Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Lying is done with words and also with silence."- Adrienne Rich

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday Video

When I was young,
it seemed that life was so wonderful,
a miracle, oh, it was beautiful, magical.

And all the birds in the trees,
well, they'd be singing so happily,
joyfully, playfully watching me.

But then they send me away
to teach me how to be sensible,
logical, responsible, practical.

And they showed me a world where
I could be so dependable,
clinical, intellectual, cynical.

There are times when
all the world's asleep,
the questions run too deep
for such a simple man.

Won't you please,
please tell me what we've learned?
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.

Now watch what you say or
they'll be calling you a radical,
a liberal, fanatical, criminal.

Won't you sign up your name,
we'd like to feel you're
acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

At night, when all the world's asleep,
the questions run so deep
for such a simple man.

Won't you please,
please tell me what we've learned?
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Directed towards anyone who might think that extremism is the way to go.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world.

You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world.

But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out.

Don't you know it's going to be alright?

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plan.

You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We're all doing what we can.

But if you want money for people
with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother,
you have to wait.

Don't you know it's
gonna be alright?

You say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We'd all love to change your head.

You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead.

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.

Don't you know it's going to be alright?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Gender, Sexuality, and a War of Words

Third-wave Feminist thinker, political consultant, and author Naomi Wolf published a recent column in Harper’s Bazaar regarding the subject of female rivalry. I assume this was drafted in response to Susan Faludi's inflammatory piece about intergenerational conflict within the movement itself. The underlying issue here is how the mainstream media gets lazy, referring to the same few designated "experts", who are believed to represent any minority or identity group in totality. It's insulting, but also far too commonplace. No single voice can speak for everyone and closer examination would reveal that no movement needs or desires a designated spokesperson.

Returning to Wolf's post, to make her argument she uses the example of an upcoming movie, Black Swan, that tells the story of two competing ballerinas, played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. I found the column fascinating, particularly in how it asserts that the onset of preteen cruelty is just the beginning of destructive behaviors waged between women based on competition. While reading this piece, I was thinking of most of my Female friends who manage life as best they can within the incredibly competitive DC young professionals scene. Additionally, the recent tragedy of LGBT suicides among young adults has made me realize that the same basic elements for violence are present in older adults, only that they are expressed and channeled differently based on age. These are, of course, no less cruel or sadistic, just found in a slightly different formulation.

Wolf states that,

Women tend to mix up love and longing with hostility, to be attracted to what they wish to condemn or destroy.

As a man, I know I can’t completely relate to that statement, though I am quite familiar with the concept of sour grapes. If I were much less self-aware and Feminist, I’m fairly certain that women I couldn’t attain could be easily dismissed and slandered as bitches or whores. How often do we see those same words spewed forth between women in the middle of having a knock-down, drag-out fight when not having so quickly turns to all-out hate and resentment. I certainly have seen anger and jealousy flash across the face of the man who sees a woman he wants with someone else, but I’ve seen this same phenomenon present with women, albeit magnified, with more participants, and on a much larger playing field. On the subject of personal grievances, men usually fight their wars alone, but women often engage the enemy in packs.

Having discussed the visual evidence, Wolf then takes a stab at the cause. The passage below is one of the most thought-provoking of the entire article.

In any vividly felt female rivalry, there can be an element of identification and attraction within the overall sense of hostility between women. It may be part of why close female friendships can become so risky emotionally that aggression or betrayal is the only “safe” redirection of energies. In Black Swan, the lesbian subtext of this relationship between the battling dancers surfaces directly. The element of attraction in same-sex rivalry is worth exploring. Data from the front lines of psychology shows that while straight men respond to straight stimuli and gay men to gay stimuli, women of whatever orientation tend to the bisexual in their physiological responses, though this arousal does not always register on the level of conscious awareness. How many times in the tensions between ostensibly straight women has an untenable attraction been redirected into a safe resentment?

So, is this internecine conflict merely a colossal case of love/hate? Do women get so emotionally invested in fighting each other because of a repressed sense of pure desire? Wolf certainly seems to think so. A former girlfriend of mine was fond of telling me that all women were bisexual, regardless of whether or not said fact was consciously acknowledged. Perhaps she was right, at least on some level. In between a biological imperative and cultural mores is the truth, and in this situation, it's difficult to know where one begins and one ends. But even more radical would be positing whether this same degree of animosity is true for everyone, regardless of gender. The concept of the man crush has found popularity recently, and I myself know the disappointment of being emotionally invested in a hero who has greatly disappointed since taking the Oath of Office.

Wolf states that women ought to strive to be introspective enough to discern the difference between true friends and snakes in the grass. The emotional intimacy and sharing commonly present between female friends proves to be particularly problematic when storm clouds appears on the horizon. What she is saying for certain is that radical self-awareness solves a variety of problems.

Women can repress the knowledge of the solution that lies within them, or they can risk the discomfort of close examination, which almost always lends itself to exponential growth once adopted. The enemy, then, is ignorance, not any other external scapegoat. Scapegoating and projecting both seem to be the tactic of choice for many women when engaged in conflict, but Wolf emphasizes that it needn’t be this way. We expect those in the world around us to look inside beyond the easy answers or the way things have always been done, but we have to be just as willing to change for the sake of health, too.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Thinkin' 'bout the times you drove in my car
Thinkin' that I might have drove you too far
And I'm thinkin' 'bout the love that you laid on my table

I told you not to wander 'round in the dark
I told you 'bout the swans, that they live in the park
Then I told you 'bout our kid, now he's married to Mabel

Yes, I told you that the light goes up and down
Don't you notice how the wheel goes 'round?
And you better pick yourself up from the ground
Before they bring the curtain down
Yes, before they bring the curtain down

Talkin' 'bout a girl that looks quite like you
She didn't have the time to wait in the queue
She cried away her life since she fell off the cradle.

Yes, I told you that the light goes up and down
Don't you notice how the wheel goes 'round?
And you better pick yourself up from the ground
Before they bring the curtain down
Yes, before they bring the curtain down

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Folk Wisdom for the Modern Age

At meeting this past Sunday a Friend's message asked for help. Specifically she described a particular situation that was troubling her, namely the latest development of our militaristic society, the way that technology-based warfare can create atrocities just as easily as human hands. In so doing, she asked for specific prayers from those gathered for worship. I believe she was lamenting, in part, how human achievement can be so useful and so destructive at the same time. Many Friends rose to fulfill her request. They were so numerous, honestly, that I now have trouble now recalling all of them. One woman recited aloud the Lord's Prayer, which I memorized at a young age, as many do. Others provided words of comfort that were utterly foreign to me, but no less intriguing.

I myself would have gladly contributed, had a message arrived clearly that compelled me to speak. Sometimes in worship I get a fragment or two and no more. That was the case here. Sharing those out of context might seem a tad odd. In particular, what I received was a few lines from Rudyard Kipling's immortal poem, "If--"

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn out tools.

