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Conservative Cultists

Some conservatives are getting rich off impotent rage, according to Maddow

Some conservatives are getting rich off impotent rage, according to Maddow

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC said that many on the far right are getting rich on “impotent rage,” firing up their listeners to be angry about Obama’s re-election but unable to do anything about it.   Well, you might say, that’s Maddow, she always chastises conservatives.   Yet conservatives William Kristol and Joe Scarborough have also decried the way some on the right — talk radio, especially — are getting rich off a style that pushes for an uncompromising and unrealistic stand on absolutist “principles.”

The problem in the GOP is that the reasonable people of the party are having to deal with a large, media savvy group of conservatives who have fostered a cult like thinking.

That is not only un-American, it is also un-Conservative and irrational.

Conservatives such as Joe Scarborough are starting to speak out against the damage being down to the GOP

Conservatives such as Joe Scarborough are starting to speak out against the damage being down to the GOP

It is un-American because our system is based on the idea that no individual or group has an absolute claim on truth. Democracy is a way to get people to debate, learn from each other, and try to figure out the best compromise.    We learn as we go based on what works and what does not.   The idea that we should focus simply on ideology or principle would be foreign to the founders.  Their principles were broad based and open to diverse ideas.

It is un-Conservative because conservatives value tradition, social stability and a sense of community.    Conservatives have adopted a strong free market perspective but have always recognized that markets have limits and that the good of the country trumps any ideological stand point.   And, given that tradition involves compromise and deliberation, the extremism of Neil Boortz and Rush Limbaugh is distinctly anti-conservative.

It is irrational because it focuses on pushing a party line with the vehemence of a religious extremist.   The “true” conservative values are XY and Z.   Those who seek compromise and moderation are “RINOs”  (Republicans in name only).    This desire for conservative purity has cost them the Senate.    Ideology-based thinking leads them to embrace clearly false claims – that there is no human caused climate change, the earth is 9000 years old, women’s vaginas magically shut down the possibility of pregnancy when they are raped and other such non-sense.   Truth is not based on science and evidence, but on what would be true if their ideology was infallible.

Here are some questions.   Answer yes to any of them, and you just might be a conservative cultist:

1.  Do you believe Obama has a secret agenda to push the US towards socialism and away from a market economy?
2.  Do you believe that Obama hates America and wants to give our sovereignty to the UN?
3.  Do you know who Alinsky is, and do you think somehow Obama is following some kind of plot of his making?
4.  Are you convinced that the Democrats simply try to buy votes by giving people stuff?
5.  Do you secretly (or even openly) wish women couldn’t vote because they aren’t truly rational?
6.  Do you think votes should be weighted by wealth, since the poor have ‘no skin’ in the game?
7.  Do you believe that Obama is an incompetent narcissist who has no leadership capacity?
8.  Do you believe there is a nefarious “agenda” out there that gays, internationalists, liberals and other types are following, which would stab America in the back and move us away from our core values?
9.   Do you think the country is on the road to collapse, and figure the GOP should just let Obama have his way so the Republicans aren’t co-responsible – the “let it burn” argument?

If you said yes to more than one of these, you just might be a member of a cult!

Glenn Beck has started his own "news" website to give the conservative view, and before the election expressed certainty that God would make Romney win

Glenn Beck has started his own “news” website to give the conservative view, and before the election expressed certainty that God would make Romney win

I’ve even read blogs where someone seriously posts that people should keep any pledge they have made (meaning the Norquist pledge) no matter what, because you never break a pledge.   However, what if they decide that under current conditions the Norquist pledge would lead them to actions that do harm to the country?   Should our elected representatives really be more concerned about keeping a pledge than doing what’s right?    Or is Peter Parker aka Spiderman right – sometimes the best promises are those we are willing to break?   After all, many German soldiers didn’t turn on Hitler even when they saw what was happening  because they took an oath to Hitler.   I think its simple minded blindness to keep an oath just because you took it, no matter what.

True conservatives won’t play that game.   They recognize that they have something to bring to the table and they can force Obama to compromise (and Obama has shown a willingness to compromise).   They don’t demand strict adherence to “principles.”  An uncompromising devotion to absolute principles is for the narrow minded.   Principles are simplified general ideals, but in the real world those simplification break down.   Blind adherence to principle is the mark of someone unwilling to embrace real world complexity – a cultist, in other words.

You see it on blogs and talk radio especially.   I’ve been in many debates, sometimes heated, with conservatives.   But usually we don’t take it personally, nor do we ridicule each other and say the other person is somehow evil or bad.  In fact in most cases we find we agree on core values — Americans are more united than divided.    Go to a cultist blog and try going against their party line and they respond with ridicule and personal abuse (and yes there are cultists on the left too).   That’s how cultists protect their message, they don’t allow it to be questioned, especially not by people who may have good arguments.

Republicans have tolerated the cultists because they brought energy and a solid voting block to the party.   As long as party leaders (whom cultists deride as the hated “Republican establishment”) could control the real policy actions of the party, the cultists were an asset.   But in 2010 they crossed that line.

The most recent example – rejection of the UN People with Disabilities treaty even as John McCain gave his support and Bob Dole was on hand to persuade skeptics to vote for it.   Senators who recently supported it voted no, fearful that the cultists would put up hard core conservative primary opposition.

"The world is a cage for your impotent rage, but don't let it get to you" - Rush (Neil Peart) , "Neurotica," from Roll the Bones (1991)

“The world is a cage for your impotent rage, but don’t let it get to you” – Rush (Neil Peart) , “Neurotica,” from Roll the Bones (1991)

Republicans need to purge the cultists from their ranks, or at least render them ineffective.  They inspire rage, but a rage that cannot win – you’ll never have a pure Demint style conservative government any more than you’ll ever have a pure Kucinich style liberal government.  Or if we do it’ll only be a gradual change reflecting the whole culture.   Our system is designed to avoid sudden lurches to such extremes.   It’s designed for compromise and loyal opposition.

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Joe South, 1940-2012

I was only nine years old when I started collecting 45 RPM singles and listening to the top forty on KISD in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (1230 AM on the dial).

