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:


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!


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…”


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.


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…


Another One… and Another and Another and Another…

[Ed. note: I wrote this post a couple months ago following the last mass shooting that made national headlines, but I ultimately chickened out of publishing it, basically because I have friends who own guns and who have a very different perspective on them than I do, and I didn’t want to risk an argument with them. I still don’t want to argue with them, or with anybody else, for that matter. But today’s news of yet another incident, this time on a college campus in Oregon, has stirred up the same sickening mixture of anger, helplessness, and resignation all over again, so this time I am going to publish it. For all the good it will do. I don’t expect to change any minds or actually accomplish anything with my words. And I certainly don’t want to pick a fight! I just have to say something. Because it’s what I do.

One last thing: There’s cussing ahead. Beware if that bothers you.]

Admit it: You can’t even keep them straight anymore, can you? We were just talking about Charleston, weren’t we? Or was it Chattanooga? Oh yes, that’s right… today it’s Lafayette. A movie theater (What, again? We’ve already done that one!) in Lafeyette, Louisiana… three dead, including the shooter, and nine wounded. Not that the details matter much, in the broad sense of our discussion here; it’s the same old story we’ve heard before. It’s so familiar, in fact, that it’s what we old-timers would call a “broken record.”  (Ask your parents, kids.) And I don’t know about you, but I’m getting really sick of hearing this particular ditty.

I don’t have any idea why mass shootings seem to be happening so often these days, and I don’t have any practical idea how to stop them, not in light of (a) how many guns are already out there in America, and (b) how many Americans are flatly opposed to even considering doing anything about (a). But goddamn it, how many more times does this need to happen — how many more innocent people have to die in pools of their own blood for no crime other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, just trying to live their lives — before we take a deep breath as a society and say, “Enough“? Before we seriously reconsider this self-destructive love affair with gun ownership and realize that the crazy-hot chick who’s been leading us around by the baby-maker is really just… kinda crazy? Honestly, I thought Sandy Hook would’ve been the breaking point, but if a bunch of little kids getting blown away isn’t sufficient to make people sit up and do something, I don’t know what the hell will be.

I feel queasy writing this and I haven’t even decided yet if I’ll actually post it, because I fear alienating my gun-owning friends who are likely to read it. But goddamn it, I’m through being sad about these events; now I’m angry that this keeps happening, and I’m furious that we, as a nation, won’t seriously talk about what to do about it… yes, I am talking about gun control and making a serious effort to reduce the number of guns on our streets and I’m maybe even talking about amending the Constitution, if that’s what it takes to change this insane mess we’re living with.

I simply cannot imagine that this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind… or that they’d have long tolerated it. So what’s wrong with us that we do put up with it?

Comments disabled on this one.


Nailed It

I’ve never liked Donald Trump. From the moment this guy hit my radar back in the 1980s, I thought he was a loudmouthed jerk who single-handedly refuted the “greed is good” motto of the day. I hate his tacky gold-colored skyscrapers and his self-aggrandizing habit of putting his own name on everything he owns in fifty-foot-high letters. I hate his stupid television game show. And I hate his swaggering, mean-spirited, condescending dismissal-by-schoolyard-insult of anyone who isn’t either (a) Donald Trump, or (b) a butt-licking sycophant who sings the praises of Donald Trump. The fact that his presidential run is polling so well among a certain demographic is both mystifying to me and also, frankly, kind of terrifying.

Those poll numbers lend the following — supposedly an actual dictionary entry — something of sour-grapes flavor, but it’s too on-target not to pass along anyhow:

Actually, this seemed a lot funnier when I first spotted it over at Kevin Drum’s blog.


This Will Be a Day Long Remembered


I’ve been trying to think all day of what I can say about this morning’s historic Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalizes same-sex marriage across the nation, and frankly… I’ve got nothing. At least nothing that others haven’t already said, and probably said better than I would anyhow.

I know there are many people who are unhappy about the verdict. Many people I consider friends are among them, and maybe a few of them actually made it past the photo at the top of the entry and are reading these words. To you, my religious conservative friends, all I can say is that I understand your bewilderment, your frustration, and your anger… and I’m sorry you’ve had such a shitty day. Sincerely, I am. I’ve been there too with issues I care deeply about that haven’t gone the way I hoped. But I know in my heart and in my mind that history will view this as a good decision, and a good day. A day that reaffirmed the first and most basic tenet behind the founding of this nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

What is more central to the pursuit of happiness than the freedom to marry the person with whom you want to build a life, and to have that union recognized by the same laws that validate and protect any other person’s union? That’s what this whole issue is and always has been about… not forcing churches to perform ceremonies they don’t approve of, but to ensure that everyone enjoys the same privileges and protections under the law, no matter whom they love.

People who say this country is going to hell in a hand-basket are wrong. This country just took a big step toward fulfilling the promise of what it’s supposed to be.


Another Day, Another Massacre

During his six years in office, President Obama has been obliged to make 14 public statements following a mass shooting. Think about that for a moment. Sit back and let it really sink in:

Fourteen mass shootings in a six-year period.

