Today's Special

"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

The Tragedy Slut reveals himself

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

I turned down a chance to interview Glenn Beck. Twice, in fact.

Late in 2005, Beck was barnstorming the country with a multimedia Christmas extravaganza of holiday music, videos of flags snapping to attention in the breeze and his maudlin ramblings about American values. Beck’s publicist called me and asked if I wanted an interview with the conservative Fox News host, talk-radio flamethrower and best-selling author before his appearance here. This was after Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, had spent the summer following President Bush around the country and appearing at anti-war rallies, demanding the president explain his actions.

I told Beck’s publicist that I didn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d called Sheehan a “tragedy slut.” I didn’t want to talk to a guy who said of the women collectively known as the 9/11 widows, women who’d lost husbands in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.”

Beck’s publicist called again on an otherwise beautiful afternoon in 2007. “Your favorite guy is coming back to town,” he said. With an even bigger show. More patriotic music, videos of soaring eagles and Beck lamenting about why can’t the world be more like he wants it to be. Did I want an interview?

“No,” I said. “He’ll have to peddle his nonsense without my help.”

Am I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I work for?

No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. And in recent years, the truth has taken quite a beating.

President Obama has finally laid some truth on us when he admitted that, yes, the United States had tortured prisoners after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This wasn’t news – most of us knew we’d lost our moral compass in the 9/11 rubble – but we’d been trying to fool ourselves for years, using phrases like “enhanced interrogation techniques” when, in truth, it was torture. And the CIA has admitted now what many people had already figured out on their own, that it lied when it said it wasn’t spying on American citizens and members of Congress. Yes, it did all of that. If you believe the CIA this time.

Such willful ignorance is accepted as the norm, and you know the big lies. Obama’s a Kenyan, a Muslim, he wants to take your guns, he’s committed impeachable offenses. Voter fraud is rampant. Rich people create jobs. Immigrants are a threat to America and a drain on the economy. The Affordable Care Act will include Death Panels. Climate change isn’t real. The only way to stop a Bad Guy with a gun is a Good Guy with a gun. These, and hundreds of other errant ideas, lingered on long after the facts disproving them were available. And in many cases these notions continue to breed in the darkness, because our leaders refuse to yield to inconvenient truths. And often because the media is stuck on the notion of false equivalencies as legitimate argument. Be smart: The debate on climate change is over. Whenever you read the phrase “Some people say…” in a news story or editorial on climate change, immediately turn the page. “Some people say” is just a lazy editorial writer’s way of re-introducing a roundly defeated argument to the reader. Because very often “some people” is a guy like Ken Ham. The last time we should have seen Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis, was after pop-science demigod Bill Nye the Science Guy had thoroughly kicked his ass in their Science vs. Creationism debate. But Ham keeps re-appearing in the public spotlight, saying dumb stuff. Some people never learn.

Points of debate should earn their way into the public discourse. Ideologies should stand on the truth. We give a loudmouth a microphone, and he whips a crowd of knuckledraggers into a frenzy by calling the president of the United States a socialist. Those people can’t possibly know what socialism is, unless they hate their city’s fire department.

So I denied Glenn Beck the opportunity to use my forum, minor as it is. I denied him the opportunity to say this: “I don’t think we came from monkeys. I think that’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet.” – Glenn Beck, Oct. 201, 2010.

And this: “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it.… No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out. Is this wrong?”  – Glenn Beck, May 17, 2005.

And this, on people whose homes were being destroyed in a California wildfire: ”I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today.” – Glenn Beck, Oct. 22, 2007.

And this, on the people who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina: The only ones we’re seeing on television are the scumbags.” – Glenn Beck, Sept. 9, 2005.

