Monthly Archives: April 2014

Hypocrisy at Media Matters

Media Matters for AmericaMedia Matters for America is a great resource. They listen to Rush Limbaugh so we don’t have to. They’re kind of like Christ in that way: suffering for the sins of the right wing echo chamber. But I’ve always been a little bit skeptical of them, because let’s face it: David Brock has a questionable past. He is, after all, the totally unprincipled writer of The Real Anita Hill. And even after his liberal awakening, he used the same disreputable conservative tactics to push his book Blinded by the Right. I’ve always felt that Brock wasn’t so much a liberal as a New Democrat. And regular readers should know that I believe that the New Democrats have been responsible for destroying both the Democratic and Republican parties. (See for just one example, Robert Rubin and the Villainy of the New Democrats.)

So I was not surprised on Monday when Huffington Post published, Media Matters Employees Feel “Betrayed” By Management’s Opposition to Their Union. According to the article, “Media Matters management recently declined to recognize the union through the ‘card check’ process, instead exercising its right to force a union election under National Labor Relations Board oversight.” Card check is where a union can collect employees’ identification cards and present them to the management to indicate that the employees want to join the union. Businesses hate this because it doesn’t allow them to run their usual little campaign of fear and intimidation to change the vote. And because we don’t live in a democracy, companies are not required to accept card check.

But Media Matters is a liberal organization. Being liberal is a big part of their brand. Surely they would accept card check! But of course not. Because when you get right down to it, Media Matters is still a company, even if it is a nonprofit. The managers still make more money than the workers. And the more money the workers make, the less will be available for management salaries. And those salaries, while hardly excessive are certainly not bad. According to Poynter back in 2011:

David Brock (chairman/CEO): $286,804
Eric Burns (president): $240,579
Tate Williams (chief of staff): $162,812
Eric Boehlert (senior fellow): $115,000
Ari Rabin-Havt (VP-communications and strategy): $134,484

I could be all wrong about Media Matters, of course. And I thought I was when I a saw a Politico headline today, Media Matters “Not Opposed” to Unionizing. But all the article did was reinforce my original suspicion. Vice President Angelo Carusone said, “People have that right, so yea, of course they do. It’s a choice. What’s guided us the entire time is making sure the process is really clean.” If I had not yet made it out of preschool, I might accept that. But I have and so what I see is that Media Matters is doing what all companies do when faced with unionization: stall. They want time to organize themselves so they can kill the unionization effort.

It is possible that this move will be bad for the bottom line at Media Matters. But I doubt it. I suspect the rich people who give money to organizations like Media Matters are the same kind of New Democratic “liberals” who believe in individual rights and equity—as long as it doesn’t cost them any money.

Afterword

Actually, the issue with unions isn’t usually about money. It is about power. Management does not want to give up any of the power that it has. Of course, when forced to, management quickly gets used to it. I suspect the managers at Media Matters are fighting this because it is an affront to their feelings of self-worth. I hope the workers don’t back down. But if they do, I understand. It is not a good time to be a worker in America—a fact of which I’m sure all the managers at Media Matters are aware.

Literally Crazy Commenter

Conspiracy TheoryI continue to find myself facing ethical questions I do not really feel comfortable dealing with. About a year ago, I created a YouTube video, These are not very bright guys – All the President’s Men. It is just a clip from that movie where Deep Throat tells Woodward that that he shouldn’t believe everything that the media said about the Nixon administration being brilliant, “The truth is, these are not very bright guys.” I put it up because I come back to it again and again in life. We are fooling ourselves if we think we have things under control. And that’s especially true in politics. I used it as an illustration of the potential dangers of the Republican Debt Ceiling hostage taking. That could have gone very wrong and it still could.

The video is only 15 seconds long and half of that is titles:

The video has never gotten many views, which is not surprising; I think I’m one of the few people on the planet for whom the line has any special meaning. And I had never received any comments on it. Until today.

I got a comment by a guy I’ll call WM. I’m not giving you his name because I don’t want him coming around here for reasons that will be obvious in a moment. And also, I think the nicest thing we can do for him is to leave him alone. In addition to what is most obviously offensive, the whole structure of the comment strikes me as being very much like what I’m familiar with of marginal schizophrenics. I don’t know, of course. But I feel very sorry for this guy.

