Friday, December 31, 2004

Farewell to all that

Farewell to f'ing 2004.

Not the best of years. Helen Keller said, "Security is a myth. It does not exist in nature. Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all."

Yes, this has been a tough year, a digressive not a progressive year in so many ways. Even our hopes for change got dashed by a few percentage points of the popular vote. And war and injustices of all sorts rage on. But scientific and cultural and intellectual progress matter, politics matters, music matters, art matters, civic virtues and personal virtues matter, love matters.

Above all, as materialistic and money-driven and busy-driven as all those multi-taskers are, above all, love matters.

Sentiment and whimsy and humor and laughter and light-heartedness and joy.

Even in tatters, even seemingly naive in the eyes of the wry cynics, even in light of such overwhelming selfishness and blindness and faith and force, the bravery of outright, overly generous affection and love matter.

Hemingway said that "bravery is grace under pressure."

Plenty of us are under pressure now - lots of pressure, tremendous pressure. And the pressures can blind us or partially blind us to the more profound pleasures that would help us be more content.

Satisfaction and contentedness are what we really must crave. These are what we lack and need - longing and love must come back to the fore to guide our hungers, our heads and our hearts.

It is contentedness that seems to escape and exasperate the American people, to so confound our hopes and abilities to become better people and a better nation. We need more grace under pressure.

And we need more perfect moments. We can't ask for or expect perfect lives, but we can certainly focus better and appreciate more the perfect moments that come our way and that we create ourselves.

And so, heading into a new year, these are the things I wish for us all the most - more perfect moments, more peace, more contentedness, more love.

Love to all, and may our new year be better than this year, for better or worse, now irretrievably gone by.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Goodnight 2004

Indeed, this may well be a year many of us would just as soon leave behind, if not forget - if not go back and change or erase and start over.

What would you most like to change about 2004?

Me, I would ease the human desire for religion - that pestilent den of supernatural powers, unseen forces, inscrutable motives and dysfunctional, irrational beliefs, prayers and hopes.

It's time to base our prospects on something better than a wing and a prayer.

Goodnight 2004.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Apolitical this week, not apathetic

Just feeling like this is a week to not mix it up, politically, culturally. Wishing things were even more peaceful. Having family adventures and misadventures, and that's enough for one week of anyone's life.

When's the last time you blew up at somebody and respected yourself in the morning?

When's the last time you made love like there was no tomorrow?

When's the last time you expressed yourself as well as you wanted to about something challenging that really mattered to you?

When's the last time you felt so sad or sentimental you just about cried?

When's the last time it occured to you just how important 2005 could be to your living your life the way you want to live it?

Be brave, fess up! Tell us!

Glad to hear from you, as always, Lawrence

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

'Tis the week

'Tis the week when so many of us play hookie from our day jobs to travel or hide out between Christmas and New Year's - or try to recover from the trepidations of family for the holidays. (Where is the "vacation" in this?)

Life gets back into its January rut next Monday but not this week, when the ghosts of Old Years/New Year's past, present and future come around to haunt us.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Lawrence Walker & A Better Nation shall return

Happy holidays everyone, all things considered... And here, eventually, we will consider ALL THINGS.

Let me know what you're considering, what you are curious about, what makes you caustic or caring.

I'll be back at the keyboard Tuesday evening.

We'll do some end-of-the-year wrap ups, best and worst.


Friday, December 24, 2004

Peace on Earth

My friend Judy recommended that I write about war for Christmas Eve, and immediately the title "Peace on Earth" came to me. What better title to show the irony, the disconnect between the sentiment for Jesus' birth and the policies of our "one nation, under God."

Supposedly, that God is Jesus' dad, and supposedly both father and son were (and may still be) notable proponents of peace on Earth, as in the whole Earth.

That means we shouldn't export war, yet that is what the Bush administration has done - exported a war - not a very Christian gift to the Middle East. Wars may be most often fought for economic and imperialistic reasons, but almost as often, wars are motivated and exaccerbated for religious reasons.

It seems to me that the true Christians, in Jesus' lifetime and in the 2000 years since, are all pacifists, not necessarily passive all the time, not pawns to fascism, but resistant to violence until violence is upon them. Exporting a war is not defense, and it is not a good offense, either.

If we follow the Golden Rule, we would treat others the way we want to be treated. And we would not want to be told what to do by a big, bullying nation we didn't like, much less be invaded and ravaged by that nation. We'd be fighting in the streets, too. So let's bring peace to our own streets (by being civil, by driving more carefully and with more sobriety) and peace to the streets of the world. Neither prayers nor bullets will bring peace. What brings peace? Community, understanding, respect, education, the quelling of fears. Nothing less than cultural bravery and domestic security bring peace. We don't need propaganda and plattons as much as we need peacekeepers and the Peace Corps.

Peace is not better violence or violence that is "just" or violence that is "smart" or "targeted" or violence that is pre-emptive, for godsakes. It's a retreat from violence, a repulsion to violence, a return to civil resolutions. Peace is peace, and please don't be blinded by the Rumsfeldian propaganda and Bush bullying that insists otherwise.

'Tis the evening and the holiday, supposedly, to not only wish for "peace on Earth" but to act, personally, locally and globally for peace. So please, let's back away from our nation's military aggressions and demand that our military make a humble retreat and come home from around the globe.

Then let's make sure that we send enough humanitarian aid and secular support to make up for our ills and wrongs.That is what "peace on Earth" really means. Nothing less.

Peace is not free, but it doesn't have to cost thousands of lives or billions of dollars. Peace costs less than our leaders would like for us to believe. We can't afford to not work for peace, so please, work for peace. It's a modest and yet mighty and mighty good investment in the future, a future that, like it or not, all of us on Earth share.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Families up close and personal

Today, Christmas Eve EVE, the shoppers were out in force. The church parking lots were empty, but the shopping centers were PACKED. Downing a few sparkling glasses of champagne looked more tempting by the minute. And Regis and Kelly announced the plug-it-in-prizes they'd give out (XM radio sets) to the entire audience for their 11th day of the "12 days BEFORE Christmas." (How does the notion of "away in a manger, no crib for a bed" fit in with an Ipod that can hold 1000 songs?) So the rush is on for MORE and that upcoming deadline late Friday night after the stores have closed, and Santa fires up the reindeer and goes around squeezing his fat ass down chimneys around the world.

Families are gathering together, hoping once again to string together a series of special moments about which they'll be sentimental for years to come. And there will be millions of those moments - mainly because receiving gifts is fun - especially if the quality of the gifts show that someone cares enough to pay real attention, up close and personal. But many others' hopes will fade or crumble as the complications of the modern techy/sportfest real world that is American Christmas. We think we want to get away from it all and end up loading it up with more of everything.

