Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Monday, July 23, 2007
It seems Americans don't really like to admit our empire exists, far from showing any sort of pride about it. Maybe it's because we're a lazy, freedom-loving people and empire, well, empire gets in the way of all of our nice things. But when the truth of our empire peeks its ugly little head up and we see it, we get really nervous. We know it will fall. So we are at once really nervous about it, and can't stop looking, can't stop wondering what will happen when the congress falls, when the states finally sunder.
This makes me feel a little bit less proud to be an American. How many billions of dollars have we wasted on the Iraq War; subsidies to big-pharma, big-oil, and big-anything; and the NEA? And I haven't - never in my entire life of twenty-three years - been ever handed a chocolate bar from a policeman. We're missing out!
Friday, July 20, 2007
There is, despite all the pretensions, a definite magic to reading. And it starts when we’re young. There is something primal, basic, and invigorating about stories. We shape our lives through the stories we tell about ourselves, and I don’t think it would be overreaching to say that when we, as little snuggly balls of children, demand to be read a story for the umpteenth-billion time, we’re really in part learning how to tell stories about ourselves, make ourselves up.
But once we start to read for ourselves, the magic really fleshes itself out. In the intense privacy of reading – in which we are alone with only our book and our thoughts - we are able to try on new stories, stories that we’d never be able to try on with our parents around. When we read those first young adult books, the ones with impotent crushes and even more impotent writing, we’re also finding a place where we can start to be ourselves without parents, without friends, without anything else but ourselves.
Now that I’ve given – what? – two hurrahs for reading, I have to say this: artsy writers right now have, by and large, gotten it wrong. There is a sense, in such a nice capitalist utopia as ours, that for anything to be art it must be motivated by wholly non-commercial reasons; it must be born far away from the mercantile demands of the crude mob. And so art is rarefied, abstracted from people’s everyday experience, inaccessible, and just bad. Why? Because if it was entertaining – how could we know it was good?
Just look, take a nice long look, at Damien Hirst. His famous work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is about the most pretentious, cynical piece of crap ever crapped since Piero Manzoni canned his crap and sold it for the current price of gold. It's also known as a female tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. The idea is that it is daring, conceptual, et cetra. But the idea is actually this: It is not pleasing, and yet it is valuable, so it must have some other sort of value to it above and beyond those values we know it ourselves to have – a conceptual, if not aesthetic value. We get into a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes moment here. Because if everybody is chirping about how the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets are so wonderful, or how Damien Hirst’s art is so fantastic, and you’re sitting there, a wide-eyed young undergrad, and you think: well, these people must know better than me – they being teachers and everybody else – and you’re likely to nod and say, yes, those rotting hunks of opaque jargon are, well, good artsy profound pieces of human creativity and wonderment. And then, because you need to write an essay about it, you’ll expound on your view until, forty years down the track, you’ll have been eating the offal of art and thinking it fine French dining - and writing even more convoluted apologies to get yourself tenure.
And this is even worse in literature. There is a lot of good stuff out there – David Foster Wallace and Marilynne Robinson, for instance, are gods on earth – but the whole act of writing and reading has this sense hanging over it that it shouldn’t be fun. Because it’s art.
Now look at all the wonderful stuff on TV: Deadwood, Firefly, Arrested Development, Seinfeld, The Sopranos – and the list goes on. Just because it’s entertaining, doesn’t mean it also doesn’t have to suck.
Not that there’s nothing more than entertainment. A really fantastic work of art can have an effect that goes beyond entertainment: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, does something more to you than Jonathan Lethem’s Gun With Occasional Music. Even though both are entertaining, Gilead leaves you feeling like you have had a deeper – for lack of a better word – experience. An experience that has somehow rung the bell of life more true, has sounded better its depths, has provided a sort of comfort against the strains of our daily energies. And not a lot of TV – even the best TV – can do that. And no TV show has yet done that task with any particular consistency.
But the distinction is not between high art which you need some special training to recognize and low art which is like Hostess Cupcakes, it tastes good but makes you fat and lazy; no, the distinction is between what you enjoy, what brings you understanding, what you find beautiful - and everything else. Not too complicated, eh?
