Monday, June 27, 2011

Fun with Words from Twitter

When I sat down to do some writing tonight, I thought I'd get a little help from the various folks tweeting using the #amwriting hashtag. I asked for each person to give me their favorite verb, or the first one to come to mind. Only one generous soul offered; she gave me "Smooch." I was going to follow up by asking for a list of nouns, but one fellow had already tweeted "#amwriting shit" and "#amwriting gibberish," so I decided he was offering those before I'd even requested them. It seems the folks on #amwriting today are actually, well, writing, so I didn't get any other replies (yet). Instead, I scrolled through my own newsfeed and copied down two lists, the verbs and nouns that jumped out at me from each tweet. I avoided proper nouns, generally, but somehow two slipped through: "Starbucks" and "Shaq." If someone has a theory about why these two words seemed like common nouns, I'd love to hear it.

These lists turned out to be really fun to play with. As you scroll through them, you'll notice that a huge percentage of the words from either list can serve as both nouns or verbs. I placed them in the lists as they were used over the last few hours. Two words that made both lists ("Retweet" and "Google") were used both ways. Two others ("Fart" and "Sleep") were used once, but in such a way that I couldn't tell if they were being used as nouns or verbs. It's great English-teacher-geek-fun to plug each word into this formula and see how many work: A _______/ To ___________.

Also, as you read through the lists, your brain will naturally want to connect the words and make a story out of them. On the one hand, this is a marvelous demonstration of just how creative the human brain is. On the other hand, it illustrates the way we can deceive ourselves because we're compelled to create a narrative where none exists. These were all from different tweets, and even when two are connected, a reader couldn't possibly imagine how without context. For example, the noun "Dementor" is included because I follow a very funny person who tweets as though he is Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. (Or maybe he really is. Who am I to judge?) But could you guess which of these words went with his tweet mentioning Dementors? Try to guess. Similarly, One of my verbs is "shampoo." Not only does it meet the aforementioned noun/verb test, but it was connected to a word on the noun list. Can you guess which one? I'll put the answers at the bottom.

I'm teaching a class on poetry a couple days a week for the Upward Bound Program, and I think I'll have them do an exercise with these lists. Feel free to use them, or the same activity, as you see fit. After all, these words aren't mine. Enjoy!

Verbs:

Encroach
Subjugate
Smooch
Lock
Gather
Meet
Survive
Evacuate
Hate
Threaten
Prefer
Veto
Retweet
Run
Tote
Sing
Strike
Swoon
Prolong
Fart
Sleep
Transform
Accuse
Squish
Hold
Apply
Google
Storm
Propose
License
Argue
Cancel
Fool
Assure
Send
Throw
Yell
Spoof
Teach
Model
Fear
Weigh
Balance
Thank
Show
Shampoo
Save
Forget
Grope
Still
Listen



Nouns:

Dryer
Shit
Gibberish
Whiskey
Expectations
Security
Retweet
Debt
Cheese
Cookies
Family
Starbucks
Gun
Cyberpunk
Karma
Ass
Defense
Fart
Sleep
Patience
Accountant
Butterflies
Portrait
Affair
Flake
Immigration
Law
Google
Shaq
Photo
Horror
Compilation
Summer
Reading
Lithium
Reason
Dosage
Concerns
Sandbox
Paper-doll
Noise
Community
Corruption
Work
Island
Commandment
Lyrics
Babble
Mug
Vacation
Cancer
Bid
Pain
Leadership
Metaphor
Crotch
Insect
Slut
Dementor
Music
Service





Answers: "Dementor" went with "Sluts", and "Shampoo" went with "Crotch".

@Lord_Voldemort7 tweeted:
"Dear Sluts, Nobody wants to see your public groping. The only way I'll support your PDA is if you're french kissing a dementor."