Much of what we create with good intentions can be manipulated for sordid ends. But, as an earlier line in the work reminds us, Triumph and Disaster are impostors. They are mere wind, hyperbole in place as a means to some end. This is not that our concerns are meaningless or invalid, but that it is easy to become believers in two polar extremes. As I monitor the news, I sometimes laugh to see how frequently the coverage shifts from thrilling victory to devastating defeat and back. With the upcoming midterm elections a few days away, we are about to enter a hyperbolic period where the winner and losers of a contest may switch places until the final votes are counted, with or without an automatic recount. The media will drive our perceptions and frame the debate for us, as always.

The Truth we speak will always be twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools. It's true for ordinary citizens and especially true for those seeking positions of great power and authority. This is not to seem dismissive of our individual concerns, but only to assert that so long as there is the promise of material gain, people will do anything that they can to achieve it. Sometimes the most absolutely imbecilic political ads I have ever seen prove to be the most effective of all. Sometimes not. Part of Politics 101 is the notion that well-run campaigns have us relate directly to whomever is running for office. The instant an otherwise complete stranger becomes equated with each of us individually and that, moreover, our future seems invested with theirs, then a campaign's electioneering is an unqualified success.

The human condition, as I understand it, is packed full of evidence and proof of struggle. Life itself could be defined as a person's struggle with adversity and his or her victory over it. We never escape hard times, conflicts, or realizations that cause us pain. Quantity and proportion are not terribly relevant in the end.

One of my most favorite poems of all time is Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son."

Well, son, I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

From the perspective of someone whose life has never been easy, I implore us all to keep on making their way up that hazardous staircase. Win or lose, rich or poor, we're all climbing. If we had a few words of wisdom to share with our fellow beings in times of strife, we would be all the better for it. What stories of ours will survive us to future generations? What advice can we provide to those who carry on after us?

Thought of the Day

How other perceive our beliefs is much more dangerous than what we actually believe.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ain't Got Nothin' At All

I have a sinus infection begging for medical treatment, and am headed to the doctor in a couple hours. As such, I don't have the focus and concentration needed to write a full post, so I hope you'll accept this performance video in its place.

This video can be applied to a variety of circumstances both in the news today and in one's personal life, but I think what I personally draw out of it most is a parallel to that Dylan lyric that says "if you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose".

Say a word for Jimmy Brown
he ain't got nothin' at all
Not the shirt right off his back
he ain't got nothin' at all

And say a word for Ginger Brown
walks with his head down to the ground
Took the shoes right off his feet
they threw the poor boy right out in the street
and this is what he said

Oh, sweet nothin'
she ain't got nothin' at all
Oh, sweet nothin'
she ain't got nothin' at all

Say a word for Pearly Mae
she can't tell the night from the day
They threw her out in the street
just like a cat she landed on her feet

And say a word for Joana Love
she ain't got nothin' at all
With every day she falls in love
and every night she falls
and when she does, she says

Oh, sweet nothin'
you know she ain't got nothin' at all
Woah woah, oh, sweet nothin', hey, hey
she ain't got nothin' at all
oh, let me hear you...

Oh, say a word, say a word for Jimmy Brown
he ain't got nothin' at all, not a thing
Not the shirt, shirt on his back
no, he ain't got nothin' at all

And say a word for Ginger
he walks with his head to the ground
They took the shoes, took the shoes, from his feet, from his feet
and threw the poor boy right out in the street
and then he said

Oh, sweet nothin'
She ain't got nothin' at all
she ain't got nothin' at all
She ain't got nothin' at all
she ain't got nothin' at all
She ain't got nothin' at all, sweet nothin'
ain't got nothin' at all, sweet, sweet nothin'
She ain't got nothin' at all

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Girl Versus Girl

Girl Vs. Girl

Everyone's experienced female rivalry, and now the movie Black Swan is taking it to new heights. Below, Naomi Wolf analyzes why we can't all just get along.

By Naomi Wolf

What was your earliest heartbreak? Was your first experience of emotional devastation caused by a guy? Unlikely. If you are a woman, chances are your first experience of emotional treachery was at the hands of another girl.

I recall being bothered by the fact that the adorable Mark C., the mop-headed sixth grader who resembled Speed Racer, was blithely uninterested in me when I was 11. But that discomfort was nothing compared with the devastation I felt when I slowly began to realize, as if I were in a horror film populated by preteen girls, that the cheerful board-game-playing trio I had helped create—of Claire F., Sarah D., and me—had somehow metamorphosed into a lip-gloss-wearing, cigarette-smoking, boy-kissing duo. It was I who was suddenly defined as being outside this charmed emotional space. It was not just the newly intimate friendship of my former two best friends that hurt so much, it was realizing how deliciously my exclusion, and their awareness of how I felt about my exclusion, added to the cachet of their new configuration.

I've seen this dynamic again and again. When there is a female rivalry, it is not done with dispatch; blood gets left on the floor. Men form rivalries or alliances with other men in order to achieve a goal: to take a battlefield or playing field. They don't need to do it in a way that leaves an emotional mess, tears, and recriminations. But when women are aggressive toward one another, the methods are stealthier and the fallout more bitter. Women tend to mix up love and longing with hostility, to be attracted to what they wish to condemn or destroy. It was for female friendships, not male, that the term frenemy was popularized.

And when women are in groups, often the jockeying for position, the alliance forming, the exclusion, and the power politics can be so savage that one starts looking around desperately for a whiff of testosterone just to calm things down.

Recently, a friend told me about her 15-year-old daughter, a bright, beautiful young woman who was savagely bullied by the alpha girls in her posh British prep school. They went after her clothes, her body shape, and her sexual behavior. The child changed schools—and a new group of alpha girls bullied her again. It was almost as if the new group had some unconscious primate ability to sniff out the injury and punish her all over again for her vulnerability.

I have witnessed this same dynamic repeated among adult women. They create intimate bonds that they then are appalled to find are betrayed or turned against them. I have often seen women's groups come to grief because a rivalry between two leaders and their followers becomes so rancorous that it shatters the group. I have seen the exclusion of one woman or group accompanied by so much glee from the others that it seems almost like a visceral behavior. I have even wondered if this reflex is evolutionary. Perhaps on the savannah, females had to form close, trusted groups to successfully gather food and rear children; perhaps they also needed to be able to brutally exclude a female outsider and her offspring—or a female perceived as threatening the group's survival—without regret, or recourse, when times were tough. If you look at when female alliances go bad, or when female rivalries become bloody, it is not usually about simple status, it is about a perception of scarce resources.

We rarely see this dark side of women's rivalry portrayed in the media; female friendships are often sentimentalized. In ads for Internet services or fashion or cosmetics, young women—usually in trios—dress up in miniskirts, laugh uproariously, and show one another images on their iPhones. We absorb narratives such as those surrounding the friendships in Sex and the City—in which the four female friends, though they may sometimes get on one another's nerves, are stalwart and loyal surrogate families.

Most scenarios of female rivalry in pop culture, where they do exist, are aimed at very young female audiences. In books and onscreen, the most elaborate dramas of female betrayal are aimed at preadolescents—the Gossip Girl series—and reality-TV audiences populated by young twenty-somethings. It is almost as if once you hit your mid-20s, you can't bear to look too directly at this kind of interaction anymore.