There is the dark side of all that familial up close and personal attention. Lots of families think they have to try too hard and cook too much and get everything on the list and gossip about some relatives and gripe about others and keep the TV on and the drinks flowing. The overwrought and overwrapped American Christmas is a recipe for family disaster, especially with the preponderance of really wildly dysfunctional families we have in this country. Heck, most of what we see on TV is dysfunctional families - if not dysfunctional murderers. (Why is there a 24 hours festival of James Bond movies on for Christmas? Who wants to sit through another "Law and Order" interrogation Christmas eve and Christmas day? Or watch the footballers slug it out?)

How DOES the typical American family define "quality time" these days? Spending $80 at a movie theater? Renting videos? Playing tug of war with whatever got unwrapped last? Eating? Talking about getting the food out? Going on about those sickly sweet desserts?

That guilty pleasure small talk about desserts drives me nuts - I'd take turkey over apple pie anyday, and broccoli sounds better than a bunt cake any day. But then there's that danger in getting families to talk about anything besides the food - and being nice about it. Take politics. Please. Take sports, pretty please. Supposedly functional families can start riots over almost any topic besides the bland and banal.

And politics. How can it be so public and private at the same time, so ripe for debate and so off limits? A whole heck of a lot of families and even friends are going to have a RED and BLUE Christmas this year, drawing lines in the sand with their sharp swords. Yikes!

So, many of us head home with thoughts of loot, competition, resume regurgitation, small talk and trepidation. We spend the few days right before Thanksgiving and Christmas making fluctuating lists in our minds of the topics that are safe and the topics that just aren't safe. Are the families in other cultures so disparate? So at odds? So snide? So competitive? Diversity is a supposed virtue in this culture, but in a family, diversity and distance make for insults and anxious times.

Variety is the spice of life, but up close and personal, all too often, our families are so spicy hot we get burned.

It's a good time to recall the supreme value of laying low, being notably agreeable, eating your vegetables, and having decent grown up conversations.

Peace in the kitchen, play fair in the yard, and good will 'til whenever.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Inventing Christianity

Recent head to head issues of Time and Newsweek featured cover stories about the mythical and historical origins of Christianity.

It seems no one who actually met Jesus ever wrote about him. None of the apostles wrote anything. Indeed, nothing was written at all about Jesus for decades after his death, and the few historical mentions of this man, one of many at the time calling himself a "messiah," were cursory.

Indeed Christianity, as a religion distinct from Judaism, did not gain wide favor until the rule of Constantine, centuries later.

Christianity was invented and reinvented to fit the needs and cultural norms of disparate societies hundreds of miles and hundreds of years apart. And these re-inventions and re-interpretations continue today.

What were the actual names of the two Marys? What were the actual names of the apostles? The religion has been stripped of many of its Middle Eastern roots to be more palatable and accessible to the cultures of Europe and the Americas. The reminders of this in Time and Newsweel remind me of that famous statement a woman once made: "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me."

Christianity is big business, bigger than ever. It's commercial not just at Christmas but 365 days a year, with televangelists and Christian country singers and the peer pressure for tithing and building expansions - probably not what Jesus had in mind.

It amazes me that only about a third of Americans believe there is enough scientific evidence to support the "theory" of evolution. And it seems more than a third believe in the existence of angels.

I remember as a kid thinking the Christmas story was a pretty good story, and I wore my monk's robe in the church pageant. But I don't ever remember believing in angels, not really. And pretty soon, I saw it all as a parable built to prey (and pray) on our various insecurities and wishes.

Last night, I attended a solstice party at which, around the roaring yuletide fire, we were asked, as we threw our traditional oak twigs into the fire, to say what we wished for in the coming year. And I said I hoped that more people would act bravely, basing their values and actions on the facts, rather than fearfully, relying on faith.

A lot of people say they fear new ideas. I fear the old ideas more.

Especially if there's not much evidence to support the claims those old ideas make. The old ideas have gotten us into a lot of trouble, and I suspect it will be scientific objectivity and secular good sense that are our best hopes for relieving some of that trouble.

Here is to old-fashioned virtues and new ideas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Solstice and other secular holidays

In honor of today's being the winter solstice...

These days the separation of church and state seems to be endangered, even though most of the brightest countries on Earth think this separation a civic and legal virtue. (It seems obvious that laws and the legal system, enacted by government, can't really give "fair and equal" treatment if our leaders act on any religious doctrines or prejudices. Keeping things as secular as possible is the best way to protect the fairness and equality of the system.)

SO, how about, to prove we (some of us blue state/better nation types) mean business, how about we stand by eliminating religious holidays and instead offer a clean slate of secular holidays?

As sentimental as I can be about Christmas, I'm all for replacing it with a holiday on the winter solstice. The solstice is an astronomical phenomenon, not a supernatural fantasy. We could all be left to celebrate however we wanted, and no alternative, secondary, "un-American" (non-Christian) religions would have the chance to feel slighted or excluded.

In fact, I'm for having the first day of each season (the two solstices and the two equinoxes) be federal holidays. And that goes for shopping, too.

This shopping thing has gotten out of hand. Debt and snide materialism prove that every second. So maybe, in addition to the four seasonal holidays, we should have shopping holidays on the first day of every month. Yep, blue laws, essentially, saying that nothing but essentials can be sold on the first of the month - and, no, nothing is essential except food, fuel and travel services. More or less SLOW the country down a couple of dozen days a year, and give people a REST - and a chance to really prove they are enjoying life by spedning some quality time with themselves, their family and friends.

I could even go for "no movies and no entertainment tv" on those days, too. (Dare I add televised sports, sports fiends?) If all this makes some people twitch, those are just the outward symptoms of the shopping and media-entertainment addicts. Don't be addicted. To be free, you gotta give it up some of the time!

How about the solstices, equinoxes and the last full week of the year, for starters, from Friday at 6 'til Monday at 9?

Happy holidays, one and ALL!!!

Lorenzo Elf

There's HOPE!

Salon reports today, in "Back by unpopular demand," that Mr. Bush may enter his second term with the lowest approval rating of any president at his second innaugural since around the time of Woodrow Wilson, when such polling began. And Salon reports that maybe, just maybe, Bush's approval rating disparity is the biggest in American HISTORY - in other words the least popular returning president EVER.

So let's remember that Bush may have gotten 3% more votes than Kerry, but overall, around the nation at large, Bush's approval ratings aren't much better than 50-50. Remarkably, Bush didn't get a bounce from winning the election, and his approval ratings seem to be on a downward slide.

This doesn't bode well for all those people who didn't and don't respect Bush's job performance who neglected to vote against him. That may be the biggest shame here. The disenchanted, especially some of the deeply disenchanted, feel disenfranchised and cynical, feelings which result in apparent apathy and/or alienation.

But Bush's low approval ratings do bode well for the decent and good sense of at least about HALF of the American people - at least those lucky enough to be polled.

I don't think even Time's making Mr. Bush "person of the year" for the second time is enough to rehabilitate his legacy.

A little gift for the holidays.


Friday, December 17, 2004

The holiday spirit

Think snow.

Think peace and quiet.

