Sunday, June 29, 2008

"The American Dream"

What "American Dream"?

Barack Obama's presidential campaign seems to be going with "The American Dream" mythology. A couple of weeks ago, a glossy flyer from his campaign featured a graphic with the phrase, "Reclaiming the American Dream." And yesterday arrived a letter (signed by Senator Obama and addressed to me "personally") asking for a contribution, implicitly to help him and others "reclaim the American Dream." Just what dream isn't spelled out.

The letter refers to dreams "of some factory workers," "of a woman who works the night shift after a full day of college," "of a young woman who was tricked into buying a home she couldn't afford," and "of a mother who gave Barack a bracelet inscribed with the name of her son." I guess people are expected to fill in the blanks and imagine whatever dream they want.

A book reviewed in today's New York Times Book Review has the subtitle, "How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." What dreams will its readers fill in the blanks with? The dream that by believing hard enough you can get whatever you want ("God willing"), even a born-again Christian in the White House? The dream that America can keep all of the Mexicans out? The dream that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals will just shut up and go back into their closets? The dream that everyone will watch Fox News and agree that the government is right about everything?

Some flip-side dreams: In America, you can be free of religious oppression. In America, if you can get across the border and establish yourself, you can make a new life. In America, you and your partner will receive equal treatment, whatever the gender of your partner. In America, can should be able to have free, objective, informed discussion.

The Wikipedia's American Dream entry mentions getting stuff (material, position, power, leisure, whatever your goals area) by dint of hard work, but it's obvious that hard work is not the first thing that comes to the mind of many an American dreamer. The blue collar worker who votes Republican seems to dream of making it someday and becoming one of George W. Bush's "have mores," forgetting that Bush had connections and was a legacy admit at Yale. Under the right circumstances hard work isn't necessary, as the career of Bush himself illustrates.

Many a reader of People Magazine seems to dream of attaining the lifestyle of Brad and Angelina (if you just follow their careers closely enough and read all of those glossy magazines at the supermarket checkout).

Many still seem to dream that Americans old enough to vote will inform themselves and vote intelligently, even though we know that millions of Americans don't vote, and millions more vote the way their pastor or Fox or someone else with a special interest tells them to. As George Carlin said, "It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."

"The American Dream" has become such a hackneyed phrase, I'm surprised that Obama and advertisers and the authors of books are still trying to exploit it. Maybe they know something about the American public that I continue to dream isn't so.

In America, there seems to be a dream for everyone. In America, you can dream on.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Garfield was assassinated, wasn't he?

Besides the sheer intellectual excitement and gratification afforded by Steven Pinker's 2007 book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, I much enjoy his examples. Some are overtly political, as when he writes:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
This sentence appeared in George W. Bush's State of the Union address in January 2003. It referred to intelligence reports suggesting that Saddam may have tried to buy five hundred tons of a kind of uranium ore called yellowcake...During the occupation it became clear that Saddam had had no facilities in place to manufacture nuclear weapons, and probably had never explored the possibility of buying yellowcake from Niger. In the words of placards and headlines all over the world, "Bush lied."
    Did he? The answer is not as straightforward as partisans on both sides might think...
    So did Bush lie? A strong case could be made that he did. When Bush said that the British government had "learned" that Saddam had sought uranium, he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed that it did....[pp. 6-8]
Other of Pinker's examples are simply curious...and informative:
Conundrums of causality are not just law-school exercises. On July 1, 1881, President James Garfield was waiting to board a train when Charles J. Guiteau took aim at him with a gun and shot him twice. Both bullets missed Garfield's major organs and arteries, but one lodged in the flesh of his back. The wound was minor by today's standards and needn't have been fatal even in Garfield's day. But his doctors subjected him to the harebrained medical practices of the time, like probing his wound with their unwashed hands (decades after antisepsis had been discovered) and feeding him through his rectum instead of his mouth. Garfield lost a hundred pounds as he lingered on his deathbed, succumbing to the effects of starvation and infection eighty days after the shooting. At his trial, Guiteau repeatedly said, "The doctors killed him; I just shot him." The jury was unpersuaded, and in 1882 Guiteau was hanged—another man whose fate hinged on the semantics of a verb.[pp. 86-87]
An earlier page of Pinker's book had made a subtle reference to the identity of the other man. The verb in that case was "is."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Rounding third

I've felt this morning as though I were again a potent young male brimming with juice and the motive energy to deliver it in continual spurts of seminal fecundity. (Either feeling that way or like a middle-aged female novelist making up phrases for her next commercial romance?)...At any rate, my almost manic sense of having so many ideas desperately wanting to be expressed inspires the lust for life I sometimes feel in whose sway I simply do not want to die, must not die yet, not yet.

Alas, the young-male metaphor is, in fact, just a metaphor for this gray-headed sixty-five-year-old. Yet the feeling of that restless sexual motive is real and does, as I say, seem apt for the élan vital (or something) that was sweeping through me...Was sweeping through me? Yes, now it seems already to have died down and left me in its wake rational and contemplative. But hopefully not spent. So many ways to go, in which to head?


