Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jerry Springer, trash talk TV & a test of morals

I happened to watch The Jerry Springer Show today for the first time in several years.

At the break to several commercials, they showed a billboard that tauted the JS show as having been voted television's worst, and maybe it is - except that Jerry Springer himself is like the Alice Cooper of TV "talk" shows.

Years ago, British rock star Alice Cooper appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Carson asked him, basically, 'why the makeup, why the snakes, why the outlandishness?' And Cooper responded with something like, 'I'm laughing all the way to the bank.'

That's Springer - laughing all the way to the bank. But frankly, he doesn't seem to be laughing much anymore. He seems more pained than pleased at how ruthless and raunchy his show has become. He seems to play an increasingly chagrinned and even exasperated Dr. Frankenstein watching his trailer trash monsters tear up the stage. Meanwhile, the black-shirted bouncers don't get much of a rest.

Jerry Springer is a very smart guy. Some years ago, he served as a Cincinnati City Council member and later as MAYOR or Cincinnati. Like Mick and Keith and Alice, he must have realized that there was an easier way to turn his alotted 15 minutes of fame into 15 years of infamy - and upwards of $15 million dollars.

After a few years, I am startled to see how the Springer show had morphed in the last few years. There is much less resolution than there used to be. Coached confrontations incite a riot on stage and off, and there a segment ends, leaving most just wound up and left hanging. Many segments are now more purely titillation - just wind ups to the pitch, and the pitch is more consistently fisticuffs and cussing and trash talk and cat fights and bleeps and digitally obscured revelations of breasts and other body parts.

The guests on stage (and now in the bathrooms as well) are PAID, coached and outright TAUNTED to be angry, crude and outrageous. But the big change was the outrageousness of the audience, obviously coached (and perhaps even paid) to bare their breasts, taunt the "cast" and generally incite studio riots worthy of... worthy of WHAT?

But then, after nearly an hour of this swearing, spitting contest comes Jerry's "Final Thought." The "Final Thought" is one of the most valuable moments on all of television, and yet you, the viewer, have to suffer through an increasingly violent and yet monotonous hour of pathetic spite and spit (and digitized tits) to get there.

Mr. Spring has a better sense of morality and ethics than Jerry Falwell or Ralph Reid or anyone else on the so-called religious channels. Even our presidential candidates and the president himself could learn from Springer's "Final Thought." (Sad to say, most of the other higher ups in the Bush administration seem beyond learning any genuine morals at all - they are just in it to use and abuse their power and command.)

Jerry speaks sucy SENSE in those final moments you have to wonder why he would have suffered through the taping of the rest of the show, sort of an incestuous, red neck Mardi Gras.

There are rumors that Mr. Springer will at last give up his crass cash cow of a TV show in the next year or two and run for the U.S. Senate from Ohio (Springer has hinted at this ambition for years). He sees the jobs as distinct and not contradictory. I hope he does run. I think Springer is an exceedingly smart and moralistic person - in a good way. And I think he might be a strangely valuable and unfailingly earnest addition to American politics, such as the seemingly ludicrous Jesse Ventura (i.e., no mud wrestling or whore-mongering in Washington - as opposed to other Senators, less colorful publicly though privately perverse). Mr. Springer is probably not perverse himself, and he's plenty smart to be a senator from Ohio, and he certainly could pull a populist card or two out of his hat. (Wouldn't a Springer/Kucinich duo be a plus for dowdy Ohio!)

But in the meantime, what a crazy yin/yang going on with the Springer show - to parade pathetic trash for most of the hour and then, in the last few minutes, speak calmly and eloquently for maturity and virtue.

Too bad in this culture it seems we can't expand that last few minutes into the brunt of the hour.

Monday, November 29, 2004

It takes a village: the www disconnect

It seems Americans don't really know what they're missing, but it does seem they vaguely FEEL and REACT TO what they're missing.

And what are they missing most? More genuine COMMUNITY - a culture of villages, circles of friends, a network of neighbors, a real world of proximity and familiarity that trumps the world wide techy world anyday.

Studies show that American culture is, in general, less social, less satisfied and more neurotic than many other cultures around the world. Sprawl and technology have fostered isolation and supposed independence instead of the real connections we see in ads for which we obviously remain nostaglic. The neuroses come from the huge disconnect between so-called "American values" and Americans' actions day to day and year to year.

It is disheartening to hear how many people would rather wait for the DVD than brave a movie theatre. Americans are training themselves to prefer controlled isolation even as their social lives become more vicarious and even vaccuous. We seem to become more and more a society of fairly unsocial (or to be fair, mildly social, very selectively social) celebrity mongers. Millions seem to know more and care more about movie stars than their own friends and neighbors. Is the former cast of "Cheers" or "Friends" more interesting than your own neighbors? If so, how do you know?

How DO we get the sort of community and connections we want, rather detached as we are by our cars, our computers, the web, sprawl, air-conditioning (which keeps us inside), "home entertainment systems," a lack of front porches, a lack of communal concern, and the ways we communicate in this "virtual" world - often impatient, intrusive and yet shallow, filling our days and many of our chances for solace with the detritus of small talk.

