Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where's The Hate?

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I'm feeling very left out. Dissed, in fact.

I know I don't command a very large audience; even when I was walking there were only a dozen or two followers, and now that I'm off for the summer I'm writing for myself and a small handful of friends. Okay. That's not what I'm complaining about.

Here's the thing. Today on the AOL home page I read that the Westboro Baptist Church is picketing Justin Bieber's concert in Kansas City tonight. That led me to do a little research. I knew a bit about the Westboro Baptist Church already--a fundamentalist, predestinarian outfit out of Kansas who have become famous as the traveling "God Hates Fags" picketers. They're also the folks who show up at military funerals holding signs saying "God Hates Dead Soldiers," and the like, in order to spread their message that God hates America for being wicked, and that that's why soldiers are dying.

What I didn't know much about was Justin Bieber. I looked him up on Wikipedia, then sampled a few of his songs. As far as I can ascertain, he's a 16-year-old boy from Canada who sings love songs in a girlishly high voice to teenage girls who also, no doubt, have girlishly high voices. In that respect he's pretty ordinary. But according to the Westboro Baptist Church web site, they're protesting him because he "has a platform given to him by God to speak to this world," and a "duty to teach obedience by his actions and words." But instead he teaches sin and rebellion, and worse that that, poses with President Obama, who is the Anti-Christ Beast. The two of them are leading us all to hell.

Okay, okay. Take a deep breath. I know what you're thinking. How could the Westboro Baptist Church condemn a nice, innocuous young man like Justin Bieber--a Canadian, no less!--just because he hung out a little with the Anti-Christ Beast Obama? Does one photo-op have to ruin your whole life? And furthermore, by what superhuman power do they think that Justin, or anyone else, could teach anything to a bunch of teenage girls?

In the AOL home page article they mentioned that Westboro Baptist Church also has condemned Lady Gaga. Here again I was caught flat footed. I did have a vague idea that she is a sort of latter-day Madonna. First, I took advantage of the presence at my house this summer of my 16-year-old grandson, and asked him for more information. He says that it has been widely rumored that Lady Gaga has a penis. Why this should be such a big deal I don't know. I mean, Justin Bieber probably has a penis. Is that a bad thing? Then I checked her out on Google and played a few of her songs, and my original understanding was pretty much confirmed. Lady Gaga might be a bit more postmodern than Madonna was in her time, and has more cultural threads to unravel, but she seems to have nailed the tacky Italian girl look about as well as Madonna ever did (perhaps because both of them are, after all, tacky Italian girls). Westboro Baptist Church's take on Lady Gaga is pretty straightforward, in any case. They call her a "simple slut," which isn't as far off the mark as I would have expected.

Well, I said I have a complaint, and so I do. Here I am, toiling in the Devil's vineyard on a regular basis, and I'm being totally ignored by the Westboro Baptist Church! I deserve some hate, here! Aren't I at least as much of an abomination in the sight of God as some boy singer from Ontario or some cheesy Material Girl wannabe? I like to think I've strayed pretty far from the paths of righteousness. And I have a platform I could be using to teach obedience to the world. But do I? No.

I know it might just be that the folks at Westboro Baptist Church haven't caught on to me yet. Or it might be something else again. When I read their web site I was struck by a couple of things. First, I couldn't take issue at all with their attitude toward the war America is fighting and toward the so-called "heroes" who come back in boxes from our vain and counterproductive military adventures. True, Westboro Baptist Church and I might have reached the same conclusion about the war for different reasons. They believe that America has condemned itself by tolerating homosexuality, worshipping the flag as a false idol, and supporting debauchery and wickedness in all its many forms. I wholeheartedly agree with the bit about the flag worship, but mostly I believe we are trying to fight a war against one idiotic ideology while clothed in the raiment of an equally idiotic ideology of our own. Either way, the Westboro Baptist Church's own words say it better than mine ever could: "When you step out onto the battlefield for a rebellious nation who daily lifts up her finger to flip off God, you are walking into the cross hairs of that raging mad God." Amen, and duck!

Another thing that strikes me is how correct the Westboro Baptist Church is in its belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality. I defy you to find one passage in either the Old or New Testament that states otherwise. But you won't have to look far to find verses that say things like this one, from Leviticus 20:12--"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death." Or, if you're partial to the more enlightened New Testament, how about this one, from I Corinthians 6:9--"Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind."

So what's a girl to do? If, like me, you don't believe there's anything wrong with homosexuality, but your so-called "holy book" tells you otherwise, there's really only one thing to do. Shitcan the holy book, and for that matter, all the rest of the holy books in the world that lead people down twisted paths toward hatred and destruction of one another. Don't try to pull items out of context and ignore inconvenient things to make the scripture make sense to you. And don't try to turn your religion into a kinder, gentler version of its true self. That's a complete waste of time.

