Saturday, August 20, 2005

America, the Idea!

Who knows, maybe I am a blowhard who is expert at pointing out all that is wrong with the world but fail to offer a realistic solution. I will tell you this much, though. There are a lot of people out there who can accurately state the flaws with our current cultural path, but very few can point to an easy fix all cure.

I was not attempting to be trite in my diagnosis of our failing culture. By saying that no one is special, it is my way of saying that everyone is special regardless of material worth, education or celebrity status. When I complain that there is no social responsibility ingrained in our society, it is my way of saying that people want the best for their neighbors. If for no other reason then it makes their own house more valuable. Most Americans wish no ill on others, but we are a very self-absorbed society. It is a by-product of how our country was founded. We are unique in the sense that the United States is the only country on Earth founded on the premise of self-determination, liberty, equality, justice and other such freedoms. Think about it. Many nations in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world have come to embrace these notions, but none were founded with these beliefs ingrained in the national character. The French came to adopt the philosophy of liberte, egalite, and fraternite, but France was not founded on these principles. Likewise, Britain’s last written constitution was the Magna Carte in 1215. Obviously, no one would argue that the United Kingdom is not an enlightened and free society, but the nation was not founded on these premises.

America is one of the world’s great experiments and for over 200 years it has been, generally speaking, an enormous success. The central premises found in our Constitution ensure the rights of all. And while we have failed in the history of our country to apply these rights equitably to all Americans and our immigrant population, we do make progress every day of every year. Our history is full of mistakes, but for hook or for crook they are our mistakes and as societies go, ours are fairly innocuous.

Our nation has been a success because it affords people the right to ask hard questions about our values and our core principles. President Ronald Reagan once invoked the classic adage that America, the idea, is a shining city on a hill. America is more an idea than a country. Certainly we are a melting pot of cultures. We have not one state religion but many. We have not one official language but many. And more important than all else, we have not one set of values, but many, founded on many diverse cultural foundations. The thing that we all share is the idea that is America. It is the idea of equal opportunity. It is the idea that everyone regardless of cosmetic differences shares the belief that “greatness is a road leading toward the unknown.” Sorry to quote Charles de Gaulle, but he said it best. He evoked this phrase to describe the greatness that he saw in France and the French people, but I believe that it is just as suitable a description of American greatness. America’s real strength is that it is a rudderless ship sailing always forward, following no path and seeking no specific end. Not one person can tell you what America will be like in 10 years, let alone 100 years.

As such, all we have is our values. All we have is each other, in spite of our difference, in spite of selfish belief in self-determination, America binds us together, and many of us thinking that America, the idea, is wounded by arrogance and belief of ideological superiority. Our nation was once pure and free of the imperial shackles that bound Europe almost as much as it bound their colonial territories. This imperialism made European claims of freedom and justice ring hollow. For certainly, how cold Europe truly embrace these guiding principles if they did not afford to all of their peoples.

No, America is now the imperial power on Earth, exporting not our legal and political control, but our ideology and culture. If American style democracy is good for us, it must be good for Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries in the developing world. The main difference between European and American imperialism is that Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were interested in economic superiority, the world over. America already has economic superiority and we achieved it by growing internally and then unleashing our economic might on the world. The way we hope to maintain that superiority is by forcing our consumer-driven culture on the world.

Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times several weeks ago that France and other nations have taken a different approach to economic expansion. They willingly sacrifice a bit of economic growth in favor of societal and familial strength. The French, he points out earn less money yet live better than Americans, on average. Why is that? It is not because the French are any smarter than us. (Though before you snicker, nor are they any dumber.) Perhaps France has achieved a societal maturity that we have not. Perhaps France and most European nations have been around long enough to realize that there is more to life than superiority. Or perhaps since Europe is no longer the defining power in the world it frees them up to focus on other goals.

I love America the idea. I love everything about this country. I love traveling around this country to experience all of the regional cultures that it has to share with the world. I believe that this nation is full of great people. I take them to task for short-comings not because I wish to see it fall. I do so because I hope in so doing it may never fall.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

You’re not your khakis!

