Archive for August, 2010

Community

Every year before the first day of classes we have “Convocation,” where faculty who wish to participate dress in full academic regalia, and a faculty member gives a welcoming address to the incoming students, this time the class of 2014.   It was hot — we’re having 90 degree weather and wearing those robes was uncomfortable to say the least (the students, of course, had shorts and t-shirts).   But it’s worth it, it starts the new year by bringing together faculty and new students and talking about what a liberal arts education is all about.   Liberal education isn’t about politics, but about education to liberate oneself to be able to think and act without being controlled or manipulated by custom, propaganda, or misinformation.

The speaker today was Dr. Jonathan Cohen talking about community — what a college community is all abut, as well as how his field of philosophy investigates the meaning of concepts like community.   The students read a piece about building community by Martin Buber, a German Jew who was born in Vienna in 1878, fled Germany in 1938, and died in Israel in 1965, still working for the peaceful reconciliation of Jews and Arabs.

Dr. Cohen talked about how Buber defined community as a group connected by a “living center,” and commented about how relationships are central to life.   After the talk we divided into discussion groups with some questions Jonathan put together to facilitate discussion.   We had a great session, though we never got beyond the first question.

We talked about the context of the piece we read — a 1930 speech by Buber to a German Jewish youth group.   Before the Third Reich, German Jews were a group that often stressed the “German” part of their identity more than their Jewish background.    Ever since King Frederick II of Prussia, a believer in enlightenment values, banned discrimination against Jews, they were able to rise higher in Prussia and then Germany than in most other European states.  The German Kaiser made a friendly visit to early Jewish settlements in Palestine, and many German intellectuals convinced themselves that Antisemitism was weakening as Europe modernized.

By 1930, that was changing.  Hitler and other German nationalists responded to the economic turmoil facing Germany by starting a movement urging “true” Germans to take back the country from the socialists, pacifists, internationalists and liberals who deep down hated what Germany stood far and were stabbing the country in the back.    For Hitler the Jews were parasites, weakening Germany from within.   The truth, of course, is that German culture was enriched and shaped by German Jewish contributions, but spouting a nationalist message made that easy to ignore and reject.   Whether it was Einstein or Schoenberg, German Jews were corrupting rather than advancing the culture.

Yet this worked to build community.   When the Nazis took power, they created a strong sense of German solidarity, with efforts to foster a sense of shared values amongst Germans.   Even flying hero Charles Lindbergh returned from a visit to Germany saying “we can learn from the Nazis,” seeing them united and proud of their country, while the US wallowed in depression.

In fact, if history stopped on November 8, 1938 (the day before Kristallnacht initiated official violence against Jews) and we were to judge Nazi rule from 1933 to 1938 we’d no doubt criticize Antisemitism and racism, but also be impressed by the positive role fascism played in building an emotional sense of community.

Yet note how this community was defined and shaped:  the good Germans vs. bad “others” who were set to destroy Germany from within, internal traitors who needed to be defeated.   The Communists, Socialists, Liberals, pacifists, internationalists and Jews were all espousing ideas that undercut true  German values.   Germans had to reclaim their core values and identity by defeating and silencing these traitorous voices.     And though it seemed to work for the short term, the very nature of that sense of community assured war.   The fundamental logic of the Nazi sense of community was to secure “true” German values by defeating evil and treasonous enemies who caused the  depression and the defeat of Germany in WWI.    The need to eliminate “the other” was foundational for the Nazi sense of national identity.

Buber’s idea of community, however, was different in that it is positive.  A community comes together around a living center.   It is relational, we build connections with others, find common ground, and develop a sense of shared identity.  There are “others” outside the community, but difference does not mean division.   A positive community is not defined in opposition to others, or by demonizing and dehumanizing others, but rather on relational dynamics within the community.   Such positive communities can also be part of larger communities; other-ness is not a barrier to building new relationships.