There. If all that doesn't earn me some hate, I don't know what will.

Monday, July 26, 2010

So Many Channels, So Little News

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Monday, July 26, 2010

The news gets stranger all the time. I already take it for granted that the line between fluff news and "real" news has been smudged beyond recognition, with the top stories being things like whether Angelina Jolie's new movie is outgrossing Leonardo di Caprio's, and all that. (When, exactly, did the public start caring about how much money a film makes? Movie tickets aren't shares of stock, after all.)

I've talked about the way this marriage between reality and pure silliness has visited the political scene, with the Sarah Palin phenomenon. One of my faithful readers suggested that it took some brains for Palin to become governor of Alaska. But seriously, Alaska? The mayor of Anchorage probably has a tougher job than the governor does. (With over a third of the state's population, it's still only the 75th largest city in the U.S.) The state is mostly owned by the federal government and pretty much all the rest is run by oil companies and native American tribes, and its enitre population is less than that of Kent County, Michigan. The few white people who do live there all believe that government shouldn't govern any more than absolutely necessary. So Bullwinkle the Moose could handle the job. The fact that Palin got elected governor says a lot more about Alaska than about her.

Right away you're probably remembering that California, a state to be taken much more seriously than Alaska, has been governed by not one but two movie actors. But really, folks, they were celebrities in their own right before they became politicians. They were already part of the news, just like Lindsay Lohan and Kourtney Kardashian and the president of BP are. But Sarah Palin, who was she? A nothing. It's a matter of timing, above all. It would be like if I tried to become a serious politician without first having been on my own reality show or having played a forensic pathologist or a cop. I mean, c'mon guys. No chops, no votes--I think we can all agree on that.

So back to how it got this way. In part, it has to do with the fact that there are too many channels and home pages chasing after too little news. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, AOL, Yahoo, and some that I'm forgetting. Oh, and CSPAN, for those of you who like your inanity straight from the horse's mouth without the intervening drivel and mock concern of an anchorman. When TV started back in the late 40s and early 50s newscasts were shorter and there were fewer of them. The people who ran the stations knew that on any given day there's only about fifteen minutes of real news the American public cares about or needs to know. Well, maybe back in the olden days, you say, but surely today's world is more complex. Just what was happening in the world at the time? The Nuremberg Trials, the Korean War, the formation of NATO, the Communist takeover of China, and McCarthy's witch hunt come to mind immediately. It still took only a few minutes to recap those stories on a daily basis without repeating anything. Today any one of those events would practically generate its own channel, for God's sake. Katie Couric wouldn't know whether to shit or go blind. In fact, there are few daily news stories now that could hold a candle to those I just mentioned, particularly since the media has made a conscious decision--with the encouragement of the government, I'm sure--not to cover the war in Iraq/Afghanistan too closely, but instead only to celebrate the brave "heroes" who die in it and to mention Osama bin Laden's name once in awhile. (The lesson of Vietnam was learned well; if you show people on a daily basis what happens in a war, they begin to recoil in horror and want to end it. And we certainly can't have that.)

In 2010, to cover that fifteen minutes of real news (i.e. important political happenings and miscellaneous natural disasters throughout the world) we have half a dozen 24-hour news channels in addition to the three old tired networks. Immediately the problem is this: assuming it's reasonable to broadcast this fifteen minutes of news maybe four times a day, what do you do with the remaining 23 hours? Enter the pundit, the analyst, the scrolling bottom line, the news special--in short, repetition. Enter celebrity news. News about celebrities who make news. News about news stories celebrities are interested in. News about celebrities who don't care about the news. News about news stations that try to get celebrities to make news even when they don't want to make news. Etc. More channels mean more space to fill, which somehow leads to even more channels.

True enough, we have been fascinated by stars for decades. We followed famous people who joined the war effort back in WW2, and ones who may or may not have been commies, and ones who married each other. In '64 Barry Goldwater ran a series of ads in which movie stars--Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan--endorsed their man. And sports has always had its own sort of info-tainment niche. But at one point we used to think that something had to happen to someone first, and then it would become a news story. Now an individual can be, by virtue of his or her very existence, an ongoing news and entertainment story.

Some think our attention span is shorter than it used to be because of TV, but I'm not so sure. Fifty years ago could we have stayed interested for over five years in the story of Angelina taking Brad away from Jennifer? Yet there it is on the covers of the tabloids to this very day. Back then the equivalent stories involved Liz Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Richard Burton, or Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, but those dramas had relatively short shelf lives. I think if anything our appetite for such shit has become greater and more indiscriminate, just as our appetite for food has grown in the same way. How else could an individual with a personality as utterly vapid as that of Sarah Palin have held the public's attention for as long as she has without having done anything at all? Not even so much as a movie, or a L'Oreal commercial, or an endearing sitcom role, or a dance contest, or an arrest.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Can They Handle It?

