Friday, December 26, 2008

Hitchens vs. Hedges


A couple of years ago, I read Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" at a time when I was particularly receptive to it--a time when the word and concept of religion seemed to have been co-opted by people possessed of such an astounding cynicism, that they thought nothing of mobilizing the homophobia of a minority of their constituents in order to give power to their monetary greed.

I didn't find the book to be perfect (I wrote a too-long post in it), but I did find it to be stimulating. On the upside, I thought that Hitchens obliterated the idea that the Bible (or any religious text) is the word of God, that it is a literal document, that it is an instruction manual, even that it is a valuable historical document. What stuck with me long after I had both listened to the audiobook and read the hard copy was Hitchens' comment that in the evolution of humans, "religion represents the childhood of our species."

I had previously seen religion as one can see any sharp object: an instrument that can be used to kill, or to cut the ropes that bind. Equal parts good and bad. Like humans themselves, capable of almost infinite good or infinite evil. By the end, that view seemed naive. However, Hitchens never did convince me that religion was causal, rather than correlative, as it relates to the Crusades, Islamist terrorism or any number of atrocities committed in its name. After all, "in the name of" implies a marketing tactic, not a root cause. He also seemed to miss the point that for many (I would hope a majority) of religious people, the underlying reason for their practice is not to justify their hatred, but to express their reverence, hope and gratitude.

So about two weeks ago, I'm trolling the audiobook aisles at the Highland Park Library and notice something called, "I Don't Believe in Atheists" by Chris Hedges. I grab it, thinking that it's time to hear the religious rebuttal to Hitchens (the sleeve made it clear that Mr. Hedges is highly critical of what he dubs the New Atheists: Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others).

I expected an unreasoned defense of blind belief from a devoutly religious, probably Christian, American male. What I got was something completely unexpected, surprisingly enlightening, intellectually refreshing and devastatingly depressing.

Hedges starts by refusing to fall into the polar trap of "religion" vs. "reason." That's not the issue to him at all. The real issue is whether or not you believe in human perfectibility, or what he would call Utopianism, in any form. In short, this is the belief that through anything--religion, science, reason, etc.--human beings can escape their natures and advance morally. Hedges does not believe in Utopianism. In fact, he compelling describes Utopianism as the toxic element behind the largest movements of evil in human history. In plain language, if you think you're right and they're wrong, and the world will only be better if you win and they lose, then they have to be killed so everyone else can advance.

On these grounds, he is equally critical of religious fundamentalism and New Atheism. He sees them as the same thing, pointing to Sam Harris' call for a preemptive nuclear strike on the Muslim world and Hitchens' staunch support of the war in Iraq. (Hedges lived in Muslim countries for years as a New York Times reporter, and convincingly exposes New Atheist ignorance on a complex religion with more than 1 billion followers.)

But while Hedges' argument is liberating on many fronts, it is also suffocatingly confining. He not only doesn't buy into human perfectibility (not a hard point to make), but staunchly refuses to believe in any form of collective human moral advancement. He might be called a New Human Naturist. He presents an image of human existence that strikes me as a morphing of the bound man of Western literature with the Narcissist of Greek mythology. We believe in our superiority even as we unwittingly commit specicide, destroying ourselves, our neighbors, and the environment we depend on for survival. We think God will save us. He won't. We think technology will save us. It won't. There's no point in removing religion, or science, or whatever you think is the barrier to improving our condition, because it can't be improved. Time is not linear. We are not on a path. We are trapped in a circular state, waiting for a Godot that will never come.

Hedges, like Hitchens, is ultimately stimulating but not (fittingly) perfect. His primary strength is in exposing the New Atheists as guilty of the same intellectual fascism that they condemn. A secondary strength lies in his nod to art and literature for their expression of the human condition. A third, related strength is his call to view the Christian Bible based on the etymology of the word "bible" ("small stories")--as a literary anthology not to be taken literally, not to be seen as a rigid instruction manual, not even to be seen as a coherent and purposeful compilation, but as stories that offer insight into the human condition. His weaknesses lie in not adequately developing his conflation of religion and art, and in his stating that we can't advance morally, yet still seeming to proscribe some kind of preferred path--which strikes me as self-contradicting (what's the point in seeking intellectual or spiritual advancement if it has no bearing on moral advancement?)

I appreciate both of these thinkers a great deal. In the end, they offer an exercise in discovering what you view as intellectually void or valid. For Hitchens, any belief in religion requires a shutting off of inquiry, which is destructive. For Hedges, any belief based on nothing but science and reason also requires a shutting off of inquiry, which results in a different kind of ignorance, also destructive. These two men, and their views of life, are fascinating because each sees the other as intellectually lazy, and both are right, and both are wrong.

Read them both, and draw your own conclusions.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Son Is Not Normal

My son is five and a half, and his three favorite things in the world are sports, geography and drawing. These three elements can only converge in one possible way: logos. So this morning (apparently tired of drawing existing sports logos based in something called "reality"), he decided to start making up his own teams and their logos. As with most things, the exercise started with a Realist vibe and evolved quickly into Expressionism. Or Abstraction. Or Post-Modernism. Or something.

See below.







Friday, December 19, 2008

Best. Ad. Ever.

I have no idea what the connection is with the company at the end, but in this case, I just don't care.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Most Addictive Substance On Earth

Scholars throughout the centuries have debated which is the most addictive substance known to man. Or, at least they've done so for the purpose of me starting this post using a somewhat erudite tone.

The ancient Persians (and their modern-day Iranian ancestors) both feared and revered opium. Afghani scholars and dead rock stars cast their vote for that poppy paradise called heroin. Colombian harvesters lobby for cocaine, while their clever refiners abroad point to the superior addictive qualities of crack. Meanwhile, Wasillians cry for methamphetamine, while many other researchers put a spotlight on two of the only legal drugs in most societies: alcohol and cigarettes.

Balderdash, I say. You're all wrong.

Speaking as someone who has(n't) ingested all of these illegal substances, I say the answer is clear. For my money, the most addictive substance ever devised by humanity is Sesame Blues corn chips from the Garden of Eatin'.



Stop me when I'm lyin'.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tool.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Mirage

Some 17 years ago, while on a massive post-college roadtrip out West during the summer of 1991, my friends and I stopped in front of the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. We would have to drive through Nevada that day, but we couldn't avoid stopping to do a little gambling--because we wanted to be able to say that we did.

I locked my wallet in the glove compartment and took in with me exactly one quarter.

Once inside, I turned down the three drinks placed under my nose within the first 10 minutes (not because I was a prude; I just didn't realize that they were free). I dropped my quarter into a slot machine and promptly won 50 cents. I inserted another quarter and won another 50 cents. Then I lost it all, taking comfort in the fact that "all" was 25 cents. I had rigged it that way, because something told me I might need to.

Fast forward to 2008. While we slide down the abyss into what might well become the worst economic meltdown in American history, I've come to a stark realization. We are not capitalists; we are gamblers. Our nation's capital should not be Washington, D.C.; it should be Las Vegas. The Capitol building itself should not be the immaculate Grecian building we all know; it should be The Mirage.

A liberal arts-level understanding (all that I am capable of) of the financial services practices and products that have contributed to our demise, such as "naked short selling" and "credit default swaps," reveals a common element: gambling. Suffice it to say, what our economy became over the last three decades was a blackjack table. The smart bad guys created products that allowed greedy bad guys to make money on assets they didn't actually own. The good guys were unknowingly complicit, also making money by seeing their IRAs and 401 (k)s rise at a steady clip.

We financed it all on the First Bank of China credit card, and then the casino said "enough."

But it's not just financial services that reveal our true nature. Our health care and insurance system is a gamble: We'd rather gamble that we can afford the insurance that gives us stellar health care than have less shiny facilities and open the doors of access more equitably. We gamble on borrowing money for the best education, assuming that law school, med school and that MBA will pay off relatively quickly. We have generally practiced what might be called "consumption without consequence" on nearly every front, and it's crumbling before our eyes.

