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The New New World (Part 4)

Imagine a shape in the shape of the continental United States. Oh, wait, you don't have to imagine one:

After the recent election, we saw a great many shapes like that, all filled up with one color or another, or little tiny rectangles, or shapes like states with numbers in them. I think you can even get maps that show all the mountains and rivers and cities and roads and stuff.

But I'm not sure you can get a map that shows, say, music. Well you could do a map like this, I suppose:

Which tells you there is music in that USA shape, but that's about all that map tells you. What if you wanted to put, say, Laurie Anderson on that map? Would she be a city somewhere? Or would she be in a particular corner of the map? Maybe you'd put a dot in the USA shape everywhere there are people who like Laurie Anderson's music. You could do a poll. Call people up. Do you like Laurie Anderson's stuff? Yes? Apply a dot. So then you could have a Laurie Anderson map.

Then you could take your Laurie Anderson map and go to all the places where there isn't a Laurie Anderson dot, and you could play her music in those places, just to make sure that people had heard her, and then you could ask your question again and see how many more dots you could put inside the shape. And then when you had done that for everyplace inside the USA shape, you would have a complete map of all the places inside the USA shape that like Laurie Anderson's music.

But you still wouldn't have a map of music, really. I mean, the map wouldn't tell you what you needed to know if you wanted to travel around inside the USA shape to all the music. You'd have to make a map for every kind of music, and then every performer of every kind of music, and then every song every performer of every kind of music ever performed. And all the music that's never been performed. Pretty soon you would have a map that had so much music inside the shape, so many dots, that it would look like one solid color inside the shape. So you'd be right back where you started. You'd just have the USA shape.

And not only that, whenever somebody came along with some new kind of music, a kind of music nobody had ever heard before, you'd have to put down some new dots for those people who'd heard and liked this new kind of music. But the thing is, the map would look the same way it looked before the new music came along. You wouldn't even know a new kind of music had been discovered.

If you were interested in new kinds of music, this would be a very disappointing situation. You would want a map that showed evidence of the discovery of a new kinds of music.

I suppose what you could do, then, would be to take away part of the shape. Squish all the existing music into a reduced shape. Like this:

That way, when some new music came along you could go, "Oh, wait, I have plenty of space for this new music because I took away part of the shape. I'll just add some more space back in and put the new music dots there." Then you could look at the map and see how it had changed. You could see that something new had happened. Yay!

And then you could just repeat that process. Once the new music didn't seem so new anymore, you could squish that new music in with all the old music and shrink the shape again and be all ready for the next bit of new music that comes along.

So you can't really have a map that shows you music, but you can have a map that shows you where some music doesn't exist yet. And you can never use that map up because you can always squish the shape down to make room for more music. That reminds you (and everybody else) that there can always be new kinds of music. All the explorers who have your kind of music map will see the empty spaces and maybe some of them will go there, and then we will all get some new kind of music.

Maps with holes in them are the kind of maps you want. But really, there's not much point in wasting a bunch of paper making up maps like the music map above. All you really need to know is that there is still room on the map for new stuff. So what you want to do is just carry maps like that around in your head. Imaginary maps with all sorts of scary and exciting and interesting unexplored places on them. Incomplete maps of your new New World. You want to go places you've never been before, don't you? You like to travel and explore and discover new things, don't you? You don't want to be a boring old stay-at-home, do you? You call yourself an American?

Here are some other USA maps I've been working on in my head:




The New New World (Part 3)

The problem is too big. It's too hard. And if that weren't enough, you live inside the problem. You have to struggle hard just to get a glimpse of the thing in its entirety. It's frustrating. You want something you can do now. You want a place where you can send your money. You want to send a letter off and have it be over.

Well, it doesn't work that way.

I call this "Part 3", and I suppose that's what it is, but don't be fooled into thinking I'm doing anything other than wandering around the countryside here, trying to figure out where the hell I am. If this were a book, I would be more or less obligated to have all this stuff laid out for you. Describe the problem, prove the case, provide pointers on how to proceed. This is a blog, though, and so both you and I have the opportunity to engage in some entrepreneurial thought. I've been thinking a lot about entrepreneurial thought, lately. That's because I'm a liberal, and entrepreneurial thinking is the absolute domain of liberalism. Anybody who tells you otherwise is crapping you.

Like I said, I don't really know where I'm going so in desperation I will get out the map to see if I can at least figure out where I am. In Part 1 I talked about America as the old New World (or, if you will, the new Old World), and my desire to find a way to transform it into the new New World. I talked about how we have become that which our ancestors fled. In Part 2 I talked about drunks; to wit: those Americans who have somehow become addicted to the patent medicines of conservative thought. It's tempting to find a way to try to connect those two themes -- maybe something to do with Old World peasants resorting to alcohol to wash away their misery -- but I think maybe I'll pass on that temptation. It's a tricky balance trying to formulate images in your mind to describe the problem. You want something that works, that helps you keep the problem somewhere in mind so that part of your brain can be stewing over it as you go about your day-to-day life, but you don't want anything that's too clever. Too clever gets you nowhere. You spend all your time being impressed with all the twinkly sparkle of your clever image, and almost no time on thinking about the actual problem.

So in the time between Part 2 and now, I've been reading with the intent of trying to get some sort of gelled notion of the problem of conservatism. More on what I've been reading in a minute, but first let me get down what conclusions I've reached. It's simple, really. Simple is always best.

There are Republicans and there are Democrats. There are liberals and conservatives. That's true, but you mustn't think about it in those terms. Here's how you want to think about it.

There are members of the aristocracy faction, and there are members of the democracy faction. Conservatives, despite the populist image they try to project of themselves, are members of the aristocracy faction. Liberals are members of the democracy faction. Some Republicans may be part of the democracy faction, and some Democrats may be part of the aristocracy faction. Which doesn't sound so simple, so back up again and just think about it in these terms.

There is the democracy faction, and there is the aristocracy faction. Drop all other labels.

I'd actually been thinking along these lines already -- I have a 1/4-written post on how Americans ought to come up with their old New World equivalents of the British peerage... King, Prince, Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron -- but I couldn't find a way to make it as Darkly Funny as it needed to be. Maybe later.

And ever since I read David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else back in 2003, I've been thinking about what astonishing suckers the American people are, and what scoundrels be those politicians, both Republicans and Democrats sad to say, who play us like those plastic recorders they passed out in Third Grade. And Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America hipped me to some reasons why so many decent Americans have signed on to the aristocratic faction.

But the real help came in the form of an article recommended by respected SF author Ken MacLeod, that article being "What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?", posted in August 2004 by Philip E. Agre, Associate Professor in the Department of Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.

Go read that article. It's longish -- I saved it in .pdf and it ran to just over twenty pages -- but it's worth-it-ish. No, not just "-ish"; it's very much worth it. You have to have the problem solid in your head, and that article helped me do that for myself. You have to have it simple and solid so your mind can work the problem while you're off making a living. The way my brain wants to think about it is as I described above: There is an aristocracy faction, and there is a democracy faction. Short and sweet. I feel better now that I've got that bit bubbling away in the old brain pan.

The aristocracy faction is not necessarily confined to the aristocracy. As Agre says:

...the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth.

And there are many Democrats who, in one way or another, belong to the aristocracy faction. The outrageous, permanent-aristocracy-inducing tax system described by Johnston is in place not merely by way of the evil machinations of the Republicans. The Democrats prop it up too, in the name of their corporate contributors.

And so Lesson #1 of Part 3 is this: stop thinking of the problem in terms of Republicans and Democrats. Think of it in terms of the aristocracy faction vs. the democracy faction. Read Agre's article to determine how to recognize the aristocracy faction. Our job, yours and mine, is to be relentless, fearless members of the democracy faction, and to persuade our fellow citizens to come over to us and abandon their inexplicable fealty to the aristocrats.

Why think of it in those terms rather than conservatism vs. liberalism? Because it's easier to explain to shmucks like me, work-a-day guys with bills to pay, why it is in my interest to be for rule by democracy and against rule by aristocrats. It's an old story, guys. It's as old as the Old World.

I've got way more stuff I want to talk about tonight, but this is getting a bit long so I guess I'll post this and try to get Part 4 up later tonight.

Ripped From the Headlines of Fiction

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on February 14, 2005, Valentine's Day for you curable romantics out there, a young, 19 year-old man departed his residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. He told his family he was going to have his taxes done. He didn't come home.

For four days there was no trace of him. In the very early morning hours of February 18, a worker was walking the tracks about 200 feet from the Nostrand Avenue subway station on the A Line when he came across a blue plastic recycling bag. Inside the bag were two human legs and an arm. Fingerprints indicated the remains belonged to the missing young man.

Last Wednesday and Thursday, the 23rd and the 24th, two more bags were found at a recycling plant in Brooklyn. Those bags contained pieces of human torso. The recycling plant processes trash collected from subway stations. The cops believe the newly-found body parts also belong to the missing young man, but DNA testing is continuing in an attempt to confirm their suspicions.

Detectives were informed that the young man had planned "a tryst" with another man, but they tracked that fellow down and the cops now say the man had nothing to do with the young man's disappearance. Police are checking phone records and scouring computers which the young man might have used to see if he'd arranged other meetings.

