Saturday, November 25, 2006

The “N” Word

Michael Richards’ comedy club tirade has been practically ubiquitous in the American media this last week. I happened to catch a non-Wolf Blitzer Situation Room and two of the objects of Richards' tirade were being interviewed.

I confess to being a charter member of the vast right wing conspiracy, and as such have little, actually no tolerance for political correctness. Yet I must also confess to some ambivalence as I see all the hubbub surrounding this latest installment of an offense against modern public verbal decorum.

When I hear two of the “victims” tell how much “pain” they claimed as a result of the event I get more than a little annoyed. It didn’t help that attorney Gloria Allred was threatening to sue Mr. Richards for infliction of mental and physical intimidation. One of the offended party even said his goal was to “punish” Mr. Richards if he wasn’t willing to apologize to them in person.

My first reaction was to say to these guys to just get over it. Quit being such wimps. As an American of Italian heritage being called dago, guinea, greaseball, goombah, or wop (thanks to The Godfather for the exquisite combination) wouldn’t faze me. Yet how would my grandparents and great-grandparents have responded in an atmosphere of real and virulent discrimination that existed early last century?

Not being a person of African-American decent I cannot claim to be able to put myself into the shoes of those who were the object of Richard’s calumny. So when I immediately discount the offense I have to question my initial reaction. Is it valid? Do I diminish the hurt or the threat or the pain simply because my ancestors were not slaves?

I would argue that Black Americans are a special case not because of slavery or Jim Crow, but because their worldview of a hostile and oppressive country has been shaped by a warped civil rights establishment and a great heaping of liberal white guilt (see Shelby Steele). The resulting perception of victimization and thus powerlessness is a recipe for hypersensitivity and a very large chip on the shoulder.

Am I saying that throwing verbal assaults at black Americans is acceptable? Of course not. What I am saying is that the power of such assaults has as much to do with the perceptions of the offended as the words of the offender. This is obvious from a psychological point of view, but in modern American PC culture it is not allowed to be stated in polite company. Words are important, but if we imbue them with too much power we end up treating Mr. Richards in a way that is disproportionate to the offense. We also play into and contribute to the mentality of black victimization, which in my mind makes the cure worse than the offense.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Why Turkey Day is the Greatest American Holiday

First of all, because Thanksgiving's always on a Thursday, it guarantees at least most of us a four-day weekend, which is truly excellent. That's reason enough.

Even the birth of Jesus H. Christ (which even atheists agree was a very good thing) seldom gets us four days off because December 25 lands capriciously everywhichwhere on the weekly calendar. In fact, Bob Cratchit could quite justly have been docked for showing up late on the morning of December 26, after making too much merry.

Second of all, because Thanksgiving must thank God or the universe or whatever for the very special historical/geographical accident that is America. In this materialist world, anything that looks up and not down is a comfort to the human soul.

The Founders, even the most skeptical among them, spoke of a Providence that dropped them and their successors on these shores. America remains the light of the world, if only by default---there is no other nation and/or people to which humanity can look for inspiration.

Third, Thanksgiving's great because we actually eat our national bird, even if Ben Franklin was the only one who saw him that way. As a fat and fairly flightless piece of poultry, the turkey was unique to North America because it was incapable of re-migrating anywhere else. It was us.

(I don't disagree with the choice of the more universal symbol of the eagle for America---it would hardly do for our country to spend billions to put Neil Armstrong on the moon just to say, "The Turkey has landed." [WKRP fans appreciate how macabre that image would have been.])

Now, it was the collectivist Franklin Roosevelt who in 1939 set Thanksgiving permanently on a Thursday, to encourage Christmas shopping on the following "Black Friday," to goose commerce and help cure the Great Depression. For FDR's rare bolt of wisdom from the blue regarding the nurturing effect of free enterprise, may we also be thankful.

Providence takes funny turns sometimes, and if Thanksgiving as we know it has some relation to Christmas and spreading around some filthy lucre, like Bob Cratchit we should not look a gift turkey in the mouth.

