Friday, December 31, 2010

Lend Me Your Ears

What sort of music have I been enjoying the most this year? Which albums spent the most time in my stereo over the past twelve months? Why, I'm glad you asked! Let's do this thing. Sorry, Brian and Heywood, it's been a pretty metal-free year.

Morphine, At Your Service

My joy at discovering a new double-album of unreleased tracks, alternate takes, and live recordings compiled by the surviving members of Morphine is the only thing that prevented me from being mad at the entire world for failing to notify me that the damned thing actually came out more than a year ago. What good are you bastards, huh?

But who can be angry when there's so much good stuff here to enjoy? Ah, Mark Sandman, you're still missed more than you could possibly have known.

Favorite songs: Call Back, Women R Dogs, Lilah II, Bye Bye Johnny

Nobody, One for All Without Hesitation

Nobody, a.k.a. Elvin Estela, is simply sui generis. Is he electronica? Alternative? Does it really matter? On the negative side, he discovered Auto-Tune for this record. On the positive side, he released it as a double album, one disc being instrumental versions, so I guess that balances things out. It's not my favorite of his work, but it's still better than so much else.

Favorite songs: Hip$ters, Face to the Sun, Coming Down (but since none of those are on YouTube, let me link to some of his older stuff: After the Summer Hits, Electro-Acoustic, Siesta con Susana, Spin the Bright Sun Rose, Ignite, All the Shallow Deep. After all, I listened to them obsessively too.)

Against Me!, White Crosses

Angrier and more substantial than most punk/pop bands you'll hear on the radio (even their name is pissed off and yelling). Tom Gabel writes some of the most unwieldy and overly-wordy lines I've ever heard, but when the songs are so infectiously catchy, it's easy to forgive.

The Chemical Brothers, Further

The Brothers gonna work it out, indeed. What can I say? I love pretty much everything they do.

Favorite songs: K+D+B, Horse Power, Dissolve

Scissor Sisters, Night Work

My earliest musical memory is being entranced by Elton John's falsetto vocals at the end of "Bennie and the Jets." And I was inundated with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack when I was but a wee tyke. So bite me, I can't help but love a campy, disco-y sounding band who were obviously influenced by both Elton and the Bee Gees. Again, not my favorite of theirs overall, but still fun to shake your booty to.

LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening

Alternative rock with an electronica beat.

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse, Dark Night of the Soul

Another dead musician named Mark that I miss tremendously, but at least Linkous' suicide in March was offset a little by the long-delayed release of his collaboration with Danger Mouse. Haunting (and haunted) music.

Broken Bells, Broken Bells

I never was interested in the Shins, but apparently Danger Mouse makes everything better, as this collaboration with James Mercer demonstrates.

School of Seven Bells, Disconnect from Desire

My Bloody Valentine-style shoegaze combined with perhaps Ladytron-style electronica. Ethereal.

Favorite songs: I L U, Dial

• Best New (To Me) Band of the Year: Alabama 3

Again, how is it that you all let me go the last decade and a half without hearing the first thing about this band? Yes, if I had watched The Sopranos, I would have heard their song "Woke Up This Morning" being used as the theme, but I didn't, so the onus was once again on you to keep me informed, and once again, you let me down. I won't stand for much more of this! What other secrets are you keeping from me, huh?

Anyway, who would have thought that country-blues-gospel-acid house would work well together? It's as if My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult was composed of a bunch of Brits pretending to be from the Deep South. Awesomely bizarre.

• Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Blond Redhead, Penny Sparkle

Damn. After loving 23 with all my heart, this sure did fall flat. Zzzzzzzzzz.

Favorite songs from 23 which will have to sustain me until the next record which will hopefully be up to standards: Publisher, The Dress, Silently, 23

We Believe In Nothing, Lebowski, Nothing

Chris Hedges is indeed wankeriffic when he gets on his anti-atheist hobbyhorse, but I do think Ebonmuse is being slightly unfair to him here:

As I've written before, Chris Hedges is a nihilist. He flatly denies the possibility of moral progress, and vehemently asserts that any efforts to improve humanity will inevitably end in mass slaughter and destruction. He says so bluntly at the beginning of his book:

Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses... We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the inherent flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history... All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in squalor and fanaticism. (p.10-11)

Previously, he countered Hedges by saying:

First, moral progress, though it may be slower than we would like, is real and it is undeniable. A glance over human history would offer as examples the abolition of slavery, the granting of equal rights to women and minorities, the emancipation of state from church, the flowering of democracy worldwide, the increasingly greater efforts at avoiding war through diplomacy, and many more. This is not to say that there aren't many evils remaining, nor that no new ones have arisen.

A stickler might note that the examples he cites are common in the West, but hardly worldwide. And conceding, even as an afterthought, that this is not to say that no new evils have arisen, well -- isn't that a large part of Hedges' point? We make progress on this or that specific front, but overall, plus ça change. The larger themes remain, with new variations on them appearing. As John Gray put it:

History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end. In fact, with human power increasing as a result of growing scientific knowledge, it can only become more violent.

The core of the idea of progress is that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and can be easily lost.

This is a tragic view, as well as a staunchly conservative one, but it's hardly nihilism. As Hedges said, we do make moral advances, but we also make moral reverses. Cyclical, not linear. And it's foolish to put so much stock into state-granted "rights" as an indicator of deep-rooted progress. That which can be granted with the stroke of a pen can be taken away easily, too. Shall we go talk to some Japanese families on the West coast about what good all those Constitutional rights as American citizens were for their grandparents in the 1940s in the face of jingoist hysteria? Do we need to revisit some of the more ominous recent polls showing a worrisome number of Americans willing to trade their own rights for an illusion of security, let alone those of others like Muslims and Latinos? The United States a hundred years from now could just as likely be a Franco-style military dictatorship with severely curtailed civil liberties or a failed state with no worldwide influence, as it could a sorta-democracy with an uneasy tolerance for gays and atheists. As Gray also notes in other places, authoritarian states like Russia and China have proved that popularity, stability and economic power are not necessarily linked to an acceptance of American-style individual rights.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

We'll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet

Can any river possibly flow
beyond the love of friends?

- Li Po

I enjoy reading meditations on the nature of online relationships and the ways in which our very ideas of relationships are changing as a result of the Internet, but it is a bit of a predictable trope for writers to contrast online interaction at its shallowest with traditional interaction at its deepest, and Roger Scruton provides yet another example:

Yet already something new is entering the world of human relations with these innocent-seeming sites. There is a novel ease with which people can make contact with each other through the screen. No more need to get up from your desk and make the journey to your friend’s house. No more need for weekly meetings, or the circle of friends in the downtown restaurant or bar. All those effortful ways of making contact can be dispensed with: a touch of the keyboard and you are there, where you wanted to be, on the site that defines your friends. But can this be real friendship, when it is pursued and developed in such facile and costless ways?

Real friendship shows itself in action and affection. The real friend is the one who comes to the rescue in your hour of need; who is there with comfort in adversity and who shares with you his own success. This is hard to do on the screen — the screen, after all, is primarily a locus of information, and is only a place of action insofar as communication is a form of action. Only words, and not hands or the things they carry, can reach from it to comfort the sufferer, to ward off an enemy’s blows, or to provide any of the tangible assets of friendship in a time of need. It is arguable that the more people satisfy their need for companionship through relationships carried out on the screen, the less will they develop friendships of that other kind, the kind that offers help and comfort in the real trials of human life.

Maybe it's different for British philosophers, but honestly, among ordinary people, aren't many of those we call our friends simply companions with whom we pass the time? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with enjoying the company of others for the hell of it, but I don't imagine I'm alone in thinking that if I were forced to settle for making friends among those in my close proximity, I'd be very lonely indeed. I guess I'm an intellectual, if we define the term as someone who enjoys ideas for their own sake, beyond any practical import; someone who enjoys "thinking about thinking", as one definition of philosophy has it. (I hasten to add, being intellectual is not at all the same thing as being smart or profound; plenty of intellectuals have subscribed to some of the stupidest ideas ever invented.) And frankly, most people seem to be content to know just enough to get by. To almost everyone I know in real life, evenings and weekends are for leisure and entertainment, not reading and writing. As Dennis Baron said in reference to Nicholas Carr's own portentous claims of the Internet's corrosive effects upon our lives, “That position incorrectly assumes that when we’re not online we throw ourselves into high-culture mode, reading Tolstoi spelled with an i and writing sestinas and villanelles instead of shopping lists.” Without the Internet, I'd be stranded in an intellectual wasteland. Hell, communicating with like-minded people online is probably all that preserves what social skills I do have.

