Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Let's Just Quit. Really.

I remember Mrs. Best's third grade class at Willits in Monmouth, up there on the second story overlooking the playground, the sun beating into the room and roasting us. Any kid knows the only way to escape blistering heat is to go out into it, running and laughing and daring it to dent the proof of your boundless energy (I tended to beat the heat with technology [A/C and SNES]), but we were languishing in our classroom in reparation for our few, paltry snow days.

Mrs. Best answered our cries with that empathy shared by parents and teachers. "I don't want to be here any more than you do." We had all heard this argument before and hammered it out by maintaining that, for instance, if our teacher didn't want to spend so much time grading, there should be fewer assignments. It made sense to us.

What didn't make sense to me in my eighth year and doesn't to this day, is why people don't just band together, declare how much it all sucks, and stop playing the game. It's as if all of humanity is caught in a game of horseshoes and no one is willing to say "this isn't fun, let's stop playing," and instead we reach the other inevitable end of the game: "ow, you hit me with a horseshoe."*

This is why there's war.

In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes on how the guards of the Siberian prison camp hate being there as much as the inmates as an explanation for the lack of animosity between the two (we didn't have any ill-will for Mrs. Best).

Solzhenitsyn doesn't offer a reason for why the soldiers didn't rebel and demand to not be stationed in Siberia. We know that in the Soviet system, someone is going to be a jerk and make you do it or hurt you so bad as to make an example of you. In this case, I'm sure the man's badge would be taken away and he'd have to stay in Siberia for a couple more months.

If only those men had just used their guns and said, "Screw this." If only we could. If only we could look at the dumb systems in which we find ourselves (I'm dealing with college bureaucracy, for example) and just ignore the rules for a more sane system.

The Jerk, the Bully, the Powermonger is the reason, by the way. Most discussions of this subject would end by feeding you the usual, hegemonic line that we fear what's on the other side of the ostensibly unassailable wall, but that's not true. The truth is we don't fear what would happen if all malls were closed Black Friday. We fear the repercussions of Stalin or the school principal.

If Mrs. Best had let us out to play all day, we wouldn't have learned anything other than maybe a lesson in letting people be people. I don't remember what we did learn, but I'm sure that whatever it was, it must have been important.

*thanks to Dave Attell for the horseshoes joke

Friday, January 14, 2011

It Was Pretty Stellar, but then Stopped

One precept ruled my adolescence: if I wanted to succeed, I showed up. Pithy divisions of life's constituent parts aside, mere presence was 100% of what was required for me to be a winner. I'm sure some of the merits I won in those bleary years were earned, possibly more than the Superintendent's Award for Excellence in Spanish, but most have not taught me about who I am to be. Academics and extracurricular activities have been spotty in my college years, but that Spanish class put me in a larger world.

I qualified for the honor roll every semester of high school, doing so by turning in my assignments, mostly completed. I was, and remain, a sharp mind trapped in the brain of a lethargic student, a gaseous mass preferring to go nova than sustain light as a star.

This has carried over into my college years. The first essay I wrote for college English won an award (I think you can find the paper in these archives). For another English class I offered insight into Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums that actually impressed my teacher (who gleefully let us know a former student accused him of being "Hitler's long-lost Irish twin). I kicked ass when I cared.

On the other hand, I took mythology twice and only passed the second go because Neil Gaiman's Sandman books inculcated me with a deep love for the deep stories.

I didn't only get to middle through academics, though. As I'm rubbish at anything involving a ball, I didn't do high school sports, instead opting for speech and scholastic bowl. For the former my parents have a box full of medals, plaques and even a few lei won for talkin' just so perdy-like.

What these shining (in some handmade cases, glittering) examples of bric-a-brac don't tell you is that I won them by default; it's easy to place third in a three-person competition. Even so, I tend to tell people with a measure of pride that I went to sectionals all three years.

In college my extracurricular activities finally included a sport: fencing. And while I didn't do a lot of tournament winning, I did a lot of fine fencing. I had always wanted to learn how to sword fight, and it came naturally to me.

