Sunday, January 28, 2007

Silenced Voice

Readers in many U.S. cities will be familiar with the so-called “alternative weekly” newspapers. These are tabloids styling themselves as alternatives to the mainstream dailies. Occasionally they produce some OK local journalism. But most of them are drab, mediocre fish-wrap with a phony “hip” attitude, a few middle brow columnists, one or two local feature articles a week, listings for local arts, and a ton of advertisements. You can scan these rags in less than a half an hour with rarely a need to pause over an article that’s even remotely challenging, much less anything like great journalism.

The master template for this shit-for-brains newspaper genre is the New Times in Phoenix, Arizona, run by an arrogant huckster named Mike Lacey. Lacey went about buying up weekly tabloids around the country and turning them into identical, irrelevant, disposable crap. It was easy to ignore this parasite, considering the far greater problems afflicting American media in general. That is, until New Times bought The Village Voice.

I have read The Voice for over thirty years, and was a regular subscriber for almost twenty. Although it was published in New York, and printed its fair share of local stories, its scope and influence was larger than that. It was one of the very few papers in the country that regularly covered progressive politics and culture. I could spend hours reading the paper’s political columnists, feature articles on world and national issues, and film, theater, and music sections. When it was announced that the predator New Times was absorbing the paper, to a long-time lover of The Village Voice, it was like a punch in the gut.

Right off the bat, the excellent James Ridgeway was fired, and Sydney Schanberg quit. That’s when I cancelled my subscription. Since then, we’ve seen Michael Atkinson and Dennis Lim axed from the film section, and Robert Christgau and Chuck Eddy from the music pages. Those are just some of the bigger names—over thirty other staffers have been fired as well, to be replaced by idiot clones of editor David Blum, and recycled writers from other New Times rags.

The usual line you read is that The Voice was already predictable, a shadow of its former self. And Lacey talked like he was going to make the paper better, more “relevant.” All you had to do was pick up any one of his birdcage-liner publications across the country to know that this was a lie. But the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the putrid swill.

In a time of illegal war, right-wing Republican scandal, and a level of both political meltdown and progressive activism not seen since the 60s, you can read The Voice now and barely have an idea that any of this is going on. Nat Hentoff is the only one writing about national issues--in fact the only real columnist left. We’ve had cover stories about American Idol, a gay rugby player, a woman addicted to candy, and an exposé of male pick-up techniques (which turned out be both phony and plagiarized). A recent cover story purports to criticize Tom Wolfe for writing about historical preservation just to salvage his career, a charge which applies more to the article itself, which offers nothing but baseless insinuations in a desperate attempt to be “cutting edge.”

You can read the first three paragraphs of any of these articles and know exactly what they’re going to say. They’re always boring. Whereas I used to spend hours reading The Voice, I can now just go to the library, scan the first part of the paper briefly for something interesting (which I never find, outside of Hentoff), read J. Hoberman on film, Feingold on theater, and be done with The Voice in less than twenty minutes. It’s now an empty, cowardly, dull, mindless publication, just like everything else Lacey has ever touched.

Memo to Mike Lacey: fuck you. You’ve turned one of the country’s best and only progressive newspapers into a piece of shit. Your features are just like every other stale “alternative” weekly article I’ve ever read. Despite your pretentious blatherings, what you produce is not journalism. I have read journalism, and I have read The New Times, and I know the difference. Please sell The Voice to someone with a soul—you can go back to Phoenix and have a fine career as a pimp there. You’re out of your element in New York.

Lacey will just keep on sucking the life out of newspapers, which is what he knows how to do. All I can say is, don’t subscribe to The Voice, or buy from the companies who advertise in it. If The Village Voice is ever to be reborn, this zombie New Times imitation of The Voice needs to die.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Afterdeath (Part 3)

In the East, a completely different belief system developed around the concept of life after death. Instead of a new life in another world, life would be continued in this world, through the transmigration of souls, or as it has become popularly know, reincarnation.

This ingenious idea has several advantages. It soothes the fear of annihilation, while avoiding the absurdities implied in the Western notion of personal immortality. It also teaches a continuity of life on earth—living beings are recycled into new forms, and life goes on. The view of time and the cosmos as endlessly recurring is more in line with ancient beliefs, born of humanity’s alignment with the seasonal cycle of eternal rebirth, than with the more recent, and more difficult, concept of an end of time in which everything is resolved once and for all.