Here's something some of us miss: phones and phone calls that don't follow us every where we go, from the kitchen to the produce aisle and right on into public restrooms. A few of us miss the stamps and ink and postmarks of snail mail, the social fashion of having neighbors and associates over for a cocktail hour in our homes, and yes, dinner parties. We no longer seem to have "circles" of friends, and I'm not sure we really have such a "web" of friends, either. It's more like splinter groups, specialized sects and cul de sacs of friends. Without proper community, we're frazzled, so we parent like crazy, pout, pour a drink, warm something up and eat alone.

I long for a REAL community of kindred spirits - enlightened progressives loosely bound by neighborhoods, visible and eager neighbors, salons and chat groups and friends.

I think of this detachment and disjointedness in our communities often, but the subject came up again this week because of another incident in which I was reminded how hard it is to fully be ourselves via e-mail. And of course most of us reading this blog and others are trying to make up for our lack of close community by letting our fingers do the walking and crawling and surfing out into the virtual ethosphere of the world wide web.

We say "world wide" and we feel a part of something so huge. But the web is more like a crazy and sometimes dimly lit maze of alley ways and dead ends. Posts and contacts come and go too easily. It is too easy to invest too much and then again too little. But we can't really avoid the heavy lifting if we're going to have a village where support and care and connection are really mutual and substantial.

Many of us outside the few richly pedestrian areas of this nation live in ghost town houses and anonymous crowds of shoppers and cars (which handily conceal their drivers and passengers).

We try to make up for this by reaching out in obtuse ways, often appearing abruptly and often disappearing without a fair thee well. Our people skills suffer. Grace and graciousness seem to take a back seat these days to merely flipping switches, as if people were appliances. I often feel so old-fashioned and foolish for being so courtly and mannered in my e-mails whether to friends I've known in person or to people I've met via blogs and e-mail.

E-mail loses a lot in translation. It's all words without eyes and ears, without the nuances of body language and bodies themselves. E-mail is fleshless, and so it tends not to sing and dance. Emoticons don't fix all the problems e-mail is air to, such as tone and sillyness and inside jokes and sarcasm and seriousness, etc., and sometimes intentions get mixed up and feelings hurt. One person's silly flirtation is another person's edgy come on. One person's self-assured openness may seem presumptuous and even agreesive to another. Why? We lack the real village. We are an axious and lonely lot, wanting to 'protect our space' more than we want to close the gaps of intimacy and disclosure in our culture. As we live more vicariously through the media, the more we lose an essential and healthy VITALITY to be intimate and neighborly.

We need the familiarity and gregariousness of a village whether we know it or not, whether we harp on this discrepancy in our culture or not.

Are we getting the world wide (or even nationwide) web or "village" we want and need to be socially connected in healthy and substantial ways?

What compromises do we make trying to reach out via things like the telephone and the web - as opposed to doing things the old-fashioned way?

Friday, November 26, 2004

The soul of Bill Moyers and the quest for better media

Tom Brokaw is retiring with the tone of wary, even weary calcification.

Dan Rather is retiring, still smoldering from scandal and a bumpy ride.

Bill Moyers is retiring, sorry not to be on the job in the face of four more years and the need for good investigative journalism.

Good news takes time and careful consideration, and these qualities seem sorely absent. Who among journalists or viewers seem patient enough any more on television to adequately consider the complex issues of the day?

The CNN team seems watered down, even immasculated - horrors not only that anyone would look to FOX for "fair and balanced" reporting but that anyone would look to CNN for quality investigative reporting. I don't count as authoritative or even particularly informed anyone I've met who uses television as their primary news source.

The web can be good, but be careful how you use it.

The New York Times, The Washington Post and good magazines such as The Nation, The Progressive, and the The American Prospect still seem to tower over other sources.

Meanwhile, back at the TV ranch, crossfire-style blather seems to be winning out. Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer, some PBS coverage, Brian Lamb and C-Span seem to stand alone as being considerate, nuanced and fairly wise. With a sort of grave irony, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart seem smarter than the talking heads not making such insightful wisecracks.

But among earnest television interviewers, I have to give special accolades to Mr. Moyers and Mr. Rose. Who else comes close?

From the website www.speakers.com, home of the Speaker's Platform:

"Called one of the 10 journalists who most significantly influenced television news by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Moyers has produced more than 240 programming hours since establishing Public Affairs Television in 1986.

"His documentaries range from the hard-hitting (Moyers on Addiction; Moyers on Dying in America; Facing the Truth, the story of the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa) and the marvelous (The Power of Myth; Amazing Grace; Healing and the Mind) to the historical and political (God and Politics; The Constitution in Crisis; Minimum Wages).

"Moyers combines a quick wit with deep reflection on the human condition. His 25-year career in broadcast journalism has been recognized with many major awards, including over 30 Emmys; the Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians; the George Foster Peabody Award for political reporting and international coverage; and the Gold Baton, the highest honor of the Alfred I. duPont/Columbia University Award. Five of the books based on his television series, among them the 1971 work Listening to America have become bestsellers.