Thursday, July 19, 2007
The new Simpsons movie comes out in less than a month - and already I'm getting so excited for it I nearly want to swallow the marketing campaign that's being force fed to us right now.
My generation, for everything we are, are really the Simpsons' generation. The show has been with me ever since there was a me for it to be with. It's shaped my humor, my intonation, my sense of self and has generally had the cultural impact of an earthquake. A well-plotted, yellow-skinned earthquake. Well. Maybe not. Maybe the cultural impact of... this.
And there have been so many good cartoons to come to the big screen in the past couple years. Ratatouille, of course, has to stand up there as probably the best film I've seen in a billion years. But don't you forget the hilarious Spongebob Squarepants Movie, The Incredibles, and Spirited Away.
But the Simpsons - the actual show - has sucked for a while. Or, at least, it hasn't been as good as it used to be. It's like the Applebee's of comedy now, and so very American for: it's consistent, there's a lot of it, and you can find it wherever the hell you go, whether it be Alaska, Spain or Korea.
The Simpsons used to be so much more. Why this happened - why it jumped the shark - was that it could no longer tackle the practical human issues that made it sparkle in its hey-day. It had simply tackled them all. Once you deal with crushes, bullying, obesity, nuclear power, hippydom, wanting to be cool and not being cool and then realizing that not being cool is actually cool (all things that various Simpsons episodes did wonderfully) - then you have to start having trips to Japan and Aerosmith coming to town and Homer becoming a stoner.
Moreover, the show is constrained because it needs to end on some sort of sit-com equilibrium. We need to return to the same Springfield at the start of every episode, so we have to close on the same Springfield at the close of every episode. This means that for the past ten years of so instead of growing the characters have only collapsed into broad caricatures of themselves. Bart is even more snarky. Marge more boring. Lisa more liberal. And Homer... , far, stupider. And there's not anything explicitly wrong with that. It just means that the show has lost some of it's luster.
So. Here's my prediction: if the Simpsons Movie deals with everyday human problems - it's going to be great. If it turns out to be an hour and a half of raising the ante of silliness and oddity, with Homer - I dunno - with Homer converting to Islam or something, it will be funny, but fail to be profound.
But I don't think it can return to the profundity of those early years. Great stories are about great change. And you can't represent this sort of great change when the characters need to again and again return to our TV screens for the next decade and a half. And so the characters are no longer us - no longer my generation that literally grew up with the Simpsons - but become totems, or idols - the mockery of life, but not its mimicry.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
According to the New Yorker, the governments of pirate ships were surprisingly egalitarian. Now in the 19th Century, if you were in the normal, non-pirate Navy and you weren't the captain - your life sucked. The captain was the ultimate and final law at sea, able to rule anything and everything he wanted. He decided how much food you got to eat, who you would fight, and got to take in a whole lot more booty than anybody else on board.
But on pirate ships, captains were elected, only had absolute control during battle and got paid only twice as much as normal sailors. Pirate ships often would have simple constitutions, even. If you were an average sailor, your life would be far better on a pirate ship than on the ships of more civilized, law-abiding, non-peg-legged Navy. But why did pirate ships develop such liberal institutions outside of the law, while ships governed from within the law needed to rule so harshly? Wouldn't it be the other way around? That the law-abiding sailors would need less strict governance?
The problem is that on a pirate ship - adrift out in the ocean, with no nation, law, kinship, king or anything - nothing demands the obedience of the crew except for those bare expedient practicalities like money or work or survival. Let's it this way: you want everybody to follow the rules so everybody can get the benefit of cooperation. But if you (an individual pirate) don't follow the rules, you still get to partake of the booty. And there's nothing much to coerce you to obey. Except, you know, force. But that's not efficient. It's the classic prisoner's dilemma.