We as a country are in difficult times right now.    We need and yearn for community — that is another of Buber’s points.   For all our talk about individualism and self-reliance, humans are communal by nature, we need to work together and have meaningful relationships.    Yet politicians and demagogues can twist that yearning for community into something ugly.   If they focus on demonizing the “other” — Muslims, Liberals, right-wingers, illegal immigrants, socialists or capitalists — we risk creating communities built on a necessary need to defeat and even destroy those who are outside that community.   Even if it doesn’t go as far as Germany in the 30s, it would inevitably weaken our country and endanger our values.

We still yearn for community.  We build it in a positive sense in a college community through our shared desire to learn and advance a true communication (not just facts being handed down for students to learn).  As a country we have to find a way too come together to listen to each other — deeply and respectfully listen.   Even as work through disagreements, we must avoid the temptation to demonize the other or paint others as traitors, evil, or somehow inferior.   That path can give one a feeling of self-righteousness and even purpose, but it’s a delusion.

I think we as a country are up to the challenge.  As a faculty member working with students my goal is to do what I can to play a small role in helping our larger community cope with the difficulties we face.    I believe students with a strong, liberating liberal arts education can learn to not only think for themselves, but not be deluded by emotional appeals to fear and loathing of others.

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Time for School! (Adieu, Summer)

Monday is the first day of school for the public schools here; we have our convocation on Tuesday and then classes start Wednesday.  This remains one of my favorite times of the year.   Besides a new semester with new classes and groups of students, there is also the energy of an incoming freshman class, starting out their college career, most of them away from home for the first time.   I’ll get to know some very well and work closely with them; I especially enjoy the first year seminars and introductory classes.

There are also new faculty members joining the staff, bringing in new ideas and fresh energy.   One thing about being at the same institution for 15 years, the “ideas” I brought in from grad school and my other part time teaching stints is old.   When I came to UMF we still used overhead projectors, chalk boards and e-mail was something that only some students and faculty used.   Web based research was sketchy, Wikipedia untrustworthy (if it even existed yet) and “google” was not yet a common verb.   Cell phones never went off in class, and “texting” was something done in lit crit classes.

That means, of course, that it’s easy to get set in my ways, and even as I adapt to a new version of “Blackboard,” electronic submissions, integrating mass media into power point, and ideas like student blogs or virtual classrooms, it’s still always good to hear about what’s worked elsewhere.   I also take seriously too the idea of trying to stay at least alongside students in terms of their media use (though I’ve given up on trying to stay current on the music scene).   So I’m on facebook, try to keep track with how they’re using resources, and resist any effort to let a “kids these days and their crazy gadgets” idea come into my head.  In fact, I would prefer not to have the word “gadget” in my thoughts!

This summer was fantastic — the trip to South Dakota, my on line course, summer experience, camping at various state parks, my seven year old mastering both his new 21 speed 20″ mountain bike and swimming in the lakes.   Today we had an awesome summer day — family trip to the beach, and two hours in 55 degree water because the waves were simply incredible.   My feet were discolored for awhile due to cold water, but it was grand.   Add a DQ blizzard, and well, that’s what’s summer is all about!

So now we slip into fall.   School is about to start, and life is good.  I’ll also get back to blogging regularly, and paying at least some attention to politics.   (And, of course, I’ll keep posting bits from my “Quantum Life” user manual I found).    So a grand summer ends, the hectic pace is about to begin, and frankly, it has me invigorated and excited.  I love this time of year!

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Economic Malaise?

With jobs not returning as quickly as expected, and economic statistics mixed, many people are wondering if we are in for a “double dip” recession, or if the first “dip” has really ended.   What’s going on.

The answer is surprisingly clear; I reflected on it as I bought my son a new bike.  It was $100 at Target — a nice mountain bike, 20 inches, 21 speeds — and I thought to myself, “well, at least I’m helping the economy.”    And, of course, it does give some help to Target’s workers and corporate profits.   The bike, however, was made in China.   Therein lies the problem.   If the economy is stimulated through things such as tax cuts or more consumer spending, it usually goes to buying goods produced in foreign countries.   That actually worsens the underlying problems of a current account deficit and debt.   No recovery can happen without an increase in production.

