Politics

Facts Are Stubborn Things

“Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

— John Adams, 1770

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Stronger Together

“I will never apologize for saying that the future of humanity and the future of the world is going to be defined by what we have in common as opposed to those things that separate us and ultimately lead us [into] conflict. We don’t realize our potential as a country when we’re preventing blacks or Latinos or Asians or gays or women from fully participating in the project of building American life.”

— President Barack Obama

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Election Day

Surely I can’t be the only one who has an anxious voice droning in their heads this morning, repeating over and over, “The Death Star has cleared the planet… the Death Star has cleared the planet… ”

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Moving Forward with Tiny, Stumbling Steps

Today, an American president is visiting Cuba for the first time in nearly a century and calling for an end to the last vestige of a Cold War that supposedly ended 25 years ago, an ineffective embargo that accomplished nothing of practical value but certainly generated a lot of human misery.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, barbarous fanatics murdered a bunch of innocent people. One step forward, two steps back, round and round she goes.

On days like this, it’s easy to give in to despair, to allow yourself to think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and nothing we do matters because the problems we face are intractable. One step forward, two steps back. But one paragraph of President Obama’s speech to the people of Cuba this morning stood out for me:

But just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that’s taking place right now. You had two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a black man who is President, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a Democratic Socialist. Who would have believed that back in 1959?  That’s a measure of our progress as a democracy.

I participated tonight for the first time in a Democratic caucus in my home state of Utah. I’d heard stories of caucuses in years past where only a dozen people showed up, but today, tonight, the lines were stretched around the block. I had a pretty quick and easy experience myself, but I saw accounts on Facebook of people waiting hours to cast their ballots. In Utah, the reddest of the red states, where membership in the Republican party is all but assumed. Were all of these people Democrats? Can there possibly be so many Democrats in this entire state? Probably not. But if that many independents and, yes, probably some Republicans too, were moved to get involved tonight, something big is swirling around out there. And my gut feeling is that it’s pretty positive.

I grieve for the people of Brussels, just as I did for the people of Ankara and Paris before them. And I am genuinely worried about the possible outcome of the general election this fall. But no matter what happens in November, I firmly believe the forces of civilization are moving forward step by fumbling step. And the barbarians and fanatics of all descriptions — including our homegrown ones — can’t stop it. Not in the long run, anyhow.

As Andrew Sullivan used to frequently say on his departed and much-missed Daily Dish blog, know hope.

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My, How Times Change…

elvis_follow-that-dreamThat beautiful weekend I was looking forward to Friday evening turned into a gray and rainy Sunday afternoon… the perfect time to watch an Elvis movie on television, just like when I was a kid!

Now, now, don’t be mean! While it’s true that Elvis Presley’s cinematic oeuvre is not exactly, shall we say, challenging fare, his movies, especially the earlier ones made before Elvis himself got bored with them, are reliably harmless entertainment that really is perfect for leaving on in the background while you do other things. In recent years, I’ve become rather fond of them and the cheerful escapism they offer. Sometimes, though, the world they depict seems so very far away from our own that it may as well be some alien planet in a science-fiction flick.

Consider the set-up of today’s selection, Follow That Dream from 1962. Elvis plays a member of a vagabond family that decides to homestead a patch of Florida land where their car just happens to run out of gas. It’s stated early on that Elvis’ character receives a disability check from the Army on account of a bad back, which he shrugs off as he lifts the car over an obstacle in the road(!). Later, as he’s explaining his relationship to the other family members, he mentions that a pair of twin boys aren’t really his brothers, they’re distant cousins that he and his father took in after their parents died, in part because they came with benefit checks of their own. So, to reiterate, Elvis’ character is a welfare cheat and a homeless squatter who uses children to increase the monthly take! And all this is played for laughs, presented to the audience as if it’s cute and quirky, and maybe even heroic, i.e., if the government is dumb enough to keep mailing those checks, why shouldn’t the family be cashing them?

Remember, this movie was made in 1962.