Scruton can call personal shyness a "defect" leading to narcissism all he wants, but for people like me, being taciturn and standoffish is neither good nor bad; it's just the way it is. The things that give me the most enjoyment are largely solitary pursuits. I simply don't need much companionship. I'm one of those for whom the anonymity and distance of the Internet paradoxically makes me feel freer to express myself openly and honestly, which in turn has led to some of the closest friendships I've ever had. His assertion that having a screen between you and your friend, one that you can avoid at will, amounts to "denying the other the power and the freedom to challenge you in your deeper nature", begs the question of what our "deeper nature" is to begin with. Me, I tend to mostly identify "who I am" with "what I think", and I'm fortunate enough to have friends who challenge me in that regard all the time. My deeper nature has nothing to do with small talk and sitting around in my underwear scratching myself, and once again, it's really tiresome that so many people confuse "inchoate" with "authentic".

Like most things, I suppose, you get out of your online relationships what you put into them. Maybe it is more effort to have to use linear thought and words to fill in the gaps left by an absence of body language and other nonverbal cues, but I don't see why that can't be mostly surmounted by honesty and a good faith effort. Li Po and Tu Fu carried on a twenty-year friendship in poetry despite being separated over most of that time by war, drought, and exile. The most significant amount of time they spent together was a three-month span in 744. Was that not a "real" friendship, then? We're still talking about it almost 1,300 years later, aren't we? Or what about Montaigne, who only had four years in his late twenties in which to know Etienne de La Boétie, but was haunted by the loss for the rest of his life?

And let's also consider that for some people, friendship is an opportunity to "share not suffering but joy", as Nietzsche put it. Cultivating the best of ourselves to share while sweeping away the rest is also a way to provide support in each other's hour of need. Not everyone needs a shoulder to literally cry on.

How You Say...?

Roy and Doghouse, two blogospheric wordsmiths who turn me green with envy on a regular basis, do a little riffing on "The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English." I love these sorts of lists. I just love words, period. I love reading dictionaries. I love sounding a new word out, rolling it around my tongue, thinking of a sentence to use it in. I love having to look up a word when reading someone else's writing. I love going here to hear how to pronounce a word I've never heard spoken before. In fact, one of my pet peeves is how often it's used as a putdown to accuse someone of using ten-dollar words, or some such thing. Granted, some people use vocabulary like a cuttlefish uses ink, to hide in obscurity, but still, it's such a cheap shot, to act as if your familiarity with any particular word is the standard to judge by. Well, I've never heard of it before, so fuck you, Professor Tweedcoat Elbowpatches! Yew think yer better'n me?

Where exactly is the cutoff date after which we're no longer allowed to learn anything new, anyway?

But I digress. Here, then, is a brief collection of some of my own favorite words and phrases, chosen more or less at random from memory. (Believe me, I could go on all day like this.) Some are very useful, some are unjustly obscure, and some are just beautifully poetic and fun to say out loud no matter what they mean. Dictionaries used and recommended here include: The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words, Depraved and Insulting English, Le Mot Juste, and The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate.

Anomie: condition of despair brought on by a breakdown in the rules of conduct and loss of sense of purpose

Argumentum ad individium: argument which appeals to men's prejudices

Contra mundum: against the world; used primarily of one who takes an unpopular position and opposes majority feeling

Gaudium certaminis: the joy of the struggle

Pons asinorum: the ass's bridge; problem inaccessible to people of limited wit

Tedium vitae: weariness with life

Au courant: up to date, well-informed

Au fait: well-versed, expert

C'est tout dire: (you have said) all there is to say

Faux dévot: one who feigns piety

Kulturschande: insult to good taste, crime against civilization

Weltschmerz: world-weariness

Penseroso: thinker, usually with a melancholic disposition

Chiromaniac: a compulsive masturbator

Coprophiliac: a sexual deviant with an abnormal interest in feces

Cumberworld: a thoroughly useless person or thing

Driveler: one who talks in an idiotic fashion

Dunderwhelp: a detestable numbskull

Entheomaniac: one who is literally insane about religion

Epicaricacy: schadenfreude

Gongoozler: a dimwit who stares at unusual things

Infandous: too odious to be spoken of

Merdivore: shit-eater

Misologist: one with a hatred of mental activity

Mysophiliac: a person who is sexually excited by filth and excretions

Peotillomania: the abnormal habit of constantly pulling at the penis

Sophomania: the delusion that one is wise

Tartuffe: religious hypocrite

Ventose: verbally flatulent; full of pomp, conceit and bombast

Anodyne: inoffensive

Aperçu: comment or brief reference that makes an illuminating or entertaining point

Ataraxy: a state of serene calmness

Benighted: state of contemptible ignorance

Cogitate: think deeply about something

Dysphoria: state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life

Ersatz: inferior substitute

Fanfaronade: arrogant or boastful talk

Farouche: sullen or shy in company

Farrago: a confused mixture

Ineffable: too great or extreme to be described in words

Insouciance: casual lack of concern; indifference

Ipse dixit: unproven or dogmatic statement

Laodicean: lukewarm or halfhearted especially with respect to religion or politics

Meretricious: apparently attractive, but in reality having no value

Perspicuous: clearly expressed and easily understood; lucid

Sequacious: lacking independence or originality of thought

Supercilious: behaving or thinking as if one is superior to others

Coruscate: 1. To give off or reflect bright beams or flashes of light; to sparkle. 2. To exhibit brilliant, sparkling technique or style.

Nepenthe: 1. A drug or drink, or the plant yielding it, mentioned by ancient writers as having the power to bring forgetfulness of sorrow or trouble. 2. Anything inducing a pleasurable sensation of forgetfulness, esp. of sorrow or trouble.

Lucifugous: Avoiding light

Kenspeckle: Conspicuous; easily seen or recognized.

Anacoluthia: Lack of grammatical sequence or coherence, esp. in a sentence

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

And, You Know, Through This Situation I Found Jesus and Asked Him for Forgiveness and I Turned My Life Over to God...


Police say a Colorado man is suspected of stomping his girlfriend's puppy to death because she wouldn't answer her phone.

Colorado Springs police arrested 25-year-old Christopher Blackstone on suspicion of felony cruelty to animals after his girlfriend discovered her dog wrapped in a garbage bag in a trash bin outside her apartment on Dec. 24.

Just one? Aww, that's nothing. His lawyer's probably asking him right now: How's your forward pass, kid? Your time in the 40-yard dash? What about your jump shot? Hell, we can work with a fastball! Play your cards right, and in a mere couple years, you can have everyone from airhead writers at Salon to the President himself urging everyone to forgive and forget so we can get down to the important business of being entertained.

Écrasez l'Infâme

Voltaire dared to criticize and question the ruthlessness of the Catholic Church’s power and its coordination with the oppressive government of Louis XV. Armed with pen and paper, he faced a government and church that wielded the power of life and death. If Voltaire was not an action-hero, he was a hero all the same, and if had to throw a joke-bomb and run, let him run! Mankind is the better for it. Voltaire promoted tolerance as the most important tenet of civilization and mocked fanatics of all stripes. For this, of course, he was hated and reviled by the powers of his time, and even some of our own.

Despite the indifferent review, I'd be interested to read this book. "The Vile Scribbler" was actually an epithet I could have sworn I heard someone say in reference to him, but when I tried to find the source again later, I couldn't. Maybe I just hallucinated the whole thing. I do recall Mozart referring to him as a "godless arch-rascal" upon his death, which, come to think of it, would have been a pretty cool pseudonym itself.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I Declare War On Stupidity

How does that saying go? First time's an accident, second time's a coincidence, third time's an enemy action? Well, then, I feel confident in accusing Mary Elizabeth Williams of waging ignorant aggression, and justified in responding with extreme prejudice.

