Author Archives: Elisa

Fluffy Democracy and the 2012 Election

I’m not a political analyst. But I am concerned – as a student and as a person – by the unquestioned, inherent value in the word and idea of “Democracy.”

I understand the need for a fanatic search for government other than despotism, especially in the past, and especially in the very early history of the United States. Democracy was the ideological banner under which the United States stayed United, after all. And the deification of the ideal upon which the government was sort of constructed seemed to be a pretty good plan – it tried something new, at least; it’s not common birthplace or allegiance to an individual or even language or religion via which Americans traditionally identify themselves, but work ethic and political representation.

And that’s a good and noble thing. But “Democracy” as we use it now is lacking in substance, and only vaguely reminiscent of the word’s original purpose and ideals. It’s a fluff word – a word that’s lost its weight, meaning, and context. Something we can tack onto any object to make it instantly American and socially approved.

And the need for quick and easy social approval is, I think, rooted in the decomposition of political efficiency in the form of the partisan two-party system. The two-party system, whether it is the best model of an election-based political system or not, focuses all public attention and energy on competition for competition’s sake. The goal of traditional political debates has been skewed from clarification of one’s views to beating one’s opponent.

Bill Keller, New York Times columnist and previous executive editor, suggests that the rabid opposition effect is increasing over time. We are in “The Age of Shouting,” politically and culturally, Keller says – where politicians study talking points more than policy and semantic slip-ups receive more attention than real inconsistency. He suggests that the current political scene will be slow to make any real progress towards culling the approach of economic entropy if it continues to value short-term popularity over long-term benefit. Attempting to cling to empty ideals has caused politicians’ relationship with the public to become an empty thing in itself; all intentionality is replaced with the rabid defense of platitudes to which we glue our identities, and any sense of common benefit is drowned out by the cry to defeat any opposition.

Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” , was a guest on “Crossfire” – a CNN show that featured commentators sitting at dramatically angled tables and asking political figures loud questions – in 2005. He called out the show for being culturally destructive and deceivingly theatrical: “What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.” Stewart said to the hosts, “You have a responsibility to the public discourse.”

The comedian’s call towards participation in productive public discourse is impressively insightful. Democracy is a good and beneficial thing, especially for everyone who is not a) a despot or b) stronger than everyone else. But it does not magically self-perpetuate – because it is literally constructed of the public, it requires the constant activity and engagement of the public. Socially responsible and informed discourse is needed, and we’re not going to get it by finding cheap ways to win arguments. It’s going to take work and a widespread social movement towards real discourse to keep “Democracy” in the American lexicon as anything more than a buzzword.

Instances of Apology to the “Younger Generation”

One thing that’s striking me lately is the attitude of the older generation – Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers – towards the plight of the current young adult population. Take David Simon’s commencement speech to Georgetown, for example.

You did the work, you got the grades. Your parents are out there with you, prouder than hell. This is your day. And theirs. And who the hell is this lumpy white guy to come here and drip doom and despair all over the lawn in front of the Healy building? For the love of God, he’s sucking the life out of the big moment.

This is part of a trend, I think – there seems to be a handful of apologies from the old to the young being passed around. I keep expecting them to pull out a phrase like “the headlines these days”:

And every day, it seems, the headlines offer fresh examples of the greed and selfishness with which my generation has laid waste to its own possibilities.

I want to issue a sincere apology from the Baby Boomer generation to the younger generations. We have failed you profoundly. With a quick look at headlines, no one can escape the conclusion that some of you were raised without an ethical foundation.
– Pamela Wright on SpinSucks

We had contempt for our parents believing that “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” and “Superman” — with the show’s motto of “truth, justice, and the American way” — were good things for young people to be exposed to. So we replaced these shows with MTV’s mind-numbing parade of three-second images and sex-drenched shows for teenagers. Sorry.
– Dennis Prager on creators.com

There’s a lot of mention of MTV. One guy apologizes “for using sexual attractiveness as a substitute for all other forms of acting talent,” though his was not at all the first generation to do that, and some 25-year-old reply-apologizes for the types of music that he doesn’t like (including “3-chord pop rock songs,” which largely predate 25-year-olds).