To free marketeers the answer seems easy — just let the market do it with fewer regulations and lower taxes.   Alas, that is not a viable solution, the market will not on its own stimulate production.   The reason is globalization — reduce taxes and regulation and capital is as likely to seek profit abroad as at home.   Moreover, given that lack of regulative oversight caused the derivatives market to boom, thereby causing the bubble economy’s crash to be so toxic, the idea that less regulation magically leads to economic growth is dubious.   It’s not the amount of regulation, but having effective regulation.   Moreover, more heavily regulated and taxed Europe (especially Germany) is weathering the recession much better, the idea that there is a magical solution of just sitting back and letting the market work is delusional.

Yet we can’t just spend our way out of it either.   The problem is that any growth we get tends to involve increasing the trade deficit, which only enhances the problem.  We have become a country where people try to buy and sell, but not produce.   People want to figure out a way to make easy money, sometimes working very hard, but we aren’t producing enough on our own to get the economy moving.

Part of the problem is the death of the middle class.   The middle class has been constantly shrinking so you either have the very rich, usually living on investment income, the professional elite, or the poor working in the service sector.   The backbone of the US economy had been a large, productive working class, able to purchase consumer goods and have a quality lifestyle.   Fewer people than ever fit that description.

It was tolerable until now because we’ve had the Chinese providing cheap goods, meaning that with Walmart and cheap textiles, toys, and electronics a declining income did not necessarily mean you couldn’t keep consuming.   In essence, we had the equivalent of Chinese slaves producing for us, helping put American factories out of business.  Credit was cheap too, so people sacrificed their savings and got comfortable carrying debt.

To many Americans this had an upside.   I don’t want my kids to have to work in a factory, and most Americans started to see routine labor as something to avoid, instead going to college to find a profession.   Factory workers didn’t want their children punching a time clock — it’s the American way to want something better for the next generation.   The mills are closing in Maine, but how many people want their kids to work in a mill?   The problem is that if we want to close factories, we still have to produce something else of value that people here and abroad want.   We can’t all be doctors, lawyers, managers and accountants.

To rebuild the economy we have to rebuild a productive working class.   We have to produce.   But what can we produce?   We can’t undercut Chinese prices; trying to make US products as cheap as third world products would not pay a middle class wage.   Protectionism isn’t an option — China would stop financing our debt and could even hurt us by dumping dollars, stocks and bonds.   And anyway, the Smoot-Hawley bill 80 years ago during the Great Depression shows the danger of protectionism.

The problem is that the structure of the economy is not one where there are free market incentives to build a stable productive middle class.   With cheap foreign goods and high debt, the market now has incentives to further bifurcation of the US economy until inevitable class warfare breaks out.    We already see it with the so-called “tea party” movement on the right.  While they eschew talk of “class,” much of it is driven by anger at the establishment, with economic populism rampant.

If we were a third world country this would be “solved” by the market through high inflation, forcing us to buy and produce our own goods because foreign goods would become too expensive.   The US economy is too big, and the dollar still too trusted for that to be likely.  Government spending to enhance production is one feasible solution.  Some of this is already working with General Motors, and efforts to jump start alternative energy production are positive moves.    Moreover, the information revolution and “new economy,” used so far mostly to enhance the buying and selling of “traditional” products, may give us paths to produce non-industrial products that nonetheless have value.   Small companies producing local goods and generating a loyal customer base might help.    But I’m at a loss as to how we can turn this around.  We’ve been digging this hole for thirty years, there’s no easy way out.

Lastly, tax reform is necessary.   Right now taxes squeeze the middle class the most, with large chunks of our bifurcated society too poor to pay taxes.    The very wealthy can easily find tax shelters and accounts/tax lawyers adept at avoiding the taxman.   Those rich enough to be in the higher tax brackets, yet not wealthy enough to finance legal tax evasion, pay the highest percentage of their wealth.   This further bites the shrinking middle class, and breeds resentment of the nearly 50% too poor to owe taxes.