One memory I have is making pop corn and playing records on my old monophonic phonograph with Kathy Keys, our babysitter.  I have no clue where Kathy is now, but I still remember at age ten we wrote down the lyrics of “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” by Joe South, one of my early records.   It remains one of my favorites of all time.   Later, my mom bought a “Best of Joe South” album because she wanted the song “Games People Play.”   However, she preferred the cover version by (I think) Glen Campbell so she gave me the album.  I soon had the lyrics of every song memorized and to this day he remains one of my favorites.

Joe South didn’t have a prolific career.   He wrote a number of songs that others turned into hits, and won a grammy for his still relevant “Games People Play.”   In 1971 the suicide of his brother put him into a state of depression, and though he released some material in the 70s he never got back into the groove.

Almost everyone has heard some of his songs, even if performed by others:  Down in the Boondocks, Games People Play, Hush, Children, I Knew you When, Don’t it Make You Wanna Go Home, Shelter, and the country classic by Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden.”

His music mixed a kind of down home common sense folk appeal with a deep spirituality.   I honestly have never heard any other singer or song writer capture that mix so perfectly.   Here’s a good quality clip of his Grammy winning hit, “Games People Play” (song of the year in 1969):

And I’ll end this post with the lyrics of my favorite Joe South song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”  Do yourself a favor, find a way to get some Joe South music and listen!

Lyrics of “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” by Joe South (1970)

If I could be you
And you could be me
For just one hour
If we could find a way
To get inside
Each other’s mind, mmm
If you could see you
Through your eyes
Instead of your ego
I believe you’d be
Surprised to see
That you’d been blind, mmm

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Now your whole world
You see around you
Is just a reflection
And the law of karma
Says you’re gonna reap
Just what you sow, yes you will
So unless
You’ve lived a life of
Total perfection
You’d better be careful
Of every stone
That you should throw, yeah

And yet we spend the day
Throwing stones
At one another
‘Cause I don’t think
Or wear my hair
The same way you do, mmm
Well I may be
Common people
But I’m your brother
And when you strike out
And try to hurt me
It’s a-hurtin’ you, lord have mercy

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

There are people
On reservations
And out in the ghettos
And brother there
But for the grace of God
Go you and I, yeah, yeah
If I only
Had the wings
of a little angel
Don’t you know I’d fly
To the top of the mountain
and then I’d cry

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You Seek Yoda!

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

About a year and a half ago I had a number of Star Wars themed posts, thanks to my kids becoming totally immersed in the story, playing Wii Lego Star Wars, learning the characters (even minor ones I’d never heard of like Bobo Fett or Captain Rex) and building ships with Legos.   Alas, their video interests shifted.   Ryan got into a video game which had him becoming a mercenary battling Universal Petroleum in Venezuela, both became engulfed in the world of Pokemon, and Star Wars was forgotten.   I got Blu Ray discs of the entire movie series for Christmas which remained unwatched as the kids dominated the television watching “The Regular Show,” “Pheneas and Ferb,” and “Good Luck Charlie.”

I actually truly enjoy both Phineas and Ferb and “Good Luck Charlie” – two of the shows the kids are into these days!

But this week for some reason Star Wars returned, and in fact we’ve been going through the series from episode 1 to episode 6.   I’ve never actually watched them in that order before.   The last time I watched all six within a period of a week or two it was 4, 5 and 6 followed by 1, 2 and 3 – the order in which they were released.   After all, that’s how fans experienced them.    Yet for the boys that order made no sense — and it’s been a pleasure (even if it meant that a couple of beautiful afternoons were spent indoors – Star Wars is worth sacrificing an afternoon of outdoor play).

First, when watched in the “proper” order, it is very clearly the story of the redemption of Anakin Skywalker.   When the first trilogy came out it was not; Luke was the hero and Darth Vader was his nemesis.   Only in episode five (“The Empire Strikes Back”) did it get revealed that Vader was Luke’s father, with Yoda only hinting that he might have a twin (“There is another,” he replies to Obi Wan’s spirit after Obi Wan says Luke is their last hope.)

Some of George Lucas’ colleagues were upset with all this in episode five, especially bringing in the Emperor as the master of evil, thereby diminishing Vader in the Vader vs. Luke dynamic.    Episode Six was about Luke becoming a Jedi, saving his father’s soul and learning he had a sister.   But Anakin Skywalker was important only in a symbolic way, we connected with the son finding closure over not growing up with a father.   How Anakin fell or why was unknown.   In fact, Leia even vaguely remembered her mom — which now has to be seen as either an error or a sign that the force can cause even newborns to commit a scene to memory.

Yoda’s encounter with Chewbacca in Episode 3 adds to the sense that he and Han Solo were guided by destiny, even as Solo dismissed “the Force” as silly superstition

But watching episodes four through six right after the first three caused me to see the originals in a new way — a way one could not have seen them thirty years ago.   I could imagine Anakin’s voice behind Vader’s supposedly synthesized voice.  I could see Anakin’s personality in Episode V as he tries to convince Luke to join him and rule the galaxy as father and son.    Anakin’s break from the dark side to betray the Emperor was not just about a father seeing his son being killed, but a recapturing of the good that Padme and Luke knew was still in him.

Watching this, I had to marvel at the story telling power that George Lucas commands.   In his prequels he put together a stand alone story with power.   The last thirty minutes of Episode 3 are riveting.   But for fans willing to think about the original series with an open mind, he created a new, deeper and more meaningful experience.   From the city planet of Coruscant there is the feel of shifting from political intrigue to a raw feel of the rebellion in the original films.   Their lower tech effects don’t stand out as the story is put in a simpler setting.

George Lucas also added bits and made improvements in the originals.   Some fans thought that was sacrilege, messing with a classic product.  But Lucas is an artist who wants to improve and perfect his work.    I respect that.

Star Wars would not have come into being if Lucas wasn’t a stubborn fighter willing to follow his vision despite criticism. So when he wants to make changes to improve his originals and some fans scream foul, it’s in keeping with the spirit of Star Wars that he does what he wants, despite criticism.