@iimaniDavid tweeted:
"'People who speak in mixed metaphors should shampoo my crotch' -- Jack Nicholson in the film As Good As It Gets"

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Learning to Read Like a Writer

[I've been given a opportunity to write a piece for amwriting.org, a blog for and by writers who follow the #amwriting hash-tag on Twitter. My piece will appear on the 30th. Since it's a bit of advice for writers, I should also take some other advice I give students: Whenever possible, get some fresh eyes on your work. So, here's the piece I plan to submit. Please let me know about anything I should fix, cut, or improve before this hits a site with a broader readership while bearing my name under the title. Even if it's just a little typo, let me know in the comments section below. This is the second draft, after some great help from a couple of writer friends. There's still time for more tweaks, though, so keep 'em coming!]

Here’s a secret writers need to learn in order to master their craft: Writers need to learn to read. They don’t need to consume all the books on the New York Times best sellers list just to see which kind of monster is producing the most sales. Writers need to learn to read differently from readers. Writers need to understand that reading is part of practicing.

Part of my job as a high school English teacher consists of teaching students to become better readers by teaching them to identify the purpose of their reading. Are they reading for pleasure? Are they seeking information? Are they analyzing an argument in order to be persuaded or to refute the author’s position? Good readers can do these things. And that’s enough.

But it’s not enough for writers. Writers are artists, and artists need to be able to examine the works of their peers and betters in a different way.

Consider, as an analogy, film. When one of my sixteen-year-old students goes to see the newest big Hollywood blockbuster at the Cineplex this summer, he is satisfied by the experience. As a viewer, he was looking for entertainment, and the movie delivered. Done and done. Now, the cinephile goes to the movie theater and watches the same film (not anything high-brow, but something competently-made) and is also entertained. But she thinks about the structure of the story, the characters, the setting, the themes: She is, in short, a reader of film as text, and because she can do all the things we try to teach good readers to do when they pick up a novel, she gets a lot more out of the movie. She does not, however, come out of the theater talking about the tracking and handy-cam shots, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, side lighting and back lighting, fast cuts and slow fades. These were the techniques that gave the movie its punch and made it satisfying, but they aren’t her business.

They are the business of the movie critic. The critic studied film back in college. She can not only tell you that The Conversation is her favorite Francis Ford Coppola movie, but she can explain why in great detail. She watches movies for a purpose, but it’s not to be entertained or to be informed or to be persuaded. At least, those aren’t enough. She watches movies because it’s her business, her livelihood, to evaluate them based on her vast knowledge of the way they are made, as well as what they make her think and how they make her feel.

And then there’s the film director. He watches movies differently than the casual viewer, the cinephile, and the critic. He watches to learn. For him, watching movies is part of his artistic education. It’s practice.

Writers need to do the same thing. When we pick up a novel, we can remember why we fell in love with books when we were young. We can enjoy being transported to new places, getting to know new people, and absorbing new ideas. We can even evaluate the works in the same way critics do. But we cannot afford to stop there. We need to read differently. For us, every choice of simple or complex vocabulary, every choice about following the basic rules or breaking them, every choice about revealing the minutia about a character or hiding it serves as a lesson which will make us better writers. This is because we recognize all these things for what they are: Choices. Choices made by writers. Writers just like us, only better. Admitting that last part is absolutely essential to becoming better writers ourselves. As long as we hold fast to the same choices we’ve always made, believing we are God’s gift to our readers, then not only is our writing a waste of time, but our reading is, too. Arrogant writers aren’t just obnoxious; they’re missing out on vital time to practice.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, talks about a group of psychologists who studied violin students in Germany. They divided the students up into three groups based on ability as determined by their teachers, then tried to figure out what made the great ones great, and the mediocre ones mediocre. What they found was that the great ones practiced more. Not just a little bit. A lot more. In fact, they found a magic number necessary to become a virtuoso: 10,000 hours of practice. At a good clip, that takes ten years. They also didn’t find too much deviation from that. None of the virtuosos got by with very little practice, and none of the mediocre violinists practiced for 10,000 hours and remained mediocre.

