too….

Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (image courtesy Goodreads)

Back to  the 2014 reading list again. After taking a break from heavier (and, in one case, more depressing) works to read a little about fly fishing in my home state, I’m back to the sort of “serious” literature you’ve come to know and be bored out of your skulls by that I, ever needing to scratch the scholarly itch, adore wading through. And so we return to medieval literature.

If you remember, the last time we visited this area was to discuss Christine de Pizan’s remarkable The Book of the City of Ladies, a tour de force of proto-feminist argumentation against the deplorable depiction of women in the late 4th-early 15th century (Pizan’s work was published in 1405).  For this essay we jump backwards a couple of hundred years to the early 13th century and look at one of the great courtly/chivalric romances, Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: the South’s stories, demagoguery, history…

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Clansman by Thomas W. Dixon, Jr. (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We leave the 2014 reading list in this essay to consider a classic American novel of dubious repute that I read as a substitute last week when I was traveling and had forgotten my current book from the list.

Sometimes it is easiest – and wisest – to begin with a cliché. So here’s one about the place I am from and love with all my heart:

All Southerners are born storytellers….

This oft repeated claim has, as do all clichés and truisms, its basis in fact. Southerners seem to find in storytelling a needful way to explain the world and how it works. This is not to say that other regions of the United States do not feel this. But Southerners, more than people from any other region of America, are noted for their propensity to offer stories as explanations for “the way things are/were/will be/should be.” Leave it to Southerners, too, to take religion and make that all about storytelling. Continue reading

Jackie Mitchell: the legend of the woman who struck out Ruth and Gehrig

Did a woman really whiff two of the greatest sluggers of all time … back to back? We’ll never know, but it’s plausible.

My buddy Guy Saperstein sent this around last night.

The Woman Who (Maybe) Struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig

One spring day my son came home from school and asked, “Do you know about the girl who struck out Babe Ruth?” Continue reading

Baggy Point

North Devon diary

The Southwest of England is quiet, but it boasts an active cultural life.

Gnomes reading, Gnome Reserve

Gnomes reading, Gnome Reserve

One of the many enjoyable things about living in England is that, no matter where you are, if you drive for an hour you’ll likely end up in a completely different microclimate. So driving from London to North Devon, in the southwest of England bordering on the Irish Sea, can be discombobulating this time of year. Spring in this part of the country is a good two to three weeks behind London. Or London Spring is two to three weeks ahead of where it should be—it depends on your perspective. But being out here for nine days, with nothing to do except for walking and reading, lets me experience early spring for a second time, and it’s just as good the second time around.

Of course, out here they had a very wet and stormy winter—London was relatively peaceful by comparison. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The oyster climbs the Great Chain of Being: Eleanor Clark’s Locmariaquer

“…But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster….” – Geoffrey Chaucer

The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark (image courtesy Goodreads)

Anyone who reads Eleanor Clark’s classic The Oysters of Locmariaquer will come away from the book convinced of two things: 1) cultivating oysters is a complex and difficult task that might well suck the life out of one foolish enough to try to do so; 2) if the people from any place are up to the task of cultivating oysters, it is the Bretons. Clark’s book falls into that interesting category of nonfiction made famous by the great John McPhee. That is, Eleanor Clark, like McPhee, combines meticulous research (there is more in this book than anyone this side of an ichthyologist would want to know about the biology of oysters and the history of human/oyster relations) with personal narrative (there are stories of the lives of Breton villagers who are tied to the oyster industry – or to Brittany – that can move even the most jaded soul).

Of course, Clark antedates McPhee, and perhaps he owes her a debt for combining the scientific and historical with the personal in ways that can engross the reader and make one learn in spite of oneself. After all, Clark won the National Book Award for Nonfiction with this tale of Belon oysters and the Breton people who raise them in 1965, the same year McPhee published his first significant workContinue reading

Columbine High School, April 20, 1999, 11:19am MDT: “Go! Go!”

It’s been 15 years since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire.

I don’t have anything new to say, but I thought that we ought to pause and reflect on that day and all that has transpired in its wake.

Through the years I’ve written about Columbine several times, attempting to make sense of it, perhaps create a bit of context and perspective. The first in this extended series, “Columbine and the Power of Symbols,” which was written shortly after I visited the site a few days later, is still very hard for me to read.

I have compiled the rest of my writings on Columbine here, and invite you to track along with my journey.

So much has changed, so much remains the same.

Kurt Cobain: If you read you’ll judge

He never surrendered.

Let me tell you about Kurt Cobain.

In the fourth grade we had to do these stupid aerobics gym classes, plastic pink green black steps, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” pounding off the gymnasium walls.

Riding in the back seat of my dad’s car was the only time I heard good rock and roll. Maybe because he was my dad. I don’t know. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” was my favorite song.

Until he played a mixtape, windows down flying across the earth in an automobile, with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on it. Continue reading

orestes-pursued-by-furries

What if Russia’s invasion of Crimea is really a post-democracy problem?

The Crimea crisis may feel like a throwback to the Cold War, but it’s actually reflective of 21st century democracy.

ImageDemocracy is defined as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” Despotism is “the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way.”

A child denied any access to sweeties, despite abject pleas to the contrary, is experiencing despotism. A child offered a choice of two sweeties, but not one of the fifty they actually wanted, is experiencing democracy.

History is messy. Continue reading

Welcome to Lullaby Pit: one of the world’s oldest Web sites celebrates its 20 birthday

It was 20 years ago today in Boulder, CO.

Do you remember where you were on April 1, 1994? I do. I was sitting at a computer in an apartment at the corner of Colorado and Foothills in Boulder, launching this really new thing called a “Web site.” Today there are over 932 million of them (and counting) in the world, but at that point there were maybe 2,000.

It was pretty primitive stuff back then: plain text on a white background with some hyperlinks, and if you wanted to do one you had to know html and a bit of UNIX.

Today I pause and look back at Lullaby Pit. If you’re interested in a small moment in Internet history, click here and join me.

CATEGORY: WordsDay

WordsDay: Thomas Jefferson – Benign Anarchist

“I am an Anti-Christ/I am an Anarchist…” – John Lydon 

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Joseph J. Ellis’s excellent study of the character of perhaps the most beloved and certainly the most enigmatic member of that group that we think of as the Founding Fathers, is called, aptly, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Ellis’s work is not a biography of Jefferson (he readily admits that there are thorough multi-volume treatments of  Jefferson’s life that are, for all intents and purposes, definitive). Ellis tries – and in large part succeeds – in pursing another, certainly elusive, goal: an explication of Jefferson’s character.

Like any human, Jefferson was a person of contradictions and inconsistencies – as Ellis illuminates in this work. What originally attracted Ellis to this project, it seems, was not the desire to point out Jefferson’s flaws but instead a sincere desire to understand how, in spite those inconsistencies and contradictions, Jefferson has long been and remains (with the possible exception of Lincoln) the most popular icon of American political thought.

Continue reading