The authorities believe that whoever dismembered the body had expertise in this sort of thing. The remains were cut cleanly and whoever did it seems to have a thorough knowledge of anatomy.

As one of the detectives in the article says, "There is a crime scene somewhere, we just haven't found it yet." So, you know, I guess you should keep your eyes peeled for neighbors in your apartment building who have been doing a great deal of serious floor-scrubbing of late.

I'm not going to mention the young man's name out of... I don't know what. I just don't want to is all. He looks, in his picture, like a decent enough kid. Obviously he had a job and a family that cared about him. I feel bad for them. So, you know, if you want the details of his identity and such, I read all about it in this morning's New York Times. The article is here.

Apart from the fact that we know the Law and Order episode is most likely already in pre-production, it's kind of hard to know what else to say about all of this. It's just so astonishingly True Crime Fiction-y. What we have here is some sort of Jack the Ripper on the loose, a genuine fiend. And yet, of course, the Naked City is not particularly terrorized. I suppose that's because the victim is not of the right demographic to make the people of the City feel They Might Be Next.

I'm always amazed when real-life events are ripped from the headlines of crime fiction. I can never escape this vague feeling that "the work is so derivative". What are things coming to when you can't even rely on fiends to come up with something original?

Well, I guess we can hope that whatever script this monster is working from is a particularly cornball and predictable one. With any luck, a crack team of NYPD detectives will track this guy down pronto, just like on T.V. I mean, we should at least be able to rely on that, right? That real life should resolve itself before the credits roll, just like on T.V.? I'm willing to go with that. I don't mind a little predictability here. I promise I won't get bored and change the channel. Cornball it up. Please.

The Beginnings of a Democratic Think Tank

Here, I think, Hunter of DailyKos comes up with a long-term plan that might serve as the basis for a whole new range of Democratic political strategies.

Sheesh. To be blunt, this is what really bothers me about the Democratic leadership in the last few elections. We couldn't win against a set of people who spend half their time frantically shooing imaginary pixies away from their faces? Hell, Dean should just go up to them and say something like "Timmy from my fourth grade class told me that if you lick a unicorn, you can see through time." By the time they're done churning through all possible meanings of that phrase, we should be able to take ten Senate seats, twenty House seats, and their entire collection of Star Wars memorabilia.

I think that's brilliant. Seriously. I long, from time to time, for this sort of thing from our leaders on the left. We take ourselves so seriously sometimes that we forget we are dealing with a bunch of clowns. Dangerous, maniacal, insane clowns, yes, but clowns nevertheless. It's one thing to mock them in blogs. It's quite another to completely paralyze them with Royal MindFucks in the real world.

You go, Hunter.

Other World News Tonight

Tonight, here in America, the ABC television network broadcast one of Peter Jenning's occasionally scheduled two-hour specials. Tonight's subject: "UFOs: Seeing Is Believing".

Before I go any further, let me set forth my views on this subject. I do believe there is other life in the universe. I think there is a reasonable chance it is intelligent. I think (for all the usual reasons of economics and physics) that the probability of representatives of alien civilizations actually traveling here is vanishingly small. I think it is remotely possible that a civilization unimaginably more advanced than ours (a million years ahead of us was one metric mentioned in the show) could actually have a technology that would make it possible for them to more or less economically travel from their home world to ours. I mostly think that because it seems to me that to think otherwise is to be intellectually dishonest. We know a lot of stuff, but we don't know everything we will know a million years from now, assuming we survive that long.

However, assuming arguendo that representatives of alien civilizations are traveling to our world, I cannot conceive of any plausible circumstances under which a race of beings that advanced would find it necessary to kidnap various members of our species, conduct probing experiments into various body orifices, surreptitiously impregnate them with slug-babies or what-all, and so forth. Well, I suppose it's possible that some rogue coven of alien pervs at one point made off with some of the Normal Aliens technology and are now traveling between the stars diddling the hoo-haws of lesser beings. But, you know, if we're going to go down that road, I think I'd probably have to give up on all my notions of the Majesty of the Cosmos and all that. Just, you know, give me the URL for the Cosmic Sexual Predators Clearinghouse and I'll call it a go.

Proceeding on, my brother relates to me his experience of seeing a UFO, but I don't believe he saw an alien spacecraft.

And finally, I have never seen anything that I would consider to be a serious candidate for an alien spacecraft.

I think that's about it. Oh, wait, one more thing: I don't think there's anybody on the planet who wants more than I do for it all to be true. But I don't believe it, and I probably will never believe it's true until they land in, oh, I dunno... I should think Yankee Stadium would be a good place, assuming the Saucer will fit. That's certainly where I'd land were I Them. Crowd control built right into the landing site. Keep out all the souvenir hounds. And then when you got ready to greet the Gathered Peoples of the Planet Urf, you could squeeze in 50-60,000 of them easy. Broadcast facilities right there. And when you got ready to hand over the Cure for Cancer or what-all, maybe you could toss it to the Secretary General of the United Nations as he squats behind home plate in catcher's gear. It's Opening Day!

Well, anyway. I digress.

What I wanted to say was that I did, in fact, learn something new and interesting while watching Peter's extravaganza tonight. They were interviewing a bunch of people relating their experiences of being abducted and probed and all that. Okay, whatever. I don't mean to be unsympathetic, but whatever. Anyway, they then talked to some Harvard psychiatrists who said they'd been researching this and that based on their research they had noticed a great many of the events and circumstances described by these people resembled, to a remarkable degree, a relatively common phenomenon known as "sleep paralysis". Google on the phrase if you are interested. There are tons of links, and, yes, it does seem to be a relatively common phenomenon.

But here's the thing. As the researchers described it, I realized, "Oh, my gawd. I have that."

It never occurred to me that it actually had a name, or that it had been documented in the literature or anything. I always just thought of it as "not being able to wake up out of a dream". In fact, come to think of it, I've heard other people describe it that way as well, so my description of it might not even be original to me. It just seemed, you know, one of the many weird things that sometimes happens to people when they go to sleepy-night-night-land. Which, I find out tonight, that's apparently precisely what it is.

But even more interesting than that was how, when I thought back on some of my "sleep paralysis" episodes, I could really see how if my mind had been oriented in a slightly different direction, I might have thought something weird and terrible and alien had been happening to me.

Apparently sleep paralysis strikes when you wake up "by mistake" while you are in REM sleep. I guess when you are in REM mode your body is, in fact, paralyzed. The theory is if it wasn't paralyzed you'd be thrashing around all night in response to your dream storylines and you'd never get any rest, let alone any overnight guests of your preferred sex. So anyway, you are lying there completely paralyzed, and you wake up and you're like: "WTF??!! I can't move!!"

The researchers said, and this is certainly true in my case, you will often feel like there is some sort of threatening presence nearby (left over from the dream or what, I don't know). Anyway, that's almost always the way it is with me. I feel like Some Entity, very threatening, is approaching me in my bed and I feel like I have to escape, or strike out at The Entity to protect myself from it, but I can't move a muscle. It's terrifying for a few moments, but then I gradually realize that I'm waking up from some particularly annoying bit of effed up sleep and that I ought to just chill. The Mysteriously Approaching Entity dissipates, mist-like, and I can feel myself beginning to calm down. After a few moments, I'm relaxed, able to move, still a bit wired and, it has to be admitted, a bit psyched at how much fun the experience was now that it's over. (I love scary movies, see.) Afterwards, I almost always drift back down into some very calming and restful sleep.

Yeah, I could see, if my mind was oriented in a slightly different way, how I could feel like I'd somehow been immobilized by this Mysterious Entity for whatever nefarious purpose it might have in mind for me. But it never occurred to me that anybody ever thought it was anything other than what I thought it was.

Guess maybe I should sleep with more people. Obviously my sample has been too small.

Update: Our old pal Avedon over there to The Sideshow doesn't like scary movies as much as I do. All is forgiven, however, on account of her reminding me of the Fortean Times, and telling me some stuff about Tom Monteleone,  and teaching me that sleeping on your back will give you nightmares. This I didn't know.

Here's Another Fine Mess

You ever see that movie Sybil with Joanne Woodward as the psychiatrist and the Flying Nun as the woman with, I dunno, sixteen personalities or whatever? Pretty good movie, actually. Woodward was great, and this was the movie where we discovered Sally Field can be a pretty damned good actor.

There's a lot of stuff about punishments in that movie. A lot of stuff. The movie reminds you, in case you forgot, that the sort of punishments you choose to inflict -- and the severity with which you choose to inflict them -- says a whole lot about you. Yep. It sure does.