The thing I remember about that summer trip better than the sunny depression of Las Vegas in the daytime was something just outside the city: the Hoover Dam. It's an apt metaphor if one replaces the image of the water on one side with stacks of bills representing our nation's gambling debts. The question is, now that the dam has broken, and we know that our gambles will no longer pay off, what do we do?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Notre Dame's Impending PR Nightmare

Much will soon be written by people with no connection to Notre Dame and whose opinion already lies along a spectrum from indifference to contempt. I'm writing this as a loyalist... someone who grew up two miles from the Dome, who received a top-notch education there and who criticizes out of love, not hate.

I can't believe you're about to keep Charlie Weis.

This decision is not only wrong on moral and professional grounds; it's a PR cataclysm in the making. Here's why:

- I was actually one of the alumni who was fine with the decision to fire Ty Willingham. Someone who knows the football program from birth knows when a coach is on the right or wrong track. Willingham received the first-season boost that nearly all new ND coaches get, and then the deterioration was obvious. His unfortunate lack of success at Washington vindicates that decision.

- Weis' track record, until this year, has been harder to decipher. He got the first-season boost in a big way, nearly beating a dominant USC program with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. The second season felt more or less the same, a no decision. The third season was an absolutely stupefying decline, but Weis' previous success--not only at ND, but everywhere he's been--as well as his highly rated recruiting classes-- allowed one to hope that the season was anomalous.

- This season proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Weis is no better a college football head coach than Willingham. He can't prepare. He can't motivate. He can't educate. He can't hire good assistants. All he can do is recruit, and recruiting means nothing if you can't bring out and build on the natural talents of your players.

- The decision to keep Weis, therefore, logically has to be motivated by one of two things: proof of institutional racism, or a purely financial decision due to an alleged buyout package that is as large as Weis' already-stapled stomach.

- I believe it's the latter. One could argue that this decision is actually justified by pointing out the horrors of the current economy, and how keeping Weis actually keeps more university money where it should be: getting great students, hiring great faculty, building great facilities.

- Balderdash. The PR nightmare that this decision will unleash will cost the university far more than Weis' buyout. If ND refuses to admit that it is driven by the latter motivation, it will be hopelessly vulnerable to accusations of the former. And those accusations will stick.

- This, I'm afraid, will do more to harm ND's reputation than anything else in its history. And an institution that genuinely does more right by the student-athlete than any other in its class will see most of that brand equity disintegrate before its very eyes.

- (The paranoid in me sees ND already laying the groundwork for this decision by saying that Weis' buyout will not affect its decision, as well as sending an email to students, faculty and staff encouraging them to look for ways to save money. This does not mitigate the decision to keep Weis; it merely puts the university in a box.)

- Please don't do it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sports! Sports! Sports!

I normally don't delve into sports on this blog for several reasons. One, at last count there were 1,083,221 sports blogs in the United States. Two, most people refuse to believe that I have an interest in the subject, which I try not to take as an assault on my manhood.

But rather than spout off every time I have something to say, I thought I'd just let it all out in one lightning round. Here goes.

- Charlie Weis can recruit, and that's it. He should be fired at the end of the season, no matter what happens.

- Notre Dame needs to do some serious soul-searching to figure out why the sport that subsidizes all others on campus is the only one not doing well (see: men's basketball, women's basketball, women's soccer, hockey, fencing...).

- Tim Brewster is a thinner Charlie Weis.

- This is the most exciting ND basketball team in my lifetime, and that dates back to Digger Phelps' best teams of the '70s. Regardless of what happens tonight against UNC, this team is one for the ages.

- You said "Tavaris Jackson." Survey says... no.

- You said "Brad Childress." Survey says... no.

- The three best live sporting events I've ever seen are: 1) the 1977 ND thumping of USC; 2) the Minnesota Kicks (of the ill-fated NASL) defeating the NY Cosmos 9-2 at Met Stadium in a driving rainstorm; 3) the Minnesota Twins' comeback this past season against the dreaded White Sox (before handing them the division title by choking against the Royals).

- Little-known fact: ND has not had a consistently good team since signing the NBC deal. Coincidence?

- Michael Floyd is the best receiver to ever wear an Irish uniform. He will transfer or go pro after next season.

- Current ND football players with Ryan Grant Syndrome (they look mediocre while at ND; they will do well in the NFL): Jimmy Clausen, the entire secondary, most of the offensive line.

- Lacrosse is actually a fun sport to watch.

- The Wild are riding a hot goaltender. This bubble too shall burst.

- The hapless Timberwolves are better than their record. Must be a coaching thing.

- Luke Harangody is Tim Kempton on steroids, cocaine and meth.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy in Theory

It's in my nature to take silver linings and look for clouds. So I must do so with the impending Obama presidency. This is a man I strongly supported, whom I voted for with glee, and whose judgment I've instinctively trusted since his now-famous DNC speech in 2004 almost had me standing and saluting in the living room.

There must be something wrong with the guy.

Here's my theory (and I use that word for a reason). You have an American male in his 40s, with a beautiful wife and two healthy, adorable daughters. He's Columbia and Harvard-educated, obviously smarter than 99.9 percent of humanity--which is exactly what you want in a president--but also focused and pragmatic enough to have beaten the Clinton Machine and won an election in an electoral landslide... despite being (truly) African American, having a "funny name," etc. etc. He's being compared to FDR and Lincoln even before taking the oath of office, and in fact he's a student of said former presidents.

This is the problem. Can you be as good as people simply by studying them? I'm not an FDR expert, but I know he lived with the debilitating effects of polio (or Guillain-Barré Syndrome, as some now believe). Lincoln was in many ways a mess, a man plagued by severe bouts of depression and who saw two of his children die before reaching their teens. Abe and FDR went through a LOT more than Obama has before leading their country.

In a bigger sense, I worry that each American generation, by virtue of our wealth and success (the last eight years not withstanding), has grown farther and farther removed from the deep and tragic hardships of its predecessors. Most of us expect to live long. We don't expect our children to die. We have drugs to mitigate every pain we might encounter, if we can afford them. The necessary self-denial of our individual and collective mortality is at an all-time high, because it's simply easier than ever before.

Is having some of those experiences a pre-requisite for good leadership and judgment? One can argue that they might hinder more than hurt, and that I'm glorifying pain, disease and depression in an almost tasteless way. I'll just say this: If Obama were exactly who he is, but had also weathered Joe Biden's (or John McCain's) personal and family tragedies, I'd feel reassured.

How terrible is that?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Subconscious Retro Sentimentality Disorder

So I'm driving a friend's car last week, and he has satellite radio. After getting my fill of Sinatra tunes on what must have been called Martini Radio, I switched over to the final preset, which must have been called "Marc Conklin's Formative Teenage Years Radio."

The song: "Shakin'" by Eddie Money. You know the tune...

Shakin' (Whoh-oh-oh-oh-on)
Snappin' her fingers (Whoh-oh-oh-oh-on)
She was movin' up and down
Round and round and round
That girl was shakin'
Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-she was shakin'


In an instant, I was transported back to 1982. South Bend, Indiana. 1235 Longfellow. Basement. Plaid couch. Off-brand Korean TV. Planter's Cheese Balls, bottle of Coke. Eyes full of MTV. Head full of LA Looks hair gel.

The odd thing was, this wasn't a song I particularly liked when I was 13. But now, 26 years later, as I headed toward the traffic light (and approached the halfway point), it struck me as not that bad, really. Quite good, in fact. God-awful lyrics, sure. But hey, Eddie had a fairly unique voice. The guitar riff was first rate. Good beat. Great hook. What's not to like?

So the question is, what has happened in my brain during those intervening years? The song is the same--it's the constant in this experiment. But I'm different. Is it a sudden change triggered by hearing the song again, or has my subconscious been slowly, meticulously making every song from my youth seem better over time?