So let's get this straight -- at an age when plenty of young adults are still living at home, working part time at Chili's, and making their biggest plans based on the merits of $5 pitchers or Jager on tap, Bristol Palin is a home owner contemplating her educational future. You'd think that maybe the prospect of Palin -- a girl who got knocked up at 17, has a high profile and an often justly reviled family, and whose recent claim to fame involved dancing in a gorilla suit -- becoming a property owning, possibly matriculating member of society would be enough to make her numerous detractors pause a moment and say, hey, good for her.

She sure does have a soft spot for the helpless and downtrodden, doesn't she? First she felt obliged to take up for the poor millionaire athlete against the mean old animal welfare workers, then she bravely stuck up for a plucky little Bronze Age mystery cult against the tyranny of a billboard suggesting it's a crock of shit, and now this. I'm actually intrigued to see what she's going to come up with next!

You know, I faced a serious dilemma here, one that took an actual coin flip to resolve. No, really. I've said before that the amount of scrutiny the Palin family gets is in inverse proportion to their actual significance, that far too many bloggers have been lazily using them as a crutch to avoid writing about anything remotely interesting or important. My first instinct here was to avoid this low-hanging fruit, to refrain from wasting any more pixels on these clowns. But I've only become aware of what a fucking moronic hack Williams is in the last couple weeks, so the novelty of mocking her still hasn't worn off quite yet. What to do, what to do? Well, the coin came up heads, so here I am.

But before I start launching salvos, let me concede a general point she tries to make: it's a bad thing when urban, educated liberals gratuitously sneer at people simply because they happen to be rural, poor and uneducated. Not everyone who lives in a trailer park or a small town in the middle of nowhere is a bigoted yahoo, it's true. Nevertheless, we're talking about the Palins here, and you kind of lose any expectation of sympathy or fairness when your entire public persona, since the very first time we made your accursed acquaintance, has been purely based on condescending, judgmental sneering at anyone who doesn't fit your bullshit definition of what "real" Myrrhkins are supposed to be like. I suppose it's possible that Bristol could turn out to be something other than the perpetual resentment machine that her mother is, but based on what we've seen so far, it ain't bloody likely, especially since she's already been generously rewarded for simply being one of her mother's appendages.

Being a hack, though, Williams can't just leave off at suggesting that maybe the kid should be given a chance to become her own person. She has to go for the gobsmacking, counterintuitive comparison between Bristol and her peers as evidence of why she should be respected, if not admired. Oh yes, Mary Beth, let's get this straight, indeed: Sarah Palin is the telegenic face of a political movement that takes a malicious glee in scolding other people for their supposed moral failings and lack of responsibility while making endless allowances for the inbred children of their aristocracy. If George W.'s last name had been anything but Bush, he would have been living in a cardboard box outside an ABC store in his forties, not being groomed for a career in politics. Most of us don't have fathers with rich friends who will pour millions of dollars into keeping us out of the gutter. And unlike Bristol Palin, most unwed teen mothers are not going to be given tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to go around and tell other teens what a mistake it was to have a kid at such a young age, because, hey, look at how much she's suffering. They're not going to be provided with lucrative appearances on imbecilic reality TV shows simply because of name recognition. In a society run by people like Bristol's mother, they're going to have extremely limited access to birth control, education and employment opportunities, and almost no margin of error when it comes to making the sort of dumb choices that adolescents are indeed prone to making. I had a few peers who made the mistake of getting married too young before getting stuck raising a child on their own while working two or three jobs and going to school part-time, but all I seem to recall hearing from the conservative aristocracy was that these sluts with their loose morals were destroying the fabric of society, and they needed to get back to church and stop being so quick to leave their husbands over a little infidelity or physical abuse.

I don't blame Bristol, or anyone else given the opportunity, for grabbing that cash with both hands and making a stash. But there's something fucking obscene about someone like Williams, who you would think should know better, acting as if she earned a damned thing, rather than being just the latest example of an entitled brat benefiting from incredibly good fortune while telling everyone else that it's all due to being a "hard ass worker".

Don't Break the Law if You Can't Throw a Ball

The White House says President Barack Obama has commended the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles for giving quarterback Michael Vick a second chance after his release from prison.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton says the president told owner Jeffrey Lurie that while he condemns the crimes Vick was convicted of, he believes people who have paid for their crimes should have the opportunity to contribute to society again.

Yeah, we've heard this a lot ever since his prison term neared its end, usually from people in the NFL with dollar signs for pupils. Even so, I agreed, despite my utter loathing of this two-legged sack of human waste. He should be able to contribute to society again. Those kennels at the SPCA aren't going to hose themselves out, after all. But I'm sure there's nothing disingenuous about this sudden consensus that it's time to officially forgive Michael Vick that just so happens to accompany Vick's leading his team into the playoffs, is there? Don't all illiterate, functionally retarded, violent felons get to waltz right back into their former high-paying jobs once they serve their time? Are you seriously suggesting that Myrrhkins don't have a single moral conviction they wouldn't happily sacrifice for the sake of entertainment? Well! I bid you good day, sir!


Monday, December 27, 2010

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Wittgenstein liked Hollywood westerns and crime fiction. Jiddu Krishnamurti enjoyed detective novels. Me, when I want some light reading, something for sheer fun, I turn to fantasy novels. Dungeons and Dragons sort of stuff, although I never actually played D&D.

But anyway, I remember December 27th, 1990. My brother had gotten a Nintendo game called Wizards and Warriors for Christmas, and playing it made me think, "You know, I like this sort of thing; I should go check out some fantasy novels." And so I did. The first one I got was R.A. Salvatore's Streams of Silver, which was actually the second novel in a trilogy, but Waldenbooks didn't have the first one in stock, and I didn't feel like walking up to the other end of the mall to B. Dalton's.

I had one of the worst migraines I've ever had after I got home, so I spent the rest of the day comatose in the dark and didn't get any reading done, but I tore through it over the next two days and loved it so much that I went back out and bought the first in the trilogy, plus whatever other Forgotten Realms novels were on the shelves. I still have a small little stain on page 13 of The Crystal Shard that always reminds me of carelessly touching the page with a finger wet with pizza grease, as I sat in a little family-owned pizza parlor (long since replaced by a chain restaurant) on New Year's Eve, having lunch while getting started on my newest acquisitions. Good times, good times.

Twenty years later, even though many of the stories are cheesy beyond belief, and the prose and plots are often forgettable, I still enjoy them. I just read Salvatore's latest last month, and I just got a few more novels as Christmas presents to myself, in fact. I guess it's safe to say I'll never outgrow this particular pleasure of youth, thank goodness.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


I liked this little Christmas story of Alex Balk's:

One of the tragedies of our lives is how much we miss out on because we think there's something more interesting happening wherever were aren't; it is a lesson always learned too late.

Maybe it's not the most logical leap, but this reminded me of something John Keats said:

- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason -

A lot of Buddhist writing talks about how often we fail to be aware, to be present. I'll spare you that Auden quotation again, in favor of one from Alan Watts:

The peculiarly noticeable thing about the personality of Zen people is the uncluttered mind. When you deal with Zen masters, you have a strange feeling that so long as you are with them and addressing them, they are absolutely with you. They have nothing else to do but talk to you. They are just "right there."

For me, the common thread here is being able to realize that this, this right here, is as good as it gets. Sure, some details could be better, but some could be worse, and sometimes striving for the former unbalances everything and brings about the latter. The people and places and memories you're looking at in nostalgic, melancholic hindsight now are the same ones you were looking past at the time, hoping to see something more glitzy, dynamic, captivating, more in line with what you think life ought to be like. And while you're doing that, you're dismissing things right now that will seem so much more important later.

I've thought about this and tried to consciously embody a more focused presence for years, but I still often find myself unconsciously gravitating toward this outlook. I have to repeatedly bring my focus back and remind myself: I don't need to know if this or that could be improved slightly. I don't need to keep trying to have just a little bit more, to make a good thing just a little bit better, to gorge myself on unrealistic desires until I have no appetite or appreciation for what's available. I have a very good balance right now between the positive and negative in my life. That's all I need, and I don't care if I ever have anything more.