  • A Punishment Story: "Rejecting criticism the penalties will stifle free speech and homogenize radio and TV broadcasts, bill supporters said stiff fines were needed to give deep-pocketed broadcasters more incentive to clean up their programs and to help assure parents that their children won't be exposed to inappropriate material.... The measure, which passed 389-38, boosts the maximum fine from $32,500 to $500,000 for a company and from $11,000 to $500,000 for an individual entertainer." (Link)
  • A Punishment Story: "Federal regulators on Wednesday proposed $65,000 in fines against three San Diego television stations for failing to provide timely captions and graphics for deaf or partially deaf viewers about emergency information related to the 2003 wildfires.... Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell said it was the first time the FCC proposed such fines against broadcasters.... The proposal targets three San Diego-area TV stations for their coverage on Oct. 26-27, 2003, of wildfires that swept through Southern California, killing 24 people. More than 3,600 homes were destroyed and 750,000 acres burned, with San Diego County the hardest-hit area." (Link)

Half a million dollars for, say, an instance of nasty language, and one tenth of that amount for an alleged failure to fulfill a civic obligation, an alleged failure that could have cost people their lives. (Actually, a $25,000 fine against one station for 22 alleged violations,  a $20,000 fine against another for 12 alleged violations, and a $20,000 fine against the third station for 11 alleged violations.)

Sigh... in the immortal words of Sybil, herself, "THE PEOPLE!! THE PEOPLE!!"

The New New World (Part 2)

Probably the most common joke we make about ourselves as we get along through life is: "Oh, my God! I've become my parents!" You may be horrified to stumble across this insight about yourself, or you may be amused. I imagine it depends on how gawd-awful the particular echo of your parents you've suddenly seen in yourself turns out to be.

As adults, we always have a choice. You can either accept or struggle against these embedded parental units. Sometimes the struggle matters; sometimes it doesn't. If it's just a matter of being driven nuts by your child's refusal to try various vegetables, well, maybe (or maybe not) you can find a way to be a little bit more creative about it than your parents were. It's not that important. If, however, you were violently abused as a child, I'd say it's pretty much incumbent upon you as an adult to struggle against whatever like urges you might have toward your own occasionally cranky kids. The problem comes when people refuse to acknowledge the parental echoes and so never get to the point of realizing they actually do have a choice.

Take, for example, America in 2005. In Part 1 I said: "...we are making ourselves into that which our ancestors once fled." I believe this is true. I also believe I could prove it, but at the moment I don't really see the point. Those who agree with the contention -- that is, those who have seen what I have seen about our country -- do not need me to prove it. And those who don't agree with the contention will not be convinced by anything I could say in here about it. The evidence is out there, in my view, and my detailing it here, or other people detailing it  elsewhere, doesn't seem to have much effect. Now, I realize saying all of that is a bit like accusing people of being In Denial over [whatever] whenever they do something I find annoying and I want to attribute their behavior to some flaw in their characters. I hate that, and that's another reason why I'm not going to set about proving the contention here. It's what I believe, and if you don't believe it, then fine. For the moment, anyway.

Those who have had the bad luck to have a drunk in their lives (that should really be, I suppose, those who have had the bad luck to have had people in their lives who have had the worse luck of being drunks) know that you can't save them. The old saw that they can only save themselves happens, in my experience and observation, to be true. Here, I don't think the problem is denial so much. I don't think many drunks are really in denial about their problem. I think they know perfectly well they are drunks, the evidence is all around them after all, but they can't for a number of reasons manage to stop being drunks. I should clarify here: I think professionals can help, but only if a drunk wants to be helped. The rest of us poor slobs can only stand by and continue to suggest the drunks in our lives seek help from those in a position to actually help them.

All of this is by way of trying to get some sort of grasp on the enormity of the problem facing those of us who hate seeing America devolve into the new Old World. God, there are so many things I could tick off, so many manifestations of the phenomenon, it's hard to know what to throw in here to make the point. Just today we read about the government arguing that it should have the right to make secret legal arguments against various defendants. Secret legal arguments? That's a joke, right? Sadly, no. And that's problem enough, but the kicker is this: way too many Americans, judging by their apparent indifference, seem to agree with this government's appalling behavior.

That, to me, is refusing to see our parents in ourselves. That's old world peasant mentality, and a lot of us whose ancestors came to this New World to get away from that sort of thing should be appalled by it, but we are not. Not enough of us anyway. It's the kind of denial that goes: "Oh, it's not that big a deal and anyway I don't have enough energy to deal with it."

But it's the drunk problem, too. Only it isn't booze in this case. If you can broaden the word to mean something beyond an endless series of Terror Alerts, I think the self-medicative substance in this case is security. Our ancestors came here in the face of almost limitless insecurity -- crossing a dangerous ocean in what we would think of today as laughable excuses for ships, facing a wilderness wherein a living was by no means guaranteed, but starvation, hostilities of one sort or another and disease pretty much were. Those were insecurities worthy of the name. What are we insecure about these days?

Now, I was there at the foot of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. My life was turned upside down for months afterward -- the depression and insecurity and feeling of not quite being attached to the Earth anymore was awful. In short, nobody needs to tell me about the insecurities of living in a world where that kind of terrorism goes on. That sort of insecurity is real and needs to be dealt with in realistic and effective ways.

Think of this as being a little bit like the problem of "social drinking" for a recovering drunk. He goes to parties, the booze is there, everybody's having a good time tipping 'em back, and there the poor recovering drunk is surrounded by danger, everywhere he looks. But if he's in a successful (so far) recovery, he sees and recognizes the danger, and deals with it in a responsible and effective way -- a way that works.

But here we are now, in America in 2005, surrounded by countless other insecurities far less worthy of the name. Two people of the same sex wanting to declare a union threatens to bring down civilization as we know it. Keeping the Ten Commandments out of the courthouse threatens everything the Founding Fathers worked for. A glimpse of Janet Jackson's tit threatens... well, I don't even know what it threatens except maybe the nation's cheeseballs. In short, people are being eaten alive by terrors over crap they can't even intelligently describe, let alone document. It's like a stoner's mega-paranoia. The only hope, in their eyes,  seems to be one hit after another from the Security Jug. Gotta have it, again and again, to face down their nameless fears. Dutch Courage was what they used to call it. Whenever you didn't have the guts to face your real problems, you just took another hit from the jug then got busy with whatever chaos you felt was necessary to face down whatever the unnamed thing was that was eating you.

This is the problem we face, those of us who want to see America become the New World again. Think of it this way: it isn't just one drunk in your life, all full of denial and incapable of giving up the booze. It's a nation -- or, anyway, a goodly portion of a nation --  of drunks.

That's what we're up against. It's hard not to feel like the best thing to do in the face of such an enormous problem would be to give up. Just, you know, get on with your own life and leave the drunks to themselves. Unfortunately, when the nation you live in is a nation of drunks, they're kind of hard to avoid. And if the drunks are in charge, as they are now, you're not going to get very far by just ignoring them.

Well, I've never been much of one for giving up -- at least not in an arena like this one -- and somewhere along the way I learned that in the face of such an overwhelming problem, you sorta gotta learn how to use your head. You've got to realize that you can't tackle the whole problem all at once, and you certainly can't do it with a whole lot of talk and theories. You've got to figure out how to get down to what works.

And if there's anything we know about drunks, it's that you can't do anything for them until they see the problem for themselves and figure out they have to do something about it. But, I mean, come on... people on the left have been barking for a good long time now. Why in gawd's name don't the drunks get it??? Well, you know the answer to that as well as I do. They're drunks. 'Nuff said.

So what do we do? Sit back and wait for things to get so bad that even the drunks can't take it anymore? Great. There's something to look forward to. Let's all get dragged down onto Skid Row. Dibs on the refrigerator box behind the Safeway! That's my house, you nit-wit! Move it!

Well, just keep in mind that the trick is to get the drunks to feel the problem in their guts. You can't talk them out of or into anything. That doesn't work with drunks. Drunks have to see the problem for themselves, acknowledge it, and get themselves to the point of wanting to do something about saving themselves. As I said, professionals can help in this regard.

And so our problem becomes: if we are to help in some way here, what sort of professionals do we need to become, and how do we go about becoming them?

Blessed Be Boccherini

I have a friend, call her Deb, who once upon a time attended a past lives regression workshop. She's a Unitarian minister now, but apparently at some point in the distant Hellenistic past her eternal beingness also manifested itself in the form of a temple boy-prostitute. (Some people have all the luck.)

I'm pretty sure I don't have any past lives, though to be honest I've not thoroughly checked that out. If it ever turns out that I do, I suspect one of the more influential of my previous existences will have had something to do with España. Oh, sorry, I lapsed into Spanish there for a minute. (See what I mean?)

I don't even speak Spanish. And I've never even been to Spain, though I've been to Juarez, Mexico a few times. (Ay Carumba!) But here's the deal, see, some of my favorite classical music is heavily influenced by Iberian tunes. Joaquín Rodrigo is my hombre principal. (Well, one of them.)

If you've seen Master and Commander you will recall the final scene between Stephen ("Subject to the requirements of the Service") Maturin and Jack ("The bird is flightless... it's not going anywhere") Aubrey. With rueful smiles all around, Jack strums a tune on his violin. Maturin and his cello presently join in. Then we have that lovely sequence in which the young gentlemen of the Surprise beat to quarters, the tars scramble into the rigging,  and then we get one of the grandest shots in all moviedom, in my view: the Surprise coming about, sou' east by east, in renewed pursuit of the devilish Acheron (her sails just visible at the horizon).

And so it was, just the other night, I had the radio going in the background and that delightful tune from that last sequence came on. My spirit lit up. I grinned all the way through both the music and myself, and when the piece was over I jotted down its name. ("La musica notturna di Madrid" by Luigi Boccherini).

