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Category Archives: Politics & Current Events

I Am Not a Number!

Re-encountering the bureaucracy after time on one’s own is always a bit of a shock to the system, and one thing it has produced in me the past couple of weeks is a vague nostalgia for episodes of the 1967-68 TV series The Prisoner.

Not that I am a particular devotee. I didn’t watch The Prisoner until I was in college in the early 1980s, and then only in a passel of bodies sprawled together on a mattress in a dorm mate’s room. I didn’t follow it coherently through the entire series, nor did I spend a lot of time in later years looking it up again. In fact, until I sought out video clips for this post, I recalled incorrectly that it was filmed in black-and-white. Probably my friend (if you can call him that) in the dorm only had a black-and-white TV. The guys were all fascinated with it, and we girls were fascinated with the guys.

I wouldn’t really relate to that sense of being trapped in social conformism for decades to come. But I certainly do now, and sometimes Patrick MaGoohan’s voice echoes in my head, shouting, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

Number Six’s struggle to retain his sense of individuality, and the inevitable white bubbles that would trap and suffocate those who attempted to escape have stuck with me over all these years.

I also have strangely fond memories of one of the first loves of my life, who was part of the gang that sometimes gathered to watch The Prisoner. He had the habit of parting company with the words “Be seeing you”—and I think he learned all of the panache he had from listening to Patrick MaGoohan say this line. In the show it’s a creepy, ambiguous line—a reminder of how undetermined all superficial social interaction is. When we long for someone’s company, it’s a statement that feels like a promise of a future encounter, but it can also indicate a stalker-like Big Brother threat of surveillance. Sometimes in life, as in The Prisoner, it is hard to tell the difference.

One of the things this chain of associations led me to is that realization of loneliness in the busy-ness. I think this is the common result of people’s individuality not being recognized and of a lack of trust due to a culture in which everyone is out for “number one.”

Ironically, this is, of course, at the root of the very difference that President Bill Clinton pointed out in his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention–the difference between a “you’re-on-your-own society” and a “we’re-all-in-this-together society,” and it’s one reason why I will vote Democrat in the upcoming election. There is no way that one can truly support democracy without a belief in the value and rights of every individual. This is what democracy is about–collective individualism–not socialism and not the extreme isolationist individualism of the current right-wing. Individuality is only a positive value when everyone has an opportunity and ability to use it, not just the ones in charge who so often try to turn the rest of us into drones.

All too often these days, however, I see a kind of instrumentalism that goes way beyond the Repubicans. I recently started re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, and early on she mentions both “what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or obstacle to one’s own plans” and “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”

I do believe that the humanities can help us with these endeavors, but not when it becomes a world driven by the old quid pro quo and rampant careerism. The values of the humanities are unfortunately too often betrayed by those in the humanities. I see this very kind of instrumentalism on a daily level even among many of my so-called liberal and progressive colleagues and acquaintances. Too many of us are so busy trying to claw our way to the top of some heap that we lose focus on anything else. It sometimes feels impossible to resist–it’s what we are trained to do by numerous forces in society today. In universities, this creates enormous cognitive dissonance–democratic and critical thinking skills that we believe in except when they apply to the system we’re embedded in. Our work is seldom gauged on its own merits–just by numbers–how many thesis projects you’ve supervised (not how well), how many butts in seats (not whether the students have been engaged or recognized themselves), how many committees you’ve served on (not whether you have created anything meaningful or have merely destroyed work that came before), and most of all how many publications you have (not whether you got them by trading favors, not whether they are of any quality). This is a societal sea-change, and to me it is a fearsome change, an infiltration of everything by those who have a vision of the world as an uncooperative and dog-eat-dog place. Not even progressives are immune.

I long for that kind of community where people recognize each other respectfully as individuals rather than as mere stepping stones on the way to success (or mediocrity, which is usually where this stuff ends up). I give and get some of this recognition in bits and pieces—friends and colleagues for whom I am truly grateful—but there is not nearly enough to go around these days. I know, I know–utopian thinking. Still, I take comfort in repeating the mantra that I am not a number, and I try not to treat others that way either.

Mea Culpa

Mea Culpa, 1987-1997, a sculpture by Robert Bryce Muir, photographed by Russ McGinn, 2006.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about mistakes. What role do mistakes play in being a genuine human being? How do we forgive ourselves for making them, inevitable as they are, without letting ourselves become sloppy or irresponsible?

I make a lot of mistakes, and probably so do you. Fortunately, most of the time these are not earth-shattering. My friend Anna once noted to me that some of our individual anxiety really was silly. “We’re not going to do something so stupid,” she said, “that we’ll ruin our lives.” There are many things that contribute to this state of affairs—“maturity,” education, practical intelligence, family and friends who talk over our major decisions with us. Because I am lucky enough to have all of these things in my life, it’s true that many mistakes that we hear about on the news—playing with a loaded gun, driving while drunk, giving financial information to anyone over the phone—are not mistakes I will make. At least I hope not.

Though in this regard I take Bobby McFerrin’s song at face value and don’t worry–at least not obsessively–I do have some concern about the mistakes I make.

Recently, I heard from a former student of mine who has developed some issues dealing with his own perfectionism. I won’t go into detail about his story, but we had some interesting chats via email about how difficult it is to give up our expectations of being perfect, of striving for it. He was contemplating starting a blog to track his progress in this regard.

One thing that occurred to me is that perfectionism and blogging don’t go very well together. Either you will make mistakes on your blog or you will not be able to keep up the relentless schedule of posting. It’s relentless no matter how often or seldom you post, as long as you do so on a regular and fairly frequent basis. I often think of my boss back when I worked for the Penn Stater magazine, who would say to me, “I don’t need it to be perfect. I need it now.”

In the past several weeks, three blog errors in particular have been brought to my attention.