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I think I've figured out the whole Sarah Palin thing. So far it has pained me to even think about Sarah Palin, so I've dismissed any such thoughts. But the media, in particular the AOL home page, has kept her photo out front on an almost daily basis, and today there was a bit about her daughter's plans to marry.

I know I'm not the only one who's thought along these lines, but I often have to convince myself that I've arrived at conclusions all by myself in order to feel that they're valid. Only later do I discover that it's all been written up, more comprehensively and eloquently, in an article in The New Yorker.

Politicians and would-be politicians have long been creatures of the media, going back on this side of the ocean to the very beginning of the nation. George Washington's image was in large part the creation of his media handlers; Parson Weems's biography created the myth of the cherry tree, among others. In the election of 1800 the newspapers backing Adams and Jefferson furiously slung mud, hoping some of it would stick. Adams was accused of being aristocratic and anti-democratic largely because of the definitely undemocratic Alien and Sedition Acts passed during his term; Jefferson was accurately accused of having fathered children by one his slaves and of being an atheist (maybe, maybe not, but definitely not a Christian). And on it went, up to the present day. Senators and Congressmen get caught in men's rooms. Governors say they're going hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Presidents sit at their desks.

The thing about Sarah Palin is that she seems to be almost completely a creature of the age of the "reality" television show. Other pols get their share of coverage, but it's mostly stump stuff--where did they speak, what did they say. But it was clear from the start, when she was nominated for the vice presidency last summer, that Palin's role was to be largely symbolic--that she would represent the banality of ordinary people--former cheerleaders who talk with whiny twangs and don't have IQs much above average (c'mon guys, let's get goin'); folks who have to put up with getting divorced and with their kids getting knocked up and with their own unexpected pregnancies and with tattoos, piercings, dope, embarrassments on facebook and all the rest. The problem in 2008 was that there was already too much banality at the top end of the Republican ticket. We don't want the guy who gets shot down and captured and held prisoner to be our president. We want the guy who shoots other people down and captures them. In comic book terms, we might elect Gladstone Gander or Uncle Scrooge, but never Donald Duck.

The Republicans have always had more of a knack for propaganda than the Democrats have, no doubt about it. For a long time they were like Avis, trying harder, because they were number two. When it comes to telling lies and repeating them over and over for strategic purposes, they're the masters, and have been since the days of Reagan, at least. Democrats are too diffuse and unorganized to be much good at the Big Lie. They don't so much want to govern as they want to include, which makes them nicer human beings, to be sure, but less effective as rulers and far less ruthless. As for the GOP, when your party essentially peddles hatred, religious bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and finger-pointing, it's counter-productive to greet the public with open arms. At this point I'm reminded of that great line from the movie The Usual Suspects, taken in turn from Baudelaire: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." The greatest trick the Republicans ever pulled was convincing average Americans that the interests of unfettered capitalism are entirely compatible with the welfare of the working class. That no taxes or responsibility or consequences for the rich somehow equals utopia for all. On the face of it an absurd idea, one against which common sense would seem to militate, but one with an amazingly large number of adherents. Anything the government does, however tepidly, to try to help the least among us gets labeled socialism and dismissed out of hand--as if anyone in this country has any but the most muddled notion of what socialism is. The idea of government-funded medical care for everyone, for example, is derided as impossible to achieve and unacceptably leftist, unless, of course you happen to be 65 or over, in which case it's just good old American Medicare. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, no Republican ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

Which brings us neatly back to Sarah Palin and the age of reality TV. Reality television is the fairly logical outgrowth of the Oprah/Jerry Springer/Judge Judy genre, where everyday yahoos and freaks parade their pathetic shortcomings and lack of circumspection for all to see. The idea is that when we watch such folks we relate to their situations but feel at least a little superior, and therefore not quite so hapless ourselves. "Man, I may be fat, but she's really fat." "He has no idea what a pompous ass he's being." "If she only knew what a ridiculous slut she looks like in that outfit." After years of putting these losers on talk shows and in front of actor-judges, the television people got a brilliant idea: why not build entire shows around groups of unselfconscious nimrods competing with one another in some elaborate game on a desert island, or for a husband or a wife. Then, after that idea had been wrung for all it was worth, the TV people said, "Let's see if they can dance, or sing. Let's do the Gong Show, but play it straight."