And ultimately what makes this more than just another action series is not only the cultural impact it had when released, but depth of thought in the story line.  It’s fast paced and action packed with a subtle philosophy of the force and the power of calm courage against fear and hatred.    Where Batman might just be a vigilante against villains, Star Wars represents the power of patience, ethics and a sense of unity against fear, anger and greed.   Star Wars is good vs. evil both in terms of the people and their values.   The message touches something inside.

Though he slaughtered children, destroyed a planet, and killed without mercy or regret, Darth Vader still had good in his hear and could be redeemed.

After all, what other movies from the 70s generate such interest and passion, even among six year olds?   And maybe as we head into our daily routines we can think about Yoda’s message.   Be patient and calm,  avoid fear and anger, focus on one’s higher self and deal with the problems as they arise, living in the present and not fretting about past or future.   Perhaps most important is to seek the good in others, understanding and forgiving their failures.  After all, if Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader can be redeemed, couldn’t anyone?   May the Force Be With You.

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Clockwork Angels: a Rush Classic

Rush – Geddy Lee (Gary Lee Weinrib), Alex Lifeson (Alex Zivojinovich) and Neil Peart have been together as Rush for four decades.   During that time they have released 19 studio albums, the latest being Clockwork Angels.    To be blunt: it is a stunningly poignant, powerful and entrancing album.

For their first album in five years the trio go back to the prog rock standard of having not just a concept album, but an album that tells a story.   Rush did that in the seventies, but after Hemispheres came out in 1978 they rejected long stories and overt concept albums.    Clockwork Angels is a story told by an older man looking back at life in a dystopian steampunk world.

A youthful Geddy, Alex and Neil

For Peart – the lyricist and story teller, the album is personal and reflects a kind of bookend to the 1976 classic 2112.   In that album a young man confronts a world of conformity and control, and finds power in music to rebel and express his individual freedom.   2112 is a young man’s story, inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, brimming with optimism about one’s ability to go out and create one’s life, taking control and expressing the ideal of freedom.

Peart, who calls himself a “bleeding heart libertarian” has backed off from his embrace of Rand, and this album helps explain why.   It is the album of a man nearing sixty who looks back at a life with moments of both glory and tragedy.   Peart himself lost his daughter in a car accident and his wife to breast cancer within a year.    He’s traveled the globe and had success doing what he loves – drumming and creating lyrical magic for a band that has stuck together through thick and thin.   But he’s experienced lows, saw the pain this world can create, and realizes that reality betrays his ideals.   Yet he still is an idealist.

Older but more experienced rockers – they still electrify crowds.

One inspiration for the album was Voltaire’s classic Candide, mentioned overtly in the album notes introducing the last song – The Garden.    Candide was Voltaire’s response to Rousseau’s belief that nature was good and any evil and pain humans experiences is due to our choices in constructing civilization contrary to nature.   Voltaire visited Lisbon after the famous 1755 earthquake and saw the horror there — and was stunned to hear that Rousseau blamed the victims for defying nature and building a massive city vulnerable to such tragedy.   He wrote Candide as a response to Rousseau, having the hero travel the world with his mentor Pangloss, who claimed that all happens because it should.

While not mirroring in structure or content Voltaire’s work, the hero in Clockwork Angels  is on a similar journey.   In BU2B he writes:

‘I was brought up to believe the universe has a plan
We are only human, it’s not ours to understand
The universe has a plan, all is for the best
Some will be rewarded and the devil will take the rest

All is for the best, believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker loves us all to death”

The capital of this steampunk world is Crown City, where the angels of Chronos Square help the Watchmaker keep order.   Life is secure, but boring.   As a young man our hero yearns for something more: “I can’t stop thinking big!”   He escapes a life of order and obedience, working at first for a carnival.    The songs take us through some of the hero’s journey such as The Wreckers where he emerges from a shipwreck as the sole survivor and Halo Effect reflecting on how easy it is in love to fall for illusions:

“What did I see?
Fool that I was
A goddess, with wings on her heels
All my illusions
Projected on her
The Ideal that I wanted to see”

As the album nears an end the hero comes to conclusions similar to those of Voltaire’s Candide.   In Headlong Flight (a song with vintage Rush stylings) he reflects on “all the journeys of this great adventure.”   His “headlong flight” is life, with high peaks and dark valleys, a journey different than expected but with no regrets: “I wish that I could live it all again.”

That is followed by BU2B2:

“Belief has failed me now, life goes from bad to worse
No philosophy consoles me in a clockwork universe
Life goes from bad to worse, I still choose to live
Find a measure of love and laughter and another measure to give”

He reaches a profound conclusion in that passage – in a clockwork universe there can be no satisfying philosophical answer to life’s mysteries.   You can have faith in the Watchmaker (e.g., God), but reality makes such faith hard if not impossible to hold.    So he turns to choosing life – a measure of love and laughter.

The penultimate song, Wish them Well adds:

“All you can do is wish them well
Spirits turned bitter by the poison of envy
Always angry and dissatisfied
Even the lost ones, the frightened and mean ones
Even the ones with a devil inside
Thank your stars you’re not that way, turn your back and walk away…”

He’s also found there is no point in dwelling on the weaknesses of others, even those who’ve cheated him or caused pain.   They are the ones with the sickness in their souls, all you can do is “wish them well.”   The hero realizes that dwelling on the misdeeds and betrayals of others only gives them power over his own thoughts and mood.    He will not be diminished by the smallness of others.   Rather than seeking revenge, wish them well.

Candide is often seen as the first modern philosophical expression of humanism

The album notes for the last song, The Garden, cites Candide, a story from “another timeline.”   Candide experienced adventure and tragedy while being constantly told by his teacher Pangloss that all that happens is the will of God.   At the end Candide concludes that “now it is time to cultivate our own garden,” choosing a simple life in the countryside.   Peart’s conclusion is similar:

“The treasure of a life is a measure of the love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give in the fullness of time
it’s the only return that you expect

The future disappears into memory
with only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen.”

Candide is often considered the first full modern expression of humanism.  God may exist, but he doesn’t need our love and efforts – we humans need them.    We need to love ourselves and each other.   The humanist ethic emerges when idealism battles cynicism.   Idealism wins, but at a price.   Instead of faith in an omnipotent loving God and a future of paradise, one only has life and the moments as they arise.   Living each moment well has/is its own reward.

