Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Ultimate Stone Wall

I have heard thousands of political debates on TV through the years—not once have I observed even the slightest change of mind on-the-spot from any debater in response to the other guy’s slightest point.

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Hidden Messages

During the early phase of the Persian Gulf War (2003), a coalition force led by the United States invaded Iraq. As part of the operation known as Desert Storm, American soldiers occupied Baghdad.

I remember an E-mail I received at that time that had been written by a commentator. Under the guise of expressing the importance of culture, he laments the ‘periodic attacks on citadels of culture.’ He writes:

Destroy the documents, and you will damage the collective memory; Vandals hack away at cultures all the time; [American soldiers] erected a protective cordon around the ministries of oil and on the interior while permitting looters to demolish the National Library and ransack the National Museum.

It is not a matter of chance that those statements were followed by:

As many have remarked, the Mongol invasion of 1258 resulted in less damage to Iraqi civilization than the American invasion of 2003.

The author implies more than he informs. He implicitly equates American soldiers with Mongols and (elsewhere) Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. He admonishes American soldiers for permitting looters to demolish the national library and museum. He makes no significant statement that it was Iraqi lowlife that did the looting and ransacking, not American soldiers. He ignores the fact that when a soldier is concerned about being maimed or killed, he can hardly protect ‘the sense of self that derives from the ties that bind a people to their ancestors.’

‘Periodic attacks on citadels of culture’ is not mere rhetoric—it is a thinly disguised implication that the destruction of Iraqi cultural institutions is just one more incident in the long history of marauding armies.

I can hear the howl of those who would claim that the destruction of cultural institutions in Iraq was a direct result of the plunder for oil. My intent is not to discuss the essential causes and effects of the Gulf war. That is a whole other matter. Whatever the ‘truth’ is about that war, disingenuous implications are collateral damage we can all do without.

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Self-flagellation

During the final phase of the Cold War, there was a highly acclaimed documentary produced in the United Kingdom. The program presented a profile of the major civilizations throughout history. Of course the Aztec civilization was included. As with each of the other civilizations-except one-that civilization was given a favorable review in the documentary, much of it deserved.

But the Aztec practice of human sacrifice was glossed over with a furtive whisper. Ritualistically cutting out the living heart of a human being was explained away as a solemn act of faith. Its carnage was described briefly and respectfully (!) as a manifestation of the deep religious fervor of the Noble Savage.

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but it seems that there is no significant difference between being tortured to death by the Catholic Inquisition or having one’s heart ripped out for a Sun God’s breakfast. Noble? I think not. Savage, yes.

Yet, the documentary had respect only for the Aztec civilization and each of the other civilizations it examined-the one explicit exception being Western Civilization. In that case, it was art, science, and democracy that were glossed over. The central description of Western Civilization was that it is the only fully barbaric civilization and the only one that sought and still seeks world domination.

Apparently, the creators of that documentary ignored the fact that the Persian Empire (to name just one) had the same alleged goal-except that the known world occupied a much smaller space when Persia was on the prowl. Politically motivated, the documentary cited the usual clichés under the all-inclusive heading of ‘colonialism’ as though Europeans invented it.

Taking that notion a step further, the word “colony” is not usually used when describing vast territorial conquests that are contiguous. During the greater part of the 20th century the leading voice against colonialism was that of the Soviet Union despite its enormous empire that differed from other empires only in that there was no ocean between the Soviet Union and its conquered border states. Putin, Castro, and Chavez are still mired in 20th century geopolitical perceptions. So are millions of people in other nations, including the United States. The time to move on is overdue.

In spite of the recent emergence of Island Nations and other global developments, the stigma of American colonialism is as alive as ever. It is now packaged as capitalism with interventionism depending on the area in question. Most “third world” nations have taken up the anti-America banner directly from the threadbare communist party line of the former Soviet Union. Those same nations view American intervention selectively. No event has more clearly demonstrated the duality of that selectivity as has the current crises in Libya: “Help us, but don’t get involved .”