The upcoming movie Black Swan, with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, follows the rivalry of two young ballerinas in the heated context of the New York City dance world. Portman's character is virginal and shallow; her challenger, Lily, played by Kunis, is seductive, "darker" emotionally, and more sexually experienced, and Portman's Nina must absorb some of those qualities in order to achieve the coveted lead status in the ballet hierarchy. Coscreenwriter Mark Heyman drew on his memories of having been friends with a group of teenage girls who formed intimate alliances but also jockeyed for position and betrayed one another. "It was not as if they were not friends when there were these intense rivalries," he explains, intriguingly casting a male narrative eye on the hothouse nature of this kind of girl-on-girl combat. Heyman also notes that he was drawn to the material because there are so few treatments onscreen of major female rivalry (direct rivalry rather than a love triangle). Indeed, I could think of only one since The Women in 1939: Single White Female. He was also interested in the way the strict hierarchy of the ballet world threw this kind of power play into sharp relief, and he found it compelling that female dancers express their cutthroat rivalry in a context that is very indirect—that intense aggression is expressed in a way that is very polite and very restrained.

But adult women's rivalries can have tremendous power and fascination. Mary, Queen of Scots, was a thorn in the side of her quasi-sibling Queen Elizabeth I throughout both of their lives, until Elizabeth took the ultimate irritated-sister step and had Mary beheaded. Coco Chanel spent much of her career resisting the challenge posed by Elsa Schiaparelli. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis vied for the role of premier diva of their generation, and Jayne Mansfield famously tried to wrest attention away from rival sex siren Sophia Loren by using her impressive décolletage. We can recall the lurid drama of skater Tonya Harding, whose ex-husband attempted to disable her rival, the more aristocratic-looking, more privileged skater Nancy Kerrigan. And once when Christina Aguilera was asked about Lady Gaga, she slammed her: "Oh, the newcomer? I think she's really fun to look at."

Maybe, as women, we are finally becoming secure and self-aware enough to be willing to look at the real darkness behind this dynamic.

In any vividly felt female rivalry, there can be an element of identification and attraction within the overall sense of hostility between women. It may be part of why close female friendships can become so risky emotionally that aggression or betrayal is the only "safe" redirection of energies. In Black Swan, the lesbian subtext of this relationship between the battling dancers surfaces directly. The element of attraction in same-sex rivalry is worth exploring. Data from the front lines of psychology shows that while straight men respond to straight stimuli and gay men to gay stimuli, women of whatever orientation tend to the bisexual in their physiological responses, though this arousal does not always register on the level of conscious awareness. How many times in the tensions between ostensibly straight women has an untenable attraction been redirected into a safe resentment?

Do we become better people—better women—when we draw back the curtain on this painful, unflattering subject? Do we risk confirming what an antifeminist world wants to say of us—that we can't create workable teams, we can't lead effectively, and we are indeed treacherous and bitchy? Do we risk losing the victories of feminism in every previous generation because we can't for the life of us seem to be able to sustain a common cause without inevitably taking out the long knives?

I trust that in looking closely at this darker side of our own psyche, we will learn enough about ourselves to stop being held at the mercy of it. I trust that if you repress the dark side, it comes back to bite you, but if you drag it, protesting, into the light, that is the first step toward integration and perhaps a more real empowerment. Perhaps we should better learn which women around us are true friends and true allies and which women we should recognize for their alluring, socially cruel edge. And having recognized it, turn our backs on it and flee.

Birthday Video

Lather was thirty years old today,
They took away all of his toys.
His mother sent newspaper clippings to him,
About his old friends who'd stopped being boys.

There was Harwitz E. Green, just turned thirty-three,
His leather chair waits at the bank.
And Sergeant Dow Jones, twenty-seven years old,
Commanding his very own tank.

But Lather still finds it a nice thing to do,
To lie about nude in the sand,
Drawing pictures of mountains that look like bumps,
and thrashing the air with his hands.

But wait, oh Lather's productive you know,
He produces the finest of sound,
Putting drumsticks on either side of his nose,
Snorting the best licks in town,
But that's all over...

Lather was thirty years old today,
And Lather came foam from his tongue.
He looked at me eyes wide and plainly said,
Is it true that I'm no longer young?

And the children call him famous,
what the old men call insane,
And sometimes he's so nameless,
That he hardly knows what game to play...
Which words to say...
And I should have told him, "No, you're not old."
And I should have let him go on...smiling...babywide.

Quote of the Week

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness”- Richard Carlson

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

On the Turning of 30

On Sunday, I celebrate a major life event by leaving my twenties and entering a brand new decade. I have to say that thirty wasn't really on my radar screen until recently, but now I will begin negotiating my own role within it. Interestingly, until the past few months, I've always perceived lives and mindsets of those in their thirties as quite distinct, both from myself and where I felt I fit in with the rest of the world. Now I am entering the unknown, unsure of where I should place my full weight.

Speaking frankly, I have to say that I've really been dreading this birthday. Reasons why are numerous. What I am about to experience is often considered the end of youth, or at least the beginning of the end. And while I do feel like an adult, it has been disconcerting to recognize that adulthood has as many insecurities attached to it as so-called childhood. I suppose I felt that it would be more cut-and-dried, possessed of a kind of surety of purpose. Instead, like so many things, I've come to understand that adulthood is an eternal journey, not some destination to be reached.

I have also been forced to acknowledge that the definition of maturity has shifted with time. In a different time with different variables, I might very well have already been years into the employ of a particular company, engaged in the slow, but inevitable process of climbing up the ladder. These days, job security is anything but secure, and journeymen and women can expect to switch careers more than once. Anyone who behaved in such a fashion back then was automatically suspect by potential employers and other people. The problems evident now are a result of systems which have not been reformed to suit changing times.

I think it's the question of youth versus maturity that probably gets to me most of all. Women understand well what it's like to have to conform to a double standard, clinging to transitory beauty while also striving for the wisdom and knowledge only life experience can grant. Though most men wouldn't admit it, they're also privy to this kind of anxiety, though male physical beauty is not placed quite so highly on the list of societal priorities. I can be vain sometimes too, the same as anyone, and as a result I am in no hurry for my hair to thin out more than it has, or for the gray hair now perceptible at my temples to spread.

Entering any new age range is not as simple as crossing a finish line as in a race. One isn't automatically granted insight based on having grown one more year older, though this is often what is implied culturally. In truth, age thirty is a highly relative benchmark that assumes much but promises little. I'm discovering that I shouldn't lose my child-like sense of play, no matter how old I get. I'm also figuring out that everyone is trying to make sense of the same things I am, in their own particular way. How freeing it would be if we saw all of these standards of perfection on a continuum rather than an arbitrary value to be reached with enough hard work and personal sacrifice. Even so, these are difficult lessons to learn and I am not there yet myself, though I hope to be there eventually.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

All Night Stand

I've chosen this song to post because it tells the story of a celebrity who is unapologetic and belligerent for his behavior in his personal life. There are columns currently being written as I type this out to you about the same exact subject. The blame and shame game means business. Big business.

All night stand,
Been around seen a thousand places.
All night stand,
Seen a good half a million faces.

Because I've lived this life,
And I made it for myself.
If you scandalize my name,
Then you scandalize yourself.

Because I'm not to blame,
For the things that I've been doing.
You all say that I'm bad,
And I'll only end in ruin.