Happy Christmas

You should buy all your greeting cards from the fine folks at Apoplectic.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Only Good Thing Ever to Come Out of Religion Was the Music

I know it's de rigueur for the blognoscenti to avow their hatred of Christmas music, but I love it. Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, carols like "O Holy Night", "Angels We Have Heard on High", "What Child Is This", "Away In a Manger", and even "The Little Drummer Boy" are some of my favorite pieces of music, holiday or otherwise. Being in the Appalachian region, it's easy to find lots of instrumental versions of Christmas music featuring traditional folk instruments, and I especially love the version of "Snowbird on the Ashbank" on this compilation. (Here's three other favorites that I've collected and listen to every year.)

Sound and scent are so especially conducive to a contemplative state of mind. Music like this, specially reserved for one particular time of year, thus heightening its emotional intensity, combined with the smells of cedar and pine, mistletoe and sugarplums, sage and holly, and, of course, freshly baked foods — well. Who needs heaven?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

First They Came to Recruit the Gays, and I Said Nothing...

Did you know that the United States Army is concerned with the spiritual well-being of their soldiers? Did you know that if you choose not to believe in the supernatural that the United States Army can consider you unfit to serve?

Really? It's that easy? Well, hot damn, that's great news! I only wish someone had told me that before I went and got all these gang tattoos on my neck and face, thinking that would keep me out of Afrakistan.

This is not even an insinuation. The US Army has taken the position that a soldier who does not feel connected to a deity is an incomplete person, and that a lack of belief will somehow compromise their principles and values. It’s right there, in black and white. That the US Army would take such a position is deplorable, and the fact that it is mandatory appears to be a direct violation of the First Amendment of the constitution that these very soldiers put themselves in harms way to protect. It is discriminatory in every way and undermines the confidence that every soldier should have that their Government is supportive of them, regardless of their belief or disbelief in a deity.

Okay, look. I promise to not dwell on the bullshit assertion that our freedom of speech and assembly has fuck-all to do with occupying sand-strewn tribal battlefields across the world if you guys promise not to make this a thing. Some of us are just fine with being discriminated against by what we see as an immoral institution. And when did the fucking U.S. military become the vehicle of choice for obtaining equal rights anyway?

Sui Generic (Slight Return)

"Most people are other people," Oscar Wilde wrote. "Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation." You get the feeling, somehow, that he thought this was a bad thing. Seems likelier that it's just an inevitable fact about a species whose members depend for everything on each other. No single one of us has wings, claws, beaks, or any easy way to make a laptop or a catch a tuna. What we have, instead, is our relationships to other people, through which come laptops, tuna, other necessities—and the sense of connection without which we're miserable. We create a lot of ourselves by imitating others, then, and that's not only because we lack enough lifetimes to reinvent all human knowledge. It's also because imitation makes it easier to communicate information and connect emotionally.

Oh, Oscar. You know, it's certainly an arresting myth, that of the bold artist storming the heavens, rolling up his sleeves, rudely shouldering aside the gods, and plunging his arms up to the elbows into the raw stuff of creation, fashioning novelties out of sheer willpower and breaking the mold immediately after, but it is still a myth. Ecclesiastes was moaning a long time ago about nothing new under the sun. Old wine is always being passed around in new bottles. Plus ça change. In reality, the context matters as much as the content. The originality and innovation is in the arrangement of the parts in the collage, the particular constellation of elements in a specific time or place. And sometimes, originality is an accidental byproduct of an unskillful attempt to imitate something else. Clever people just draw from a wider range of influences and are better at concealing the obvious roots that betray them.

I recently mentioned a friend of mine who imagines "God" to be something like all the knowledge in the universe, actual and potential. So for her, knowledge is pretty much the equivalent of a person's soul. "What about all your knowledge?" she asked, after I disavowed any belief in a soul or afterlife. "It was never mine to begin with," I said. I haven't ever come up with any breathtakingly original ideas. All I've ever done is tinker with ideas that other people passed on to me, applying them to the specific circumstances of my experience, combining them in ways that are only unique to my time and place. Any impression I make on other people will influence them in a way specific to them, and so on it goes. We lay claim to our little treasure-trove of influences for a short while, and then they return to the whole, to be refurbished and brought out again in different guises.

Ex Nihilo

Peter Lawler, summarizing David Bentley Hart:

Hart's “governing conviction” is that what our new atheists regard as modern progress in the direction of rational liberation is itself a reactionary superstition. The modern Enlightenment has actually been a rebellion against the whole truth about our natures, about who we are, and about the true source of our freedom and dignity. And that rebellion has been not so much radical as selective and self-indulgent. By compassionately privileging personal freedom and human rights over what they believe they know through science, the new atheists remain parasitic on the key Christian insight about who we are. Their attachment to the humane virtues makes no sense outside the Christian claim for the unique and irreplaceable dignity of every human person. That claim is completely unsupported by either ancient (Aristotelian) or modern (Darwinian) science. The sentimental preferences of our atheists are really those of a Christianity without Christ.

...Christ, the Christians claimed, freed us from the limitations of our merely biological natures through his perfect reconciliation of God's nature and man's nature. He was, the Nicene fathers concluded, fully God and fully man, and his redemption was to divinize every man. Christ freed each of us for unlimited love for every other person made in God's image; Christ was the foundation of a virtuous way of life based on a vision of the good that has no pagan counterpart. Charity to all became the virtue most in accord with the truth about who we are. For Hart, the wonder is that anyone could have imagined the ideals of the Christian faith in the first place, given that those ideals had so little support in any pre-Christian conception of who we are.

It is barely too strong to say that, for Hart, Christ transformed each of us from being nobody to being somebody—indeed, a somebody of infinite value. None of us is destined to be a slave, and death has been overcome. We are no longer defined by our merely biological natures, because our nature is now to be both human and divine. From one view, there is no empirical evidence that death has been overcome for each particular human being. From another, the evidence is the unprecedented virtue flowing from the unconditional love present among the early Christians and that virtue's indirect, historical transformation of the broader social and political world. The change in who we are is the result of a deepened human inwardness or self-consciousness: Christ made each of us irreducibly deeper by infusing divinity into every nook and cranny of our natures.

John Gray has made much the same point about the roots of rational humanism, but he, at least, went further and noted that the real problem was that both Christians and humanists refuse to accept the fact that homo sapiens are still, at base, another species of animal, probably destined to pass away like so many others did. Hell, Dimetrodon ruled as the Earth's top predator for fifteen million years, all for naught; we're barely 50,000 years into our reign and already constantly flirting with planet-wide self-destruction, yet we can't stop singing our own praises over how essential we are to the universe.

But the logic here just cracks me up. Ignoring the fact that many of our altruistic inclinations are indeed rooted in our biological nature as social animals, conservatives like Hart claim that it's intellectually dishonest and illogical to arbitrarily decide to value the humane virtues. Grounding them in agreement arrived at through shared experience and dialogue isn't good enough, evidently. But arbitrarily deciding to believe the myth that an anthropomorphic deity granted us a magical essence that allows us to appreciate and embody those virtues makes for a rock-solid foundation to build a culture upon. Got it.

Again, we see this fear of nihilism that's so peculiar to Christianity. By staking all value and meaning to a teleological conception of progression toward an unchanging, timeless realm of perfection, we convince ourselves that nothing in the here and now can be worth anything in and of itself. Like poor old Wile E. Coyote, we're seduced by the illusion that we're suspended over an abyss, and if we take our eyes off that heavenly future and glance down, if we fail to keep running in place, we'll plummet to our doom.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Dust of Exploded Beliefs May Make a Fine Sunset

Proving she's no one-trick pony, Mary Elizabeth Williams demonstrates that she can be just as stupid about atheism as she can about Michael Vick. Oops, did I just prove her point? I'm so mean.

Unlike those who would rub what they want you to "know" in your face, Gervais has a gentlemanly, eminently British way of conveying his philosophy. He considers the astonishing number of animal species in the world and understatedly muses that perhaps the story of Noah's Ark "isn't totally accurate." He refers to the Bible as "a dusty old book" that sounds "a little bit farfetched." And in a highly entertaining "holiday message" for the Wall Street Journal this week titled "Why I'm an Atheist," he wrote, "I'm saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn't make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn't make it true."