Either way, the truth of the matter is this: More and more songs that I hated from this period now seem to range from "not that bad after all" to "downright good." Most embarrassingly, this phenomenon even applies to "I Ran" by A Flock of Seagulls and virtually anything by Duran Duran. Let me be clear: I DESPISED these bands at the time, choosing instead (in part because I was learning to play guitar) an allegiance with what is now called "classic rock," worshiping the virtuoso musicianship of Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, all of the Beatles and two out of three of Rush. Now, it's as if taste has flown out the window.

I've decided to call this disease SRSD, or Subconscious Retro Sentimentality Disorder. SRSD is a nervous condition that causes you to respond to songs not with your head (which still shuns them), but with your heart, which glorifies that fleeting time in life when hours could be devoted to nothing but the art of listening to music. When you could close the door to the room you shared with your brother, reach into the vinyl treasures in the Peach Tree Records crate, pull out The Cars' eponymous first album, slip on those soft, cavernous Pioneer headphones, lie back in the beanbag chair and just close your eyes.

I still love music, and I embrace the iPod age fully. I listen to Pandora on my iPhone at work all the time. I still play a little guitar, and I'm helping my son learn to play piano. Last weekend, I stood for three hours watching The Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers at First Avenue in Minneapolis. But at some point, music ceases to be the soundtrack of your life, and it takes on a smaller, sadder, more auxiliary role.

Eddie Money taught me that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Son Is Not Normal


I was presented with this when I got home last night. That's "Pay to the Order of Cash, $8, for a guitar." Santa Claus is in for a rude awakening...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Some Perspective

Twenty years ago, I was living in a small house in Maynooth, Ireland--a lucky college student spending his sophomore year abroad. During those nine months, I traveled to every corner and crag of the Emerald Isle, and spent time in England, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Israel, as well. I saw AK-47-toting soldiers board my bus in Belfast. I watched the first intifada from a West Bank rooftop. I stayed in the house of a Hungarian woman whose only English words were, "Chicago, bang bang!" I busked on Grafton Street in Dublin and strummed "American Pie" to an enthusiastic group of native Irish-speaking publicans on the island of Inisheer. Yes, I also watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, climbed the Eiffel Tower, heard the chimes of the Glockenspiel in Munich, glided along Venetian canals, skied the Alps and celebrated Easter mass in Bethlehem. But the truest impression, especially as an American Studies major, was the revelation that I didn't really know my country until I had left it.

It left me somewhat obsessed with the concept of "perspective," that there are multiple, perhaps infinite, ways of looking at people, places and ideas. How does one acquire the perfect perspective, which theoretically allows for the best judgment? It's an impossibility. But the simple act of seeing something familiar from the outside is, without a doubt, a substantial move in the right direction.

For me, this presidential election wasn't about party, wasn't about age, wasn't about race. It was about perspective. As a quick read of Fahreed Zakaria's The Post American World drives home, a contextual, multi-lens perspective of America is no longer a luxury; it's a necessity. As the conservative columnist David Brooks recently wrote:

"There are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action. Over the past few centuries, public policy analysts have assumed that step three is the most important. But that way of thinking has failed spectacularly. So perhaps this will be the moment when we alter our view of decision-making. Perhaps this will be the moment when we shift our focus from step three, rational calculation, to step one, perception."

I was grateful to have a choice in this presidential election between two people who struck me as serious, perspective-rich candidates, rather than mindless ideologues. But I couldn't help wondering if their lenses of perspective were most deeply shaped by their formative experiences abroad: one as a child in a time of peace, the other as a prisoner of war.

Did we elect the candidate with the best ability to perceive, to judge and to act for the common good? After watching election returns for five hours, I found myself stringing an American flag from our front-yard maple tree at 1 in the morning. For me, the answer is clear.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yes.

And no. The Bachmann 3000 still lives. The goal two years from now: Vote out all anti-science, global-warming-denying, non-critical-thinking incurious homophobic idealogues.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Monday, October 27, 2008

Santa Got His Emmy

Okay, don't laugh. I won an Emmy on Saturday. Was I in L.A. partying with Don Draper and the cast of Mad Men? No, I was at the National Television Academy's Upper Midwest Chapter Awards Gala. That's a regional outlet of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which does the Emmys.

Every year, the NTA gives away about 100 awards for excellence in television journalism (the 35W Bridge collapse had several of its own categories, to give you a sense of the scope). My friend and video collaborator, Tyler Richter, found an obscure non-TV category called "Online Marketing Initiative, Independent" (that's 41D), and entered "Santa Lost His Mojo," our campy music video/short film/website developed as a holiday promotion for my former agency last year.

When the magic moment came, what seemed like 9 hours into the ceremony, it was announced that we had, indeed, defeated "Experience Eagan" and "Sutherland, the Killer Next Door." And so, yes, we won an Emmy. A regional Emmy. Literally, one Emmy. Which, since Tyler did the application, he gets to keep.

Me, I have to figure out how to order one for myself... and pay for it. Watch your back, Steve Carell!

P.S. Special thanks to Tyler "Attack Ad" Richter, Brian Tard Larson, pfoser, Shaniqua Manogue, Pat Whiteboard Rosenstiel, "Ted for the Border" Wright, Stephen Ambrose Johnson, and Kevin Shrink Sawyer. And now, the best worst song I've ever written:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My Son Is Not Normal

So about a month ago, James (5) said he wanted to write a book. I took some scrap paper and stapled it together to simulate a book, and he started writing. This is the result.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

LangAlert: Look Who's Looking


While the word "look" has been on the LangAlert langdar for several months now, its use has officially reached epidemic proportions--growing in, but spreading far beyond, the incubator of insipid political rhetoric. It's time to out "look."

You know the "look" I'm talking about--"look" not really as a verb, but as a hybrid word lying somewhere between an imperative and an interjection. Like this:

Interviewer/Debate Moderator: "Tell me, Senator [Obama, McCain], what would you do about the fact that much of our current economic crisis will be financed through issuing more Treasury bonds, for which the Chinese might appetite may be waning?"

Presidential Candidate: That's a great question, [Tom, Jim, Gwen], [insert attempt at levity, wait for laughter]. Look, we're in a crisis. There's no doubt about that. People are hurting. People are scared. But look, we've got the greatest workforce in the world. Are we in challenging times? Yes. Could things be better? Absolutely. But look, we've come together before. And at the end of the day, frankly, I believe we can do it again.

Used in this way, "look" is a kind of shorthand. What people are trying to communicate with this one word is this: "You just asked me a very serious and complicated question. I may or may not actually be able to answer it on the level it deserves. But we're on television here. This is the Super Bowl of soundbites. I'm going to give you the impression that I'm cutting through all the clutter, getting right to the point, not boring you with details. Very American. So allow me to use a verbal magnifying glass and give the appearance of down-to-earthiness."

The problem with "look," as with "frankly" and "at the end of the day," is that it's meaningless. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of excellent political rhetoric out there, even in this election. But look, at the end of the day, frankly, most of it is as worthless as a wink.

P.S. Count how many times the candidates use "look" in tonight's debate (but don't, for the sake of your health, make it a drinking game).

Previous LangAlerts:

False Contractions
Nerbs
Move Forward
Linguacopia
At the End of the Day
Whither "An"?
"Sort of" Is the New "Like"

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Here's Who Won Tonight's Debate



Tom Brokaw for President.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"So what, neither can I!"

I've tried to exercise restraint. I can't do it anymore.

I'm not going to unleash on Sarah Palin. There's no need to do that. When not shielded from the media in a hermetically sealed undisclosed location with all the other politicians who are allergic to public accountability, she gives herself plenty of leash... and then hangs herself with it expertly.

What I can't take anymore are the people who support her because "she's just like me." The Apologist Chorus. Here's how it goes:

The person gunning for Leader of the Free World can't say that she ever set foot on non-North American soil prior to 2007, and the Apologist Chorus sings: "So what, neither can I!"