And my opinion on the responsibility we have to the truth is bolstered by an unexpected source. Glenn Beck. He seems to have been on an apology tour this week. “When you live your life five hours a day on live television and radio you’re going to say stupid things,” Beck said last Sunday. He conceded that one of those stupid things was his declaration that President Obama is a racist. That unsubstantiated claim was more fuel for the uniformed.  Indeed Beck admitted that, in this highly partisan, angry America, he may have “unintentionally… added to the situation we’re in right now.”

Later in the week, just to make sure we weren’t hearing things, he re-iterated the point: “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart,” he admitted. And on his radio show, he dropped this bomb on the war  mongers: “From the beginning, most people on the left were against going into Iraq. I wasn’t…. Liberals, you were right. We shouldn’t have.”

Welcome aboard, Beck, even if it’s just a momentary sanity. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late. Your ill-advised words fueled misery, and even death. I have no room in my heart for your apology. You are the true tragedy slut.

The Critical Mass

Literature junkies

William Burroughs.

William Burroughs.

While riding the No. 1 bus to downtown the other morning, I heard an out-of-place, yet familiar, clicking noise. I glanced around. A guy in a nearby seat was using a clipper to trim his fingernails. I decided I’d shift to a more-distant seat if he made a move for his toenails.

What is it about people that they think they’re invisible when in public? When I’m sitting in that bus, I can look down, through those big windows, and see right into your car. I know what you’re doing. Eating an egg, sausage and cheese sandwich. Putting on makeup at red lights. Stuff you should have done at home.

I’m not snooping. It’s not snooping if what I’m seeing and hearing is something you’re doing in public. I’m not deliberately trying to listen to your loud cell phone conversations with your parole officer or your unemployed boyfriend. In fact, I try to ignore you.  I do what a half-dozen or so people do on the bus ride. We read. Newspapers, magazines, court summonses. A lot of paperbacks. A year ago, half the people reading books on the bus were reading them electronically. But the pendulum has swung the other way again. It’s been six months since I’ve seen someone with an eReader on the bus.

I’ve been using the last few weeks of bus rides to re-read William Burroughs. Short, brutal sentences. Low-life literature that’s a perfect match for the bus. So last week I’m sitting in the back of the bus when I realize I’m overhearing a couple of guys discussing their experiences with dropping acid. Discussing it with great enthusiasm, and loudly, in the same tone that some guys talk about cars or sports. “Sometimes you’re just gonna have a bad trip, there’s nothing you can do about it….”

So I’m staring at my paperback book, trying to figure this out:

Perhaps the intense discomfort of withdrawal is the transition from plant back to animal, from a painless, sexless, timeless state back to sex and pain and time, from death back to life.

On of the guys notices me. “Is that Burroughs?”

“Yeah. Junky.”

“Cool, I read that last month.”







The Critical Mass

Don’t kill the mockingbird

This morning’s walk with the dog coincided with garbage pick-up day. Today’s garbage trucks have a huge claw that seizes the big green bin, raises it high in the air, turns it upside down over the yawning, undoubtedly disgusted pit on the back of the truck, shakes it, and sets down the bin at the edge of the driveway. The guys don’t even get out of the truck anymore. Kinda sad, professional trash picking is becoming a lost art. I know old-school garbage men who talk about finding all kinds of interesting discarded items along their routes. Hands-on garbage men who once a week were recognizable and welcome members of the neighborhood, building casual relationships. I know garbage men who tell me they’d get presents at Christmastime. Like a six pack of beer, wrapped in a ribbon, sitting on the bin.

to_kill_a_mocking_birdSummer Mondays like this, following summer weekends like we just had, mean the curbs will be piled high with extra detritus. Stuff from people cleaning out garages, basements, attics and the bedrooms of recently deceased parents. I drag home scrap wood to burn in the chimea and, much to my surprise, books. Usually uninteresting-looking young-adult books that have outgrown their usefulness. But sometimes, good ones.

This morning I found a paperback copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Books often carry clues of their personal history. On the inside of the front cover of this book is a stamp, “Monroe High School.”

But mostly, books are a shared experience. You read the same words that I read. And To Kill a Mockingbird is full of stunning words:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.”