In all belief systems concerning the soul, death, or the supernatural, it is necessary to apply what I choose to call the rule of “human, all too human.” Human conceptions of the absolute or the transcendent are founded in intuitions that can not be codified into language without reflecting human limitations. It is the very nature of abstraction, of thought and language themselves, to embody principles of duality. It is for this very reason that transcendent truth can only be indicated through metaphor, or if discussed in strictly rational terms, through the negative. Thus we say, “the unlimited,” or “the unconditioned,” since the intuition of such can only be conceived in terms of the absence of any abstraction, of any duality whatsoever.

One of the greatest ironies of the clash between science and religion is that science has actually confirmed, in empirical terms, the intuitive sense of the incommensurable that has been a perennial source of spiritual belief. The resistance to it is based on human clinging to the so-called literal interpretations of religious dogma and scripture, with a great contributor to this being simply human pride—the immensity of the universe as revealed by science threatening the perceived centrality of the human drama. But in terms of human belief systems, science has only accentuated, made more obvious, a truth that was always evident to those brave enough to see. Human concepts cannot adequately convey the infinity of Nature.

So religious belief systems appear clumsy when compared to natural processes because they attempt to fit the infinite into a schema, whereas Nature needs no schema, or rather is the source of all that we may perceive as a schema. If we keep this in mind when examining the idea of reincarnation, it is perfectly evident that the notion of souls jumping around from body to body (like fleas jumping from one dog to another) seems unnecessarily mechanistic (i.e. clumsy) when compared to the incredible profligacy of Nature, in which living things can be born by the billions per second, and die at the same rate. To have to operate through individual souls, as if such souls were solid, indivisible units of being—how awkward and superfluous for Nature, whose fecundity is beyond conception. This indeed is “human, all too human,” and the stumbling block is of course the need to cling to the individual self, not daring to face the fact that this self is exactly what dies.

The problem becomes more acute when the notion of karma is added to the mix. I speak of popular conceptions, not of the many rarefied and sophisticated doctrines of Eastern philosophy. The widely known (and crude) meaning of karma is in some respects similar to the problem of justice that led to the creation of heaven and hell in the Western tradition. The actions one performs in this life, good or bad, lead to good or bad results in the next life.

I have actually heard it explained that suffering, injustice, and grave misfortune happens to people because of actions they took in previous lives. This superficial solution to the problem of justice is ultimately more unjust than the doctrine of hell. For one thing, since we have no memory of previous lives, there is no moral result from karmic consequences. I would have to make a conscious connection to previous actions in order to experience any moral awareness or change regarding my experience of suffering in this life. If the universe contains an ethical cause-and-effect between lives, it totally defeats the purpose to have people reborn without memory of previous lives. If a child is maimed in an accident, there is no ethical validity to imagining that the child was a Mafia hit man in a previous life. He’s a child now, and nothing within the continuity of the child’s present experience justifies his suffering.

There are, besides this, graver consequences of such a belief. For if everything that happens to us is a lawful result of karma, than nothing can really be unjust. Everyone who was killed in the Holocaust must have done something to deserve it in previous lives. (As a corollary to this, we have a popular New Age belief that we choose everything that happens to us. The little girl that got molested actually chose that.) The end of this doctrine is moral vacuity. Karmic results for actions can have no ethical dimension at all—what standard could there be for a moral consequence when the action in question is in itself a just consequence of a previous action?

So much for the popular misconception of karma. A karmic system of reincarnation would seem to be another myth of life after death that causes more problems than it solves. But even without the moral dimension, rebirth assumes the continuity of the ego. In Buddhism, where the existence of an ego is denied, the mythology of reincarnation has always presented a contradiction. Yet it remains part of the popular Buddhist mythos. Such is the endurance of human clinging to the idea of a permanent self.

This is, in fact, the ultimate dilemma of all afterlife beliefs. The human fear of death determines the structure of belief according to the desire for personal survival, and at the same time in denial of human intuition. For the spiritual seeker to face and experience the truth, he or she must be willing to explore and entertain the intuition of that which has hitherto seemed insupportable.

(This is the last in a series of articles about beliefs concerning survival after death)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

What a maroon

Sean Hannity recently unveiled a new feature on his show. The idea was obviously to imitate Keith Olbermann’s “Worst person in the world.” Guess what Hannity’s segment is called. Are you ready? Enemy of the State. (Here's a clip for the incredulous.)

Usually I’m just enraged whenever I catch a few minutes of Hannity’s show, during the rare occasions when I visit the Zombie Channel out of morbid curiosity. In this case, however, I had to laugh at the sheer stupidity of the title. Of course this guy is not known for his intellectual abilities (the fact that the President has chosen to be interviewed by this lug is an indicator of how far we have sunk). But this goes beyond his normal level of imbecility, because even on supposedly conservative terms, the title is an incredible gaffe that only makes Hannity look like a clown.