All night stand,
With a different one each night.
All night stand,
With two hundred miles to ride.

But I won't give it up,
As long as I can make the bread.
When I do, I shall stop,
Close my eyes and go to bed.

All night stand,
Been around seen a million faces, yeah.
All night stand,
Seen a good half a million places, yeah.

All night stand,
Can't get these people off my back.
All night stand,
Ten percent for this and that.

All night stand,
All night stand.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Maine Pictures

Neglecting the Emotions Neglects the Solution

We often think people are motivated to do something solely by facts alone. Instead, they are spurred to action by the feeling these facts produce. People make choices and decisions based to some extent on figures and concrete details, but it is the emotional impact these soberly presented bits of information create that really matters. It has been noted many times before that polls and other human-made means of discernment have limits because no one can truly understand what lies inside a voter's heart. This, in part, is what I mean. Unlike the typical columnist, I do not intend to use this introduction as a segue-way to rip into President Obama and the ineffectiveness of the (for now) Democratic-controlled Congress. Rather, I'd like to go well beyond.

What I am speaking to, in part, is a re-entrenchment of belief systems that see humanity as disconnected from the whole. A few days ago, I discovered a relatively recent video by RSA Chief Executive and former Labour (UK) politician Matthew Taylor on the internet. It discusses, in its own words, the 21st Century Enlightenment now underway. The presentation makes a series of very compelling points. Most notably, if, for example, you want to be a happier person, don't read a self-help book, just have happier friends. Changes in emotional environment are much more effective then a kind of monastic focus on the self as a means of personal satisfaction and achievement of wisdom.

We shouldn't resist the notion that our decisions are, more than we might wish to contemplate, driven by the feelings that rather bloodless knowledge creates within us. Voters won't always cast their ballots based on talking points appealing to reason. The most skillful politicians know how to strike the optimum balance between appeals to the senses and red meat platform statements.

For all the centuries of evolution that have come before us, we are still rather primitive in certain crucial areas. As the video points out, we aren't very good at making long term decisions, we are especially bad at predicting what will make us happy, and furthermore, we are utterly inept at being able to describe what made us happy in the past. 2008 was slightly less than two years ago. The mood in the air nearly twenty-four months ago could not be more distinct from how we are feeling today.

Certain pundits, politicians, and notable thinkers gave warning that the Era of Good Feeling then raging was ephemeral and that a recession this intense would prove to be a massive liability. We listened, but I'm not sure we had the capacity to understand. At this point in our development, we can at least identify the problem, but even with advance notice, drafting effective strategies is a severe challenge. Embracing that which we would otherwise derisively noted as irrational is the beginning of knowledge and effective reform.

The developmental psychologist Robert Kagan notes,

Successfully functioning in society with its diverse values, traditions, and lifestyles requires us to have a relationship with our own reactions, rather than be captive of them.

One cannot understand the Tea Party without keeping this in mind, to say nothing of Lyndon LaRouche. Pivoting to Feminism for a brief second, I can't count the number of times a story about rape or sexual abuse has created a sensation. Motivated by righteous indignation, people seem to leap over each other to register their indignation. Indeed, I have been one of them. But the most intense irony of all is that we are responding in the same fashion as the accused. His (and sometimes her) emotional, rather than rational act, deplorable as it may be, has triggered in us an equally passionate denunciation. My point is not to denigrate a justified and understandable reaction, but to note how quickly our rational selves are cast aside in the heat of the moment. The emotional response is just as intense by the perpetrators as it is for those who condemn it. If we saw cognitive dissonance not as something shameful or worthy of scorn but as a fight between our present and past, we might be really getting somewhere.

On the subject of feeling, rather than hard fact, Western society is completely driven by one critical emotion: shame. Americans have an especially intimate, cultural familiarity with it. Shame takes many forms but can confuse because it rarely shows itself plainly. The onus regularly takes hold early in life. You ought to be ashamed of yourself is the motto of many a parent, including my own. This same simple, but effective point shows up in campaign ads, stump speeches, activist discourse, and routine conversation.

If I am overweight and criticized by someone for it, I feel ashamed. If my opinions are passed over or invalidated by someone else, I am meant to feel shame. If I am different from the rest of my peers, the criticism I receive is meant to make me ashamed of who I am. If I am a member of a group that some find to be threatening, I am told to be ashamed of what I believe. If I state an opinion out-of-step with what someone else deems acceptable, I am to be ashamed for even daring to state it in a public forum. Here's an assignment for those who feel led to do it. Watch cable news for an hour and see how many stories are drafted with shame at its core.

Paradigm shifts are slow processes, but our world is nonetheless embracing the latest one. The pace or the tempo is of much less importance to me than the realization that change is no abstraction, nor is it a now much-parodied campaign slogan. What we expected to see is not what we have been granted, but one cannot ask for change on one's own terms. Caught as we are between two extremes, both of which influence the other, it is imperative that we take a more realistic look. This doesn't mean we ought to lower our sights, but that we distinguish the feasible from the impossible. We've learned that outdated models are an enemy of reform, but what we struggle now for are the hearts and the minds. Focusing on minds alone will leave us just as confused and discouraged as we are now. Don't blame the message, blame the blueprints.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Does Faith Depend on Biology?

Some have postulated before if there is, in fact, a strictly biological component to faith. For example, many scientists, mathematicians, and left-brain dominant individuals are Atheists. They see no role for a higher power, since the scientific process and deductive reasoning can reduce the unexplainable to mere coincidence or chance. To them, the universe is as neat and orderly as an algebraic equation. Taking delight and contentment in perfection, the same formula or theorem always works the same way and always produces the same result. I never doubt the constant need for people whose ways of looking at the world are so different than my own, but they also present significant challenges. Getting on the same page without confusion is not the least of these.

Right-brained people like me, by turn, have often experienced that which cannot be explained by human thought alone. Few of us find the mystical to be an abstraction. The world is full of experiences that words and concepts cannot accurately reproduce or reflect. We often see the analytical concepts so useful to others as mere constructs of the human imagination. Absolutes are few and a variety of interpretations can answer the same query. This certainly explains why Quakers gather together, since they have similar characteristics in common, though I have noticed the same qualities in other people of faith. Faith groups often contain many of the same occupations and life experiences. As I believe it, Kingdom of God is open to all who would believe. Until a person attains faith, of course, he or she will always have doubts and be skeptical.

At the foot of the mountain, a large crowd was waiting for [Jesus and his disciples]. A man came and knelt before Jesus and said, "Lord, have mercy on my son. He has seizures and suffers terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. So I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn't heal him."

Jesus said, "You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me." Then Jesus rebuked the demon in the boy, and it left him. From that moment the boy was well.

Afterward the disciples asked Jesus privately, "Why couldn't we cast out that demon?" "You don't have enough faith," Jesus told them. "I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it would move. Nothing would be impossible."