Of course, when other boogeyatheists like Dawkins or Hitchens point out the exact same things in more detail, even while taking pains to stress that they know and respect many intelligent believers, they're accused of being condescending by reducing everyone's beliefs to a caricature. Not everyone is a biblical literalist, you know! Some of them - like Williams herself, imagine that! - manage to be believing Christians without being tied down by all those dogmatic rules! May I make a suggestion? Perhaps she should take a moment to be grateful that there's no church hierarchy with the power to violently punish that sort of heresy anymore, thanks to people who, uh, weren't afraid to be confrontational and rude.

You know, you just can't win when you allow yourself to get baited into arguing with someone's feelings. She thinks a billboard by American Atheists is an example of "shoving your beliefs on other people" (as opposed to writing an essay in a national newspaper, apparently), which seems awfully mild to me. I see more aggressive advertisements for consumer products every day, but I don't worry that someone's going to think I'm stupid because I don't care to own an iPad. But as we already learned, she's vaguely devoted to some "spiritual" (of course) version of Christianity, so I get the impression that almost any blunt reminder of those who refuse to affirm her choice is going to be too much for her to abide.

Really, this sort of whining is only possible in a society where believers have long had the luxury of never having to be challenged at all. I get told by my friends that calling myself an atheist - in response to their own questions - is arrogant, and my repeated attempts to patiently explain the nuances of my stance don't prevent me from having to answer the same questions again later on. I don't complain about it; it's just the way it is. Having a lot of unusual opinions and tastes in general means I'm more often than not having to listen to some uninformed blustering about a topic of interest or rude dismissal of something I hold dear. Eventually, you just learn to expect it, ignore it, laugh it off, or, if someone's up for it, argue about it. Sometimes you actually even learn something by being offended, because it takes you out of a comfort zone you'd never get around to leaving on your own. But for fuck's sake, how insecure do you have to be to be offended by someone who "thinks they're sooo smart"?

...I left this out of the original draft of this post, figuring it was too obvious to need elucidating, but what the fuck; the holidays are for indulging in sweets, so let's enjoy the scrumptious irony of a self-professed Christian complaining about pushy, judgmental behavior. After all, exclusivity is the entire point of Christianity -- there is one true God and he had one, and only one, son who came to Earth to provide humankind with the one, and only one, path to salvation from sin. Just ask him, he'll tell ya: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Oh, but that Bill Maher sure does smirk a lot, doesn't he?

Yes, yes, I'm sure she, like so many other mushy modern Christians, would say that's the sort of literal dogma that enlightened, spiritual believers like her have outgrown (which would probably sound awfully condescending to at least 40% of the population, but let's not unduly worry her with that right now). But if you don't believe in sin, if you don't believe in hell (or, at the very least, some sort of painful consequences for rejecting God's gift), if you don't believe in the exclusivity of Jesus's claim to divinity, if you feel that other beliefs (or a lack thereof) are just as valid and conducive to living a good, fulfilling life, then what the hell do you call yourself a Christian for? Why be saved if there's nothing to be saved from? Strip away all the exclusivity, and all you've got is some deranged asshole wearing a sandwich board, wandering around making a nuisance of himself, haranguing people to heed his simplistic platitudes or face the brutal consequences when the world ends, which, by the way, will be any day now.

But don't ever have a strong opinion or act like you know something. Perish the thought. That would be intolerant.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Is You Is or Is You Ain't?

"I received your letter of June 10th. I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. Your counter-arguments seem to me very correct and could hardly be better formulated. It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere — childish analogies. We have to admire in humility and beautiful harmony of the structure of this world — as far as we can grasp it. And that is all."

Four years later, in 1949, Raner wrote Einstein again, asking for clarification: “Some people might interpret (your letter) to mean that to a Jesuit priest, anyone not a Roman Catholic is an atheist, and that you are in fact an orthodox Jew, or a Deist, or something else. Did you mean to leave room for such an interpretation, or are you from the viewpoint of the dictionary an atheist; i.e., ‘one who disbelieves in the existence of a God, or a Supreme Being?’” Einstein responded on September 28, 1949:

"I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being."

I agree, and would also add what Noam Chomsky said when asked the same question: what do you even mean by "God" or a "Supreme Being" in the first place? At least the believers in an anthropomorphic personal god have something specific in mind that we can dismiss as a fantasy, but the attempts of sophisticated theists to be more nuanced about it quickly devolve into, uh, poetry (if you're feeling generous), or gibberish (if you're not).

I also pretty much agree with his characterization of the "professional atheist". I personally identify as an atheist because, like he said about the Jesuit priest, I am one as far as the vast majority of my society is concerned. Also, given how much actual, dangerous oppression faces those in many countries who refuse to conform, I think it's important to not take for granted our luxury to be open about our lack of belief, to help destigmatize it. But I don't think religion ever will be totally eradicated, and my suspicion of human nature is such that I can't get truly enthusiastic about what a wonderful world it will be if only it could be. And while I certainly understand the impulse, I can't help but shudder a little to see the sort of tribal mentality that wants to highlight all the examples of those on "our side" -- atheist musicians, actors, and other public figures. I know it can be comforting to be reminded that one isn't alone in holding an unpopular belief, but as is so often the case with politics, it's easy to develop a monomaniacal fixation on such a distinction. Roy Edroso has long been keenly critical of conservatives who subordinate art to propaganda for the party line, disowning entertainers who express heretical opinions, but I've seen quite a few liberals as well who care more about the political beliefs of an artist than the art itself.

So I feel like my atheism is more positional than ideological. I am not on anyone's "side". I have no desire to convince other people to agree with me; I only want to retain enough personal space in which to be free from excessive pressure to agree with them. But I'll also assert myself against those who seem to feel that Einstein's "attitude of humility" is somehow incongruous with open expressions of atheism. I've said before, and I'll say again: in my eyes, agnosticism is a statement about the boundaries of knowledge. Atheism is a statement about the credibility of belief. We can fully admit that we don't know absolutely everything, that we can't see everything from a - ahem - God's-eye perspective, while feeling confident enough to say that we see no reason to believe that our imperfect knowledge leaves a loophole for any metaphysical fantasy we can dream up.

It Seems Your Ring Is Sliding Off My Hand

We could call them the lower-middle class or the upper-working class, but the better term is the moderately educated middle. They do not have BAs, MBAs, or PhDs. But they are not high-school dropouts either. They might have even achieved some college or training beyond high school. They are not upscale, but they are not poor. They don’t occupy any of the margins, yet they are often overlooked, even though they make up the largest share of the American middle class. In many respects, these high-school graduates are quite similar to their college-educated peers. They work. They pay taxes. They raise children. They take family vacations. But there is one thing that today’s moderately educated men and women, unlike today’s college graduates or yesterday’s high-school graduates, are increasingly less likely to do: get and stay happily married.

As they note later on, this same group has seen their wages diminish and employment opportunities vanish over the last few decades. If nobody can afford to own anything but the clothes on their back, what's the point in joining an institution centered on the orderly transfer of property? What are they going to bequeath to their children, a mountain of credit card debt?

I was just talking to a friend last week who told me about her recent engagement. She said they were going to spend the next year saving up for the wedding, which struck me funny. Maybe a more realistic approach would be to skimp on the wedding and save your money for the divorce attorneys.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Shuffle

  1. Robbie Robertson -- Mahk Jchi
  2. Primal Scream -- Exterminator
  3. The Dresden Dolls -- Night Reconnaissance
  4. Andreas Kisser -- Virgulândia
  5. Tomahawk -- Antelope Ceremony
  6. The Wildhearts -- Tim Smith
  7. Faith No More -- Stripsearch
  8. Erik Mongrain -- Fusions
  9. Black Mountain -- The Hair Song
  10. Eisbrecher -- Kuss
  11. The Obsessed -- Touch of Everything
  12. Sigur Rós -- Ágætis Byrjun
  13. Yawning Man -- Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway
  14. Dead Can Dance -- The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove
  15. Nine Inch Nails -- My Violent Heart
  16. Primus -- Here Come the Bastards
  17. Rob Zombie -- Virgin Witch
  18. Type O Negative -- Haunted
  19. The Beta Band -- Alleged
  20. Grandaddy -- Collective Dreamwish of Upperclass Elegance

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Ghost in the Machine


Fruit flies and other simple organisms might seem like they're creatures of instinct, governed by a set of basically predictable stimuli and responses. But fruit flies actually have free will. Depending on what your definition of free will is.