Then, the psychologist began looking into other fields, and they found that the same magic number held up in every endeavor they examined. 10,000 hours. Athletes. Computer programmers. Ballerinas. Composers. And yes, writers.

The quality of those hours matters as much as the quantity, and that’s why writers need to change the way they read; it’s the difference between 10,000 hours of entertainment versus 10,000 hours of practice. One of Gladwell’s examples of 10,000 hours is the early Beatles before the British Invasion, when they were just a struggling rock band trying to find gigs. They worked in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany and would often play for eight hours straight to non-English speaking audiences and compete for attention with the strippers. Not only did this give them a chance to compose songs that are probably on your ipod right now, but they also had to learn dozens, probably hundreds of covers, and not just of rock and roll songs but of Jazz standards and other genres. What Gladwell doesn’t discuss is the influence of the music Lennon and McCartney were listening to, both before the Beatles formed and during this time. I would bet good money that these guys were not only reading the crowds to see what was working, but they were also listening carefully to the music on the radio and on the albums they bought, and listening in a different way than you or I. They were reading the music to become better musicians.

My preferred example (as a die-hard NBA fan), would be a basketball player. If a basketball player practices his shot for 10,000 hours, he will get to the point where he can sink his free-throws a very high percentage of the time, he’ll know where he can hit the highest percentage of three-pointers, and he’ll make some very tricky moves under the hoop on a drive. And he will lose. Why? Because he didn’t spend some of that time reading the scouting report about, and watching tape of, his prospective opponents. His 10,000 hours were spent becoming an oddity, a guy who could mop the floor with you at HORSE, and in its own way that is becoming a virtuoso. But he won’t be a great basketball player, because he didn’t learn to read his opponents.

Sure, the analogy is imperfect. Writing is at once less collaborative (despite great writing communities like #amwriting, we do our work in isolation), and less competitive (we don’t go head-to head with another author or team of authors. It’s not a zero sum game. More good books can generate more readers.) Maybe we’re less like players watching tapes of their opponents to learn to beat them and more like players watching the greats to learn from them.

So pick up a copy of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and learn from her choice to write the book not only in first person, but in the present tense. Crack open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and learn from his choice to eschew dialogue tags and conventional punctuation, then follow up with All the Pretty Horses or No Country for Old Men to reassure yourself that it’s not a fluke that just happens to work brilliantly but a conscious and careful choice he’s not always bound by. Read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and learn how a premise that seems doomed to be saccharine and trite becomes beautiful and powerful because of careful choices of characterization and intentional withholding.

Then go grab that guilty pleasure book on your nightstand. You know you have one. This is the huge hit by that debut novelist that fills you with rage when you read about the sales figures, and you grouse about it so publicly and with such vehemence that you can’t possibly admit how much you enjoyed the book yourself. Now, when you are flying through that weak prose, that thin characterization, or that awful adverb-filled dialogue attribution that makes you want to throw the book at the wall, stop and figure out why you don’t. Sure, it’s fine to identify the things you don’t like about the book. Note those choices so you will make different ones. But also acknowledge that there’s a reason that book is in your hands, and other copies are in a lot of other hands at the same time.

If you’re willing to do that, to learn from your betters (and yes, that hack on the New York Times best sellers list is your better, at least in some way), then reading becomes part of your practice time, part of the 10,000 hours you need to rack up in order to become a true master of the art. Writing is practicing your shot. Reading is watching tape. You must do both to be great.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Does the Right Hate Obama So Much? Part 2: Ultra-Nationalism vs. American Exceptionalism

I asked for Conservatives to explain the seeming-hatred directed at President Obama from the Right in this country, and I got some great, detailed, thought-provoking responses. I could quibble about little things (Is it Obama’s fault that Congress choose to pass a law that essentially gives law-making power to the Executive branch? That seems more like a good reason to detest a Congress that has been consistently eroding its own constitutional authority for over a hundred years.) but I think it’s safe to say that the most fundamental objection to Obama stems from the belief that he does not ascribe ardently enough to the notion of American exceptionalism. (Correct me if that’s not the fundamental concern.)