When asked to name an information source she relies on, the person who wants to lead 300 million American citizens through arguably their country's greatest economic challenge can't name anything. And the Apologist Chorus sings: "So what, neither can I!"

When asked to name a Supreme Court case other than Roe v. Wade that she disagrees with, the Republican vice presidential nominee in the year 2008 can't. And the Apologist Chorus sings: "So what, neither can I!"

Don't get me wrong. It's not the "neither can I" that bothers me. It's the "so what." Ignorance is the only universal. Socrates famously said the only thing he knew was the fact of his own ignorance. That shows humility, self-awareness and a constant desire for greater knowledge. The "so what" of the Apologist Chorus shows pride, defensiveness and intellectual hostility.

If you're so indifferent to or hostile toward knowledge, then stop telling your children to value education, pull them out of school and cash in that college savings account.

If you think that your vice presidential candidate should be as content with or proud of his or her ignorance as you are, then run for president yourself.

If you think that a potential President of the United States should be unexceptional, then stop saying you believe in American Exceptionalism.

And if you think this country was founded by "regular folks," go back and read your history books, if you believe in history books.

And finally, let's just get real for a minute. Ladies and gentlemen of the Apologist Chorus, kindly turn your gaze to the white elephant standing in the middle of the room. If overturning Roe v. Wade is so important to you that it causes you to overlook every other social, political and economic issue (and every trait and qualification in a political candidate other than his or her desire to criminalize abortion), then please, for the love of God, just admit it. And stop apologizing.

Monday, September 29, 2008

What's Wrong with You?


There's a long-running debate about who influences whom when it comes to consumers and the media. Is TV news so superficial because that's what people want, or do people want superficial news because that's all they know?

I'm going to take a stand here. Right now, the media and the public are in a self-perpetuating downward-spiral death match to the finish.

Without question, I thought last Friday's first presidential debate marked the highest level of discourse I've seen yet in a televised political debate. Two candidates gave substantive answers to real questions. There were no obviously forced sound bites. There were no pre-planned gotcha stunts. There was no sighing or eye-rolling. Just two knowledgeable people actually presenting plausible arguments.

This is what we've been waiting for, right? But what did the media pundits say when it was all over? They whined: "You'd be hard-pressed to find a good sound bite from this debate." For its part, the electorate shrugged: "I need more."

Did anyone listen to the actual answers in this debate? Did the media cover those answers? Did anyone catch the fact that while McCain believes that Iraq was and is the central front in battling al Qaeda, Obama believes it's in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Did anyone hear McCain say that if we fail in Iraq, the whole war on terror falls apart, while Obama said that going to Iraq has fundamentally harmed our ability to win that war? Did anyone detect their vastly different views of diplomacy, or their definitions of "pre-conditions"?

I guess not. People are still more interested in elusive intangible qualities. The Dow is off 778 points today. We're using the China credit card to spend money we don't have, with the burden placed on people with a negative savings rate. Our entire infrastructure is emerging as a giant Ponzi scheme. Can we please evolve from wanting "the guy you'd rather have a beer with" to "the guy who's going to save your a** from Armageddon"?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Of the Highest Order

Whatever your politics, and whatever you think of Bill Maher, watch the last New Rule from last night (the other ones aren't bad, but it's the essay at the end I'm talking about).

If you can't agree that this piece represents meaningful satire of the highest order, well... I can't be your friend.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Suspending My Blog

In the spirit of patriotism, I am suspending Bye Bye Shadowlands to focus on the economy. I urge you to do the same.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nothing Is Worse

The cost of doing nothing to bail out Wall Street and maintain bank credit as the lifeblood of our economy is higher than the cost of doing something.

The cost of doing nothing for AIG, Bear Stears, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac is higher than the cost of doing something.

The cost of doing nothing to bring out universal health coverage is higher than the cost of doing something.

The cost of doing nothing to curb carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming is higher than the cost of doing something.

The cost of doing nothing to reform Social Security and Medicare is higher than the cost of doing something.

The cost of doing nothing to clean up our rivers and lakes is higher than the cost of doing something.

The cost of doing nothing to improve our public education system is higher than the cost of doing something.

The cost of doing nothing to combat terrorism in the Middle East is higher than the cost of doing something.

The cost of doing nothing to invest in renewable energy sources or subsidize U.S. automakers is higher than the cost of doing something.

* * *

I don't doubt the veracity of all or most of these statements, I'm just getting a little tired of hearing them.

On every major issue in this country, I detect the same subtext: Because of your business and political leaders' insatiable greed, willful ignorance and addiction to short-term thinking, you're suddenly screwed.

Now hand over everything in the cash register.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Scratch That


Disregard the previous post. Things have changed. The aforementioned movie ("My Best Friend's Girl") did not do well at the box office in its opening weekend, and I suspect it might mark some kind of turning point in the "raunchy romantic comedy" trend. In that spirit, your talking points have now been revised:

- "My Best Friend's Girl" marks the end of the raunchy romantic comedy era.
- It's time to get back to basics.
- Plot conventions still work, but we need more heart.
- It's time to stop rooting for the Bad Boy and go back to rooting for the Underdog.
- It's time to stop making women look stupid and vacant and go back to making men look brainless and cowardly.
- It's time for Deadbeat Boyfriends.

Got it?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Best Friend or Worst Enemy?

Please see "My Best Friend's Girl," and please love it, and please tell all your friends about it. Why? Because the commercial appeal of my own screenplay hangs in the balance.

I was made aware of this movie almost a year ago--the same time I was made aware of its apparent similarities to mine. I went to the earliest possible showing today to check it out for myself. Here are the talking points:

- "My Best Friend's Girl" is destined to be the smash romantic comedy hit of the year.
- It has an original premise, plenty of raunch for the guys, and plenty of unexpected romance as well.
- If only there were a movie that took a high concept even higher, that centered on real wedding crashes, where it was the men being manipulated instead of the women, and that had a universal theme around the male's resistance to commitment.
- Oh, there is. It's called "Deadbeat Boyfriends."
- That movie should be made, because it would be the smash hit of next year, or the year after that... because the American public's appetite for this kind of movie is obviously insatiable.
- (Not to mention the huge potential foreign market...)

Got it?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Click After Reading


Six years ago, I sat in a small, quiet Hamline University conference room across from my graduate school adviser, and waited anxiously as she flipped through her notes on the first act of my thesis, a dark comedic screenplay called "Fake Your Own Death, Inc." After a micro-eternity, she looked up, cleared her throat and said, with an earnestness that only drove the stinger in deeper, "Okay, all of your characters are stupid. I mean, they're dumb people. Is that what you're going for?"

I was crushed. I thought I had devised a clever little movie idea. And my characters... well, they served the plot admirably. They weren't stupid--one of them was a was an economics professor, for crying out loud. So what was the problem? (The problem, as I later realized, was that she was right. When your characters do nothing but serve your plot, "stupid" is exactly how they appear.)

The new Coen Brothers movie, "Burn After Reading," reminded me of this story. The characters in the film aren't stupid because they're serving a plot; the purposely convoluted plot is actually there to serve the characters. The problem with the characters is that all of them are stupid pretty much all of the time, on purpose. And in such a scenario, as the great movie critic W.B. Yeats once said, "the centre cannot hold."

To be fair, the movie is definitely worth seeing. Any Coen Brothers movie is automatically better than 80 percent of its competition. There's much to like. Brad Pitt steals the show among the primary characters. John Malkovich remains the world's finest ranter. George Clooney is serviceable, if a little overly twitchy. But the normally outstanding Frances McDormand is actually the film's surprise liability.

The highlight of the film, as real critics have cited, is the two CIA officers played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons. In fact, the movie's final scene sees this modern-day Rosencrantz and Gildenstern offer a such a clinic in comedic timing, it almost forgives the increasingly sketchy 45 minutes that come before it. This, coupled with two particular scenes with a narrow-eyed Brad Pitt, is worth the price of admission.