Still, the fact remains:  we need to produce.  We cannot consume our way to economic well being.   Until we produce value, we cannot expect economic recovery.

UPDATE: Talking Points Memo has a great graph illustrating precisely what I mean.

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The Soul in Quantum Life

This is part four of a series of posts in which I post bits from this strange book that somehow came to me called “Quantum Life: A User’s Guide – in English, a Quantum Life language.    Click here for earlier entries.

Here’s today’s section:

The Soul in Quantum Life

So far we’ve explained how through separation from the collective whole an individual enters the world of Quantum Life with no knowledge of reality.   For the player, Quantum Life is reality.  Yet Sunitolp (creator of the game) and others realized early on that such an experience would limit the individual to reactive sensation-based existence, without the capacity for reflection and even learning and growth.   It became clear that a core part of an individual’s identity had to not only remain present with each player, but players had to be able to access that core, and the core had to process information and learn about key values and experiences in each Quantum Life round.

Since ignorance of reality cannot be sacrificed — otherwise the game would be seen for what it is, an illusion that is not real,  existing only for entertainment and learning — the core could not be consciously accessed.  It’s existence is felt, can be ignored, can be listened to, but there is something mysterious about it.  It is constantly with players and it is their core sense of identity.   The core is a source for guidance on how to live which if ignored or rebelled against can lead to real problems during a particular round of play (also called a “life.”)

The core serves three other functions.  First, it allows the collective whole to learn from what all players are experiencing.  We grow as a whole as we process and learn the emotions, thoughts and experiences of those individual identities playing the game (again, writing in a Quantum Life language like English makes it impossible to really capture the meaning of key concepts in reality).   Second, it allows the individual perspective or identity grow in its own way, benefiting the individual.   Finally, it retains information and learning through multiple rounds of play, accessing it and allowing the core or “soul” to develop.

Communication – Since the soul or core is connected to reality outside the game, it also is a focus of communication with others playing the game.   Though the communication is not clear or overt (one doesn’t suddenly get a message from someone else), it is real.  Apparent coincidences, sudden offers of help, chance meetings, and even complicated interactions can be planned in advance.  The player “feels” this communication as a kind of desire or hunch.   A couple that wants to have a relationship but are not yet together in this round of Quantum Life may decide to meet at a gas station, arranging events so the two end up at side by side gas pumps.    Unless an individual’s judgment is clouded by fear or anger, usually suggestions from the inside are followed because it feels like what the person wants to do.

This is important for a couple of reasons.  First, it allows players some control over their circumstances, partnerships, and life conditions.   Between rounds players can decide they want to experience a particular kind of existence together in the next round and set up certain frameworks.   People are also part of deciding how they’ll enter the game.   But due to the ignorance principle, even repeated efforts to set events or relationships in motion can be sabotaged by the player.   Players may fear acting on what they strongly want to do, may let anger or jealously cloud their capacity to follow the “voice inside” as it’s sometimes called.  Because communication is through hunches and feelings, people are capable of dismissing it.   Again, fear is the main obstacle to people being able to use the soul’s connections with others and with greater reality to improve the experience of Quantum Life.

Spiritual Development: In Quantum Life “spiritual” refers to non-material aspects of existence which cannot be known.   Of course, in reality “spiritual” refers to greater understanding of reality and connection with the collective whole outside the game.   A level of Quantum Life is mastered when the player is able to live in accord with the communication from the soul, without fear or other factors intervening.   A player then can as an individual learn to live in a material world, handling challenges and uncertainties, without the benefit of the constant support and companionship of the collective whole in the real world.