What I don’t think most people understand about schizophrenia is how the person suffering from it has the experience of not being quite sure what reality is. This tends to make them very frightened. We see it as paranoia, of course. But from their perspective, this is rational. They can’t know that the conspiracy is not “out there” but rather “in here.” So I really do feel bad for anyone suffering from such a thing.

Here is a slightly formatted version of what he wrote:

The real story is not the whos and the whys and the hows of the break in of the Democrats but why the jews wanted Nixon out of the Oval Office. And, as we all know, only a PhD who studies meticulously about our jew society and how the jews manipulate people into situations to destroy them. Why did the jews want Nixon out of the Oval Office. That is the story behind the story. Of course, the second question is why was Alan J. Pakula murdered on the NY LIE after I met with him and gave him and Harrison Ford copies of my Federal Civil Right lawsuit that exposed the NASA and DoD jews plan on attacking America in order to ramp up the DoD spending__and why I was thrown out of NASA for laughing at them for insinuating that this was not legal and not good thing for the country. Of course, Harrison Ford was not in the car with Alan Pakula! Makes you wonder__the LIE? And, the Sussex County Detective at the scene of the crime? Det Frank Stallone? Go Figure!

In 2014 the DoD budget including the NSA, CIA, NASA, FBI, and MTV is at about 500 Billion or 1/2 the National Budget! The 911 attack was very effective since the jews own the Intelligence Agencies and the MIC in jewish America.

Just to clarify a few things. Pakula directed All the President’s Men. Harrison Ford starred in Pakula’s last film, The Devil’s Own. LIE is Interstate 495 in New York. Pakula was killed in a gruesome car accident but I’ve never heard anything to suggest that it was anything else. I think he is implying some kind of conspiracy that must involve Ford, since he still walks the earth. Frank Stallone is the name of both a Suffolk County detective who was involved in the case and Sylvester Stallone’s musician brother. Is he suggesting a Hollywood connection there? I can’t say. Nor can I say if he actually worked at NASA, but given all the guy knows, he is clearly smart.

Of course, what most people will notice is that this comment is about as antisemitic as you can be in writing. But based upon other things the guy has said and done, he seems to be one of those people who think the world is controlled by reptiles mascaraing as humans. I guess they are who he thinks the “jews” really are, which is an inventive take on an old bit of hatred about Jews not being human.

Mental Illness Is Not ContagiousMy guess is that he was a smart and creative young man and the disease came upon him in his twenties, as it usually does (late teens, early twenties). And maybe he was working at NASA until he became unstable and they got rid of him. The society is particularly bad about helping the marginal cases. And think about it from his perspective: the world starts to come unglued, he loses his job, and largely becomes isolated. You’d want to find answers and I think he can be forgiven for coming up with reptilian jews who rule the world.

But my ethical problem is much simpler than trying to fix all the problems of the world or at least our nation. Should I allow the comment to stand? After all, I’m kind of a free speech absolutist. What he wrote was vile, but he does have a right to say it. Just the same, it doesn’t lead anywhere good. For one thing, it has nothing to do with what my video was about. And at best it would be ignored. But it might start a flame war. And it would certainly make anyone even marginally Jewish feel at least somewhat bad.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to see the moral imperative to be about him and not the rest of society. For his own good, I canned it. (YouTube had already flagged it as spam.) If I can’t get the guy help, the least I can do is to not give him any exposure. I looked at his comment thread on YouTube and it was filled with very understandable reactions to him that certainly don’t help. So the less attention the better. But it’s sad.

A Brief Look at Doodle 4 Google Winners

GoogleAs you may be aware, there is a contest for school children, Doodle 4 Google. The Google Doodles are, of course, the special Google displays that commemorate things like South Africa Freedom Day. And sometimes they are animations, like the one they did for Claude Debussy’s 151st Birthday. And sometimes they are even games like my all time favorite Google Doodle celebrating Roswell’s 66th Anniversary. (I have written a thorough analysis of it.) But mostly they are just pretty images that act to spice up the usual boring Google home page.