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”

“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash.”

“There are just some kind of men…who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.”

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book ever written by Harper Lee. But it’s full of wisdom. Bible-like words. I already had a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. But I’ll keep this found copy. Until I find someone who needs it.

The Critical Mass

My inner Bukowski

Charles Bukowski.

Charles Bukowski.

I finished off a 131,000-word manuscript Thursday evening – I use the word “finish” loosely; these things are never really done – and asked myself: “Now what?”

More writing. Bathed in self-flagellating angst, writers love to act as if they’re making personal sacrifices on behalf of mankind. Monks and Joan of Allegories with keyboards, uncovering universal truths one keystroke at a time. The only space available for this kind of work is inside the writer’s own head, as the process itself seems astonishingly boring and often self-contratulatory to normal people who are inadvertently exposed to it. I’ve been trapped inside that echo chamber for quite a while now, and “Writing Aerobics” seemed like well-needed airing out. Hobnobbing with my fellow scribes Saturday morning at Writers & Books, my hometown center for local literary types who have actually been published, and housewives who dream.

There were five of us, plus the instructor for this session. Louise Wareham Leonard has a charming New Zealand accent, which she apparently comes by honestly, and has published two novels, with a third close to hitting the press. These books appear to be far more self-revelatory than any place I’ve personally visited. She says she’s done these Writing Aerobics sessions for as many as 12 people, but prefers these more-intimate groups. I prefer 12, where I can get lost in the crowd. I was the kid who never wanted to be called on by the teacher.

So now you’re gonna get an exclusive look at writers at play.

Wareham’s first exercise starts with asking each of the writers to create a dialogue between two people; I chose the option of a secret being revealed. Next, she instructs us to add dialogue tags. As in “he said….” Then, one element at a time, we insert the characters’ appearance, gestures, setting, a memory, relevant back story, action, imagery and how the narrator feels when it is all over. And there we have it. Instant literature. When I put all of my elements in place, this is my story:

She looks out the front window. It’s a man standing in her front yard, wearing dark blue work clothes and an orange and lime-green reflective vest. For his safety. “Meter reader,” he says, waving his electric meter-reading wand as proof, while not looking up from his clipboard.

“Oh. you’re here to read the meter?” she says.

“Yes. I’m the meter reader.”

“Does this mean you have to go into my basement?”

“Is that where your water meter is?”


“Yes, I have to go into your basement.”

 ”Fine.” She sighs, pushing the screen door open and holding it to allow the meter reader into the house.

The next-door neighbor is mowing his lawn, glancing over in time to see the meter reader disappear inside. He thinks: She always has those window shades partially drawn, so that the house looks like a man half asleep. He pauses behind the angry mower, wiping the sweat from his brow, and looks at this dead-end street crowded with old houses, paint peeling, many of the driveways with cars that haven’t moved in years, their tires flat, registrations expired. Houses this old, you figure a few people have died in them over the years. Hell, a guy could have a heart attack while sitting in his chair in front of the TV and they wouldn’t find him for a week.

And a house that old, the next-door neighbor thinks, has to be full of spiders.

The meter reader follows her to the basement door. She’s in good shape for a middle-aged broad, he thinks. That green cocktail dress is kind of odd for this early in the morning. And her hair is tied up in some kind of net, like diner waitresses wear. This woman reminds him of his Aunt Roberta. Yeah, he needs to visit Aunt Roberta at the hospital one of these days.

“Careful,” the woman in the green cocktail dress says, pointing to the basement door. “It’s dark, and there are some old shoes sitting on the steps.” This meter reader reminds her of her ex-husband. “To hell with him,” she mutters.

“Yes ma’am. Oh, you don’t see many basements like this anymore. Dirt floor. Did you have some plumbing done here? Coupla mounds of dirt…. three. Oh jeez, I nearly stepped in that hole! Big as a grave.