Error the First

One of these was indeed minor and easily corrected. In my post in response to Marjorie Perloff’s dissing of Rita Dove’s new poetry anthology, I got a guy’s name wrong. This happened out of sheer exhaustion at the end of a long day of work at picking apart Perloff’s article. I just copied the wrong guy’s name in reference to a book title. Although the (I think) significant issues I raised in the post got virtually no comment, someone commented that I had this name wrong. Grateful, I corrected it.

Error the Second

Also, recently, my father sent me an email letting me know that some of the timing and possible motivations I had mentioned about the bitterness between my grandfather and his father-in-law were a bit off in my post about Memorial Day. I had already discovered these errors as I had further researched this very family history for an essay I was writing to submit to a journal, where I am more careful. My father was nice enough to say that he had found the post “well written and touching” and that he didn’t think my inaccuracies negated the theme of the piece. Here, too, I could simply go back and update the post based on new information.

In fact, this raises the issue of how accurate we can and should require ourselves to be when looking into the past. My own memories of what I’d been told in the past betrayed me. I’d recognized my own uncertainty and gone back to my father after this post was written. I’d done a bit of online research. My father had also referred me to his cousin, Pete, and I’d had a long chat with him. Pete had referred me to his sister and to a pastor who once boarded at my great-grandfather’s house. I have not yet called them, though I will.

And so the truth that we understand may grow more and more refined over time. We can’t research forever, and there are some facts (especially about the distant past) that we can never fully know, though we are irresponsible if we don’t try. The creative nonfiction writer lives in this in-between space. We are constantly reminded of what we do and don’t know and of the unknowability of others, even perhaps ourselves.

And the Third Error

More recently, I made a slightly trickier-to-correct error—trickier because this was about the contested world of politics. After I posted about the Obama-Romney character issue, my friend emailed to say, that, oops, he had not actually seen a poster that said, “Vote for Romney. He’s the white guy.” I’m sorry, he said, but that “was my attempt at satire.”

Ah, that satire. I suppose that if a whole host of people believed indeed that the Martians were coming when War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio in 1938, then it’s no surprise that I would think this poster real.

So, is there anything to be gleaned from how I made this mistake? It had even occurred to me that it wasn’t real. But, for one thing, I couldn’t imagine my friend taking time out of his busy life to create the visual that he had used to accompany it. Also, he frequently does photograph and post strange signs that he sees around town (and beyond) that are also frequently virtually unbelievable. Lastly, I live far from the Villages, and they take on an iconic status like that of the mythical Stepford. Too often, it’s possible for me to imagine the majority of the people who live there as completely alien beings.

And, of course, I was in a hurry, didn’t want to bother my friend with blog fact-checking, and needed to get the doggone post up and done.

I have since corrected this, too, but saying that someone created a satirical poster is not so strong as the possibility of seeing a real one. Sometimes the truth goes underground, and this is largely the case with racism these days. It is hard to catch someone saying something outright racist. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

This error also raised a fundamental question about the internet. I finally decided to just go back and change this entry, but should I have instead left the error and inserted a correction, acknowledging on that very page the original flub? I contemplated this latter option, which creates a public record of errors in our thinking, but decided that even this one didn’t change my overall argument, so could simply stand in its correct state. But what does it mean when the average reader (rather than someone who searches out the way-back, etc.) can’t see the evidence of mistakes?

Anyway, even though this misunderstanding also doesn’t negate my themes, it’s an embarrassing error, especially when I know that the right-wing makes so many of these errors intentionally. I’m supposed to be better than they are.

Context

As I return to the classroom this week, however, and confront students in my creative nonfiction courses who are already asking questions about the roles of truth, embellishment, faulty memory, and differences of opinion in what they write, I am somewhat comforted by my own answer to them.

Context, I say, context is key. There are ways that we can indicate that we are honestly speculating, or that our work is based on perhaps-flawed memory. These things are different from an out-and-out lie, a self-serving misrepresentation, or pure sloppiness, and anyone reading the genre of memoir should understand this.

In fact, the genre of memoir is at least partially about how our memories change and shift, how fabricated they are, much less the written versions of them.

If you are writing about a famous person (as I sort of was with the presidential character issue), the standard is more journalistic. I should have called and asked my friend before I mentioned his poster.

Still, a personal blog is not journalism. I at least give myself that out. When I was contemplating starting this blog, I worried about the untested nature of the work that I would put out there. My brother, a long-term blogger (albeit of a less personal nature) said to me, “Think of it as a rough draft.” There was wisdom in that, and it allowed me to go ahead and get started. Yet blogging is also there for public consumption and is not labeled “rough draft” on every post.

I feel a deep responsibility for what I post. I never post anything intentionally misleading, and if it’s controversial I usually get at least one friend or my husband to read it as a litmus test. They sometimes point out claims they think are too strong or ask me to clarify some point.

And yet, and yet… I have to defy paralysis by going ahead. I step into the void over and over and over again. I ask forgiveness for the times when I inadvertently step instead onto a toe.

For more information on the sculpture of Robert Bryce Muir, including Mea Culpa, see his website.

The Presidential Character Issue

I attended a small dinner party last Friday evening, and politics came up. One young man at the party commented about the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that determined just six percent of Americans are undecided about which presidential candidate they will vote for in November. Other news venues, including The New Yorker, have discussed how these are the very voters who don’t follow politics or make much effort to understand the issues. They are no doubt what we might call emotional voters, and they will play a huge part this year.

I am, quite frankly, hoping that Barack Obama can win the larger portion of those voters, even if it isn’t on a sophisticated understanding of the issues. I usually like to focus on issues, but today I want to talk about “character.”

