Tag Archives: Current Events

The Unalienable Right to be Stupid

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – United States Declaration of Independence

….and to do stupid shit when young and not pay for it for the rest of their lives. – Me

This is a posting I’ve had kicking in my head for a few weeks. I first thought of it in the wake of the Kristen Stewart furore. Now that there’s a new uproar, over semi-naked pictures of Prince Harry of Britain from Las Vegas, it seems like it’s time to vent my spleen.

In my day job, I do work around publicity and press. And I can say based on my years of experience that it’s a hard, mean, brutal and unforgiving world and has only gotten more so year by year. The combined impact of the Internet, social media, mobile computing has been a profound erosion of privacy and explosion of publicity.

I’m also a man of a certain age, which means I (somehow) managed to survive my teens and early twenties. And that means I remember (at least some) of what it’s like to be that age.

When I take those two points and bring them together, I have conclude that there is something profoundly wrong and damaging in how we’re subjecting teens and twenty-somethings to a 24x7x365 social media-driven gossip culture that rests on schadenfreude, tearing people down, and violates that most important and inalienable right young adults have (or should have): the right to be stupid and not pay for it for the rest of their lives.

Let me pause here and be clear that there ARE some stupid acts that should have life-long consequences. Bringing another human being into the world in an unthinking and irresponsible way, killing someone because you’re driving in a preventable, impaired state: all of these can and should have profound, life-long consequences because they cause profound, life-changing effects and often great pain to others. But, the covert optimist in me still believes that the majority of teens and young adults do mean well and don’t do things like this.

But certainly, these years are hard, confusing years for everyone. I’ve described hitting adolescence as you being given the keys overnight to a fully functional Ferrari without ever really getting driving lessons. Nearly overnight, your body goes from a child’s body to a near-adult’s body, with all the capabilities, hormones, emotions and feelings that entails. You get that all at once with no ease-in time, no training. And anyway there is no training that can prepare you since we’re talking about what you feel. The grown-ups can describe sex all they want but nothing can prepare you for the feeling of that first orgasm (and the near obsessive need to have more once you have it). Talk is cheap and sometimes downright useless.

Add to this it’s a time of increasing independence (by desire and cultural design) and you’ve got a period of life where there’s going to be a lot of swerving, bad turns, inelegant starts and stops. And yes, accidents, both fender benders and serious crack-ups.

It’s a time that is so hard to begin with that putting actions during that time into the public gossip machine is beyond cruel. And as a society, it’s unwise. If we don’t want a society of passive cowards we have to honor the need for experimentation and yes, failure, by giving people space to fail and to recover. Creating a society that harshly enshrines a culture of one wrong move and you’re done is a sure way to make everyone conform, follow the path of least risk and resistance and take no chances.

And anyway, it’s not fair to judge what people do in this time. It’s arguable if it’s ever fair to judge but certainly it’s not at this age. How many times do I remember the rational part of my brain futilely trying to call me back from the edge of a bad decision, only to be muffled and drown in a rising flood of seminal fluid and sex hormones? At that age you can know what the right thing is and still be unable to do it. You are like the person in the back seat screaming while the crazy driver goes barreling down the highway laughing at the death that you’re sure is coming for you soon: helpless, terrified and doomed.

The funny thing is, relative to my peers, I was good, smart, responsible, and considerate. And yet, even I did some stupid, stupid shit. For me, my stupid shit tended to center around sex (not surprisingly) and was key in my figuring out that I was a failure with monogamy. There was the time I cheated on my girlfriend within days of her going home from college and ended up cheating with three different people in two months (and likely would have with more given the opportunity). I actually ended up in Seattle as a direct result of that period but I sure wouldn’t want any part of that story to be plastered on Google news. Hell, I’m not even sure how I feel about mentioning it here, but it’s been over 20 years and maybe that summer of spectacular failure can give me some credibility on this topic.