I’m still not aware of any particular policy decisions which definitively prove this theory. Sure, Democrats are always for being multilateralists when they make use of organizations like NATO or the U.N. There’s a pretty distinct double-standard on these groups when it comes to the way they are employed by Presidents of different parties. Beyond those, I’m not sure what Obama has officially done. But I am aware of the things he’s said and written, and I think words matter and should fall into the “actions” category I asked for. These words also relate directly to the question of Obama’s interactions with our allies. One of the charges is that Obama has lowered our standing with them. I tried to find some data to back up this claim. It turns out that our standing, at least as measured by polling, has dramatically improved under Obama, at least in the numbers I could find. In the year he took office, we made dramatic gains. Check out page 5 of this report. A more recent article details the improvement based on polling data throughout the world. Part of this might simply be a reaction to the global antipathy toward Bush, a world-wide sigh of relief. But we should also be willing to consider the possibility that Obama’s speeches made in other countries, and his comments regarding our own which have been broadcast around the world, have increased our soft power, something Conservatives like Donald Rumsfeld reluctantly acknowledged is absolutely essential to defeating terrorism and undermining tyrants around the globe.

Take, for example, the situation between the U.S., Britain, and Argentina regarding the Falklands, pointed out by one of the commenters. Despite the anti-Obama slant to the article, it can’t identify any actual harm done by the Obama administration’s advocacy of diplomatic talks between the British and Argentine government over the islands. Perhaps it will tick off the British, but they remain among our strongest allies in the world and like Obama a lot more than American Conservatives do. But look at the flip side. Chavez is a nutjob. He’s on TV in his country for four hours or more a day, ranting about how the evil imperialists in America only want to destroy Argentina. He gets up at the U.N. and calls Bush names to increase his popularity back home. Now he’s been undermined in the eyes of his people. We’re not crazy. We’re also not capitulating or “tossing our allies under the bus as appeasement.” Chavez didn’t get the Falklands. He didn’t even get a sit-down with the British. He was just made to look foolish.

Or consider the case with our relationship with Israel. Obama has taken a beating for saying that negotiations related to the two-state solution should start with the pre-1967 borders and then be worked out in a series of land swaps. This is exactly what the Bush roadmap said, too. The problem is that the Israelis, though desiring the pre-1967 borders as a starting point and demanding land swaps in order to maintain control over Jerusalem, didn’t want their ultimate bargaining position stated aloud. They wanted to demand more, then work to the place that Obama announced. As someone who’s been involved in formal negotiations (of the contract variety, not the peace-in-the-middle-east kind) I understand not wanting to have your final position made public. I also understand that the President is rightly frustrated with the Israeli government’s continued construction of new settlements which the Israelis know they will just demolish later, and which rile up the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab word. Putting pressure on the Israelis might piss them off, but it won’t really diminish the ultimate settlement because the tough negotiating will be about the land swaps themselves, and they already knew we expected those as part of the Bush roadmap. Obama might have hurt himself with Conservatives, both in Israel and in the U.S., but he didn’t really give anything to the Palestinians and he undermined the Jihadist Imams who want to paint Israel and the U.S. with the same brush when Israel is doing things that the U.S. has long opposed. Creating a little political distance between ourselves and Israel is in our national interest, especially if it can be done so inexpensively; Israel didn’t really lose anything, Palestine didn’t really gain anything. The only losers were terrorists and Obama’s ratings in Florida. I’d call that a gutsy move. The Israeli ambassador might say that our nations’ relationship is in the worst shape it’s been in in 35 years, but at the end of the day Israel is still completely dependent on us for their security (their soldiers might be bad-asses, but they are bad-asses holding American guns) and we will continue to provide them with all the necessary security guarantees. Again, a net increase in America’s soft power.