Both of the presidential candidates this year are, of course, highly successful men. Both of them attended elite private preparatory schools, and both of them have degrees from the Harvard University Law School. Both of them have been involved in government for some time—Romney as governor of Massachusetts and Obama as a senator from Illinois.

Both Romney and Obama are also tall, stately men with pleasant demeanors. Many studies have shown that good looks are correlated with various types of success. More recent reports have noted that it’s a little more complicated than that, but that appearance does have an outsize effect. One of the most important factors, mentioned at the end of this Slate article, is that people prefer those who look like themselves. This may be one of the reasons Obama has encountered so much subtle as well as the not-so-subtle racism. A friend who (by strange circumstance) lives in the notoriously right-wing Villages recently created a satirical poster that said “Vote Romney. He’s the white guy,” based on the “totally racist vibe” he’d gotten from overhearing a neighbor at the mailbox complex near his home. But unless someone demonstrates that kind of fear of skin color, Romney and Obama are a toss-up looks-wise.

The other main component for emotional voters is, of course, “the character issue.” I can’t change someone’s incipient racism, but I do believe that Obama wins on character hands down. I believe he is a better fit with the American people in terms of both experience and values. Here’s why.

Wealth and Privilege

Mitt Romney was raised wealthy. His father was a CEO and governor of Michigan, and his mother was a housewife (though she did run for governor herself once, unsuccessfully). In other words, Romney’s life of expensive prep school and Ivy League grad school was taken for granted. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, was raised by a single mother with a career as an anthropologist, partly by a step-father, and by his grandparents. His absent father did not provide major financial support. His family believed in education (his mother continued to study and earn degrees through much of her short life), and so they made the necessary sacrifices for him to attend expensive schools. But Obama is much more like you and me when it comes to his background.

Both men may have worked for their accomplishments, but Romney started out with important connections in government and business, whereas Obama is a self-made man.

On Modern Women

Obama and Romney both appear to have solid marriages and to be devoted family men. But it is enormously important that Obama both had a working mother and has a wife with a career of her own. Romney’s mother was a lifelong housewife, and his wife is the same. He has no experience in a household where both partners work, where family and work have to find a balance. He has no experience in his intimate life of women who are his professional equal. In this day and age, when more than 70% of women are in the work force, Romney is out of touch. He has little understanding of the importance of women in the American workforce or the issues that families face when both partners work.

Multi-cultural vs. Insular

Obama, as everyone is well aware, is mixed race as opposed to the supposedly pure white of Romney. By 2008, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. had fallen to 66%, and it is predicted that this demographic shift will continue. Soon, “minorities” will not be minorities at all, and this is a valuable understanding for our leader to have.

Of course, a white president could very well be attuned to these demographic changes and understand them well. I certainly don’t want to say that a white person could not possibly lead the nation. But Romney is from a background of exclusive white privilege in which he has had little exposure to people different from himself. Even when he did a missionary stint for the Mormon church, he spent that time in France, not in Africa or Asia or a culturally or racially more distinct location.

Obama, on the other hand, not only had a black father, but one who was Kenyan. Though his father did not play much of a role in his life before dying, and he was brought up by his white mother and grandparents, Obama has spent time with his relatives in Kenya and has always been motivated to take an international perspective. His step-father was Indonesian, and Obama spent several years there as a child.

I know that some people have tried to use Obama’s international background against him, to claim it indicates he is not really American. But to me, Obama’s background reflects precisely the melting pot of American society and the complexities of many contemporary American families—families who have immigrated, as well as those who have “blended” through divorce and remarriage, those where the bond of family extends across distance and even borders.

We live in complex times where an understanding of international issues is key, and Obama has had an international perspective his entire life.

Early Work and Faith

There’s controversy over Romney’s time at Bain Capital, both in terms of his support for a financial system that is rigged and his continued involvement after he now claims to have resigned. That’s been discussed far and wide, and I will leave it be.

For me, it’s simpler than that. Mitt Romney’s main focus in his adult life has been on enriching himself. Period. Though he served as the governor of Massachusetts, he established his financial power well before that. He could turn to government because he had so many millions that he could quite easily live a lavish life on his overseas investments. Now he is focused on keeping laws and policies in place that will allow him and his super-rich cronies to amass more and more wealth unhindered by any semblance of fairness. His net worth is estimated at $190-250 million.

Obama, by contrast, is estimated to have a net worth around $3-11 million (information given at both Celebrity Net Worth and The Richest; update summer 2013: both estimates have since gone up). Still a lot more than you or I have, but it is clear that his major goal in life is not to amass a personal fortune: When he won the Nobel Prize of $1.4 million in 2010, he donated it to various educational and cultural charities, hardly the behavior of someone trying to pad his accounts as much as possible. (Yes, Romney donates considerably to charity as well, but, again, that is in the context of his enormous existing wealth.)

In addition, if we compare Romney’s and Obama’s efforts in their formative years, Romney went to France as a missionary. Now, much missionary work is highly valuable—think, for instance, of the ways in which many religious organizations feed the hungry in drought- and war-torn sections of Africa or tend to hurricane victims in Haiti. But Romney’s missionary time was spent in a comfortable country primarily proselytizing. Even if you read a sympathetic account of the hard work, modest living conditions, and accident injuries of his time there, you can read between the lines to see that Romney’s focus on the poor was likely simply as potential converts, not as people who deserved material assistance.

A few things about this experience bother me. First, I don’t appreciate proselytizers. I do respect that it is a part of some faiths to do so, but that focus in life seems to me wrong for the leader of a religiously diverse nation. I would prefer to have a president who respects a variety of religions and doesn’t think that pushing one’s own on unreceptive people is a good choice. Second of all, if this represents Romney’s full exposure to social justice issues, as the sympathetic Washington Post article linked above implies, it’s woefully inadequate. During that time, Romney wasn’t necessarily trying to understand people’s problems; he was just trying to convert them to Mormonism.