Think chilly air and glowing, twinkling lights in the dark. Think of going in slow motion, being just a little more friendly with everyone and much more generous with some - friends and strangers.

Think goodwill toward men - and goodwill toward women - and even goodwill toward other people's children.

Think of seeing lone houses off in the fields at night with Christmas lights.

Think of the scent of a fire.

Think of ways to make your quality time have the grace and whimsy and wit of our most cherished holiday movies and songs.

Think of humming along.

Think patience and taking your time and giving time to others.

Think of being less practical, more humble, more earthy, more of a child at heart.

Think of what this nation would be like if it really were a kinder and gentler nation.

Think of what this nation would be like if it were a better nation.

A crisis in sincerity

Sorry folks, here is Thursday's post Friday morning:

I think the most discouraging thing we've learned from President Bush's victory and popularity (even approval ratings of nearly 50% are staggering) is that so many American citizens (and voters) and so much of American media are such poor judges of character.

Even some of our most renowned journalists say things that are naive and incredulous. Yesterday, in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman said that, in light of Mr. Bush's deep desire for freedom and democracy in the Middle East, it seemed "inexplicable" that the Bush administration would want to discourage the release of the UN's latest draft of its Arab Human Development Report, which suggests real ways Arab nation can achieve more popular rule, some semblance of democracy and more modern human rights - but criticized the aggrevating and aggressive military actions of the United States and Israel.

Is this an act? Is Friedman naive? Is this merely a rhetorical stance or ambiguous sarcasm? I thought only FOX-hounded journalists were dumb enough to believe Mr. Bush's sincere facade. I thought there might be some mainstream journalists who might keep their jaundiced eyes open and not mistake the emperor's clothes for the emperor, naked underneath.

It seems many Americans are becoming increasingly poor judges of character. They seem to depend more on sincerity yet less often recognize - much less stand up for - the real thing.

Mr. Bush's sincerity has been a charade both before and after his taking to religion. The man wasn't 'born again.' He doesn't seem very forgiving, and yet he seems to forgive himself far too much (he's even disdainful of second guessing himself). And so his hypocrisy runs deep. Mr. Bush doesn't want to help empower truly independent and "free" nations in the Arab world. He wants to enslave them to the American way of doing business.

Doesn't Friedman see this? And don't so many others?

Government has gotten a bad name because we do have some radar for insincerity, but it seems we used to have more - and found hypocricy more insulting. We're in real trouble when we expect belligerence and even smarmy sarcasm from public officials. Look at Secretary Rumsfeld, the smarmiest of Bush's team. He's waging a life and death war, but is he sincere? Is John Ashcroft sincere? Sad to say, personality traits have thrown most voters and viewers off the character scent. Both Al Gore and John Kerry were more sincere than George Bush could ever be, but their sincerity was compromised, and what was left over (of their public perceptions) was not enough to help sincerity win. Insincerity has been winning for years.

Sincerity means your actions fit your words. Americans have bought the shallowest notions of sincerity - and gotten it backwards. Far too many are mistaking bullishness for conviction, persistence (even with lies and mistakes) for high principle, and simplicity for salvation. Television-intoxicated Americans have come to believe that the mannerisms make the man, that fashion is an indicator of fate, that incompetence means "he's one of us." (And why would we want our leaders to be one of us? Because we don't assess our own character traits very well, either.)

How is it Americans got to be such poor judges of character? A whole lot of parenting going on seems to avoid the tough issues of character and principle, the real world applications of virtue and right and wrong. The American message (seen constantly in sitcoms) seems to be: strive, connive, manipulate, elude, even lie. And a whole lot of education has become so vocational that values are left by the wayside. And how we act on our values is what character is all about.

To be a better nation, we must become good, better and even excellent judges of character, both of ourselves, our fellow citizens and celebrities, our social and work-related associates - and our leaders. Neither the schools nor the media nor the government can be expected to do all the watching out for us. They, too, suffer our character crisis.

If character is important to the voters and the country, then sincerity and learning to recognize and assess sincerity is essential. Learning to be a good judge of a person's sincerity is an excellent place to begin.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

War Games

Bill Moyers is retiring this Friday from his renowned PBS television show "Now" with what he says is the biggest story of our times - the conservative, even right wing stance of the major media. But really, the biggest story of our time is one of the oldest stories of all time - the fact that war is the world's biggest business.

War games are more than a game. War: it is America's biggest business. In his farwell address to the American people in 1961, President Eisenhower warned us to beward the military-industrial complex. Beware indeed.

President Bush's "axis of evil" may be a self-fulfilling prophesy, and that may be exactly what Bush wanted - a domino effect of endless war, a la "1984," or warring outbreaks out the convenience of those in power, a la "Wag the Dog."

The current U.S. war on Iraq is the biggest expense of the richest nation on Earth. The administration is about to ask for yet another installment (a loan from foreign nations) of $80 billion, $10 billion more than Congress had anticipated. (Has Congress ever anticipated enough to cover this new Rovian/Rumsfeldian/Rightwing war of the 21st Century?)

Seeing the writing on the walls of Baghdad and Abu Ghraib (in blood), flustered North Korea began to scuttle negotiations and play war games, a sinister sort of chess. More recently, Iran began its own version of diplomatic wrangling and war games to pre-empt a pre-emptive strike from the U.S.

Just this week - and not just by chance - Cuba began its most ambitious war games since the early 60s, expressly to show the U.S. that an invasion of Cuba wouldn't be painless - and might also look bad on television. Obviously the aggressive U.S. led war on Iraq and the ugly occupation have stirred hornets' nests around the world - and one just a hundred miles south of Florida.

And the most recent anti-missile system test failed miserably, suggesting theoretically and in practice that critics of this sort of system twenty years ago during the Reagan administration were right - that such an anti-missile system is not reliable, perhaps not even feasible - and certainly not affordable. Just how does the U.S. think it can afford to make the military half of its national expenditures? Certainly, the answer comes more from power and greed than from a higher calling for the common good - of our own citizens and of the cause of freedom around the world.

What would a peaceful nation do?

War is America's biggest business. At least half a trillion dollars this year. A shame. A global shame.

What would a peaceful nation do?

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Hawks of Central Park West

For the last week, my favorite news story has been a people story about birds or a bird story about people, a "human interest story" about hawks.

Once in a while, a particular wild or semi-wild animal captures the hearts and awe of the American people, though Americans do usually seem to like their wildlife animated a la Disney as opposed to the really wild thing. Usually, these notorious animals get their fifteen minutes of fame by being caught, symbolically, in the crunch between wild nature and man-made world, between artifice and wildness.

In 1993, a red-tailed hawk built a prominent nest on the ledge of an elaborate co-op at 927 Fifth Avenue. He lives there still. His nest was removed that first winter, but it was a good spot with plenty around to eat, so he came back and rebuilt it the next year, and he has made some home improvements every year since. His name is Pale Male. He is the most famous hawk - and perhaps now the most famous bird - in the nation if not the world.