On a particular day in early May our move from the house of twenty-five years to the temporary apartment (on the way a few weeks later to the new house abuilding) arrived at that point where we had to start sleeping in the apartment, which I may have thought could never for a moment achieve the status of "home." On that day, and for a couple of days thereafter, both of us (my wife and I, not to mention perhaps our dog) were confused and ambivalent about what to call "home." The day after our first night in the apartment, for example, one of us said, as we returned to the old house for some more things to remove before the closing, "Let's go back home...."

But for weeks now we've referred to the apartment as home. I call my wife from the sidewalk waiting for the bus to tell her I'm leaving work, I'll be home soon. Or last night, at the president's barbecue, we looked at each other and one of us said, "Ready to go home?" (Ready to go home and watch another episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"?....) I noticed, even on our vacation in California, and on Bainbridge Island, that we spoke of "going home," back to my sister's house from the harbor after getting off the boat from Santa Cruz Island, back to our daughter's condo from watching "Iron Man" at a movie theater, back from the Suquamish Museum or from the Naval Undersea Museum to my high school Latin teacher's condo we used on Bainbridge Island for our last three nights on the West Coast.

What makes a place home? Possibly it's its having the sheets you slide between to sleep at night. Or the place where you park your toothbrush and dentifrice. Where the coffee beans are in the morning. Something utterly basic and essentially everyday. Even the visiting team's third-base coach unselfconsciously waves his (or her) runner..."home." Home is where you score?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Eating other animals: Is it humane?1

One of my "new ten commandments" (#5 in the post linked to) is to treat all living creatures humanely. An old friend and I have been comparing our philosophies with respect to other animals. We agree on humane treatment. Gorillas shouldn't be killed in order to cut off their hands to use as ashtrays, for example. Hunters shouldn't kill animals for sport. But I go further than my friend in being sympathetic with vegans whose abstinence from eating flesh rests on their moral position that animals (including fish) should not be killed in order to be eaten (or raised in ghastly industrial circumstances for that purpose).

Not all vegans base their abstinence on that moral position. My friend himself is a vegan, but for the reason that it is healthier not to eat meat. And I am not a practicing vegan at all. My position is "purely philosophical" and, I suppose, in some way hypocritical (even though I freely admit it).

One thing that plays into my "philosophical veganism" is the concept of compassion as presented in the popular book How to Want What You Have, by Timothy Miller, which I read some years ago. Miller doesn't talk about compassion (so far as I remember) with respect to animals other than humans, but I found it impossible, from a broadly philosophical and moral viewpoint, not to apply it to all living creatures. Miller's concept relative to humans is that one person isn't any more derserving than the next person. He recommends that the principle of compassion guide our moral choices, the way we treat other people.

Obviously, that's a profoundly Gandhian or Jesus Christian point of view. Meekness. One doesn't have to "believe in God" to find the concept powerfully attractive, as I do. My political philosophy is grounded in the belief. This explains why I so loathe the George Bushes of the world (overprivileged, underdeserving), why I am a "liberal," why I vote "for the common good" rather than to benefit my own pocketbook, why I am so critical of "popular [materialistic] culture"—perhaps even why I am critical of sports fanaticism.

I just wanted to put this out there, while I'm contemplating it anew. Thank you, my old friend.
  1. I toyed with titling this post more simply just "Eating animals: Is it humane?," but I realized that would include cannibalism, which I trust we need not get into.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In memoriam: George Carlin (1937-2008)

As a friend wrote to me today, I say to you:
Click on this link to go to [a site where you can link to] YouTube and hear Carlin's routine on "Stuff." It is hysterical.
Wikipedia entry.

Flawless flawed

The 2007 film "Flawless," directed by Michael Radford and starring Demi Moore and Michael Caine (yes, Ms. Moore is billed before Mr. Caine), is an engaging enough heist film, but unlike some of the diamonds involved, is not itself flawless. Diamond company executive Laura Quinn's choice to be a giver is merely tucked on at the end, which might be okay if the film makers gave up their conceit that the film is somehow about her decision. The choice needs to have been dramatized.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Any Yalies still proud that Bush went to Yale?

During lunch my wife was reading "Doonesbury." She smiled and said, "Trudeau's having more of his fun today at Bush's expense. He's another Yale graduate embarrassed that Bush went there too."

"I wonder how many are still proud of it?" I'd learned, from the president of Yale himself, that quite a few Yalies were quite proud of it (as late as two years ago, at any rate).