The idea of the competition is not just artistic. The students are supposed to visualize the future. According to Google, “Since the beginning of time, ideas big and small, practical and playful, have started out as doodles.” So I was keen to see what the kids came up with. And yesterday, the winners from each state were announced. They are divided into five sets of ten winners in the grades K-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9, and 10-12. You can vote for the one that you think is the best. I don’t think I could pick just one myself. I figured that they would be great and they did not disappoint. So I thought I would share the ones that I liked most in each group.

I’m especially impressed with the K-3 group, because I don’t remember even being able to talk when I was that old. I can’t imagine coming up with anything as zany and cool as Jason Rosado’s Time Extender, which he explains as, “If I could invent one thing to make the world a better place, I would invent a machine to slow down time so we can have longer days. It would float in space and put a force field around Earth to slow down Earth’s rotation.” Rylie Cottrill wants to cure cancer, but I was especially charmed by the equations she used in her entry: C-4÷7=Z=C12-B. I have no idea what it means, so it very well may be the cure for cancer. But I was blown away by Annaliese Tester’s Clean our World with Litterbot:

Litterbot - Annaliese Tester

The 4-5 group is even better than some of the later groups. Connor Heagy created a beautiful image for his wonderfully fanciful The Trashformer that “turns trash into clean water and flowers.” Inga Zimba did a really cool thing with “Google” and Honeycombs as well as highlighting a really important issue, “I would invent robotic bees that could follow living bees to their hives to gather and record data in hopes of discovering what bees need humans to do to reverse the effects of Colony Collaspe Disorder, otherwise known as the mass disappearance of honey bees. Bees are vital to life!” But Shashi Arnold’s flying cardboard box is just irresistible:

Imagination Transportation - Shashi Arnold

The 6-7 group really ups the the artistic level. But I’m also impressed with the intelligence and wit. Josie Psimer offers us a language translator for dogs called the “Howl Ya Doing 3000.” Christine Anna Jeong offers the Galactic Express, which she visualizes as a railway in space. But since I am an old softy, I present to you Esther Park’s vision of a truly utopian future, Freindship:

Friendship - Esther Park

With the 8-9 group, some cynicism starts to creep into our worldviews. This is especially true of Aaliya Jaleel’s The Heart Reader, of which she says, “Some people tell us that what they are doing is for our benefit when it’s not. The heart reader ‘reads’ a person’s heart and reveals their personality and true intention.” The image is also great with muted pastels. But even Renaise Kim wants to create binoculars that make people see the world more optimistically. Of course, they aren’t all in this category. Lucy Zhu wants to wipe out tornadoes and Ansley Grider wants to cure cancer. But my favorite certainly implies a jaundiced eye on our world: Yanming Wen’s Looking through another’s eyes. It involves eye glasses that allow one to see the world through another’s eyes:

Another's Eyes - Yanming Wen

The graphic designs of the 10-12 group are astounding. Yet they haven’t lost their innocence. Isabel Waller, like Connor Heagy above, wants to turn garbage into flowers. But her image makes me think she may be the next Bill Watterson. Justin Whitehead wants to cure obesity by making broccoli taste like Oreo cookies. And Bronte Mock wants to create biodegradable plastic. But I was especially moved by Amy Carlson’s Ideatriever. How she is not already a star illustrator in the children’s book publishing industry, I do not know.

Ideatriever - Amy Carlson

All these kids make me wonder what I did with my life. It’s all wonderful, fun, smart stuff. This is the best I’ve felt about the future in a long time. (But it will pass.)

Update (9 June 2014 7:57 pm)

The overall winners were announced. To some extent, I think it is wrong to try to pick a single one even in one age group. They were all great. But it is interesting that only one that I highlighted—Amy Carlson’s Ideatriever—won an age category. And only one that I mentioned—Renaise Kim’s Brighter World through Binoculars—won an age category. My tastes are clearly rather different than most people’s. Or—and I think this is much more likely the case—some parents were much better boosters for their children’s work. Which makes the whole idea of winners even more silly. But again: congratulations to all of the kids. They are the best of what we are.