Almost.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

First Day of Kindergarten

A new era begins on the home front.

*Update* This movie was removed from YouTube for copyright on the music. Too bad. I thought it might have sold a few more Golden Smog CDs.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Palin in Comparison

This will be the last political post for a little while, but one final word before I turn to less abstract concerns, like the fact that I just watched my five-year old walk into a kindergarten class for the first time. (Yes, I was one of those obnoxious parents with a videocamera. Sue me. Look for the YouTube music video, coming soon.)

It's still hitting me every day how the choice of Sarah Palin for VP, her speech at the RNC and the words and actions of the party leaders and surrogates demand a complete reversal of what we've heard from the neocon wing of the Republican party over the last 10 years. If John Kerry was a flip flopper, then Sarah Palin is a Croc. Consider this:

- Bill Clinton was impeached because of a personal family matter (don't try to tell me it was really about lying under oath; we're not that naive). For Sarah Palin, personal family matters are off the table. (In fact, we've had to listen to the self-righteous Right go on a judgmental binge since Monica Lewinsky, only to see them look past such things with both members their own ticket. I say hallelujah, that's the way it should be, but what took you so long?)

- Barack Obama was the candidate of no experience. Now we're supposed to believe that experience doesn't matter... that being the governor of a tiny state whose issues and population have virtually nothing in common with the rest of the United States is a higher qualification for office than being a U.S. Senator.

- Sarah Palin was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. And now we're supposed to believe that she's a resolute, tough-minded reformer. (P.S. She never gave back the money. She never gave back the money. She never gave back the money.)

- We're supposed to ignore the irony of a former beauty queen accusing the Democratic nominee of vanity.

- We're supposed to scoff at Obama's "celebrity" based only on "his ability to give a good speech." Palin is now an overnight celebrity based on her ability to give a good speech.

- We're supposed to love the fact that Palin doesn't present herself as a "victim," yet all her surrogates have done since the announcement of her candidacy is paint her as a victim of the media. (Speaking of that, we were supposed to believe that Hillary Clinton was a whiner for complaining about double standards in her media coverage, but that with Sarah Palin, the claim is justified.)

- After claiming for years that the left engages in "class warfare," we're supposed to engage in "culture warfare," believing that Sarah Palin is an authentic person because she hunts moose, while Barack Obama is an elitist because (gasp!) he lives in a city and went to Harvard Law School.

- We're supposed to value putting country first and serving our fellow Americans, just not as a community organizer.

- We're supposed to believe in the benefits of hard work and upward mobility, but not when it comes to a mixed-race person of modest means earning an Ivy League education, serving on the Harvard Law Review, then, in his first run for the presidency, running a campaign that defeats arguably the biggest machine the Democratic party has ever known. (That latter achievement alone is, to me, far more impressive than the ability to shoot a moose.)

P.S. She never gave back the money. She never gave back the money. She never gave back the money.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Satire Keeps Me Sane

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cattily Blogging the Palin Speech

It's not I-rack, it's i-ROCK.
She has an annoying voice, that's good.
A black person!
Track?
Willow?
Piper?
The youngest daughter is really cute.
Trigg? What is this, Narnia?
Your family has the same ups and downs as any other. If a Democratic family had the same situation, your party would be talking about their "failure of parenting" and the glories of abstinence.
Your husband is in a union! Hilarious!
It's "snowmobile," not snow machine. Isn't it?
She sounds like Marge from Fargo.
"They're always proud of America." Nice not-so-subtle dig.
Hockey mom. PTA. They hope "hockey mom" equates to "soccer mom."
Pit bull joke. Not bad. Good timing.
Your kids are publicly educated. Hilarious!
Our opponents look down on that experience? Who? Give me a break.
Community organizer line, give me a break. You wouldn't last two seconds on the South side of Chicago.
"John McCain is the same man." The one who hates Jerry Falwell or loved him?
"The Washington elite." Your running mate is a member of that elite. WTF?
Oooh, dig on the media. You're a white Christian American heterosexual victim.
You stood up to the oil companies? Doesn't your husband work for one?
You got rid of a luxury jet. I guess no more Air Force 2.
I'm sorry, bragging about reforms in Alaska just doesn't impress me.
The bridge to nowhere was an earmark from someone in your own party, no?
Nothing on the environment or climate change yet. Should I hold my breath?
i-RAHN, not I-RAN.
"We need to produce more of our own oil and gas." "We've got lots of both." That was a blisteringly ignorant statement.
Here comes the case for drilling...
Ah, finally some mention of non-fossil-fuel energy. Thank you.
Dig at Obama for authoring books and not bills. Good red meat.
Republicans are so fearless about the childish digs. Styrofoam Greek columns. Nice.
Here comes the "big government" fear-mongering.
No mention that Bin Laden hasn't been caught.
No mention of federal deficit.
No mention of Katrina.
Taxes. Taxes. Taxes.
No mention of the state of health insurance.
They really must have focus-grouped this "Obama is only about his career" thing. Are you doing this because you have no ego?
I wonder if she's ever been out of the country.
You sitting across from Putin... hmmm....
I love how when a black person wants the presidency, it's egotistical and "ambitious." But when you want it, it's not.
Green is not Cindy McCain's best color.
Not a great finish, kind of came out of nowhere.
I'm shocked that she didn't make a more direct pro-life statement.
She's great for the base. She's not for me.
The baby is really, really cute.
McCain's here. Just like what Obama did. Is that now mandatory?
I hate to just come out and say it, but with this crowd, "America" really is a euphemism for "land of white folk."
Here come the pundits. Ish.
Wow, they used to say the Democrats were the party of negativity and no ideas. What was that but a speech of sarcastic digs and no actual ideas?
This is clearly a person reared on talk radio as her primary source of information.
This is a person who screams the same toxic combination of "arrogance" and "ignorance." I don't really want four more years of that.

Wall St. vs. Wal*Mart

The RNC is in my town. It's time for another political post.

About three years ago, it hit me that there are really two types of Republicans: Wall Street and Wal*Mart. Today, they're more commonly known as "fiscal conservatives" and "social conservatives." They are united in their hatred of liberals--the former because liberals are tax-and-spend, welfare-loving anarchists; the latter because liberals are God-hating homos. (The party is really run by Wall Streeters who are pragmatic enough to know that they need the Wal*Marters to win elections.)

This somewhat uneasy alliance reached its peak under George W. Bush. In fact, Karl Rove can properly be called a political genius for recognizing in W. a rare individual who can appeal to both factions. His ancestors are pure Wall Street: extremely wealthy and Ivy-League educated (the latter now dubbed "elitist" when it comes to Obama). But W. himself, with his Midland accent and faith-based sobriety, also appeals to the Wal*Marters.

Dispute the elections all you want. It worked. The party got eight years to spread its ideology as far and deep as it could. But it paid a price. To appease the Wal*Marters, it filled hundreds of positions in the DOJ and elsewhere with Liberty University graduates and anti-evolutionists. As a result of that (and many other things), many of the Wall Streeters have backed away and fractured the party. All of the Wall Streeters I know quietly voted for Kerry in 2004.

Now, their supposedly "maverick" candidate has done the ultimate: chosen someone who appears to be a Wal*Marter to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. She speaks tonight about three miles from my house. The Wal*Marters already love her. I eagerly await the reaction of the Wall Streeters.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What I Wanted to See

He has the killer instinct. At this point, that's what matters most.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Exoticism"

I had made a prediction in the past that I was appalled to see come true tonight, and I feel compelled to write about it immediately. After watching Michelle Obama's speech and its subsequent nauseating over-analysis on CNN, I flipped over the to the good folks at Fox News.

As if the moment had been scripted, Brit Hume called on Charles Krauthammer for his take, and the man uttered some derivation of the word "exotic" about six times in 30 seconds.