But did these increases in our soft power need to come at the expense of our projected notion of American exceptionalism? Perhaps. It depends on what we mean by that. I think that might be the crux of the conservative antipathy towards Obama. If I am understanding the conservative definition of American exceptionalism correctly, conservatives would prefer a weaker America as long as it fits into a very specific definition of “American,” to a stronger America which fits the definition of “American” actually held by the majority of its people.

My friend who comments as Green Globule writes that conservatives are “not looking across the ocean for a better model.” This is ironic, since the term “exceptional” was first applied to America by Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman. If he’s not a guy from across the ocean who is responsible for this particular model, then perhaps credit should go to the first people to use the phrase “American exceptionalism.” That would be The American Communist Party of the 1920s, who used it to describe why they thought the Great Leap Forward would take a long time to occur here. Only, their definition isn’t really the modern Conservative variant, because they believed it was our “natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions” that would postpone the working class from rising up and offing the rich. When modern Conservatives talk about American exceptionalism, I don’t think they’re talking about our coal deposits or the fact that we don’t self-identify as working-class and aristocrats. Green Globule points to our freedom of speech and our right to bear arms. On these grounds, I think Obama fares very well. Though he talked about closing background check loopholes to prevent the mentally ill from getting guns in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting (any talk about guns from a Democrat raises red flags with some), he is also the first modern Democratic President, to my knowledge, to acknowledge the second amendment is an individual rather than a corporate right. That is huge, coming from a legal scholar who could tell you every argument from those who say it’s a corporate right based on the placement of a comma, and who often avoids politically impossible questions by laying out both sides, slowly, methodically, until the questioner gives up. Obama went out on a limb to say that, angering some gun control folks on his left, and has expanded the right to carry guns into national parks (a particularly big deal in Alaska, where much of the state is National Parks and where you really want to be armed). So if American exceptionalism is the right to bear arms, Obama should be in pretty good standing with Conservatives.

And what about free speech (my personal favorite of our rights)? I think this, along with the other rights guaranteed in the first amendment, is actually the most important element of what makes America great. I think the FCC should be allowed to regulate frequencies so my remote control car doesn’t show up on my radio and so my radio doesn’t control my remote control car. Beyond that, I’d get rid of it altogether. Want to burn a flag? Fine. It’s a stupid protest. It doesn’t tell me what you’re opposed to, specifically. Do you hate CIA intervention in Pakistan, or hate cotton? Mostly it just tells me you don’t like my country, which makes me less inclined to listen to what you have to say. But I love that we have the right to do it. Want to call the most conservative news network “fair and balanced”? Go right ahead, and if people believe that then maybe they’ll also believe I can bench 500 lbs., I’ve climbed Mt. Everest twice, and I have a credit score that makes me worthy of a loan of ten billion dollars. I love, love, love free speech. As an English teacher, it’s my livelihood. Without it, I’d be a propaganda teacher, and that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as my job. As a novelist, it’s my hobby. As a video game playing, novel reading, internet addicted movie buff, my life is pretty much free speech and sleep. So what has Obama done to diminish free speech? What has he done to diminish the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, or the freedom of religion? Tonight, at the first Republican debate, the candidates fell all over each other discussing Islam, with one candidate saying no Muslim would serve in his cabinet (at least not the kind of Muslim who would want to kill us) and another comparing Muslims to communists and Nazis. And which party has been at the forefront of the movement to censor the arts? Or to pass laws preventing flag burning (which later had to be overturned by the Supreme Court)? In fact, aside from protecting the rights of corporations to donate anonymously to campaigns (Scalia says Democracy is a full contact sport when it comes to signing petitions, and I agree, but apparently the anonymity of a political donation is part of its “speech”) how have Conservatives protected the freedom of speech better than Liberals? This might be part of a libertarian’s definition of American exceptionalism (and is the place where I’m most on board with libertarianism) but it cannot be the bedrock of modern Conservatives’ definition.

