Archive for the ‘America’ Category

Our sick culture of violence

December 18, 2012

People are saying it’s different this time, that the slaughter of innocents in Newtown will not so quickly recede into the collective American unconscious as most every other gun-assisted atrocity always has. This time “something snapped,” this time we’ll take “meaningful action” to address and begin to cure our sick culture of violence. Even a few Republicans with high NRA scores are saying so.

It’s important to realize that it is a cultural problem, exacerbated but not created by our disgusting bloated arsenal of killing machines. The latest young murderer  had ready access to them of course, his mother apparently was laying in supplies for the apocalypse. The pitiable self-parodying irony of her fate, in the light of that, requires no further comment.

But the shooter also apparently had a “head full of video games” to match his house full of guns. The truth of the stupid familiar slogan (“people kill people”) is unavoidable: these dreadful weapons, perversely described by an expert enthusiast on npr as “cool,” obviously don’t collect or discharge themselves. Someone must intend that, and intentions don’t grow up in a vacuum.

I was giving Younger Daughter a hard time yesterday over her penchant for violent entertainment, from “Hawaii Five-O” (etc. et al) to zombies to “mature” video games. And don’t get me started again about football. She’s a gentle and peaceable soul, as I suppose are most of us. 999 out of 1,000, at least.

But, isn’t all this “fun” and “entertaining” violence really unhealthy, for the culture at large if not for each individual consumer? Doesn’t it create a perfect little petrie dish for the nurture and development of nut-jobs who can stroll down one Wal-mart aisle for their games and another for their guns, even if Mom hasn’t done them the convenience of stocking up at home already? It’s a big country, 1 in 1,000 adds up.

So has anything actually snapped, in this country, this time? I heard the Hawaii Five-O theme in the next room again last night. People all over town were glued to the Titans on TV, either dispersing or gathering their aggressions. Young and not so young people all over the land were again spending their leisure in virtual violent conflict. As we say: it’s a free country.

I never used to understand Kris Kristofferson’s lyric about freedom’s meaning “nothing left to lose,”  we saw again in Connecticut what a terrible price we all continue to pay for a too-glib interpretation of what freedom means. If something really has snapped, we’ll at last act to honor the freedom of little boys and girls to grow up and live their lives.

“We will have to change”

December 17, 2012

The President’s remarks at the Newtown vigil last night were moving, and promising.

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

…the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

I look forward to the specific changes in gun control policy the President will propose and fight for. Minimally, we must “register all firearms, license all owners, require background checks, ban semi-automatic weapons” (Bob Herbert).

And I look forward as well to a change in rhetoric and tone. I look forward to the day when an ecumenical “interfaith” memorial vigil like last night’s will automatically include, alongside the Priests and Imams and Rabbis and Revs, a humanist philosopher – or a president eager to proclaim his own humanist sensibility. “You know,” the President said,

all the world’s religions, so many of them represented here today, start with a simple question.

Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?

We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain, that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll all stumble sometimes in some way.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

Good words, right up until the last. But I wanted to hear, unambiguously and unambivalently, that the only plans worth pondering aloud on horrible occasions like these are the ones we still haven’t made, to regulate our own behavior. The inscrutable hypothetical death-dealing “heavenly plans” of an evidently-dark lord of superstition do not console. They do not begin to redeem the obscene, gratuitous loss of those twenty “beautiful little kids” and six courageous educators. They do not deserve breath or mention.

Do we have the courage to stop this?” And does our president have the courage to lead on this, against the entrenched and mobilized gun-and-religion lobby? Those are the right “simple questions.”

Madison Avenue to USA: igbok, y’all

August 6, 2011

Don Draper was wrong about this, but it’s a message ever-popular in America. Never more than now.

You know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.

That’s the native wisdom that came to me when I saw the hour+ line waiting to get into the Apple Store on day #1 of the big “back to school” tax-free weekend spending holiday. Just empty your wallets, everybody, it’s gonna be ok.

And if you don’t like the line you can get your iPad at Target.

I’m proud of Older Daughter, she spent the afternoon at the mall with friends and didn’t spend a dime. For my part I spent only at Frugal MacD‘s yesterday, where taxes were duly collected. But the line was short and my purchase was momentarily reassuring.

’tis a gift to be free

August 5, 2011

Went and did my civic duty yesterday, voting in the metro mayor and council election. Got to wear my boastful “I voted” sticker on the way out, feeling briefly and cheaply more democratic than at least 60% of my peers. That’s not the best reason for voting, but it’s not the worst either.