This isn’t really much – I’m just thinking about the relationship between the older generations and the younger as time moves on. Is every era like this? Will we some day lament our failings to the younger generation, or is this just the new-ish self-deprecating-self-consciousness thing playing out in old age?

I have no good thoughts. It seems a little self-serving to use an apology to the younger generation to criticize the actions of your “generation” (ie, whoever was president while you were 30). David Simon’s commencement speech is pretty transparently anti-conservative:

Even during wartime, with our armies afield, we whine about paying taxes, though our tax rates are the lowest in modern American history. Meanwhile, though less prone to overt racism, we have nonetheless abandoned the precepts of upward mobility for all Americans, conceding the very idea of public education, of equality of opportunity. And as our society further stratifies, as the rich get richer and the poor become less and less necessary to our de-industrialized economy, we wage a war against our underclass under the guise of drug prohibition, turning America into the jailingest society on the face of the earth.

Whatever the intentions are, these apologies do little more than boast of the speaker’s political regrets, and are often just a “told-you-so” directed at whatever party happened to make a bad decision last, or just a frustrated “you suck” to the corruption in the political system in general. But do these things help? No. Did David Simon’s self-referential commencement speech give energy to the generation of students listening to it? Maybe in the last two sentences – he should’ve stretched these out and made the rest of it shorter:

But tomorrow’s task is to make this moment matter to your communities, to your country, to the world. And to make sure that at the end of your run, you leave that world better than you found it.

That’s what we need. We don’t need to be apologized to – we need to be inspired. We need unselfconscious enthusiasm, not snobbish jadedness. We need someone to tell us to pick ourselves up by whatever straps there are on our footwear, if the economy is going to be rebuilt. Well, actually, I’ve heard that we need the Euro to stay constant and fiscal policy reform, but the bootstrap advice is necessary too.

And as this is a quotey post, I leave you with the immutable words of Woody Allen:

More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

On graduating in 2012

When I was in the first grade I wanted to be an archaeologist.

I wasn’t too big on the actual dinosaurs – I couldn’t tell you whether Brachiosauruses lived in the Triassic or not – but I thought that finding things buried in sand sounded like the most fun anyone could ever have. I became addicted to those little toy blocks of hardened sand that have plastic tyrannosaurus skeletons in them. I drew pictures of myself wearing desert gear and a wide-brimmed hat. I watched Jurassic Park. I taught my 8-year-old self how to spell archaeologist.

If you asked me in the first grade, being an archaeologist was my dream. If you told me, in the first grade, that I’d be going to college for Not Archaeology, I’d be despondent.

When I was a sophomore in college, when I was choosing a track to follow for my psych major, I initially was going to go with neuroscience because it was the most impressive-sounding. I avoided declaring an English major because I was afraid of what my family would think.

We tend to think in extremes when planning or considering the future – I sure did, especially when I was a child. I thought I would marry a movie star; then I made plans to live in the woods for the rest of my life. I imagined the perfect house to be full of pianos and books, and I decided that Heaven must be a dining room with one giant bowl of macaroni and cheese in the center.

Now, my plans are less imaginative but more concrete. Instead of impressiveness, I’m looking for stability. Instead of individuality, I’m looking for ways to fit into work environments. I want my future house to have a laundry room and my conception of Heaven is considerably different from what it was when I was growing up.

And I don’t think this is a bad thing. When I was 8, my central life goal was apparently “coolness.” While coolness is, admittedly, high on my priority list, it’s tempered by “health insurance,” “family,” and “not being homeless.” Similarly, my wish to have an impressive neuroscience major has been tempered by the fact that I wouldn’t actually enjoy working in neuroscience.

I’m enjoying my new, slightly-more-relaxed mindset about my future. I’m glad that I don’t have to achieve grandiose goals to find fulfillment in my life.