So even though pirate ships were adrift outside of the normal strictures of law, they had to subscribe to a jury-rigged, egalitarian law to make certain that there was enough incentive for everybody on ship to co-operate. Now, in our day-to-day unscripted affairs, we tend to do the same thing - we develop jury-rigged sets of laws to deal with recurrent situations in a way that ensures long-term cooperation. These are those little unwritten laws of conduct like, Don't make out with your best friend's ex-girlfriend; or, Don't swear in front of your grandma. We come to these laws almost unconsciously, so it's hard to articulate them. But we know them nonetheless - and when somebody breaks one, we get pissed off.
This situation - of order arising outside of law - is exactly what David Milch was thinking when he jumped into Deadwood - probably my favorite show on the face of the earth. He said in an interview with Salon that:
I had proposed to HBO a series about the city cops in Rome at the time of Nero. What had interested me was the idea of order without law. The Praetorian Guard, who were the emperor's guards, understood how they were to proceed. But for the city cops, who were called the Urban Cohorts, there was no law at all. So they were sort of making themselves up as they went along. I wanted to focus on that idea of how order is generated in the absence of law. They [HBO] were already doing a show about Rome in the time of Caesar, so they asked if I could engage the same themes in a different setting, and that was how I decided to do the western.
So when people get together, we kinda naturally clump together into some sort of order, if you wait long enough. From pirates to Roman policemen to Deadwood, we humans like to have sets of rules and laws that we live by so we can know what to expect. This, to me, looks like a nice bit of synchronicity, pointing to an underlying reason to human affairs. But turn the situation around, look at it from another angle, and what looks like a sort of triumph of human sympathy and understanding becomes farce. We think rules are so great. Well, they're just arbitrary, meaningless, and all the more meaningless for their universality. Just look at Chuang Tzu:
An apprentice to Robber Che asked him saying 'Is there then Tao in thieving?'For Chaung Tzu, since the light of reason shines on both good and evil alike, then the light of reason isn't really all that good. We may think that our intelligence and understanding add to the beauty and joy of the world - but the universality of order means that order itself is not a good, but something neither good nor bad - something that actually exacerbates the badness of the world!
'Pray tell me of something in which there is not Tao', Che replied. 'There is the wisdom by which booty is located. The courage to go in first, and the heroism of coming out last. There is the shrewdness of calculating success, and justice in the equal division of the spoil. There has never yet been a great robber who has not possessed of these.'
Thus the doctrine of the Sages is equally indispensable to good men and to Che. But good men are scarce and bad men plentiful, so that the good the Sages do to the world is little and the evil great.
Indeed, Chaung Tzu sees the distinction between good an evil as one that wisdom imposes on us: just and unjust, worthy and worthless, the distinctions between colors and shapes - are all mere trappings that we hang on an otherwise beautiful natural order. The human order - the laws that we impinge on our conduct - is what corrupts life. It is only when the wisdom of the sages is forgotten, Chaung Tzu says, and even when we forget beauty and color and words, that we will live in true harmony. The harmony of nature, where nothing is divided.
But if order arises somewhat naturally in people - if it's used as readily by pirates as by politicians, by dole-bludgers as by CEOs - then how is it unnatural? People, it seems, live a life swimming in a sea of language, law and distinction. Chaung Tzu fails to see the naturalness of this, its inevitability. The insight, though, is that following the law is not the end-all and be-all of morality. Or even necessary for morality. Because everyone follows laws, and not everyone is moral, then being moral is something more than simple rule-following.
As I close this post, I want to come to some sort of concluding insight - but I can only motion vaguely to something I believe. That morality is not as simple as it seems. It is a natural human capacity, but one that must be cultivated - and that cannot be cultivated by law or stricture or coercion. I dunno. I hope I have given the pieces of something larger, and that you can fit them together as you will.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
So, in our ostensible democracy, we have a legislative body unelected by the people, who rule for life. And, as far as I can tell, there's no good reason for them to exist. If anybody out there has an excuse for why we should have a high court exist in the Land of Democracy and Freedom, tell me now, before I start to rant or something.