“The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect.”

A few things stand out about the album.   First, these guys are no slouches.   The album took work, they explored new musical territory while not letting go of their signature sound.   I’m not qualified to write a musical review, but most music critics are amazed that these musicians are not only still producing quality work, but taking great pride in trying to always produce their best album ever.   That work ethic is why they can still produce a masterpiece when others from their era are either retired or rehashing old music in arenas, often two or three of the old superstar bands teamed together.

Beyond that, a look at Rush through time shows a band that constantly grows and evolves, both musically and lyrically.   They never try to be commercial (only Tom Sawyer was a real hit), and until their last two albums have tended to be dismissed by music critics who took a snobbish view on the entire prog rock movement — the two coasts sneering at the Midwest and Canadian hard rock sound.    Now, though, even the critics have come around.    Perhaps Rush will finally get a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This is not an album they could have made back in the 70s.   It reflects the wisdom of thoughtful years through Peart’s lyrics, the meshing and development of a variety of sounds through Lee and Lifeson’s compositions, a seriously evolving style of drumming from Peart, and a commitment by the band to excellence and to each other.  Their success now is a vindication of the band and people like me — fans who have always seen something special in their words and music.    Just as the youthful rebellious individualism and hard rock power in 2112 inspired me at age 16, the reflective wisdom and tight musical complexity of Clockwork Angels moves me at age 52.

Here’s a drum solo from Peart from a 2011 appearance on Letterman:

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A Chink in the Armor?

Recently an ESPN headline writer was fired for running a story titled “A Chink in the Armor” which was considered a racial slur against a Chinese player.    Given how often that term is used in sports, I would err to the side of believing it an unintended pun rather than a racially inspired remark, but ESPN didn’t want to risk a PR debacle.  Fair enough.

However, this may go to far: a call to retire  the phrase ‘chink in the armor.’

The phrase itself is old, from middle English.  It refers to a fissure or break in the armor worn by knights.   As a metaphor, it rather effectively connotes a very powerful team or player who has a small weakness that potentially could lead to defeat.

Retiring or ‘banning’ phrases within the media is common.   Rare is the word “nigger” heard, usually either from blacks themselves or in a dramatic context — like when an angry and distraught Col. Oliver (a character based on Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire) tells Paul Rusesabagina “you’re not even a nigger, you’re an African” in Hotel Rwanda.   That usage dramatizes the apparent racism of the world in refusing to help Rwanda, it isn’t meant to denigrate blacks – it was Oliver’s angry way for characterizing the orders he was receiving.  Otherwise, the once common slur is virtually gone – banned in schools, the media, and public places.

Nick Nolte's use of the word "nigger" served to dramatize how little concern the West has for Africa

Not all groups get equal treatment.   If I were to say “He wants $5000 for the car, but I’m going to jew him down to under $4000,” that would be out of bounds.   It’s a stereotype of Jews being cheap and always going for a better deal.   However, if I say “Hey, I paid too much for this, I got gypped” few people would blink.   Gypsies don’t have many defenders, and most people don’t even know that “gypped” comes from how gypsies (or to be politically correct, the Roma) cheat people.

What if the caption was "How to Jew Down the Price of a Used Car?"

But those words are directly related to the racial group in play.    Chink is not.   Chink is used as a slur against Chinese folk, but it also has a different meaning going back a millennium, and is used as a common phrase.    One might compare it to the use of the word niggardly, which has a whole different heritage and meaning (nothing to do with race).     People have lost their jobs for using that term, especially when people with a poor vocabulary falsely believe it to be uttered as an allusion to race.

Yet unlike “chink in the armor” the word niggardly isn’t common.    Moreover, there is a long history of oppression of blacks – slavery, ghettoization, etc.  While bigotry against Chinese has been common in the US, especially on the West coast where they originally settled, it’s not as horrid a history.

Of course the groups that have suffered the most in US history are the American Indians.   I’ve heard it argued that “Indians” or “Braves” should not be used for team names.      That seems to go too far – after all, you don’t see Norwegians complaining about the use of Viking – and that team is named after a group known for being rapists, murderers and thieves!   (Full disclosure: as I type this I’m wearing a Viking sweatshirt and I’m a Minnesota Vikings fan).

But what about the Redskins?  You know, the team representing our nation’s capital.    It’s one thing to have a name that is respectful – the “Fighting Sioux” from North Dakota actually uses the tribal name rather than the broad term “Indian.”  But “redskins” has always been a racial epithet.     So the worst part of this sentence “The break down in the defense shows a chink in the armor of the Redskins…” is the metaphor “chink in the armor?”   Really?

If "chink in the armor" is bad, what is this?

Like the gypsies, the American Indian nations don’t get much respect or attention, so it’s OK to continue with terms that denigrate them.

Then you get into other terms.    Some want to banish the “R” word – retard.   Long ago mentally retarded children started to be referred to as “special” – education for people with handicaps is now called “special education.”   The result – “special” has become an insult that works exactly as “retard” used to.   Trying to micromanage language usage is ultimately an impossible task.

At base I think people need perspective.  I try to teach my children something that will make life much easier for them: “Do not give other people power over your emotions through their words.”    If someone calls you a name, getting mad at them and being bothered and offended is a self-inflicted wound.   You have chosen to give that other person power over your emotions, you could have decided to ignore them – people call names to arouse a reaction, when you comply, you hand them a victory.

Not that I think terms like “nigger” or “jew him down” or even “gyp” should be used.  In fact, I’m all for changing the name of the Redskins and other obviously derogatory team names.    But we shouldn’t go overboard.  The goal is not to have a language whitewashed of any possibly offensive term, especially not if the term’s meaning and usage is not derived from slurs.  “A chink in their armor” is fine.

Most importantly we have to focus a bit less on the words and language and more on real conditions.    The only reason a slur can sting is because it evokes status differentials in society.    Calling a white anglo saxon a “WASP” isn’t very offensive because it does not harken to some kind of lower status for those people.   Calling an Italian a “dago” or a Japanese a “nip” does.   Some of it may be historical, and if so the longer removed the history the less offensive the term.    The more different groups have equal status the less you’ll see offensive terms used — society will naturally move away from such usage.