It's the third movement, "Los Manolos" to be precise, that Jack and Stephen play during the final sequence. And so today I finally managed to make it over to the MegaVirgin Store to find and buy a CD with this night music of Madrid on it. Todo es muy bueno! And on top of all that chewy muy bueno-ness, you know what else? Reading the liner notes, I discovered that in the old days wagging tongues used to say that  "Boccherini is the wife of Haydn". (Some people have all the luck.)

If Ever They Should Disappear Me

Okay, so the other day Electrolite was kind enough to link to my post on the GannonGuckert matter. I note from the logs today that the CIA visited my GannonGuckert post from Patrick's referring page:

Click for larger image of definitive proof of domestic
spying by the CIA through the use of "web" "browsers".

I conclude from this that Patrick the Perp and Yours Truly are not long for the overt world. Either that, or the CIA has taken a sudden interest in GannonGuckert for reasons I cannot hope to know.

Okay, so, if I'm a goner, I'd just like it noted that at my funeral I want somebody to sing that one where the words go "Did I ever tell you you're my hero?" That song really gets me.

The New New World (Part 1)

I've been thinking about some stuff. I don't know quite where I am with it yet. But it's kind of big and unwieldy and it's pretty much way more than I can cram into a couple of posts to my blog. And maybe it doesn't lead anywhere, in particular. Or maybe it leads to a bunch of stuff that just plain isn't worth the effort. But the thing is, I don't know unless I doodle around with it for a while. And so I think this post will serve as a kind of introduction to what might end up being a series of posts exploring this stuff I'm thinking about. Or maybe things won't work out that way. I don't know any better than you do, at this point. If you want to come along for the ride, be my guest, but I ain't making any promises.

So let me start with a way of thinking, generally, about some stuff I've been thinking about specifically. I want a sort of "encompassing image" that at least strains toward describing what I'm getting at. I'm an American, a child of the New World, born and bred. That's all I really know, and so that's where I have to start.

My ancestors, like the ancestors of most Americans, fled from a world of rigid formalities, stifling social structures, circumscribed possibilities, intellectual and spiritual persecutions. They fled across an ocean, an abyss the rest of the Old World could not bring itself to cross (which, for our American ancestors, was pretty much the whole point).

A wild and open land awaited those who survived the crossing. It was a new world where even if those who crossed with you turned into petty bastards who started giving you too much grief, you could head still further west, into an even wilder and more open land -- a land that promised you the space you needed to become the kind of human being you imagined yourself being. Surviving it would be a hard go, and, of course, you would have to avert your eyes from the fact that this new world you were entering and occupying already, inconveniently, belonged to other people. But still, if you could make that apparently too easy adjustment to your moral worldview, if you could bring yourself to think of the original owners of this land as savages, as heathens, as subhumans undeserving of the gifts that the Great Spirit had bestowed upon them, then the way to your fulfillment lay open to you.

And so we flowed west, first splashing up against the far western barrier of the Pacific, then slopping back eastward again to fill up the middle. Life was grand and free. This was the land of milk and honey and opportunity and a couple of chickens in every pot. Every morning when you got up and checked, the world was still new. How 'bout that? You hadn't used it up yet. There was more hard work to be done, some of it necessary just to survive, but sometimes some of it was in the name of turning yourself into someone new, or of coming up with something that gave your life a new and completely unexpected meaning. This was America. The land of opportunity.

All right, so… maybe some, or most, or maybe even all of that was myth. Then again, maybe it wasn't. It was certainly true for some people -- enough, it seems, to give life to certain notions in our minds about what sort of people we were. We were Americans. We believed in unlimited possibilities. We believed in the value of new things. Why? Because we came here for the new. New was by definition good -- defined as such by our national character, that shared ambition that brought us here. Old was bad. Old was what we had fled.

And so for a long time, things went along just fine. The American basin filled slowly. Room for everybody. Room for all sorts of ideas and beliefs. If your neighbors thought you were a weirdo, you could pick up and move, or you could gather enough of your fellow weirdoes around you until your crabby neighbors got sick of it and picked themselves up and departed for parts unknown.

But in time even a slowly filling basin -- even one the size of America -- eventually overflows. I'm not talking about the ratio of people to physical space, here. It's true we are getting more crowded but still there is an almost unimaginable amount of space left. The great western deserts of this continent are astonishing in their emptiness. There are stretches of highway where you can travel for hundreds of miles and still see few signs of civilization. So, no, I'm not talking about physical space. I'm talking about a kind of mind space.

I look around at the New World, here and now in 2005, and I see a land slowly filling up with a new kind of oldness. There are, increasingly, certain ways to be a New Worlder. Certain rigid formalities that must be observed. Possibilities are increasingly circumscribed. You are born into a particular class and it is harder and harder to work your way out of it. The tax system is designed to keep you where you are. Laws are written to trick you into thinking you are still living in a New World, a world still full of promise for everyone. But these systems and laws have the effect of not only blinding you to the dangers inherent in the rise of a new New Worldian aristocracy, they encourage you to glorify it. Astonishingly, you do. 

In short, we are making ourselves into that which our ancestors once fled.

I propose, or predict, or imagine, or maybe just long for... a new age of discovery, a new sort of journey to a new sort of New World.

I hear talk on the Rialto of another New World out there, across some other ocean. They say it is wide open and dangerous but full of promise too, just like the old New World was. The sort of place where you can make something valuable of yourself, where you can find a kind of fulfillment that you could never find here in this increasingly decrepit New World.

I've glimpsed maps of this new place. They are marked with dragons and places where you might drop off the ends of the earth, but that's all right. No matter where you live, there is always danger, and so the only question is what sort of danger you want to risk dying of. There are some of us, as in the old days, who would prefer to die on the way to finding a new place to be, a new kind of person to be, rather than stay and be suffocated here.

Obviously, this new New World cannot be an unoccupied continent. There aren't any, unless you consider Antarctica a place you'd want to live. (I hear even the summers are crappy.) And we can't go to space yet, at least not in any way even roughly equivalent to the way our ancestors came here.

So that means this new New World has to be someplace else. I think it’s right here, in our heads. But I think the ocean that divides us from it is there too, which is quite a problem. We can't even see in which direction the ocean we have to travel across lies.

But still. It can't be helped. How much do you want this thing? That's how much of yourself you are going to have to put into getting it. That much, and a great deal more, I'll bet. That's the thing about New Worlds. They wouldn't still be there and still be new if they were easy to get to.

And the better news is I believe this voyage of discovery can begin right now. We don't even need to build ships to get started. We don't have to petition Ferdinand and Isabel for the bucks to pay our way. I'll bet you won't even have to sell the house, unless of course, upon consideration, you think that might be the best way to go.

I think we can just set sail for this new New World and the ocean we have to travel over will thereupon take form beneath us. I think just by setting out for these new shores we will find ourselves walking on them. But don’t be fooled. The new New World will take shape slowly. Maps of it will be vague at first, half-imagined, full of myths and inaccuracies, and maybe even some lies -- just like the ancient maps of the old New World that showed California as an island, or that showed Colorado dotted with legendary cities of gold.

The old New World (i.e., the new Old World) is dying and I don't know that it can be saved. Maybe it isn't worth saving. Maybe it isn't our job to save it. Maybe it's our job to replace it. The new New World is in your head right now, just like it's in mine. So what do you say? Let's book.

Does Not Compute.

Cruising blogs this morning, I opened up a site that has one of those counters that purports to be a tally of how much our Middle Eastern adventurism is costing us. It read:

Current Cost of the War in Iraq:
(JavaScript Error)

"I'm sorry, sir. We no longer have that number in stock."

Cut Glass.

Sometimes, there's a crystalline beauty that rises up out of justice too long delayed.


Where was the high-and-mighty Hotline when George Bush, with the help of buddies like Guckert, tried to write me and 20 million of my friends out of the Constitution last year? Where was Accuracy in Media, the conservative bloggers, and everyone else who is defending Guckert's "private life" when my private life was going to singled out and savaged in our nation's most sacred document simply to get a few votes?

You've got a lot of nerve, Hotline. The entire GOP and its mainstream media sympathizers have a lot of nerve. We're talking about a hooker getting special access to the White House, the president, and intelligence information, and somehow everyone has suddenly discovered a conscience about homosexuals and hookers. Oh how I wish that conscience were real. But it's not. Bash a fag, bash a whore, and the GOP eats it all up. They throw us to their hateful, bigoted religious right buddies for votes with glee, while Mary Cheney cowers in the corner and Ken Mehlman runs for the shelter of the off-the-record quote.

Well newsflash Washington. The GOP is the one that rose gay-bashing and gay-baiting and sex-baiting to an art, and JeffJimGuckertGannon willingly joined the family values parade in print and in passion. They're trying to ban condoms, pornography, AIDS education. They take children away from gays, and want to make our very lives a crime. GOP Senators compare us to kleptomaniacs, alcoholics, and man-dog sex. And they can't even handle a bronze breast on a statue.

And we're the ones picking a fight over sex.

Spare me your sanctimonious bullshit now that those of us in the gay community and on the left have finally - finally - started to fight fire with fire by simply holding you to the very standards you legislate over us. We are simply giving the GOP the sex-less utopia it's always wanted. How does it feel?