Pale Male is a closely watched bird. He has Lola, his current mate, his admirers, his fan club and his own website. Some who watch with binoculars and persistent zeal are avid birders, Audubon Society types, who keep track of his every move, familial and otherwise. He and his changing family hunt for pigeons and rats, and it seems along the sidewalks, sewers and rooftops of Manhattan, there are plenty of those to go around - an abundance, really, a veritable feast for hawks.

Pale Male's nest grew to eight feet by three feet and with various mates he has fathered 23 young hawks in this amazing spot. He has been the subject of an eloquent book, "Red-Tails in Love," and the star of a subsequent PBS documentary, which is being shown quite often in New York these days.

Last week, citing health concerns and the mess birds (and especially birds of prey) make, the board at 927 had the nest removed, but that was just the beginning of this latest and most notorious of chapters for the most famous bird in the world.

You see, some real headliners live at 927, including Mary Tyler Moore. And Mary Tyler Moore is one of Pale Male's most ardent and heartfelt fans. She joined the public outcry almost immediately - and stood with loud protestors during the day and a candlelight vigil at night, hoping to have the hawks' home restored, a fixture as it was of her own home. She wants "peace" for the birds. She even went down to the police station to the aid of a protestor (who runs after he made a threatening remark to the seven year old son of CNN newscaster Paula Zahn.

Paula Zahn also lives at 927, and she once proudly mentioned the hawks at 927 on a CNN broadcast, but this week she has kept mumm about the latest controversy surrounding these seemingly out of place birds. Her husband is chairman of the small co-op board members and himself pushed for the nest's removal.

Today, a week after Pale Male's nest was hauled off in garbage bags, the co-op board relented to public pressure and the shame of national news cameras parked outside across the street, watching the displaced birds circle high over Central Park, wondering what and where to call home. Today, the board agreed to restore the birds' nesting place and even secure it better than before - so that it wouldn't blow off the ledge and so the birds could keep things a bit tidier for the unsuspecting pedestrians down below.

But from now on, more of those pedestrians down below will be in the know, now that Pale Male and his clan, if they choose to rebuild and roost there again, will again be amongst the luckiest and certainly the most watched birds in the world.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Have a blue Christmas, thanks to

In the wake of November 2nd, a lot of once and future voters are feeling BLUE in what may feel like a sea of RED. And many are wondering how to feel proud and feel empowered.

One fun way to get back in the partisan fray is to join the oh so capitalist sport of boycotting and putting your money where your mouth is.

With this in mind, this holiday season, tells you which major companies went blue or red with their campaign contributions. So you, too, can stop seeing so much red and instead "buy blue."

'Tis the season, so become a smart shopper - be true to the blue.

Go to, and click on the "Have a Blue Christmas" link to see a list of corporations that appear in either the red or blue columns depending on how each donated a majority of its campaign contributions.

This gives the phrase "blue light special" a whole new meaning.

Exxon and Chevron/Texaco went red, Shell went blue.

Wal-Mart/Sam's Club went red, Price Club/Costco went blue. Many of us have been boycotting Wal-Mart for years. Back in 1993, Newsweek published a letter of mine concerning Wal-Mart's evil deeds, and it seems in the decade since then, Wal-Mart has only gotten more aggressive in its efforts to shortchange its low wage workers and keep Chinese factories churning out cheap (and sometimes shoddy) goods.

Chili's went red, Sonic went blue.

Southwest Airlines went red, Jet Blue went blue.

Safeway went red, Whole Foods went blue.

Unfortunately for department store fans, almost all went red. (No word at Buy Blue on Dayton-Hudson, parent company of Target and Mervyn's, but Dayton-Hudson is the most generous of all major American corporations to good charities and is generally seen as a more progressive company than its major competition.)

Fortunately for us book store lovers, both Barnes & Noble and Borders went blue - and you can bet most of the independents went blue, too. No word on Amazon for you surfing shoppers.

If you happen to boycott a company for any reason, be sure to let them know. Those drops in the global bucket add up.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Sex is here to stay

Yes, sex is here to stay, no matter what happens to common sense, civility, the laws of the land, science, religion and the fads of popular culture. What is more natural than sex? What is more persistent than the human urge for physical connection and pleasure? Only eating and sleeping come to mind. (Combining all three can make for a nice evening... or morning.) Sex is how we got here, and as fairly intelligent animals, you wouldn't think we could separate it with such shame from how we are, where we've been and where we're going. And you sure wouldn't think so many people could feel so guilty or be so clueless about it.

Apparently, we use a lot of our intelligence to delude and deny ourselves.

We live in a culture which has never successfully put in perspective - much less broken from - its Puritan roots. The Puritans were driven out of Europe because they were so rigid and fanatical they were ostricized then ousted - given the boot onto ships. On this side of the Atlantic, the Puritans set down in rocky, cold and gray New England and never let up even as they spreak across the sunnier climes of the continent. Even in our decades of apparent looseness and revolution (the roaring 20s, the lascivious 60s), the puritanical elements kept churning.

And Puritans vote more than hedonists do. Those easily outraged neo-Puritans have voted, and it's not pretty. There is a concerted movement afoot to put all "non-biblical" sex acts back in their various closets. Unmarried adulterers beware: there is a new wave of the Pilgrims War on Sex coming your way soon. The laws, if not the sexual police, are coming to a bedroom near YOU. First the White House ("West Wing" liberals aside), then maybe your house.

Is it because the prudes aren't getting in on the action or because they feel too guilty about the action they're keeping under wraps? It seems religion was invented to make a mess of some things that, done well, make for some of our finest moments.

The pendulum seems to be swinging rather wildly now. Swingers advertise in hip newsweeklies and on the web, yet millions seem outraged by Janet Jackson's little mishap - or stunt. Others seem chagrined at John Ashcroft's spending $8000 of our tax dollars to put drapes in front of an elegant Art Deco statue of Lady Justice, drapes as red as his blush at press conferences. Congress recently held hearings about the need to deal with the new wave of citizens who are addicted to pornography. Ah, yes, you see, alcohol's so old hat - now we can let our fingers do the walking - and that's cutting into worker productivity or something, so Uncle Sam's looking into it.

I suppose, as in the "free love" 60s, we should expect a sexual backlash right about now. The neo-Puritans recently won the national election by about 2.2% of the vote and think they have a mandate to run this country like a church school with sly ministers and priests - slamming "sins," demanding silence, shaming their heathen neighbors and pronouncing themselves all high and mighty to cover their own hypocrises and feel righteous about going after their enemies.

This looks especially silly in light of what we now know about sex.

The film "Kinsey" has come out, a somewhat lame biography of Alfred Kinsey, one of this country's most renowned sexologists, who based his dense, clinical tomes on male and female sexuality in America on hundreds of confidential interviews Kinsey conducted in the 1940s and early 50s. Pretty old fashioned stuff at this point. Or is it?