Out of all this emerged, quite seamlessly, yet another idea. I can almost hear it being pitched, in Hollywood or Washington DC, those entertainment capitals of the two coasts. Let's take a dull tool with lots of camera appeal and political aspirations, set her up as the front for a manufactured political movement, and follow her for the entire four-year presidential term, culminating in her triumphal march into the Republican convention in 2012. Work her family into it, even in ways she might not approve of. Keep her connected to the audience at a human level. Let them feel her pain. Like Kate from Jon and Kate, or Vienna from The Bachelor, or the fuckups from Celebrity Rehab. It'll be like Legally Blonde meets Triumph of the Will! (At this point the Hollywood and Washington types scratch their heads. "Triumph of the whaaaa?" The pitchmen quickly regroup. "Okay, okay. Imagine Julia Roberts starring in a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)

The deepest secret fear of some, of course, is that Sarah Palin might actually get nominated, or worse yet, elected. In Europe they're used to this sort of thing, having a centuries-old tradition of being ruled by simpletons and preening megalomaniacs. In general, the American electorate prefers presidents whom they perceive to be smarter than they are, and more blessed by fortune in various other ways. Good looks go a long way, true, even coupled with mental mediocrity. Look at Warren Harding. Or Gerald Ford. But there's a fine line between mediocrity and downright idiocy which the voters don't generally cross. Still, it would be interesting. And not really all that scary. The republic would survive. In fact, if she's nominated, whether she's elected or not it might turn out to be the greatest gift the Democrats have had dropped in their laps since Watergate. The question is, can they handle it?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

8,000 Miles From Graceland

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I went to the movies this evening with two of my grandsons. They’re 13 and 6 years old. We saw The Last Airbender which, for those of you without young kids (boys especially) or grandkids, is a live-action film based on a popular television cartoon show called The Avatar. And as some of you certainly know, the movie title Avatar was already glommed, last year, and given to an elongated version of the Blue Men routine, so that this, the real Avatar story, had to choose another name. The TV program, from my superficial knowledge of it, features a young boy of indeterminate race, but leaning toward Asian, who possesses supernatural powers and is, somewhat against his own will, the Chosen One, or something like that. He’s sort of like a young Dalai Lama, with liberal doses of ninja fighter and magician thrown in. Basically your typical reluctant boy-hero-demigod, on whom the fate of the world hinges. Sound familiar? It should.

In the movie I sat between my boys, offering grandfatherly comments, as is my duty. To the thirteen-year-old I whispered, “If he’s an Airbender, does that mean he can fart around corners?” With the six-year-old I kept it more on the up-and-up. “Are you cold? Do you want any more popcorn?” As we were exiting the theater I asked for first impressions, since both are avid followers of the cartoon. The little guy loved it. The big guy, being older and more discerning, thought the movie lacked the requisite blood, mayhem, and high body count of a quality production, and was thus unable to give it the Ebertian thumbs up. So, mixed reviews.

My own impressions are as follows. The dialogue was about a millimeter deep and the acting was amateurish. The little kid who played the Avatar was pretty good at conveying that quintessential amalgam of angst, fear, and anger you see on the faces of actors either in the kabuki theater or in choppy-choppy movies, but with a bit more gentleness and perplexity, since he was only slowly coming to the realization that he was destined to master the bending of all four elements (air, water, earth, and fire, for those of you who didn’t take medieval chemistry in high school). The young man who starred in Slum Dog Millionaire, Dev Patel, had a key role, and was probably the most professional member of the cast. The movie also featured a large woolly beast on which the good guys rode, which resembled a cross between a gigantic fat musk ox and the creature played by John Candy in Spaceballs. (“Hi, I’m Barf. I’m a Mog—half man and half dog. I’m my own best friend!”) M. Knight Shama-lama-ding-dong directed this dubious offering, confirming that he is truly a one-hit wonder whose only decent movie was The Sixth Sense, and that probably more because of Bruce Willis and the kid than because of him.

My other impressions were, I suppose, equally superficial. For instance, I noticed that all the principal good people were very white, and that many of them had blue eyes. Not everyone to be sure—the Avatar himself had brown eyes. But the most virtuous character, a beautiful and slightly cross-eyed young princess who sacrificed herself to reinvigorate a carp, no less (all right, a spirit in the form of a carp, but most definitely a fish) had the bluest eyes of them all. And all the bad guys, the fire benders, looked like Arab Elvis impersonators, with jet black hair and long pointy sideburns and stylized costumes. And brown eyes. As brown as shit. As dark as crude oil. You expected them to all fall prostrate facing Mecca at any moment.

So what does that tell you? Well, if it isn’t already obvious to every American, it should be. It’s not bad enough that they knocked down the World Trade Towers. Now they’re trying to look like our most sacred icon, the King himself. When is someone going to do something? For the answer to that we’ll have to wait for the sequel to the Airbender movie or for the end of the seemingly interminable war in Iraq/Afghanistan. Until then, keep supporting our troops, who, I’m pretty sure, are over there for the express purpose of fighting these fire-bending, would-be hunks of burning love, 8,000 miles from Graceland.