Maybe I feel strongly about this because both these cases relate to love and sex and I had such challenges myself. Regardless of why, though, I do know that this isn’t the right way to support teens and young adults while they figure out what they’re going to do with that Ferrari they’ve just been given the keys to. We all respond to shame and judgment with avoidance: we cover up, we lie, we do all we can to ensure we don’t bring that opprobrium from others onto ourselves. And if I’ve learned one thing about relationships as I’ve gotten older, and about publicity and PR from my work, it’s that the lying and the cover-up is always worse than the act itself. We should be making it easier not harder for people to be open and honest about love and sex. And yes, that means trying to make it safe to fuck up and do stupid shit, admit it, and move forward.

So, give Kristen Stewart a break. Cut Prince Harry some slack. Let them flail and struggle and figure it all out and exercise their inalienable right to be stupid and not pay for it for the rest of their lives. Because it’s not just about them: it’s about everyone that age. You can be sure teens and twenty-somethings are watching and learning from this all.

In the end, my old rule of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” pertains here. Just because you can read about this, share it, tweet about it, take pictures, text, etc. about something stupid doesn’t mean you should. And besides, do you want to be under this spotlight? I didn’t think so. I sure don’t.

Hubris (ὕβρις)

Today’s word meditation is on hubris. Often translated as “pride” hubris has a slightly different sense to it than pride as we understand the term through Judeo-Christian colorings.

Hubris is a critical concept behind ancient Greek myths and tragedy. It is best known, and most clearly seen, in the myth of Icarus, who took his gift of flight and ignored warnings not to go too close to the sun and so fell to earth.

There is this sense of overreach, of failing to respect the natural order of the world, and, typically, a sense of humans attempting to play god.

You can see how modern humans are increasingly suffering from hubris in today’s news. At one and the same time we have word of a species of rhino that is currently alive, and threatened with extinction by humans and a story about a species of plant that has been extinct for 30,000 years that scientists are reviving.

Humans reshaping the earth to suit their needs by killing things that live and reviving things that are dead.

Of course, that may be nothing compared to the new human-made “super flu” that we’re hearing about.

THAT my friends is hubris. Real hubris.

Or put another way, you can recognize hubris after the fact when you say “just because you could doesn’t mean you should have”.

Not even the gods will help us with this I fear.

The Moral/Ethical Test of a Generation

I don’t write on current events like I used to. There’s many reasons for that, and enumerating those is perhaps for another posting.

But the locating and killing of Osama bin Laden is more than current events. It is one of those critical moments of history that shape not only the news and current events but we ourselves. What we make of it, what it makes of us: these are all critical questions and ones that we all by rights should grapple with.

Moments like this become logical points of reflection too. For example, there is this very interesting and astute analysis of that photo from the situation room during the raid. It looks at that photo as a snapshot of who we are as a country at this particular moment.

But most of all, this whole event is really a moral and ethical test writ large in the real world. Many of us have gone through the “what if” exercises around critical ethical and moral dilemmas in history. “You have a chance to go back in time and kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you”? “You’re Harry Truman and have to decide whether to use the atomic bomb or force an amphibious invasion of Japan, what do you choose”?

Whatever one may think about Obama (and me being me, my thoughts are complex), there is no denying that he had the unenviable task of answering this class of questions and having it count in the real world. He had to decide whether to kill bin Laden or capture him. He had to decide what to do with the body. He had to decide how to speak of it and frame it. He had to face a host of difficult moral and ethical questions. He had to answer the biggest moral and ethical test of this generation and do it where the answers really count.

I have to say that my own feeling is that he rose to the occasion and answered them with an appropriate mix of realism and nobility. As I say, my feelings on Obama are complex, but on this particular issue, I have nothing but admiration for his handling and gratitude for having someone in charge who handled these challenging questions so well.

I think there was no choice but to kill bin Laden. I am not happy for that fact, I don’t celebrate it. Robert E. Lee once remarked “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it”. Nietzsche famously wrote “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”. One of the foundations of the Buddhist point of view around forgiveness is that hate and anger themselves cause harm in those who hold on to them. Mark Twain summed that point up when he noted “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”.