But that was what I had been told. I could be the President, or a doctor, or a lawyer! I was an individual. I was special. I could do “anything” – but all the “anythings” listed were only impressive, dramatic, or glamorous anythings.

Now, though, I’m realizing that I don’t want to be an archaeologist, or the President, or an astronaut. I’d prefer a steady job over a glamorous one and a stable home over a dramatic one.

Humans are wired to be slightly delusional, but we often wouldn’t be content with the things that seem ideal to us. Being an archaeologist, while cool-sounding, requires a lot more work that I wouldn’t enjoy than my adolescent self imagined. Neuroscience sounds impressive but the pre-therapy track is way more applicable to my career plans.

I used to imagine myself being an English professor because I liked tea and I imagined it would be a career void of troubles with bureaucracy – I then realized that (a) that second point wasn’t true at all, and (b) I didn’t want to go into academia. My plans now – going to grad school in communication, finding someone who will pay me for doing something I enjoy, and maybe having a family – are more complicated than what I had planned when I was 16, but I’m also more excited about them.

We have the capacity to be discontent wherever we are. I thought that being an archaeologist – and, later, having an impressive major – would be the ideal, and would make me happy. I’m now starting to suspect that nothing’s going to make me happy – at least, not in the way I was expecting.

While there is the possibility of regretting any decision we make, we also have the ability to find contentment and joy in a wide variety of situations. Not all career choices or income levels or house photos will be impressive at class reunions, but sometimes less immediately exciting choices are the things that are actually fulfilling.

Miss Travel is both Lame and Prostitution

I found the worst thing.

Gary Arndt, the blogger at Everything Everywhere, posted about a new site called Miss Travel.

[youtube.com=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=JLSiy4nUvnc”%5D

So, as you see, attractive women are paid by rich (mostly married, it seems) men to be “companions” during travel.

I’m tired, so I’m going to let you all think about this and come to your own snarky conclusions.

The site was founded by Brandon Wade, who founded the similarly designed and also terrible whatsyourprice.com.

So obviously, I signed up for the site (which was free) so I could look more into it. The process itself was unsettling – I guess it’s just because I’ve never signed up for a dating site before. It was eerie when they asked my eye and hair color, but then when I saw the options for “relationship status,”

Adventures in creating a fake dating website profile

I remembered that this was a dating website. Very odd. Also, the displayed option of having an internet-sanctioned marital affair was a weird thing to see. I guess I just haven’t had many internet affairs.

So once I filled out – with not a small amount of shame – my fake account, I went and looked at some of the featured “Generous donors”. Jezebel was right – a large amount of married men, most of them (at least reportedly) millionaires (I didn’t even KNOW that there were that many millionaires in the world). Their profiles ranged from the obvious (photos in front of expensive cars – and one that was just a helicopter) to the sort of sad (a 34-year-old, “little bit on the shy side with women. but confident when working,” whose profile photo was just him in an empty white room taking a picture with his iPhone in a mirror) to the amusing (“Want to travel the world before 12/21/12 … all the girls I know have jobs and arent willing to quit there jobs”).

The relationship-seeking options on MissTravel.com

And yes, people are looking for sex. I mean, I’m not surprised – people are often looking for sex. But the sex-looking is just so official and thinly veiled. One Generous traveler, under his description of his desired “Attractive traveler”, wrote “I hope my companion is also sensual and affectionate.”.

There is also the option for Generous travelers to just gift frequent flier miles to Attractive travelers – the dubiousness of the “gift” nature of this is described tactfully: “So why would a Travel Sponsor give you miles? For many reasons. Some may want an online friend.” The lesson is: pictures of your boobs (which most of the profile pictures of Attractive travelers are anyways) will be rewarded.

One odd aside is that MissTravel.com linked the Jezebel article under their media coverage, which is called The Dating Website Where Rich People Take Pretty People on Fancy Vacations, Which Is 100% Definitely Not Prostitutey at All. I guess any publicity is good publicity and all that. But really – the article described the site as having “a F***TON of gross married dudes.”