In addition, contrary to stepping up and volunteering to enter the military, he even used his missionary work to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. He actively sought (and received) deferments based on his missionary service. This implies to me that even though he makes this out to be a tough time that faced him with life’s realities, it was actually a way to skirt what could have been much worse for him personally.

And then, Romney’s professional career in the finance industry was clearly focused on amassing wealth.

Obama, of course, was a child when Vietnam raged, and he has also not served in the military, but the choices that he made as a young man were all about helping people on their own terms. Between college and law school, Obama worked for two public interest organizations, including New York PIRG. After relocating to Chicago, he worked as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a Catholic-based (but non-proselytizing) organization that worked to set up job training programs, college-prep tutoring services, and to foster an understanding of tenants’ rights. Obama is not a Catholic, but has been a member of the Church of Christ and characterizes himself as a “progressive Christian,” yet he could cross denominational boundaries to work for shared values. He worked for the benefit of the poor in Chicago very directly for three years.

When Obama returned to school to earn his law degree, he maintained an involvement in organizing and even conceived of his degree as an avenue for more effectively doing so. After his graduation, he taught law on issues such as due process and voting rights. He also grew increasingly active in local politics.

Clearly, Obama was ambitious from the beginning, and clearly he was ambitious because he wanted to help people less fortunate than he had become. It is this generosity of spirit and public-mindedness that I so respect in Obama, even when I don’t agree with particular decisions he makes. I know that some people see in Mitt Romney’s financial success something they hope to emulate, a sign that he can balance the books and manage the money. I might give that some credence, except that Romney doesn’t seem particularly interested in anyone’s bottom line but his own. He seems to me dedicated only to the benefit of himself and those very similar to him.

His recent selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate means that most surely, Romney’s intentions as president are to work for a very narrow and selective public good. When Ryan released his proposed budget in March, numerous religious leaders from a variety of faiths weighed in that is “immoral” in its abandonment of the poor. This is the one of numerous candidates that Romney has chosen as running mate.

This issue, of course, borders on policy whereas I promised to focus on character, but it is a clear indicator of how character does in fact often affect policy. Romney is a man who values his own personal wealth first and foremost; Obama is a man of the people who works to help them.

“Youthful” Indiscretions

Both Obama and Romney have been criticized for certain personal behavior in their youths. To me their indiscretions and their own later commentary reveal men of two very different moral capacities.

Obama smoked pot, drank in excess, and even tried cocaine while he was in high school and college. As NORML points out, it is difficult to get any accurate information about drug use in this country, but even the probably way underestimated numbers indicate that 41% of the population has smoked pot in their lifetimes. I can say with certainty that there were very few students I went to college with who didn’t try it. So, Obama is quite average in this regard.

He has also gone on to state his regret for his behavior and to give a self-aware analysis of what drove his use of drugs. Clearly, as with the case of Olympic champion Michael Phelps, he moved on from that phase in his life, did not become addicted, and went on to achieve a great deal.

It is important to me that Obama disclosed this himself, very early on in his own books, and that he has made it clear that such drug use was a “mistake” and no longer part of his life. No one had to uncover it in an expose because Obama humbly recognized it as an issue.

Romney has not so clearly disavowed his personal indiscretions, which came in the form of bullying during high school and animal abuse as an adult. Assault and animal cruelty are both also currently illegal, but Romney has not admitted any real problem with his behavior in either case. When a conservative publication like Forbes notes that Romney’s response shows a lack of empathy even today, then you know that it is indeed a problem. That Romney claims not to remember the bullying incident when it was cruel enough that five others remember it clearly, and then characterizes it as part of his pattern of high school “hijinks,” there’s an indication that Romney is a man who breezes through life with no idea of the consequences of his actions and decisions on other people.

Much less other creatures. Even those he has taken into his family as pets and that he would ostensibly have some affection or sense of responsibility for. On the Dogs Against Romney website, there is an extensive archive of commentary about the most notorious cases and other issues involved with how the Romneys have abused their animals. Unforgettable is the one in which the Romneys strapped their Irish Setter’s open kennel to the roof of their car for a 12-hour drive. The dog became sick and defecated all over itself and the roof of the car—Romney’s reaction was to hose the dog and the car down, and to continue on in the same mode. As the Rachel Maddow video below points out, this is both cruel and illegal. Romney doesn’t care.

This article on Politicker gives an overview of the case, noting that the Romneys have been added to two national animal abuser databases, and this one reveals even more about their lies and attitudes. First, the Romneys seem to go through dogs like caviar—they give them away, they don’t responsibly fence them, and they seem to have no regrets. Romney’s only reason for saying that he would not strap a dog to the roof of the car again is because the episode has received so much attention. In other words, he still insists that he did nothing wrong whatsoever in torturing the family pet rather than allowing it to ride in the car along with the children.

In a more recent incident, Ann Romney was sued for fraud after selling an over-drugged horse. The case was settled out of court, but indications are that the Romneys knew the horse was lame, and that Ann Romney continued to ride it for years with a debilitating and painful condition.

These animal abuse stories move into Romney’s adult years. He can’t even excuse them with claims of youthful ignorance, and so he doesn’t bother to even apologize. He is not the least bit regretful for breaking laws or causing pain and distress to living beings.

The Rachel Maddow video moves from the bullying and dog issues on to Romney’s laughing about his father’s decision to move jobs from Michigan to Wisconsin. She points out very well that Romney seems completely oblivious to the pain of these lost jobs. But that is getting into policy issues, and I’ll stop on that border again.

* * *

All I ask is that if you know anyone who is undecided in terms of this election, give them some information. If you can talk policy with them, great. But if you can’t, go right ahead and talk about character. Obama wins hands down.

What Do We Value?