Now, what the Supreme Court is meant to do (I think) is judge whether any given law is Constitutional, as if the Constitution, in the founders' infinite wisdom, contained within it the secrets to best governance, and the only thing we mere mortals need to do to run our state properly is to study that ancient document as carefully as one would study the Bible, or Homer, or Seinfeld; so if a given law in twenty-first century America doesn't jibe with the imperatives set down by some white slave owners from the seventeenth century, then so be it - scratch the new wisdom, the old wisdom, while we do not understand it, has withstood the test of time - and so we get legislation that sells the Grand Olde Internete-Tubes piece by piece to the highest bidder, or some other bit of nonsense. It is okay (the argument would run) because there exists an ineffable and inarguable wisdom that our founding fathers mystically tapped into during their beer-fueled legislative orgy of which we and our Constitution, and our Democracy, are heirs. Call it the DaVinci Code theory of democracy.
What the Supreme Court actually is, when you get down to, is another legislative body. It makes laws. It does so by interpreting a vast canon of precedent and - who knows, maybe pig entrails. But it legislates nonetheless.
And having an unelected, unaccountable legislative body frustrates the very heart of our democracy. Just look at Roe vs. Wade. Now, I believe women should be able to have abortions because it allows them to have the freedom to decide whether or not to have a child: which is a pretty big decision, any of us would say. But I believe that Row vs. Wade, in basically imposing a law on the people- a good, just, moral law - pissed off a everyone who disagreed with it. Even though it does good it does so while side-stepping democracy. Part of the democratic franchise is that you fight for your cause and yet accept the outcome of the legislative process. Well, the anti-abortionists out there are pissed because they were never given a chance to actually get democratic about it.
And you know, the Court isn't some cabal of learned genius. They're humans, right? So they can be bought off. Just look at the Court's decision in the election of 2000. Or the Court's decision that somehow the right to free speech allowed companies to bribe our elected officials with campaign contributions.
The Court is just plain wrong for a democracy. Being moral isn't just about the morality of the outcome of our actions. It's about the underlying process and intention of the action itself. If being moral was all about doing things that had moral outcomes then nobody would be moral, or the wrong people would be moral, because we humans and our funny finite perceptions can't accurately track the long-term moral outcomes of what we do. We can only tell whether or not we do something with good in our hearts. And just because the Supreme Court sometimes does things that I agree with, it doesn't make those decisions just or right, because the process by which they were decided is fundamentally wrong - for a democracy. Whatever it rules carries the stench and taint of aristocracy and privilege that is so very antithetical to our basic political heritage.
This will be a bigger and bigger issue in the coming years. Bush got to put two judges on the Court. And with Bush, well, Bush just reeks of the brimstone, and while we'll probably as a nation be able to easily forget the War On Terror and No Child Left Behind and Plamegate and the lies and the fear and the steady inching towards the line that separates a fascist society from a free one - I mean, we'll forget it about as well as the Saturday night partier forgets the ugly girl he slept with - those Supreme Court justices are there until they die. And we're going to have to pay a heft alimony on them for at least half a generation. And that - it's scary.
Monday, July 9, 2007
Neatorama explains the origins of my favorite typographical symbol, the ampersand (&):
This symbol is stylized et, Latin for "and." Although it was invented by the Roman scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro in the first century B.C., it didn’t get its strange name until centuries later. In the early 1800s, schoolchildren learned this symbol as the 27th letter of the alphabet: X, Y, Z, &. But the symbol had no name. So, they ended their ABCs with "and, per se, and" meaning "&, which means ‘and.’" This phrase was slurred into one garbled word that eventually caught on with everyone: ampersand.
Wow. Never knew that.
What I love about this factoid is that the ampersand went through about seventeen centuries completely nameless, as just that squiggly thing that means and, a member of those common, nameless objects like that dangley thing at the back of your throat and the feeling you get when you sleep too much that feels kinda like tiredness, but must not be tiredness. And then it gets named - not by the dictate of some denoter from above - but from schoolkids. Being lazy.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
I will still keep up Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and the Peach Blog. So don't worry. Just start looking for me on the Utne website come August.