Let's face it: to millions, most any sort of sex besides the kind that puts you to sleep in fifteen minutes is still new to most Americans. Hence their ongoing and peculiar dichotomy between prudishness and prurience. Sex, to lots of people, is like a car crash - they don't want to look and feel compelled to look.

But when it comes to seeing novel variations, overly elaborate or imaginative juxtapositions (so to speak) or thinking about spicing up their own lives, they run out of ideas soon after plunking down the Mastercard at Victoria's Secret.

Frankly, Americans seem more embarrassed by depictions of earnest love making than they do the dangerous sort so often seen in movies, which is a sinister combination of imminent danger and suspenseful (though predictable) seduction. Why is it Americans like movies so much (and so often its hackneyed) in which there is sexual tension or slam bam coitus going on with a stalker or a gun nearby?

We seem to be a nation of sexually starved and sexually stirred up sociopaths. And so healthy sex is left to the birds and the bees and that conversation that never comes around until it's too late - and the juvenile myths have already adulterated the way it ought to be, the way it can be, the making love part.

Conversely, thanks to Freud's cigar, of course, but also to Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson and Alex Comfort and the Kama Sutra, for heaven's sake, here's another thing we know about sex: it's not perverse. It's natural and naturally adventurous. Many of its variations and even wildly experimental fetishes are natural. We are sexual animals, AND we are cultural animals. We invent. We explore. Good for us.

Not that any of this is easy, but the religious right and conservatives in general tend to want things in easy terms, in simple terms, in conventional terms, even in denial. So there is a backlash brewing. Can this new backlash - now seen in the timid media and soon to be seen in our courts - gain enough credence against our own ancient urges and modern knowledge? Could it erode our fragile laws and rights to participate and practice something so natural? So personal? Shouldn't sexual freedom be one of the basic freedoms? If not, what freedoms exactly do the conservatives think they are defending?

Sexual freedom amongst consensual adults who aren't maiming each other seems like a basic human right to me. There are many sexual rituals around the country and around the world that might seem outlandish. Individual and cultural relativism are at stake here. Some like it hot. Some like it rough. Some like it tender. Some like it wild. Some like it whispery. Some like it loose. Most like it loving. And lots like it all these ways and more. We invent. We explore. Good for us. To each tribe and cult their own. To each person and each couple their own. That's freedom.

Americans need a more natural and comfortable sense of sensuality and sexual expression - less tied to power and danger and more closely melded with other virtues, such as comfort, respect, equality, patience, genuine affection and love. We need fewer frustrating forays, zipless, thankless or otherwise and more healthy, mature sex. That's why it says "for mature audiences only." Too bad we're left wondering what the definition of "mature" is in this country.

OK, hey, some quality time and attention are really good. An appropriate, guilt-free setting and some nuanced technique to make that quality time and attention interesting are really, really good. So much of sex is in the mind. Be mindful. Don't grope. Feel your way around. Be generous, be respectful, be reassuring, be silly, be lighthearted, be open, be patient, be an animal, be hot, be cool, be consensual and be your sensual self.

Sex is here to stay, and learning to live with it can be really, REALLY GOOD.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Dean is ready for prime time, round two

Some crystal-ballers are wanting to take names for 2008, but we've got to get through 2005 and 2006 first. And to do that we've got to shore up the rotting rhetoric of the Democratic Party and make it spritely and spirited again. That means getting a new Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairperson who can really lead, not just pander and follow. Terry McAuliffe is at last on his way out, and good riddance.

Howard Dean is the best known and most controversial of all the candidates mentioned thus far. To keep his profile high, whether for a DNC power play or for his possible bid for the presidential nomination in '08, Dean gave a catalizing speech Wednesday at George Washington University in Washington.

Dr. Dean said, in part:

"Over 50 years ago, Harry Truman said, 'We are not going to get anywhere by trimming or appeasing, and we don't need to try it,' " Dr. Dean told students at George Washington University. "Yet here we are making the same mistakes. Let me tell you something: there's only one thing Republican power brokers want more than for us to lurch to the left - and that's for us to lurch to the right....

"Here in Washington, it seems that after every losing election, there's a consensus reached among decision makers in the Democratic Party that the way to win is to be more like Republicans.... If we accept that philosophy this time around, another Democrat will be standing here in four years giving this same speech. We cannot win by being Republican-lite."

I was somewhat of a Deaniac in the fall and winter of last year. I went to Iowa and New Hampshire to volunteer for him in the final days before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. I was in the room in Des Moines that night when he made the infamous "scream speech." I saw it in context: he was inspired by and shouting over the roar we were making for him. He knew he had to pump us up to make up some momentum for New Hampshire, from a shakey third place on the plains.

In Iowa, I learned that what Iowans like, what they feel comfortable with, is not necessarily what is good for the country at large or the world as a whole (just as what the religious right wants is not good for much of anybody). Kerry and Edwards put Iowans more at ease, but that doesn't mean that what's easy - or neighborly or even most popular in Iowa - is best for the big picture, what's best for us.

I've seen Dr. Dean speak four times. The guy is not the tallest candidate, but he is the most like a raptor; he could pick at the bones of the crusty Republicans (who will inevitably seem even older and more obsolete in a few years). And Dr. Dean has the uncanny ability to inspire rapturous passions not only in a few hundred thousand Deaniacs but in a much wider audience. Hence his phenomenal media-driven "rock star" popularity leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire (our irresponsible media set him up as comet of the year and fall guy). I bet if Dr. Dean were president, we could turn "West Wing" into a "reality tv" show. He'd have fewer enemies at home and abroad than most presidents because, like Truman and John McCain, even his enemies would respect his straight shooting and his principled cussedness. We'd have access, not secrecy, and we'd see a man in office who's popular values speak louder than his bark and his bite (again, see Mr. Bush for bark and bite - bring Bush back in as dog catcher, a la "Wag the Dog").

Rush, FOX and others might better think about Bush's bullying anger and frequent belligerence before calling the contest for Dean. Bush gets mad wanting to cover up the truth and empower corporations, while Dean gets mad wanting the uncover the truth and empower the people. is asking its listserve to send in comments supporting a DNC chair who will not move the party any farther to the middle - meaning farther to the right. Current chair McAuliffe and outgoing Senate minority leader Tom Daschle are seen as moderate, mediocre, muddling voices in the party - partly to blame for the party's coming up short. And as Dean said yesterday, we don't really have to move to the left or the right if we can get really good at holding our ground. We need Dean in the mix somewhere, and from the looks of things, he's not going away.

I sent these comments to the DNC via MoveOn:

"I do not want the Democratic Party to move any farther to the right. We need blue shift, not red shift. I might prefer to have Howard Dean run again in 2008, but we certainly need someone with his guts, passion and vision to lead the party now. If not him, then PLEASE, someone who will be brave enough to hold the party line and get our strength back from the populist, progressives side of things. We can't afford to move any closer to the neocon darkness. The country can't afford it. The world can't afford it."