Conservatives as Bullies

Malcolm NanceWhenever I think of conservatives in the general sense, I think of a quote by Malcolm Nance. According to Wikipedia, he is “a former US Navy Senior Chief, SERE instructor, and expert in prisoners of war and terrorist hostage survival techniques.” So he’s a serious guy in the arts of war. But after 9/11, he was forced to work with the Bush administration chicken hawks. He derisively referred to them as practicing “Tom Clancy Combat Concepts.” He characterized their attitude, “We’re going to be hard, we’re going to do these things, we’re going to go out and start popping people on the streets and we’re going to start renditioning people.”

Other than racism (which is related), this is the conservative mentality. Liberals have “bleeding hearts” but conservatives think they see the world clearly because of their hearts of stone. This is why every lower class white guy I run into is a Republican. They want to be “tough,” so they vote for the Republicans. But really, the Republicans are not tough in any sense of the word I know. They are simply bellicose. And it isn’t even a real willingness to fight. It is just the rhetoric of strength. Real men don’t feel the need to threaten violence.

Chris ChristieThat brings us to Chris Christie. He is just the governor of New Jersey. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t really care about him. But he is the ultimate example of the brutish behavior that undergirds the rhetorical appeal of conservatism. You see it throughout the movement. It is evident in Ted Cruz And Allen West. But Christie illustrates what is most important about conservatism: he is a bully.

So it was with some glee that I saw Andrew Prokop’s article in Vox yesterday, If You Dispute Chris Christie’s Budget Estimates, He’ll Go After You—Even if You’re Right. It tells the story of a two year bullying campaign that Christie was engaged in against the highly respected head of the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services (OLS), David Rosen. In 2012, Christie came out with a ridiculous budget that assumed the state would see a totally ridiculous growth rate of 7.4%. Rosen, as part of his job, analyzed the numbers and found that Christie’s budget would be out of balance by many hundreds of millions of dollars.

Christie fired back, going so far as to make a 20 minute long tirade against the OLS chief. He said, “Why would anybody with a functioning brain believe this guy? … How often do you have to be wrong to finally be dismissed?” That is typical Christie rhetoric, which should be familiar to anyone who has ever heard him talk to a teacher. And the attacks continued. Rosen is not a partisan guy; he’s respected by both sides of the isle in New Jersey. But Christie just knows that no one should listen to anyone who disagrees with him.

Well, it is two years later and it turns out that Rosen was completely right about the budget. But don’t expect Christie to apologize. For one thing: that isn’t who Christie is. What’s more, Christie didn’t listen to facts then; why would he listen to them now? And finally, he has Hurricane Sandy to hide behind. He’ll just say that New Jersey didn’t grow at 7.4% because they aren’t stronger than the storm.

What’s interesting is to see how this is typical of the conservative movement: resistant to facts, never admitting wrong, being mean to show how tough you are. It’s all in what Malcolm Nance said above. Most telling of all, it is what our torture program was all about. The FBI was extremely good at interrogation. They knew that torture didn’t work and was generally of negative value. But the conservatives in charge of the government wanted to be “tough” and “hard.” That’s what torture was all about: looking like you were strong with no concern at all about actually being strong. It is the mentality of a bully. That’s half of American politics.

The Ballad of Johnny Horton

Johnny HortonOver the weekend, I was at the graduation party for my niece. Actually, she is the daughter of the sister of my sister’s husband. And I have to say, they put on a good party. The father is a constant builder and one thing he has built on their vast property is a bar. Admittedly, the beer on tap was marginal and most of the beer in bottles sucked. But since the demand for good beer was low, I managed to spend the day drinking little else but Lagunitas.

At one point, I got into a conversation with the mother about Johnny Horton who was born on this day in 1925. It turned out that she is a big fan of his music and I had to maneuver to avoid borrowing a CD of his music. It wasn’t that I don’t like his music, it is just that it would have been a hassle to get it back to her. I was raised on the music because my own mother was a fan.

Horton was best known for “saga songs,” which I always associate with folk music, but apparently he was considered rockabilly. His best known song is Jimmy Driftwood’s The Battle of New Orleans. I like the song, but I’ve always thought the production was silly with the drums and the “Hup, two, three, four!” part. In fact, Driftwood’s version is far superior.