Michelle Obama's speech was designed to counteract her husband's "exoticism." I knew... effing KNEW that the right would choose this word as their euphemism of choice. What better way to play the subliminal race card than to conflate Obama's ethnicity with the shocking fact that he has lived in Hawaii and Indonesia?

This offends on so many levels, I don't know where to begin. Besides its insidious bigotry, it also adds a nice dose of xenophobic anti-intellectual ignorance to the mix (part of the reason I love the neocons so much)... as if the fact that a person running for the president has (gasp!) lived abroad is a bad and dangerous thing instead of something that maybe gives him a better perspective. The fact that the right is trying to rebrand Hawai'i (a state, people) into something "exotic" and scary would be hysterical if it wasn't so pathetic.

Watch out for this, people. "Exotic." Obama's "exotic past." His campaign's "exoticism problem." Make no mistake, with its strained anti-intellectualism, the right is far closer to the dreaded Communists than a thousand tweed-wearing college professors in Madison.

Go Obama.

Two Ways of Thinking


I've been looking for a way to package this observation, and I haven't been able to figure it out. What I'm hoping is that by the end of this post, I'll have it.

When it comes to politicians, there are two ways of thinking. Well, there are lots of ways of thinking, but the only way to make a point seem even remotely interesting is to simplify it into two camps. In my case, the two camps are "in vacuum" and "in context."

The easiest example to illustrate what I'm trying to get at is the Monica Lewinsky affair. Using Vacuum Thinking (hey, I just capitalized the words; I'm getting close to the "package"!), I was outraged at the outrage. It was a personal matter. I don't care what happened to whom in the Oval Office or anywhere else. The brutal truth is that philandering has nothing to do with leadership. In fact, a convincing case can be made that the relationship is inversely proportional (the ol' "Hitler didn't smoke, drink or cheat, but Winston Churchill and FDR..." argument). Someone who makes bad personal decisions often makes very good professional ones, and vice versa.

On the other hand, using Context Thinking, I'm more outraged now than I was then. This type of thinking always starts with the words, "As a professional, you should know better than to..." Using this thinking, the act was reckless and damaging beyond comprehension. What you did not only brought you down, but damaged the party that put you in power, and thus everything you're supposedly trying to accomplish... paving the way for the next president to be chosen purely based on the perception of his personal morality, even if he's not fit for the job in any other way. (See what that got us?)

In looking at this year's presidential election, I move between these two ways of thinking in analyzing the candidates. With Obama, it goes to the heart of the American Contradiction when it comes to choosing candidates: You want someone who seems nice, down to earth and truly different from other politicians (Vacuum Thinking), but you also want someone with a killer instinct who understands the political system and is willing to do the dirty work to win (Context Thinking).

With McCain, it’s almost in reverse. I want to believe that his Evangelical Elite pandering is simply him doing what it takes to win (Context), but that once he gets in the Oval Office, he’ll go back to his free-thinking, mostly rational ways (Vacuum). McCain’s campaign recently floated the idea that he would only run for one term. That made him much more attractive in my eyes, because he wouldn’t have to spend his first presidency running for his second term, and he could stand up to his base.

We'll see if the conventions shed any light on this. In the meantime, I find myself in the odd position of reading about how Obama, out of political necessity, has ticked allies off in Chicago during his rapid ascendancy ... and seeing it as something in his favor.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Spew

The rewrite is done. Time for some time-released pent-up opinions and observations.

What is a pimiento, really? And who the hell was the first person to think of stuffing it into an olive?

Prediction: There is a group of people somewhere in San Francisco getting set to perform as the first all-iPhone band. Oops, too late.

For the first time in memory, I'm actually dreading a Notre Dame football season.

Apparently, afros are scary, even in cartoons. My son loves the Curious George movie and a cartoon called Lil' Bill, created by Bill Cosby. All of the African and African-American males in those cartoons are bald. All of the females have straightened (usually braided) hair. Why?

Hilarious short skit (no, that's not Jack Black and Sarah Michelle Gellar):



There are a shockingly large number of websites that offer hip-hop dictionaries and translations.

There are shockingly few hip hop terms for "prison."

"Who Killed the Electric Car" is a fascinating movie. Not because it features rich Hollywood celebrities mourning the confiscation their vehicles, but because it shows how an organization can create something successful, and then logically find it in its best interest to make it fail.

If you want a realistic taste of just how difficult it will be to change our energy infrastructure, see "Who Killed the Electric Car."

If you think that's an excuse for doing nothing about it, get real.

The only podcast truly worth your time is This American Life.

The #1 cable channel in terms of viewers is the USA Network. No opinion; just stating a fact.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Forced Hiatus

To the five people who actually read this blog:

Bye Bye Shadowlands is going on hiatus until the end of July. The reason: My Deadbeat Boyfriends screenplay now has an executive producer attached who wants to pitch it to the major studios. That all sounds great, except for one thing: He wants one more rewrite. Like, now.

It's a daunting task, but an offer I can't refuse. And realistically, the only way I can get it done is to remove all competition for my time. That's why I'm closing Conk Creative, sending my son to Mandarin Camp for two months and renting a room at the Holiday Inn Express in Chaska.

(I kid. I have a mortgage. I have a COBRA payment. I would never willingly go to Chaska.)

All I can realistically do is eliminate small distractions, and since writing BBS is just about my favorite thing to do, it's gotta go... mostly so I have more time to watch every Judd Apatow movie ever made.

See you in a month, by which time I should look something like this:

Friday, June 20, 2008

48 Hours of Pure Fun

Well, the festival is over. We premiered last night at the Riverview to good reviews, but alas, did not win the audience favorite award for the night. No matter, it was a fabulous experience. Tyler Richter, Brian Larson, Pfoser, Jen Manogue, Steve Johnson... you guys are simply the best.

And now, enjoy the film.

Genre: Drama
Mandatory Character: Mr. or Mrs. Perkinson (a substitute teacher)
Prop: a fish
Line of Dialog: "You look very familiar."

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Special Request for Bill O'Reilly

Dear Mr. O'Reilly,

I've long admired you as a source of unfiltered truth and perspective. We share a common vision of America, and we know instinctively which elements of our free society serve to clarify, blur, obscure or darken that vision. You have never hesitated to shine a spotlight (whether politically correct or not) on the people, trends, schools of thought and ways of life that erode our well-earned exceptionalism. But to my mind, you have never upturned the rock that exposes the dangerous culture I witnessed first-hand last week.

A warning up front: This may shock you as much as it did me. Right here in the Heartland--right here in Minnesota, but also in an estimated 24 states in our union--lives a sect of some 200,000 people who openly turn their backs on this great nation. A complete list of their transgressions is too lengthy (and frightening). So in the interest of brevity, I will highlight only the most egregious.

The most extreme members of this group will not set foot in a Christian church--not only by choice, but by law. Despite the fact that this group has actually lived quietly for generations in this country, its people refuse--to this day--to speak English in almost any circumstance. (Its fundamentalist sect does not even deign to teach its children our mother tongue until the age of 7.)

Not only do these people shun American schools (deeming them unworthy) ... not only have they built their own ... but, in a frightening act of cultural appeasement, activist judges in our own U.S. courts have allowed these sleeper cell institutions to be constructed legally, with almost no oversight, under the guise of "religious freedom." (A frightening precedent for anyone who has witnessed the mainstreaming of the Muslim prayer room.)

In addition to thumbing its collective nose at our language and heritage (and sporting the funny beards that seem mandatory in splinter factions), this society also offers a flirtatious wink to socialism. When a man in its ranks does well financially in any given year, he is mandated (under the laws of the group's own quasi local government) to redistribute his wealth to other men whose work ethics fall short. Expectedly, this hippie-utopian ideal has resulted in an almost complete lack of proper incentive, bringing entire communities to the brink of poverty. I should add that this group does not deem our democratic elections worthy of participation. And, in an apparent attempt to destroy any modicum of accountability, it openly favors what we might call "going off the grid."