Posted on

Image of the U.S. pointing to Justice with Hope alongside, on the East Pediment of the U.S. Capitol Building. Original sculpted by Luigi Persico, 1825-1828, called Genius of America.

I was thinking the other day about our pervasive pursuit of personal happiness (as distinct from the public good). When I started this blog, I noted that I thought the unrelenting focus on something called “happiness” is not only not the way to find it, but is… er, well, kind of tacky. In other words, I worked from the assumption that something “higher” or “loftier” than personal happiness must be at work in someone’s life for them even to deserve to be happy. Not that we always get what we deserve.

I’ve been contemplating lately what those higher or loftier values might be and how they are related to living the good life.

Here’s my initial venture into a list, but I would love to hear from you, too, about what drives you beyond a self-centered desire for a selfish kind of happiness or success.

Compassion

Justice

Integrity

Service to Others (in work or other activities, even personal ones, such as “be a good mother to my children” or “be a good friend”)

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also come to realize where so many of us today encounter our inspirational ideas: from TEDTalks, which have become a defining phenomenon of our time. They have become as all pervasive as the pursuit of happiness, and their stated purpose is to introduce to larger audiences “ideas worth spreading.” In other words, TED has an organizational goal of improving human life. It occurred to me that examining the TEDTalks at least a little bit systematically might lend some insight into what we perceive to be important to that endeavor.

Maybe I thought of this because so often the TEDTalks I see posted or that someone sends around have to do with “happiness.”

Search for the term “happiness” in the index of the TEDTalks, and you get 7,136 hits. By comparison, if you search “compassion,” you get 2,090 results. “Justice” garners 3,487 results. “Integrity” 5,911.

The phrase “service to others” garners a mere 33 hits, only 4 of which seem to link to TEDTalks themselves; the other hits are in bios and the like. “Happiness,” on the other hand links mostly to talks on happiness and quotes about it. Only 2 of these hits link to bios—those of happiness/success gurus Srikumar Rao and Martin Seligman.

Does this perhaps indicate that, though we want others to believe that we are invested in service to others, we really find personal happiness more important? Or does it mean that service to others is more important to people’s self concepts, but what they believe others are interested in is personal happiness? I’m not sure—and maybe it even means nothing important—but these numbers reflect what is to me an odd imbalance.

These results are for any tiny mention of each term, but even when we look at the TED “themes,” we note that “What Makes Us Happy?” is a popular theme with 87 talks devoted to the topic. Of the 47 themes, the happiness one ranks just above the middle of the pack at 20th. “The Charter for Compassion,” on the other hand, boasts only 8 talks, the lowest of any category. Even food beats it out at 23 talks, and the ocean at 43. There are two education categories with a combined total of 107 talks. “Not Business as Usual” garners 162 talks. TED, like every other organization, must play to its audience—in this case largely business people. Its sponsors are all mighty corporations such as Prudential, IBM, Pfizer, American Express, and Johnnie Walker. Interesting bedfellows when it comes to saving the world.

TED does have a theme called “Rethinking Poverty,” which seems to be the one mostly devoted to issues of justice, at least that of an economic variety. It contains 96 talks, ranging over a wide array of subjects, from “Breakthrough designs for ultra-low-cost products” to “How Mr. Condom made Thailand a better place,” to “Hidden hotbeds of invention.” Many of these talks focus on the experiences of poor women (sex trafficking, infant and post-partum mortality, malnutrition, etc.); many others focus on technological innovations to help people, especially in poor countries. Technology is one of the foundational topics of TED, the other two being Entertainment and Design, so this is no real surprise.

TED talks, have, also not surprisingly, been criticized on a number of counts, including their corporatization, their being a “massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism,” for “low-grade intellectual fraud” masking as smartness, and for the fact that the statistics and science used in them are frequently quite questionable.

So, there’s what TED provides to us for its own perhaps blinkered needs, but there’s also what people watch. The single most-watched one is Sir Ken Robinson on “schools kill creativity,” the title of which is, I should add, quite misleading. If you look at the list of the “20 most-watched TEDTalks (so far),” you will see the technological emphasis of the TED audience, as well as its desire for positivity—“insight,” “thrilling potential,” “astonishments,” “best,” “magic,” “breakthrough,” “nurturing,” “genius,” “happy,” “success,” “orgasm,” “great,” and “inspire” are all words that appear in the titles of the top 20. “Kill” and “danger” are the only remotely negative words.

One TED speaker, Sebastian Wernicke, went so far as to do a statistical analysis of what facets of a TEDTalk make it more or less popular (see below). When he did the original talk in 2010, “happiness” came in at the second most popular term, after “you.” In a June 2011 update, “you” was still at the top, but “choice” had edged happiness into the number 3 position, emphasizing, I suppose, that there is even more talk about how we’re responsible for choosing our own happiness.

Of course, Wernicke gives this talk with much good humor—and laughter from the audience. This kind of deprecation of the TED endeavor is part of the purported sophistication of its speakers and its audience. What’s interesting to me is that Wernicke can make the kinds of solid statistical observations he makes without commenting on or evaluating them at all. In other words, it’s fine with him that “happiness” is the top topic or, as he puts it, if you’re going to give a TEDTalk it should be on a topic that “we can connect to both easily and deeply.” (I’m not sure what he means by deeply, when the maximum for a talk is 18 minutes long and since Wernicke developed a tool called the Ted Pad to give people the formula for creating a good or bad talk.)

Wernicke has since also given a second TEDTalk that boils the entire endeavor down into a single 6-word sentence. He did this through “crowd-sourcing,” that is, paying people on the web to summarize various groups of TEDTalks to come to a complete summarization of 1000 talks. Though Wernicke found the original summarized submissions “flat” or “lacking” or only partial in their insight into what the TEDTalks were all about, here’s what he came up with when combining and shifting the words around : “Why the worry? I’d rather wonder.”