“Hey, did you just shut the door?”

She locks the door behind him. A heavy, solid-wood door. If he starts yelling too much, she’ll just have to go down there and shoot him. Just like she did that husband of hers. And those damn Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And there you have it. A Hitchcockian short story.

“That’s a small notebook you’re writing in,” Wareham says to me. It is. “But it has a lot of pages,” a say.

Now Wareham has us responding to writer’s prompts. She offers a fragment of a thought and the eager scribes respond with complete thoughts. Her prompts are “It could have been you,” “The secret is,” “There was no going back,” “There was no going on,” “If only the rain would stop,” “If only” and “Because I never.” Then she reads random lines and titles from books in the room. “The view from here,” “But you cannot argue with hungry spirits,” “Birds of the USSR” and “One type of anger can be positive.”

Two of these prompts sound to me like a poem:

The view from here is kinda worrisome

the fall would be precipitous

perhaps leading to serious injury

perhaps the death of the poet.

But it’s a narrow ledge

He’d probably fall anyway.

There’s no arguing with hungry spirits.

A second prompt results in good, handy advice for the amateur home repairman:

The secret is, you can’t tighten the bolts too much, or you’ll crack the porcelain. The nuts have to be finger tightened to the point that the toilet doesn’t rock when you sit on it.

The rest of the prompts bring forth similar non-sequitur inspiration. I step back and look the pages of my undisciplined scrawl, each prompt leading off a new thought. They read like another little story:

It could have been you. But it was her. I can live with that. She, apparently, has decided that’s not enough. She thinks it should have been him. That’s why they’re both in the trunk of my car.

There was no going back. That’s what happens when you set off 40 pounds of dynamite at the foot of a suspension bridge like that.

There was no going on. The gas gauge was on E. The carrion birds were gathering along the roadside. The road signs were riddled with buckshot, to the point that the directions were useless.

If only the rain would stop. Then I could walk a half-mile into those woods over there and shoot myself in the head without getting all wet.

If only I had packed a lunch. That would be a sign that I had some hope of making it to the end of the day, end up on some bar stool with a bunch of other guys who forgot their lunches.

Because I never want to see the sun again. It reveals too much. Age. Decay. Illness. Inadequacies. The light of a neon Corona beer sign shows nothing of the men and women sitting on these bar stools. Their secrets are safe.

Birds of the USSR. What is that? It’s a web site for meeting Russian women. Guys like us, sometimes we need a little help getting past our social awkwardness.

One type of anger can be positive. It’s motivational anger. The gas that prompts you to break that beer bottle – after it’s empty – over the head of the guy next to you, instead of worrying after you get home about why you didn’t do it.

See how that works? It pulled the Bukowski right outta me.

The Critical Mass

Saving Sgt. Bergdahl

The problem with guys like Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – and Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Pat Tillman – is they shed light on our dark sides.

Snowden and Manning used their top-security jobs to expose classified information that confirmed the U.S. government is undermining some of its citizens’ most-treasured principles: That we have no right to privacy. Now we are all guilty of something until proven innocent.

For shedding light on this issue of domestic spying, some Americans regard Snowden and Manning as heroes. More consider them to be traitors.

Tillman is an equally confusing story for Americans to digest. A highly-regarded defensive back in the National Football League, he turned down a three-year, $3.6 million offer from the Arizona Cardinals and joined the U.S. Army eight months after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Tillman was deployed to Iraq, and then Afghanistan, were he was killed in 2004. The selfless Tillman was hailed as a hero, and he remains one to this day. But the story of his death evolved in the days and months that followed. There was a cover-up. Members of his unit were instructed to lie. Evidence was destroyed, including a notebook in which he was recording his thoughts about the war. The truth soon emerged: Tillman was not killed as a result of enemy action, but friendly fire. And we now know that this member of the elite Rangers, an Academic All-American in college, had turned on the war as well. Tillman no longer believed America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were justifiable.