All this shows sharp compared to the one award I never expected to get, the Superintendent's Award for Spanish. It was an award handed out at these year-end functions designed to highlight the best and brightest of my submerged school, in which students were recognized for various subjects and sports.

By my senior year, I had been to three and never won an individual award. So when the opportunity arose to do some airsoft gunning in the woods, I jumped at it, since I was rarely invited to do things with my school chums (probably because I use words like "chum").

Late in the game, several players left for the awards, but I refused. I did not want to sit through another award ceremony for nothing (for me, anyway). I was going to enjoy time with my friends.

Little did I know that when I was hunting for them, my friends had decided to head home, each thinking I was with another. I ended up walking to within a mile of my house, only to be picked up by my superintendent/principle, who told me I had been mentioned that night.

I never thought of myself as a good Spanish student, but I was in Mr. Higbee's class for four years, which has excused me from taking foreign language courses in college. I was one of the three in my class to finish the program and I think that I was chosen partly because the teacher liked me. Unfortunately, I wasn't there that night.

I have always wanted to apologize to SeƱor Higbee for that, and to let him know that the culture and language to which he exposed me remains a warm place in my mind. It's too late to do so now, so for the rest of my life I will think to the first award I rightly earned and hear my inner voice, "lo siento."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Like Listening to Kids Bicker

I was skimming an article on Huffington Post about how the past few generations of Americans have taught me and mine to eschew responsibility. The author, Dr. Mark Goulston, offers as evidence a hypothetical conversation amounting in a teenager telling their parent they will take responsibility for their actions. When the adult presses for a definition of "take responsibility," the teenager responds, "I'll say I'm sorry."

Feeling remorse is not, in and of itself, taking responsibility but is the first step in doing so. Even a child can realize and acknowledge a connection between his or her actions and the next step of causality. Sarah Palin cannot, and I'm wondering if I've done such a bang-up job myself.

As you probably know, Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords was recently the target of a madman with a gun. This violence has shocked the country and it is, like any shooting, a tragedy.

Of course, Sarah Palin had nothing directly to do with it, but there is a link between Giffords and Palin: Palin had put out a map which prompted voters to oust politicians who had voted for the Obama health care reform, and Giffords' district was one of the targeted. The map used crosshairs to mark these districts.

A reasonable person will say that Palin is in no way responsible for what happened in Arizona, and I'm inclined to agree. No sane person would see this map and think they should kill the residing Congressperson. That much is clear, but I do think this even should give us pause to consider where American politics are heading.

Even making an abstract based on violence is hateful speech and wrong. I'm not saying we don't have the right to use hate speech, but we all know we shouldn't. In a small sense, I wonder what Palin was thinking when she approved that map with crosshairs, how she would, if needed, explain it to her children. In macro, we have all gotten acclimated to the idea of threatening people who disagree with us and lowering their value as human beings.

We need to take responsibility for our actions, and that includes what we say. Even a child knows how to do that.

According to this article, though, Sarah Palin doesn't. While an aide of hers protests that the symbols on the map were never meant to portray gun sights, Palin herself said that her followers should "reload."

Palin's backpedaling is reprehensible, but it reminds me of something I said just last night. I was talking to a friend about House Republicans reading the Constitution in session and wasting everyone's time and I told her, "being angry with Republicans for making a false show of patriotism is like the girl who put the snake in her coat and got mad at it when it bit her." To put a fine tip on it, I implied, "Republicans=snakes." And that was reprehensible.

It's time for all of us to stop dehumanizing our political opponents and start talking like civilized people.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Weight of "?"

In considering Voltaire's criteria for judging people, that is, by their questions and not their answers, I find myself worried to introspect and find myself too simple: my overwhelming, all-encompassing question over the past few weeks has been a straightforward, "wait, really?"

My question is prompted by an ongoing series of answers ostensibly about WikiLeaks and its editor in chief Julian Assagne, but are actually about freedoms like speech and press. The US government demands his Twitter account info, Vice President Biden labels him a "high-tech terrorist" (as did Newt Gingrich) and some buffoons want to kill the "traitor." Assagne is Australian.

Compare answers like the US government calling Assange a terrorist to the Economist awarding him the Index on Censorship award and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggesting he win a Nobel Peace Prize.