Is a Conservative’s definition of American exceptionalism based on our freedom from government intrusion into our lives? That depends on what you want to be free to do. If Brian wants to marry Larry, even if most Americans want these guys to have this right, even if the state can show no definitive reason why their marriage should be prevented which is not based in a particular religious ideology, even if Brian and Larry live in a different state that wants to give them permission to do so, it’s Conservatives who want the government to step in and tell them they can’t. And if a woman and her doctor decide she needs an abortion, Conservatives want the government to step in and stop that. In fact, when the Supreme Court says the government can’t stop that, Conservatives busy themselves passing state laws that tell the doctor he has to wait a period of time, show her an ultra-sound of the fetus, give her a lecture filled with demonstrably false information about the dangers of the procedure, and then complete the procedure before the delay they caused! Want to buy some marijuana for the pain from your chemotherapy? How about an OD on opiates because you’re in misery from an untreatable illness? No, the Conservative’s definition of American exceptionalism can’t be based strictly on freedom. Just some freedoms. The ones they like.

Maybe it’s based on our wealth. We are the richest nation in the world, in total terms. That means that we’re the richest people, on average. Of course, that is of great consolation to people who don’t know the difference between a median and a mode. But if you try to do anything to help more Americans enjoy that wealth, you are a socialist or a communist, a redistributor of wealth, an oppressor who makes slaves of the poor through the soft bigotry of low expectations. (Modern Conservatives do not like this kind of slavery. They did protect the other kind, though, because, as Green Globule points out, Conservatives “first concern is against new mistakes, especially those at the national level which are hardest to undo.” You know, like the 13 Amendment barring slavery. Somebody had to make sure we didn’t jump to that decision too hastily, right?) But some Conservatives are threatening to refuse to up the debt ceiling (in exchange for concessions to limit a woman’s liberty to get a Pap Smear at a Planned Parenthood, no less) and that is the single quickest way to make sure the U.S. is no longer the wealthiest nation in the world, so this can’t be the foundation for Conservatives’ definition of American exceptionalism, either. Oh, and if our wealth were the measure of American exceptionalism, Conservatives would feel lukewarm about Reagan, the first Bush, and Obama, hate George W. Bush, and their favorite President of the last thirty years would be Bill Clinton.

Or maybe it’s our military might. This strikes me as unlikely, since there’s a great deal of dispute within the Conservative movement about whether we should be isolationists, shoring up our military defenses, or neo-conservatives, flexing our military muscles abroad to protect our global interests. Regardless, Obama seems to have split the difference. He hasn’t over-extended the military the way the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict have, but did double-down on Afghanistan and has shown he’s perfectly willing to use the military in Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan. You can take issue with some of those choices (I certainly do), but I don’t see how he could generate such hatred by splitting the difference in the other side’s internal debate.

So, if it’s not our 1st or 2nd amendment rights, it’s not our freedom from government intrusion into our lives, it’s not our wealth, and it’s not our military might, what is the definition of American exceptionalism which Obama lacks? I have a theory.

I think the Conservative definition of American exceptionalism is tautological. In essence, they believe America is better because it’s America, and Americans are better because they’re American. Only, their definition of American is only the Conservative they see in the mirror. This can be pretty easily demonstrated. Conservatives do not like it when you point out that America has made mistakes. Liberals get pilloried for this. But ask a Conservative if the majority of Americans were right to cast a ballot for Barack Obama, and they’ll tell you it was a mistake, that we are “on the wrong track.” If you talk about how we were wrong when the CIA assassinated Allende, the democratically elected leader of Chile, they’ll call you unpatriotic. But the Bay of Pigs Fiasco? A Democrat’s mistake. The whole Constitution should be read from the floor of Congress because it’s perfect, right? Now, who wants to read that 3/5ths part?