This development is not a constant movement forward.   People can progress or regress, and some rounds of play can be especially difficult.  Yet in general the lessons learned stick with the player (especially if reinforced) and over various rounds of play become ‘second nature.’  Players who manage to almost effortless live in accord with the communication coming via the soul reach a point where the game is no longer interesting.   They become implicitly aware that it is not reality, but an illusion.   At that point they move on to other experiences, or they may re-enter Quantum Life to act as a guide or facilitator with other players, using based on agreements before rounds of play.

What do I gain (or lose)? Players of Quantum Life reinforce the notion of individual perspective, and have a keener grasp on its potential.   Those who have mastered the game believe their connection with the whole is stronger and more satisfying than beforehand.   They can conceptualize of separation and individuation, and that is a powerful sense.   The downside will be spending part of existence either addicted to the game (repeatedly making the same errors and being unable to progress through higher levels), or find experiences very difficult and painful.   Not all players believe the capacity for joy warrants the price that isolation and alone-ness costs.

Now that we’ve addressed the concept of the game, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty — how is it played, and what does one expect?

— I’ll end here today.  Going camping for the weekend far away from computers.  But I’ll bring the Quantum Life: A User’s Guide along.  It’s a fascinating read.

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The President Needs to Address the Nation

The President needs to address the nation and speak out forcefully about the building of an Islamic community center a few blocks from ground zero (not a “Mosque at ground zero,” as some claim).

The fact of the matter is that there is no war between Islam and the West.   Most Muslims have absolutely no sympathy for the extremist 9-11 perpetrators.   Remember Timothy McVeigh, the patriot who bombed the Oklahoma Federal building, causing over a hundred deaths, including those of children in a day care located there?   He was striking out to defend the Constitution and American liberties from what he saw as an increasingly tyrannical government.

We all agree with McVeigh’s view that the Constitution is important and should be defended, and many would agree that government is getting too powerful.   Does that mean, though, we lump all who support the constitution and love freedom together as potential terrorists?   Would a monument to the Constitution be inappropriate a few blocks from the Oklahoma Federal Building?    Is anyone who says “the government is getting too intrusive and going against the Constitution” a potential terrorist?   To tie Islam to 9-11 is akin to all that.

The message that we have to make — and Obama should be loud and clear — is that there is no war against Islam.   We do not see Islam as the enemy, and we do not think Muslims should have any lower status or respect because of the acts undertaken by terrorists on 9-11.   They were subverting Islam and abusing it to pursue their political agenda.   We need to completely divorce religion from the fight against terrorism, it’s not about Islam.

President Bush made those points after 9-11.   We are not the kind of country that lumps people together and demonizes a whole faith because of the acts of a few.   That would be contrary to American principles.   One woman was shown with a sign that read “we’ll let you build a mosque at ground zero when you let us build a synagogue in Mecca.”  Wow.  First, that’s directly seeing it as a conflict of religions.   Moreover, it’s implying that another country’s dictatorship should be rationale for our denying rights to Americans.   All of this only serves the extremists on all sides.  The anti-Muslim fanatics in the US who want to belittle Muhammad, demonize Islam and claim that the goal of Islam is to kill all non-Muslims and create a world empire love this sort of thing.  They want a “clash of civilizations.”   Hamas, al qaeda and other extremists love it too — they aren’t winning over the hearts and minds of their fellow Muslims.  Only if they can make America seem to be at war with their entire religion can they hope to inspire some kind of broad support.

Politically this has the potential to actually be a windfall for Obama.   This could be the point where the tea party and the far right wing go too far, making themselves look too xenophobic and bigoted to be taken seriously.   People can say, “wait a minute, just look at this rhetoric, this isn’t what we want for the country.”   The Democrats have the potential to turn 2010 into a much better year than it seems like it will be, thanks to the Republicans.

Much to the distress of most mainstream Republicans, the tea party and right wing punditry’s emphasis on issues like this distract from the economic distress which can not help but severely hurt the party in power.  The wild rhetoric and the choice of extreme candidates like Sharon Angle in Nevada are gifts to the Democrats.  The Republicans can potentially be defined as a bit over the top, extreme, erratic, and too focused on political jihad when most of the public want the two parties to compromise and cooperate to solve problems.   Instead of losing 40 House seats and 7 Senate seats, the Democrats could cut their loses to 20 or so in the House and 4 in the Senate — or perhaps do better.

