Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stop Keeping It Real

Maybe this is how it happened.

Some years ago--more than ten but fewer than fifteen--television audiences must have decided the programs they watched didn't reflect reality, that pretty, witty white people with perfect hair and skin spouting one liners usually with double entendres wasn't an accurate depiction of most of our daily lives. Concurrently, television producers must have decided they were spending way too much money on their product and began devising cost-cutting measures for the near future. This moment, whenever it occurred, was the watershed for reality TV, a stunning fusion of bad ideas apparently designed to ensure Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame prediction would come true.

The producers got what they wanted, a way to make television on the cheap. Unburdened by the salaries of skilled writers or gifted actors, assuming such people actually exist, there was an additional, and perhaps unforeseen, benefit to the trend of reality television: thanks to lowered standards, the rare clever and creative program would now seem like a quaint, anachronistic curiosity alongside its woeful cousins.

Results for viewers have been dubious. True, they watch a lot of reality TV, but whether they've actually seen more reality on TV is an entirely different matter. Mostly, they've seen contrived situations without professional actors or scripts, which is more like "Candid Camera" than reality, except whereas Allen Funt at his best championed originality and humor, reality programs tend to aim as low as possible so the basest emotions are generated: loathing, envy, emnity, lust, duplicity, humiliation, with occasional moments of strained poignancy. This is not true of all reality programs anymore than it's true that every routine on "Candid Camera" was original or amusing, but it does seem to be the general pattern.

In spite of the travesty most such programs are, reality television is here to stay, at least for the short term. Because they save networks so much money, reality shows don't have to earn outstanding ratings to stay afloat, and because there's never any shortage of bad ideas, one poor performer can be yanked and replaced in no time. There are perhaps only two ways of stopping reality TV:
1. A large scale public rejection and revolt
2. An even worse idea

So what's my idea for a reality show? I've never had a good one, although I think the bottom of the barrel may at last be scraped when something like "American Idol Viewer" hits the small screen. In this program, a camera is installed in the home of a reality TV enthusiast and the public gets to watch this person watching reality TV. Now that's entertainment!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Let's Go Dutch

The clothes do not make the woman. This simple, bordering on infantile, message has apparently not reached lawmakers and other authorities in the Netherlands who seek to ban the wearing of burqas in public. These full body garments are said to isolate Muslim women from society at large and, some have added, pose a security risk as well.

This kind of wrongheaded nonsense establishes once and for all that the road to Hell must be paved with good intentions, or at least what remote, know-it-all politicians consider good intentions. The suggestion that covering one's face and body in public might be isolating isn't altogether inaccurate, but it's not terribly relevant. First of all, in a free society, individuals should have the right to isolate themselves from whomever they choose, as long as they're prepared to accept the consequences of doing so. Secondly, this alleged isolation emerges as much from the Dutch citizens who are put off by the garments as the Muslim women themselves. Acceptance and assimilation are not one way streets and cannot occur solely through legislation; these things take time.

The security angle is interesting, but far-fetched. At the forefront of the burqa ban is Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who insists the law is also essential to reduce the risk of terrorism. Wilders, whose name is much too similar to the nappy-haired frequent costar of Richard Pryor to be taken seriously, believes everyone walking the street should be "identifiable"--that is, faces uncovered--although what exceptions, if any, will be made to this mandate remain unclear. Will the ban extend to wedding veils or winter attire? Of course, it is possible that a gaggle of burqa-clad Muslim women will commit some kind of terrorist act and their unobserved facial features will frustrate law enforcement, but it does seem unlikely. To my knowledge, nothing of this kind has happened anywhere in the world to date, giving credence to the idea that Wilders let's-do-this-for-the-sake-of-national-security enthusiasm is both exaggerated and fatuous.

Wilders argues further that such clothing is "a medieval symbol, a symbol against women." This claim, while not exactly false, does not actually miss the point so much as it strikes the point squarely while traveling in reverse, the equivalent of stroking a cat's fur the wrong way with the mistaken notion that this is better than not stroking it at all. Wilders is, in essence, saying it's not right to force women to wear austere clothing so the best plan is to force them not to.

Just across the Dutch border, in Maaseik, Belgium, a ban on wearing niqabs, a garment similar to the burqa, is already in place. Jan Creemers, the mayor of Maaseik, says he introduced the ban because elderly people were afraid and children cried when they saw women wearing the body-covering ensemble. With all due respect to children and old people, what will the world have left if everything that frightens them or makes them cry is banned? Surely spiders can't be far behind. Parents in Maaseik couldn't possibly have explained that the individual inside that garment has made a choice to dress in a traditional manner and it's a decision a free and open society should respect even if the reasons for it aren't entirely understood. Or, to put it another, more easily comprehended by children way, "yes, I know you think that's a funny outfit, but she won't hurt you and don't stare." Is this so difficult?

Ever since the murder of Theo Van Gogh, whose film, Submission, took Islam to task for its treatment of women, the Dutch have been scrambling for answers on how to approach their problems of integration and assimilation. Their old model failed because it emphasized multiculturalism so much that it turned into something closer to voluntary segregation. Now, it seems, they want to swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that nobody has a chance to catch a breath. No one appears willing to accept that laws and government mandates, while necessary at times, can only advance integration so far. The rest of it takes time and at least a somewhat willing populace, among whom people on both sides are bound to sooner or later grasp the inescapable fact that not all indiviudals in a certain racial, national or religious group think and act alike and many of them are quite worth knowing after all.