But I do love Horton’s voice. He has just enough of that bluegrass hollering thing going on to make what is essentially a pop voice interesting. He also has great variety in the timbre of his voice. And for all the silliness of the production of his songs, they have a gusty appeal. Here is “North to Alaska”:

While on tour in Texas, Horton’s was killed at the age of 35 in a car accident when a drunk college student hit the band’s car while crossing a bridge. The other two survived, although guitarist Tommy Tomlinson lost one of his legs. The drunk kid, of course, suffered only minor injuries.

Happy birthday John Horton!

Problems with Standards-Based Education

Alfie KohnThe following video is well worth spending some time watching. It is a lecture by Alfie Kohn about the pernicious effects of “tougher standards” in the education “reform” movement. Before I get to the substance, though, I want to say something about the style. A common thing in media is to have a passionate conservative paired up with a mild-mannered moderate. This is thought to be balance. What’s more, it is often claimed that “liberals” are all mild-mannered. It isn’t that. It is that they refuse to put actual liberals on. Kohn is extremely passionate. But he’s exactly the kind of person who isn’t much allowed on mainstream television because his ideas are supposedly outside the mainstream. Of course, the same media outlets are only too happy to bring Cliven Bundy and Ted Nugent on their shows.

There are a lot of interesting things in the talk, but I just want to mention three. He provided a thought experiment. Imagine that all the students in a state passed a standardized test. Would this cause the governor to applaud the teachers and students and claim that the system was working? No. It would freak out everyone. They would just say that the test was too easy and they would make a harder test. The point is that tests may be quantitative, but they are not accurate. They are created so that a certain number of students fail. Thus: the students are graded on a curve, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Another interesting thing is a fundamental problem with western thought: we measure what we can measure. So we’ve set up tests to measure what is easiest to test, not what is most important. For example, he noted that the tests will look at how many times a student used a comma correctly rather than looking at how many interesting ideas that student wrote about. In his essay I talked about earlier, he wrote, “Low-quality instruction can be assessed with low-quality tests, including homegrown quizzes and standardized exams designed to measure (with faux objectivity) the number of facts and skills crammed into short-term memory.” Again we come back to this issue of utility. To the modern business, workers are cogs; they want workers to be interchangeable. So it is important that all students know some list of facts rather than have the ability to think.

I’ve seen this for decades in the the high tech industry. At this point most programming languages are built on c++. But this doesn’t stop developers from creating yet another c++ language that has special features for doing this or that. Yet companies always want to hire people with skills in that particular new language rather than experienced programmers who can probably become experts in the language in the week it takes for an application to be processed. In short: American business is stupid, so it isn’t surprising that it wants our kids to be stupid too.

Finally, he ends the lecture by talking about what tests are really all about: inequality. Students from rich families do better on tests than students from poor families. He says that simply by knowing the percentage of students who get free lunches, he can predict their test scores with “chilling” accuracy. So in the end, tests are not about helping students—much less those struggling. They are about ossifying the status quo—allowing income inequality to freeze into place.

Check out the video. It’s about 45 minutes long and it provides a good introduction to what is wrong with our test-based education system.

Religious Belief Doesn’t Trump Law

United Church of ChristThe United Church of Christ (UCC) has been performing same-sex marriages since 2005. So they decided to pursue a legal challenge to North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriages. They are arguing that the state is violating their freedom of religion. That is too delicious not to talk about.

But I think the case is very clear. People’s rights to free expression do not trump laws. The Rastafarians believe very much that they should be allowed to ingest cannabis, but that has never stopped one of them from being imprisoned for that “crime.” So I don’t think that the UCC has a religious right that trumps North Carolina law. Of course, there may be details in the law that would push me in the UCC’s direction. But as it stands, it seems pretty simple.

I am just being consistent here. I also think all of these religious based attacks on Obamacare should have been thrown scornfully out of court at the very beginning. And there are lots of similar cases, like where a Christian pharmacist claims he has the right not to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. The Rastafarians have a far better claim to their drug rights than do hobby stores who want to micromanage their employees’ healthcare coverage.