Ultimately it’s not the words that sting, it’s the way we take them.  That’s something we can learn from George Carlin.

 

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Street Collage

“And if you’ve got enough money where you don’t have to work, let’s face it, who wants to work? There’s no reason why anybody, that five generations of people got to be on welfare…Kids nowadays, that’s the whole thing, too much money, they’ve got too much money. They don’t have to struggle and work for things like when I was growing up had to do. And I was lucky if I got that job delivering hats in a hat store for twenty-five cents per hat. Too much money today is with the young kids, everything was handed to ’em, and that’s why they are the way they are.”

If you read that quote and reflect, you may find yourself agreeing. This generation of kids grew up with DVDs, cell phones, computers, video games and everything they wanted just handed to them. This is why they’re “the way they are” – selfish, lazy, unambitious, entitled, etc. Yup, not like when my generation grew up, we had to work!

Teens often seem entitled, aloof and arrogant to many

However, the quote comes from a street interview (not sure if it’s real or staged) in the middle of the song “Movement for the Common Man” on the album Styx I, which was released in 1972. That means that the ‘young people’ talked about in that quote are probably nearing 60.

In other words, how elders view youth hasn’t changed much in 40 years, even if today’s elders are yesterday’s youth! Why would that be? First, consider another part of that track “Street Collage” from Movement for the Common Man:

Well, you see now, I’m a depression baby and I remember the WPA. If we could just start the same thing again and get people working out there, why not? Is it too menial for somebody to sweep the street?

The elders of 1972 looking at the youth of that time compared them to the depression era. By the early seventies consumerism was beginning, the convenience society was forming (TV dinners were becoming standard fare, the microwave oven was gaining popularity. 40,000 were in use in 1970, by 1975 it was 1,000,000. Fast food was popular, but not yet omnipresent. McDonalds still kept track of how many million had been sold, not just “millions and millions.”

And then there’s this, from the same section of the song:

I had one gentlemen get in — No offense to you gentlemen, he had long hair and a beard — And I told him, he had better go home and take a bath; He had B.O. so bad, it was terrible! I said “You might be educated, but did your parents tell you to go dirty?”

It was the era of the hippies, protesters against the war, for civil rights, and sometimes against the western industrialized society completely. Having survived the depression and used to being thankful for a chance to make money, the counter culture movement of the seventies was a different cultural world. Emblematic of this is a television show that started in January 1971, All in the Family. Just consider the opening tune:

Those were the days! Now many “elders” look at see gays marrying, have the same reaction to Occupy Wall Street that their parents or grandparents had to Vietnam war protesters, and see a youth that has grown up in a time of plenty being used to having material abundance. Beyond that there are cell phones, video games, facebook (and the younger generation seems to disregard the intense concern about privacy that earlier generations cling to), a black President, and a very different world.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Frankly, I’m impressed with today’s youth. Teaching at a university I see them engaged, concerned about their future, and more knowledgable than ever due to the internet and connections made often across borders. To be sure, these are college kids, but I teach at a rural state university not an elitist private school. If students here are engaged and connected, that’s a good sign.

Today's youth - ready to change the world!

Yes, they are used to technology. I hear students talk about how hard it would be to go without their mobile phone for even part of a day — they are more connected to friends and family than I would have wanted to be when I was their age. Parents are often almost tyrannical in their desire to keep in contact with their kids, even at college (note to self: I will not be that way as my kids grow up!). When we’ve done travel courses to Italy and Germany, parents increasingly try to demand students stay in contact with them every day.

In fact, if anyone deserves criticism its the parents’ generation. There is so much effort done to protect kids or make sure they succeed that kids often get stifled by the attention and control. It’s a well intentioned stifling, and certainly better than ignoring kids or not caring, but it can go too far. If the youth of today seem spoiled it’s often not their fault — it’s being forced on them by their elders.

Being over protective leads to sometimes irrational and harmful efforts at control

That’s probably the biggest difference I notice between my youth and now. There is so much protection now – a kid brings a swiss army knife to school to show his friends and he’s expelled. Who does that protect? An ESPN announcer has “chink in his armour” about a Chinese athlete and the fact “chink” had a double meaning as a pejorative for Chinese folk and he gets fired. Really? Protecting us from double meanings in popular expressions?

Yet with all the protections, the ubiquity of fast food, video games and other temptations overpowers those who would want to protect kids from themselves. It’s a bit surreal. Yet through it all, I think we underestimate the youth — just as my elders were doing back in the 70s. They learn to navigate their reality, they understand dangers and risks, even if their belief in their immortality causes them to sometimes foolishly disregard them. But my generation was the same way. That’s youth.

Today’s youth are being handed a country in debt and decline and asked to fix things. They are pioneers in a world where even the phrase “high tech” sounds old fashioned. They are crafting new realities, throwing off old prejudices (such as the prohibition against gay marriage) and are cynical of the ideology-based politics of the past. Kids these days? Well, count me impressed. The most hope I have for my country and its future comes when I consider today’s youth. They’re no more spoiled than my generation was, and they seem to grasping the information revolution tools that can reshape the world with a gusto.

Anyway, given the mountain of debt and the myriad of ecological, social and political problems my generation is leaving in our wake, I don’t think we elders have any standing to complain!

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The Horror of Communism

Fictional characters Georg Dreyman and Christa Marie Sieland dramatize how the Communist system could swallow lives whole

In teaching Comparative Politics its hard to know how to explain how Communism functioned.   On the one hand, it’s easy to paint it as an economic failure.   Centralized bureaucratic planning created stagnation, inefficiency and lack of response to real demand.   Incentives within the system were not to rock the boat, not to improvise or show initiative, and thus economic dynamism and creativity were thwarted.

One can also explain the political control of totalitarianism:  the “grand bargain” whereby citizens were promised shelter, food, health care, education and a job in exchange for going along with the system and following the rules.  But explained that way some students say “why is that so bad?”   Less stress, security that one will have life’s needs taken care of, and only at the cost of not being political, well, for many people that sounds like a decent deal.