The key is for Obama to now grab the high ground, show leadership, and boldly take what appears to be an unpopular stance.  He should embrace the Islamic center, describing it accurately, educating people on both it and Islamic teachings.   He must make a persuasive case that welcoming such a center is precisely what we need to do in order to undercut those who aspire to launch new terror attacks.   This is the path to peaceful cooperation.   He should recall the fear after 9-11, and the dangers inherent if there is a “clash of civilizations.”   He should quote President Bush and note that until recently it had been a common theme of both parties that this isn’t about religion.   The only way to oppose the community center is to think 9-11 wasn’t about extremists but was actually about the whole of Islam.

Obama should have families of 9-11 victims there who support the community center.  He should talk clearly about American principles, and frame it so opposition seems petty and misguided.   It should be a masterpiece speech, one crafted well — like his race speech in 2008.   If he pulls this off, suddenly Americans will start to question the rhetoric coming from the far right.   Moreover, Obama’s supporters and Democrats will be more energized — nothing energies more than fear and anger at the “other side.”

This could be a major tipping point for the Democrats, the country, and the Republicans.   For the Democrats, this issue could turn around their fortunes and allow them to regain footing.  They just have to define the issue and not mince words.   Obama has to stand on principle, and not try to have it both ways.   For the country this could be the time where we stared into the abyss — a country going against its very principles, willing to demean a whole other faith, all because of what 19 people did on 9-11 — and said, “no, we’re better than this.”  This could be when we show the world that we truly believe in our principles, we are not at war with Islam, and our goal is to work with Muslims in a spirit of mutual respect.

For Republicans, most of whom would prefer to talk about the economy and who find the tea party and the wild rhetoric out there a bit over the top and distracting, it may be a chance for the moderate conservatives to start to shape the conversation.   Remember President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and “ownership society?”  That kind of talk draws people to the Republicans, not demonizing “liberals” or launching a crusade against an Islamic center in Manhattan.

Mr. President, I know it’s a local issue, and you may think that given the economy, it’s really beneath you to elevate it further.   But this is the kind of symbolic issue which needs Presidential voice.   Please, show leadership beyond governance and getting legislation passed, show the symbolic leadership this country needs right now.  It’ll be good for you and your party, it will be good for the country, and ultimately it will even be good for the Republicans.

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And Now For Something Completely Different

As a long time Monty Python fan, I have been looking forward to the fourth and final musical in this summer’s series from the Maine State Music Theater.   We buy season tickets every year and are never disappointed by the great shows put on in Brunswick, Maine.  Sunday we saw Spamalot, and it was fantastic.

They captured the essence of what made Monty Python humor so great, which of course is no surprise since Eric Idle wrote the ‘book and lyrics.’  Still, they executed it perfectly.  Daniella Dalli was a standout as “the lady of the lake,” and the rest of the cast donned Python personas and appearances almost to perfection.   It  wasn’t forced, it was a fun and when you left the theater, you couldn’t help but feel a bit happier, less worried, and a bit uplifted by a dose of silliness, music and humor.

All this got me to thinking about what made Monty Python such a great comedy troop.   Part of it was simple talent: Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam were all consummate performers and comedians.    They also had the benefit of timing.  Their totally irreverent mix of intellectual word play, slap stick physical humor, and social commentary infused with silliness could not have aired any time before the late sixties when they came to the BBC.   As such they were ground breaking, quickly capturing a large audience in the US and Europe.

The also turned their TV sketches into well thought out films, cementing their popularity.   In Search of the Holy Grail is an all time classic upon which Spamalot was based.   My favorite is The Life of Brian which is a brilliant yet silly satirical look at both religion and skepticism.   It’s still my favorite film of all time.   The Meaning of Life is also classic.