North Carolina Values Coalition

But given all the time and efforts that conservative Christians have put into destroying Obamacare using such arguments, you would think that they would be in support of the UCC. After all, it is a matter of religious liberty. It shouldn’t matter that it is in the name of a specific policy that they don’t accept. But, of course, it does matter. North Carolina Values Coalition (NCVC) executive director Tami Fitzgerald said in a press release that because a majority of the voters in the state voted for the law, the UCC should have no rights. She then went on to talk about how she was the ultimate arbiter of what Christianity is and that the UCC is just wrong.

Of course, when Hobby Lobby was before the Supreme Court, Fitzgerald was firmly behind it, urging people to Pray for Hobby Lobby. But I’m sure that is not the only bit of hypocrisy that Fitzgerald and the NCVC have in store. Right now it is all about the fact that 61% of the electorate of North Carolina voted to ban same-sex marriage. As soon as the people become in favor of same-sex marriage, she will be using a different argument. And it won’t be long. Last year, the people of North Carolina were against same-sex marriage by a tiny 45%-44% margin.

We’ll see what happens to this case. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if conservative judges find that a same-sex marriage ban did not violate the UCC’s religious rights even while they find hitherto unknown religious rights of hobby stores. Luckily, the same-sex marriage issue will be resolved by the people very soon.

Alfie Kohn and Real Education Reform

What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? - Alfie KohnUnlike most people, I believe in a kind of neo-classicism in education. I think that a liberal education is what binds us together. Increasingly, of course, it is what tears us apart. In particular, the current form of radical conservatism is based almost entirely on a large section of the country placing one piece of ancient literature above all others and have decided that far from being literature, it is The Truth™. And if it were, that would work. We could all know our Bibles inside, outside, and backwards and it would provide us with social cohesion. But it would be a shriveled shell of a culture.

But a truly liberal set of cultural touchstones are important to binding us together: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and so on. I would include the books of the great religions too, although there is already a great deal of Christian thought just in that list. I think it is important that I get a reference that you make of these people who have been so important in shaping our culture. Of course I’m not set on these people (except Homer and Cervantes). I’m well aware of the lack of diversity. We can argue (no doubt violently) about what should be our cultural touchstones. But there shouldn’t be a question that we need them.

Now conservative education reformers would say, “Exactly!” And they would put together lists of the hundred “great books” that every high school student must read. And they would design tests with questions like, “What is the name of the character who manipulates Othello into murdering his wife?” This is madness! When I talk about “arguing,” I’m not talking about doing it at teaching conferences and in Congress. The culture creates its own touchstones organically.

I’ve been reading a couple of books by Alfie Kohn, the great progressive education reform advocate and thinker. Right now, I’m reading What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies. At the end of the title essay, he mentions the great John Dewey with regards to what I would think we should all agree is what education is ultimately about, “Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.”

This dovetails nicely into what I think is the biggest problem with education today. Few ever get to the point of wanting to read Homer because they are too busy trying to make ends meet. Now liberals and conservatives alike proudly announce that the purpose of education should be to make getting a good job easier—which just so happens to provide the business community with cheap, government trained, workers. Kohn starts his second essay, “Turning Learning into a Business,” with a quote from educational thinker Jonathan Kozol:

The best reason to give a child a good school… is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony… There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed.

But make no mistake: most people in the education “reform” movement are not embarrassed by this. In fact, this idea that the best thing you can do for a child is give him a good education that will provide him with a good job goes along with another conservative canard: the idea that income inequality is all about education. It isn’t all about education. And education reform should not be about trying to fix the much bigger problem of income inequality. And anyway: one reason our educational system is so screwed up is income inequality. In general, rich kids get great (And liberal!) educations. Poor kids get multiplication tables grounded into their brains.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic soon. As it is I find it deeply disturbing.

Political Door Knockers Are Better Than Religious Ones

Jehovah's WitnessesNormally, if someone rings the doorbell on a Saturday afternoon, it is my friendly neighborhood Jehovah’s Witnesses. Like many Christians, they mistake the Bible for a book that ought to be read by the laity. And so they are out all the time fishin’ for souls. It is almost sweet. And annoying as hell! You see, these people are frauds. They pretend to be my friend but they aren’t interested in me anymore than the salesman at Best Buy is. I’m not an individual; I’m just another soul like all the rest. And it takes all my force of will to not talk to them about religion because I am far more serious about the subject than they are. So I just smile, take their Awake! magazines, and close the door. It makes them happy because they are under the delusion that this is what Jesus wanted them to do.