Some people don’t like being brow beaten over how lazy and apathetic our culture is. It makes us uncomfortable because we all know it is the truth, whether we admit it or not. They say I should do something about it instead of “bitching” constantly as one anonymous reader put it. You are right dear phantom reader. I should do something about it and I do. I don’t watch reality television. I never have and never will. I choose to lead by example. I choose not to fall in with the lowest common denominator. I choose to focus on television which does have redeeming artistic or educational value. In addition, I choose not to read crap magazines, unless I am in the doctor’s waiting area and there is nothing else at hand. I choose my books carefully, I am a snob about movies and music, and I absolutely never watch network news. I only watch cable news to educate myself about what the mainstream sees on a daily basis.

Any derivation from this strict pop-culture diet is done only in an attempt to understand the appeal on the mainstream. I don’t get it. I cannot fathom the appeal. In fact, I am the most un-hip person you are likely to ever meet. I am not cool, stylish or any of the other pimply hyperboles that you can come up with. And I’m ok with that. Make no mistake about it, I am not special, I am not individualistic. I don’t want to stand out, because I realize that is a fruitless pursuit. With over six billion people on this planet, individuality is a pipe-dream.

My personal take on popular culture is similar to what Henry Rollins says: “There are no dumb people, just dumb [television] shows”. For us to say that this crap is what we want is a cop out. It isn’t what we want, I refuse to accept that. It is just all that we are given. So how do we get out of this pickle? I honestly don’t have an answer, and that is not for lack of thought on the matter. I have some ideas though.

We are caught in a catch-22. We have designed a culture for ourselves which punishes you for not buying in to the hype. The hype expresses an urgency to be an individual while defining what that individuality really entails. We are not cool if we don’t have the new style of jeans, the newest hip album by 50-Cent or the Youngbloodz, and we don’t watch the latest “show” that everyone is talking about at work. That show is of course endorsed by a number of advertisers who show us scantily clad men and women who look good in the new style of jeans, listening to the newest hip album. It is a messy cycle that spins like a Frisbee in flight. Of course all this is a pursuit to be the first one to find a new style, to be a trendsetter. The truly hip people in our culture are the ones who set the trends. That isn’t Kanye West, it isn’t Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. It is the people, who are far less beautiful, who pick out their clothes. Celebrities don’t set trends. Publicists and PR spin-doctors do.

Cross promotional modern marketing is the new Salem witch trials. They used to burn witches at the stake for being different. Now we scorn them for not being hip. The amount of “hipness” that you possess can, depending on your career path, directly impact your professional success. So, how do we repossess our culture? It is hard because it used to be that apathy about what is hip was the escape, but the Madison Avenue crowd has caught on to that ploy and now apathy is hip… ARGHHH!!! Where do we run and hide? Mountain Dew tells you to express your individuality by drinking Mountain Dew and dressing like a skater. Extreme sports started out as a way for all the nerdy kids who didn’t want to play football, baseball or hockey to get exercise, but they ruined that by making it mainstream with the X-Games and other events. A millionaire skater is an oxymoron! Tony Hawk, you’re a sorry sell out! A videogame? A clothing line? You used to be punk rock! Now you’re just a punk!

Our society has changed since the 60s. Our parents didn’t sell out totally. All the emphasis on feelings and happiness survived the cocaine and money of the 80s. Now everyone is in therapy talking about why we are all so miserable. We are miserable because everywhere we look there is someone telling us that we should be in touch with our feelings and aiming for constant bliss. We put too much emphasis on following our hearts and finding happiness. We are taught to never repress our feelings.

Does anyone else note that our grandparents didn’t follow that path and they seem a lot happier for it? Our grandparents came from what Tom Brokaw refers to as the “greatest generation”. They came of age during World War II and learned that nothing comes easy. They learned that you put your head down, you work hard, you do your job, you buy a house, you raise a family and you pay your taxes. They all seemed ok to me. Not happy, but not miserable on nearly the same epidemic scale as now.

Even our parent’s generation seems to handle life fairly well, but that is because they were raised by our grandparents without the touchy-feely emphasis on happiness and individuality. But we were raised by and large by people who taught us to mind our feelings and be in touch with our emotions. Do you think kids went to school with guns in the 40s to shoot the school bully? No, the Trench Coat Mafia is a direct result of being taught that we all have to be happy all the time. It is impossible. Some kids get teased in High School and it sucks at the time, but you know what? If they survive that, the rest is a cake walk. They are the Bill Gates’, the John Lennons’, and the Kurt Cobains'.