I think what stands out to me is that like all great humorists, Python made silly what society takes serious.   In so doing, they helped people see our own social norms, rules and traditions from the outside — they exposed the arbitrary silliness of what seems “normal” and got us to look beyond the perspective we grow up believing.    There were no sacred cows.

Moreover their humor was on multiple overlapping levels.   They’d be making puns about Marxian political economy while doing slapstick bits and mocking the Prime Minister.   Some of their most brilliant bits were easy to miss.   In Life of Brian Brian is standing before a crowd of people who think he is the messiah.   “No, you don’t need to follow me,” he tells them.  In unison they respond, “we don’t need to follow you.”  Irritated he continues, “You don’t need to follow anyone, you’re all individuals.”   They respond in unison: “We’re all individuals.”   Then one voice quietly asserts “I’m not.”

Yet while their mocking of all things sacred to society was biting and uncompromising, they were never mean spirited or nasty.   They didn’t get laughs by swearing or crude sex.   Yes, they did enjoy physical humor built around farts, vomit, and nose picking.   And, of course,  sexual references were numerous.   But they were built into the humor, like John Cleese and his supposed wife performing sex at a boys’ school to teach the boys how to satisfy a woman.  The boys, of course, were bored and acting as if it were math class.     And soldiers, clergy, judges and cops suddenly going from stern to very “gay” was a staple.  It was silly fun, but if you thought about it, it was exposing how silly and arbitrary those rules are that seem to define how we should behave.  In that sense, it was revolutionary.

To be sure, their thirty minute BBC show was of mixed quality.   Some of their sketches were much better than others, the task of putting together a show every week is intense.  But their films, and the musical Spamalot, really brings out the essence of one of the best humor acts of the 20th century.

Only George Carlin stands out in my mind above Python — and that’s not really a fair comparison because he’s an individual and they were a troop.  But Carlin did the same thing, using language.   He tore apart the weird conventions we have about words we say and use — as well as behaviors and social rules — by making fun of them.

And, when you think about it, given the ability we have to make serious arguments to defend any point, it’s hard to really convince people to think critically about what they hold as “natural” and “normal” through reasoned argumentation.   People tune that out.   Humor may be the most effective form of social commentary, and perhaps the most revolutionary way to change the way people view themselves and their society.

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The Natives are Restless

I know it’s been a hot summer, but the political rhetoric is getting bizarre.   For instance, in Florida a candidate in a Republican house contest calls for the creation of internment camps for illegal aliens.   We’d keep them until we had “enough to send back,” she said.   I’m not quite sure how many is enough to send back, but her expensive proposal is just one of many incidents lately of Americans showing an antipathy to foreigners or things deemed different.

Last week I wrote about “ugly Islamophobia,” including the opposition by some to an Islamic cultural center a few blocks from 9-11’s “ground zero.”   The so-called tea party movement and other “movements” on the right embrace a kind of “defend America” or “take back America” attitude that sees threats all around.

The most bizarre is Representative Louie Gohmert’s (R-Tx) claim that Arabs are disguising themselves as Mexicans, coming across the border, and dropping “terror babies” who will grow up and be able to pull off inside jobs against America.   It’s a wondrous bit of propaganda because it ties into both anti-immigrant and anti-terror fears, while being able to say the evidence won’t be available for 20 years (these babies have to grow).   But it’s so over the top that no one is taking it seriously, and the FBI calls the idea “ridiculous.”  (Gohmert claims an FBI agent told him this was a threat, but he wants to be kept anonymous.)

This claim comes just as some called for revoking the part of the 14th amendment that guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the US.   Claiming that Mexicans want to use “anchor babies” as a way into the US, they claim that we won’t stop the streaming “horde” of illegals unless we alter our constitution.   Just as more reasonable voices in the GOP started to push back against the suggestion, recognizing at the very least that politically such an amendment is DOA and would unleash a debate that would guarantee Hispanic support for Democrats for decades, Gohmert tied it in with terrorism.