Bergdahl presents an equally complicated story. And since he was traded earlier this week for five Taliban leaders being held in Guantanamo, his return after five years in captivity is being re-written by politicians and pundits with disappointingly simplistic world views.

Here’s one: Conflating the Taliban with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, the multi-national group once headed by Osama bin Laden, is responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban had nothing to do with it. And while the Taliban has notoriously violent ways, the Afghan Taliban is not even officially delegated as a terrorist organization. As far as the world and the United States legally defines it, the Afghan Taliban is an enemy combatant. We invaded their country, and we should not be surprised that they are shooting at us and setting roadside bombs in our paths. Like Bergdahl, the five Taliban who were traded for Bergdahl were prisoners of that war.

Here’s another simplistic view: That we have now allowed five enemy combatants to return to the battlefield. “The worst of the worst,” critics say, as the five thuggish mug shots fill the flat-screen TVs in America’s living rooms. And they may indeed return to the battle. But is the Taliban really getting back five top commanders (all of whom will be quarantined in Qatar for a year, as part of the deal)? Reporting that runs deeper than the hysterics of Senator John McCain and TV pundits suggests that the bloodthirsty reputation of these five Taliban leaders may have been grossly exaggerated, perhaps as justification for keeping them imprisoned for more than a decade. In fact one of these fearsome fighters – and all were captured in the early days of the war – was truly something many people do fear: Before the invasion of Afghanistan, he was a used-car salesman.

Hyperventilating over the release of The Taliban Five ignores the fact that America has created a cottage industry of manufacturing hate among the people of that region. We’ve invaded sovereign nations as though we own them, bombed villages, killed children with drones, tortured and humiliated innocent people in prisons such as Abu Ghraib and helped keep violent tribal leaders in power by paying them off with cash and Viagra, gaining the faint promise that they might help us keep the region marginally under our control. Our actions have recruited thousands of American-hating combatants for the battlefield. And we’re worried about those five guys just released from Guantanamo?

Someone’s worried about something. Before the facts were in, Bergdahl was under attack. Attacks planned by Republican strategists, always seeking a political crowbar to use on Barack Obama. The soldier’s family is even being scrutinized. If Bergdahl’s father, wearing a beard he hasn’t shaved since his son went missing, “absolutely looked like a Muslim,” as claimed by Fox News facial-hair expert Bill O’Reilly, then so do the guys from Duck Dynasty.

We don’t know why Bergdahl walked away from his post. Perhaps he was naive. Perhaps his mind caved in to the pressures of battle; we know that we’ve already brought back thousands of soldiers who will never be the same after this war. It’s even been claimed that Bergdahl’s desertion cost the lives of some of his fellow soldiers who were searching for him, although doubt has been cast on that notion by a story this week in The New York Times – supported, ironically, by some material stolen by Chelsea Manning. You can read it here.

One thing we do know, thanks to a story in Rolling Stone magazine, is that Bergdahl – like Pat Tillman – had grown to despise the American mission in Afghanistan. He says as much in emails sent to his parents:

We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks … We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.

He sees himself in the company of  “an army of liars, backstabbers, fools and bullies,” and writes that he’s ashamed to be an American. Some heavy stuff seems to have been weighing on Bergdahl when he walked away from his post, his objective either uncertain or unreachable, perhaps even suicidal.

Allowing a soldier to die at the hands of his captors is not the punishment for his having questioning the validity of a mission and deserting his post. There is a human calculation being made here, that Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders was not an even trade. This debate should not be carried out under the same rules that we use for evaluating a couple of baseball teams swapping infielders. Obama reminded us Thursday of what the priority should be:

I write too many letters to folks who unfortunately don’t see their children again after fighting a war. I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents, and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child, and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try and get them back.

We sent Bergdahl into harm’s way, on a dubious mission built on lies. Damaged or not, it was our duty to bring him back.