But not me. My own Bush embarrassment has of course been on record for years, since I wrote for my 40th class reunion,
In 2001, with chagrined incredulity and embarrassment, I learned that Yale would bestow an honorary degree on George W. Bush. As a citizen, I thought that Bush’s unmerited and highly questionable attainment of our Presidency had been embarrassment enough.
    ...So Bush had given a bad name to legacy admissions policies, to America’s way of choosing a President, and now to the granting of honorary degrees. [The complete text was published on this blog as part of my 2006 correspondence with Yale president Richard C. Levin1.]
If anyone reading this knows (or knows of) a Yale graduate still proud that our Great Decider went to Yale, please be kind enough to comment here and let me know. Don't bother to mention Joseph I. Lieberman. I know about him.
  1. My correspondence with President Levin was published on this blog in June 2006. My first letter to him appeared on June 25, 2006.

The second season

Friday and last night, I watched the ten episodes of the second season (2001, according to Wikipedia) of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I watched them in such quick succession that they're mostly a blur in my memory already, but I remember that I liked them very much. And one of them (though not the best of the lot) I do remember quite well because of its hilarious (and all-too-true) comment on people's religious behavior.

I'm referring to Episode #9, "Baptism," in which the sister of Larry's long-suffering wife Cheryl (played sympathetically by the lovely Cheryl Hines) is getting married. Now Cheryl and her sister aren't Jews, and while Cheryl may be married to one, her sister will have none of it and has prevailed on her fiancé to convert to Christianity in order to become her husband. He is to be baptized into the faith immediately preceding the wedding.

Predictably (for nothing ever goes quite according to plan for Larry) Larry and Cheryl's itinerary from L.A. to Monterey gets derailed and they arrive late for the proceedings. Larry staggers out of their rental car into the woods and walks a few feet before spotting down below two men standing in the edge of a fast river, one of them apparently trying to drown the other—the one with the apprehensive look on his face. Right, the apprehensive one is Cheryl's sister's about-not-to-be-a-Jewish fiancé.

Well, anyway, Larry (always eager to help and try to make things better) spontaneously yells "stop" and starts to run down the hill. Startled, the church officiant who has been in the act of dunking the fiancé lets him go, and the bride and the rest of the wedding party, after turning around briefly to see where the "stop" came from, turn back to the river to see the fiancé starting to be carried downstream. They all rush into the river to save him from drowning.

You've got to see this for yourself, but the upshot of it is that the groom refuses to go back into the river to complete the baptism, claiming that during the moment he was initially dunked he had the impression that something or someone was telling him that it just wasn't right, what he was doing.

"Not right to become a Christian," his horrified bride asks?

"No, no, not that," he says. "Wrong to renounce my Jewness." [That isn't the actual dialogue, but I'm too lazy today to go transcribe the exact words, which of course are better than my paraphrase and deserving to have you find out for yourself by renting the DVD.]

The episode ends in the more or less standard way of Larry (joined in this case by Cheryl) looking into the short distance trying to make sense of it all as the Christians on one side and the Jews on the other jeer and shake their fists at one another.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Larry David, at least the TV persona

Having tired of "House" (and wondering how Hugh Laurie continues to endure the title role), I'm glad to have discovered "Curb Your Enthusiasm," starring its apparent creator (as himself), Larry David, who we're given to understand had something big to do with "Seinfeld."1 The program seems to have debuted on HBO in 2000 (according to the Wikipedia).

I wonder whether one of the "big things" Larry David did on "Seinfeld" was to create the character of George Costanza, whom my wife couldn't stand (or the character Elaine, whom she can't stand either) and thinks the Larry David character resembles. I can see the resemblance, but the Larry David character seems much more sympathetic to me. Rather, George Costanza didn't seem sympathetic at all (although I find it impossible to dislike Jason Alexander in the role, same as I find Julia Louis-Dreyfuss too appealingto dislike her as Elaine). And the Larry David character somehow seems very sympathetic. To me.

The character seems driven to try to be liked but cursed by a warped sense of what he should do (and not do) to obtain the result, his actions usually turning out disastrously, mainly for himself. I much enjoy the artistry of the elaborate plots the writers have devised to bring these disasters about, with Larry David inevitably left standing there looking into the near distance trying to absorb the pain of it all and understand once again where he went wrong.

The same as when we walk dazed out of a darkened movie theater, with its gigantic screened faces and jacked-up sound, and we find ourselves taken over by one of the dominating characters (so that we hear ourselves talking with his voice and moving our bodies the way he does), I've started occasionally to have the unelected sense that I'm myself Larry David, in all his sympathetic foible and bewilderment. I think I've become a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fan not only because I'm hooked on the artistry of its writers (although I don't care much for the "Woodly Allen style" of improvisation or for the hand-held camera), but also because I identify with the Larry David screen persona, however like or unlike the unsympathetic George Costanza he may be.

The resource center also has the DVDs for Seasons Two, Three, Four, and Five. You know I've the second to start watching this evening!
  1. According to the Wikipedia, Larry David "teamed up with Jerry Seinfeld to co-create the television series 'Seinfeld,' where he also acted as head writer and executive producer. David's work won him a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1993. In 1999, he created and stars in the HBO series 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' an improvised sitcom in which he plays a fictionalized version of himself."