Now, if this were an isolated, disorganized society with no blueprints for fortifying its ranks, it would not draw or deserve scrutiny. However, I direct this question to you, Mr. O'Reilly: What would you estimate to be the average size of a family in this sect--four, five, six? In truth, it lies somewhere between seven and eight. As you no doubt are aware, if one ever questions a group's true ambitions and motives, its birth rate is the deadliest of giveaways.

And so, with this evidence presented, Bill (may I call you Bill?), I humbly request that you shine your no-spinescent light on this dangerous, anti-American, anti-English-speaking, anti-Capitalist fringe society. Thank you.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Thank You, Charles Krauthammer

Thank you, Charles Krauthammer. Thank you for demonstrating, in just one commentary, everything that is wrong and downright laughable about the Media Right.

Today’s syndicated effort, “The Radicals Are Back, Now Wielding the Environment” elicits a chuckle just from the title. (Imagine some crazy slobbering commie socialist lefty guerilla charging at you while wielding … the environment?)

But Krauthammer’s obfuscation, conflation, deception and manipulation are really no laughing matter.

1.

“I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier. I’m a global warming agnostic.”

From the get-go, K tries to equate global warming with religion. The device is simple: Use the language of atheists and agnostics (who presumably are “pro” global warming… a nice manipulative conflation) against them. I appreciate the attempt, but there’s one small problem. Religious zealotry is based on belief. Global warming alarmism is based on fact.

One cannot, at this point in time, “believe” or “not believe” in global warming. It’s something you either accept or don’t. And if you don’t accept it, it’s not because you have six close friends who actually study the issue using real instruments and real numbers. Face it, it’s because you just don’t want to. You don’t want to because it means you can’t sustain your lifestyle, you don’t like people telling you what to do, and/or you own stock in, work for or get paid by someone (directly or indirectly) with billions of dollars at stake in casting doubt on the issue.

2.

“If Newton’s law of motion could, after 200 years of unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation, be overthrown, it requires religious fervor to believe that global warming is a closed issue.”

Nice try. Really, Krauthammer is a good writer, and that’s what makes arguments like these all the more insidious. This is the latest example of something the Media Right does incredibly well: Common Sense Nonsense. “Hey, scientists once thought the world was flat, too!” “I can’t predict the weather tomorrow, let alone 20 years from now!” It’s brilliant manipulation.

The stock market can’t be predicted tomorrow, but financial planners make a living predicting its behavior over the long term, based on evidence. Newton’s laws of motion were never “thrown out,” they were given greater context by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Doctors (who are scientists, people) once thought bleeding with leeches would cure your brain tumor. Today, I’d bet if your doctor told you to start chemo for that brain tumor, you wouldn’t say, “No, you guys once thought the world was flat. I’ll wait.”

(Side note: The threshold of “factual proof” for people like Mr. Krauthammer is so much higher for global warming that it was for going to war with Iraq. Why is that?)

3.

“Guess who does the rationing?”

I actually agree with the context of this zinger (that nuclear energy is an important part of the global warming solution). But K’s point is that the “Church of the Environment” eschews nuclear energy in favor of rationing, because the government does rationing, and liberals love government. I guess then, by the transitive property of logic, that a climatologist working in Britain who thinks knowing your carbon footprint is a good idea must then work for the United States government. (And K must be against the rationing that took place in World War II.)

The Media Right constantly plies its audience with the claim that “liberals love government” but “hate America.” (I’ve never understood the implied contrary point: that conservatives love their country but hate the institution that runs it… except the military.)

But to really understand this issue, consider this: Politics and method acting are the same thing: Look at who’s saying what, and ask yourself, “What’s their motivation?” Nobody loves government. The only motivation to love government is if you’re already in government, and you want absolute power. Academics warning the world about climate change are largely outside of government (especially the executive branch), so that doesn’t make any sense. Besides, if you want to take over the government, there are far more effective means to do so than “wielding the environment.”

The right thinks the left loves government because the left recognizes that in our history, the federal government has sometimes been the tool of last resort to blunt lawless behavior and correct social discrimination. Ending slavery? Had to be the federal government. Giving anyone except land-owning white men the right to vote… to VOTE… the federal government. Punishing corporations who ignore the law? If the industries can prove their moral fortitude and earn the right to self-regulate, great. Most haven’t. Has to be the government.

* * *

Here’s what K doesn’t want you to know. The people who “wield the environment” have little or no financial stake in that position. (Quick quiz: If Al Gore was motivated by money, would he: a) write a book on the environment and do a documentary; or b) become a K Street lobbyist for the oil and gas industries?). The people who keep saying “there’s no proof, we need more study, science is squishy (but it's time for my prostate exam)” by and large have an enormous financial stake in taking that position.

Which one do you trust?

Friday, May 30, 2008

See This Movie: "Son of Rambow"


Here's a movie saddled with a two-headed marketing albatross: For the Blockbuster Crowd (BC), who is indifferent to (or despises) independent film--especially "foreign" independent film--it's indie and foreign. On the other hand, for IFFs (Indie Foreign Filmers), it boasts a title that reeks of "blockbuster." You can't win with a formula like that.

And yet, this movie does win. Big. And both crowds should see it. Here are two messages, customized for each audience.

* * *

To the BCs:

You had to have liked "Stand by Me." Think of this as a sort of "Stand by Me," but with only two kids and no railroad tracks. Imagine a 10-year old who's never seen a movie or TV show in his life, and the first thing he ever sees is "First Blood," and he goes nuts. He wraps his school uniform tie around his head. He puts on war paint and attacks scarecrows. All the while, he and his trouble-making buddy set out to covertly produce their own movie called "Son of Rambow" (they misspell it because this is the '80s, and "Rambo" hasn't come out yet... that and maybe for legal reasons) to win an amateur film contest.

The movie is funny, imaginative, touching (especially if you have a crazy boy of your own). It brings back all of those ridiculous '80s memories, mostly with its soundtrack. And, to top it off, it makes fun of the French.

To the IFFs:

Ignore the title. This movie has nothing to do with "Rambo," okay? Not really, anyway. It's not a war movie. It's not a violent movie. It's not a testosterone-tinted car-chase-cacaphonic Surround-Sound-saturated super-sensory blitzkrieg meant to overstimulate you into commercial submission. It's a British film about friendship, family, belonging, and most of all, the struggle between imagination and the forces that try to quash it for no good reason.

The directing is lively without being indulgent. The acting (particularly from the two boys) is stellar. It's a serious movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. And it succeeds in delivering a genuine and sincere tug at the ol' heart strings.

* * *

Now get off your collective asses and see the movie. Here's the information for Minneapolis.

Yes, BCs, you'll have to venture to the terrifying confines of The Lagoon. It's okay, there's Tex Mex nearby and no one will think you're gay if you throw out the "Stand by Me" line. IFFs, don't worry that your friends will think you've gone Rumsfeld... just say "British" and "coming of age" when you describe it.

Go.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Actually, Think Inside the Box

(This is a joint post with Chaos2Clarity.)

I was sitting in a small auditorium on the campus at Hamline University, listening to a young poet named Li-Young Lee. He was a wild and brilliant writer, incomprehensible to me most of the time. But as a speaker, he was amazingly clear, and one thing he said has always stuck with me. In discussing the abstract idea of contradiction, he said, "As an architect, the best way to communicate 'space' is to enclose it." If I remember right, to illustrate his point, he cited Grand Central Station.

Over time, I've shortened my interpretation of that insight to simply this: Creativity is born of restriction. Yes, popular culture is awash in stories and images of artists who only bloom when they shake the shackles of oppression--political, religious, cultural, mostly familial. And those who deal with creative types constantly hear them whine (often justifiably so) about being too restricted. But if you doubt that restriction is absolutely essential to creativity, keep in mind that poets themselves created the insane constraints of the haiku.