The Critical Mass

Living a fantasy life can be a killer

Richard Martinez had an easy excuse if he had fallen into an absolute, sobbing despondency;  his 20-year-old son had been murdered in a shooting and stabbing spree last weekend in California. Instead, Martinez was a mix of appropriate emotion and room-silencing coherence as he spoke to a gathering of reporters. I have never heard the case for gun control stated so fiercely and eloquently:

“Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’ right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”

And when the cable news cameras move on to the next ratings-handy tragedy, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre will emerge from his dark world and continue to proclaim: “The best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

It’s an empty catch phrase. As are the words of lunatic Republican icon Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who wrote in an open letter to the families of the shooting victims, “your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

So I guess we’ll all just have to bite the bullet. To underline the national paralysis brought on by our inaction, we only have to turn to this headline from the satirical web site The Onion:

“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

This most-recent giant tragedy (remembering that every day there are hundreds of small tragedies) reminds us that Americans live in in the midst of arrogant, self-absorbed fantasies. Not just the socially inept, woman-hating rich kid who went on the Santa Barbara killing spree. But all across this country, where technology and education allows us access to the truth, too many of groups choose to embrace dangerous nonsense.

Climate-change deniers. There’s a figure tossed around that 97 percent of scientists agree that humans are altering our planet in ways that endanger not just polar bears, but civilization. Now it seems that 97 percent estimate is incorrect. With the release last week of the more studies on what’s happening to the polar ice caps, glaciers and whatever indicator you care to measure, it’s now virtually impossible to find a reputable scientist who isn’t alarmed by the data. So where are the climate deniers getting their supporting facts from?

Critics of Cosmos. After each week of the acclaimed TV science series, The Flat-Brain Society issues a statement decrying some comment by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Rushing to the defense of their literal interpretation of the Bible that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Or refuting the contention that evolution is not just a theory, but an actual scientific process, like breathing. To combat science, common sense, and what lies plainly before anyone’s eyes, they quote the Bible. That’s all they have, a book of stories passed down from generations of unknown men wandering the desert for a few centuries.

The Supreme Court. In upholding the right of Michigan institutions to ban laws implementing affirmative action earlier this year, the Supreme Court majority flat-out said that racism no longer exists in the United States. And then the gods, who entertain themselves by watching our amusing displays of hypocrisy, promptly sent us the news-ready racists Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. Bundy, an Arizona rancher, quickly became a spokesman for anti-government goons, who seem to think a man can pay no heed to the law if he has enough guns. What a world that would be! The side with the most guns wins! It’s a Wild West fantasy. And we have to wonder what fantasy the other NBA team owners were living in as they ignored the previous, well-documented racist acts by Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers.

Birthers and other conspiracies. There is a birth certificate. There is a notice in the 1961 Honolulu Advertiser and The Honolulu Star-Bulletin announcing the birth of baby Barack Hussein Obama. Why won’t the birthers go away? And who are these people who insist the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre never happened? Or 9/11 was an inside job? Or continue to chase Benghazi? Or still insist that the IRS supposedly targeted conservative groups for investigation, when the evidence clearly shows otherwise. The ill-informed cadre of fantasy players breast feeding these bogus babies does not care how hurtful those insane conspiracies are to the families of the victims, Or how much time and money is wasted by public officials when they could be addressing real issues.

How about giving us a scandal that’s not a fantasy? Ben Carson, regarded as a rising star in the Republican Party, actually welcomed news of the Veteran’s Administration scandal, a true scandal, where administrators were found to have falsified records that showed wounded soldiers were forced to endure excessively long waits before treatment. “I think what’s happening with the veterans is a gift from God,” Carson said, explaining that the VA revelations cast light on the dangers of socialized medicine. Anyone else want to live in a universe where God tortures wounded soldiers to make a political point?

The news media. Why don’t we fact check anymore? When someone says that raising the minimum wage will hurt the economy, why isn’t that statement immediately rebuked with studies by the majority of reputable economists who dispute that myth? Why is someone allowed to make the claim that American values are pro-gun, pro-life and anti-gay marriage, when polls show that most Americans think otherwise?