Also, Gary Arndt was wrong about one thing: he said that “Most of the women in the system seem like very normal women.” If normal women pose in bikinis on their knees on their beds in front of cheap webcams and use profile pictures that cut off their heads so to better display their cleavage, then yes, most of the women on Miss Travel are very normal women.

So, for your weekend meditation, I ask you to consider the impressive ability of the internet to bring all of the bad ideas and unscrupulous people into one place.

Tupac and the Digitally Embalmed

So if you haven’t heard [I hadn’t until yesterday], there was a hologram of Tupac that performed at Coachella.

ImageAnd yeah, yeah, we know it wasn’t actually a hologram now, that it was some mirror-projection-onto-glass-thing-that-the-Wall-Street-Journal-explains-better-than-I-could. And we know that there are rumors of a tour of this faux-Tupac, and people are alternately asking when Kurt Cobain will show up and decrying the monstrous zombie-raising performance.

The thing is, you could argue that the hologram/projection isn’t much different from showing videos and voice recordings of the dead. When that technology was new, I imagine people thought it pretty eerie that they could see their loved ones move and breathe and speak on a screen.

Interesting thing: They needed to project the image onto a mirror below the stage, which created a lot of light, which is why I think they made the animation look like it was lit from the bottom - it looked like the glow from the projection apparatus was part of the lighting system.

But the thing about the performance that makes it different from just a new way of looking at recordings of dead people is the new content. The animation of Tupac, at the beginning of his act, shouted “What’s the f*** up, Coachella?”. The choreography of his performance wasn’t just a recording – the people who animated him studied the way he moved, but they controlled his body and created something new. In a sense, Tupac was performing new material.

The Illusion of Interaction
And this is the real issue – not just the commemoration of the dead. We’ve been recalling the dead, through art and technology, as accurately as we can for as long as humans have been dying. But the faux-Tupac isn’t just a 21st century version of an Egyptian sarcophagus mask. What they wanted to create with the Tupac animation – which is why the fact that it was in front of a live audience was such a big deal – was the sense that Tupac was interacting with Snoop Dogg and the audience, just as a real live performer would.

This is about creating an illusion of interaction, and while a scripted interaction with an animation might be actually quite close to the way concerts can be formalized and scripted (like pro wrestling), it’s still just an illusion.

Snoop Dogg and Tupac, both about 25, in 1996

One of the weirder things though, for me,  was the age discrepancy between Snoop Dogg and Animated Tupac. Snoop Dogg is 40, and has grey hair. When Tupac died in 1996, Snoop Dogg was like 25. Tupac, who was shown as a young, shirtless 20-something, would be turning 41 this year if he were still alive, and might not look as good as his hologram did in white sweatpants.

Snoop Dogg, 40, and the Tupac Illusion, still 25

The juxtaposition of digitally-embalmed washboard-ab Tupac and 40-year-old greying Snoop Dogg was probably the most eerie element of the whole performance.

If this trend continues, I think the problem is the illusion of interaction. The essence of human existence is interaction – it’s why we still feel a little weird hearing about guys dating digital AIs, and why the most popular games are the ones that allow you to play on the internet with others. Interaction with humans, illogical and annoying as we are, can’t quite be simulated. And judging from Snoop Dogg’s awkward performance with faux-Tupac, our interactions with the digitally animated dead will always fall a little short of the real thing.

Evangelical Christianity and Destructive Views of Heaven

ImageAbout two years ago I started attending an Anglican church regularly. It was the first time I had ever attended multiple liturgical services — one of the most surprising things to me, after I got over the water the priest was flicking at us, was that Communion happened every Sunday (in any other church I had been to it was only once a month). What was more was the reverence with which Communion was taken. My previous churches weren’t irreverent, but Communion wasn’t really a big deal at all. This was one of the first discrepancies I noticed between the liturgical service and my own non-denominational upbringing.