Oh, gee, the Hotline warns, this might establish a precedent. Really? You mean the GOP might respond by using our sex lives against us as a weapon to destroy us and curry votes with bigots?

I don't like this battle, I don't enjoy this battle. I hate this battle. But the battle began years ago, and until now, we sat back and watched and waited and hoped it would go away. Well it's not going away. We have a choice. We can sit back and watch the GOP sex police destroy us. Or we can fight back. And I can think of nothing more poetic, nothing more just, than fighting back by simply holding them to their own standards.


That's from "John in DC" over at AMERICAblog. Go here to read the full post.

Mission Creep

On February 28, 2005, a conference on suicide prevention will be held in Portland, Oregon. The conference is organized by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center of Newton, Massachusetts, which is a contractor of an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

There is a program on that conference schedule that used to be named "Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals." Brenda Bruun, a project manager for SAMHSA, suggested to conference organizers that the words "Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals" should be dropped and replaced with some general reference to "sexual orientation".

When asked how binding this "suggestion" was, Mark Weber, a spokesman for SAMHSA, replied, "Well, they do need to consider their funding source."

In other words, funding for the contracting organization might be at risk unless the "suggestion" was taken. The name of the program has been changed.

Another suggestion was that organizers include a session on faith-based suicide prevention.

Now, as I understand it, the idea behind the faith-based initiative is to make it possible for faith-based social services agencies to compete with non-religious agencies for government funding. Take a look at the "Regulatory Changes: Final Rules page at the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives site. You will note that all the summaries of the rule changes at the various relevant agencies say essentially the same thing. Something along the lines of:

This final rule implements executive branch policy that, within the framework of constitutional church-state guidelines, faith-based organizations should be able to compete on an equal footing with other organizations for HHS funding...

Ol' Corpo is a confirmed atheist, but he actually doesn't object all that much to the faith-based initiative. He's in favor of whatever works for people as long as none of that darn old government establishment of religion stuff is going on. So, as a concept, the original mission of the faith-based initiative is acceptable.

But look at what's going on. We've gone from faith-based organizations being allowed to compete with non-religious agencies on a equal basis to -- in the case of the suicide prevention conference above -- project managers at SAMHSA "suggesting" that faith-based programs be included and if they are not, well, a contracting organization's funding might just be at stake.

That's mission creep, folks. As in, it's apparently the mission of certain creeps to not just allow you to include faith-based programs in whatever solutions you are seeking, but to also threaten you with the loss of funding if you fail to include them.

In the Olde Days, they used to call that government establishment of religion.

See: "Request to Edit Title of Talk On Gays, Suicide Stirs Ire" in this morning's Washington Post.

Okay, good, thank you. We have your number.

Here's my problem. This is the sort of thing that has set me back in life. I've got the brain-power to be making well into corporate six-figures if I was into that. I've been in Leadership Positions and I do well at it. I know how to get people to work together, but here's where it all falls down.

I feel sorry for people who, based on the usual criteria, really don't deserve my sympathy. What that means is that even though I have occasionally slipped and been purposefully cruel to some people (apologies all around), I generally can't manage to shove people over the side the way I really ought to be able to do. The lifeboat is small and short on supplies. Somebody has to go. I'm stupid enough to think that I don't deserve staying in the boat any more than anybody else does. This is a serious problem. I know that nature is red in tooth and claw. I know that I should revel in whatever advantages I might have over other people. But I can't. I could be relaxing on my yacht somewhere in the Caribbean right now if I wasn't such a pansy dope.

Here's the truth: I feel sorry for GannonGuckert.

Why? Because he's being crucified in public? No, I think he pretty much deserves whatever he gets in that regard. Because pictures of him in his role as a gentlemen's marital aid are everywhere in the blogosphere now? Give me a break. He's the one who put them up. Because he lost his job? This assumes that what he was doing in the White House press room could actually be classified as a job, a dubious assumption at best. Nevertheless, even if it was a job, he wasn't hounded out of it. He quit and then put a statement up on his site -- a plea for undeserved compassion worthy of the most operatic of drama queens -- as soon as the jig was up.

No, he pretty much asked for all of that. What gets me is his seemingly unlimited capacity for self-delusion.

I have a background in theater, but over the years we have grown apart, theater and I, for reasons I won't go into here. Suffice it to say that one of the best and one of the worst things about theater is that it is so... immediate... I guess is the word I'm reaching for. Theater is a living conversation between the living things in the seats and the living things on stage and when it's hitting on all cylinders, it really is magic. Its power is incontrovertible because you are experiencing it live. When it doesn't work, though, that too is incontrovertible. Painfully so.

Over the years, I've seen thousands of actors auditioning. Now, don't get me wrong here. I have nothing but the greatest respect for talented, intelligent, self-aware and skilled actors. For a playwright (which was the primary relationship I had with theater) there is no better script-doctor for a wounded script than a set of really gifted actors. Actors have this wonderful obsession with their characters. It's understandable, of course. They are going to be taking on the persona of this thing that, in the beginning, exists only on the page and so they study every line, every word, every thing the character has to say. They study what the character does. They study what other characters have to say about their character. Good actors end up knowing far more about their characters than the playwright could ever hope to know. The playwright gets to sit back in rehearsals and pretend that he is somehow responsible for all the wonderful details really good actors bring to his characters. It's a great feeling. Sort of like watching your stock portfolio grow without you having to lift a finger.

So, yeah, don't get me wrong. Nothing against actors, in general, here. But the thing is if you've sat in darkened spaces and watched literally thousands of people audition for you, you end up getting an unsurpassed education, whether you like it or not, in the compulsion of some people, notably untalented actors, to delude themselves.

In short, there are times where you can only sit there asking yourself, what in god's name are these people thinking? It's pitiful, really. I mean, don't these people have any friends willing to tell them how indescribably awful they are at this? Can't they see it's utterly hopeless?

Well, no, they can't. That's what's so awful about it. It's literally so painful I can't bear watching it anymore. You just want to have some way to tell them, in the kindest possible way, that they really should learn to more properly assess their gifts.

I don't have to tell you how rare that is, though. People having clues about themselves, I mean.

On the one hand, thank god we can delude ourselves, otherwise nobody would ever come up with things no one has ever seen before. There are plenty of people willing to stand around and deride anything new. So, yeah, thank god there are people who can just ignore that sort of thing. But the thing is, that's not really delusion. That's belief in this new thing you are trying to do. That's good.

On the other hand, if this thing you are trying to do is stupid, or phony, or derivative, or otherwise just plain awful, well, you have to let go of it. You have to get on to the next thing. And this is where the "liveness" of theater and the ability of people to delude themselves into thinking they are talented becomes such a burden. I can't watch it anymore. It's too immediately awful.

GannonGuckert's life, insofar as we can currently understand it -- which isn't really that far, I will admit, but I think it's far enough -- strikes me as a really bad actor's audition. What made him think he had the gifts to carry this thing off? What made him think that people wouldn't see through what he was trying to pull in those White House press briefings? Couldn't he see how trite and derivative his work was? What made him think people wouldn't, so to speak, check his resume? What made him think that he could actually play this part? Didn't he have any friends willing to tell him he ought to move on until he found something that he was actually good at?

And so it develops that the worst luck GannonGuckert ever had was getting the part he wanted to play.

It isn't his crimes against credibility that get me; it's the self-delusion. God, if only we could see it when we are making mistakes like this. Please, god, save me from this degree of blindness about myself (even though I know you haven't in the past).

And, please, save me from witnessing it in others. It's too awful. It's just too god-damned god-awful for words.

Update: Alex Cohen's comment over on Electrolite serves to remind me of one of my favorite (and one of the most sadly amusing) documents on the web,  "Unskilled and Unaware of It" which has a great deal to say about all of this.

T-pad Inks Corpo

So The Corpuscle's 90-day free trial at Typepad is up in less than a week. Upon reflection, I've determined that this blog thing is kind of entertaining (for me, at least, if not for you) so I signed up to pay real American dollars to keep things going. Now that money is involved, I expect things to get a hell of a lot seedier around here. What's the blog-ad rate for about 80 hits a day, I wonder? Hmm. Not much, I'll bet. Well, never mind. A number of tawdry, media-whorish stunts are in the works. I look forward to the day when I can insert ads directly into the body of posts (rather than letting them ride the sidebar where they actually belong) so I can thoroughly annoy my (as yet to materialize) billions and billions of readers.

In other Corpuscular news, I'm freakin' out over this Lord Layard book I talked about the other day. A lot of what he has to say about how the science of economics has to rebuild itself is fascinating, and promising, and feels viscerally correct, but a lot of other stuff he talks about seems wrong. But that's all right. In my view what we have here is a new idea a-bornin', which is good in a way because I feel like I am now perfectly entitled to not become a disciple of Layardism. I am free to take what I like about what he proposes, think about it for a while, then throw my own treasured bit of cracked pottery using the wet clay he's provided. This is known as the relentless march forward of human thought. Or, in my case, it's "what he said, only different". I talk and think and respond at a somewhat lower level of discourse than most philosophers. Sometimes I crack wise. I'll let you know whenever I want you to laugh.