Even now, we still are without a convincing canon of complete comprehension. I speak of religious belief in particular, but this also applies to every area of human life. Faith does not contradict seemingly contradictory pursuits. Those who prefer complete precision in thought and expression may find that the messiness of belief in God takes them out of their comfort zone. But I do know that not believing now does not imply not believing forever. On that subject in particular, I have heard stories of heavily analytical people who developed faith through personal tragedy and prolonged suffering, either by themselves or by someone close to them. For the first time in their lives, they were suddenly forced to contend seriously with the fact that it is quite possible to be mercy of something that cannot be calibrated or measured to the micrometer.

I've written about two particular skill sets, but my argument can be expanded. Those who practice medicine sometimes fall into the same way of thinking, though not always. Specific fields of practice are more inclined than others, since human knowledge is severely limited in some areas and more complete in others. A psychiatrist, for example, knows just how insufficiently understood is the human brain. A practitioner whose job responsibilities are rather routine and perfunctory might think otherwise. But regardless of occupation and brain hemisphere, faith and belief put us all on the spot from time to time. I may intuitively sense the unexplainable, but my own perception can sometimes lead me to conclusions which are inexact or flat out wrong.

As animals, we attempt to make our own way through life, responding to the environment and climate that lies before us. We also are provided the gift of intellectual reasoning and with that the ability to ascertain the presence of the Divine. Our conception of either is not as crystal-clear as we would wish it to be, but perhaps we should appreciate the ability to even be able to perceive a fraction of that complexity. I know I have been fortunate to have scaled those heights before and come away awed from the experiences, my faith restored.

If we did not experience periodic discomfort, we would not grow. Having our views challenged will not kill us, nor cause us undo pain. There is room for much learning, provided we open our ears and eyes to it. Sometimes we chart a course that is unhelpful, so being redirected in a healthier direction is often what it takes to correct us. Our lives are not fully ours to own or claim. Some of us, however, are more stubborn about surrendering control of the helm.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Quote of the Week

"A woman obsessed with her body is also obsessed with the limitations of her emotional life."- Kim Chernin

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday Video

Harry was a rich young man
who would become a priest
He studied with his father
who was recently deceased

He did it with tarot cards
and a mystically attuned mind
And shortly there
and after he did find

Jeanie was a spoiled young brat
she thought she knew it all
She smoked mentholated cigarettes
and she had sex in the hall

But she was not my sign
or any other kind
of animal
that I would be about

But you keep hangin' round me
and I'm not so glad you found me
You're still doing things
that I gave up years ago

You're still hangin' round me
and I'm not so glad you found me
You're still hung up on things
that I gave up years ago

Raymond was a stranger
who had come from parts unknown
He had no hair upon his head
so he did not use a comb

Kathy was a bit surreal
she painted all her toes
And on her face she wore dentures
clamped tightly to her nose

And when she finally spoke
her twang her glasses broke
And no one else could smoke
while she was in the room

But you keep hangin' round me
and I'm not so glad you found me
You're still doing things
that I gave up years ago

You're still hangin' round me
and I'm not so glad you found me
You're still hung up on things
that I gave up years ago

Hark, the herald angels sang
and reached out for a phone
And plucking it with ivory in hand
dialed long distance home

But it was all too much
sprinkling angel dust
who didn't wish you well, not at all

Oh, but you keep hangin' round me
and I'm not so glad you found me
You're still doing things
that I gave up years ago

You're still hangin' round me
and I'm not so glad you found me
You're still doing things
that I gave up years ago

Friday, October 15, 2010

Latest Multi-track Recording

I haven't used the multi-track recorder in a while, so I decided it was time again. This is an Everly Brothers cover, so it justified backing harmonies. This version will win no awards for perfection, but was fun to do.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

War By Another Other Name

Still very much processing the words exchanged recently regarding the generational differences in Feminism, I submit this exercise in personal anecdote. While writing, I reflect upon the limitations of my gender on the topic, no matter how much of an atypical representative of it I may be. My hope is that I might foment some needed dialogue and begin the healing process.

A female friend and I had an interesting exchange a few days ago. Both of us are musicians and as a result frequent the same social circles. We also use the same music store to buy the things we need. I ran into her while on my way elsewhere, having purchased my latest pair of new guitar strings. She had been there a few minutes before me, as I gathered from reading the name across the front of the bag she carried with her.

Making conversation, I described two particular female employees of the shop as always pleasant and helpful to me. She, however, had a very different opinion altogether. Quite frustrated, she complained how rude and unhelpful they were to her. To be clear, my friend is not the sort of person to make unreasonable demands on anyone or to unnecessarily complicate anyone's job for any reason. When I worked in retail, those two exasperating bad habits from customers were the only ones capable of really setting me off. And while I do believe my friend, it seems incomprehensible that our experiences could be so diametrically opposite to each other.

There are lots of reasons for extremes such as these. Part of it is that we are more pleasant to any person to whom we find ourselves physically or intellectually attracted. That is the nature of the game. I myself have learned over the years that strategic flirtation can grease the wheels quite like nothing else. The positive response I received may have corresponded to the quality of customer service I received. Regarding my friend's experience, a lack of attraction might have explained such a frosty reception. Being made to feel attractive and wanted goes right to our core and validates that we are worthwhile. This is true for men, but I think it is more prevalent in women, since a large portion of a woman's self-worth is tied up in seeming appealing to the opposite sex. This has been frequently discussed in Feminist discourse and I return to it for the sake of emphasis.

Of course, in all of this I am speaking from the perspective of a man. Even so, through observation and listening I have been well-informed of precisely how callous, rude, and mean women can be to each other. The possibility for ceaseless competition and adolescent backbiting seems to lurk behind every corner, waiting to show itself at any time, for any reason. Whether it be for an promotion at work, a significant other, or the status of most involved and engaged parent, women are often far harsher towards each other than towards men. These are only a few examples. I'm sure there are many more. On several occasions prior it has been mentioned that women must stop fighting each other before they can ever achieve the kind of solidarity needed to break the choke hold of Patriarchy. The reasons for this historic division are important to understand, but introducing a culture of cooperation and mutual trust is the most pressing need of all.

Similarities are present between man and woman at face value, certainly, but in this situation, biology, societal conditioning, and personal bias muddy the waters considerably. It's tough to know where one begins and another ends, since they wrap themselves around each other so tightly. Until someone manages it, issues of translation will continue to be great challenges.

What worries me most are certain behaviors which I have observed in some female friends and acquaintances over the years. They fall under a desire to exact revenge inflicted upon them earlier in life by dominating, controlling, or inflicting pain on other women. This is the problem with violence of any sort. The people we damage to avenge our own damage are rarely the ones responsible for it. Men do much the same thing, of course. We call it war. The masculine approach produces the risk of death on the field of battle. The feminine equivalent seems to be a living hell of sorts that one can never escape by any means.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Glass Onion

I told you about Strawberry Fields
You know the place where nothing is real
Well, here's another place you can go
Where everything flows

Looking through the bent backed tulips
To see how the other half live
Looking through a glass onion

I told you about the walrus and me, man
You know that we're as close as can be, man
Well here's another clue for you all
The walrus was Paul

Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah
Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah
Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah
Looking through a glass onion

I told you about the fool on the hill
I tell you man he's living there still
Well here's another place you can be
Listen to me

Fixing a hole in the ocean
Trying to make a dove-tail joint, yeah
Looking through a glass onion

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shall We Resemble Our Founder, Or Our Creator?