My confusion at the Anglican church was due to the fact that I had always learned throughout my childhood that Communion didn’t really count — it was just a nice thing to do together to commemorate something. I strongly internalized the idea that there was nothing particularly important about the act of communion.

This seems like a small idea but it suggests something very significant about the more general physical world — that it doesn’t matter either. More, it’s evil — bodies are the source of temptations and failings, and about as far from divinity as one can get.

This might sound borderline gnostic and/or heretical to some of you, but I think that at least some students might have also been surrounded by similar theologies at some point in their lives. The tone of the churches I attended — mostly Baptist, Bible, and non-denominational — and the Christian influences (radio networks, authors, etc.) inculcated in me the sense that we weren’t so much as “in the world but not of it” but that we were “sort of in the world but definitely not of it nor part of it in any way.”

ImageBodies were inconveniences, to be ignored or, ultimately, despised. I absorbed suggestions that at the rapture our purified souls would leave behind dead corpses. Theological issues and Biblical references like the Kingdom of God on Earth and the resurrection of the body — things having to do with the physical world — were ignored.

Even the Bible’s physical existence was ignored. The first I ever heard of arguments about the canon, Athanasius’ 367 letter, and all those people mad about James and Hebrews was at college. Before then, I think I just assumed that a copy of the KJV fell out of the sky a few hours after the Ascension. How could the Bible be put together by mere non-disciple humans, over a long period of time? I kept the book nicely separate and away from actual human history. This also suited my willful ignorance of the traditions of the Eucharist and other things that I filed under “weird things that Catholics do.”

So I was marinated in this idea that the present world is an unholy place, and therefore not worth participating in, via a solemn practice of communion or crossing one’s self or kneeling during services or repeating a liturgy or anything else.

In my religious surroundings, the logical conclusion to the world’s ungodliness was a huge focus on the afterlife and Heaven. Perhaps I’m being unjust to a necessarily simplified message aimed at young children, but when I was young, church seemed to be mostly about accepting Jesus to get to Heaven.

The prevailing Christian teachings in my life rarely addressed issues of the tensions of existence, and this lack of struggle or mystery was convenient for my young mind. Morality teachings warned against a displeased God, not dysfunctional relationships. Evangelism was never nuanced and existence was never complicated.

Everything seemed to point away from the present and toward the future — toward Heaven, which I was assured I would get to if I said the right prayer. I repeated the inviting-Jesus-into-my-heart prayer once every few months when I was very young, because I was nervous that the first time didn’t take (never had Jesus been so thoroughly invited, I was pretty sure).

The problem that I found was that all of this — the whole prevailing culture — pointed me toward a profound disconnect from the world.

If the only thing that matters is my ticket to Heaven, I began to ask myself, then what am I here for? If nothing of the present right now is holy in any way, I might as well try to expedite my exit, right? Or at least ignore everything until I get to leave?

These considerations troubled me, and still do. I am not at all 100% gung-ho about either tran- or consubstantiation, nor do I cross myself consistently or demand that I only attend high liturgical masses involving incense burning and silk vestments. I really, as far as theology goes, have very little idea of what is going on.

But I do think that we, as evangelicals and Protestants, need to focus less on prepaid train tickets to Heaven and concern ourselves with trying to find a way to live a holy, engaging existence.

I don’t want to argue against points of widely accepted Christian theology, or thoughtful readings of the Bible. I’m arguing against the notion that the only reason to live is for what we believe we get after death — this is, I think, imbued in the current culture; in the unthinking things we say about other doctrines and the assumptions we make about our own. And I think that it is ultimately destructive.

The ticket-to-Heaven idea is by no means ascribable to all of Christian theology, but it is prevalent, especially in Christian culture during the past century. Devaluing physical existence is, I think, an illogical and ultimately damaging thing, and before we talk about how silly Catholics are to believe in transubstantiation we might do well to consider the implications of our own philosophy.