Fourteen. In six years.

That’s damn near one every six months.

But here’s the really horrible thing about that statistic: They’re really not much of a surprise anymore, are they? Oh, we react as if they are. We all gasp and get on social media to express our horror, grief, disbelief, anger, and condolences. Editorials get written. An image of the shooter (preferably looking as deranged and/or hateful as possible) appears in so many places that it gets engraved into our collective memory under the catch-all rubric “Evil,” while the faces of the people whose lives he — it’s always a male, isn’t it? — extinguished go unrecognized. We shake our fists at the sky and shout that something needs to be done. But it never is, is it? Nothing ever changes. Nothing happens. In a few days, we’ll be once again collectively obsessing over the latest celebrity gossip, or the hot new blockbuster at the multiplex, or the latest tempest-in-a-teapot outrage, and the shooting will fade from our consciousness. And then the next one will come along, and we’ll go through the same pointless, Sisyphean cycle all over again.

The squicky, hard-to-admit truth is that mass shootings have been happening so regularly in recent years, we’ve actually gotten kind of used to them. Again, let that sink in. It happens so goddamned often that we’ve gotten used to them. The cycle of grief and horror and outrage following each one gets shorter and shorter, and the words spoken by our pundits and our president have less and less power, because they’ve said all the same things before. All too many times before.

You can hardly blame the president for sounding fed up during his remarks about last night’s killing of nine parishioners in a Charleston, SC, church. Having to make the same grim speech of condolence fourteen times ought to be enough to make anyone angry. The fact that this shooting has a personal dimension for him — that the dead were African-American like himself, that he personally knew the pastor who was killed, that the site of their murders was a historically significant black church that has been witness to violence before, and that the, ahem, alleged shooter was a young white racist — could only have added fuel to the fire. I came away with the distinct impression that the president was boiling this morning. But sometimes anger is a good thing, an empowering thing. Certainly it empowered President Obama to say something today that needs to be said, and has needed to be said for some time, and needs to be said over and over until it, too, starts to sink in:

At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.

Emphasis mine. Now, from my perspective, that observation about other countries is so self-evident that it’s impossible to imagine anyone disputing it. And yet… within seconds of the words leaving the president’s mouth, the comments started appearing on Facebook and Twitter and on the websites reporting on his statement. Comments from the usual trolls and haters, calling Obama naive, a fool, an idiot, and worse. And of course there were concerned citizens reminding us that he’s ignoring ISIS’ beheading of Christians! How can Obama say there’s no mass violence in other countries when Muslim terrorists walk the earth?!

I apologize to any conservative friends who may be reading this, but those responses are evasive bullshit. ISIS operates in unstable, war-torn parts of the Middle East, a region that’s hardly comparable to our society even when things aren’t going to hell over there. But in the industrialized Western countries that are similar to our own — the European nations, Australia, Canada, Japan (even though it’s not technically Western), the countries Obama was talking about — the level of violence we just suck up and live with would be unthinkable. Yes, acts of violence, even mass violence, do occur in those countries. But they happen far less often than in America. Far less often. And it’s about damn time we stopped denying it and started seriously thinking about why. I think the answer is pretty clear to anybody with any intellectual honesty. It’s because America is awash in guns, and we glorify gun violence in our national mythology and our popular entertainment. We are a gun-worshipping society that values individual action over the good of the community, and none of the other advanced Western nations are that way. QED.

Now, for the record, I am not particularly anti-gun. I don’t own one, and I can’t imagine any circumstance in which I ever will own one. I don’t view the world in such a way that owning one seems necessary. But I have friends who own them, and they’re decent, responsible human beings who I trust not to go out and shoot up a crowded public place. So while I don’t get the appeal myself, I also have no desire to see my friends’ hobby taken away from them. However, it makes no damn sense to me that we regulate automobiles and the privilege of operating them more heavily than we do firearms.

Not that it really matters what I think or understand. As President Obama himself acknowledged, there’s no political will to enact truly effective or meaningful gun control. The gun lobby won that battle of the culture war years ago, and anyway, there is also the practical matter of how many guns are actually floating around out there already. I don’t believe for a second there’s any realistic way of rounding them all up and doing away with them, the paranoid fantasies of the “cold, dead fingers” crowd notwithstanding. That’s one way in which America is truly exceptional.

No, it doesn’t matter what I think, or what the president thinks, or what anybody else thinks. Nothing is going to change. And in six months or a year, another man with a gun is going to murder another roomful of people, and we’re going to have this same damn discussion again. That thought — that certainty — fills me with disgust and rage and a crushing sense of futility.

At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.

God, I hope so…


How Do You Feel?

I do a lot of fretting/grumbling/navel-gazing here — well, everywhere, really — about getting older, feeling older, fearing I’ve lost touch with popular culture, being past my prime… hey, you’ve read the posts. But something occurred to me this morning:

In recent years, I’ve lost a lot of the weight I unwisely stacked on in my thirties.

Thanks to my LASIK surgery two weeks ago, I have my original, un-bespectacled face back.