"Moyers began his journalism career at age 16 as a cub reporter on the Marshall News Messenger. He earned his B.A. in journalism with honors from the University of Texas at Austin in 1956, and three years later received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth, Texas. After serving as deputy director of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy Administration, he became the press secretary for former President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"As the first presidential spokesperson to make the transition to journalist, he has a unique perspective on the forces effecting news coverage."

But beyond his resume, it has been Moyers patient and respectful Southern tone and even his comforting yet accessible drawl and genteel manners which have added an aura of panache and reliable moral guidance to his interviews and his reporting. Moyers has keep the large picture and his own moral compass in perspective, adding greatly to our own. And there just aren't many like him at all.

And so, a mournful farewell to Bill Moyers. This gentle soul of solid journalism (and a mentor here at A Better Nation) will be missed.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Shopping for Jesus!

Attention shoppers, one month 'til Xmas. Start your credit cards.

I don't own a television, indeed never have. And usually when I channel surf at friends' or a motel, I surf CNN, The Daily Show, Seinfeld Reruns, decent movies and the outer orbits of cable. But once in a while I check out the local TV news to see how crazy dumb the state of local TV news is. Thanksgiving has afforded me the opportunity to see what blather millions of Americans are injesting like baby pabulum it would be best to spit up, turn off and unplug.

Tonight, yes, some war-related stories - of soldiers going to and coming back from Iraq through DFW airport, but most of the news was related to the night's top story - the beginning of the "holiday shopping season." Apparently, there's an identity and credit card theft spree, just in time to help those much less fortunate buy Nintendo sets at your expense. The pile it on holiday is already underway a little earlier (and 24/7) at some errant stores (which ironically got free advertising by pulling the stunt of being open Thanksgiving Day - sacrilege no more or at least not for long). One big junk palace along the highway is staying open for over 100 hours straight from Thanksgiving through Tuesday night, though the shoppers and innocent bystander spouses seemed more weary than thrilled. And in other news this evening, there was another overtuffed and glittery feature on buying that hot, Hot, HOT gift item, a flat screen TV - as if it were your American duty this Christmas season to get one or more for those in your family still suffering from regular TVs - even though the story ended with the admission that conventional TVs still have the best picture quality. But who wants a better picture on a frumpy old set when a posh new $2200 screen will impress your drunken New Year's revelers watching the real shindig at Times' Square or your equally inebriated Super Bowl hounds - just hogs at the trough of new tech. Breaking news: two steps backward for altruism as one major mod discount change, usually known for its corporate generosity (as opposed to the stingy big W-Mart), announced it would not allow Salvation ARmy bell ringers this season bout that it would offer automated wake up calls to get shoppers to the store on time. Makes one wonder which flat screen Jesus would have us envy. What would Jesus buy? What would "a savior" give as gifts? Could he even stomach Americans' mad materialism?

Oh, the feverish engines of commerce and of the Almight Consumer (with no clothes) are now in full swing, with full permission from the Lender Gods to got the max and get at least two of everything, like moving home appliances into a 2200 square foot pseduo-Tudor Noah's Ark that looks suspiciously like a generic tract home in the burbs.

For years, some perversely humbled sect of Americans have been saying that enough is enough and too much is way too much, but how many heed these warnings of the cancer of consumerism taking over the souls of Americans' better angels? Polls and surveys taken in the last few weeks indicate that, even with the trade deficit and national debt at new highs, the government maxed to the hilt of its might swift sword, unsecured consumer debt at all time highs as well, and the dollar at all time lows against the Euro, the Yen and other strong currencies, that Americans expect to spend more and more freely this gift giving season that last year. Are things even incrementally better? Or have people just finally decided that the world - or at least the country - is going to hell in a hand basket and so shop 'til we all drop. Sort of like fiddling while Rome burns.

The World Trade Center was still falling in slow motion, yet President Bush made repeated pleas with the American people to shop as if nothing had happened - as if everything would be the same. And yet, one of the cliches of the time was that nothing would be the same.

Is shopping our desperate way to vote with our feet and our wallets and our dangerously leveraged futures? To say things are going to be the same, dammit, no matter what, as long as they'll give me credit? It's as if this country's last vastly popular statement to the world is that we will be the biggest consumers on Earth, even as we make less and less of the world's stuff - and deeply endganger the future security of our nation in the process.

In this context, "shop 'til you drop" takes on an even more ominous tone.

Maybe a plug for a bit of common sense and a dose of Christian virtue are in order:

Be humble.

Tread lightly.

Don't buy on credit.

Don't be wasteful.

The meek shall inherit the Earth after the overspent hedonists are vanquished.

Give simple gifts and not many.

Don't BE an accumulator - don't be what you consume.

Curb your envy for others' things and the things in stores.

Don't love things more than people.

Turn off the insipid TV - and otherwise avoid the blather of ads and consumer fads.