In my own experience, I've witnessed it several times. The song I use as the soundtrack for my Conk Creative website: We had just enough studio time left for one live take, and it turned out to be the most popular track on our CD (despite my sloppy guitar playing). The screenplay I recently optioned: I sputtered for more than a year until I decided that I had to complete a draft in time for a contest deadline. With my Conk Creative blog, I created the "CC Pick 3" email in part because I knew it would force me to publish at least three posts a month (this is number three for May). And keep in mind that pop songs and screenplays are already two of the most highly structured vehicles in their creative families. The latter is mandated to be written in three acts, not to exceed 120 pages in 12-pt. Courier font, with margins of 1.5 inches on the left, 1 inch on the right, top and bottom.

Most recently, I've enrolled for the 48 Hour Film Project, a contest in which you draw a genre out of a hat, then have 48 hours to create a film longer than four minutes, but less than seven minutes. We'll see if this level of restriction proves to be oppressive, liberating or both. (Note to clients: This post should have no bearing on setting deadlines for future projects...)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Death Becomes Them


For some completely bizarre reason, I've suddenly become enamored with many of the characters (and two particular periods) in American history. In the last month or two, I've digested the HBO "John Adams" series, as well as audiobooks of Lincoln's Melancholy and the Thomas Jefferson Presidency. I've read Mark Twain's The Gilded Age. I'm now in the middle of his The Innocents Abroad, and I'm also listening to a Twain biography I just picked up at Barnes & Noble.

This cast of characters basically covers two eras: the Revolution, and Civil War/Reconstruction... the late 1700s and the late 1800s. While so much can be said about these men and their influence on politics, culture and literature, the one common element of their lives and times that sticks with me is simply this:

Death.

We forget, in our padded modern existence, simply how hard life was... and how normal (almost expected) it was to witness the death of one's siblings and children. Consider:

- Mark Twain was one of seven children. Three died in childhood, one at the age of 20 (and Twain himself was largely bedridden for the first four years of his life).

- Abraham and Mary Lincoln had four sons. Only one made it to adulthood.

- Though John Adams himself lived to the age of 90, his daughter, "Nabby," died of breast cancer as a young woman, and his son, Charles, died of alcoholism.

- In addition to a stillborn son, Thomas and Martha Jefferson saw three daughters die before the age of 3.

Does a study exist that correlates premature experience with loved ones' deaths with leadership qualities... or something even less tangible: personal character? It makes one wonder, what childhood events will the biographers of future American presidents and literati be relegated to unearthing in making the case for their subjects' future greatness? The traumatic experience of getting one of their Twitter accounts canceled when they were nine?

Bring back small pox! Resurrect the bilious fever! God Bless America!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

R.I.P. The WiFi Squatter

Dear Fellow Squatter:

Times are tough in Squattistan, and growing tougher. Back in the Golden Age, a card-carrying member of the Overhead-Free Clan could saunter into any coffee shop and enjoy free, robust, reliable WiFi service. No longer, Squatter. They are attempting to banish us.

The first warning bell sounded at the Linden Hills Dunn Bros one month ago. To my surprise, I spied an abandoned corner table near the One True Thing ... not natural light, of course. I speak of Proximate Electricity. And not just one outlet. Two units, each with four outlets! (In my naivete, I rejoiced. In retrospect, I should have smelled Denmark's rottenness...)

In accordance with the Squatter Rules of Engagement, I planted my flag (computer case) on the table PRIOR to purchasing my first beverage. Away, interlopers! Iced Americano in hand, I returned to my temporary homestead, released the MacBook Pro, connected the two ends of the white Apple power cord and waited for the little dot on the square magnetic computer connection to turn green. My friend, it did not light.

I explored another plug. Nothing. I moved to the other outlet. Nada. A malfunctioning corner, clearly. I spied a less-desirable table near the play area for kids. Careful not to lose my home, I maintained my empty case at the corner table and carted the MacBook yonder. Another glorious four-piece of pure voltage awaited. I engaged. But no green. Different plug, same non-result.

I stepped to the counter to initiate Barista Diplomacy. The ambassador lifted a crooked finger and pointed to a far wall. "The laptop crowd is allowed to sit along that perimeter only. All the other outlets have been turned off in fairness to our other patrons." And with that, my friend, a shiver shivered down my shivery spine. "They're onto us," I thought. "The end is nigh."

Since that fateful moment, the pieces of Grand Conspiracy continue to merge:

- The Caribou on Grand and Snelling requires Squatters to purchase a libation for every hour of WiFi use.
- All other Caribous allow Squatters to receive, but not send, email (Sisyphusian problem-solving at its cruel finest, comrade).
- WiFi service at the Dunn Brothers at Lyndale and Franklin has always been spotty at best. But now, management has lost all urgency in remedying the matter. (A world without compassion, my MacBook Brother.)
- When last I darkened the door of the Longfellow Grill Dunn Brothers, I received a WiFi airport signal, but no actual service. (Cruel and unusual, my Squatter Sister.)

We are an accursed race, my friend. The infidels are banishing us to the ghettos. The Caffeine Oligarchs are consolidating their power. 'Tis time to reconstitute and seek amnesty in a more promised land.

Either that, or work from home.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Kid Is Totally Normal


But his friends are nuts. Here's a little three-minute music video of the kid's fifth birthday party from last month... set to the musical stylings of Wilco and Woody Guthrie (Mermaid Avenue).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Movie Ramble: The Conversation (1974)

You've of course heard of Westerns, Thrillers, Romantic Comedies, Satires, Dramas. You've also heard of Buddy Movies, Road Trip Movies, Quirky Indie Movies, and Cross-Genre Mashups. To these I'd like to add a sub- sub-genre: the Sensitive Voyeur Flick.

Far from making fun of these movies, I think they're actually some of my favorite films. Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is still my all-time number one. One of most engrossing movies in recent memory was "The Lives of Others" (2006), written and directed by a man with the most uber-German name in modern history: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. And now I've seen the film that undoubtedly influenced him, "The Conversation."

Haven't heard of "The Conversation"? I hadn't, and I can't imagine why. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola between Godfathers I and II. It stars Gene Hackman. It includes a corporate punky-looking Harrison Ford in a creepy supporting role. And it's a fantastic flick that adds weight to the idea that the '70s might just have been the true Golden Age of Film.

What these three films share is a particular kind of protagonist: the unhappy man who cruelly eavesdrops on other people until he suddenly begins to care about them. L.B. Geoffries is laid up in his Chelsea apartment, trying passive-aggressively to avoid the bounds of marriage, when he starts to wonder what happened to the neighbor's wife. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler spies for the East German Stasi when he starts to care about the welfare of a renegade writer he's supposed to send to prison. Harry Caul cleverly records a couple's conversation on a San Francisco square (for a client known Orwellianly as The Director), then tries to thwart the murder he suspects will happen based on the evidence he has unearthed.

Surprisingly, "The Conversation" is in many ways the most restrained of the three. Jimmy Stewart's character is actually a pretty happy-go-lucky photographer who stumbles into his voyeurism and uses it to discover his real love for Grace Kelley (what the hell took him so long?). Ulrich Muhe spends stoic hours with the headphones on, but his character transformation is actually fairly traditional.

Hackman's Harry Caul is hard to peg. He's stoic, of course. He's (fittingly) obsessed with his own privacy. But it's not exactly clear what causes his change. It's not that he falls in love with the woman in jeopardy. It's a larger raising of conscience and consciousness, climaxing in a unique way when he realizes that that he's now being spied on, and he destroys his own apartment in a futile attempt to find the bug.

All of these films work because thematically, they exist in a mirrors-upon-mirrors world in which voyeurs (we) watch other voyeurs. As the protagonists begin to care about their spy subjects, we begin to care about the voyeurs. And as our daily lives seem more and more to be exercises in a two-steps-removed human existence, these films resonate like never before.