In the next few months, we’ll be seeing a new Mad Max film, a new Jurassic Park film, a new Terminator, another Mission: Impossible, and, lest we forget, a new Star Wars episode.

And of course next year’s presidential election will likely be between a Clinton and a Bush.

You see where I’m going with this?

It’s like I’m young again!

Either that, or suffering a massive case of deja vu.


One More

Noah Millman of The American Conservative has a slightly different take from Jim Wright’s on the motivations behind the American torture program:

I believe that our reasons [for torturing detainees] were far less rational [than the reasons of the Nazi or Soviet regimes].


I’ve written before about the overwhelming fear that afflicted the country in the wake of 9-11, and how, perversely, exaggerating the severity of the threat from al Qaeda helped address that fear, because it made it acceptable to contemplate more extreme actions in response. If al Qaeda was really just a band of lunatics who got lucky, then 3,000 died because, well, because that’s the kind of thing that can happen. If al Qaeda was the leading edge of a worldwide Islamo-fascist movement with the real potential to destroy the West, then we would be justified in nuking Mecca in response. Next to that kind of response, torture seems moderate.


Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence. It certainly wasn’t about instilling fear or extracting false confessions – these would not have served American purposes. It was never about “them” at all. It was about us. It was our psychological security blanket, our best evidence that we were “all-in” in this war, the thing that proved to us that we were fierce enough to win.


In other words, being down with a little of the old ultra-violence was the same difference as the stupid shit teenage boys to convince each other — and themselves — that they’re real men. You know, a little grab-ass when you’re getting pumped up for the big game. Two for flinchin’. Holding your hand over a lighter to demonstrate how tough you are. To put it more crassly, measuring each other’s dicks.

Honestly, I wish this line of thought didn’t sound so plausible, because I think I prefer good old-fashioned bloodlust as an explanation than this… puerile macho bullshit. “Proving one’s seriousness.” God. That’s a really good reason for shredding the agreed-upon standards of civilization and honor.

Look, I know four blog posts in a row on the same thing is tiresome. And I know this isn’t a pleasant subject, especially for people who only come here to read about pop culture or a warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia piece, so I apologize for belaboring the point. But this issue is hugely important to me. And hugely traumatic. Because it cuts the heart out of my identity as an American. Despite having been told for years that I “hate America” because I dare to criticize its flaws, I’ve nevertheless clung to one central ideal: that America is basically a decent country, and Americans are basically decent people. That we are the good guys. Or at least we try to be. In spite of our tendency to meddle in the affairs of others, in spite of our regrettable history of genocide and slavery, the overall arc of our history, as I’ve always understood it, has been one of gradual progress toward justice, equality, and greater dignity — greater humanity — for everyone. It hasn’t been a smooth arc, to be sure. It’s stuttered at times, slowed to a crawl, sometimes even appeared to drift backwards. I know there have been abominable things in our past — blankets infested with smallpox and Jim Crow and the My Lai massacre — but I have always believed these were aberrations. That, at its core, in our institutions and our ideals, this country was good, and striving to be better. And that there are some things the good guys just do not do. Some lines that they simply do not cross.

So to learn that Americans did things to human beings in U.S. custody that the Gestapo would’ve been all too familiar with, things that we would completely lose our shit over if they were done to Americans… to learn that this activity was not perpetrated by some rogue agents but was part of a defined, sanctioned government program… to learn that fully a quarter of the people subjected to this treatment were innocent, and that some of them were in fact CIA assets… well, let’s just say it’s pretty disillusioning. Of all the bullshit things America has done since 9/11 in the name of “security,” this is the one that simply cannot be excused. Or forgiven.

I am sickened by what the CIA did in our name. I am depressed that there will likely be no consequences for those who planned, approved, and carried out this program of horror. But the thing that really has me reeling, that fills me with impotent anger and disgust and sorrow, is that a hell of a lot of my fellow Americans… are perfectly fine with it. They either don’t care what the CIA interrogators did or they outright approve of it. Judging from the comments I’ve been reading (I know, I know! Never read the comments!), a lot of my countrymen wish the program was still going on. These are dark times, they say… unsavory things have to be done to keep us safe, they say… you pussy bleeding-heart liberals have no idea what goes on in the real world, they say… those guys behead people, they say, so what’s wrong with giving them a little “discomfort?” (Um… because it’s wrong?) I just don’t understand this perspective. I just don’t. Once again, it’s like I’m wandering around Bizarro World, or the Mirror Universe, or wherever the hell I ended up when I passed through that wormhole. Because the America those people are so eager to defend by any means necessary certainly isn’t an America I recognize.

But enough. I’m not going to change anybody’s mind with my screeds, assuming anyone is even reading this. You either think the torture program was immoral or you don’t, and we all know nothing is going to come of the report anyhow. A week from now, there will be some other outrage eating up all the bandwidth, and none of the stony-faced men — and I use that word very lightly — who planned and carried out this barbarism are going to face any punishment for it. But America will never again have the moral high ground in our dealings with other nations. We have forfeited our claim to being any more civilized — or rather, any less barbaric — than any place else. And I for one will never stop mourning the loss of the America I thought I knew.