Wernicke stops there, as if this insight is enough. And for me, this TEDTalk sums up what is wrong with the entire genre: the smug, secure, positivity of those who are already well-off and largely satisfied with their lives but still looking for more personal fulfillment.

What else matters—to you or those you see around you?

Pretty Bird

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This is one of my all-time favorite songs—for its melancholy, yes, but also for the amazing, unaccompanied a cappella voice of Hazel Dickens and for her story of overcoming poverty and finding herself an artist of the highest caliber. I thought I had included her on this blog already, but evidently I was just remembering posting her obituary on Facebook when she died in April of 2011. (Usually I link to lyrics, but the versions online are not at all accurate. “Love is such a delicate thing” gets particularly garbled. So, we’ll just have to listen.)

I first heard the Hazel & Alice (Gerrard) album when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. Probably they performed at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the Laurel burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt, I remember the creaky floors and old bricks of the original church structure. I heard a lot of folk music there by the likes of John McCutcheon on the hammered dulcimer and a lot of poetry readings there by the likes of Robert Creeley. There was always something going on at the Laurel Theater, and evidently there still is, though I haven’t been there in years.

Both Hazel Dickens’s life and the continued vitality of the Laurel Theater are testaments to the enduring nature of the spirit of creativity in all manner of people and places. And yet, it remains tragic that anyone has to be born into situations like that of the Dickens family, or that artists have to struggle quite so much to survive, as reflected once again in this Salon article by Scott Timberg about the impact of the current economic bad times on the creative class. (It’s bad, very bad.)

It is this dilemma that we call the human condition—the bad and good all rolled together. And another story sent to me today (via this video) reflects this as well. It’s related to this post because it’s about a bird—not one in song, but a living creature on this earth, a magnificent bald eagle whose beak was shot off by some stinkin’ human being I can’t understand. On the other hand, there are some truly lovely human beings who have worked to give her a new beak. It seems to me that some of us work endlessly to repair the damage caused by those whose hearts are bleak, unsympathetic places.

In the meantime, a stray kitty has shown up on our doorstep. I’m pretty sure that someone dumped her—she’s about six or seven months old, not at all feral, and wanted nothing but to come in and get a bowl of grub. She was skinny as a rail except for that slightly bulging belly that indicated that whatever person had trained her to be so affectionate had not bothered to spay her. Tomorrow morning, she will have her little kitty abortion and then be back in my care. The last thing I need is another cat, but I will at least foster her until she finds a new home. If Jupiter and Kollwitz can tolerate her, I suppose we will keep her. As my mother said, “Saving these little lives is a good thing.” As the vet tech said when I took her in today, “Well, kitty, you lucked onto the best cat mom in the world.” I could accomplish worse in life.

But in this day and age, it is beyond me to understand how someone could let a cat or dog go unsprayed or unneutered for more than a second past the appropriate age for surgery. Or how someone could dump an animal he or she had so clearly treated kindly before. It simply boggles my mind.

Not that any of us is pure good. When I said to the vet today that I felt a touch of sorrow about getting the stray a kitty abortion, she said, “Don’t.” She informed me that if I had taken this little cat to Animal Services, she would have been euthanized immediately. They can’t keep pregnant cats, she noted, because they can’t vaccinate kittens until they are two months old, and they can’t keep unvaccinated cats in the shelter. They try to place as many as possible in foster homes, but they are always full. They don’t have the resources to do a spay-abortion, since there is such an overpopulation already. So any kittens under two months and any mothers-to-be are killed instantly.

We all face difficult choices. But indeed some people are more evil than others, and some people become forces of bad because they don’t stop and think. What does it mean to shoot the beak off an eagle? What does it mean to dump a pregnant kitten? What does it mean to fail to support public schools and universities? What does it mean to support tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor and the disabled and the elderly struggle? My brother said to me last week that he feels as though he is living in Weimar Germany just before the collapse into Nazism. I agreed, and I said to him, “The one thing I can promise is that I will not be one of the average folks who will cave in to the Nazis. They can kill me first.” So many disturbing things go on every day. I don’t want to be one of the ones who does them. I want to be on the side of the angels, as imperfectly as it may be possible for me to do that. Sometimes that means being too honest for some people’s taste, and sometimes I flub up and hurt people, sometimes even those I could never construe as deserving it. But I have some pretty good ethical boundaries that I am devoted to keeping firm.

One is that I actually do the job that I am paid to do, unlike so many scammers that surround me.

Another is that I rescue animals in need.

And I respect the right of people to live a decent life even if they care primarily about something other than money and even if they are born into less than ideal circumstances.

That includes artists with their connection to the holy rather than the materialistic.

May we survive.

Olympics Whitewashing

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Bronze copy of Myron of Eleutherae’s “Discobolus” (discus thrower) in the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bruce and I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London last night—at least until we dozed in front of the telly, as it had been a long (though positively productive) day for both of us. It is always fun and interesting to watch this parade of diversity and cooperative competition, even though the difference in the wealth (and poverty) of nations makes too much difference even there.

This morning, on Facebook, my friends were busy filling in where our U.S. media failed us in its much-criticized tape-delayed presentation. NBC’s lame and condescending excuses fell on deaf ears, but, in particular, two other issues caught my attention—about two parts of the Opening Ceremonies that NBC covered badly or simply deleted from view for U.S. audiences during the prime-time broadcast that nearly everyone watched.

One of these was a tribute to Britain’s National Health Service, which evidently befuddled the announcers, based on their inane, even apologetic reaction. Meredith Vieira’s reaction to child performers dancing on their hospital beds was, “Y’know, those children don’t look very sick,” as though she just had to support the idea that universal health coverage creates goldbrickers. Duh, Meredith, there’s a difference between performers and actual patients. Probably Meredith just doesn’t realize that. She came across as ignorant and proud of it through her entire commentary. Matt Lauer and Bob Costas weren’t much better.