"I was to bring people off from all the world's religions, which are in vain."

A bold pronouncement for any age, this is George Fox in his own words. My respect for Fox is immense, but I must admit I simply can’t agree with it. Put this way, Fox comes across as something of an agent of intolerance, not an inspirational leader.

Last week, I spoke at some length to a friend who has expressed interest in Quakerism. I directed her to the usual channels and, some days later, she summarized to me what she had read. “Let me get this right,” she said, “Your founder was a wandering, searching, seeking, independent, strongly opinionated, often frustrated young man who believed that a person’s connection with God requires no intermediary”. She laughed.

Though we readily acknowledge that there is that of God within each of us, we should also note that there is that of George Fox within us, too. We possess both the majesty of the Divine and the coarseness of the human. I don’t always agree with everything Fox said, just as I frequently have issue with specific biblical interpretation. The Bible is a book of such density that it can accommodate a thousand specific meanings. In those days, Fox made the case for his faith strongly, believing its merits to be superior to those of other religious movements of the time, particularly competing Separatist sects.

In an era where the Religious Society of Friends had lots of rivals, this might seem a necessary choice to make, but nowadays, believing that one religion is better than another is a serious threat to pluralism. One might even hear it from a Republican politician.

An equally problematic passage of scripture proclaims,

"Don't imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household!'”

Taken literally, this is a deeply inflammatory passage. It has been used to justify war or to criticize Peace Churches like ours. However, I’ve never taken it as such. A greater meaning would seem to be in force. And on this subject, the footnotes in my Bible state,

“Jesus did not come to bring the kind of peace that glosses over deep differences for the sake of superficial harmony. Conflict and disagreement will arise between those who choose to follow Him and those who don’t. Yet we can look forward to the day when all conflict will be resolved.”

I am reminded of this when I contemplate just how many schisms and divisions Quakerism has undergone over the years. Being that we carry within us the memory of George Fox, we often believe that our unique branch, yearly meeting, organization, tradition, or manner of worship is the correct one, and that someone else’s is in vain. One could even make a case, pointing directly back to the source, that we are actually not behaving in ways that are un-Quakerly. Though some may say we may have a jealous God and a jealous founder, my vision of real unity chooses to think in other terms.

I look forward to the day when all conflict is resolved. I look forward to the day that we resemble more our Creator and less our founder. Cross-branch work is incredibly difficult, and at times even I have questioned whether such gaping divisions will ever really close. Our tempers and passions flare along ancient faults. Hot heads or warm hearts? I suppose we’ll always have a choice.

Monday, October 11, 2010

In Response to Feminism's Generation Wars: An Open Letter


Here an introduction for the layperson. The past several months have seen a flurry of postings and columns in which Generation X and Y Feminists have expressed exasperation at the ways of their Baby Boomers mothers. Snark and sarcasm factors have been high. This argument has quickly grown very personal indeed. Linked below is the latest salvo in a growing war of bitterness and resentment. What I have written here may not be worded as tactfully as it needs to be, but I wrote it feeling decidedly annoyed and opted to keep my initial response. The essay I have referenced is snide and condemnatory, so I couldn't help but return a volley or two of my own.

Dear Ms. Pollitt,

In response to your recent column on the subject of Feminism’s generation wars I decided to draft this open letter. To some extent, (and to your credit, you acknowledge this) there is friction between each generation of every movement. I myself am about to turn thirty, and find myself sometimes exasperated at the conduct and behavior of those much younger than myself. Yet, I do recognize that there are eighteen and nineteen-year-olds who are currently doing impressive work, work the envy of those three times their age.

Sometimes stating the obvious is helpful. What we are taking on here, regardless of age or generation is a massive task known as “changing the world”, hopefully for the better. The world is a very complex place, with lots of people in it. Not all of them are white, educated, middle class, or baby boomers. So, as I have written before, it would seem that diversity and inclusiveness goes beyond just being fair or nice. Both ensure that reform might actually succeed. Young people are part of that great wealth of alternate viewpoints, and, taking your advice to heart, I suppose we could form our own organizations, provided we were ready to accept failure. The problems facing us now are too crucial and too imperative for that. Future generations need our cooperation, else their challenges will be more daunting then our own.

Though you may not even consciously realize it, Ms. Pollitt, you want to live forever. Identifying strongly with your generation’s crop of Feminists, you wish for their accomplishments to persist eternally. This is an understandable, very human impulse. You desire others to appreciate your hard work well past your own earthly demise. You wish to be noted in books, documentaries, and magazine articles. This is an easy enough temptation to succumb to, particularly for those who achieve some degree of fame or renown in their own lifetimes. No one wishes to have their own toil and sweat utterly forgotten by future generations or, worse yet, to experience the indignity and loneliness of being an afterthought in one’s own time.

I’m very different from you. Admittedly, I am also a complete unknown in most circles, only marginally known in others, and influential to a very modest few. But our ways of looking at achievement could not be more different. If I give an inspirational message in Quaker meeting, compose a decent song, or write a well-received short essay, I fight against the impulse to accumulate more attention and more adoration for my own sake alone. Unlike many, what I bring forth into the world is not about me. That which I create or cast into the universe may come from my lips, my brain, or my fingers, but each of these gifts from God are for the benefit of everyone who might find them helpful.

Remember, we are trying to change the world here, not ensure that our names will grace buildings, scholarship funds, or charity runs to benefit a debilitating disease. Those feed our egos, but they do not feed our souls. I know you did not write your original critique through the lens of religion, Ms. Pollitt, but as a spiritual person, I have a tendency to look for faith as a successful means of smoothing away interpersonal division. If I did not, I too would be worried about whether I was leaving an indelible mark. Truthfully, I sometimes still do, but I have the means in front of me to stop it, provided I listen to that plaintive voice.

I’d like to respond directly to one particular passage that you wrote.

But you know what? People in their 20s and early 30s don't usually get to run big established national organizations – groups with large budgets, and lots of staffers, and donors who need care and feeding, and certain set ways of doing things. In 2001, when Anthony Romero became executive director of the ACLU at 36, its first Latino and first gay leader, he was replacing Ira Glasser, who at 63 had been running the show since 1978! The changeover was a very big deal and rocked the organisation for several years.

I try to keep many things in mind. I never forget that my own faith was founded by a twenty-four-year old spiritual seeker, wanderer, and itinerant preacher. Jesus was thirty-three when he started his ministry. The Buddha was thirty-five when he is said to have reached enlightenment. Joan of Arc revitalized the French army at the age of seventeen, eventually being burned at the stake as a heretic at nineteen. Aisha, one of the prophet Muhammad’s wives, became a major scholar of the law and military leader in her own right. She is even now a looming inspiration to Islamic Feminists. There are other examples of those who revolutionized the world at a tender age, relatively speaking. Knowing what I do about the human spirit, I have no doubt that some driven, opinionated, charismatic, passionate young adult may make the world over anew once more. Leaders come in many forms, of course.

