Saturday, February 27, 2010

Your Name Here

Today I proudly unveil the (in my humble opinion) coolest, freakiest short story I've yet to publish: "Your Name Here," which just appeared in the e-zine Rotten Leaves Magazine. Check it out, and prepare to have your mind blown!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Realism and Romance; Or, Politics and Principles

Back in college, I remember hanging out one night shooting the breeze with my hallmates. This was early freshman year, when I didn't know people that well. I remember one guy stopped me in mid-sentence, fixed me in the eye, and said, "You know, you're a romantic." I can't remember what precisely I'd been talking about that elicited his remark; probably I was saying something about how I had faith in the essential goodness of humanity or rightness of the universe. But whatever it was, I remember being taken aback; it seemed to me he'd said the word "romantic" as if it were some sort of crippling inadequacy. I never got to like the guy; in fact, I took out my anger by turning him into the lamest, most pathetic character in the comic book I drew for those on the hall who became my friends. I turned him into a lazy dreamer, a romantic. Take that!

But the fact is, he was right. I am a romantic. Always have been. If, that is, one defines the word "romantic" the way it was defined by the nineteenth-century Romantic movement in the arts: as the tendency toward the ideal, the deeper truth, the imaginative, the possible, over against the tendency toward the literal, the everyday, the rational, the "realistic." Hawthorne, for example, called his works "romances," not novels: to him, novels were about consensus reality, and as such were limited by what actually was, whereas romances were about the transcendent, the mystical, the might be, and thus were free to shape themselves according to the limitless range of human creativity. As Robert F. Kennedy put it, "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” The former folks are realists. Kennedy was a romantic.

I wish we had more romantics, and fewer realists, in politics today. Lots of people saw Obama as a romantic, and voted for him as a result; turns out he's just another realist, and not even a very effective one at that. The Democrats, as I've pointed out in several earlier posts, are all a bunch of failed realists; you might even say they're failed because they're realists, because they can't imagine what it would be like to imagine. They're game-players, bureaucrats, horse-traders; there's not an ounce of romanticism in the lot of them. If there were, we'd have universal health care. We'd be out of Iraq and on our way out of Afghanistan. We'd have climate legislation. We'd have a government worthy of our respect, and a future worth dreaming about.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was another great romantic. The philosophy he more or less founded, Transcendentalism, was an idealist one--meaning, in the narrow sense, that it hearkened back to the Platonic philosophy of ideal forms, or in the broader sense, that it was founded on a faith in the power of ideas, or ideals. In his essay "Man the Reformer," from 1841, Emerson wrote: "The believer not only beholds his heaven to be possible, but already to begin to exist,--not by the men or materials the statesman uses, but by men transfigured and raised above themselves by the power of principles. To principles something else is possible that transcends all the power of expedients." Emerson was notably skittish about involvement in politics; he frequently sounds elitist, out of touch, or frankly aloof when he discusses his reluctance to mingle with the madding mob. But he did speak out against Indian Removal and African slavery, two of the greatest sins of his day. He did rally his fellows to live their lives according to what might be, what should be, not merely what was. He did, in the best romantic fashion, imagine his heaven into existence--here, now--without waiting to see if he had enough votes to override a filibuster or enough pork to toss to the Blue Dogs.

We could use some of his romanticism today.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Snowy Day Reading

We're pretty well snowed in here in Pittsburgh--close to two feet fell on my birthday, and we're expecting another foot in the next day or so. Schools closed, kids and wife home, plenty of shoveling and movie-watching and game-playing. When I have a couple minutes I work my way through Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (deeply disturbing but oddly gripping novel) or draft a sci-fi story that's in the hopper. I'm also tinkering with a piece about climate skepticism in relation to the cold, wintry weather we've had these past few months. If anything comes of it, I'll post it here.

For the moment, though, I thought some of you who might be similarly snowed-in would appreciate some fiction. Since my most recently accepted stories and essays haven't come out yet, here's an old story, titled "String," which appeared about a year ago in Word Catalyst Magazine. This one started after I read a short story that contained a single, abrupt point-of-view change; I said to myself, "That would be worth trying!" As it ended up, there's more than one change in my story, and none is as abrupt as in its inspiration, but I still think it's an interesting experiment. If you can hold out till the end, there's a surprise waiting there!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Oddness of Forty-Five

Turned forty-five today. Lots of people are rocked by the decade birthdays, but those I seem to have taken in stride; they feel much more stable than the years in-between. Prime numbers are the worst; when you're forty-three, you're just forty-three. At least with forty-five, I can say I'm nine times five or fifteen times three.