Classical Greece, the ‘cradle of Western Civilization,’ stopped the Persians from their western expansion, thereby making Western Civilization possible. The Roman Empire expanded and then fizzed, but not before it had firmly established the civilization that Greece had ignited. The Arabian civilization also attempted to conquer the known world. It swiftly spread as far east as the Indus river, across all northern Africa, and the Iberian peninsula. Its failure to conquer the known world was not a matter of choice. It meant to go on conquering but was frustrated by Martel and the Pyrenees.

Arabs have certainly contributed their share toward the growth of civilization globally. They preserved the advances made by Greece and Rome and brilliantly added a few of their own. But their desire for world domination was every bit as militant as that of their Western counterparts. The same is true of other civilizations. They tend to spread themselves, often to the betterment of the lands they overrun.

The BBC documentary’s transparent bias excoriating Western Civilization is only a miniscule sample of a global malaise threatening to hurl the world into another Dark Age. Ironically, only a resurgence of reason can prevent the chaos that would follow a collapse of Western Civilization. Its only hope is to stop killing itself.

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Lust for Fame

Just [me] and those wonderful people out there in the dark.
—Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard, film

Fame is generally held as the prime measure of success. The obsession for it, even for a fleeting moment, has never been more intense than it is now that the electronic age is in full bloom.

We are all familiar with the justifiable radiance of a woman on her wedding day; a mother when she sees her newborn for the first time; a man who shares those joys with her. But this radiance pales when compared to that of someone who spots herself on a TV monitor scanning the members of a live audience.

At first sight of herself on the tube something almost mystical happens. Her eyes sparkle like precious gems. They exude a transcendental self-consciousness. She has seen her reflection in mirrors hundreds of times, but what is it that delights her beyond comprehension when she sees her image on the monitor? The answer lies in ancient Greek mythology. Narcissus saw his reflection in a single pool. The studio monitor is just one pool in an ocean of millions of electronic pools reflecting her.

Johnny’s eyes glitter when the camera is turned on him. He can’t resist furtively glancing at the monitor. Although he feigns attention to the subject matter at hand, his inner gaze is on the image of millions watching him. When the show’s host announces that audience members will be questioned for their opinions, his heart beats faster. Who knows? Maybe he will be one of the chosen few to be asked about the Middle East crises. No matter that he doesn’t know where the Middle East is located on the globe. No matter if he stumbles and mumbles through incoherent responses to the host’s questions. All that matters is that millions are seeing him.

On another channel, a political event includes a cheering crowd standing behind a reporter or commentator. On those occasions the glances are not at all furtive. We know where the unseen monitor is located off camera simply by observing the collective target of transfixed eyes gazing at the portal of instant fame.

On a live news broadcast, a reporter is talking about a child who has been killed in a drive-by shooting. The TV images include grieving parents and neighborhood spectators. Even then, we see that gleam, that glow, that radiance – the crowd is being seen by millions. Some of the anonymous spectators wave to anonymous viewers. For a fleeting moment, they know how it feels to be a rock star.

A passerby spots a news crew. Like a deer stunned by a headlight, she stops dead. With the precision of a laser beam and the speed of light, she whips out her cell phone and makes calls to as many people as possible. “Oh, God, please let Larry be home…he’s got to see this!” Not the event – just her.

Graphics TV personnel have had one-way-windows installed between the studio and the outside world as one more way to satisfy those viewers who require constantly moving images to keep them from switching to another channel. On the street there are fame-worshipers that know exactly where those windows are ‘concealed.’ They stop and wave to us while on their cell phones, excitedly talking to friends who see them on a regular basis anyway. They can’t see you, but you can see them unwittingly embarrass themselves wherever the Great Electronic Eye peers into the darkness of anonymity.

Even vicarious fame is welcomed. I was acquainted with a chauffeur who worked for celebrities, including Britney Spears. He had taken her to an event featuring her and was waiting for her in his limousine for the return trip. He noticed a mother and her daughter clinging to a shared umbrella in the torrential rainfall. They too were waiting for the end of Britney’s gig. It occurred to him that they might want something to eat. So, he called them to the car and offered them a box of half-eaten candy left behind by Spears. The women were ecstatic. They squealed with joy and told him, “Oh, no, no, no! We will not eat this candy. We’ll keep it always, as a memento from Britney.”