Muslims are not blameless in this saga, either. If one chooses to live in a free, affluent and peaceful nation such as Holland--and yes, despite its problems, Holland is free, affluent and peaceful compared to most of the world at large--there should exist a willingnes to accept, though not necessarily adopt, the customs of said nation. One of those customs is free speech. Critics of Islam have a right to their opinions. For Muslims to take umbrage at these opinions is understandable and expected; for any of them to threaten, injure or kill the critics not only violates the law, good sense, taste and decency, but it also gives xenophobes an opportunity to advance their agendas.

Perhaps most galling of all is the fact that an estimated fifty women in all of the Netherlands wear such attire. Fifty. Does the Dutch parliament not have more pressing matters than to ponder a ban on clothing worn by almost no one? The whole idea has done nothing but increase tensions in an already simmering debate.

The phenomenon is not new, but it is disappointing. All over the world, we see examples of the following declaration: society is free for me but not for thee. It brings to mind Abraham Lincoln's 1855 quote: "When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy." And while I have no wish to emigrate at the moment, it is unfortunate that neither individuals nor government seem to fully realize that if tolerance is expected, it must also be extended.

Source: BBC News, Mark Mardell

Monday, November 13, 2006

Chad and Jeremy

Small wonder St. Louis, Missouri rated number one in the country for violent crime; the mayor is named Francis Slay. Slay! Seems like this ought to have been a tipoff for St. Louis voters. Who was Slay's opponent in the last election? Sally Beaten-Todeath?

Wither Chad. That's the country I feel most sorry for right about now. Bad enough to be named for half of a tedious British Invasion duo (I notice "Jeremy" doesn't have his own country, which must rankle him), bad enough to have the world's most rapidly shrinking lake due to drought and irrigation needs, bad enough to be destitute, rarely mentioned, arid and have a capital city no one outside Chad can pronounce--how do you say "N'Djamena", anyway?--but now Chad has a refugee problem compliments of Sudan's troubled Darfur region. Darfur represents one of the planet's most pressing crises and the global response to it has been a quick and emphatic, "What's Darfur?" When is this going to be addressed and who will be brave enough to confront it? And what action would be most responsible? This is the problem with international politics: no simple answers and inaction can be as lethal and dire as action.

One problem with Sudan is the chief instigators of the conflict don't sound very menacing. They're a loose collection of warriors and mercenaries, probably operating under tacit approval of the Sudanese government, known as the janjaweed. This moniker seems better suited for an unattractive but harmless variety of crabgrass, as in "I can't seem to get this janjaweed off my lawn", or a dancehall reggae number, as in "Janjaweed, Janjaweed, is what you need, all night long", or, in a similar vein to the last suggestion, an especially mesmerizing type of marijuana, as in "Hey, man, you wanna buy some janjaweed?" Something to which the name doesn't seem at all applicable is a band of murderous semi-soldiers who engage in a practice eerily akin to genocide. Would you run if someone said, "Look out! Here comes the janjaweed." More than likely, you'd probably snicker. My, the world is a depressingly comic place. Or is it comically depressing?

Funny how many Republicans who suffered a beatdown in midterm elections were pointing the finger at President Bush for their defeat, claiming the party could have retained control of at least one chamber of Congress if Bush had given Donald Rumsfeld his walking papers sooner. It's true the Bush administration is inexorably tied to the GOP's latest setback, but lest we forget Mark Foley, Dennis Hastert and Jack Abramoff; there were plenty of missteps even without the President. But it is refreshing to see that Democrats aren't the only ones eager to blame George Bush for everything.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Larger Bees to Swat

Here's something I'm really tired of: scared people. I don't blame them because they're afraid--we're all frightened of something--but I do object to the politics of fear transference, the idea that if something frightens you in particular, it's a crisis of profound import about which all of us must be concerned. Africanized honeybees, or killer bees, are an example of such folly.

Africanized honeybees, so named because they are probably a hybrid of The Bees Formerly Known as Killer from Africa and Brazilian honeybees, with which the African bees interbred, are more or less indistinguishable from other bee species and do not possess, as their nickname implies, a lethal sting, nor even one markedly more painful than their very similar cousins. Still, they can be dangerous, as they tend to be more aggressive and more inclined to swarm than other honeybee types. They also displace their more docile relatives. Thus far, they are known to inhabit several states in the Southern and Southwestern United States, including Florida, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Since their arrival in this country some 16 years ago, it is believed Africanized honeybees have killed about 15 people.

Even someone with my lackluster ability in mathematics can calculate this amounts to roughly one death per year. Dogs kill more people than this; so do snakes and spiders; so does lightning. Yet, some people have gotten themselves in a panic over the impending doom of the killer bees. One man in Arizona, who lost a leg while hiking because he fell down a mountain after being accosted by bees, has hired an attorney because he seems to feel not enough is being done to prevent the attacks. What exactly the lawyer is meant to do in this case remains unclear, and his quote is equally unscrutable: "What is more important--the life of the bees or the life of the people? What are they waiting to happen?" There is no indication of who they are or what action they're meant to take. What happened to this man seems a tragic accident, but what can be done about it now? Are park rangers, Department of Natural Resources officials, and beekeepers supposed to declare war against Africanized honeybees and seek them out at any price simply because they pose an occasional threat to citizens?

What it boils down to, it seems, is the unwillingness of many people to live with risk and the illusory notion that absolute safety and security can be attained. In India, tigers, leopards and cobras prowl not only the countryside but, in some cases, major cities. In Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to see baboons or Cape Buffalo lurking on the edge of major tourist attractions. All over the world, people must grapple with the possibility that when they leave for work in the morning, they may not return to their homes alive, whether the reason for this is automobile accident or shark attack.

This is not to suggest people shouldn't take precautions, nor that technology should not be employed to advance the safety and quality of life of citizens whenever practical, but don't take an alarmist approach to a marginal issue; there's far too much of that already. Surely we have larger bees to swat.