I'm generally healthy (though with a clotting disorder that has to be managed medically), still in good shape, in fact stronger than I've ever been thanks to a regular exercise routine. Little things flare up now and again: some back problems last year, a sinus infection I just got over this winter. I've long since said goodbye to my hair (that's my dad's legacy), which had gone from black to virtually white (my mom's) before vanishing pretty much altogether. Still, I don't feel old, or even particularly older.

I remember my mom telling me years ago that she'd reached a point past which she'd stopped aging mentally even though she kept aging physically. In her mind, she said, she was still eighteen or twenty, in her body fifty or more. That's been my experience too--I suppose it's everyone's--and it's a strange thing, watching one's body grow alien to oneself. It explains why so many of us experience time passing more quickly as we age, at least in retrospect: since we tend to measure time by our memory of who we were, if the self we remember from twenty years ago is identical to the self we experience now, those twenty years might just as well have been a single moment. My childhood self seems a stranger, and the chasm of time between us immense; my twenty-five-year-old self seems like a guy I was just talking to yesterday, even if I can't quite remember the conversation we were having.

Forty-five is somewhere in the middle: not old, not young, half-hale. In half a decade I'll be half a century. Like many people at mid-age, I've been trying lately to come to terms with who I am, where I fit into things, what my life has been or could yet be worth. This blog has helped me to do that, as has my other writing, my job, my family, my activism. I don't expect the journey to come to an end anytime soon.

So, forty-five. When I blew out the candles tonight I set another piece of my life in stone, lost it at the same time.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Dems, Part Deux

A good friend sent me a link to a recent segment from The Daily Show that she thought segued nicely with my op-ed on the Democrats. Indeed, the segment essentially mirrors my argument: that for the past year the Democrats, rather than acting like a party swept into office by an immense popular mandate for reform, have been cowering like a bunch of marginalized, impotent pantywaists. So where’s my cut of the scriptwriting money?

This same friend, though--and she's not alone--has also challenged my analysis of the Democrats’ woes, suggesting that my indictment is too extreme, too sweeping. Is it, these friends have asked, the Democratic Party as a whole that has failed to live up to its promises, or is it certain rancorous elements within the Party—Joe Lieberman and the so-called “Blue Dogs” most prominently—who have derailed what the Party leadership might otherwise have sought to achieve?

Now, I’d be the first to agree that my analysis was anything but nuanced. I’ve never considered the op-ed form (or the blog form, for that matter) a place for hedging and niceties. But above and beyond the expectations of the form, I believe there is considerable value in radical analyses (in the root sense of “radical,” which means, in fact, “root”): analyses grounded not in the often distracting complexities and elaborations of the quotidian world but in first principles, in the solid substratum of what the writer takes to be the truth. The Democrats’ failure, I believe, is at root a failure of such principles, a concession to Beltway business-as-usual. And if so, then applying a Beltway analysis to this failure will not get us very far in breaking the paralyzing stalemate in which the Party currently finds itself.

Let’s consider, in this light, the Party’s treatment of the rogue Lieberman. A perfectly simple solution to his antics has presented itself all along, and if the Party leadership had the slightest notion of core principles it would have put this solution immediately into effect: call the silly monkey’s bluff. Let him caucus with the Republicans, participate in their filibusters, obstruct the reformist agenda the electorate who put his party in power charged that party to carry out. Let him hoist himself on his own petard. And then let him explain to the people why he was the one who took it upon himself to hijack their demands and their dreams. He wouldn’t have dared.

The Blue Dogs are a similar story. It serves their purposes very well, of course, to represent themselves as the true core of the Democratic Party, the “moderate” core, the “centrist” core, even the conservative core. But begging their pardon, that’s a bunch of bull. The Democratic Party’s core is no more conservative than the Republican Party’s core is liberal—the only difference is that the Republican Party recognizes this, and pursues an extreme right-wing agenda with scant regard for the naysayers among its ranks. The Republicans give those folks a place at the table, I suppose. But they don’t let them carve up the pie and shove it down everyone else’s face.

Without principles, without convictions, without courage, without vision, without conscience, no political party can hope to achieve anything of value or import. There has always been a deep well of populist, collectivist, socialist radicalism in this country, and when it gathers itself and comes to a full awareness of its power, it rocks the world: in the New Deal, in the Civil Rights and antiwar era, in the environmentalist movement, in the birth of labor unionism, in the kind of social collectivism toward which the ideal of universal health care points. In the past century, the Democrats have proved best able to tap this radicalism, to recognize it, energize it, call its core principles to light and fruition. That the very party that should be embracing, defending, and advocating such principles is now in full flight from them exposes the hollow charade the Democratic Party has become.