Give me tryptophan or give me death.

I'm really looking forward to spending four patriotic days on my butt munching some serious national bird and maybe doing a little shopping in between. Best wishes to all here gathered, and let's thank Providence, Whatever or whoever it is.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Deja Vu and Time Travel Fiction

Denzel Washington contemplates the past in Deja Vu.
Two time travel movies are premiering today, one of those astounding mysteries of the universe that Hollywood creates every couple of months. Tony Scott's Deja Vu (directed with his usual great skill and creativity) is the bigger-budgeted and promoted film, and will probably do well at the box office. Darren Arnofsky's The Fountain promises to be a bit quirkier and probably won't make as much money but might obtain more critical accolades.

Time travel fictions are certainly interesting and have been around for a long time. Peter Suderman suggests, in National Review Online, that their appeal is based on a natural human obsession with mortality, which time travel naturally brings to the fore. I can't say I agree that human mortality is a special interest in time travel fictions, given that pretty much any narrative has a good deal to do with human mortality.

I think that the real appeal of time travel is in the possibility of changing things—time travel is the ultimate power trip. We've all done things we wish we hadn't, and failed to do things we wish we had. (Cf. the Lutheran rite of confession and absolution.) And we've all experienced things that we wish hadn't happened. Thinking about what things would be like if we had done things differently is a natural human endeavor, every bit as natural as mortality itself. And this is a particularly strong element in time travel narratives, and is in fact the central issue in time-repetition stories such as Groundhog Day and Daybreak.

That's what is really behind Deja Vu. Denzel Washington plays a BATF agent investigating a terrorist bombing, who discovers that he might just be able to go into the past—at a good deal of risk to his personal well-being—and prevent the attack, thereby saving several-hundred lives and possibly the lives of his ATF partner and of a beautiful, young, single woman who was murdered as part of the "collateral damage."

Of course, he does what people typically do in such movies, but this being a Denzel Washington film, there is a good deal of Christian imagery and thematic material, including a couple of prominent acts of self-sacrifice and a resurrection from death. There is a brief exchange about morality early in the film, but what is always at the forefront of the story is the desire to change our conditions, to make things right and avert trouble for other people.

As in Back to the Future, The Time Machine, and other such narratives, Deja Vu is most intensely concerned with the here and now, the present conditions of our lives. That's what makes it so absorbing and interesting, and well worth seeing.

From Karnick on Culture.

MDV's Outlook

We've admired Mike D'Virgilio's work on his own blog for awhile now, and are pleased as punch that he's accepted our invitation to join our crew. You'll find his first post for us below, and we look forward to more of his customary provocations.

Mike will continue his estimable solo career at mdvoutlook.com (we've put in a link to it on the sidebar), and he'll share his best from that blog as well as original content especially for TRC.

Mike likes long walks on the beach, Montovani records and beautiful sunsets. He is the perfect man, and the ultimate internet dating partner. Unfortunately for our readers who are still on the market, he's already taken, at least according to his lovely wife and three beautiful and predictably frustrating children.

NB: MDV can resolve all your internet design needs large or small, as he's an account executive at Global Internet Management. He also holds an M.A. in theology, is an 8 handicap golfer, and plays a fine guitar.

(How well he plays that fine guitar we do not know, but his brother Nick scored it for him, and Mike taught Nick everything he knows.)


The world is a better place because of MDV, and already, so is our blog. Live long and prosper, Mike, and welcome aboard.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Libertarian Relativism

Poor libertarians.

They just don’t know what to do with all us religious folks. We tend to be toward the same side of the political spectrum as they are, so they put up with us, but they look at us like the crazy old uncle come to dinner. You have to put up with him, but you don’t have to like it! So whenever a libertarian writes about religion I find it somewhat amusing.