Leaving philosophy aside, we know humans have free will because we're able to evaluate a set of different options and make a conscious decision as to which of them we're going to choose. But for animals, we can't ask them how they go about making decisions, so figuring out whether they possess free will in a biological sense is much trickier.

I don't know about you, but I think I could present at least some examples of people who appear to be "creatures of instinct, governed by a set of basically predictable stimuli and responses."

But yeah, I've always thought the supposed distinction between free will and determinism is such a misleading way to frame the issue. We humans are able to visualize a set of options (within certain constraints) and choose between them because the type of brain we have allows for that sort of abstract thought. Other mammals have that ability to lesser degrees, so I'm not surprised that other animals might also have some ability to intelligently react to new situations. It's a difference more of degree than kind.



I realize I should just accept that Generalisimo Jeebus Galt—who wants to starve the poor, punish retailers who don’t celebrate his birthday loudly enough, invade random countries, and hate teh gay—has nothing in common with the hippie Jesus described in the New Testament.

I've written before about the absurdity of trying to project twenty-first century political and social ideals backward over two millennia onto a possibly-fictional guy whose foremost concern was, uh, gleefully anticipating the, um, imminent end of the world, not the creation of an ideal, long-lasting society. But the other thing that strikes me as so funny about this tendency of both liberals and conservatives to politicize Jesus is summed up by Bart Ehrman:

Each of these authors—as two of them actually tell us— inherited his stories from earlier written sources. Each of these sources had its own perspective as well. And before anyone bothered to write stories about Jesus, they had been circulated by word of mouth for years and years, among Christians who recounted them for a variety of reasons: to magnify the importance of Jesus, to convince others to believe in him, to instruct them concerning his relationship with God, to show how he understood the Hebrew Scriptures, to encourage his followers with the hope that his words could bring, and so forth. As the stories circulated orally, they were changed to suit the purposes at hand. And they were modified yet further when they were written down in such lost documents as Q and further still when rewritten by the authors of our Gospels.

It is important to recall that this view is not based simply on scholarly imagination. We have evidence for it, some of which I have laid out in earlier chapters.

Precisely because these documents were of such importance to people who believed in Jesus as the Son of God, their concerns, to put it somewhat simplistically, were less historical than religious. They were not interested in providing the brute facts of history for impartial observers, but in proclaiming their faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This was "Good News" for the believer. But it is not necessarily good news for historians, who are invested in getting behind the perspectives of the authors of the Gospels, and those of their sources, to reconstruct what Jesus really said, did, and experienced. How can "faith documents" such as the Gospels—writings produced by believers for believers to promote belief—be used as historical sources?

Sometimes, I like to try to look at this afresh, because it's really amazing when you stop to think about it. Serious people in the twenty-first century still appeal to the authority of a book of pure mythology and propaganda for support in arguments over how this aforementioned, possibly-fictional, platitude-spouting apocalyptic zealot, this olio of various Fertile Crescent savior-gods, would vote today. I don't think it could be any more surreally amusing to me if serious people in positions of power started having impassioned debates over the true message of some comic book character.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Interactive Blogging Exercise

Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who spent time in prison for his involvement in dog fighting, said Tuesday having a dog as a pet would help in his rehabilitation.

In an interview with NBC News and, Vick said, "I would love to get another dog in the future. I think it would be a big step for me in the rehabilitation process."

Since I'm all sweetness and light at this magical time of year, I'll refrain from openly commenting on this and instead, ask you, the reader, to simply imagine what I might have written. Then triple the amount of venomous loathing and add a heaping helping of curse words, inventing new ones if necessary. Scream. Break something.

Yet sustained outrage benefits no one. And while the unrepentant and the demonstrably unreformable don't deserve second or third chances, society has to allow for the possibility of redemption. If Michael Vick is always going to be that dogfighting guy, what's his incentive to not be? What was the point of his jail term and current volunteer work? If we forever treat people like the person they were at their lowest, most despicable moments, how can we expect them not to believe that's who they are, and behave accordingly? As Pacelle wrote, "We must be open to the possibility that rehabilitation is possible, and faithful to our hope that people can change." And if we believe in and support the abundant goodness of businesses that include "humane" in their names, we have to believe that word is as applicable to people, even people like Michael Vick, as it is to animals.

Oh, shut the fuck up, you goddamned fucking moron. Where do I even begin with this?

If Michael Vick is always going to be that dogfighting guy, what's his incentive to not be?

Gee, I dunno, maybe not wanting to ruin his career by returning to prison? The knowledge that there's no way he could get away with doing it again?

If we forever treat people like the person they were at their lowest, most despicable moments, how can we expect them not to believe that's who they are, and behave accordingly?

So, it's not enough that he got to return to being a multimillionaire athlete with more than enough fans who wouldn't care if he raped a convent full of nuns as long as he keeps throwing touchdown passes? He has to be publicly forgiven by PETA and the HSUS and people like me, who have spent countless time, energy and money trying to heal the damage that worthless scumbags like Vick have done, or else he might as well go right back to his old ways? If we don't pamper his fee-fees, he's going to haz a sad? Well, here's a proposition for you, you stupid fuck: if he can bear our slings and arrows with grace and understanding, accepting that he has no right to expect any differently, maybe that would be a sign that he has become a better person. Nonetheless, we are not fucking obliged to provide him with more dogs to prove it. He can show what a difference Jesus has made in his heart in plenty of other ways.

And maybe I'm cynical, or maybe I'm just simply not naïve, but I don't believe for a fucking second that a grown man who got his jollies watching dogs maul each other for his own entertainment, who then tortured and murdered them with his own bare hands, who gave no indication that he would have ever stopped had he not run afoul of the law, has suddenly developed a conscience and an abhorrence for such behavior. If you believe that, you're probably the kind of dipshit who was impressed by that "come to Jesus" moment his lawyer scripted for him when the news first broke. Like all criminals, he's sorry he got caught and had to be punished, which is not the same fucking thing.

And if we believe in and support the abundant goodness of businesses that include "humane" in their names, we have to believe that word is as applicable to people, even people like Michael Vick, as it is to animals.

What the fuck does this inane word salad even mean? Didn't this have to go through an editor at any point? So the "humane" thing to do would be to give him a dog? I take it, then, that the logical implication is that denying him a dog would be inhumane? You really think he's unfairly suffering here? Can you truly be stupid enough to believe that? Oh, and as for that stunning non-sequitur: we don't "have to believe" any such thing.

Jesus, what an imbecile. You know, I knew after he returned to football that it would only be a matter of time before someone went there. If there's one thing this idiot nation absolutely loves, it's a sappy fucking redemption story with a happy ending.

All That Twitters Isn't Gold

Phil Davidson:

It wasn’t that long ago, you’ll recall, that Twitter was derided as an exercise in vanity for famous people to feed their comically-obsessed fans a glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle, no matter how mundane the details. (“No way. Kelly Ripa likes pear slices in her salad? So do I!”)

But in the last two years or so, the comedy industry’s opinion of Twitter did a complete 180. There’s been a wave of comedians, writers, performers and producers joining the early adopters and utilizing Twitter as a platform to tell 140-character jokes and reach new fans.

It’s easy to see why. Twitter is in a way a virtual writer’s room where, at your leisure, you can have an immediate audience with comedy legends, professionals and the occasional undiscovered talent as they deliver jokes, witty observations and other miscellany. And it’s free. You won’t have much luck asking Lebron James to come over and entertain you with some free basketball, but on any given day you can observe the next comedy superstar test out a joke on Twitter before making it part of his act.

Yeah, that's great and all, and I'm sure it's been a boon to haiku poets as well. (Was it really all that difficult to find bon mots, witticisms, zingers and one-liners before? Anyway.) But for the non-early adopters among us, those who dropped Twitter off in a basket on the front steps of the orphanage in the first place, whether or not it has any useful function at all is a peripheral issue.