Elevating the state to sacred status is not a characteristic strategy of the American right, at least not in recent years. The standard horseshit, distilled into a fine brown liquid by Ronald Reagan, is that we need less government. Self-reliance and individual effort are the bywords, and state interference is to be avoided. It was never strictly true, only a code for profit-making untrammeled by ethics, but here it’s as if Hannity has unwittingly revealed the fascist subtext. Here’s Mussolini, for instance: “…the Fascist conception of power is for the State; and it is for the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State.” I could pick any number of other quotes from the Nazis that say the same thing. For that matter, the Soviet line was identical, except that they would say “the people” or “the workers” or “the Party” instead of “the State,” but it’s the same damn thing in the end.

So by choosing “Enemy of the State” as the title of his segment, Hannity ennobles any and every person he might choose to name. (His first choice was Sean Penn, the lucky bastard.) But really, what liberty-loving American of any political persuasion wouldn’t feel honored to be called an enemy of the state? It’s about the same as being called a freedom fighter or a patriot. The only people that would not wish to be named by Sean Hannity would be craven, sniveling cowards whose only ambition is to blend into the mass of state worshippers, or at the most to gain the approval of their masters. Hannity has gauged his true audience and his judgment is clear: the ideal viewer of his show is a sheep.

Friday, January 12, 2007

How shrewd

President Pantload has announced that more American should be killed in order to stave off any embarrassment he may have to experience by admitting complete failure. Such are the consequences when war is waged not in response to a genuine threat to our shores, but as a move in a geopolitical game.

It’s remarkable, too, how members of both parties admit openly to being motivated by a fear of being blamed for “losing.” The essentially infantile nature of our politics has never been more obvious: the fear of blame overriding even the dire and deadly realities on the ground. Everywhere one looks in Washington, and in the corrupt media covering it, we see a frightening ability to look at human lives as if they were dispensable objects. This is moral degradation of the first order.

We are told that to “lose” this battle (on the front of the generalissimo’s global war of terror) would be disastrous. The consequences we are being warned of have already happened. The neocons turned Iraq into a terrorist breeding ground. They have destabilized the Middle East to the point of near breakdown. Yet they warn us that these things will happen if we pull out.

Senator Durbin presented the official Democratic response to the Boosh speech, and it should have dismayed anyone with a conscience. After saying that Americans have paid a heavy price—which is true—he went on to say: “,,,we have given the Iraqis so much. We have deposed their dictator. We dug him out of a hole in the ground and forced him to face the courts of his own people. We've given the Iraqi people a chance to draft their own constitution, hold their own free elections and establish their own government. We Americans, and a few allies, have protected Iraq when no one else would.”

What mendacity. What arrogance. Have the Iraqis not paid a heavy price, heavier than our own? Have they not lost hundreds of thousands of people to death, injury, or exile? Have they not seen their country collapse into chaos? The Iraqis have told us themselves that life was better under Saddam. But Durbin acts as if the U.S. bears no responsibility for the tragic consequences of its invasion.

I happened to be watching MSNBC, and the fathead Chris Matthews called Durbin’s speech shrewd. “He doesn’t come off as antiwar, as some sort of flower child” (I quote from memory). The other pundits seem to agree. Perhaps willful blindness and lying is shrewd. Perhaps it’s the only way for Democrats to even be heard in the media. But if true, it’s a sad and shameful truth. Durbin said what he said because you can’t say that America did something wrong. You can’t even admit mistakes without risk to your political life. Think about that. Human beings do wrong things on a regular basis, and part of being sane and civilized is being able to admit that, and apologize. But America, we are told, can do no wrong. The patriotic view of America, apparently, is that the nation is a huge sociopath, because that’s exactly what a person who never admits wrong would be.

So instead of facing the fact that this war was wrong to begin with, Durbin paints it as a noble endeavor that has run its course. Truth is sacrificed to the piggish vanity and ignorant self-regard of unthinking nationalism. But the price of shrewdness is very high. If we can never honestly examine the war-making and mongering of our elites, if we can never question militarism and triumphalism, then our national dialogue will always be stillborn. These idiots like Chris Matthews, who even while they jump on the anti-Bush bandwagon, claim that everyone thought the war would succeed, closed their ears to the demonstrations of millions of protesters prior to the invasion, and after.