Of course, the radical right takes the celebration of the NHS as a political statement, but director of the Ceremonies Danny Boyle insists that it simply was a testament to the values of the British people. I won’t post links to the crazies who are appalled by this, but what’s funny about them is how they are forced to demonize nearly the entire British people because of their devotion to the NHS. No matter how many falsely prepared reports about how terrible “socialized medicine” is supposed to be, it remains a fact that countries that have it—such as Britain and Canada—overwhelmingly love it. Sure, any large system has problems, but when entire nations are unified in their appreciation and approval of something, you know that it goes—or should go—beyond political differences.

In the U.S., however, the pitched battle is ongoing about the fate of our healthcare system, and thus a simple celebration of the life-saving work of doctors and nurses in the NHS was weakly introduced and then we hit a cut-away to an ad. And the right-wingers love to talk about the “liberal media.” Hah.

While it’s obvious why NBC might cower at the thought of ruffling feathers on the right these days, the other element missing in U.S. coverage is a more subtle issue. This was a tribute to the victims of the 7/7/2005 terrorist attack on London, shortly after it was announced London would host these Olympics. The bombings killed 52 people, who were honored last night with a somber dance number and Scottish singer Emeli Sandé singing “Abide with Me.” NBC cut this entirely and substituted a flaccid interview with swimmer Michael Phelps.

Why? Of course, every moment of the Olympics can’t be covered on TV—there aren’t enough hours in the day—and editorial decisions must be made. But to cover over something like this with some pre-recorded (and frankly really boring) interview?

For me, this comes back to the issue of enforced and fakey positivity. I’m guessing that NBC didn’t want any of their advertisers to be associated with any “downer” content, and NBC’s producers and editors seem to have thought that a memorial to the dead was not cheerful enough for the Opening Ceremonies. Instead of respecting the decisions of the artistic directors of the Ceremonies, they substituted their own judgment and their own content. To me, that is a failure to broadcast the event they are supposedly covering as reporters and that I tuned in to see.

What’s amazing and shocking about this is not only its callousness, but the fact that journalism, too, is held hostage by the blithering positivity idiots. NBC has already been criticized for allowing their journalistic coverage to be expanded to support their prime-time stake in the Olympics, something completely against the journalism code of ethics. And now they aren’t even covering it in a spirit of journalistic integrity but as a puff conveyor for advertisers.

It’s also just another example of how cruel the positivity idiots are. I find it supremely ironic that in the name of positivity, what these people so often spread is unkindness, in this case the blotting out of a tender testament to innocent victims of terrorism and their remaining loved ones. What an important statement to be making during this international event that brings together such disparate people.

At any rate, it gets the coverage of the Olympics off to a bad start. Who can trust the coverage not to be a rah-rah falsehood all the way around? Let’s all make sure to supplement our watching with some careful reading and watching elsewhere. It may be a challenge, partly because YouTube has provided live streaming in every country but the U.S. Readers here speculate that NBC has put the legal kibosh on open access here. Who knows? But we can still dig around a bit and head on over to the BBC and the CBC websites. Here’s to the power of the web for keeping us from missing the rest of the show!

Schizoid About Pets

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Cat Comedy

In my ongoing contemplations of why it is that I am compelled to write about my pets and other animals, even while trying to avoid the slime of sentimentality, I present you with two stories ripped from the headlines and a couple of anecdotes from my own past, plus a question I wish someone could answer.

I had intended to be purely jovial. Rare, I know, but there are genuine moments of silliness and they bear exploring just as much as the tears. At any rate, I heard on NPR’s Marketplace yesterday that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is putting on a cat video festival. You can submit a nomination from the official site.

And, of course, video is not the only medium: cats do very well in still photos through such sites as I Can Has Cheezburger? Thus, I chose “The Internet Is Made of Cats” for today’s song, which was suggested by Minnesota Public Radio’s coverage of the upcoming event.

In the Marketplace discussion I first heard about the video festival, Jack Shepherd of Buzzfeed was queried about why cat videos are so popular, especially for people as breaks during a workday at the office. Shepherd notes, “It’s aspirational. You’re sitting at work and what you really want to be doing is at home lying in a sunbeam. And cats have got that figured out.”

I agree, but would like to also add another reason: I believe that the easy home video has finally given people an effective way to share how great cats are. Cat relationships tend to be much more private than dog ones. Dogs go out on walks, car rides, to visit friends, to romp on the beach, and so forth. They generally enjoy being out in the world, and people long have used them as conversation objects in parks and on sidewalks. We have showed off our love of dogs easily and eagerly.

But cats are different. Many of even the cutest and most loving cats hide when strangers come into the house, and few enjoy the spectacle of a walk on a leash in a public place. (Granted, there are some notable exceptions, but few.) It may have taken the internet video for us to get a real, culture-wide understanding of the delights of cat companionship.

Cat videos are, then, a great example of a paradigm change fostered by a particular technology. In this case, I think it’s a wonderful paradigm shift, as I’m all for a wider understanding of the beauty, humor, and wonderfulness of cats.

Dog Tragedy

Unfortunately, news this week had a tragic downside, too, in the pet world. Lennox the dog was executed in Belfast, Ireland, after a long, but unsuccessful legal battle by his family to keep him alive. By all accounts, this is one of the stupidest instances of animal cruelty I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve heard of plenty. The Belfast City Council and its “animal services” staff clearly had some dictatorial ego problem and continued to insist this dog was a danger in spite of much evidence to the contrary and in spite of offers from both of the Animal Planet dog behavioral show experts Cesar Milan and Victoria Stilwell to rehome the dog in the U.S.