When people complain about the cold, impersonal nature of online communication, I feel that what they're mainly reacting to is the fact that most people are, quite simply, shitty writers. It doesn't mean they're stupid; it just means that they find it difficult to turn their thoughts into nuanced sentences that do a good job of capturing enough of the full flavor of their personality. It's all they can do to convey basic information without burying it under a mound of misspellings, typos and bad grammar. I know enough people who are smart and capable of intelligent conversation, but their emails (or handwritten letters) are brief and utilitarian to a fault.

Now, you may find this hard to believe, but I was not always the finely honed, chiseled, sculpted wordsmith you see before you, no indeed! When I first started writing online oh-so-many years ago, I was undisciplined and unformed. My pacing had no stamina and was easily winded, my metaphors were flabby and sagging, my ideas themselves were paunchy, and my overall coherence and paragraph structure was pockmarked with quirks and irregularities like dimples of cellulite. My ability to spew hot air was more like a hairdryer on medium setting than a blast furnace.

I did not spring onto the Internet fully formed, like Athena from Zeus's forehead, is what I'm saying. I reeked (and I trust you'll politely overlook my repeated use of the past tense here), but I learned by constantly being exposed to better writers, especially once I discovered blogs. I read so many people who said what I wanted to say, only more clearly and concisely, and I shaped my own writing accordingly to reflect their styles. And as I've said before, the more I did it, the more fun it became.

So for me, the biggest problem with the inexorable trend toward social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook postings and the ubiquity of texting as opposed to email is that it solidifies online writing around the absolute lowest common denominator. Instead of challenging themselves to exploit the potential of a largely text-based medium like the Internet, people are reshaping the medium to suit their limitations. Instead of trying to become better at expressing themselves through writing, they're settling for banding together around mediocrity, where the goal is to express yourself with as little effort as possible. Fine, Twitter is great for delivering stand-alone lines and simplistic expressions of agreement or disagreement. But trying to follow an actual debate or back-and-forth conversation one or two sparse sentences at a time is utterly maddening, and as I keep complaining about, that unfortunately seems to be the only type of conversation a lot of people want to have anymore.

Drop Your Funyuns and Grab Your Guns

Thanks to Brian for passing this tidbit along to me:

“Military leaders … tell us that when more than one in four young people are unqualified for military service because of their weight,” the first lady says in the prepared remarks, “childhood obesity isn’t just a public health threat, it’s not just an economic threat, it’s a national security threat as well."

You know, I still have an old certificate from high school tucked away in storage proving that I had earned the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, "in recognition of outstanding physical achievement and exceptional dedication to the ideal of a sound mind in a strong body," with the Gipper himself congratulating me on this accomplishment. Yet even in those glory days of missile defense shields and Red Dawn, I can't say I recall any of my gym teachers, in between mouthfuls of Diet Pepsi and glazed pastries, urging us on to tally more sit-ups, more pull-ups and faster fifty-yard dashes in the name of being ready to beat back the commies from our sacred shores. What was it Jennifer Hecht said about this strange fetish for physical fitness...?

Through studying history, I came to believe that gyms are occupying precisely the role they did in Ancient Sparta and in Fascist Germany. Being obsessed with bodies is actually a pretty rare thing in human history and we’re in lousy company.

...So what is the real story with gyms and gym bodies? What does the cult of exercise really mean?

Whenever it pops up in history it means the same thing. It always means: We are strong even though the peons do all the real work for us. We have special arenas marked as leisure where we get muscled at play.

...When we see this behavior in Ancient Sparta (where the population of Helot slaves outnumbered the Spartans) and in Fascist Germany, and we see the art of those two cultures focusing on the beauty of the toned but clean and uncallused body, we know what we are looking at. It’s more than shallow, it is military, it is deluded, it is oppressive, and a bit grotesque.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tower of Babble

On the basis of having been reading his blog for years (and even trading a couple emails), I feel safe in asserting that Jon Schwarz is one of the most level-headed and fair-minded people in the political blogosphere. A genuine nice guy, and if not, a genuinely gifted actor, then. His blog is named after a line from Orwell that says, "Every joke is a tiny revolution," a clue that humor is a very important aspect of his political worldview. Politics shouldn't be taken that seriously in the end.

So when I see many of the reactions to a post that seemed to me to be a clear enough joke, a basic truth exaggerated for comic effect, I'm truly amazed. So often, we see and hear only what we want to see and hear, we immediately get as stern, uptight and defensive as possible, and we don't hesitate to impute the most base motives to someone for saying something we don't approve of or agree with, especially when sex, biology and race are the topics. Given the rorschach nature of our communications, it's amazing we can ever agree on anything at all.

On the humorous side, this all reminded me of a classic old anarchist pamphlet called Laughter is Bourgeois.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Halcyon Daze

I've been enjoying Steven Hyden's multi-part retrospective on the '90s alt-rock takeover of popular music, even though it must mean I'm officially getting old if it's time for these Gen-X reminiscences. This week's installment was kind of funny in a bittersweet way:

Even more than Sixteen Stone, Jagged Little Pill demonstrated that mainstream pop had assimilated the sound and feel of alt-rock and could now turn out artists that fit the mold without all that troublesome baggage of BS punk-rock credibility. Jagged Little Pill made edgy gestures—lead single “You Oughta Know” thrust an aggressive finger in the chest of the tired Carly Simon-style singer-songwriter template just enough to make it feel alive again—while turning out a steady stream of ear-pleasing pop tunes that toed the line with trends that were now firmly in place. Listeners were so wrapped up in the “controversy” over who exactly Alanis was supposed to be blowing in a movie theater in “You Oughta Know” that they never stopped to ask, “You know, who really gives a shit?”

Gather around, childrens, and let Grandpa Scribbler spin you a tale. 'Twas the early fall of 1995; I remember it well. I came home one day and told my then-girlfriend that I had heard the most unbelievably wretched song on the radio while out on the road that morning. I said it was some girl who sounded like every drunk you've ever heard on a karaoke machine yowling her way through some stupid song about having one hand in her pocket while the other hand is doing this, that and the other. Seriously, the lyrics were insanely stupid and she sounded like she was affecting an annoying, whiny drawl on purpose, like you might do if you were sarcastically singing along to a song you hate. I figured it was one of those weird things that might get played once or twice on alternative radio, and then quickly - mercifully - disappear into obscurity.

Well, as you can guess, that was Alanis Morissette with her song "Hand in My Pocket", one of the singles from a record that, if I recall correctly, went on to be the number one top-selling record by a female artist ever, period, full stop. I still laugh, imagining what it would have been like if I had been the A&R representative sent to a club to check out the buzz on this Alanis girl and see about possibly signing her to a contract. I would have reported back, "Forget it, boss. Ain't no way in hell anyone's going to pay money to listen to that shit!" I'm sure I would have been canned shortly thereafter.

Her inexplicable success, along with seeing blatantly derivative bands like Bush, Silverchair and countless other bastard children of Eddie Vedder and Layne Staley embraced by the same people who, a mere two years earlier, had greeted Stone Temple Pilots with unbridled, ferocious loathing more appropriate for serial rapists and war criminals over STP's much less serious crimes against originality, driving singer Scott Weiland into the consoling arms of heroin addiction in the process, is what finally made crystal-clear to me that I no longer had my finger on the pulse of popular culture. I've felt like an outcast ever since, unable to comprehend why people like what they do.

Joe Blows

Alas, I cast my net into their seas and wanted to catch good fish; but I always pulled up the head of some old god.

- Nietzsche

Guess who?

If you hang out much with thinking people, conversation eventually turns to the serious political and cultural questions of our times. Such as: How can the Americans remain so consistently brain-fucked? Much of the world, including plenty of Americans, asks that question as they watch U.S. culture go down like a thrashing mastodon giving itself up to some Pleistocene tar pit.

One explanation might be the effect of 40 years of deep fried industrial chicken pulp, and 44 ounce Big Gulp soft drinks. Another might be pop culture, which is not culture at all of course, but marketing. Or we could blame it on digital autism: Ever watch commuter monkeys on the subway poking at digital devices, stroking the touch screen for hours on end? That wrinkled Neolithic brows above the squinting red eyes?