Cathy Young, who writes for the libertarian bible, Reason Magazine, has an article in The Boston Globe called “The Religious Divide.” She argues that behind our country’s political divide is a religious divide, which few would deny. The two sides in this conflict are “between those who see religious faith as society’s foundation and those who see it as society’s bane.”

I think that is a good and concise way to phrase it. The problem I have with Ms. Young is that she sees both of these groups as two sides of the same coin (my guess is that libertarians see themselves as above it all, although their antipathy to religion is obvious). As she says:
Both sides in the debate traffic in simplistic stereotypes. Anti- religionists . . . assert that religion is dangerous because it has historically promoted violence and oppression . . . Equally misguided, however, is the claim made by many champions of religion that secularists lack the will to combat evil because they are moral relativists who don't believe in good and evil anyway. . . . A religion, like any other set of beliefs, can be used for good or bad. . . . Any passionately held belief, whether or not it includes God, can make some people intolerant, closed-minded, unwilling to look at facts that contradict their dogma, and hateful toward those who disagree.

Fair enough. But then she displays her bias with this sentence: “It doesn't help that religion has become intertwined with politics.” Ah, I see. The secularist, atheist can “intertwine” his faith with politics because his faith isn’t a “religion”.

Here she says it another way, and gives us a warning of the danger to come: “The new vogue for wearing one's faith on one's political sleeve is a prescription for religious strife.” So if I am a Christian, let’s say, then I have to keep my faith locked up tightly in a closet, let it out maybe on Sunday and in private conversations. If I happen to see that my faith applies to all of life and reality, even politics and how our nation is governed, then religious strife is sure to follow.

It is amazing how creative libertarians can be in trying to shut up people of religious faith, and we all know they are talking about Christians, be they the Catholic or Protestant kind. I guess atheists who attempt to impose their worldviews on us never contribute to this strife.

Her last few paragraphs again relativize the two, but make no mistake, everything would be fine and there would be no strife if religious people would just shut up!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Problems not solved

"Black Progress" Through Politics,” by Walter Williams opens with this:

Blacks and Hispanics, especially blacks, are the most politically loyal people in the nation. It's often preached and taken as gospel that the only way black people can progress is through racial politics and government programs, but how true is that? Let's look at it.

He goes on to inspect conventional wisdom that may have special meaning for Oak Park, where block-by-block westbound Chicago segregation stopped in the late ‘60s and race relations are never far away. He notes startling economic gains by blacks before politics went their way.

In 1940, poverty among black families was 87 percent and fell to 47 percent by 1960. . . . [I]n various skilled trades, the incomes of blacks relative to whites more than doubled between 1936 and 1959. . . . [T]he rise of blacks in professional and other high-level occupations was greater during the five years preceding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than the five years afterward.

In 1940 a mere 15% of black children were born outside of marriage, in contrast to today's 70%. By the mid-'60s, when sociologist, later UN ambassador and senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan sounded the alarm about breakup of the black family, the rate had risen to 26%.

Crime has become a horrendous problem, having reached "a level . . . unimaginable to most Americans and unimaginable to blacks of yesteryear."

In 2005 “blacks were six times more likely than whites to be homicide victims, and 94 percent of black victims were murdered by blacks,” so that "the overwhelmingly law-abiding residents of [black] neighborhoods [live] . . . in fear of assault and battery, rape, robbery and various forms of intimidation."

The neighborhoods have become "economic wastelands." Their "most stable" residents leave. From political leaders comes no relief.  Instead come government programs, cementing blacks' dependency on them, as Democratic candidates did at the Oak Park Library last spring. Republicans at an earlier meeting -- not as well organized -- talked policies to help small business.

In Oak Park, school discipline and achievement come to mind as what angers blacks. Many a step has been taken to alleviate this anger. Focus has been on school programs. But how much difference have programs made? Not much. We would have heard about it. Rather than eliminating the problems, we have lulls between storms of protest and heightened political activity, such as the recent pressuring of state legislators to order up a study followed by a report finding no evidence of unfair discrimination, followed by another lull.

There must be a better way.