But here in little Sonoma County, the election has begun. So now, when the doorbell rings, it is likely to be someone selling a political candidate. I like this! And it isn’t because I like politics more than religion, because that isn’t even true. If actual religious seekers came to my door, I would be happy to engage with them. But instead, religious dogmatists come to my door to sell me their religion. But that’s not what they say. According to them, they’re doing me a favor!

The campaigners are selling stuff too, of course, but they don’t claim otherwise. They are partisans looking to help out their side. That kind of honesty is refreshing in modern America where even our television commercials are often of dubious relevance to the products that they are pushing. But you know what’s really great about them. They never try to read to me. “If I may, there is a passage from Barack Obama’s 2012 inaugural address that is of particular relevance to this, ‘For George Washington so loved the nation…'”

Fundamentally, there is nothing different about the Christians who come to my door and the political activists. They are all true believers for their causes. I suspect that the nice young man who came to my door a couple of days ago is just as certain Mike McGuire is the right man for the California State Senate as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are that God will create a heaven on earth for them in a now unspecified future time. But there is still a huge difference between them.

In our society, we are told that having irrational certainty about religion is a good thing. This allows Christians to go their whole lives without ever hearing Jesus referred to as a Cosmic Jewish Zombie. It is thought that doing this is rude, which is probably true. But it also means that religious thought doesn’t advanced and they are stuck with a common philosophy today that would have appalled early Christians, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Thanks to right wing hate radio and especially Fox News, we are getting a lot more of this in politics. Still, it is true that if you start spouting off about politics at a local pub, someone will counter you.

As a result of this, political activists come to my door with humility. They know they are intruding. They know that the person behind the door may have strongly held opinions that counter their own. The Christians know that they may get some push back too, of course. But it isn’t the same. The vast majority of people do not agree with them. Only 2.5% of the nation is Jehovah’s Witnesses. (The Mormons don’t come around here, but they are much the same with 5% of the population.) And even most other Christians don’t want what they are selling. While doing some work at a Baptist Church recently, I found a pamphlet on how to deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses. But whatever abuse they get only goes to prove to them the righteousness of their work and purity of their souls.

Political activists have no such solace. The essence of political organizing is not about convincing people who disagree with them. It is to find and organize those who do agree with them. So they aren’t trying to find people who scream at them so they can feel good that they’ve located followers of The Evil One.

But above all, political activists are to be admired because they are involved in facilitating the basis of our society: democracy. I’ve always felt dragging the Bible from door to door is very much like my bringing Don Quixote door to door. It too is an old book with much spiritual insight. Why don’t I do that? Because my interest in Don Quixote is not widely shared. I may think that people would be better off if they read the book, but it is presumptuous of me to force it on them. But all citizens of this country should care about who our elected representatives are. So political activists are a very good thing indeed.

Afterword

Thus far, the only people to come to my door are Democrats. And the only political mailings I’ve received are from Republicans. I find that humorous: Democrats have people, Republicans have money.

Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi VarmaOn this day in 1848, the great Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma was born. I’ve never been very clear on the Indian caste system, but Varma was kind of born to painting—or at least that bourgeois creative class. Actually, I suppose he was part of Vaisyas caste. His father was a scholar and his mother, a poet. And at least two of his brothers went on to be painters. Varma is the most famous of them.

What I appreciate about him is how he brings western and eastern painting traditions together. You might say he was the William Bouguereau of India. But as much as I love Bouguereau, Varma is much more than that. His color palette is far more intense. And his religious painting is far more interesting, but that is probably just because the Hindu religion has far more interesting iconography than Christianity does.

Here is painting I especially admire of Murugan, the god of war, victory, wisdom and love:

Murugan - Raja Ravi Varma

Happy birthday Raja Ravi Varma!