And yet, we live in a real world. And the fact is that bin Laden and his followers were not going to stop until they or we were dead. We didn’t choose this fight but the way he joined the fight made it a fight to the death. And so there was no choice: we had to kill him. Even the Dalai Lama has spoken to the necessity of “counter-measures” here.

With that heavy necessity, with the choice of what to do essentially made for us by necessity, the focus of moral and ethical questions then move to the how. How do we set out to do the needful and avoid the dangers Lee, Nietzsche and Twain all spoke to.

Obama’s choices around these questions where solid ones. They were grounded in the necessities of the real world but strove to do only as much harm as needed. The entire operation and handling is a strong lesson in the idea of proportionate force. Choosing to take the risk of sending American troops in rather than bombing the complex minimized civilian casualties, collateral damage and the risk of mistakenly killing someone else. Taking bin Laden’s body and disposing of it in a way that left no shrine for followers was necessary. But choosing to not make a trophy of his body, to not bandy it about in victory, and to not release the photos are all important choices that temper and humanize the harsh, necessary actions. They are, too I will note, choices that bin Laden and his followers haven’t made: witness the terrible murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl beheaded and his head raised as a trophy all on video tape. Burying bin Laden at sea was not something that is generally within Muslim practice. But preparing his body and giving it rites and respect in accord with Muslim practice tempers that fact. And the simple fact is that burial at sea is the only generally accepted means of disposing of a body to leave no trace that isn’t viewed as desecration in Islam. Here again, Obama gave Osama merciful treatment that the latter certainly wouldn’t have given the former.

In the days that have followed, Obama has struck a tone of grim determination and necessity. And that is the right way to speak of these things. We did what we had to do. We are not proud of it, we do not like it. But it had to be done, it has been done, and now we move forward.

In a quiet way, this whole episode has made me proud of being an American. Not in the “USA” chanting way of some. Rather, proud that we did something difficult in the best possible way. Wherever else I may have issue with Obama (and I do, like I do every politician), on this matter I am truly grateful and will never forget.

You’re the Son of a Bitch We’ve Been Looking For

Today is a day of history. Being such, it’s good to go back to history for some lessons.

In 1865, after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, the Union Army dispatched riders to carry the news to stop fighting.

The story is told that on hearing the news a Union soldier shouted back to one rider: “So you’re the son of a bitch we’ve been looking for these 4 years”.

Today I find myself feeling some of that, though it’s been nearly ten years.

One cannot help but feel like the news of Osama bin Laden’s death should bring some sense of closure. Regardless of how you feel about killing him, his being dead is the closest thing to a clear moment of victory in this thing that is called a “war”.

I wrote nearly five years ago about how this “war” wasn’t a neat war with a clear ending. I borrowed from a Babylon 5 two-part episode title and called it a “War Without End” (itself an echo of the Roman Catholic Credo that declares after the second coming of Jesus Christ, his kingdom “will have no end”).

And here we are, today and the thing that can most closely be called an end has happened.

Now what?

It is like so much I’ve been going through in my own life. It feels like this means that everything has changed and nothing has changed.

Perhaps if this end had come in 2002 it would feel like an end, a victory.

But as it is, it feels less like a victory and more like a formality. It lacks the clear demarcation of a powerful closing. Instead it feels like we’ve made formal what’s already been reality for a while. It’s feels less like a clean break and a new start and more like signing the divorce papers after living apart fifteen years.

I find myself coming back to the ending of T.S. Eliot’sThe Hollow Men“. I think I feel the power of its sentiment most keenly now. Before they were words. But now, I feel what it means.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

It’s taken nearly ten years to get where we are now. It’s going to take more than one person being killed to get back from that.

If you support the Iranian protestors…

…then you just might be so very 2003. Which is to say you might a “neocon“. Or at least that’s the point that Daniel Finkelstein over at the Times of London made today in his very interesting take on what’s going on in Iran right now.

I find it an interesting and compelling argument myself. I am very open that I consider myself to be a classical liberal or sometimes I’ll say libertarian as that’s better known in the US (even if it’s not wholly accurate).

