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.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Defensive Postures

Last month, Michael Medved of penned an audacious column that attempted to mitigate the role of the United States in the sad institution of slavery. As is often the case when someone tries to make the harrowing reality seem less harrowing, Medved made some accurate statements. His overall point was, to simplify, sure it was bad, but it wasn't that bad.

It would have been somewhat like Saddam Hussein declaring, "Yes, I used chemical weapons on the Kurds and oppressed the Shi'ites, but it wasn't as bad as Stalin's purges, Mao's Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, or the Holocaust, which by the way never happened." (For the record, it was Iran's president who publicly questioned the validity of the Holocaust, something Saddam did not do, as far as I know; remember, this is just an exercise) If Iraq's former dictator had engaged in this sort of moral relativism, most of us, Medved included, would have sneered dismissively. Medved himself wrote an August article attacking the use of "moral equivalency" and "relativism" with respect to the Russian invasion of Georgia. But in his slavery treatise, he practices the same thing he rails against.

What is most mystifying is that no public declaration by any fringe political group seems to have prompted Medved's writing. No high-profile figure appears to have claimed that American slavery was the single most barbarous institution in human history or that the United States is the worst country in the world for once permitting slavery to exist. Of course, some individuals somewhere have probably made this assertion, but "some individuals somewhere" have said almost everything. Medved goes on and on about how slavery had been practiced for centuries by other nations, that "though brutal, slavery wasn't genocidal", that some African groups helped advance the practice of slavery by acting as hired kidnappers for European tradesmen, that there is no guarantee African-Americans would be better off if they had never left Africa, and so on.

Medved's entire piece is a hyper-defensive load of twaddle. One thing he fails to understand when he gripes about "America-bashers", as he dubs them, is that a nation that espouses freedom and justice and is in possession of such astonishing military power and widespread prosperity will likely be held to higher standards than, say, Cambodia, Nazi Germany, or Angola. In fact, we typically hold ourselves to higher standards than those nations, as well we should. Medved seems to desire all the advantages that come with being American, but doesn't want to endure any of the criticism our preeminent position in the world inescapably elicits.

Certainly, it is possible to exaggerate the horrors of American slavery. But it is not possible to come off well when trying to, shall we say, paint slavery in a more favorable light. Most of what's true in Medved's article was already reasonably well-known--comparatively few Americans owned slaves, certain African tribes acted in collusion with European slave traders--and some of his claims are purely speculative and irrelevant. Who knows if current Americans of African descent are "better off"--when he says this, Medved undoubtedly means financially-- than if they had remained in Africa? Nobody can say with any certainty how different life in Africa or America would be if slavery had never occurred, though it would not be absurd to suggest our nation's legacy might be a bit less blemished, but our current culture and society greatly diminished.

Moral relativism is not always wrong. In fact, sometimes it would be hard to do without it in a complex and brutal world. But Medved mocks "liberals" who apply it in global affairs even as he relies on it to explain away our own country's transgressions. We don't need this sort of weak-kneed defense of one of our most appalling national episodes in order to be proud of the United States of America. What nation in history has managed to avoid cruelty and atrocity altogether? It is true we should not spend all our time obsessing over the past, but nor should we shrink from history's ugly realities when reminded of them. To borrow a sports cliche', own it!

Yes, for many years this country sanctioned and condoned slavery. It was a sickening, degrading practice, a source of national shame. But eventually, after a lot of blood and toil, slavery came to an end and, after a great deal more struggle, so did the post-slavery institutions of segregation and voting rights' infringement. No, we have not achieved absolute equality among the races and we may never, but we will never stop striving for that elusive goal. That's why we are great, not because we do no wrong, but because we confront the horrors of our past head on and try to right them.

Would this be "America-bashing", Mr. Medved? There's no denying that some people both here and abroad are overly critical of the United States. But here's the thing: at our best, we can take it! And we don't have to mitigate slavery to do so.

Monday, October 20, 2008

It's Too Much, But It's Just Right

It's a bit late now, but could Joseph Biden have really said that FDR went on "TV" following the stock market crash? If he meant "THE" stock market crash of 1929, Franklin Roosevelt wasn't even President yet. One of the chief reasons he became President was because of that crash. In addition, television was not widely available in American homes until after World War II.