Just say NO to the consumer fever.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, whether they live near or far, are Americans or not, are human or not, treat you well or not - be virtue.

Be generous of heart and spirit and compassion.

Peace and good will toward men and women and children.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Thanksgiving 2004

Yesterday's entry was about hope in America as a lead in to today's post on Thanksgiving.

What are you thankful for?

I am thankful that I have never injured another person in anger or even by accident.

I am thankful to have never supported an act of violence - and certainly never a war.

I am thankful to live in an old house, decrepit as it is, that shelters me and gives me some connection to my roots.

I am thankful for my friends, especially my brightest and funniest friends.

I am thankful that some shreds of nature and tracts of wilderness are hanging on with enough vitality that we might rescue and resusitate them.

I am thankful for the triumph of moderation and collective wisdom in some other countries in the world - a sort of humililty and cooperation notably diminished in America today, a country in which even the excesses of Thanksgiving seem tainted by the very HABIT of excess in this culture.

I am thankful for beauty and grace and compassion wherever they exist and strive to thrive.

I am thankful for endorphins and any scraps of reasonable hope and progress we can muster.

I am thankful for courageous voices that speak truth to power.

I am thankful for my romantic notion that there may be, somehow, a better life ahead than what we've left behind and what we face today.

I am thankful for sidewalks and front porches and friendly shopkeepers and good food and clean water and lovely beverages and weather that stirs the soul and books that stir the mind and hugs that take hold down deep and kisses that really matter and love that lasts and triumphs over all the things that seem to get in its way.

If you must pray for anything and cling desperately to anything, make it love. Love, peace, civility, good manners, grace, patience, and beauty may not be able to conquer all, but we must carry on as if they just might.

And thanks to you, dear readers, near and far.

Take care.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

What is getting better, America?

When I started this hefty blog site at the beginning of last week, I wrote and rewrote everything to go with it, from it's "Welcome to" blog (see below) to my profile, but I especially tinkered with the subheading below the title, A Better Nation.

I must have revised that line over a dozen times, trying to make it look good, fit on one line and yet sum up the essence of my approach and perspective here. The phrase "deeply" hopeful didn't occur to me until the end of the week. I'd used "hopeful" but hopeful sounds naive by itself, and even though I care a lot for many aspects of this country, I realized that my darker angles, my being prone to moralizing and my edgy skepticism might far outweight mere "hopefulness." If you're hopeful, you've got to have a good reason, I'd say. Your evidence for hope has to be substantial and substantiated.

About four years ago, in an ideas salon, I sternly asked the group, "What is getting better? Name some things that are getting better."

Racial tolerance, tolerance of alternate lifestyles, medical care and technology all got votes. But these days, it seems all of those things as well are in recession.

It's my birthday today, and so it's one of those few days of the year we are prone with some poignancy to assess the state of where and how and why we are in life. Are we better off than we were a year ago? What has changed? And oh, boy, what seems like it just won't even budge a slight change no matter how much time and life passes by?

I think if you are passionate you are hopeful. The energy of passion must somehow be related to the energy of hope. And hope seems necessary. But all too often, the concept of hope escapes me. I have incidental joys, some fun, some success, even make some progress. But the overarching theme of "what's getting better, REALLY" and HOPE still seem elusive.

And so, underneath all the weight of this blog is something that is also heavy, something that can lead to plenty of heavy heartedness as well, and as of a few days ago I am calling that Deep Hope. It's not a solid foundation, and it's not constant or reliable. But it is an undercurrent - the essential idea that we try, even as so much seems to fail around us. (I'm sure some can sense the intrusion of the dark mood of progressives in my blog these days - the initial adrenaline rush of loosing November 2nd has turned into a longer term dread.)

And so I carry on, deeply hopeful. And it's a heavy thing.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The Bad Boys of Basketball

Since Friday's violent altercations between players and spectators at the Pacers vs. Pistons basketball game, this story seems to have taken precidence over Iraqi War deaths, Sudanese genocide, global warming, holiday recipes, and President Bush's trip to Chile and Colombia.

Things erupted with hundreds of witnesses and on camera, and yet NO arrests were made that night, and NO arrests have been made as of late Monday, three days later. How hard could it be?

It's one thing for the commissioner of the sport to hand down decent and carefully considered justice, but this does not let the law itself off the hook for players or fans. Why have our public protectors been slower to act than the commissioner?

If what happened in that sports arena had taken place in the parking lot outside, there would have been arrests immediately. As in raucous Red Sox fan scenes last month, both observed partipants and even some merely suspected of participating would have been arrested and taken into custody in handcuffs.

Yet inside the hall, all of these clear assults seemed to be let go like O. J. Simpson's being allowed to drive his white Bronco down a public freeway in Los Angeles clearly brandishing a handgun.

Why the special treatment for players? Why the special treatment for fans?

Money? Weenie security guards? A celebrity mongering madness? A desperate desire not to piss off more fans? Fear of a larger "riot"? Again, I dare say these concerns would not have stopped or even slowed arrests outside the stadium.