The bully who frets about losing, or being perceived as losing, when his actions have caused unimaginable suffering to untold numbers, when the blood of children is on his hands, has lost any right to be listened to that he may have had. And when a speech like Durbin’s, crafted as the response of the opposition, buys into the same criminally self-centered world view, it perpetuates the shame, recirculating poison into the body politic. Shrewdness equals complicity.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Forever Young

I’ve noticed when I talk to friends about the state of things politically, a lot of them mention news overload. They’ve followed the news, mostly on progressive web sites and other alternative media, and eventually they get so angry and upset that they have to put limits on how much news to take in.

That’s been true for me at times, and I think it’s a symptom of how bad the situation has become since the Boosh Junta seized power in 2000. To list the successive outrages here would probably be redundant. Each time that Cheney, the Republicans, and the neocon-artists have revealed some new way to wreck our country, it is as if we’re being tested to see how much degradation we can put up with, how far they can go towards their dream of a Chinese-style police state without awakening a sleeping populist giant. Pretty damn far, as it turns out, and they’re still pushing.

Anyway, many people have discovered that if you spend too much time reading about this insanity, you start to get a little unbalanced yourself. If you combine powerlessness with rage and fear you can end up in the metaphorical shitter fairly easily. Many of us who are of a progressive bent have had to learn how to balance our intake of information with a sense of well-being. Doing something—anything from joining a union to writing a letter to the local newspaper—can help relieve the pressure. There’s also the importance of simply being grateful and appreciating the moment. Happiness, I like to say, is a revolutionary act.

One of the best things to happen in ’06 was the emergence of Stephen Colbert as the foremost political satirist of the day. Of course this didn’t come out of nowhere, but from the steadily more impressive comic fold of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. When mainstream media outlets have mentioned that many people get their news primarily from Stewart and Colbert, there’s often a trace of condescension in the remark, but anyone familiar with the shows can tell you that they generally present more information about what’s going on politically than the network evening news shows. But in my case, I often go to Comedy Central first because a satiric attitude seems the only healthy way to deal with the political situation today. Only on Stewart and Colbert can I share the proper sentiments of sarcasm, ridicule, and scorn, while being reminded that I am not alone in regarding our current government as both ludicrous and insane.

Another important refuge is in the work of artists who keep in touch with what is truly important—love, beauty, passion, and all the visions, light and dark, of the human soul. One of the best movies of the past year was Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold. At first glance it is just a concert film, a record of Neil Young’s premiere performance of his Prairie Wind album at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium. But Neil Young is no ordinary artist—with the help of Demme’s impeccable visual sense, Young evokes a sense of gratitude for the American musical tradition through beautiful songs exploring dreams, mortality, the bonds of family, and coming to terms with both our loves and our failings. This is not about idol worship or collective congratulation, as too many concerts tend to be, but about giving back, paying tribute, opening ourselves up. As in all great performances, we come away feeling unexpectedly transformed.

Young is an artist who has always been engaged with social issues as well. His latest album, Living With War, faced the truth about the criminal occupation of Iraq head-on. And he offered it for free download on his website. Some weeks later, I remember running across Saturday Night Live while idly flipping channels. The cast of that show presented a pathetic piece of mockery about Young’s album, with Kevin Spacey imitating Young. The entire point of the flaccid skit could be summarized as, “Oh look at that pathetic old hippie trying to be relevant.” It was poorly written and empty-headed, with similarly impaired viewers nevertheless hailing it as brilliant. Anyway, the idea was that popular musicians who sing about current events are automatically ridiculous. I guess they’re supposed to just sing mindless dance numbers or boy-girl songs. It’s as if Dylan and the 60s never happened. Cynicism and “cool” are the only acceptable things now.

This brings me back to The Daily Show. It is truly the first television show specializing in political satire, which is an amazing thing when you consider that television has been around for over sixty years. Saturday Night Live was never satire, or at least very rarely. They were content with having Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford falling down, or Dana Carvey imitating Poppy Bush’s mannerisms. When it came to talking about anything substantive, the show opted for detached nihilism. Lorne Michaels’ approach to politics has always been superficial and cowardly, and even in the supposed golden age of the show every good skit was balanced by three or four bad ones. That ratio was great compared to how it’s been for the last decade or so. SNL hasn’t been funny for years, and it’s basically amounted to nothing but a launching pad into movies for one overrated performer after another. How it stays on the air I don’t know—I would guess that a crucial drunk frat boy demographic still finds it amusing. You’d have to be drunk to sit through the boring TV show parodies and stupid recurring characters, punctuated by endless commercials.

The Stewart and Colbert shows are true political satire because they attack the powerful over and over again, not just weak, easy targets like SNL, and they’re consistently smart and funny. They help us stay cheerful in the midst of the madness, and great musicians like Neil Young give us reasons to hope.