When Barack Obama first selected Biden as his running mate, it looked like it might be a mistake. But then Biden got off to a pretty solid start. Now the same questions about his Both Feet In Mouth Disorder are surfacing again. Not that McCain's choice looks any better at the moment. Vice Presidential selections of the past have provoked some wry observers to ask if a running mate was tabbed because of his or her--okay, mostly his--ability to make the presidential candidate look better by comparison. While that may be, it's difficult to understand why either McCain or Obama, both of whom are impressive figures for different reasons, would need to do this.

So what else is going on in the world besides financial crises and election overexposure? Well, while we may rightly gripe about too much election coverage, Makwaia wa Kuhenga believes there is too little coverage in his native Tanzania. In a column for Dar Es Salaam's The Citizen, Kuhenga laments the paucity of public debates in Tanzanian politics and praises the American system for its transparency and civility, at least in this respect. While clearly not delighted with all things American, Kuhenga nevertheless writes:

"It is not simply true that everything the Americans represent is 'imperialistic'. One may pick a quarrel with their fundamental path - that is that they are fundamentally capitalist and imperial in real terms in their relations with other nations of the world. But it is also true that they have virtues worth emulating such as making its possible for the electorate to make intelligible choices in the competing voices."

That last sentence was a bit poetic, was it not? Americans may bristle at being characterized as "imperial" even if Kuhenga admits not "everything" we represent can be described that way, but Tanzanians might not warm to some American perceptions and generalizations about them, either. As a sidebar, we may ask ourselves if these perceptions are, in either case, true. Does the United States really stand for greedy imperialism and bellicose foreign relations? Does Africa really stand for corruption, antiquated tribal conflicts, and incompetent governance? Sadly, like many questions, the answers are a little bit yes and a little bit no. There's scarcely enough space anywhere to chronicle the historical factors that contributed to this nation and the African continent winding up in their respective positions at this moment in history.

But back to the point. There's no doubt United States elections generate more than enough hectoring and grandstanding to test any sane person's tolerance. But as Kuhenga's piece demonstrates, if one must choose between too little attention and too much attention to the political process, opt for the latter. The television and radio can always be shut off for a while, the newspaper left unread for a day or so. But if there's no coverage at all, you may very well be sorry.

Kuhenga's article can be read in its entirety using the following link:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Substantial Criticism

Some people like to remind you how little they care what their critics think. "No matter what my critics say..." or "I don't care what the critics tell you..." are common refrains among public figures in sports, entertainment and politics. There seems to be an element of martyrdom and proud rebellion in these pronouncements, the notion that these people are pressing on against long odds. It's enough to make you sigh, really.

Well, I care what my critics think, assuming I have any. Because if I have critics, that must mean I have readers. I understand why people are disinclined to let detractors dictate their actions, but the very claim of not caring what critics think is most generally an admission that you actually do care quite a lot. And it's okay! There's no need to pose as such a brave contrarian.

After months of portraying Barack Obama as a celebrity without substance, it's a bit galling to witness some of the empty catch phrases and slogans conceived by the Republican side, which range from the disgraceful to the somewhat clever. However, even at their best, what they most certainly are not is substantive. For instance, one image displays something quite similar to the colorful "Hope" symbol used by Obama but instead shows a portrait of McCain and the word hope is replaced by "Hero." Worse, there's a similar depiction that dubs McCain "hero" and Obama as, you guessed it, "zero." Classy! Less offensive, but not terribly innovative, are the "NoBama" signs and t-shirts, as well as one that superimposes the letter "y" over "o" in "Hope" to spell "Hype."

On the last point, Republicans aren't wrong. Of course a lot of what sells Obama amounts to hype and buzz. Obama has created a "brand"--another word seeing so much use lately that it might soon need to face mandatory execution--and done a stellar job of it, too. At first, many tried to dismiss Obama as the chief of a personality cult, which might not have been altogether incorrect, though it should be remembered that a "personality cult" does not always translate into something sinister (ask Mohandas Ghandi). Still trailing in the polls and poised for possible, though far from definite, defeat, the GOP has now taken to the same type of vacant sloganeering they accused Obama of practicing. Only theirs isn't half as inspiring.

Who doesn't enjoy a little mockery? It's a practice most of us will probably never cease, even though we know at times it's a childish way to behave. But when it comes to Presidential politics, it should be regarded as a bad omen when one has to resort to it. Sarah Palin called her Vice Presidential opponent "O'Biden" during the debate. It was pretty funny. But it wasn't substance. It had nothing to do with policy or character or ideas. And Palin has now generated a hype similar to Obama's among the Republican base. It is unfair to imply Palin has no substance, but since she lacks Obama's flair for the spoken word and has not demonstrated anything resembling the encyclopaedic body of knowledge shown by the other three candidates, she may encounter difficulty proving herself "substantial."