Why We Blog

BlogPlease forgive me for not writing much today. I’ve been here the whole time, but I seem to have the flu or something. I just don’t feel up to reading or writing. In fact, I spent the last two and a half hours watching Harakiri, which is an incredibly powerful film. Even still, I don’t feel up to writing about it.

Last week, Infidel753 wrote, Catacombs of the Blogosphere. It is sort of a celebration and remembrance of blogs that have stopped running (or slowed to a trickle). Blogs are, by their nature, ephemeral. And in a fundamental way, I think that political blogs are unhealthy. They force us to consume a lot of politics and then they attract (in my case) conservatives who, nine out of ten times, add nothing to the conversation. They spout talking points that I have usually addressed many times before. It’s exhausting. (Of course, they also attract more interesting and informed people, which is a big part of why I continue to do it. So I’m not surprised that people cut back and even stop.

There’s another issue, I think. Blogging forces you to see just how many great and thoughtful writers there are out there. It’s great for developing your skills. But it isn’t going anywhere. It is hobby writing. I figure I could do this for another decade and I would still be getting the same few hundred actual (not spam) visitors per day. To a large extent, this is simply a result of the structure of the internet. I have another website that I started in early 2000. I haven’t done anything on it in years. Yet it still gets ten times the traffic that Frankly Curious gets.

A better question than “Why have they stopped?” is “Why did they take it seriously for so long?” And I think the answer to this is extremely positive. It shows self-actualization; it shows commitment; it shows passion. Bloggers really are the best of what we are. (Well, they are; I’m just a narcissist.) And they are extremely idiosyncratic. Infidel753 mentioned this, “If a blogger is dedicated to liberal politics but also has a passionate interest in, say, gardening and jazz music, then there will be some posts about liberal politics and others about gardening or jazz music.” Exactly.

Still, why do I post five or so articles every day? Part of it is fear. I see it as a kind of work of anti-art. It will go on as long as I do it and then it will be no more—very much like life itself. We spin our webs as a reflection of who we are. William Buckley famously wrote, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” We liberals run ahead of history yelling, “Full steam ahead!” It’s a noble, if futile endeavor. But what else am I going to do?

It is very possible I will repudiate this all tomorrow. I feel like my head is swimming. But I had to get this out. It’s been over a year since I only published one article in a day…


Update (29 April 2014 8:52 am)

Infidel753 wrote a followup:

Harper Lee’s Creative Humility

Harper LeeToday is the 88th birthday of Harper Lee. She wrote one of the greatest English language novels ever, To Kill a Mockingbird. Of all the Southern Gothic authors, she is the only one that doesn’t seem to hate the entire world. But had she ever published so much as another story, we might have found out that there were stores of misanthropy just waiting to explode on the page. Of course, she never did publish anything more.

Because she never published anything else, many people have speculated that Mockingbird was some kind of collaboration with Truman Capote—or at least that he “edited” the book. I’m deeply offended by this. First, given Capote’s personality, does anyone really think he would not have skimmed off more than his fair share of the credit for what is sadly better than anything he ever wrote? Second, Harper Lee has a rather different style. At the time she was writing it, Capote was writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Third, it isn’t as though the two were kids anymore; they were both in their thirties. The whole thing strikes me as pure sexism.

I think the reason that Harper Lee has published no fiction is that she’s paralyzed by the success of her novel. It isn’t as though she hasn’t tried to write other novels; she’s just been unhappy with them. Regardless of what she released, it would have been savaged. We’ve seen this again and again. Joseph Heller wrote his whole life under the shadow of Catch-22. Ken Kesey wrote under the shadow of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And if I didn’t hate him so much, I would admit that the same fate awaited J D Salinger.

It reminds me of what Orson Welles said of his endless production of one of his great unfinished projects, “Don Quixote was a private exercise of mine, and it will be finished as an author would finish it—in my own good time, when I feel like it.” It would be far better if successful writers wrote less. I’ve long been a defender of Stephen King, who really is a talented writer. But for decades he’s been publishing books just because he can. A little quality control would go a long way. And it would allow more oxygen for other authors.

So Harper Lee shows a hero for her creative humility. And that is something writers are greatly in need of.

Happy birthday Harper Lee!