We are, and should be, in the business of rocking many an organization. What happens often is that those who have poured their life energies into something, as you put it, want to live in the memory of past triumphs. In effect, one begins to live in a time warp. Have no fear. No one will forget the good things you’ve done, mainly because you won’t let us forget. New times call for new solutions. We could start our own spaces (and we have) but what good does it do us if we’re working at cross-purposes? Embrace that you are finite and that there is a finite amount of work anyone can accomplish in one lifetime. When the day is done, no one could ever accuse any of us for not having given it our all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Quote of the Wek

"It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry."- H.L. Mencken

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Saturday Video

On what would have been his 70th birthday...

We all shine on.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Young Voters Are Apathetic? Look Closer.

Some incumbent Democrats in danger of being voted out of office are attempting to lean heavily on the youth vote this election. I applaud anyone's effort to reach out to that particular group, though I have to say the act seems tinged with desperation rather than genuine, lasting outreach. Voting demographics must be cultivated and allowed to flourish with time, not reached for when desperately needed. Considering this attitude, I find it unsurprising that few politicians can rely on such a crucial group. Instead of throwing one's hands up or lecturing in hopes of creating guilt and shame, I argue that politicians, pundits, and columnists need to look at the subject very differently.

Many a counter-productive argument has begun with the premise that young people are fickle and irresponsible. Actively involved Young Adults like yours truly have understandably taken offense to them. There are any number of highly motivated people in the 18-29 demographic who take voting seriously. I know many personally. What I have observed in my own life is that an air of cynicism regarding the effectiveness of government is usually to blame for non-participation. What is not in force here is a kind of slothful refusal to perform one's civic duty.

There's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at play, too. Politicians assume young people won't vote, so they don't even try to develop strategies to get them to the polls. Bribing them with cheap hopes and promises will backfire just it does for any other voter. Sincerity is the missing quotient here, and anything that smacks of mere political posturing is often easily recognized as such. Pandering to any identity group--without first asserting a genuine desire to establish ties that last beyond November runs the same risk. Requesting a seat at the table is a reasonable request, and yet many politicians act as though it's some intolerable special favor. No one would ever question the soundness of a desire to specifically tailor a message to the African-American community or the LGBT community, and yet many think otherwise as regards the young.

I admit that I was one of the few seniors in high school who looked forward to being granted the right to vote. However, the presumed "apathy" present in my peers was merely a result of never being adequately informed by parents or by teachers as to why casting a ballot was such an essential act. The civics and government classes everyone was required to take were presented with so little conviction and interest that few students got much out of them. Is this emblematic about how we as a society feel about such a crucial process? When educators do not know how to present needed material in effective ways, perhaps the method of delivery, not those who are to learn it, should be held at fault.

In great contrast, my family was very politically active and involved. Candidates for elective office and their positions on issues were regularly discussed around the dinner table. Even as a small child, politics was a frequent topic of conversation. Some families may have talked about the weather or the anatomy of an average day at school or work, but not us. There was a strong expectation for me and my siblings to register, do research on the latest slate of names, and then be certain to show up at the polls. In my boyhood I remember the excitement felt the evening of Election Day, watching wave after wave of updated election returns scroll across the bottom of a television screen. I experience the same thing today.

Using Obama 2008 as a textbook example of how to successfully appeal to Young Adults is, I fear, not terribly helpful. That was a perfect storm of charisma, message, metrics, timing, luck, showmanship, and skillful planning. Much like receiving two blizzards back to back, as was true last winter here in DC, I doubt we'll experience another such election for a long time. The hard work in getting votes is much less compelling, often drab, but no less important. An exercise in building bridges is what is needed to attract and reach those whose voting participation has been sporadic for the past several years. Let us also not forget also that the fear of being drafted against one's will and sent off to die could motivate almost anyone of any age. Times have changed, as have the concerns of the youngest voters.

Much as we ought to do our own homework regarding those who we might place in positions of authority, they ought to do the same amount of homework to reach us. I hardly find this a selfish demand. The irony is that we are surrounded by diversity of all sorts on a daily basis, particularly those of us who live in large cities, yet we keep to ourselves and those like us. I often feel that way while out walking by myself in New York City. It seems strange how alone I feel when I am surrounded by twenty million people. Those who enjoy needling the younger generation for its perceived flaws, regardless of the group or context fall into the same category. Marginalized people of any persuasion have no obligation to explain themselves to those who benefit from privilege, but getting to know one's neighbors ought not be a chore. Being diverse is not a punishment or a chore, rather, it should be a pleasure. But so long as we see it as the former, and not the latter, expect more articles about lazy young people and low voter turnout.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

On The Subject of Bullying

I Said, "No, No, No, You're Wrong"

She said, "I know what it's like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad."
And she's making me feel
like I've never been born

I said, "Who put all those things in your head?
Things that make me feel that I'm mad
And you're making me feel
like I've never been born."

She said, "You don't understand what I've said."
I said, "No, no, no, you're wrong."
When I was a boy, everything was right
Everything was right

I said, "Even though
you know what you know
I know that I'm ready to leave

'Cause you're making me feel
like I've never been born."

She said, "You don't understand what I've said."
I said, "No, no, no, you're wrong."
When I was a boy, everything was right
Everything was right

She said,
"I know what it's like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad.
I know what it's like to be dead."

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Reform of Any Sort Comes with a Margin of Error

The 1961 Luis Buñuel film, Viridiana, concerns the pious exploits of a young nun who lives in a small village. Meaning to do good in imitation of Jesus' ministry, Viridiana leaves the convent and decides to take charge of the moral education of the village's paupers. Despite her best intentions, she finds herself exploited, abused, and taken advantage of at every possible turn. Efforts undertaken to educate the village paupers in morality are an exercise in futility, a clear example of throwing pearls before swine. After the combined shock of multifarious trauma, Viridiana (Latin for Green) seemingly succumbs to the sin of the world by the film's conclusion. Noted reviewer Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote at the time: "The theme is that well-intended charity can often be badly misplaced by innocent, pious people. Therefore, beware of charity."

Since I have recommitted myself to Christianity, I have been moved to be vulnerable for the sake of personal growth. I don't seek purely selfish gain, but also a belief that doing so is the only way that we as a people will ever live in peace with each other. Where before I had a hard shell, I find myself empathizing with the plight of others. Where before I would shrug with indifference at the discomfort of those around me, now I burst into tears at even the suggestion of tragedy. Each of these are products of loving others the way Jesus told us we should.

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.

As for the problematic matter of seeking to assist those who would take advantage of our piety, I honestly think that's just a risk we run. We know, of course, that not every needy person is a criminal or manipulative con artist but having been burned a time or two, it is easy to think of the needy in the same way. As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy. As I think about my own life, I recall the stories told to me by Friends I come in contact with on a regular basis. Some may be Christian, and some guided instead by the Light, but many of them feel genuinely called to serve the less fortunate and make their living doing so. Even those I know to be agnostic or atheist are often led to serve others who do not possess what they do.

A Friend I know works in perhaps the worst section of town, which puts her in frequent, close contact with the sort of people most would avoid like the plague. The stories she tells are sometimes horrific, like, for instance, the time an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic threatened to shoot the entire staff. I'm not sure I could keep coming to work under those circumstances. One has to have a certain kind of mental toughness to not internalize the vast amount of negativity and potential for danger present there. And with that job, how does one balance the necessary traits of empathy without taking the sights and sounds of work home with them?