But inside, it was as if basketball had become a maniacal hockey game gone awry in an angry and anarchistic science fiction movie in which Americans have grown even more addicted to road rage, incivility, assault, aggressive threats, brusk guvernators, pre-emptive war and the general degredation of any virtues we have remaining as a culture.

The extremities of Friday's events (repeated ad nauseum in case addicted viewers haven't sated their prurient desires) might seem to some a huge break with an innocent past in which nice people didn't do these things. But this trend has been on the rise for some time. Soccer fans around the world riot far too often. It sometimes seems hockey fans come hoping for a little carnage the same way NASCAR fans want to see a wild crash now and then. And as for basketball itself, the trend toward poor behavior started over a decade ago. In the early 1990s, Dennis Rodman became the most notorious of basketball bad boys, and Charles Barkley's mouth had all the edginess of Muhammed Ali's, with twice the animosity and half the wit.

But since then, a lot of panache has left the game. Grace and flair have been edged out by elbows and egregious fouls. Obviously, some stern refing is not enough anymoe. As a sports-crazed culture (and there are others though none rival the United States for time spent watching sports), it seems we are heading backward toward more ancient and barbaric times, at once drawn toward and repulsed by gladiatorial "bread and circuses," the old saying which refers to the debasedment of Rome and the Roman Empire in the midst of its hedonistic decline.

We've certainly known for a while, with hyper consumption and Hummers and gratuitously violent movies and nerve-racking superhighways and rampant "reality-based" hedonisism all around, that our own degredation as a culture, as an Empire, has been at hand for years. Empires don't take dives lightly.

The United States doesn't get to bury the facts on this: it is one of the most violent cultures in the world, certainly one of the most murderous. The lines between cultish sports heroes and barbarians are crossed often, of course usually not in such plain sight as the violence at Friday night's game.

Some are even saying the fans are primarily at fault (lots of millionaire players and former players are saying this), and some are saying that the penalties of lost games and dollars are too severe for the half dozen or so players cited so far.

Ridiculous. In a culture that expects peaceable play and good sportsmanship of its professional athletes, arrests would have been immediate and universally applauded.

Arrests in the stadium before leaving the arena of both fans throwing anything, fans on the court and players leaving the court. The line between court and seats is not an ambiguous one and need not be made more vague.

If on the job, as a player, cross the line and you're fired. Making sure the spectators stay within their bounds is the job of security guards, not basketball guards.

It is heartening to see that Ron Artest received a suspension for the rest of the season and that other players got sizeable penalties. Anything less would have been a sham. It is not heartening to see that he and other violent players were not arrested that night. It is further disheartening that spectators seen on camera as committing acts of assault, aggrevation or revenge also avoided immediate arrest.

Any delay shows a soft and sinister deference for celebrities. It patronizes paying fans, and so-called "sports heroes" who are really nothing more than spoiled anti-heroes who happen to deal in bluster, thuggery and hoops.

Much of the public and far too many parents seem to not know what a real hero is. They seem to mistake showmanship for sportsmanship. They seem to so easily slip into valuing muscle, might, athleticism, notoriety, territorialism, team rivalries and "winning" more than any sorts of heroic virtue.

The raucous players and the rabid fans are losers.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Greenspan and the Ship of Empire: A Parable

Fed Chair Greenspan announced today - profoundly but with curious after-the-election timing - that the national debt cannot stand and that we are now facing a national crisis. The dollar is sliding against the euro, the yen and other not so stellar currencies. This professor of circuitous sentences got a little blunt when he said we won't be able to get big cheap loans forever - and shouldn't. That's a big statement for this man known for understatement, in touch as he is with the deepest currents, the monied ebb and flow - and the undertow. Who's running this ship anyway? How, and from where? Are we steering from behind? Alas, as with every big ship, we are.

We might like to think that if this country were a stalwart oceanliner it would be the handsome U.S.S. United States, steaming into New York Harbor, a man in the gray flannel suit and austere martinis sort of affair. Or maybe one of those sleek new cruise ships looking more like a gleaming lady steaming off toward the sandy and sun-soaked pleasures of the Caribbean, more Lands' End casual and Disney in tone.

Those elements of our culture still exist and thrive. They are still great globe-going juggernauts. But these days people treat airplanes like buses and cruise ships like Vegas without having to stay on solid ground. And everybody eats too much. Hyper caloric intake and fossil fuel consumption are a lot of what it means nowadays to be American.

So no, the ship of our story is not from a Gregory Peck past or a Michael Eisner present. Our Ship of Empire is that most infamous of all ships, a titan, ripe, ready and fresh from the musty Old World, indeed barrowed from another famous and now downfallen empire. Our ship is, of course, the RHS Titanic.

To be renamed the USS Titanic: grandiose, presumptuously boastful, not so invincible or cutting edge as it seems, but with a smorgasbord of passengers from around the world - from the roughcut emigrants and castaways down below to the magnate headliners of oppulence and wealth up above. All headed to the same place.