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Media heroes & a desert island roundup

Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, is about as close as we get these days to a hero in the media. Stewart appeared on "Larry King" tonight and showed he could carry it for most of the hour with his double-edged sword, using humor (whether dry or soggy wet), and the guy's got incisive punditry. Plus, he's got what we see so little these days - intellectual bravery (as opposed to the bravery of physical stunts Americans seem to eat up with "reality tv" these days. Stewart's got the edge to top my list because he's just edgy enough to be a little more relentless than you might expect.

Michael Moore is a hero to many and rightly so. He may be freewheeling at times, but he didn't make that stuff up. The inferences, shams and shames in "Fahrenheit 9/11" stand up to scrutiny, so don't blame him for any Bush-voter and DNC backlash. What a bunch of weenies the DNC folks are who think such verve and populist passion ought to be put out to pasture. We progressives can't always pussyfoot. Call a spade a spade. Call a connection a connection. Bravery means showing and speaking the truth (even warped truth as opposed to blind lies), speaking truth to power.

Bill Maher, the Hamlet of political pundits, is now relegated to HBO, so some of us don't see as much of him - a sad loss for bringing the after-the-bubblegum-news crowd into the fold of ironic skepticism.

We've got Jon and Michael in their moments right now, about as close to Mark Twain and Will Rogers and Lenny Bruce as we can get. These guys live and breath politics, no matter what. They make Leno and Letterman seem like lightweights, though it is nice to see anyone with a television camera pointed at them with the red light ON to be lambasting the current crew in Washington.

As the old guys retire, who is coming up to lead us younger-somethings into caring about civic matters in an age of apolitical and ironic detachment? Jon Stewart is both leading and following the trend toward news that actually matters - silly with a serious streak or serious with a silly streak, depending on what moment it is.

If we've got to endure four more years, we'll need to sharpen our swords however we can. Satire, as much as anything, may help break the backbone of the neo-fascists - or at least give us hope and cause and reason to forge ahead for peace and justice. (Isn't that the lovely lesson of Roberto Begnini's "Life is Beautiful"?

At LoveInWar, a website for progressives to network and find dates, one of the profile questions asks who you'd like to have stuck on a desert island with you (and since it's LoveInWar, not matchy Match, there's a caveat of no sex).

So here's how I answered the question:

"OK, how about what I'll call "The Bill & Bill Show" for starters. The "Bill & Bill Show" would be Bill Maher and Bill Moyers and most of the best guests they've ever had on their various shows, especially those with a stream of witty words and wisecracks. And now, come to think of it, I've gotta add another yin-yang coupling of hosts, Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose and their guests too.... I want a BIG island - sort of like the REAL WORLD minus about four or five billion people.

"To keep things joyous in a bittersweet kinda way, a crew of the most insightful comedians and comediennes of our times, from Robin Williams to Amy Sedaris to Kay Clinton, from Steve Martin to Sarah Vowell to Janeanne Garafalo. I'd gather round a motley cast of castaways (and I seem to tweak this list fairly often, so check back): Thoreau and Emerson, Ed Abbey, Annie Dillard, Antoine de Saint Exupery, A.A. Milne, Ben Franklin, James Thurber, H. L. Menken, David Letterman, Garrison Keillor, Katherine Hepburn, Emma Thompson, Rachel Carson, Meryl Streep, Billy Collins, Van Gogh (we could watch him), Picasso, Calder, e.e.cummings, Bernard HenrĂ®-Levi (gotta have philosophers to keep the conversation going past the first year or so), Pablo Neruda, Ansel Adams (official island photographer), all the 'ones who got away' and the ones I want back and THE ONE and a few good journalists, such as half the staffs of The Progressive, Unte Reader and (especially) The New Yorker, to take notes and report (unofficially) on the proceedings. Maybe even Godot, though we'd be waiting for him...

And dear friends and readers, I'd want YOU there, too!"

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

O, Canada: So close yet so far

I think I'm turning Canadian, turning Canadian, I really think so.

OK, who out there has thought of becoming an expat?

Ah, yes, the continental cuisine, the strange accents, the thoroughly-thumbed phrase book, the cigarette smoke, the fine wine and REAL champagne, the living out of a few boxes, the wondering what you'd miss about the United States while trying to do the foreign paperwork and find some peace and solace abroad....

Yes, how DO you see yourself following your bliss for the next four years or the next forty?

To avoid the hassles of defending the United States or being prejudicially labeled an "ugly American," some savvy travelers have subtly disguised themselves as Canadians.

Few outside northern North America would notice the discrepancy in accent, and who really sees your passport anyway after you've gotten away from the airport, the train station or the concierge?

Well, now, in the gut-wrenching aftermath of the 2004 election, in the post 11/02 world, as some put it, Americans passing themselves off as and even parading around as Canadians may not be so subtle.

We Americans are now guilty by association - even those of us who adamently opposed Bush. The thought of Bush and his crew running a big chunk of the world (and the good standing of our nation) into the ground makes many of us ill. Well, it's making millions of foreigners ill as well.

So close yet so far: The United States may share one of the longest international borders with Canada, but in so many ways, Canada is a world away. And lots of those ire-spitting French folk know that. Seeming Canadian may be a way to ward off a personal terrorist attack - or at least a barrage of criticism, insults and ire thrown one's way by passionate English and French people wanting to unload their own brand of Bush bashing.

Here's a link to a little T-shirt company in New Mexico that's hitting the big time with it's "Canadian Package," including "O, Canada" T-shirt, pins and patches for your bags. Yes, you too can be a Canuck, bone up on your hockey trivia, say "aboat" for "about" and end carefully pronounced sentences with "eh."

Apparently more Americans than in years are considering a little more than an "O, Canada" T-shirt. During the last four years, plenty moaned and groaned about moving abroad, but now record numbers seem to be making that move a reality. In the weeks after the election, Canada's immigration website had up to six times the usual number of hits. Just find the site, take the test, score a 67 or higher, and you could be on your way. Canadian cities, even mid-sized cities, are generally more urbane and cosmopolitan than American cities, per capita, but there is plenty of room for you: Canada is the second largest country on Earth with a population of only 31 million.

I'm not really likely to light out for the great white north, but in some ways, I'm already more Canadian than American - mannered, polite, a little old-fashioned, a little more easy going, not a big fan of road rage rabid media or "reality tv" or guns or a gigantic military empire, a lover of social services, social graces, a genial civility and the feeling that there is a common good to serve. You see, being of a certain culture besides the one you inherited through birth can be a major part of the spiritual journey - a journey you can even take without leaving home. So you see, even sitting before your computer, you too could be/might be turning Canadian. I really think so.

(Note that it seems to be it would be better to get your Canadian paraphernalia from Canada, preferably with "Made in Canada" labels attached. And get some Canadian luggage, too, while you're at it. Maybe make a trip north to get outfitted. Spending outside the U.S. is one way to share the wealth.)

Cheers all!

Monday, December 06, 2004

Wither "It's a Wonderful Life"?