Michael Wood's review of Viridiana states,

[The film is] a merciless look at a world that cannot be saved...that of [a] young woman’s attempt to rescue a small portion of the world’s unfortunates... the overall effect is more spirited than that sounds—because of the endless, irreverent life in the filmmaking itself, and because of Buñuel’s commitment to the possibility of change, even when it seems impossible.

But the blasphemy is not against Christ and the Father. It is against the belief in progress—or at least the conventional sense of it...[for example] Viridiana’s project for improving the beggars’ lives. The beggars are not evil or the dark side of virtue. They are the unruliness of life itself, a reminder that pleasure and curiosity and appetite can always turn to destruction and violence. This is not an argument against pleasure and curiosity and appetite, or an appeal for law and order. It is a picture of a society that doesn’t understand its own needs. Buñuel’s skepticism and his sense of outrage concern the smallness of our vision of progress, our narrow attempts to achieve it through rational or moralistic planning, and our anxious disregard of the disruptive forces without which no society would be human.

Truer words were never spoken. When we make plans to improve the lives of others, we should use caution, recognizing that pure rationalism alone does not take into account often irrational people. As the phrase goes, conditions are subject to change at all times. Human nature is too changeable, too fickle. This doesn't mean we ought to shelve our dreams of changing the world, but that we should be sure to factor in a substantial margin of error. The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Live Version

"Everything I Never Told You Is True", live at Modern Times Coffeehouse. Recorded 1 October 2010.

The Guatemalan Syphilis Experiments Reflect on Everyone

When news broke last week about how the United States government funded and carried out syphilis experiments in Guatemala that had absolutely no scientific value whatsoever, the response was swift. A tone of harsh, unforgiving condemnation characterized nearly every media story, along with a punitive desire to punish those actively involved in the process. As is often true, we wished to wax indignantly about it and vent our frustration. What we might not have wanted to contemplate is our own individual role in the entire sordid mess.

I wrote a piece about adoption recently, and in it I quoted at length a doctor and eugenicist by the name of Henry Goddard. Dr. Goddard believed that those individuals of sound, strong, stable stock were themselves genetically superior to those who were not, who he labeled feeble-minded degenerates. He added that the gene pool and human race were weakened with the presence of those with chronic illnesses, of foreign extraction, or mental retardation and recommended they be removed altogether. Goddard’s definition of unfit human beings was so open-ended as to include just about anything or anyone. Those of higher social standing and class were more inclined to be deemed fit and healthy, while those not were more apt to be labeled weak and unfit to live. This wasn't the most offensive fact I uncovered. While doing additional research on Dr. Goddard, I discovered something absolutely shocking. Like me, he was a Quaker.

Goddard's other major contribution was his study of feeble-mindedness. Goddard's field-based research resulted in many publications, with the best known being The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. Although Goddard and his assistants studied hundreds of families, the Kallikak family remains the most famous. The family was that of a Vineland student, Deborah. The name Kallikak is actually a pseudonym created from the Greek words kallos (beauty) and kakos (bad). The Kallikak family was divided into two branches–one "good" and one "bad,"–both of which originated from Deborah's great-great-great grandfather, Martin Kallikak. When Kallikak was a young soldier, he had a liaison with an "unnamed, feeble-minded tavern girl." This tryst resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son, Martin Kallikak Jr., from whom the bad branch of the family descended. Later in his life, Martin Kallikak Sr. married a Quaker woman from a good family. The good branch descended from this marriage.

Goddard's genealogical research revealed that the union with the feeble-minded girl resulted in generations plagued by feeble-mindedness, illegitimacy, prostitution, alcoholism, and lechery. The marriage of Martin Kallikak Sr. to the Quaker woman yielded generations of normal, accomplished offspring. Goddard believed that the remarkable difference separating the two branches of the family was due entirely to the different hereditary influences from the two women involved with the senior Kallikak.

Goddard's work had a powerful effect. Scholars were generally impressed by the magnitude of the study, and The Kallikak Family became very popular. Critical reaction in the popular press was positive, with more muted reaction within the scientific community. For example, James McKeen Cattell praised the contribution and conclusions but criticized the research design. The Kallikak study was a powerful ally to eugenicist movements, including that of the Nazi party, and contributed to the atmosphere in which compulsory sterilization laws were passed in many states.

When we try to understand why people can do such brutal, inhumane things to other humans, sometimes we need to be reminded that those close to us and our own allegiances can be major offenders. It’s not comforting to me to know that someone of my own faith could so violate every conceivable Testimony and principle. Still, I suppose every group of any persuasion has experienced this every now and then. And, all things being equal, what is often not talked about is how pervasive the Eugenics movement was for a time. Goddard's work is a textbook example of that old adage which states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem, of course, is that once Pandora’s Box has been opened, others are free to build upon or use flawed science as a basis for even greater evil.

Nazi Germany is probably the most well-known example of this. Goddard’s teaching formed the basis for those who were practitioners of scientific racism, in part, the idea that some races of people were genetically superior to others. Echoed in Goddard’s pronouncement of degenerate people are denouncements of creative works deemed unfit for the Third Reich, called, appropriately enough, degenerate art. The Nazis may have taken the teachings of the eugenicists in an entirely novel, twisted, perverse direction, but they certainly had their inspirations. Goddard is an interesting study in that he was not regarded as a sociopath during the course of his work and was well-liked by many. He was as capable of creating worthwhile scientific discoveries as bad and even renounced his work later in life. And yet, what he brought forth into the world was latched onto by those without a conscience or much of a soul.

Eugenics had many believers for a time. People got so caught up in the movement itself that I believe they failed to understand the depths of that which they had created. And though it is an unsettling notion for any of us to contemplate, we all run the same risk ourselves in what we bring forth into the world. If we are seeking answers as to why the Guatemalan studies were allowed to proceed, not huffing and puffing, we may wish to take a look inside ourselves. Those of us who personally observed the many terrible products of a doctrine of Aryan superiority are instructed to never forget what they have seen. It astonishes me how quickly our own experiments in establishing a master race have been forgotten, as well as the names of those whose theories solidly formed it.

I mention all of this not in a spirit of jaded cynicism, but rather as a word of caution. To prevent this from happening again, I believe we need to take care not to believe that we are too pious or beyond being led in harmful directions. Science is a construct of human reasoning, but anything that provides simplistic solutions for complex problems needs to be closely examined. It seems almost reasonable in a way to eliminate diseased or otherwise damaged individuals from the human race, but we are not God. We do not understand the reasons why what we may deem abnormalities exist in the first place. So until we do, we ought to tread lightly. While that which our government has done does not reach the sadism of Josef Mengele or the Final Solution, one can still see how one idea led to another.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Men are generally more careful of the breed of their horses and dogs than of their children."
- William Penn.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Saturday Video

There's A Place

There is a place
Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue

And it's my mind
And there's no time
When I'm alone

I think of you
The things you do
Go round my head
The things you've said

Like I love only you
In my mind there's no sorrow

Don't you know that it's so
There'll be no sad tomorrow
Don't you know that it's so

There is a place

Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue
And it's my mind
And there's no time

When I'm alone

There's a place
There's a place