One interesting upcoming topic: Failed Lives and the Roots of Happiness. It's a hoot. It's a meditation on how come I, inexplicably, unaccountably, seem to be one of the happiest and most relentlessly optimistic people I know. By all rights, if I actually listened to what other people thought, my good cheer could not long survive, let alone even exist in the first place. Fortunately, I am something of a nutbar and so feel pretty unobliged to pay very much attention to the way things are supposed to be. Perhaps I am some sort of latent Buddhist. Or, perhaps I am the Buddha himself? Can one be the Godhead and not know it? Seems unlikely, but what do I know? I think I might have even met myself on the road once, but I was wearing sunglasses and so couldn't be sure.

But be of good cheer. Yesterday was the last day of your previous life and, yes, in fact I do feel a bit giddy this morning. This always happens whenever I'm required to spend money. Spending money reminds me that cash is fungible and so is my time on Earth.

And Happy Balumtime's Day, by the way. Be your own Balumtime if you want. It's a free country and I'm pretty sure the Buddha won't mind.

More Jeez, Please

ITEM: Mysterious Couple Unveils New York City Public Art Piece.

Yeah. You can see it here, and read about it here.


Well, who did you think I was talking about?

Okay, them too.

Most people who know me... er, that would be all people who know me... have no idea that I, too, am an artist of the public space. Not just an artist, I should add. I am a spectacle artist, like the Christos. I have been for quite some time now, as a matter of fact. Herewith, insofar as I can recall it, a summary of my proposal for my first piece:

When I was a wee breath of a lad growing up in Seattle, my family would journey to Idaho almost every summer to visit the grandparents. Gramma & Granpa had a house in the Lewiston Orchards. Across the street from their house was a field of wheat. The field receded into the distance for what seemed like forever, eventually sloping downward to give the impression that the field stretched so far so as to disappear behind the curve of the Earth. Way, way, way further on, there was a silhouette of a mountain range against the base of the wide and bright Idaho sky.

I used to sit in Gramma & Granpa's front yard and study those mountains, imagining that dinosaurs lived beyond them. I used to watch the serrated top edge of the mountains, waiting for a gigantic T-Rex to poke its head up. One time I even made myself feel as if I'd actually seen the creature.

The End. (Appreciative, if somewhat polite, applause.)

Yeah, see, that's the only real difference between the Christos and me: They make what they make up and I don't. But what can I say? I couldn't figure out where to get the dinosaur.

Okay, but my piece (tentatively entitled "Look!") gripped me with the power of its daring visual imagery. Which, you know, didn't exactly exist anywhere except in my own head, but that's not really the point. It made me look, you see. It was a very exciting piece. Very exciting. Well, obviously, since I remember to this day what it felt like.

I heartily agree with what my fellow artists (the Christos) have to say when reporters pester them about what their piece means:

Jeanne-Claude told the assembled reporters that people should not read too much into the work but should just relax and enjoy it. 'It is only a work of art,' the flame-haired artist said. 'It has no purpose. It provides no symbol.'

Christo explained the reason behind the pair's refusal to analyse their own work by saying that it was just intended for people to walk through and enjoy the experience. 'You ask us to talk. This project is not involving talk. It's a real physical space. It is about seeing. You spend time. You experience the project,' he said as he grew visibly irritated at journalists' queries about the inner meaning of 'The Gates'. 'If you are young you should walk all 23 miles. If you are old, two is good,' he snapped.

In the same way, I would not have expected my piece to have conveyed any more meaning to those who viewed it beyond: "Jesus Christ! A dinosaur!" (If I'd, you know, ever done the piece.)

See, because just looking at the thing, just experiencing it is the whole point of a project like this. I have never personally experienced a Christo piece, but I have always admired and been excited by the pictures I've seen of them. They are dream landscapes. They are like something from the mind of an eight-year old boy sitting in his grandparent's front yard in Idaho. They are like: "Jeez!"

And in my view, there isn't anywhere near enough "Jeez!" in this world. And so later this week I'll hop a train and go up to the park to walk around some, and just go "Jeez".

I am psyched, even if they left out the part about the dinosaur.

Les Étoiles Brillent pour Tous

In my lighter moods, I sometimes wonder how I ought to prepare for the time when my mental faculties fail me, whether through cerebral accident or mere senescence. Of particular interest is the case where I might be rendered inexpressive -- where I might be able to see and hear all that goes on around me, but not be able to make my thoughts or wishes known. This would be a particular hell, of course, since I rather self-evidently need to blab myself out into the world. Still, if it happened I don't think I would particularly want to die. I do like to learn about new stuff. If I could still do that, even if confined to a silenced hell, that might be enough. I have always wanted to know what's new on the Rialto.

And so I've considered having a sort of Living Input Will drawn up whereby I will give specific instructions on what sort of thing I want pumped into my mute head should I ever drain away into one form or another of a persistent vegetative state. I have a new music show that I listen to, so I'd want that pumped in. I have certain composers I like, notably Sibelius, Grieg, R. Strauss, along with all the Standard Biggies. They would all certainly have to be on my hosp-iPod. And I don't know... will the hospice have the Sundance and Sci-Fi Channel's? Discovery? The Learning Channel? PBS ("Nova" and "Frontline", please)? If so, do prop me up in front of the T.V. occasionally. Try to aim my dead eyes in the general direction of the screen. And I would like someone engaged to read for me the Science Times every Tuesday. If I think of anything else, I'll let you know, but don't be afraid to show some initiative in this. Give me new and interesting stuff. I'm sure it will be fine.

So given all of that, it is with particular interest that I read about Les Étoiles Brillent pour Tous ("The stars shine for everyone"), an organization established last May by Didier Barret, an astrophysicist at the Laboratory of Space Astrophysics (CESR) in Toulouse, France.

Let me pause here for a moment to apologize for linking to an article that is at a paid-subscribers only site. On the one hand, I know this is rude of me and frustrating for you. On the other hand (since I see no other article about this on the web) you wouldn't know about any of this if I did not tell you about it here, would you? Perhaps you should consider subscribing to Nature? It's not that expensive and it has plenty of stuff any intelligent and well-read non-scientist can follow. And by the way, I want my subscription to Nature renewed annually when I'm consigned to the hospice. This is non-negotiable. I shall fill my drool-cup relentlessly until my demands are met.

Anyway, I read about Les Étoiles Brillent pour Tous in an article -- just up at the Nature site -- called  "Astronomy and the public: Prison talk" by Alison Abbott, Nature's senior European correspondent.

Abbott describes a series of lectures on Einstein's theories of matter, space and time, and other astronomical topics which Barret and three of his colleagues gave to 50 or so inmates of Muret -- "France's 'four-star prison', where inmates have their own rooms, and the warders encourage educational events." The lecture series was regarded as such a success that the authorities are asking Barret and his group to organize another round of talks. This is more than a little remarkable for as Abbott says, "Muret is a prison for serious sexual crimes and murder. It is not an easy place for intellectual curiosity to take root."

Discussions after the lectures, [Barret and his colleagues] said, were much like those after any 'normal' public lecture, although they tended to drift towards philosophical aspects of cosmology, such as the unimaginable scale of the Universe. Perhaps cosmology helps the prisoners gain a fresh perspective on their incarceration, muses von Ballmoos. "On such an immense scale the prisoners have essentially the same level of freedom as a non-prisoner," he says.

And whatever the topic of the lecture, the prisoners were always keen to discuss extreme events, such as the Big Bang and black holes - violent cosmological phenomena in which matter gets crushed to infinite density under the pull of infinite gravity, and the laws of physics break down.

There were occasionally aggressive interjections that would not be expected in other public forums - for example, when one prisoner was irritated by a question from another and stormed out, yelling offensively; or when a technical problem with the microphone precipitated ill-tempered (and nerve-racking) heckling.

But the regular attendees tended to be well-behaved and deeply engaged. Talking after Barret's lecture, one prisoner, a former trade-union employee who had already served seven years, explained how physics became an immediate passion when he heard about CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory in Geneva, through his job. The prison lectures are magnificent, he says, and help him continue his self-education. A bit of a Renaissance man, he spends some of his prison time writing poetry, and the cosmos provides him with a rich source of metaphors.

I can imagine a certain rough equivalence between a life-sentence in prison and being condemned to live in a persistent vegetative state. But with regard to Les Étoiles Brillent pour Tous, I actually don't have to do any imagining along those lines because they have done it for me. They don't, you see, just confine their outreach to prisons.

Barret and his colleagues have given up their time to teach lower-level astronomy to terminally ill children who will never again see the outside of a hospital. "We feel an academic duty to bring our subject to every human being, whatever their disadvantages," says Barret. The stars, after all, shine for everyone.

Which is what caught my interest with regard to my musings on my own Living Input Will, of course. In addition to the items listed above, I will also want Barret and his colleagues flown over to my hospice on an occasional basis. It doesn't have to be every week. I'm not unreasonable. But neither am I kidding about the drool-cup.

Radio Headz Ups

A couple of audio links in reference to some of my recent posts:

Tomorrow (February 10), sometime between 10:00 a.m. and noon U.S. Eastern Standard Time, New Yorker writer Jane Mayer will be a guest on the Brian Lehrer Show. Mayer wrote the article on Bush outsourcing all our torture needs, said article mentioned in my post "We Will Live in Infamy".