'Tis the season, as they say. Lots of folks are elbowing their way into the stores to buy stuff for themselves, oh, and some gifts, too, on the side.

Welcome to the United States of Appliances, where "It's a wonderful life" = "Made in China."

People sure do seem to want to express their thanks to Jesus and their love for their relatives with gifts that use batteries or plug into the wall. And most of it made in China. I often wonder what the Chinese think of making all this stuff, putting it in boxes and sending it by the shipload to America.

"Dear, I love you so much, I got you this portable TV/DVD player for the bathroom. And the kids won't ever have to complain about having to look out the window of the Suburban again because I got them portable DVD players for the back seat of their very own so each can watch their own movie. We won't have them figeting or having to share anymore. This'll solve that. No more driving us crazy. This is going to be a great year."

Seeing the ads and the stuff stacked up in stores, you'd think Americans didn't have enough clothes to go a season or two without a few new armloads, and it seems most are currently absolutely starved for appliances. Me, I'm not feeling too appliance deprived. Don't think I'm needing a bathroom TV or a pantini oven or a heated towel rack or a cork screw that weighs five pounds and has over a dozen moving parts. Neither am I sure which kid has been nice enough to deserve another computer game so that they won't ever get bored with killing cartoon figures in the same old ways. Parents are falling for this stuff - joining the NEW and IMPROVED Mayhem-a-Month Club. And is it any wonder we're not making leaps and bounds with our childrens' civic virtues? It seems only a minority realize that almost every video or computer game actually punishes their children.

Sure, there is the beauty in giving beautiful and even lavish things, but the glut of lavishness, so much so that we seem enslaved to quantity over elegant simplicity, just spoils the show. Entertainment center envy is not a good reason to keep up with the Joneses. I'm sure some gift exchanges are lovely and graceful, but the glut of stuff is what we see.

A conscientious minority have been pointing out the absurdity of Christmas for decades. And yet a few of the seven deadly sins seem to run the Christmas charade more than do the humbler virtues. The last two months of the year become a capitalist orgy of sales and cash registers ringing angels into a heavily financed heaven and returns - don't forget the returns afterwards, some happy, some downright argumentative and even fraudulent - keep your receipts! Gotta do a spreadsheet on the holidays.

The movie "It's a Wonderful Life" remains a Christmas classic because it is entertaining nostalgia for what now seem like some obsolete values, such as whimsy, community and humility. "It's a Wonderful Life" is about a lot of things, but the crux of the story is an attempted suicide, let's not forget, and it's lessons are the same as those espoused in the lovely and even humbler "Charlie Brown Christmas," with it's tiny tree losing its needles at every jostle.

What would a truly Christian nation do for Christmas? Perhaps give loaves of bread, bottles of wine, spices, fresh fruit, food, firewood, notes, time, candles, a feast, simple things, small and graceful things, support for the poor, the sick, the despondent, the lonely, even continuing attention through January and the rest of the year.

That is what a Christian nation would do. That is what Linus reminds us. And if not through miracles or prayers or saviors then at least through a renewed appreciation for small and humble and simple things, like a little tree, some songs and company, a security blanket we don't want to let go of. This time of year, we see the barrage of ads for luxuries and appliances, and yet some of the rational recoil, suffering consumption backlash and not expecting a star to guide us. (December and early January are high times for suicide - for some the glimmering gaiety is a mirage.) Some of us may even feel outcast and downcast, wanting to clutch our security blankets, wishing not merely but profoundly and fervently, for the warmth of a fire, a manger, a home, and in that flickering, fleeting and fragile candlelight, in a face or the faces we adore, in the shadows and earthen tones and human forms, a gaze of love, a long and tender gaze that sticks with us and which we hold dear.

Friday, December 03, 2004

RU READY? Make RU-486 free worldwide

It's a twist on the old twist: if men could get pregnant, RU-486 would be available in dispensers at convenience stores and next to the Coke machines at Motel 6. They'd pass the stuff out with after dinner mints at Club Meds and on cruise ships.

But men don't get pregnant. Men just get women pregnant, and so the struggle for women's rights, women's freedom to choose and women's EMPOWERMENT lurches two steps forward and one step back.

Or if the Bush administration has it's way, one step forward, two or three steps back. It amazes me that any woman who respects her gender and her fellow women and sees the political writing on the wall could possibly vote for any conservative.

It seems many women DON'T respect their gender enough - or don't respect or trust other women to make decent choices.

If proved safe, RU-486 is an essential tool for women. No guy would want to have to go ask permission to take care of his pregnancy, like getting a hall pass to go to the bathroom. Why should a woman have to get a hall pass and go ask a doctor or the government to give her permission to stop something she doesn't want to or feels she can't continue?

RU-486 is discreet, private, non-invasive, non-surgical, and it's use certainly helps to minimize the trauma and fear of both pregnancy and abortion. (Anyone who would WANT a pregnancy or an abortion to be traumatic or guilt-ridden is disrespectful and lacking in compassion if not guilt-ridden, righteous and sick themselves.)

Men and women deserve the best we can provide for them.

This is one of the few areas of modern politics where I think progress is inevitable, no matter what the religious right thinks. Even defining conception is irrelevant to a woman's basic right, bodily right, personal right, to choose whether to have a child or not - and when and with whom. It is more important to be concerned with consciousness than conception. To respect life, we must show compassion and wisdom for those who are aware and must think through their choices. Beware all who want to pass on their guilt and fear to others. We've got to be braver than that to improve our lives and life on Earth.

Not every young girl is old enough or mature enough or healthy enough to follow through with bearing and raising a child. But anyone who is old enough to get pregnant is old enough to decide that she does not want to have a child. Sure, there may be all sorts of complicated and emotional considerations and consequences - fear, depression, remorse, ambiguity. But life is not simple, and neither is pregnancy. If things seem overwhelming, better to opt out, wisely, than to feel trapped - by guilt or law or lack of choices.

Every woman on Earth deserves the freedom to choose. And since there are already more people on this planet than the environment can safely sustain, we should be encouraging women to be reluctant to have any poorly timed or planned children.

We value life most when we make the hard choices to raise the quality of life, not increase the quantity of life.

And the economic and civil benefits of having fewer children are far-reaching. It's much less expensive to ward off unwanted births than it is to suffer the burdens of too many people. The human population can't and won't grow forever. It will decline. It would be wise to be in control of that decline through choice rather than catastrophe - more through peaceful decisions than by force or suffering.

And so let the rich nations of the world provide contraceptives of all kinds, including RU-486, free of charge to everybody, men and women, anywhere, anytime, world wide. That would be an egalitarian gift to humankind and to all life on this planet.

For more on this subject, please see Claire Barnett's fine article "RU Ashamed?" at

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Christian Fear Factor: Controversy trumps virtue

Post-election, the Democracts and the Republicans and the country as a whole are stumbling over themselves to find and define as their own a values-driven moral compass, a message that will gain them a lock on power. But all they've got so far is another episode of "Fear Factor."