So while Sarah Palin is the only person I've found who has actually levied a specific charge against him, on her Facebook page, all other criticism has been nebulous at best. On the other hand, you only need hop over to Assagne's Wikipedia page to find out he's published material about extrajudicial killings in Kenya, toxic waste dumping in Africa, Church of Scientology manuals, Guantanamo Bay procedures, and banks such as Kaupthing and Julius Baer.

But that all amounts to weighing good and bad, which is so largely a matter of perspective. According to Joe Biden, Assagne is guilty of the monstrosity of making meetings with world leaders "cumbersome." So that's bad.

All these answers are given to the woefully underasked question, "is Julian Assagne and WikiLeaks in the wrong?" I'm going to come down and say "no." I voted for Obama because he promised for transparency in government. I really wanted to see the people in my government who started the war in Iraq held responsible for their actions. I hoped this administration would stand for the liberties the PATRIOT Act (which Obama upheld) usurps. Obama didn't, Assagne did.

But the US still wants to jail him for releasing State Department documents and no one could blame them. Just consider Assagne's audacity for exposing US diplomats in selling Boeing jets.

Which incites me to ask another too-simple question: so what? So what about all this bickering and name calling? So what about the government lusting after classification and opacity? So what about Joe Biden's convenience?

And what about the First Amendment? The accusations levied against Assagne and WikiLeaks shouldn't amount to a hill of beans next to the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the rights of people in a democratic society to know whatever they want about their government.

Right Newt Gingrich? Sarah Palin? Joe Biden? President Obama? The freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are more important than vagaries and speculative charges, right?


My questions are simple. I might be a simple person, but I don't think that's such a bad thing. I'm incredulous, and that disbelief might be the beginning of something better.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Scott Mendelson vs. Brandon L. Sichling

I was sharing my thoughts on this Huffington Post article with my roommate, Pete. To summarize, it's the "10 Most Overrated Films of 2010." When I finished, Pete asked me, "So what it boils down to is... what movie did you like that was on the list?"

I damned Pete's astuteness. "What kind of world do we live in where no one sees Scott Pilgrim and it's still 'overrated'?" I think this is a fair question, but not the pressing one.

The important thing to wonder is why we live in a world in which people put together "overrated" lists at all, since it's not the job of a critic, does the audience no good and wastes space for conversations worth having.

I really respect Roger Ebert. Sure, he gave Space Jam a glowing review, but he has a philosophy on critique and audience and it makes sense even if I disagree. In the aforelinked article, he talks about what is a reviewer's job, and that is, largely, to foster appreciation, to defend the new and bolster people's ability to engage with it.

A list of what films you think people liked too much doesn't do that. It tears down the work of people who have labored to, in this case, put something meaningful for themselves and others on the silver screen. They risked a lot to do so: people have talked mightily about how Edgar Wright and Michael Cera's careers will suffer because they made an offbeat film in Scott Pilgrim.

To paraphrase Ebert, Scott Mendelson doesn't risk anything to say people were too fond of that movie.

Fostering fondness is what the critic can do for an audience. I took a cinematography class this semester and now I not only appreciate movies more, but also photography and paintings, storybooks and comic books, a host of visual arts opened to me thanks to the critical eye.

When the audience is told by a critic that they are wrong to be beguiled by something, the critic insults the audience and discourages them from meeting with more art. "Engage better" becomes "don't engage."

Engaging with an interesting conversation is harder when so much space is devoted to negativity. When Catherine Hardwick released Twilight, Ebert did point out the film's problems, but he put a silver lining on it: see Let the Right One In instead.

I did, and it is the most interesting vampire movie I have ever seen.

When a critic spends time telling you what you were wrong to enjoy, he denies you his privileged knowledge, knowledge that could help you find something new to love.

Love is what makes art go 'round. I'm pretty sure of that. An "overrated" list says there was too much love for whatever it names, but it also implies an "underrated" list. I wish Scott Mendelson had let me know his 10 movies from 2010 which needed my affection. As it stands, I'll just watch Scott Pilgrim again.