Richard Layard, author of the just released book on the science of happiness, said book referenced in my post "The Pursuit of Happiness", was interviewed on Leonard Lopate's February 8th show. Here is a direct link to .ra file.

The Pursuit of Happiness

I commend to you Richard Layard, Lord Layard of Highgate, Co-Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and author of the just published Happiness: Lessons From A New Science.

This evening I attended a lecture at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, given by Lord Layard, moderated by Paul Krugman, with special guest appearance by Princeton's Daniel Kahneman -- the only psychologist to have ever won a Nobel Prize in economics.

And it was there that I learned about the new science of Happiness Studies. I think that's what it's really called, too. It isn't just economics, though it is oriented toward public policy; it's a blend of disciplines including psychology, economics, political theory, philosophy, neuroscience, and more.

This is fascinating stuff. You will be hearing more about it. The lecture was... well... it made me happy. I later bought Layard's book and I now look forward to settling down with it for some reading and thinking happiness. I therefore will leave you to your own devices, for the moment, in puzzling this thing out. To aid you in your project, however, I further commend to you a series of three lectures Layard gave in March of 2003, the Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures delivered at the London School of Economics. (NOTE: all are .pdf files.)

I will have more to say later, I think, but for now I will simply say that this evening confirmed for me a suspicion I have had for some time regarding the wounded state of the American Left. I don't think it will be a particular candidate or wing of the party that will bring us back into power. What will bring us back will be the charge of a new idea, maybe several of them. It might be that tonight I stumbled into the presence of one of those ideas, though it could take years, even decades for it to find its way into our political lives.

Though with the mess the right is making of things, that schedule might well be bumped up considerably.

Update: See Radio Headz Up.

We Will Live In Infamy

Years from now, our American descendents will look back on us -- our America in the year 2005 -- and think of us the way we now think of the Pinochets of this world. Don't believe me? Then read this: "Outsourcing Torture: The secret history of America’s 'extraordinary rendition' program.", an article by Jane Mayer just up at the New Yorker site.

And I will tell you this right now. John C. Yoo will be remembered as our equivalent to the Dean of the School of the Americas.

Think the right guy got elected? Bush, I mean? Well, I hope you are happy because you've determined how our page in history will be written:

Yoo also argued that the Constitution granted the President plenary powers to override the U.N. Convention Against Torture when he is acting in the nation’s defense—a position that has drawn dissent from many scholars. As Yoo saw it, Congress doesn’t have the power to “tie the President’s hands in regard to torture as an interrogation technique.” He continued, “It’s the core of the Commander-in-Chief function. They can’t prevent the President from ordering torture.” If the President were to abuse his powers as Commander-in-Chief, Yoo said, the constitutional remedy was impeachment. He went on to suggest that President Bush’s victory in the 2004 election, along with the relatively mild challenge to Gonzales mounted by the Democrats in Congress, was “proof that the debate is over.” He said, “The issue is dying out. The public has had its referendum.”

Yoo might be an evil son-of-a-bitch but in this instance he's right. The public has had its referendum, and we will be long remembered for it.

But even if you don't care about any of that, you ought to read all of the article anyway and here's why: the Bush Administration is outsourcing torture and if you think that's a good idea, if you think that's going to help them protect us here in the Homeland, you are out of your mind. Read the article to find out why. But be warned: It's pretty lengthy. You might have to pay attention for a longer while than you are used to.

Update: See Radio Headz Up.

Renew NOW, Bitch.

Urban Spring: The Heroin Hang

The cold weather broke yesterday though I guess we are destined for another round of it soon. Nevertheless, the mounds of filthy snow along the curbs are shrinking, and while I was out walking around this afternoon I saw the first sure sign of the approach of warm weather. What I saw probably goes by a variety of names, but I happen to call it the "heroin hang". It tells me Spring is surely coming to the city, as reliable a sign as cherry blossoms might be elsewhere.

It looks like this.

The feet are spaced about shoulder-width apart. Usually the weight of the body balances precariously forward, on the balls of the feet. The knees are bent, the butt sticks out slightly, the upper body hangs forward (hence the name). One or both arms hang free. Sometimes one shoulder is held slightly higher than the other. The head, remarkably, is most often held more or less upright with only a slight tilt toward the sidewalk. The eyes are invariably closed. Sometimes the body is utterly motionless which makes you wonder the first time you see it if you aren't witnessing some sort of performance piece. Sometimes the person gently sways forward and back. You watch for a few moments, fascinated, wondering how anybody that effed up can manage to keep standing.

It's astonishing how remarkably consistent in appearance the heroin hang is. The race, the age, the gender of those possessed by it are irrelevant. This is what makes me think of it as a kind of demon or imp that returns every year as the weather warms to possess certain people -- the way we used to believe life-spirits returned to inhabit flowers and trees, bringing them back from the cold. Every Spring is the same; so too with every heroin hang.

I've never tried heroin, though I did have a round of morphine once -- I was a kid struggling to remain on the planet long enough to have an emergency appendectomy -- so I can certainly see the attraction of the various opiates. The nurses smiled at me grimly when I complained of post-op pain and asked for more of that stuff they gave me before.

And I've been surprised more than once by the people who have mentioned to me more or less in passing that they've taken heroin recreationally -- people I never would have imagined using smack. This is how I discovered that not everything I'd been told about heroin was true. Some people apparently can pick it up and put it down. I'm not sure I'm one of those people and I've pretty much avoided the opportunity of ever finding out.

But clearly there are those who cannot put it down once they pick it up. And so some of them become, for me anyway, harbingers of the urban Spring.

One good thing: as I mentioned, the heroin hang never seems to let its hosts fall over. It's pretty amazing, actually. You can't believe the person isn't going to topple face forward at any moment, and yet I've seen hundreds of instances of the hang and never once have I seen any of them fall down.

It's astonishing. Like Spring, I guess. That never seems to fall over either. At least not for me. Not yet, anyway.

Harnessing Contempt

(Below: The Eutolmiatopian Manifesto.)

There is an article in the February 7, 2005 issue of New York magazine named "The Harvey Milk School Has No Right to Exist. Discuss."

OK, go.

The Harvey Milk School is the now famous "gay high school" here in New York City. It's located near Astor Place in that middle-village-land between Greenwich Village and what used to be called the lower east side (now, East Village). It grew out of the "Hetrick-Martin Institute [HMI], a social-services agency that for 25 years has been ministering to 'at risk' gay teens".

“A majority of our kids are what we call Title I, poverty level,” says Thomas Krever, associate executive director of programs at HMI. “About 20 percent qualify as homeless, or living with someone other than their immediate parent or guardian. They are very academically challenged. The way they see it, high-school graduation isn’t really something in their future.” But Harvey Milk’s mission is not simply to fill gaps in the students’ education; it is also to help them in the process of coming to grips with their sexuality, and the emotional trauma associated with it. “These kids are volatile, aggressive, hostile, as a way to protect themselves,” says Maria Paradiso, HMI’s director of supportive services. “They’ve been harassed and bullied and beaten up so often, they have a thick armor. We’re trying to teach them how to manage difficult emotions, how to be confident about who they are. We help them with coming-out issues, and the struggle of gender identity.”

The city's regular high schools can't or won't protect these kids, so this Harvey Milk School sounds like a reasonable option, right? I mean, assuming you even give one crap about these kids, of course.

But wait.

In August 2003, Democratic state senator Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx, sued the city over the Harvey Milk High School. Diaz’s stated reason was the injustice of the city’s devoting millions of dollars to a school servicing just 100 students—“with all kind of high-technology equipment, air conditioning, the best teachers”-- when so many other city schools, like those in his district, were in deep crisis. “Teachers take money from their own pockets to buy equipment,” Diaz says of his Bronx schools, “because they don’t provide the teachers with the equipment -- no books, no pencils, there’s nothing for the students. You are leaving some kids behind.”

It's a reasonable point. But hang on a second, there's more.

In the summer of 2003, the Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based nonprofit litigation group inspired by Evangelical causes, offered to back Diaz’s suit against the city. The Liberty Counsel is also contesting some 30 same-sex-marriage cases across the country. Its leader and founder, Mathew Staver, has called Harvey Milk a “school dedicated solely to those engaged in abnormal sexual practices.” Rena Lindevaldsen, an attorney in the case, says of homosexuality, “I do believe that it’s not a right relationship” since “it’s not what God designed.” But if the Liberty Counsel’s objections to the school are based on a narrow interpretation of Scripture, the legal brief they filed on behalf of Diaz is shrewdly grounded in legal argument. The suit charges not only that Mayor Bloomberg, the Department of Education, and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein are guilty of wasting city funds at a time of severe budget distress, but it also uses a clever act of legal jujitsu to charge that the Harvey Milk school is illegal since the Department of Education’s own regulations prohibit discrimination in school admissions on the basis of sexual orientation.

And it isn't just Diaz and the Liberty Counsel. It turns out that a number of gay-activists feel the Harvey Milk School is a bad idea.