My friend Derek wrote, “Conservatives hold America as a country and an ideal in the absolute highest regard. We do believe America is exceptional. We do believe in a Divine blessing on this nation. Therefore we reject anyone who would do any thing to diminish that exceptionalism as Obama has by apologizing for America…” First of all, even when I was a Christian, I found that notion of a Divine blessing abhorrent. The idea that God prefers Americans not only shows a lazy or willful misreading of scripture, but it’s offensive not just to people outside our borders, but to Christians here, too. It reminds me of those post-game interviews when the reporter stick the microphone in the face of the star of the winning team and he thanks God for the victory. Yeah, because God preferred your team. And you’ll lose next week because God is wishy-washy. If this is the bedrock of the Conservative definition of American exceptionalism, then that God prefers the country where one of the founding principles is that the government of that country shall establish no religion which might acknowledge His preference. That God is either very humble or quite stupid.

As for apologizing for America, Green Globule echoed this sentiment somewhat when he wrote, “When I read Dreams from my Father, the one thing I was looking for above all else was that he loved and respected this country and that he believed in it. I found nothing of the sort, and generally only the opposite.” Here’s the lynchpin of the difference between the Conservative definition of America and the Progressive’s: Obama is considered un-American because he points out that America isn’t perfect. That’s considered “apologizing for America.” I shouldn’t have to write this, but for an African American growing up in the 60s in America, the country wasn’t perfect. Men were being lynched for having skin the same color as his just when he was trying to figure out his racial identity. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean a person hates America, or is apologizing for it. Recognizing that fact, and many other negative facts about American history, is part and parcel of the Progressive’s definition of American exceptionalism: America keeps getting better! We started out with slavery written into our Constitution, but we got better. Women couldn’t vote, but we got better! Children had to work twelve hour shifts, seven days a week, in dangerous conditions, but (thanks to Big Government nanny-state regulations) we got better! Somebody else invented the automobile, but we built it cheaper, faster, and better! Somebody else made it into space first, but we got to the moon! We mistreated lots of different groups of our fellow Americans for a host of deplorable reasons, and we still do, but to diminishing degrees because we keep getting better! Hell, Democracy was invented by other people, and, Green Globule, they lived “across the ocean,” but they are dead and gone and we are still here making it better. And someday we will take gay marriage and some variation on national healthcare and we’ll just keep on getting better.

But…

But it’s not a fait accompli that we’ll just go on making it better. The single biggest threat to what really makes America great is the idea that our greatness is finished, that we don’t need to look across the ocean for new ideas to take and improve because we can just sit on our hands as Americans and God’s divine blessing will keep us on top. This, I think, is really at the heart of the hatred of Obama, and it’s also the origin, at its extreme, of the whole “Birthir” movement. It’s not that Obama was born in Hawaii and spent time overseas. McCain was born in Panama and nobody found that disqualifying. It’s that Obama is willing to look at other models and listen to other ideas. He’s not blinded by the kind of ultra-nationalism that says that everything foreign is inferior and suspect and probably evil. I may disagree with him on the conclusions he comes to about half of those ideas. I may even find some of his policies infuriating. But when I have to choose between Obama and someone who is trying to placate a constituency that sees any recognition of our country’s mistakes as a sign of a lack of patriotism and any idea from any other country as dismissible, I will choose him. Odds are, most Americans will make the same choice.

And maybe that’s a mistake. We do make those.

But I vote that we keep getting better.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why Does the Right Hate Obama So Much?

I don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I’m one of these wide-eyed, na├»ve, hopey-changey liberals. Fine. But if we can get past the obligatory name-calling, I really wish someone would explain it to me: Why do conservatives seem to regard the President of the United States with the kind of passionate spite normally reserved for pedophile clergy, genocidal dictators, and malarial mosquitoes?