The real failure of communism, however, was neither political nor economic, it was the system’s inhumanity.   I’m not talking about Stalin’s horrific crimes killing 20 million people, or Mao’s misguided economic policies that killed over 30 million.  I’m not talking either about Pol Pot’s genocidal ideology that led to the Cambodian killing fields.  I’m talking about the mundane evil of ‘real existing socialism’ in the former East bloc even after the purges and mass killings had ceased.

People weren’t taken and shot, and most weren’t even held in prison.    Instead government repression alongside a system that bred dependency took a tool on the psyche and spirit of its citizens.   It’s hardly surprising that alcoholism rates skyrocketed and depression grew.   It was a system that worked against the human spirit with heart numbing bureaucratic control.   It was a system where you could have your basic needs met and appear to be living in relative comfort and still be suffering in the soul.

I’ve finally found a method to communicate that aspect of the communist system:  to show the film The Lives of Others, or Das Leben der Anderen, a German film set in East Berlin in 1984.    The plot is basic (spoiler alert!)   A Communist big wig – a government Minister named Hemph, has a crush on aging actress Christa Marie Sieland (CMS).   She’s in a loving relationship with the famous author/playwrite Georg Dreyman.

Dreyman is a successful writer who remains in the government’s favor but yet has appeal in the West.   He does this by knowing the rules and being sure to stay away from political themes.  He knows to say the right things to government elites and when to keep his mouth shut.    Even as his colleagues chide him for refusing to take a stand, he thinks it foolish to risk everything just to make political statements.   He wants to write, not rock the boat.

When Sieland is being routinely raped by Minister Hempf and his director friend Jerska is blacklisted and ultimately kills himself, Dreyman confronts the reality that he is living in an evil system and has to speak out.

Meanwhile, Hempf has employed the Stasi — the East German secret police — to find dirt on Dreyman so he can be arrested and Hempf would have CMS to himself.   Here we see the Communist bureaucracy.  Anton Grubitz is a high ranking Stasi official who is clearly motivated only by his desire for upward mobility.  He’s eager to give Hempf what he wants and puts his best man, Gerd Wiesler, on the case.

Hempf (center) convinces Grubitz (left) to spy on Dreyman after watching CMS star in one of Dreyman's plays

Wiesler is a committed Communist.  He is a Stasi agent because he has high ideals and believes he’s protecting socialism and the state.   Yet as he investigates Dreyman, he becomes conflicted.   He starts by hating the “arrogant artist” types who thumb their nose at the state.   But he cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Hempf wanting to use the state police to simply get rid of a rival, his friend’s lack of concern for anything but his ambition, and the way in which the state’s intrusion into the lives of this couple is destroying what he comes to recognize as a true committed love.

Wiesler sets up a listening post in the attic of Dreyman's apartment, hearing every phone call and conversation

Much of the film is about Wiesler’s inner conflict.    At one point you sense he’s changing when a boy follows him into the elevator and asks, “are you really with Stasi.”    When asked if he knows what Stasi is, the boy says “my dad says it’s bad men who put people in prison.”   Wiesler instinctively responds “what is the name of…”  but then stops.   “Your ball.”   He doesn’t have the heart to go after this boy’s dad any more.

What is the name of your soccer ball?

Ultimately Wiesler switches sides.    He starts protecting Dreyman just as Dreyman makes a stand against the system.  Dreyman writes an article to smuggle to Der Spiegel magazine in the West about high suicide rates in East Germany.    CMS is arrested when she finally resists Hempf, who has been supplying her with illegal drugs (which she takes in part because of how his affections torture her).   She is forced to implicate Dreyman and betray her love.

After a fight in which Dreyman begs CMS not to go to Hempf, she leaves, stopping in the same bar Wiesler has gone to. Seeing her there he goes over and pretends to be a fan, telling her she is genuine. His words convince her not to go to Hempf again after all. "You are a good man," she says.

Despite efforts by Wiesler to protect them, wracked by guilt she purposefully steps in front of an on coming truck to kill herself.  Weisler has removed the implicating information but Grubitz realizes he must have aided Dreyman and demotes him.   Dreyman is left broken, CMS is dead, and the system plods on.

A plot summary cannot do justice to how well this film illustrates the pervasive corruption and immorality of the internal system, how it could turn good honest people into those who betray their friends and lovers and ultimately find their own lives destroyed.    It isn’t always as dramatic as portrayed here, but the film encapsulates the human horror of communism.

Yet the film ends with an upside.   German unification and the fall of communism comes.   Wiesler finds work delivering mail.   The Stasi files are open to the public and Dreyman goes to his, shocked to find that Stasi had been watching him.   He reads Weisler’s reports and is amazed to find that Wiesler — known as agent HGW XX/7 in the report — started covering for them and not reporting his real activities.

Inspired to write, he publishes a new novel, “Sonata for a Good Man,” named after a sheet music for a sonata given to him by Jerska, the director who had committed suicide.   Wiesler sees an advertisement for the book and goes into the store and reads the dedication:  “To agent HGW XX/7”   He purchases the book and when asked if he wants it gift wrapped he says no.  “It’s for me.”

The destruction of the lives and relationship of CMS and Dreyman symbolize the destructive force of the Communist bureaucratic system

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Nothing Matters and What if it Did?

Only once have I bought a record album or CD solely on the basis of the title: John Cougar’s Nothing Matters and What if it Did?  It is a great album.    Ain’t Even Done with the Night is a classic, and To M.G.  and This Time are also excellent — a spur of the moment purchase that I never regretted.

But why would that album title cause me at age 20 to pick the album off the rack and buy it?   John Cougar was not that well known yet (though this album helped push him to the next level), I just liked the title.

One question I think about when I want to tie my mind up a bit is “why is there something and not nothing?”   The idea that a universe exists is far more outrageous than the notion of complete nothingness.    Something can’t come from nothing, at least according to the laws of physics (well, particles can zip in and out of existence borrowing energy from the universe, but quantum physics covers that).  Positing a God is a logical but incomplete conclusion.   Why is there a God and not no God is just as puzzling a question!

Speculation about that question leads me to believe that material reality as we experience it must be a secondary form of experience.   While my description and reflections on reality now are much more sophisticated than they were when I was twenty, I think my gut intuition remains the same – this world is not the true world.