As on any collective and popular voyage, most of the people on board are not at the bow watching out for things; they're amidships. And relatively few are running the ship, either from the engine room or the helm. Almost all of the staff are doing the cooking and cleaning in the bowels of a big bobbing hotel. Their outfits and tips are better, but the incestuous gossip and the urge for something else a little more anchored eat at them just the same. Most of the passengers are, overcome by the buffet, off in their rooms trying to figure out how the little fixtures work, wondering if people can see in their window, musing on whether the captain has his uniform cleaned and starched before and after every meal. And then, of course, there are those who hope to turn the fantasy of a tryst into reality. What, indeed, can one get on pay-per-view at sea?

Well, folks, we're all on that ill-fated ship, and the man who reminded me of this today was Alan Greenspan, the man in touch with the undertow.

Karl Rove is upstairs manning navigation. Dick Cheney takes the wheel pretty much 24/7. George Bush is looking a little nervous but cheery with 'his base,' pumping the arms of ladies and gentlemen alike just before the stage show - until the curtain rises and he slips out to see if Tom Ridge has spotted any other ships in the night. John Ashcroft (yes, still, even as Justice Emeritus and even as you sleep) is making sure you're in your own room - and making sure that the artwork on your tiny wall and the book next to your reading lamp are appropriate.

But who's watching the bow? Who's watching for obstacles, like icebergs the size of the Astrodome? Freethinkers, mostly, progressives leaning forward into the chill winds wearing extra layers of archaic tweed or mod fleece. (They're outside in the spray, not inside fumbling with the pay-per-view.)

And where is Greenspan then, the supposedly brilliant barometer of our American health and wealth, the God of Capitalist Currents, the seemingly steady seer of deep and slow steerage in this country?

He's at the rudder. He IS the rudder. But as the rudder, he's getting his forecasts from the bow and then the helm with a telling delay, and the ship changes course only with excruciating pause. Greenspan's down under and at the back of the boat, and there are icebergs ahead.

Those looming limits of our posh and powerful capitalism are just water, but they are ice, solid as rock, and we know how even sheets of iron can tear.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Tom DeLay innocent and guilty

The Republicans must be very proud of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex). They are going out of their way to put their values in reverse for him.

Back in the early 90s, when the Republicans didn't have such bully good odds of putting a super-majority stranglehold on the Congress, they thought they'd take the high road and pass a rule that said that if a Republican congressman were indicted, that person would have to step down until a verdict was reached - for good if found guilty.

Now, it is true that this gentlemanly rule goes against the basic tenet of justice in this country. Napoleonic law says a suspect is guilty until proven innocent, and though it doesn't always seem so, American justice says just the opposite - that a person is innocent until proven guilty. (The rather Draconian Patriot Act does erode this premise somewhat, more on that another day.)

The presumption of innocence: it's a good idea. The prosecution should have to make the case to try, sentence and/or punish someone. Now, in the case of Mr. DeLay and his friends, that'll be up to District Attorney Ronnie Earle in Austin. Mr. Earle is a Democrat, which might make any charges seem partisan (so the Republicans rushing to Mr. DeLay's defense would have us believe), but the bread trail exists, and crumbs (if not laundered LOAVES) seem to raise reasonable suspicions. Still, suspicions are not the same as guilt. The law says Tom DeLay is innocent, so far so good.

As opposed to certain star special prosecutors, Mr. Earle seems to have a record that will stand up to the blows the Republicans deliver with such shameless furvor. When it comes to dishing out some justice, Mr. Earle's case history seems to suggest he's an honorable enough man.

So as it stands, Representative DeLay hasn't been indicted, and he is innocent of any legal charges. But we could ask other questions:

For example, is Tom DeLay an honorable enough man? Is he a virtuous man? Is he what we want in a public servant? Are his values so admirable (and his service even to the party so special) that the Republicans should change the protocol of the Congress to not only accommodate but staunchly defend him? And if so, then what are the values here? Among the Republican bigwigs, does loyalty to strictly partisan principles trump all other values? Is he THAT valuable?

The Republicans are the 'party of values.' Looks like they've taken them all, or most of the good ones, so there aren't many values left anybody who's not a true blue Republican - I mean true red Republican. The Republicans seem to be trying to get away with anything of value - even if belongs to somebody else.

On the playground, the kids who acted the way many Republican congressmen act were not our friends. They'd draw up the boundaries of all the unsupervised games - and bully us into chosing sides. They'd snarl and stomp and divide us by terror and coercion - and sometimes even force, if necessary. Sometimes, our clothes got ripped, and our glasses got broken, and we'd get in even more trouble at home as if we were at fault.

Our parents would say, "It takes two to fight," and somehow that made sense because we were ten years old. But you know what? It only takes one bully to start something. You can get hurt - and even look like you are fighting - when all you're trying to do is get through recess.