Waiting in the pouring rain paid off in a big way: they now had a precious artifact that could be kept in perpetuity because it was made of sugar. This precious heirloom to-be was far more than they had expected. Soaked by the rain, they continued to wait for a glimpse of Spears. The rain continued, but no matter. They happily clutched the nuggets of used chocolates that had been touched by their idol’s lips and teeth.

Apparently, there are no limits to the desire for fame. My sister worked from home. On occasion, she hired a neighbor to deliver urgent business packages. One day, Goldy delivered a package to the home of Geraldine Ferraro. When she returned from her mission she was trembling with excitement. She told my sister that she had used Ms. Ferraro’s bathroom. She went from neighbor to neighbor spreading the news.

Unlike the two women who cherished Spears’ chocolate leftovers, Goldy was unable to enshrine an artifact from Ms. Ferraro’s home. Yet, she experienced the aura of fame that resides in everything touched by the famous. In Ferraro’s bathroom Goldy had brushed the hem of fame and felt a vestige of it radiate through her skin as she rubbed against the toilet seat.

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A Political Speech For All Occasions

My fellow Americans:

Whether you are black or white; rich or poor; Christian, Jew, Moslem, Zen Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Shintoist, Confucian, Chinese Folk Religionist, Spiritist, Ethnic Religionist, New-Religionist, or of any other religious persuasion; employer, employee, or unemployed; a college graduate, high school dropout, or lacking any education at all; legal or illegal; heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual or transgender; liberal, conservative, moderate, independent, or simply not sure, I want you to know that my socio-econo-ethno-political policy leaves no one disenfranchised – whether legal citizen, illegal alien, or terrorist; whether inclusive, exclusive, or reclusive.

We must not ask ourselves whether the weak must help the strong, or the strong must help the weak; or, whether the many must bend to the will of the few or the few must bend to the will of the many. My plan is to help the few so that the many may prosper and to help the many so that the few may prosper.

Where there is unfairness there must be fairness!

What is fair? Fair is not taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Fair is not taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Fair is fair.

We must help every man and woman lead a better life so that he or she can give his or her child a better life for him or her so that, in turn, he or she can also give his or her child a better life. We must be fair to those yet unborn as well as those who are long-since dead. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, relatives, friends – and yes, even enemies – must be given equal opportunities.

All of us have the right to be right. Ask not whether what is right for you is right for others or if what is right for others is right for you – right is right for everyone.

Remember, a vote for me is a vote for you.

—The Little Guy

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Hammurabi and the Religious Right

The courtroom is filled with emotion as parents give wrenching testimony of suffering caused by the brutal rape and murder of their child. Screams and tears, the centerpiece of the penalty phase, punish everyone in the courtroom.

Does a judge need to witness grief in order to determine the severity of punishment? Should his sentence be partially influenced by pleas from the murderer? Is any of this unseemly ritual necessary?

A bloodless crime for profit is one thing-killing for profit is something else. Crime, after all, should not be risk free. Yet, there are many people who oppose capital punishment no matter what motivated the killer. Others never consider motive. For them, death is the only punishment for a person convicted of first degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt.

Proponents on both sides of the issue cite several basic arguments. A condensed debate on capital punishment between the two might go something like this:

AGAINST: Executing someone for murder doesn’t restore the victim.
FOR: That’s OK, it makes me feel better.
AGAINST: Revenge is a primordial passion.
FOR: So is love.
AGAINST: Can’t you forgive?
FOR: Not at the moment.
AGAINST: I understand. But execution is not a deterrent.
FOR: Then why do we allow execution for cop killers?
AGAINST: We shouldn’t. A life sentence is worse than death.
FOR: Then why not execute the killer as an act of compassion?
AGAINST: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.
FOR: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
And so on, and on, and on.

Perhaps we should consider this:

Since capital punishment is a profound moral issue with powerful arguments and emotions on both sides, why not leave the fate of a convicted murderer in the hands of the victim?

This can be accomplished by having adults at a specified age sign a legal document which states that if ever they should become murder victims, the murderer should or should not be subject to capital punishment. Much like a Living Will, DNR or DNI order, this document would be as simple to implement as any Health Care Proxy.