Our pop-culture is an impossible quest for individuality which we believe will make us happy. Of course no one is an individual. So I guess the solution is, worry less about what is cool. Whatever you do, don’t worry so much about being special. I’ll save you the mystery, you’re not. Once you find that realization, happiness will be less elusive. You know what, you may never be filled with glee, but that is OK, whatever you are… be it with pride. I mean, I am listening to Huey Lewis and the News while I write this. Think I’m lame? So what!

So, phantom reader, you want to know the solution? Realize that it isn’t all about you, it isn’t all about how you feel and what makes you happy, or sad, or mad. Focus less on yourself and more on how you impact society. Once you realize that you are part of something bigger than you and your feelings, you will realize that our pop-culture and all the hype can and should be a source of amusement. But amusement should only be one facet of our life, not the sole defining center. We have lives filled with love and family, jobs and activities. In addition we have a social responsibility to contribute to society. The contribution that you make to society, I cannot define for you. Your contribution need not be monumental. We are not all destined for greatness, but our individual contributions to society are all important, regardless of scope. It can be creative or just being a caring person aware of the world around you. That would make you special.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Unreality and the lazy President...

In the last several days there has been an interest and very noticeable shift in the Bush administration rhetoric about the war/effort/struggle (whatever we are calling it this week) in Iraq. First came an article in the Washington Post (read it here) quoting administration officials as conceding that they need to lower the nations expectations based on the un-reality of current expectations. Sounds like the administration isn’t as dumb as we think they are. They are just really slow. Someone should put one of the SLOW CHILDREN signs in the drive way at the White House so staffers are not run over by cars entering the grounds.

This “un-reality” has been apparent to many of us unpatriotic terrorist-sympathizing Americans who have been leading public outcry against the administration current approach all along. It would have been nice if our President and his merry muppets had listened to us to begin with. Maybe we could have saved them some pain and trouble. Not to mention 1816 American men and women serving in our military (according to the Washington Post) and thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians. The death and mayhem in Iraq is distressing to everyone, but to some of us it seems so utterly pointless and could easily have been averted.

As if all this wasn’t enough, this writer’s favorite columnist; Maureen Dowd is back with a vengeance. She was filling in for Thomas Friedman, who apparently is off testing his theory that the world is flat. Dowd’s column calls out the President for going on a five week vacation when troops are dying in Iraq. I guess he seems determined to press on with his life and maintain a “normal” existence despite all the madness that he has single-handedly unleashed on the world. Funny, I recall him taking a damned long vacation back in the summer of 2001 too. Why does he get so much vacation time in his first year on the job? When I look at my pay stub, I appear to have only accrued 30 hours of paid vacation/sick leave. I guess I’ll have to get myself elected President of the United States. Then I can lead a “normal” life. Seems logical to me.

At any rate, two things are clear. First, the situation in Iraq has officially become un-spinnable. The President is simply not popular enough among the American people anymore to have the constant excrement flowing from his mouth sucker us. Second, our President is the laziest man on the face of the Earth. There is a line from the West Wing where Josh says to his assistant, Donna, that if she was in a car accident he would not stop for a beer on the way to the hospital. To which Donna replies that if Josh were in a car accident she wouldn’t stop for red lights.

If I was President Bush (and thank god, I’m not), I wouldn’t go on vacation while the troops are bogged in a quagmire that was completely of my own making. Does anyone else think that this war in Iraq is an impeachable offense? I’m not saying that he will be impeached, but he ought to be.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

You Sleep Better When You Are Un-phenomenal!

To recharge my batteries a bit, I am going to step away from writing a political blog entry for today. I want, instead, to discuss the status of current popular culture. This is something that I bring up periodically, and those that know me, know that I have plenty of opinions on the subject. In particular I would like to focus on the special status that we give to celebrity in our culture. This is special status regardless of talent, ability, intelligence, creativity or any other redeeming quality that you can come up with.

This is particularly odd because you do not find this in any other country accept in the United States. Sure, in Britain there are tabloid newspapers filled with paparazzi articles in which celebrities are stalked and haunted by the press. There are “embarrassing” pictures of females actors topless in the south of France and men with guts that surely no celebrity should have. But in Europe, as with other places, that treatment is reserved for people who have actually achieved something. People like David Beckham, star midfielder for Real Madrid and captain of the England national team or the late Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer. Generally speaking, no one cares what these people think. They just want important details about their private lives. This is standard for people, who cannot separate the athletic feat from the person or the song from the musician.