Some republicans, even as kids, really know how to carve up some territory, and they're not in it as a fun for all. Rep. DeLay doesn't seem to have outgrown being the pit bull of the playground. He carved up Texas without considering, it seems, many virtues or graces - and without much sense of justice. He may look like a used car salesman, but he acts like conniving Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life," carving up Bedford Falls, selling the decent townfolk a bill of goods, hiding our hard earned money in his newspaper and never telling 'til the Sheriff comes to take him away - and maybe not then. Nobody roots for Mr. Potter in the movie. And so we have to wonder about the sorts of people who would root for Mr. DeLay in real life.

Again, Mr. DeLay has yet to be charged with - and is currently innocent of - certain, specific crimes. He is innocent legally. But he is guilty of things for which we may proceed to judge him. Mr. DeLay is guilty of being bitter, righteous and injudicious. He is guilty of being seemingly shameless, of being disdainful, of being a mean bully.

And he is in a position to hurt people.

Shouldn't he consider another career besides public service, something more to do with insects, for example, and less to do with people?

And without having to await the legal outcome of these matters, shouldn't we question the values of the people who root for and defend Tom DeLay?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Kerry's finest moment


The low point was the high point.

Seeing Senator John Kerry's (D-Mass) return to the Senate this week, with its missed opportunity to forecast - if not pound home - the once and future triumph of progressive values, I saw Mr. Kerry return to his overtly senatorial and rather staid caution (see post below). Mr. Kerry underplayed the moment, even with the specters of political alienation and even obscurity looming over him (and vicariously, looming over those who want to see a better nation rising out of the ashes of "four more years"). Rhetorically, syntactically and symbolically, Mr. Kerry failed yet again to build a bridge to his political future and the political hopes of progressives.

Mr. Kerry, where's our bridge?

And so today, I am considering the arc of the Kerry campaign. Where were it's finest hour and it's finest moment? What was it's high point? Where did it come closest to capturing and captivating the American people?

No, it was not at the convention in Boston, when, in an admittedly powerful speech, Mr. Kerry lead the Democrats (from behind the scenes) on a crusade to out-bluster the military might of the Republicans. Even then, Mr. Kerry seemed more credibly "presidential" than his opponent. From the salute and for the next hour, that Thursday night in Boston was certainly a fine hour, but it was not THE finest moment.

Each of the three debates provided highpoints for Mr. Kerry. But as we have learned, winning a debate or even all three doesn't cinch the election. By many objective measures, Mr. Bush struck out in the debates and barely took a dip. His grinding juggernaut kept plowing ahead.

No, by the time Mr. Kerry achieved his finest moment, it was all over but for the mysterious recounts. It came during the candidate's concession speech, around noon in Boston, November 3rd.

Mr. Kerry started off with a few vague comments about his concilliatory phone call to Mr. Bush, saying they'd "had a good conversation" and "talked about the danger of division in our country and the need, the desperate need, for unity for finding the common ground, coming together."

Mr. Kerry went on to say, "Today I hope that we can begin the healing."

In the wake of Mr. Kerry's concession speech, most pundits, observers and newscasters harped on the seemingly and so suddenly vanquished candidate's calls for "healing" and "unity," but these were Kerry miscues as well. It had been less than 12 hours since more than 57 million voters and several billion people around the world had watched their hopes for a Bush defeat/Kerry victory crumble. Millions were in mourning and felt more like moaning than healing. And many surely weren't ready to concede "unity" to the Republicans or with them, considering how well the true blue suspected the rabid Republicans would certainly NOT be returning the favor. What was that "unity" talk all about, a gentleman's agreement? The same old Daschle style deference that had gotten liberals and the Democrats on the run in the first place? ("Born to Run" is one Springsteen song many had no need to conjure.)

Mr. Kerry may continue to feel that substance and graciousness are enough to carry an agenda to fruition, though there is not much evidence in political history to support this view. But there was Mr. Kerry with the TV cameras and a defining moment on hand.

Many listening were stunned, many around the room and around the nation were in tears, nearly deaf to "healing" and "unity." Many, it seemed, were ready for some rest but only the kind of genuine rest that comes with a recharged, renewed, refocused aim at the more distant future, and a different kind of call to arms. And there it came - in the middle of his concession speech - Kerry's finest moment

He said:

"It is a privilege and a gift to spend two years traveling this country, coming to know so many of you."

Kerry said:

"You just have no idea how warming and how generous that welcome is, your love is, your affection, and I'm gratified by it."

John Kerry said:

"I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

This is what John Kerry said:

"I wish that I could just wrap you up in my arms and embrace each and every one of you individually all across this nation."

And with that line, at long last, John Kerry hit the high mark, the finest moment of his campaign and probably his political career.

In our candidates and in our leaders, we don't just need science and political science, we need sentiment, too - sentiment and, in this telegenic age, a likeable suaveness, a person who exudes his affection for the camera, for audiences and for the foibles, aches and pains of people in general.

It took a devastating, heart-rending defeat to bring this heartfelt quality out in John Kerry, even a little bit. But there it was - what we'd wanted to see and hear and feel for months. And the tears were flowing.