I hadn’t planned to vote in this election, there weren’t any closely-contested races and I really don’t have strong views about the Nashville Fairgrounds. But then my morning walk brought me past my precinct polling station, and that old plebiscitary  pull had me again.

So I came home, googled the candidates and issues, did my research. There were a few goofballs in the running. One “J. Wooten” (I was hoping he might be the same Wooten I knew from the girls’ elementary school gym class, but no) ran on this platform:

1. End property taxes. Put your money back into your pockets instead of government.

2. Separate state from school. Education is too important to be left to politicians and bureaucrats.

3. Legalize the “Lap Dance.” Government should not be regulating adult behavior behind closed doors.

I don’t expect he won, but keeping the goofballs on the sidelines (no matter how well they “represent” the general public)  is one very good reason to make the effort to cast an informed vote in these ho-hum elections. When sensible people don’t participate, tea partiers (speaking generically here) still will.

Concluding my electoral research, the inertia of the day then took over and I kinda forgot about it. Late in the afternoon, though, Younger Daughter and I were driving home and there they still were, all those enthusiastic campaigners with their signs and flags waving, keeping their constitutional distance from the ballot box. Their enthusiasm was infectious. So I went in, but the line was longer than expected so I ran her home, then hopped on my bike (I’ve embraced the Pedaling Revolution manifesto: short trips and errands really don’t require tons of steel) and went back to exercise my democratic birthright.

Our politics are still as screwed up as ever, but if I had stayed home I wouldn’t feel quite as entitled to complain about it. Or as invested in fixing it. Chris Stevens understands.

And so too, perhaps, does J. Wooten, the lap dance candidate whose platform also included this unconventional plank: Freedom is the answer. What’s the question? Congratulations, Mayor.


nothing doing

January 12, 2011

We took Mom out for her birthday sushi last night, where she cheerfully donned the paper crown Younger Daughter had fashioned for her. It drew the attention of another birthday girl who happened to be dining at an adjoining table. She eventually made her way across the restaurant to admire the stylish chapeau, and to say she was having a good 9th birthday.

That’s nothing less than what nine-year olds deserve. It upsets me to think of her and her cohort thinking about the Tucson massacre. It upsets me more to know the outrage many of us are feeling about it will soon be forgotten by most of us. As a nation we’ve learned to deplore  these unspeakable tragedies, to make a great public show of our grief, and then to do nothing at all to prevent their recurrence.

The overwhelming majority of the people who claim to be so outraged by last weekend’s shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others — six of them fatally — will take absolutely no steps, none whatsoever, to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. And similar tragedies are coming as surely as the sun makes its daily appearance over the eastern horizon because this is an American ritual: the mowing down of the innocents. Bob Herbert

All in the name of our constitutional rights to bear arms and pursue happiness, topics  overdue for the closer scrutiny it’s safe to say they won’t be getting any time soon.


November 2, 2010

It’s election day, and exam day, and a day for more midterm presentations and essays from everyone else. In honor of freedom and the vote, here’s my favorite radio philosopher Chris Stevens, celebrating electoral democracy. Worst form of government ever, except for all the others.

(This is pre-Palin Alaska, btw. Not the “real America.”)

Thursday we’ll pick it up again in Intro with Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith (et al), the flip-side of the classic rationalist-empiricist coin. They would agree: you shouldn’t shun the franchise or take it for granted. Go to the polls and vote. Show ’em, like Uncle Roy showed Nixon. If you don’t, just don’t complain to me when they start chucking your tea into the harbor.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to bury the abruptly-terminated baseball season– my Giants won!— and warm up the hot stove for the long season of my sports-discontent. At least it carried me to November this year. Pitchers and catchers report in mid-February, but the big annual baseball symposium at my school that’s become the  surest sign of Spring isn’t ’til April!

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn’t this summer, but all the summers… “The Green Fields of the Mind

Guess I might as well get started on that stack of grading. Bring it on.

more dust

June 24, 2010

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to pitch my “dusty” digital devices out the window in mimicry of the stoical Thoreau, who was perturbed by what he considered his own over-attentiveness to mere things, ornaments, baubles, distractions. They diverted his focus from more rewarding endeavors, they stole his time, they scattered his force. They would not improve him or raise the quality of his life.

Were we really to apply this standard to the material surplus of our lives in an honest and consistent manner, most of us would find that we could easily do without most of the “stuff” we pile up and haul around and surround ourselves with. We would have to consider the Bhutanese experiment, and begin paying as much attention to Gross National Happiness as we do to Gross Domestic Product. We would not be the same kind of Americans our grandparents were.