...Two hundred years ago no one would have thought sheer volume of available facts in the digital information age would produce informed Americans (Given the following context, I assume he meant to say "would fail to produce" - TVS). Founders of the republic, steeped in the Enlightenment as they were, and believers in an informed citizenry being vital to freedom and democracy, would be delirious with joy at the prospect. Imagine Jefferson and Franklin high on Google.

The fatal assumption was that Americans would choose to think and learn, instead of cherry picking the blogs and TV channels to reinforce their particular branded choice cultural ignorance, consumer, scientific or political, but especially political. Tom and Ben could never have guessed we would chase prepackaged spectacle, junk science, and titillating rumor such as death panels, Obama as a socialist Muslim and Biblical proof that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs around Eden. In a nation that equates democracy with everyman's right to an opinion, no matter how ridiculous, this was probably inevitable. After all, dumb people choose dumb stuff. That's why they are called dumb.

But throw in sixty years of television's mind puddling effects, and you end up with 24 million Americans watching Bristol Palin thrashing around on Dancing with the Stars, then watch her being interviewed with all seriousness on the networks as major news.

Yada, blah, etc. Yes, it's another ventose jeremiad from Bageant about Myrrhkin misology, indistinguishable from every other one he's ever written. I do like how he references "Babbitry" at one point, but seems to forget that H.L Mencken, who coined this particular variation of the term from Sinclair Lewis's novel, was railing against the "booboisie" long before television existed to puddle their minds. But anyway. We all complain like this at times, of course, but not all of us are fortunate enough to parlay it into a writing career. The profits of doom, indeed.

Complaining about specific instances of idiocy and the destructive results that follow is one thing, but the type of whinging that he and others like Morris Berman have made their stock-in-trade is more generic, more in line with the ancient Hebrew prophetic tradition of excoriating the chosen people for failing to uphold their covenant with God and warning of the apocalyptic results to come. Apparently they feel that we modern Americans made a similar covenant with Reason and Enlightenment that we've been steadily betraying ever since, which would probably have been surprising news to the majority of the population that didn't consist of highly educated, aristocratic intellectuals. But since we're talking about the idealism of certain eighteenth-century Founders here, let's also mention that others like John Jay and James Madison felt that those who owned the country ought to govern it, and that the Senate was designed to be more deliberative than the House in order to stave off mob rule. And it's right there in the Declaration, isn't it? "Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness." Nothing about an imperative to live the examined life in there that I can see. So how about we quit with the lamentations and rending of garments and lay the prophetic voice down to molder alongside the other rotting bones of monotheism?

Monday, December 13, 2010

These Are the Things I Can Do Without

I liked these passages from the chapter on Taoism in Stephen Prothero's book God Is Not One:

In the face of a society that championed usefulness, the Zhuangzi championed uselessness, singing the praises of a tree so bent and unkempt that it can't be used for anything other than shade for an afternoon nap. Zhuangzi didn't want the Dao to be useful for politics, or even philosophy. He wanted it to be good for nothing. The same goes for each of us. Instead of making yourselves useful, he advised, make yourselves useless. Then everyone will leave you alone.

In one of the Zhuangzi's oft-told tales, a ruler sends his officials to convince Zhuangzi to accept a prestigious government appointment. But Zhuangzi, who is fishing, doesn't even give them a glance. As he continues his casting, he speaks of the dry bones of an ancient tortoise kept by the ruler in a temple and trotted out on special ritual occasions. "What would you say that the tortoise would have preferred: to die and leave its shell to be venerated or to live and keep on dragging its tail over the mud?" Zhuangzi asks. "It would have preferred to live and drag its tail over the mud," the officials answer. "Go your ways," Zhuangzi says, "I will keep dragging my tail over the mud."

As in the Daodejing, the exemplary human being in the Zhuangzi is the sage, described here as a "genuine person." The Zhuangzi also includes a tantalizing glimpse into a figure that will become central in later Daoism: the immortal who is indifferent to politics, uninterested in fame, unmoved by profit or loss, and unafraid of death.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gaudium Certaminis

I suppose most of us have relatives or acquaintances who forward us those corny inspirational emails from time to time. I usually do read mine, you know. I figure, given my solitarian nature, it's a good way of keeping at least in sporadic touch with the zeitgeist, of being reminded what it is my fellow Myrrhkins find profound and important. Most of them make me feel like I'm eating rainbows and washing them down with syrup chugged straight from the bottle, but still, gastric distress aside, they're mostly anodyne collections of banal pleasantries (and pictures of fuzzy animals). Harmless and easily forgotten, very few of them rise to the level of being truly off-pissing, reddening my cheeks and whitening my knuckles with rage.

This was one of them.


To what purpose, then was his gift? For what reason was he granted incredible talents, if only for them to be denied before their fullest triumph? Is the story of the Heiligenstadt Testament an isolated incident of a man and a mission separated by misfortune? Names such as Joan of Arc, Lincoln, and Churchill seem to indicate that this is not the case.

This story of Beethoven may remind us that our greatest strengths are not our own. It could be a lesson that our most important gifts defy time and circumstance, are never completely innate, and sometimes require tragedy for triumph. But a serious inquirer might be taught something more. The story of Heiligenstadt does not end there.

Beethoven returned to society. He still grappled with the loss of his hearing. He often quarreled with family and friends. His failures, after all, were as real as his success. But after the immediacy of his loss had worn away, he began to recall a dream born years before. As a youth he had read the words of Ode to Joy, a poem by Frederich von Schiller. The first time he heard those words, the lines inspired an intense desire, a hope for untouched joy and perfect peace. He determined then to set those words to music. But it was not until after Heiligenstadt and all that followed, not until after over 200 attempts to embody those words in musical form that he gave life to the idea that joy is not elusive, but our destiny.

Okay, maybe I exaggerate a bit for effect, but still. It's not even the barely-concealed religious message, talking of joyous destiny, a "gift" that was "granted" and strength not our own, that irks me. It's the mentality expressed in the title itself, so philistine, so acquisitive. The reduction of great artists and their work to lesson plans in the Great Big Book of Bourgeois Self-Improvement. How Beethoven's formula for greatness can maximize efficiency and productivity in the workplace! How listening to Mozart in the womb can give your rugrat an advantage when it comes time to compete for a place in the best preschool!

Of course, one can't help but admire the heroism of a man who goes on to compose masterpieces after losing his hearing, the romantic image of a tragic figure defiantly shaking his fist at fate. But the best art temporarily releases us from our narrow, egocentric concerns. This obsession with finding teachable moments everywhere is all about reinforcing them. What's in it for me? How can I make this relate to my everyday life? As if Beethoven existed just to encourage you to become all the Vice-President of Sales and Marketing in the Tri-County Region you can be.

Just a couple posts ago, I chided Paul Murray for talking about Nietzsche in similar terms, although I'm pretty sure Murray was only guilty of using an infelicitous phrase or two out of laziness, not out of any heartfelt conviction that "Nietzsche Is Pietzsche". But I've heard many other people use Beethoven as an example of the sort of "never give up" attitude more typically found on inspirational office posters for cubicle drones; a friend once remarked during a conversation about his music that "He certainly was a wise teacher." Really? How so? On parenting advice? As a cautionary tale about drinking your wine from lead goblets? If the man weren't safely separated from us by the romantic veil of a couple centuries, people like this would be too aghast at his dissolute, erratic, unseemly behavior to find anything redeeming in his music.

Lots of art is pretty. Catchy melodies. Pictures of sunsets and mountains (and fuzzy animals). But art that is truly beautiful usually grapples with tragedy. The irresolvable conflict between the way things are and the way we want them to be. The transience of the things we love. The realization that not all questions have satisfactory answers, not everyone gets what they deserve, and not everything turns out for the best. The jarring fact that a man can be both a phenomenal composer and a lousy human being. This is what's so anathema to a mindset that only sees negatives and setbacks as temporary obstacles, subordinate to and redeemed by the glorious final result. It understands nothing about the kind of joy that doesn't depend on winning and achieving. Beautiful art doesn't exist for anything else. It is its own "purpose".