I just kept thinking that today, a half-century later, a whole lot of people would be calling for this family of cheating bums to be tossed over Trump’s Wall into Mexico, or worse… because if there’s one thing that our society no longer tolerates, let alone smiles about, it’s people on welfare, especially if there’s any hint that they’re gaming the system. Which is funny, because we have no problem with the robber barons in the financial sector gaming that system at everybody else’s expense. I don’t think this movie could even be made today, to be honest, or, if it was, it would have a very different spin on the scenario…

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Don’t Believe These Crackpot Lies…

Superman wasn’t the only Eisenhower-era hero who had something to say about the American ideal. Here’s Batman saying essentially the same thing in somewhat blunter terms… as Batman does, of course:

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Like I said yesterday, these old PSAs look quaint and preachy, even laughable, to our jaded modern eyes, like those 16mm educational films that people, ahem, of a certain age will remember drowsing through in school. You know, those much-spliced, color-faded, warbly-sounding propaganda pieces that showed little Billy becoming a better citizen by getting to his box-boy job on time every afternoon, or whatever. In all their simplistic earnestness, though, these comic-book messages deliver a powerful signal-to-noise ratio. Of course, they were created as a response to the rampant bigotry and xenophobia of their day — the 1950s really weren’t some perfect age of grace that we fell from with the coming of the sexual revolution, no matter what conservatives like to imagine. And how sad is it that they are still so brutally relevant today, nearly 70 years after the fact?

But I like to think that’s as much because of the timelessness of their values as the tenacity of the ills they address. Remember, kids: “Don’t believe those crackpot lies about people who worship differently, or whose skin is of a different color, or whose parents come from another country.  Remember our American heritage of freedom and equality!

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Keep Your School All-American!

I shared this on Facebook earlier, so apologies if you’ve already seen it, but it touches me pretty deeply, and I feel honor-bound to spread it as far as I can. This cartoon (which I believe was also produced as a poster in the 1950s) encapsulates the ideal of America that I grew up believing in, an ideal that feels pretty quaint and naive in light of many of the things being said at the moment. But it’s an ideal I still cling to:

superman_all-americanLike I’ve said before, “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be… they only lack the light to show them the way…”

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It Was a Lovely Weekend

It was a lovely weekend.

It wasn’t cold out, and the valley was domed by one of those crystal-clear skies that hurt to look at directly but lift your spirits when you catch them out the corner of your eye.

Saturday morning, Anne and I ate breakfast at a favorite greasy spoon, then did a little shopping. We delivered a few items to a Toys for Tots charity drive organized by some local cosplayers we know from Salt Lake Comic Con. Later, we raked leaves and laughed at the antics of our kitty-boy Evinrude, and later still we watched Ian McKellan’s latest film, Mr. Holmes. (Highly recommended, if you’ve not seen it.) The following morning, we slept late, then I spent several hours tagging and Photoshopping our photos from Scotland. That evening, we went to dinner with a friend and coworker of Anne’s. We shared a hot fudge brownie for dessert.

Meanwhile, in Paris and Beirut and Kenya, people were mopping up blood and tallying the dead.

It feels uncomfortably like 2002 all over again. The shouts of the fearful and the xenophobic are drowning out everybody else. Cynical politicians are trying to figure out how they can use the situation to their advantage, or at least to score some snarky hits on the despised President Obama. There’s a chill of hysteria in the air, and even people I personally know to be rational and decent human beings are hardening their hearts toward those who have no place to go — those we should be helping if we were true to our ideals of what America is supposed to be. And underlying it all, I can hear the drums pounding again, those drums that have always been there, somewhere off in the distance, since that sunny September morning all those years ago, urging us to stop thinking and just fall into step and march off to… where exactly? Does it matter? Will this tiresome shit never end, or is the rest of my lifetime going to be just rinse and repeat, one step forward and three goose-steps back?