The Council’s continued insistence that Lennox was “dangerous” and “unpredictable,” in fact, is so unbelievable as to call into question the integrity of any process it oversees. All the numerous photos of Lennox with the Council dog handler and even this one video in which they try to elicit aggressive behavior show a well-behaved dog. They have continued a policy of secrecy and have never released any video or evidence of Lennox behaving aggressively, which means there likely is none. I mean, if they could have released a video showing this dog being aggressive for five seconds, it would have instantly quieted the furor.

Dogs, of course, are put to death all the time, and pit bulls, who are often trained to fight and bred for that purpose, are some of the most common. I understand this—and I even agree that death is better than them suffering a fighting life. I understand that even though many of these dogs might be re-trained and salvaged, animal rescue organizations don’t have the necessary resources to do so. I also fully understand that dogs who are actually aggressive and pose a threat should be destroyed.

However, Lennox was a family pet, who had lived for five years without ever showing any signs of aggression to anyone. He was seized because Northern Ireland has a law against the existence of “pit-bull type” breeds. The Dog Wardens Department had measured him and deemed him a “pit-bull type,” though later DNA testing would demonstrate that he had no pit bull genes at all, but was rather an American Bulldog-Labrador mix. The dog had been previously neutered, licensed, vaccinated, and microchipped and was kept in a secure fenced enclosure with two other dogs with whom he lived peacefully.

He was taken from his family (including a young girl with health problems, whose reaction is discussed here) and incarcerated in a small, concrete, windowless cage. It must have been like arriving in hell. The family was not allowed to see him, not even to say good-bye. One of the photos accompanying this article shows major hair loss indicating the poor health of Lennox after months in confinement and suggests that the dog was in such bad condition that these official and legal animal abusers feared the consequences of the dog being seen before they killed it. Perhaps the so-called responsible apparatchiks who had “cared” for this dog had even driven it to aggressive behavior in order to justify themselves or had actually killed it long ago.

If I lived in Belfast, I would be calling for a major overturning of government. Yes, based on the case of a dog and what has apparently been the Belfast City Council’s flagrant lying, callousness, and cruelty in dealing both with the dog and the humans that loved it.

This story breaks my heart, and it outrages me near to violence. Animal and child abuse are the only things that ever really get at me in that way, but they do.

Stella at the poison house, right where I would later threaten to punch the landlord in the face, 1988.

My Own Love and Rage

I recall my own physical rage when, years ago, my landlord flooded my apartment with paint remover. It was sheer chance that my cats, Cassie and Stella, survived. I had not been warned that the man was having the paint removed from the bricks on the front of the house, but I happened to be home on that weekday morning, preparing to leave on a trip. As I packed my bag, what I thought was water began streaming down the walls under the window wells in my half-basement apartment. I thought someone was washing those windows. But when I ran out to tell them they were causing flooding, I found a man in a space suit with a high-powered hose.

Another man, who would later explain he was the space man’s assistant, ran forward and warned me back. He told me that the substance would take the skin off my bare feet. When I told him that the substance was flooding my apartment, he admitted to me that legally my landlord was required to notify me, but said that since they were almost finished they would just go ahead and complete their job.

I ran back around the house to my rear door, grabbed up my cats, and put them in their carriers as far from the mess as I could. My next act was to put on my shoes because, by then, the brute petrochemical smell of the paint remover made its unhealthiness clear and it was pouring across my floors as well as down my walls. The removal assistant came around and began helping me move furniture and other belongings out of its path, though it was too late for one desk of papers and numerous pots and pans hanging on the wall in my kitchen.

Then I called my landlord. He refused over the phone to interrupt his workday, but soon enough he stood angrily at my back door to inform me how selfish I was to bother him.

I am pretty sure that I have never at any other time in my life been so angry. I got right up in front of this man, who was several inches taller than me, and told him that if he didn’t get out of my face I would punch him. Though not much of a fighter, I had my right fist clenched tight. He left.

Soon enough, my boyfriend arrived to take me to the airport. I explained to him that he would have to keep Cassie and Stella for the weekend at his apartment. Fortunately, he was glad to do so, and off we went. I would have to deal with the mess when I returned, but at least my cats would be safe. I trembled at what might have happened had the timing been a little different. I loved these cats so much, and they had brought so much joy to my life.

Cassie happy on her new porch, 1992.

Schizoid and Sociopathic Human Behavior

The accumulation of these stories suggests to me something very odd about the human psyche, and that’s the lack of empathy that so many people have.

My idiotic landlord had a cat himself, but couldn’t understand why I would be upset that he’d nearly poisoned mine. Certainly at least some members of the Belfast City Council have pets. And yet, they have no sympathy for pets that they do not know. In fact, they have no sympathy for even the humans who love pets besides their own. The Belfast City Council insists that it acts to protect people when, in fact, it harms people as well as animals in its myopic behavior.

There are also many people who just claim not to like animals. I have often wondered at the cavalier running down of dogs or cats by some supposedly perfectly responsible people. One of my worst moments as a teacher came once when a student in a creative writing class noted that his father hated cats and would often attempt to hit them when driving in his car. I told the student that his father was clearly an asshole, and that we weren’t going to consider him in our conversation. But maybe we should have because there’s an enormous issue here.

If his father hated cats or just didn’t care about the animals he might run over, that’s bad enough, but clearly he didn’t even care about the people who do care about the animals. That is human-aggressive and sociopathic behavior.

Why, I ask you, do we find it so acceptable to live with these people? And how many of them are the same people who circulate cat videos from youtube, never making a connection between the two unreconcilable contradictions in their behavior? How can such love for animals and such hate for them co-exist so close together? Are humans expressing their emotions for each other through these innocent animals? Or is it about something else? Why? Not only why cat videos? But why dog murder? What do these two phenomena have to do with each other?