Here’s the plot:  Arabs will go to Mexico and blend in because they’re also dark skinned.   However, while all dark skinned people may look alike to some whites in the US, Mexicans can tell the difference between Mexicans and Arabs.  Then supposedly these Arabs will master Spanish and fit right in, heading to the US to do heinous deeds.   While no doubt al qaeda types could sneak across borders (some of the 9-11 perpetrators crossed from Canada), the idea large numbers could embed themselves in Mexican society is pretty outlandish.

For Gohmert, though, that’s only the start.   Then they’ll have babies in the US who will be raised as apparently Mexican-American.   That will mean, of course, they’ll attend school, participate in social life, and enjoy the fronts of being raised in a free, prosperous country.   Yet at age 17 when their masters tell them to destroy the Sears Tower in Chicago, they’ll dutifully obey because, well, 17 year olds always do as they’re told.    I suspect most 17 year olds would say, “look, dad, terrorism is your bag, you go blow it up, I’ve got a hot date tonight.”

In Colorado a former Republican running for governor as an independent because the GOP is too “soft” on immigration once said if there is another terror act we should “bomb Mecca.”  Tancredo’s logic illustrates the core fault in this xenophobic surge.  The idea that these people are fundamentally different than us is just wrong.  Humans are humans.   There are cultural, religious, and physical differences.   But there is nothing essentially bad about a Muslim (indeed, most of the 1.5 billion lead virtuous lives) or an Arab.

Many who want to “make the border secure” (but at what cost?) argue that they simply want to stop illegal activity, and that securing the border is essential to a country’s stability.   They have a point.   Illegal immigration is not a good thing.  And many who are concerned are doing so with no dislike of Mexicans; many Mexican immigrants here legally worry that illegal immigration is hurting both the US and their status.   Yet the rhetoric employed by people like Gohmert, Palin, and Gingrich goes for the gut, not the head.   The natives are restless, they sense, and afraid.

The economy is in the dumps, there is a black President with a strange name, and the America of the 1980s seems to have morphed into a strange place, where gays marry, we’re dependent on China to fund our debt, and demographic change means that the standard white American family will soon be a numerical minority (albeit one with most of the wealth and power).    Add to that the fact that middle class whites have seen their status and wealth go down in very real terms.   Across the board the middle class has suffered in the last thirty years as wealth has expanded at the upper levels.    Those at the top play a nice game of distraction, “it’s those poor people taking welfare that take your tax dollars, we’re just investing and creating jobs.”

So when firebrands say all mosques are potential terror grounds and Muslims thus do not have first amendment rights (the guy who said that is sponsoring an event which will be attended by Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin), babies are called dehumanizing terms like “anchors” and bizarre terror plots involving babies designed to turn into monsters after being welcomed  in our midsts, this emotive rhetoric lands on fertile ground among some parts of the population.

Yet for all the hype and hollering, this will fade.   Demographically it’s mostly older whites who support such groups, and it’s a minority of those.  The country is changing; even with the economic doldrums, this is a country which elected Barack Hussein Obama, has seen a steady increase in support for gay marriage, and retains a strong belief in the constitution.   The Republicans who sense danger in embracing these firebrands are right — this is a group acting out of fear against change they can’t hold back.   Ultimately, the GOP can no more be seen with these reactionaries than Democrats want to be seen with socialist activists.   In fact, Republican gains in the 2010 election are likely to be smaller because of such movements — if the GOP put forth a pragmatic, rational, alternative without demonizing the left, they’d win big.  The public wants cooperation and problem solving, not zealotry.

Perhaps Gohmert’s bizarre theory represents the point in which the xenophobes went too far, and we’ll move towards a compromise between those really concerned primarily about the importance of border protection and controlling immigration and those wanting a system that humanely deals with the millions lured over here with a wink and nod when we needed the labor.  The natives may be restless, hopefully most of us are not stupid.

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