Last Friday, on the day of the Paris attacks, a good friend of mine said, “Days like these really make me wonder if we as a species are even worth saving.” I don’t blame him for thinking that way, I really don’t. Not when you get a good look at all the ugly, wriggling, pale things from deep in our collective psyche that are so easily exposed with so little prompting. But I myself can’t give in to that kind of defeatism. I just can’t, for my own sanity, believe that humanity is doomed to always fall back on our own worst impulses.

I spent Friday thinking of Jor-El’s comment in Superman: The Movie: “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be.”

Or the lines spoken by Danny Glover’s character Simon in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon: “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don’t know that yet. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is.”

Or the earnest words of the great everyman hero of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee:

“It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something. … [the idea] that there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”

Of course, the fearful and the xenophobic and the self-proclaimed strongmen have a different idea of what “some good” actually means, as do the men who shot up Paris and Beirut and Kenya. And that’s the really disheartening, depressing, frightening thing.

To me, the good that we need to hold onto is the idea that we can find a way through all this bullshit. That we can find a way to live together with all of our differences, to stop killing each other and to heal our wounded planet, and to become… better. You know, all that naive, idealistic, bleeding-heart Star Trek stuff. Not so long ago, it really felt like it was within our grasp. And sometimes, for brief, fleeting moments, it still does. Like, for instance, on a Saturday afternoon following a Friday of grim headlines, when you see a grown man dressed as the Incredible Hulk on a street corner, collecting toys for poor children…

It really was a lovely weekend.

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A Few Thoughts About Airport Security

My recent travels have had me thinking about all the ways flying has devolved since my first big adventure, when I went to Cambridge, England, way back in 1993. Back then, there was still a tiny little hint of the old-school elegance to the whole thing, but not anymore. Flying these days is about as much fun as a do-it-yourself appendectomy with only a twelve-pack of 3.2% Utah beer to use for both anesthetic and disinfectant.

The airlines are as much to blame as anything for the grueling unpleasantness that is modern air travel, but the negative experience begins well before you ever set foot on a plane. I have certain, shall we say, strongly held opinions about post-9/11 airport security protocols. The short version is, I hate all that TSA nonsense with a white-hot passion.

I despise the inconvenience and the indignity of it, I don’t believe taking off my shoes or trashing my half-full water bottle really makes us safer, and I resent the implication that everyone who wants to travel is guilty until they prove themselves innocent, i.e., demonstrate that they’re not a terrorist. People are always fretting about the sanctity of the First and Second Amendments, but no one ever mentions the Fourth, which among other things guarantees that individual citizens can’t be molested by authority without probable cause. (If you disagree, please don’t start throwing case law at me; I’m not up on all of that, and I’m sure the TSA procedures are fully justified by some SCOTUS decision or other. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with it, even as I’m grudgingly exposing a roomful of people to my foot odor to demonstrate my lack of insane malevolence, or having my frickin’ ponytail frisked because the little bit of metal in the elastic triggered some overly sensitive detection device.)

I think it’s all ridiculous and more than a little cowardly, not at all in keeping with the America I grew up believing in, and I wish we’d all come to our collective senses, screw our courage to the sticking place, and roll back the screening process to pre-2001 levels. Not that I really expect that will ever happen when so many people are convinced that it’s actually accomplishing some good. But hey, I can hope, right? And I can speak out about it.

The problem is, whenever I start talking about this subject, I tend to get a bit worked up and a little wild-eyed, and then I’m all too easily dismissed as just another old man yelling at a cloud. So how about if I present my arguments in the form of a humorous video clip?

That pretty much covers all my thinking on the subject. But if that’s not enough to convince you we’ve meekly submitted to an ineffective and absurd Gilliam-esque bureaucracy, here’s an international (and very NSFW!) perspective offered by the Australian comedian Jim Jefferies:

Incidentally, the UK airports I passed through have similar screening procedures as here, but the British equivalent of the TSA was better organized, more efficient, and — most notably — far more courteous than the American version. While I still thought the situation was absurd, it was a lot easier to stomach when I was being treated with a modicum of respect…

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