Assuming that the identity of the murderer is certain and that the murder is in the first degree, other factors can be taken into account by the creation of a standard proxy form. Consider the following:

That in the case of child murderers, the parents or guardians would determine the fate of the killer. Should there be disagreement between the parents (or guardians), legal stipulations should be in place so that only one proxy is honored. Possibly, a proxy for execution would automatically void an opposing proxy. In any case, only proxies authorized prior to the crime would be honored. This would remove the ambivalence of emotion from the equation, along with the ugly spectacle of the penalty ritual.

‘Prior’ is the operative word because it cancels the notion of ‘heat of the moment’ decisions. We often hear that we cannot trust our individual judgment about capital punishment when someone we know and love has been murdered; that decisions of this kind should be made in the cool of voting booths, not in the heat of grief; that society is the better judge of the issue, not a person intimately associated with the victim.

Many survivors have a sudden “change of heart” when murder hits home. Their former disdain for vengeance can suddenly turn to a passionate need for revenge. Conversely, there are those who had always favored the death penalty but suddenly find a need to forgive the murderer of a loved one.

But what would the victim want? Her proxy would be the ultimate settlement of the issue. It would remove the collective will from a profoundly private matter, and posthumously place it in the hands of the individual most affected by the murder: the victim.

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The Power of the Blurb

As an interviewer listens to an urgent directive whispered into her ear via her ear-piece, we see a flash of tension in her eyes. It’s time for a commercial.

She rapidly asks her guest, “What do you think are the basic causes of the current conflict in the Middle East, and what are your recommendations for American foreign policy in that region? Very quickly, now. We only have fifteen seconds left.”

Beneath the channel’s banner, rapidly moving text rich in abbreviations and misspellings, feeds the screen with nonstop news blurbs. Simultaneously, a split screen depicts a specific event not necessarily related to the issue being considered (something on the back burner, so to speak). Relentlessly, the colorful, constantly moving graphics on the screen are also screaming for attention as they display images usually associated with Nintendo games.

As the guest attempts to respond, the host’s eyes reveal a sense of anxiety. The warning music begins softly as her attention is firmly focused on her earpiece. The guest, aware that he is being chased, squeezes in as many sound bytes as possible.

Observing this frantic activity, some of us experience the tension we usually associate with a cliffhanger movie (minus the entertainment). As viewers, we are expected to accept logo circuses and blurbs as sources of information. Fast news. Fast images. Fast commentary.

Speed kills.

Taken to absurd limits, fast talk has found its way into presidential “debates”! A typical format is designed with the premise that two minutes and thirty seconds are ample time to respond to questions of global significance. Ironically, this notion serves the candidates well in their delivery of prepackaged answers. Presidential debates allow no commercials, no moving texts, no graphic pyrotechnics.
Also missing, are original thoughts.

When compared to the usual television pace, the debates provide most people with the illusion that they are watching an intellectual debate. Most people have grown accustomed to the blurb mentality-many of them prefer it. For them, “News in Depth” television segments need not be an ocean or even a river-a puddle will do. They often take more time to decide which dessert to have after dinner than they do thinking about profound issues. Vanilla or Chocolate? Pro-life or Pro-choice?

Candidates for high office are asked for answers that cannot be given in two-and-a-half minutes. Try giving someone a recipe for cheesecake in two-and-a-half minutes, and you’ll see what I mean. So, in order for candidates to win a debate, they must appear presidential (whatever that means) and speak fluent Blurbish. This precludes thought.

Yet, the superstition persists that debates matter. Sensors record audience reaction to every word. The ongoing results are superimposed on the screen. Clearly, the candidates dare not stray from talking points. Desperately, they are hoping for that rare spectacular blurb that will land them a decisive victory.

The press, pundits, and political gurus present us with moving graphics, “The red line represents negatives. The yellow one, affirmatives. Notice how the red line plunged here…but here, the yellow one surges sharply upward when he said…”

But, what did he say? Was it true? Was it wise? Was it fair? It doesn’t matter. In baseball it’s called a home run. You win games with those. So it is with blurbs!

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