Hence the appeal of the question: Nothing matters, and what if it did?  The 20 year old Scott liked the rebelliousness of that question.   How dare someone say that poverty, war, child abuse, rape, genocide and murder don’t matter!   The suggestion seems disrespectful of the experience of millions of humans.   The 20 year old Scott rather liked creating discomfort in that sort of way; thirty years later, though, I still find the question appealing.

…and what if it did?   What if it did matter, what happens?   Would that make reality any different?

Even at 20 I saw the impossibility of truly embracing the idea that ‘nothing matters.’    Of course things matter to me, and to everyone else.   My children matter to me, my students matter to me, even my blog matters to me – it’s a recording of my ideas as they develop over time.

But let’s be honest.   Nothing we do here will be remembered or make a difference far into the future, except as a minuscule part of creating the world that will be — any of us might never have been born and the world would have gone on just fine.   Others would have filled our life roles, be it as a hero, a parent, or worker.    In a “real” materialist sense, our lives are meaningless.   Nothing material matters.   The sun will eventually go nova, humanity will die out, the vanity and arrogance of our brief dance on this planet represent nothing but impotent egos trying to assert that they have value.    The value is subjective and transient.

Yet what if it did matter?   Consider: all we experience is sensation.   That is a product of our brain.   It interprets the world and that interpretation is what we experience as reality.   It’s based on a small bit of reality that our senses can perceive.   Even though most “solid material” is made up of empty space — atoms are almost all empty space, the nucleus 1/100,000 of the atom’s size, yet containing all its mass — we experience solids as, well, SOLID!  It’s what our brain creates for our experience.

And while we might be real bodies walking and moving around through a universe that has three dimensions, we could also be receptors, taking in data and turning it into experience that simply seems like it takes up space and time.    That’s an old meditation, be it from Plato’s cave or more recently The Matrix, but there is nothing about human experience that gives cause to believe that reality is as we experience it.   We only know experience.

If that were the case, what matters would not be the physical world we believe exists.   What matters might be the emotions, connections, and what we learn in our hearts through living.    A person who struggles through difficulties to develop true happiness and a capacity to link meaningfully with others may be far more successful discovering useful knowledge than the most brilliant scientist or inventor.   One who lives in a state of engagement with the world of emotion, intuition and social connection may be far more better at life’s challenge than one who amasses a material fortune.   We know the material stuff perishes and may not even exist as we experience it.   But that spark of consciousness and life, that sense of spirit — that seems real, and it seems untethered to matter.

But why — what would the point of such an existence be.    Why is there something and not nothing?

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” – John Cougar Mellencamp, from Jack and Diane.

John Cougar Mellencamp’s next album, American Fool, put his career into the stratosphere with songs like Jack and Diane and Hurts so Good.    He also reclaimed the last name his record company thought too boring for a rock star.

But think about – life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.   To me, that’s a key idea.   At some point living is a thrill, a joy, there  is excitement, anticipation, plans and goals.   One dreams, explores ideas, and the horizons seem limitless.   Then the routine kicks in, and at some point the future seems short with limited possibilities — one might be stuck in a job, stuck in a marriage, dealing with commitments, and unable to achieve earlier dreams.

But that’s true only if life is about the material.   Life becomes limited and the future more narrow if one looks only at material ideals — those do get limited over time as one lives and makes choices.  But if the spiritual and emotional matter; if connections with others are more important than individual material achievement, then life can be thrilling up until the last moment; the thrill of living need never fade.

The more I reflect on it the more real those ephemeral aspects of life and my existence become, and the more illusory the material world I experience seems to be.   I find that thrilling!

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Twisting Time

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see the world is barely there at all.  Don’t we all secretly know this?  It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life.  Below it and around it?  Chaos, storms.  Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns.  Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand.  A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
Stephen King, from 11/22/63, pp. 615-16

Finals week when I have stacks of papers and exams is usually not the time to start a nearly 850 page novel, the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read.     I found his style engaging, the story riveting, and the gentle weaving of drama, deep philosophical ideas and social commentary to be subtle and effective.   However, this is not a book review, and except for obvious bits you’ll get from any description, there are no spoilers.  Instead this is a stream of consciousness reaction to a powerful and intriguing novel.

First, the length.   Someone wanting a fun read may be put off by 843 pages and a book which will build your arm muscles just by holding it while you read.  It has to be that long; the reader has to feel like years have past, that the man from 2011 is fully living a life from 1958 to 1962.   You lose yourself in that era, his identity there is real.   Second, it’s definitely not a horror novel; it provokes thoughts and theories, ties up the loose ends enough for the story, but leaves enough open for one to contemplate — especially the larger issues of time, life, reality and love.

I’m left contemplating the nature of existence on this planet.   There is a truth that most people neither mention or spend much time thinking about.   Every life is full of twists and turns whereby chance decides whether one dies early, finds love, gets a lucky break, or has everything fall apart.    Moreover in the grand scheme of things most lives are forgotten not long after death.    The daily dramas and emotions we perceive are part of a tapestry that lingers forever as a moment — a fleeting, ever changing moment.

Therein is the part hard to grasp.   Now lasts forever, we’re always “now,” even though we categorize experience as past, present and future.   If you believe modern physics, space-time is an entity whereby past, present and future are mere illusions caused by how we experience the world in which we find ourselves.  At the very least each moment is nothing but a series of sensations that we somehow make sense of as we move through them.

Life is therefore ephemeral and fleeting.  It feels real enough as we experience it, though even our most intense experiences are gone as soon as they happen.   The world changes slowly, but completely.  Each individual life seems meaningless along the current of time, yet all we have are individual lives and moments.   We contribute what we can, and never really know the impacts it has, the “butterfly effect,” as King calls it, as each choice we make sends ripples that ultimately touch multiple lives, imperceptibly yet fundamentally changing reality.

I think about this as I watch some of the TV shows I’ve mentioned in this blog, including Pan Am, which takes place during the very era King describes, or Banacek, whose early 70s perspective shows the start of change, as chauvinism, ubiquitous smoking and conservative social norms start giving way to the impact of the counter culture movement.   I think about it as I watch my children get irritated at a hotel when the TV won’t pause.   To them, TV is DVR.   A show not being able to pause or be recorded, well, they haven’t heard of such a thing!