Though far from a certainty, it is possible that Barack Obama could carry the state of Indiana this election, marking the first time a Democrat has won the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Despite this surprising development, Indiana's Republican governor Mitch Daniels has scarcely been threatened by Democratic challenger Jill Long Thompson, who has run a laughably lackluster campaign and failed to capitalize on the momentum generated by Obama. Ms. Long Thompson, a fixture in Indiana politics for two decades, has offered virtually no reasons why she should supplant Daniels as governor; she has merely supplied reasons why Daniels should not be governor. Not all her criticism is invalid, as Daniels has made some very poor decisions during his tenure, but much of it is vague. As a sharp contrast to her early career, when she seemed like a plucky underdog, Long Thompson now comes across as smug and snobbish. Or maybe that's not it. Perhaps she just doesn't care what her critics think.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Writer's Blockhead

I have three entries pending for this blog and have so far been able to complete exactly none of them. So I decided to write about writer's block. In one sense, it's a subject on which I am somewhat of an authority because I experience it frequently enough. But I honestly don't know a cure and doubt there is any sort of universal panacea for the condition. Like any mental or emotional problem, one person's remedy is another's toxin.

The cause of writer's block--for me, anyway--generally has to do with trying too hard, either because I haven't written anything for some time and decide I'm "due" or because a great idea has dawned on me and I can't hammer out commensurately worthy prose. An oft repeated phrase about writer's block goes "it's all in your head." Which, of course, is the problem! Another alleged cause of the condition is stress, but that of course is the time people need to be writing and failing to write only adds to the anxiety, so the paradoxical nature of writer's block has no doubt occurred to thousands before I ever thought of it.

In "Pure Drivel", a delightfully off-the-wall collection of musings, Steve Martin defines writer's block as "a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol." Martin, as is often the case when at his most absurd, has a point: writer's block can become quite a self-indulgent exercise. And a self-perpetuating one. That's one reason I hope this silly aside can help me get back to the marginally more meaningful material I began weeks ago and have as yet failed to finish.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Fall, Fall, Fall

Everything's tumbling in a poetic sort of autumnal way. A financial crisis created by almost everyone has been blamed on, well, almost everyone. To summarize things very baldly, Democrats blame Republicans and greed, Republicans blame Democrats and their insistence on allowing the unworthy to borrow money, taxpayers blame politicians in general, and a few observers blame taxpayers.

The problem with such a blame merry-go-round is all sides produce evidence to establish their arguments but tend to ignore the evidence provided by everyone else. Plus, almost no one fully understands global economics enough to fully explain what precipitated this latest panic. Truth is, nobody's really wrong. Excessive executive pay and reckless lending and deregulation and deadbeat home buyers and a weak dollar and rising prices and unemployment and who knows what else are all likely contributing factors. Unfortunately, no public figure, to my knowledge, is both smart enough and objective enough to offer a detailed and balanced account of what has really taken place.

So whom can we ask? It would have to be a non-partisan person who pretty much knows and understands everything. I wish that person were me, but it ain't. How about Ken Jennings? Marilyn Vos Savant? Neil DeGrasse Tyson? How about a foreigner who has less stake in United States politics? Stephen Hawking? Nelson Mandela? It's pointless, really. No choice would satisfy everybody and no opinion would be likely to sway those who cling pugnaciously to preconceived notions.

During a crisis like this, the President of the United States very often receives a disproportionate share of responsibility. Even if you believe his policies have damaged the economy, it would be unfair to claim he created this problem all by himself. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to criticize the "Ownership Society" advocated by the Bush Administration and many other previous administrations of both parties (Only the moniker, not the notion, is novel). Emphasis on ownership, most specifically home ownership in this case, may not always be a bad idea, but somewhere along the line it began to be perceived among many as the key to the ever-elusive American Dream. Home ownership can, of course, be a marvelous thing and may fulfill the lifelong aspiration of many Americans, but a far more important component of the Dream is the ability to choose, the ownership--forgive me--of options. The freedom to decide for yourself what you want means far more than merely a house or an automobile. As a result of this political rhetoric, I fear home ownership has become greatly overvalued.

Crumbling fortunes and a plummeting stock markets may seem symbolically autumnal, but so far the weather remains quite summery. It is perhaps the only sunny news we're likely to get in the immediate future.