Should the Democrats ever come into full self-possession and self-consciousness, should they ever recover the root principles on which they rely, they might yet be what they should be. Failing that, they will remain what they are: a rudderless motley of hacks and masochists, a disgrace to the very legacy they should claim as their own.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Fantasy Cinema and Social Critique: The Case of District 9

I recently watched the film District 9 on DVD. (I avoided it in the theater after hearing it was ultra-violent, and I handle that sort of thing better on the small screen.) It actually wasn't all that violent: lots of distant shots of exploding bodies and blood spattering the camera lens in keeping with the film's pseudo-documentary style, but no real gore by your average horror film's standards. As someone who's fascinated by the processes of social alienation that are explored, exposed, and reinforced in fantasy/sci-fi films, though, I found its commentary on the subject intriguing, if a bit inconsistent.

The plot of the film is simple: an alien mother ship filled with nearly two million crustacean/insectoid creatures stalls above Johannesburg, South Africa, and--in a grotesque parody of the apartheid system from which that nation has only recently distanced itself--these newcomers become the victims of prejudice, speciesism, isolation, recrimination, and violence. The derogatory name "prawns" is applied to them; they dwell in slums separated by fences from the human population; crimelords move into their territory, further straining an already fragile social structure; and an unholy alliance of government officials and corporate interests seeks to exploit their advanced technology after permanently resettling them to what one spokesman finally admits are de facto concentration camps. The film's action unfolds from these events, as some of the aliens resist violently, others are slain by private military forces working for the resettlement agency, and the human head of the operation becomes infected by a virus that slowly transforms him into one of the "prawns." His desperate pursuit of a cure, and his uneasy allegiance with the alien revolutionary who promises to deliver one, provide the film some of its most unnerving and uncanny moments.

But they also pull the film away, to a certain extent, from the social commentary I had taken to be its core. To begin with, these events force the film into a violation of its own stylistic principles, as action involving the infected human and his alien ally necessarily takes place in scenes no documentary camera could capture. And this is a not insignificant concession to form, inasmuch as the documentary style was itself, in the film's early movements, the principal vehicle by which it represented the alienation of the "prawns" as a systemic social practice rather than an individualized or isolated instance of intolerance. I'm reminded of the film Iron Man--a far inferior film, by the way, but one that shares District 9's tendency to personalize the political, in the case of the lesser film by retreating from a promising critique of entrenched militarism into an indictment of particular individuals operating outside the licensed military apparatus. Being, as I said, a far better and smarter film, District 9 never goes as far as Iron Man in whitewashing the political structures of inequity it exposes--but by morphing into a kind of alien buddy-movie, it does tend to displace or soften the critique.

At least, that was my impression on an initial viewing; maybe I'll see it differently next time. But I do wonder why it's so hard to sustain political critique in popular media; I'm not fully satisfied with the usual explanations having to do with the corporate allegiances of the culture industry. I wonder whether there's simply something incompatible between cinematic fantasy and social critique. And if so, I wonder whether as a lover of fantasy film, I'm once again looking for social change in the wrong places.

Monday, February 1, 2010

I Want to Par-TAY

After reading my op-ed, a few people have asked me why, if I'm so thoroughly disgusted with the Democratic Party, I end the piece by predicting or hoping for some new party to emerge. Maybe, these friends have suggested, it's futile to look to political parties at all to heal our society's ills.

Part of me is very responsive to this argument: the part of me that agrees with Thoreau, Gandhi, and King that civil disobedience, protest, and other forms of direct citizen action are the best (or only) way for citizens in a stiflingly complex sociopolitical system to "break through" and effect real change. Such an argument, taken to its logical conclusion, would dispense with political parties (or government itself) entirely: for what possible use could it be to align oneself with a preconstituted party (or even one of one's own devising) if the point is to liberate oneself from the very structures that exclude, or at least distance, citizens from direct participation in the political process?

So in that respect, I sort of wish I'd ended not with a plea for a new party, but with a plea for a new social consciousness, conscience, and conviction among ordinary citizens. That might have made the article stronger.

But at the same time, there's a large part of me--call it Socialist if you want, or if you must--that believes in the fundamental power of social collectives to multiply the clout, and soften the selfishness, of individuals. Political parties, of course, aren't the only such collectives; the organized, grassroots movements of Gandhi, King, and others are too, and may be even more powerful examples of the form. And yet I continue to find the promise of political affiliation, if not its practice, appealing; I continue to find myself believing that there must be a place, however small, for politically constituted collectives to guide and shape the political process.

Maybe this makes me wishy-washy, an independent not worth his name. Maybe it shows I'm still very much a child of my parents' New Deal legacy; maybe it says I've been drinking our political system's Kool Aid so long I can't imagine a true alternative to the junk it's been selling me. I'm not sure. I'd like to hear what others have to say about this, though. Maybe, together, we can figure out a way to party without parties.