The other day I got an offer from CafePress offering me free bumper stickers. I like free. With shipping and handling, it’s almost down to my price-range. So I clicked and looked at the “Humor: Political” stickers. What I found would have made a Fox News pundit blush. All the anti-Bush “Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing its Idiot” stuff paled in comparison. It was like Obama sat in the front row and decided to heckle Don Rickles, with the occasional rebuttal tossed in by Michael Richards on his absolute worst day ever. Some examples: “A Taxpayer Voting for Obama is like a Chicken Voting for Col. Sanders” and “Who Would Have Thought the Biggest Threat to America would Be Our Own President?” Hilarious, right?


Now, people can slap whatever they want on their cars. You want to put a confederate flag on your bumper? Hey, they’re your slashed tires, buddy. Besides the free speech argument, I don’t expect bumper stickers to make nuanced policy arguments. If the colonists had only had a 3 by 8 inch sticker that had to be read by the guy on the horse behind them, the Declaration of Independence would have said, “Hey George! Next time we shove the tea up your ass!” But those colonists did have specific, clear, and demonstrable grievances. Those grievances related directly to the way the behavior of the British affected their daily lives. They didn’t just shout ad hominem attacks across the Atlantic.

So here’s my genuine question: Conservatives, what’s your beef? What has President Obama done to threaten America? What has he done that makes him as lethal to you as Col. Sanders is to chickens?

Please don’t tell me what you think Obama is. I am a firm believer that we are what we do. What has Obama actually done that inspires such hatred?

Some more ground-rules: I don’t believe conservatives are racists. Don’t prove me wrong.

Try and avoid knee-jerk ad hominem attacks. I enjoy some good smarm, but since I’m genuinely trying to understand, try to be factual with me.

Liberals, feel free to fact-check any claims made here, but let’s allow some conservatives to make a case. That’s the point after all.

And nobody mention Kool-Aid. It’s irritating. And don’t call Obama the messiah and think it’s sarcastic and clever. Only conservatives call him that. Liberals have plenty of disagreements with Obama’s policies. I could give you a pretty long list. But my quibbles are because he’s too centrist and too willing to compromise with a political Right.

I believe the Right hates him irrationally. Convince me I’m wrong about that. Tell me what he has done to you to earn your hatred. Help me understand.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

James Henry

I just heard the news that my friend, James Henry, passed away.

I met James at last summer's Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University. James was an amazing man in many ways. He was remarkably social, engaging everyone immediately with his warmth. He was so open that his humility took you by surprise; just when you felt you were starting to get to know this unassuming, kind man, he surprised you with the kind of detail most people would lead with, like the fact that he'd won a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona. Walking down the streets of Salem on some of our writing field trips, Jim would run into a stunning number of friends. It seemed everyone knew him, and for good reason; James could make a friend in an instant, and then would maintain that friendship. He continued to correspond with me after the OWP, sending me some of his writing and critiquing mine. James was hit by a car while riding his bike some weeks ago, and suffered sever injuries. He was in a medically-induced coma, but, last I heard, it seemed like he was going to pull through, and I looked forward to many more years of friendship. I'm shaken by this sudden loss and surprised by how much Jim came to mean to me in such a short time. Here's a poem Jim read last summer at the OWP. I liked it so much that I had him email it to me, and now I'm so glad I did, so I can share this little treasure he gave me:



Disarmament

Because I have one arm, people stare.
Because people stare, they remember me.

Because I have one arm, swimming is difficult.
Through difficulty I’ve learned the patience of fish.

Because I have one arm, strangers ask how.
Because they ask, I turn strangers to friends.

Because I have one arm, people judge.
Because people judge, I don’t judge people.

Because I have one arm, some things are impossible.
Rather than quit, I master the possible.

Without my left arm, my body has limits.
My body has limits, not I.

--James Henry