And why not?  My five year old has never wound a watch, but he can go into “Gameboy” and get on a display XBOX 360 and figure out a game that stumps me.   And we don’t even have an XBOX!   I see students connected to friends and parents on facebook, e-mail getting dismissed as old fashioned while texting while driving surpassing drinking while driving as a main concern for teens, and I realize how quickly one era has folded into another.   The streaking, disco and concept album period of the seventies is gone.

Life, existence and reality feel fleeting and unreal.  Reality isn’t hard matter blasting its way through time with Newtonian certainty, but complex ideas uniting and igniting change with quantum complexity.   Unlived pasts exist in some portion of the universal mind; at some level of reality all possible choices have been and are being explored.    The idea of past, present and future is a psychological orientation to allow us to navigate the world in which we find ourselves.

That’s both humbling and inspiring.  For while each individual life or moment of existence is not as important or central as we experience it to be, we are all an integral part of a reality weaving through and around us, with birth and death just moments in this vast experience.    Those moments my bind the experience each of us has in an individual existence, but probably don’t delineate our entire being.

After finishing the novel I was exercising to the Moody Blues, and the following stuck with me:

“Isn’t life strange
A turn of the page
A book without light
Unless with love we write;
To throw it away
To lose just a day
The quicksand of time
You know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry –

Wished I could be in your heart
To be one with your love
Wished I could be in your eyes
Looking back there you were
And here we are” –
 The Moody Blues

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Disgusting Islamophobia

TLC is doing a reality show called American Muslim,  following five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan.   The show follows average Muslims living every day lives as cops, coaches and consumers — typical Americans.

Not for the Islamophobes!   Islamophobia is similar to the anti-semitism of the Nazi party in Germany before World War II.  It wants to posit Muslims as a different kind of people, not truly American – just as Jews were not truly German to the anti-semites.   They want to spread myths about Islam, making it sound like Sharia law is always some kind of horrific set of barbarian practices, that women are treated horribly, and every Muslim secretly wants the Taliban to come to power.

Not everyone who is concerned about Islamic extremism is an Islamophobe.   Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of Islam, usually present when people become convinced that Islam is an inherently anti-western anti-modern religion that can never co-exist with Western values.   Such a view is absurd when taking into account the history of Islam and the reality of Islam in America (or Europe).     Yes, there are extremist and irrational Muslims too — and it’s right to oppose them, and when a filmmaker is killed in the Netherlands or a terror act occurs in London, the religious element has to be dealt with openly and clearly.

However, true Islamophobia is as dangerous as anti-semitism was in Germany in the 20s and 30s and must be fought just as fervently as any of us would fight anti-semitism if we were transported to Germany in 1930.   It is the stuff of vile bigotry, a kind of evil that is fundamentally anti-American and ignorant.   Alas, it still has clout.

The big retail chain Lowe’s caved to pressure from an Nazi Islamophobic organization called “The Florida Family Association.”    Like the Nazis, this group’s irrational fear and hatred is not limited to Muslims, they are also homophobic, warning of a gay and Muslim “agenda”.  From their website:   “TLC’s “All-American Muslim” is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values. ”

Get that – seeing Muslims as average Americans is dangerous because it hides the “Islamic agenda.”   Just like how the Jewish agenda in Germany was put forth when Jews were seen as normal shopkeepers, scientists and artists.   It is morally equivalent and Lowe’s is doing the moral equivalent of caving to Nazi pressure.   According to the neo-fascist website for the Florida Family Association, Sweet-n-Low is also withholding sponsorship, as is Home Depot.

One might be tempted to cut them some slack because they are a Christian organization.  But the world view they espouse does not differ much from any fascist world view.   Hitler said he was fighting to save Germany from anti-German elements — not just Jews, but liberals, socialists, pacifists, internationalists and homosexuals, all of whom stood against traditional German values.   Fascists portray themselves as promoting strength, virtue, and wholesomeness.   They defend their violence as saying it is the true strong German (or, in the case of this group they’d say American or Christian) is unafraid to speak the truth about threats to society and willing to do what is necessary to counter them.  Violence and intolerance is to them a virtue.

For Hitler the battle in the 20s was a culture war for Germany’s soul, promoting fear of the diversity emerging in the 20th Century in order to get people to embrace what was sold as a return to strong German values.   The world view of this “Florida Family Association” is similar.  They want to protect American culture from Muslims, gays, liberals, and secular humanists.   The core of their ideology is fear of difference, and even though they are not yet espousing violence, once a group is defined as a danger to society and something different and even evil, the line to violence is much easier to cross.

But even if it doesn’t go as far as Nazism did, such fear-based bigotry is fundamentally anti-American and enables discrimination, prejudice and abuse against others.  It is fear of people based on the essence of who they are — their faith, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity.  As such it’s an anti-human ideology, one that must be countered.

The best way to do that is to contact Lowes, Home Depot, and Sweet and Low — and whoever else refuses to advertise on that show.   Tell them that their support of an anti-American boycott is despicable and unless their policy changes you’ll shop elsewhere.  Moreover, one should speak out and condemn this kind of organization and the fear that underlies its mode of operation.  Having studied German history in the 20s and 30s, I know that apathy — or a belief ‘well, they’re a bit extreme but they have a point’ — is extremely dangerous.   Finally, watch the TLC show and support advertisers who don’t cave to extremist pressure.

Most importantly, however, is in our every day life to support tolerance and mutual respect for all people.   Disrespect and opposition should be based on actions people take, not who they are or even what they believe.   This includes groups like the Florida Family Association.

One has to focus on the specific actions taken by that group, and not use their actions as an excuse to be bigoted against Christians or even those whose personal belief system is one that does not support Islam, gay marriage or homosexuality.  There is room for all kinds of beliefs in this country, and we can’t respond to bigotry with bigotry in return — that simply reinforces and deepens the intensity of bigotry.   Instead the focus has to be on countering their message and offering a positive alternative.

We have come a long way in ten years.   The country understands and accepts Islam far better now than it did then, and groups like this are on the periphery.   Let’s keep it that way.

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