But in the United States, it is taken to whole different level. Andy Warhol once said that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, and ever since it seems that Americans are intent on getting theirs. Just like freed slaves were promised forty acres and a mule, Americans now feel entitled to fame, like it will somehow make them special or, at the least, less worthless.

What is our fascination with celebrity? Why do we place so much stock in the magical powers of fame? If we are not, ourselves, seeking fame and fortune, we are desperately trying to find out how celebrities think and feel on any manner of issues. Unlike in Britain, we don’t want our celebrities to be publicly ridiculed or humiliated. Our celebrities are held up as the elite in society. It used to be that the elite were people who excelled at art, theater, music, business, politics or any number of other disciplines, but now the elite are those who are not most able but the best self-promoters.

We have celebrities of all kinds becoming active in politics when they have no clear understanding of the issues and are no more well informed on the issues than anyone else. Yet their opinion matters and yours does not. Politicians try to share the spotlight with celebrities whether it is John Kerry having Bruce Springsteen campaign with him or the President going mountain biking with Lance Armstrong. These celebrities have what the politicians want; appeal that transcends political ideology. I promised I wouldn’t go into politics, so I will end this line of thinking right here.

In our endless lust for fame and fortune, which we directly equate with being special and not necessarily being talented, our media has brought us reality TV, which Joel Stein says is neither real nor good TV. But, as Stein also points out, we don’t care. We love reality TV, can’t get enough of it. When it isn’t on, we fiend it like crack-whores. It started on cable with the Real World on MTV and slowly invaded every channel on TV including ESPN. Now nearly half of all television is reality based programming with everything from making beautiful women eat maggots on Fear Factor to glorifying plastic surgery and showing you how ugly you all really are on the Swan.

The joke is on you America! Hollywood has never held the same image of celebrity as the rest of the country. It is part of the reason so many famous people live in LA. When you see a celebrity in Los Angeles the only people who lose their minds are the paparazzi and then only because they need to get the shots on the web or on Entertainment Tonight so Middle America can get their famous people fix. I didn’t know one person in my seven years in L.A. who gave a damn about celebrities accept for people who worked in the industry. And then that was because people in Hollywood are so self-centered they believe the hype about themselves being the elite of America. Celebrities are so convinced that they are the elite that the campaign for politicians, they adopt causes to champion, or write memoirs about how hard their lives have been and how they are all really deep people despite the patently megalomania that Hollywood is replete with.

I say again, the joke is on you. Hollywood sees how desperate you all are for fame and fortune. Likewise they see that you do not equate this fame and fortune with creative ability of any kind. Let’s face it; most of you are talentless, at least not with any skills that would warrant celebrity. This is why they created reality television. Pretty girls are a dime a dozen in Hollywood and yet they keep flooding off the buses from Duluth, Davenport and Dallas in droves. Most of these beauties have half a brain in their skulls and even less talent. But they were prom queen back home. They dated the varsity Quarterback and all the nerds lusted for them. I’m not trying to be trite and sexist, the same is true for pretty boy guys who starred in Anything Goes their senior year in Danbury, Dorchester and Durham. For their fifteen minutes of fame, Hollywood makes them roll around in worms or eat buffalo testicles. The people see them back home on the idiot box and when these people slink back home with their tails between their legs and no Screen Actors Guild card in their pocket they are welcomed as conquering heroes, not abject failures.

Wake up people! There is no link between talent, fame or fortune and celebrity. Look at Paris Hilton. Her only talent is that her grandfather was a smart guy and made a load of money. Well, that and she is attractive, in the way that strippers are attractive. She has parlayed this into reality television fame and a modeling career. The sooner we realize that celebrity is as worthless as Paris Hilton is, the happier we will all be. We are all so desperate to be anything but what we are. It is a national psychosis. We need to learn that, as Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) says in Garden State, it is okay to be un-phenomenal, you sleep better.

Am I cruel? Nazareth said it best: “Love Hurts”.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The War of Ideas

After yesterdays blog entry I decided that I wanted to find another quote that would inspire me to express an opinion on a matter. I again chose a quote from President Kennedy.