The more rabid Republicans fear the left and the center and the 21st Century and gays and citizens for peace and the intelligencia and the fancy people and people who don't love guns and city slickers and free-speechers and free-thinkers and freedom itself as well as the "liberal" media because they seem to fear everybody and everything that is not part and parcel of their pale, phobic and faith-based sect.

As if faith were somehow superior to a compassionate morality based on facts.

The weak-kneed Democrats are fearing the '04 losses and "four more years" and their own muddled messages (and muddled messengers) and the far left and the religious right Karl Rove and the ignorant born-agains and the Red Sea of the Heartland and the "values" debate.

Most of all, it seems, the values debate - as if the Democrats didn't have some pretty darn good values already.

The country seems to fear the U.N. and France and Kyoto and Arabs and the future and delayed gratification and credit limits and taking any but a dim view of the 2nd and 3rd worlds that suck up to and act as crutches to Empire USA.

Now, in the midst of this spinning compass, NBC and CBS have turned down a television ad from the United Church of Christ which promotes nothing but common decency and virtues which could be seen as both Christian and secular. The networks are free media (meaning bought and paid for), and they are free to reject whatever they want (ads are not a public service), but their caution and reasoning seem downright indecent. Beyond just strange, it seems not only hypocritical but just upside down.

Show hordes of ads for risky drugs, mayhem movies and political slander and then reject a magnanimous call for fellowship and equality?

The "controversial" ad's voiceover says, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we.... No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."

Sounds darn good to me. Who could argue with that? All men and women are created equal in the eyes of...yada yada yada...

Why such controversy? In the land of the brave, the brave promote legal, medical, racial, sexual, educational, and religious equality. Those are the protections we crave and supposedly admire. To be fair, they've got to be available to everyone.

But there is a dangerous absurdity at work here: This is a land of looney tune booby traps for anybody trying to make anything a moral sense. Thus, amorality and immorality seem to get preferential treatment.

Thus, the fear factor. It seems millions are anxious to watch television contestants eat cupfuls of crawling insects, but they don't (or these timid media fear they don't) want to even get near a vague conjuring of alternate lifestyles often more courageous than their own.

CBS's official denouncement of the ad is sinister:

"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and
other minority groups by other individuals and organizations - and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks."

Since when is a proposed law or amendment the law of the land? What a cop out for CBS to cite this proposal as its defense. There is no legal precident for this. Such is the fear on which fascism is based.

Some of this country's finest patriots continue to bravely criticize this country. A patriot is not blind to a nation's shortcomings. And a truly religious person knows how to speak for and act upon exemplary virtues and the moral high road.

The "land of the brave" has become some isolated islands of the brave, seemingly surrounded by a sea of red.

The United Church of Christ's general minister and president, The Rev. John H. Thomas, said, "It's ironic that after a political season awash in commercials based on fear and deception by both parties seen on all the major networks, an ad with a message of welcome and inclusion would be deemed too controversial....What's going on here?"

What is going on here? It's more than ironic. The land of the brave has become the land of the afraid.

For more, please see John Nichols' excellent article at The Nation or Alternet:

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Bipolar Express: what is it with animated blockbusters?

As a kid, I was intrigued and even awed by "Fantasia," partly because my father's love for the classical music score was contageous. Yes, this was more grand and archetypical than the first movie I remembered seeing in a theater, "Mary Poppins." And truly, "Fantasia" was about as close as Disney ever got to Clever, much less ART. Even the recent "Fantasia 2000" was a worthy effort, though it is at it's best when the Bambi-esque bubble gum is kept to a minimum, as in Max Hershfield's "Rhapsody in Blue" sequence, which is both brilliant and bittersweet.

But come on! Since "Fantasia," have all these megabuster animated features really been worth all of the hoopla? Sure, kids love animation. It's made for kids. It's suitable for kids. But besides the relief some animation offers from the mayhem of lots of "mainstream" movies (and thus it's inherent baby sitting qualities), why are so many adults so enamored with this stuff?

I've never seen "Toy Story," the animated feature that supposedly turned adult audiences onto animated features - for which they were then willing and even eager to pay full fare.

Never seen it: am I REALLY missing out on something?

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" seduced me a bit (or was it just Kathleen Turner's character? - "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way"). Roger Rabbit turned the Toon World on its rabbit ears. And I can see how "Shrek" and "Monsters Inc." might genuinely appeal to viewers 16 and under. But 30 and 40 year olds? Really? I sort of enjoyed both, but after leaving the theater each time, I felt I hadn't nearly gotten my money's worth. I felt as if I were both too old and too young at heart to be fooled by well-drawn fairy tales. (If you think I'm daft, you probably thought any part of "Lord of the Rings" was worth watching. Who falls for this stuff? Can they not distinguish between this bunny/Hobbit drivel and really good stuff?)

I remember when "The Lion King" came out, and two years later, I still hadn't seen it even though people had been acting like it was the next best thing to "Titanic" or something - "must see" movies that make "Seinfeld" seem like Shakespeare. I finally saw "The Lion King" (for free and in a "research mode" of course), and it was clever cliche beginning to end - fine for twelve and under. But you have to wonder about anyone paying full fare to see it... TWICE.

Everybody's been acting as if "The Incredibles" is really incredible. And now a few friends are recommending I see "The Polar Express," the animated version of a very nicely illustrated childrens' book.

Would I REALLY be missing out on much if I didn't?

Are we mistaking sentimental visuals for profundity? And mere cleverness for ART?

What is with Americans' love for wry and clever but otherwise insipid animation? It seems millions are charmed by hackneyed contrivances in animated features that would make them just GROAN if filmed with Real People, and so they're paying up to $10 to see glorified, feature-length (i.e., overly long) cartoons. And they're buying the DVDs for their collections, what, to watch these kindergarten-variety stories five or six times? Do even their happy shiny kids need to see these things a half dozen times? And are these stories worth $50 million?

Are people really so visual and such suckers for cartoon fables and fairy tales? And speaking of fairy tales, the old "Fractured Fairy Tales" on "Rocky and Bullwinkle" were more innovative than most of what some studios are getting for their millions.

Most animated features can't fail to not impress. OF COURSE a bunch of highly paid and strangely dedicated computer nerds and fancy programs can make this stuff up. So what?

A clear choice: I've never played a computer game. Have I missed something? Should I envy those who do play these games?

It seems fairly easy to fool most of the people most of the time, convincing them somehow that computer generated graphics are somehow awesome and amazing. (It is sad whenever I even suspect that people are more impressed by technological wizardry than they are by what humans can and can't seem to accomplish.)

Great acting is amazing. People are amazing. Real world cinematography is amazing. Computer-anything can't come close.

I'll save my money for features that feature fully fleshed-out people.

On the other hand, if you'd like to see an animated feature I can respect, check out Richard Linklater's enigmatic and rather brilliant "Waking Life," but be sure to plug in your grown up adult brain before you begin.