My little 16-GB iPod now holds at least 200 books and book excerpts (eBooks and audio books),  from Kindle and Stanza and Project Gutenberg and Audible and Overdrive, most of them “free” but for the expenditure of time and attention– the “dusting” that disgusted old Henry. It has Twitter, the BBC,  the New York Times and The New Yorker and Time Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, the Boston Globe, the Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, et al.

It has a dictionary and thesaurus and several philosophy reference sources. It has Dragon dictation software to convert my speech to editable, emailable, printable, publishable text. It has an app that does the same to finger-writing.

It has Google Earth, and GPS, and NPR, and TED…

It has apps that tell me where I can get the best Happy Hour deal in town.

It has stuff I’ve forgotten, stuff too cool to ignore at the app store but too much for my poor finite brain to track, day by day.

Oh yeah: it has the Beatles, the Stones, John Prine, and all my other favorite music too.

In brief, it’s a lot cooler than Thoreau’s three pieces of limestone. He would admit that, I’m sure. But it’s still just a thing, and it still monopolizes too much of my attention. I won’t throw it out, but I need to moderate my regard for it.

Most of all, I need to be prepared to let it go. Things crash, things get lost, things in our consumer paradise especially get surpassed and superceded. Things get dusty.

Stoics don’t have to live lives of voluntary poverty, but they do choose to lodge their sense of life’s worth in something more stable and less exterior than things.

A lesson from Seneca (who, btw, is on my iPod):

The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself. The wise man is self-sufficient… if he loses a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left.

The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.

He can do without iPods and iPads and iPhones and Kindles and beach vacations (oily or not). So can she. But they don’t have to. They can learn to tolerate a little dust.

Memorial Day

May 31, 2010

It is right that we set aside a day to pause and reflect on the terrible cost of war, in soldiers’ lives, and feel deep gratitude for the willingness of idealistic young men and women to sacrifice themselves for a perceived greater good.

But it is not enough to remember them alone. Civilian casualties in war are inevitable and appalling. The entire human cost of armed aggression around the globe needs a day of remembrance too, and we need to insist on an accounting.

The only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry- in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. -Justice Potter Stewart

We need to be less stone-blind to the realities of war, less stoical in our acceptance of the “inevitable.” In some ways it’s hard, but in others it’s way too easy to “suck it up and keep on fighting”– as Nancy Sherman says in the new installment of the Times philosophy blog. We undertake “detachment from certain objects so they cannot affect” us, we hold the brutality and de-humanization of war at arms’ length, we idealize noble ends and whitewash despicable means… and we continue the fight.

The U.S. has been carrying on the present fight for nearly a decade now. Why is this not widely rejected as outrageous and intolerable? Could it be that we’re simply not paying attention, most of us? That we’re lacking Justice Stewart’s “informed and critical public opinion?” Do we need to bring back a draft, to re-focus our attention and hone our critical opinion?

But we do love a parade. Happy Memorial Day. Peace.


January 18, 2010

A good way to mark MLK Day in our town: take a tour of historic Nashville sites in African-American history. And read the late David Halberstam’s The Children, a first-hand account of the early days of the civil rights movement centering on the time he spent reporting in Nashville a half-century ago.*

And of course, “Letter from Birmingham Jail“: …Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood… To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience… Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.

*POSTSCRIPT: Younger Daughter and I made a nice outing of it, after discovering a map online that enabled us to locate several major 1960 sit-in sites downtown. Then a stroll through the historic Arcade took us in the direction of the remodeled Courthouse Square, bounded by historical plaques marking this city’s complex racial history. We need more such holidays dedicated to the remembrance of heroism past.

thanks a lot

November 27, 2009

The gap between actual conditions and ideal aspirations, I always say, is the correct measure of our distance from _______. (choose your preferred honorific: Utopia, Heaven, God, Nirvana, Salvation, Redemption, Enlightenment, Transcendence, Wisdom,  ___, …)

So, a more perfect Thanksgiving holiday for me would include: a shorter drive, less anxiety, more meaningful conversation, a lot more attention to the real meaning of gratitude,  less meaningless football (and no Detroit Lions or Dallas Cowboys), a lot less variety of turkey stuffing and gravy, and no prayer of thanks to our Heavenly Father for all He has done for Our Country in These Troubled Times. But… even more pie would be just fine with me. And maybe Garrison Keillor’s right: Thanksgiving is good enough the way it is.

And today, I’m most  grateful that my sister is driving a great distance to join us for a post-Thanksgiving weekend visit. As we say in Tennessee: we appreciate her very much.