If Mr. Kerry had so convincingly and compelling reached out and wrapped up the American people in his arms for the year preceeding November 3rd, he would have put the lid on the Deaniacs and, by a majority vote, been destined to become the next president in January.

Sentiment and caring like that are a Value with a capital V - easily worth three or four million votes taken from the other side. Kerry could have made Mr. Bush seem uppity and "out of touch" and even, with some irony, elitist - the very qualities which defeated his father in 1992, when faced with the "I feel your pain" compassion and likable suaveness of Bill Clinton.

Sure, some political sophistry, sophistication and syntax never hurt ('it's what the vast majority want, stupid'), but what wins in the end? Passion for a distinctive set of goals is right up there, but above all, bravery and empathy.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Two weeks out, Kerry returns... to what?

Well, here we are, mostly asleep as I write this, two weeks after the Tuesday night so many of us stayed up, pitifully, 'til near dawn or beyond, frazzled by how things were turning - downward - not exactly in flames but smoking. All that work - the Boss, Paul Newman, the Deaniacs, the Philly Bill Show, Oprah left and right, Ralph Reed holding court in Florida, watching Guns and Gays and God trump most the better natures of a majority of the electorate. That was the night fear (as in that amorphous specter, "fear itself") and the God-fearing won.

Kerry returned to the Senate today and got a two-minute standing ovation from his staff. But he also had the opportunity to grant some major interviews, and he gave one to the Mass FOX channel - and missed another opportunity to say great and compelling things about the upcoming renaissance of Democratic-sponsored SENSE in this country. He said he couldn't name anything he'd done wrong in his campaign, and yet he said that if he did run again (using his $45 million surplus as seed money) he'd "do things better' next time. So maybe the guy is clueless on nailing a message that sticks in voters' minds.

He said he is a "fighter" and that he still has a lot of fight left in him. But haven't his manners and his patrician airs just about suffocated the political soldier underneath? Where's that catchy fight song we missed the first time he spent a coupla hundred million dollars of our money? Maybe he needs to hire Naomi Wolf to teach him some new "alpha dog" tricks - or get Howard Dean back in there nipping at his heals (or feeding him some party lines with TEETH).

Kerry is playing the stealth candidate right now, unbeknownst to some. He conceeded, but supposedly he is doggedly leading a team of lawyers and election tabulators down the long and laborious road to see if this election will stand. November 3rd, he knew that would take time with or without the klieg lights of a rabid media horde, so he wisely chose to shut the lights down and do it the way a lone prosecutor does it - doggedly, one dossier at a time. So he's not exactly off duty, but while he's not making a Gore 2000 circus, why not get George Lakoff to come in and help him write that fight song?

We blue stater types are indeed blue - and we're even bluer if we live in a red state right now. We need that battle cry - maybe not a scream, but a muscular, manly lightning bolt of a DREAM. A place to hang our humble pie and our high hopes before they grow too low.

And when the Republican red meat hits the Red Staters' Superhighway in 2005, they will be low. We'll need Kerry and a slew of others to raise their voices not just in song but in a well-choreographed chorus, introducing our new and improved FIGHT song.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Welcome to A Better Nation

Greetings friends, old and new. My name is Lawrence Walker, American Studies guy, saint o'secularism, big-hearted philosopher, salacious arbsurdist, bodacious pundit, die-hard romantic. I've been posting political punditry for about four years, since Gore won the popular vote in 2000 - and posts of personal philosophy since before that, but my work has needed a home. I recently reserved the web domain abetternation.com, and so I'll eventually go bigtime to fame and fortune, but I want to get the name and my stuff out there now, so here I am at blogger.com.

For several years, I'd thought of various names for a web magazine, but after the election, the phrase "a better nation" occurred to me - because that is what so many of us want and what so much of the world needs. Left or right, red or blue, flock of the fearful or land of the brave, secular or faith-based, sensible or silly, there is so much we can do to turn this country toward becoming A Better Nation.

I have a master's degree in American Civilization (interdisciplinary, thematic cultural history). I've been corresponding with a growing listserve for years, mostly about politics and culture. I was a regular (and earnest) poster to The New York Times community site Abuzz, now defunct, and to a local salon which, even as it grew, seemed to implode - so I hit the ROAD to Blogger Boulevard, right here.

My special interests are presidential politics, the arts of all sorts, smart growth, natural resource and environmental concerns, wilderness protection, the persistence of regressive religion, language and the future prospects of the progressive message and progressive virtues - in other words, cultural values of all sorts and stripes (FAR more than the litmus test "values" being bantered about these days by what David Brooks calls "the commentariate").

Some posts will be earnest and careful considerations of what's up. Others may veer toward the snide rants of Op-Ed satirists.

Especially after readers have gotten a sense of what I might have to offer, I would welcome questions - questions regarding breaking news, movies, quotations, events, political ploys, propaganda, social episodes, cultural curiosities about which you'd like my spin. My thanks to all who dip their toes in these wordy waters or come here to steep their brains.

I'd be glad to hear from you. Onward!