At the end of the day, I firmly believe that if people want to find the religion, lifestyle, sexual identity, and expression that is most genuine and authentic, it’s imperative that they be able to do so without overt or covert repression  from external institutions like governments and Churches. And so, in that regard, my politics are closely tied to the rest of me and my other beliefs.

We shouldn’t expect that the Iranians will replace their limited democracy with a truly liberal regime if this succeeds. But, one things is for sure, when you look at the pictures here you see the same brave hope for a better, freer future that you saw in Tiananmen in 1989, in eastern Europe and Russia in the early 1990’s and in Lebanon in 2005.

Here’s wishing them the best. Support your local Iranian protestor: Twitter information to enable the protestors to keep feeding information to the outside world.

The Coming, Quiet Social Revolution?

Despite all the hyperbole, I think it’s fair to say that the credit crisis represents the most serious loss of trust in the finance system since the Great Depression (and maybe even a more serious loss of trust than that).

It is a true “credit” crisis in that the word “credit” comes from the Latin verb “to believe” (credere). Another related word is credible, for instance. And the root of this all is that the system of transparency and oversight failed in regards to mortage backed securities. A whole system of financial checks and balances that exists to enable investors to intelligently manage risk failed to apply here. The net is that when everything unravelled, no one knew (or knows) who to believe and thus who to trust. No one is lending because no one trusts anyone.

As we get further along in this, though, businesses are starting to hobble through and figure out who they can trust “good enough” to get done things that must get done. It’s standard risk assessment: faced with a choice between certain bankruptcy due to no business activity or a gamble that lending money might actually not lose you money, the finance machine is starting to come down on the latter side of the equation.

That’s not all that surprising. It means that life is going to go on in some ways here soon.

But, the bigger loss of confidence has yet to be really remarked on. And that is the loss of confidence by the average investor. Those of us who have done all the things we’ve been told all our lives we should do: save money, put it away, invest it, plan for retirement and then, and only then, do you get to do what you want to do. We have seen years of  work evaporate over the course of a year and a half with no warning and no way of knowing it would happen. We followed the rules and lost for it, really.

Do people think that we will be returning to the status quo ante when things pick up again? Do people think we’ll rebuild the retirement savings machine now that we know that the system can take it all away with no warning and through no fault of our own?

I have my doubts. I know for myself I’ve decided to stop delaying gratification so much. I won’t blow all my money but I’m also not following an obsessive savings path trying to get to a magic number in the future either.

I tend to think that the finance system that comes out of this will be smaller. I also suspect that people will be working less obsessively. Maybe people will be working less and living more. Is that a bad thing? I remember the 1970’s as a time of horrible economics but also a time before the “your work is your life” movement of the 80’s reset the culture. If this is as big a time as the recession of the 70’s – 80’s was, then we should be starting to look for the social impact of this all.

Desperate Clinging

Dan Schnur worked as John McCain’s communications director in the 2000 campaign.

Given my own work and background, I have a soft spot for the communications folks: they often have the ability to elucidate what’s going on more effectively than others. This is due, in part, to the fact that to communicate something effectively, you have to understand it fully. And too, communications people often grasp the nuances of words and understand the importance of a single word.

Dan’s article in yesterday’s New York Times “Right Fight, Wrong Word” is precisely the sort of key insight that a thoughtful communications person can provide.

In his article, Schnur zeros in on the fact that the key to understanding the sentiment and tone in Obama’s recent comments about voters in Pennsylvania (and by extension presumably, the rest of the rust belt and Appalachia) is one word: “cling”.

 Schnur notes how this one word indicates a fundamental devaluing of the worldview, outlook, and conclusions the people Obama is speaking of hold.

Of course, we’re many days into this now and the question goes back and forth about whether the comments are elitist. Interestingly, I have a unique background for the matter and have my own views because of it. I grew up for thirteen years just across the Ohio River from western Pennsylvania and the panhandle of West Virginia. The jobs that he talks about disappearing 25 years ago: I remember those jobs. And, I eventually worked my way to San Francisco by way of a Liberal liberal arts school (Oberlin College). So, I know the culture and people Obama is talking about. I also know the culture and people he was talking to and who support him so strongly.