Indeed, one strong advocate for both gay rights and public education has emerged as a salient critic of the school. Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, says that Harvey Milk, by segregating homosexuals from their straight peers, promotes the return to a “separate but equal” educational system uncomfortably reminiscent of one of the most shameful episodes in American history, when black students were placed in separate schools from their white peers—supposedly for their own good. “I have a long history of supporting gay rights,” Turley says. “One can have great sympathy for the motivation behind this school but question the means used to achieve noble ends. I was flabbergasted that leaders in the gay community embraced this concept, an act of self-exile from the school system, to self-isolation. It was just unbelievable to me.”

All right, so that's the general shape of the question. There are other nuances, but that's pretty much it. The suit by Diaz and the Liberty Counsel is awaiting a decision so while we're sitting outside Judge's Chambers waiting for the word to come down, let's just decide for ourselves what we think about all this, shall we?

I walk to work and it happens that my usual route carries me past Astor Place everyday. I often see these kids hanging around outside the building that houses Harvey Milk and, just from my observation and from what I've read, these kids are not just throw-away kids, they are way-throw-away kids. It would be one thing if Diaz and the Liberty Counsel actually gave a crap about them. I mean, you know, really gave a crap about them instead of just telling them to get religion or something. But you know precisely what will happen if they win their suit and close down Harvey Milk. Will they put that same amount of time and effort and money into getting the system to protect these kids? Will they strive to not just mouth the words of tolerance, but actually take steps that will make the reality of these kids lives in the New York Public School System actually survivable?

Don't make me laugh.

It's incomprehensible to me how this country can present itself to the world as a land that celebrates freedom. It claims to honor innovation and the marketplace of ideas. We like gumption! We live on the frontier! Which is all true in one sense, of course. As long as you are talking about consumer products. The marketplace of ideas is great as long as your ideas are respectable. We love those mavericks, but, you know, just don't be odd, or a weirdo, or too eccentric. No weirdoes allowed.

I suppose the charitable interpretation of all this is that we are torn between our attraction for the new and our fear of it. Okay. That's not so remarkable, I guess. If you want to look at it that way.

The less charitable way to look at it is to admit that we are frauds, at least in those aspects of our culture that do not concern consumer products. We like the newest and best T.V. as a device and we like a sprinkling of the safely new in what actually comes to us through that snazzy newest and best T.V., but you know, don't scare us too much with any of that weird or oddball or eccentric stuff.

I wish I lived in a culture that was not afraid of the odd. Think what the marketplace of ideas would be like then, eh? What would the world be like if weirdoes were not beaten into submission before they had a chance to actually shock us with an idea for something truly original, remarkable, and useful. It's true that some originality survives in spite of our penchant for stifling it, but I wonder sometimes where we would be now if things had gone differently for us -- if we weren't, as a culture, so frightened of the odd.

These kids at Harvey Milk, nobody has to tell them they've been different all their lives. Think of the amount of energy they've expended on just surviving that "handicap". What if they'd just been left alone, left to mind their own business that whole time? Their take on our culture is nowhere near what most of the kids their age think about what we were all born into. I'm not saying somebody is an Einstein just by virtue of the fact that they were born different, but there's no denying that having a different take on a situation often leads to something original and exciting and new and useful. And I'm not saying, oh, think of where these kids would be if only they had been worshipped all those years for being different.

No, I'm just saying, I wonder where we would be today if weirdoes were simply left alone. Now that would be a free marketplace of ideas. Hell, we could be traveling the stars by now. And you can't say we wouldn't be doing that. You've never lived in a world where the genuinely odd was allowed.

And so I guess my position on this Harvey Milk School question is this: I think, as a theoretical concept, it is a bad idea to isolate gay kids from straight kids. I might even think that as a real-world thing it is a bad idea. After all, I like to see people "mix it up". I think that's good for people. Unfortunately, in this instance, "mixing it up" often means these kids getting pounded.

On societal considerations I think the Harvey Milk School should go away, but as a practical matter I'd like to see these kids get a shot at a decent education, maybe get into college, find a good job, maybe find some happiness and peace in their lives. But if Diaz and the Liberty Counsel win their suit, ain't none of that going to happen.


Maybe the best thing to do now is just redesign society. Something simple like that. If Harvey Milk closes, we know these kids will be sent back into an intolerable  situation. We know there will be noises made about teaching tolerance (if, you know, that isn't thrown out of the schools as being anti-American or something). But the problem is the lesson of tolerance obviously doesn't stick. It's not in our cowardly natures. If somebody is weird, then they have to be driven out of the tribe. I mean, come on, get a clue. Where were you when our instincts were handed out?

So let's skip all the Can't We All Just Get Along crap. Let's make use of the baser angels of our darkest natures. Let us harness our contempt for certain of our fellow human beings. Let's teach our young to mock and bully and harass those who are afraid of the weird. Let's stop wasting time trying to teach them how to tolerate diversity. Let's teach them how to torment the tormentors of the odd.

The Eutolmiatopian Manifesto

We are not encouraging diversity. We are not encouraging people to be themselves. We are not arguing that the quiet, the loud, the shy, the flamboyant, the religious, the profane, the outrageous, the normal, the gay, the straight, the blind, the deaf, the halt, the jocks, the goths and the punks should be either mocked or praised.

We are not saying those who bully and harass the odd should be sternly spoken to. We are not saying they should be retrained to be sensitive.  We are not saying they should be dipped in guilt. We are not saying that they should consult with their consciences and thereby make themselves into more tolerant people.

We are not saying that all weirdoes are of equal value to the tribe. Not all eccentricities will make the cut. Not all crackpots will be Einsteins. But the cowards will tell you a particular bizarroid is worthless before they actually know he is. The cowards pollute the idea pool. They say they believe in the free-market of ideas but they pursue a monopoly of the already known.

We are saying this -- the cowards must be mocked and bullied and harassed for fearing the odd.

We call not on the rulers of the schools to change the minds of the young, for we know they cannot do it. The rulers of the schools don't have the courage. No, we call upon the young to change themselves.

We call upon you, America's youth, to harness the power of your contempt. Use it to gut the world you've been handed. Lay it open and search there for truth. Those who are afraid of the weird will try to stop you. They will warn you against the interesting and the scary. Send the cowards away from you. Mock them. Shame them. They do not have your courage in the face of the odd, and so send them away.

Do not celebrate diversity. Torment the tormentors of the odd, instead.

Arise, Eutolmiatopians! Go now into the land of the brave!

Either that or, you know, just mind your own beeswax when it comes to other people's quirks. Try having the guts to be a little different yourself sometime, why don't you? It might hurt a little at first, but you'll recover. Probably.

But, hey, what do I know? I'm just another crackpot.

Hey! I Really AM Special!

With great pleasure I announce that this morning The Corpuscle received its first comment spam. I will always remember this moment fondly, even though I had to dirty a towel wiping things up.

Beyond These Voices There Is Peace

I won't be listening to or watching the State of the Union speech tomorrow night. I can't stand listening to That's Man's voice. Other voices I can't stand listening to: Rice and Rumsfeld.

Were I a serious conspiracy theorist, I'd believe that all of this was on purpose, that The Cabal recruits "leaders" who have voices no decent human being can listen to. Most of us see ourselves as victims of history. It's so much easier that way. Why not believe that they are using their voices against us, and that we are therefore helpless against them?

Democracy requires paying attention, and if you make your voice impossible for any decent human being to listen to, then you are going to make it hard for people to pay attention. Pretty soon people are walking around with buds in their ears, listening to stuff that's far more pleasing than a Rumsfeld press briefing, but it's stuff that has little to do with resisting the political fictions of these people.

Which more or less suggests I should force myself to listen. It is my duty as a citizen. I apologize, but I can't.

I have always been hypersensitive to sound. Certain things grate on me -- a faraway hammering, faint enough that most people can easily ignore it, I cannot get it to go away. My mind suspends everything in between hammer blows. I obsess about sounds and silences. I have Audio OCD. I know I should get my unruly mind under control. I know I should better manage my filters.

Would I hate Bush's voice if it didn't belong to Bush? I've never really cared for the Texan accent, especially contrived ones, so it seems likely I would still hate that twang. Rumsfeld? It's such a clown voice. It's so Barney Fife. It could be funny to listen to. Sociopathic Barney Fife is less funny. Rice? There's so much strain in that voice. She always sounds half-strangled. That voice is just plain irritating.

So I am forced to rely on transcripts.

But that's all right, I suppose. On the one hand it does cripple me. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but I'm not sure that's true for everyone; I think for me it's the voice. If I can't listen, I am denied that window. On the other hand, I think I already know just about everything I need to know about the souls of these people.

The thought occurs to me, just now, that if something remarkable happened to their souls -- say they miraculously had some sort of insight into themselves and into their behaviors -- it occurs to me that I might actually be able to listen to them again. I think if Rumsfeld suddenly stopped in the middle of one of his press briefings, and if a look of terrible pain suddenly crossed his face, and if he suddenly confessed what an irresponsible fool he has been, if he suddenly copped to all the unnecessary deaths of American soldiers he's caused, I think I could listen to that.

So I guess it isn't really their voices. It's their souls I can't listen to.

I doubt that situation will change much. It's really hard (though not impossible) to change your soul. It's especially hard for those who know, in spite of the evidence, that they are completely right with God.

In Memory

May 2006

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