“If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I'm proud to say I'm a ‘Liberal.’”

It has been on my mind for a long time that I am a member of a political party that is mostly made up of wimps who fail miserably to clearly explain why they are liberal and why liberalism is clearly the better political philosophy for the society as a whole. Sure, if your goal is to improve your own station in life alone and you are not at all concerned with the success of others, libertarianism or conservatism are your best approaches. But these people who self-identify as conservative or libertarian believe that they live in a vacuum where the actions of others in a society do not affect them at all. They clearly have a distorted view of what it means to be a member of society. If you’ve come here to hear about how evil and selfish these people are, you’ve come to the wrong place. Many well meaning conservatives and libertarians give great resources to their church or charities. They simply feel that the government is not the best instrument to assist the disenfranchised with improving their station in life.

I disagree. I believe that churches and charities do offer assistance that is extremely valuable in assisting the poor or cleaning up blighted neighborhoods or patrolling neighborhoods to lower crime. Their work is noble and it is righteous, but so is much that the government undertakes. Remember that many charities receive a lion’s share of their funding from the government. The reason I do not support the same funding for faith based initiatives is because of the invariable proselytizing and conversion that occurs as a result of the efforts. I do not believe that these religious organizations are out of line in this course of action, I just believe that it is an inappropriate use of government money in a nation that has no official state religion.

Clearly JFKs quote is intended to imply that liberals, unlike conservatives see the world in shades of grey. Things are not either black or white as conservatives, including our current President, would have you believe.

The definition of the term liberal in the American Heritage dictionary is: “not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.” Clearly liberals believe that there is more than one good way to achieve a policy objective and that the best approach is an enlightened and engaged debate where society chooses the public policy which will best achieve the goals that they judge to be in their national interest.

On the other side of the coin are conservatives. The word conservative is defined as: “favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.” I believe that the last part is most telling; tending to oppose change. I believe that conservatives want to see things through rose colored lenses. Everything in our society is as it should be. Of course, it is hardly shocking that a majority of fiscal conservatives are rich and a majority of social conservatives are religious.

Unfortunately our society has not reached a place where our traditional views and values are sufficient to ensure that all in our society have equal opportunity. Racism is still rampant in the United States. Not everyone is judged equally by all people. Therefore policies which are inherently racist, such as affirmative action, are necessary to level the playing field. I don’t think that anyone believes that affirmative action is an ideal public policy. If you asked African Americans, I believe that they would tell you they would prefer a society where they are judged by who they are and what they know, not what they look like. As a true liberal I must concede that affirmative action creates contempt in certain segments of our population. As someone who is willing to consider other options I would willing engage in a policy debate with people who view the issue differently and try to find a better policy. But conservatives are not interested in the debate. They simply want to do away with affirmative action. Conservatives demonize the policy to breed fear in white Americans by calling it a quota system and telling whites that they will not get this job or into that college because of the color of their skin.

Conservatives in this country have become very adept at cloaking their agenda in the guise of compassion. In the late 90s they spawned a whole compassionate conservative movement claiming that George W. Bush was their standard bearer. This type of subterfuge is not uncommon. You will all notice that this is not a title that conservatives use anymore. Do you know another name for a compassionate conservative? They are called liberals, because compassion walks hand in hand with open-mindedness.

You will notice that I did not mention political parties in today’s piece. That is because there are liberals and conservatives in both parties. I did choose to single out George W. Bush, because I believe he is a particularly good example of a conservative without a shred of true compassion in him, at least not for anyone who is remotely different than him. I, like many observers, see the Democratic Party as the liberal party and the GOP as the conservatives, but it wasn’t always this way. As I stated several days ago, a higher percentage of Republicans voted for the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts in the 60s than did Democrats, but that has shifted and when that shift occurred progressives in the Republican Party were replaced by the likes of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. The disappearance of progressive Republicans did not happen overnight and they are still out there. They are a stunned and silenced segment of the Grand Old Party that needs to awaken and reclaim the party that was stolen from them 40 years ago. Until they do, a fruitful and constructive debate on any public policy in this country is an exercise in futility.

Of course, there is no incentive for these progressive Republicans to re-assert themselves while the opposition Democrats appear weak and unable to defend the liberal ideologies that they hold dear. More on that in the days to come.