And, I can report to you, dear reader, that about the condescension and paternalism that people say is behind this remark:it’s really there. At Oberlin, I saw people who were self-avowed liberals who claimed to care about “the poor” treat the working-class staff at school with rudeness and condescension. The working-class folks around the college were “the help”, make no mistake about that.

It was always hard for me because I had a shared background with those folks….it’s just that I was able to try and move into what I’d been told was a better world: the world of those very people who were treating people I might have grown up with like sub-humans before my very eyes.

At the end of the day, there is no doubt that the comments are inappropriate. Abstract the circumstances and you have a classic situation I saw many of those same self-avowed liberals arguing about: how it was inappropriate for an outsider to presume to analyze and interpret the actions, thoughts and beliefs of a different culture and minimize or explain away something(s) which that culture holds dear.

Put it this way, if this were Huckabee explaining away the support for gay rights in San Francisco as being the sad consequence of that city not finding God, you can imagine the firestorm that would errupt over that. It would be wrong of Huckabee to do that. And, it’s wrong for Obama to do it here.

No, Schnur is right: the key to understanding is “cling”. And, unfortunately, this is another instance where we sadly find that those who extol the virtues of tolerance and diversity are, at heart, hypocrites who fail to truly live up to the ideals they claim as central. They are, disappointingly, like those they claim to be better than for the same faults they claim those others suffer from: intolerance and a lack of respect for diversity.

In the end, it’s clear, that it’s a very easy (and sad thing) that humans cling to old habits and patterns of thought.

Of Heroism: Human and Animal

From San Francisco there comes the final, heartwrenching page in a story about human compassion and heroism.

The story has full details but the important points to note are that after safely escaping a fire in a house he was minding on Russian Hill on February 6, 2007, Michael James Keenan realized that the dog, Bobby, hadn’t made it out.

He turned around and immediately ran in to rescue the dog. Unfortunately, he had to search for Bobby, who was hiding from the fire. He didn’t give up, kept searching and eventually rescued Bobby.

Both were badly burned. Bobby eventually made a recovery courtesy of Pets Unlimited. Unfortunately, Michael James Keenan suffered complications from his burns and passed away this past weekend.

The story notes in passing but it should be recognized that Mr. Keenan clearly put himself at even greater risk by spending time looking for Bobby and not leaving him behind when he could not find him quickly. And, indeed, it would seem that he ultimately paid the price for that. The burns he suffered and which surely contributed to his death being the result of the extra time spent looking for Bobby.

Bobby has recovered, according to the latest news available regarding him. And so at least Mr. Kennan’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain.

You hear so often about dogs who selflessly risk their lives for humans. It is rare though to see humans reciprocate and take the same risks for our companion animals that they would take for us. And so it is because of this fact that this story is so poignant and the loss of Mr. Kennan, whom I’ve never met, heartwrenching. You cannot help but want someone who risks their life in this way to be rewarded, not to suffer because of what they did.

But, this reminds us that this is not a just or fair universe. But too, this reminds us that there are some human beings who respond to an unjust and unfair universe not by using that fact for their own personal gain but instead try to make it a better world.

I often criticize when people are said to be “animals” on the grounds that it’s a disservice to animals. Animals are not malicious the way humans are. And animals can often be much more selfless and giving than humans can. This is an instance, though, where I think it’s just and fair to say that Mr. Kennan in his actions showed himself to be as noble as any animal, especially dogs, out there. He deserves our remembrances and honoring of his memory and his example.

Unfortunately, the article does not indicate any place donations or other remembrances can be made. However, there is a page in his name with a picture of him and, presumably, Charlie, his dog mentioned in the article.

Updated: There is information in the blog put up by his friends and family saying that there will be a ceremony at Fort Funston in San Francisco on July 8, 2007. More details will be posted there.

Who’s your enemy in a war without end?

Sadly, as if to provide a counterbalance to my post on paganism and Memorial Day, we have this story from Alabama. An overzealous Alabama Department of Homeland Security had listed a number of “single issue” groups as potential spawning grounds for terrorist groups. These included pro-life/anti-abortion, animal rights, antiwar and gay rights groups.

The site was pulled down amid outcry and it’s being “corrected”. And while this should rightly cause worry and outrage for demonising legitimate political opposition, it also points to a deeper problem.

Quite simply, because we’ve declared war against a concept, terrorism, rather than a specific enemy, Al Qaida, it’s hard to clearly categorize things. When is the war over? Who really is the enemy? Are we taking on Al Qaida, the IRA, and EarthFirst with equal priority? Who can say, it’s just not clear.

One thing is important with the coming change in administrations. We need to start clearly scoping our goals and objectives more clearly to make this all sustainable. Otherwise, the Temple of Janus will never be closed and we’ll all be the enemy in some way, shape or form.

Of Paganism and Memorial Day

A surprisingly non-sensationalist and reasonably accurate story about paganism and the US Military graces the front page of CNN on this Memorial Day. It talks about how Wiccans have been successful in fighting for their rights to have their religion commemorated on the headstones of veterans.

The story notes that since the settlement in April 2007, five headstones have been put in place, including two in Arlington Cemetary. Twelve more requests are pending.

It must be the Universe’s way of nudging me and my thoughts. In classic fashion for me, I’ve been mulling today the question of Memorial Day and Paganism. There is an inherent tension and irony when you think about that. Generally speaking, the pagan community is broadly pacifist in outlook and support. And so there’s not a lot of support for the military in the pagan community. And yet, one must be intellectually honest and note that the concept and ideal of freedom that the military seeks to protect has allowed the pagan community to develop and grow and thrive.

I’m not so naive as to think that everyone in the military supports paganism or would agree that the freedom they’re fighting for includes the freedom to be pagans. There are plenty of people who believe that freedom in this country means freedom in a Christian country. And that reality is one reason, I think, that the pagan community generally is lukewarm on the military: because of the perception of close ties between Christians and the military. And I think there is some truth behind that perception.

But there are pagans in the military and surely they are fighting to protect our rights to worship who we want in what manner we choose? And even for those who don’t support paganism, one of the truly ingenious things about the foundations of this country is the way abstract goals and ideals have been enshrined so that, over time, they erode current custom and prejudice. So long as someone supports those goals and ideals, even if they disagree with paganism themselves, they’re slowly helping us on our path.

While patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, one can appreciate the benefits and freedoms one has because of where one lives without falling into blind jingoism. One can also recognize the shortcomings and work that still needs to be done. One can look at others with a similar but different background of freedom (i.e. Western Europe) and recognize things that one can learn and emulate. One can do all this and still truly appreciate the good things they have. Indeed, one can do this, in fact, as an act of homage to those very good things since the freedom of questioning and examination is at the root of those good things.

And, on a day like today, one can do all that and recognize that the ability to sit and think about this all and appreciate it all is due to the work and sacrifice of many hundreds of thousands over the years. Not just in our own country’s short history but throughout the history of our culture. Perhaps that’s what many pagans to feel more comfortable celebrating the sacrifices of those who have served in the military. Perhaps Memorial Day really should be about them, yes. But also those who have fought and sacrificed for the same cause in different ways. Perhaps Memorial Day shouldn’t be simply about D-Day and Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps it should also be about Stonewall and Freedom Rides. Perhaps it should be about Galileo and Darwin and Voltaire?

Certainly that would speak more broadly to what it is we truly want to celebrate. But, how to do that without seeming to slight those whose day this already is by taking focus away from them?

Perhaps we need a new holiday, a Freedom Day? And perhaps we need to instill some true reverence for it and try to remember what it’s about rather than just grilling, drinking, boating and initiating the “summer driving season”?

Really, more questions than answers. But questions are important. Always.