She’s not a doctor, but she could play one on TV. How is it that actors such as Alicia Silverstone and Jenny McCarthy can campaign against getting your child vaccinated, because they think those medicines will expose him or her to autism? They’re not doctors. And doctors don’t believe you should skip your kid’s vaccinations.

Maybe it’s the Internet that feeds these fantasies. I’m not so sure we’re too far past the days since the Cath0lic church would put a man to death for believing that the Earth revolved around the sun.

You may think it doesn’t matter that all of these folks are peddling fantasies. But Congressman John Boehner said something interesting yesterday: “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”

He’s not qualified. Yet he has control of how we’re dealing with the problem.

Climate change, gun violence, racism, the economy and health all need to be addressed in a serious manner. Because living in a fantasy world is actually a very dangerous place to be.

The Critical Mass

America isn’t ready for a transgender Tea Party

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey.

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey.

Last night I spent $4.99 to see Dallas Buyers Club, the first time I’ve ever purchased a movie on my TV. The cable folks sure make it easy to take your money, don’t they? I’m now a big fan of the movie’s star, Matthew McConaughey, thanks to his work on what appears to be the best show on television, HBO’s  True Detective. I say “appears,” because my field of vision is somewhat limited; these days I watch only spring-training baseball and Roger Corman films. But I get McConaughey. We speak in the same mumbling tone, uttering the same cosmic non-sequiturs seemingly influenced by the writings of Carlos Castaneda and The Fortean Times.

McConaughey’s Dallas Buys Club performance, in which he plays an HIV patient who takes his treatment into his own hands, struck me as worthy of the Best Actor Oscar that he was awarded last week. But what about the movie’s Best Supporting Actor winner, Jared Leto? I’ve been reading some backlash on that one.

No one seems to be disputing Leto’s actual performance as an HIV-positive transgender woman. He portrayed it with the appropriate levels of wispy, assertive and tragic. The criticism is: Why was the character played by a straight male actor, rather than a transgender person?

It’s a legit question, one that goes back a long way in film history. Al Jolson, who by all accounts was the furthest thing from a racist, in blackface. I’ve seen movies with Burt Lancaster as a Mexican man (A Touch of Evil) and Marlon Brando as a Japanese man (The Teahouse of the August Moon). Dozens of white guys have cinematically morphed into Native Americans (most recently Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger). Gary Sinise needed a computer to digitally erase his legs so he could be an amputee (Forrest Gump). The men of Monty Python played women as screeching biddies.

The past does not excuse the present. But how far are we allowed to carry this argument? Meryl Streep is praised for a career built on assuming a dizzying array of accents. But should a Polish woman have been given Streep’s role in Sophie’s Choice? As winner of the Best Actress Oscar that year, she apparently was convincing enough.

Rock Hudson played straight men throughout his entire film career, in a time when gay actors found it professionally necessary to hide the details of their private lives. But today, gay and lesbian actors play straight roles, and straight actors play gay and lesbian roles. And no one thinks twice.

Few arguments are as useless as “…isn’t ready for.” As in, “America isn’t ready for a black president.” “America isn’t ready to end segregation.” “The NFL isn’t ready for a gay player.”  But people asked the right questions, society moved forward, and we got the black president and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we’re getting the gay NFL player.

I think it’s fine that Leto played a transgender person in a movie. Just as it seems perfectly appropriate that the decision to cast him in that role was questioned. Both points of view play a role in change.

Just last month, Michele Bachmann – once a front-running candidate for the Republican nomination for president – said that America isn’t ready for a woman in the White House. We’ll see if Hilary Clinton can drag her into the 21st century. And when they make that bio-pic about Tea Party darling Bachmann, I hope we have a transgender actor available for the part.

The Critical Mass



It’s a world of people out there who think the truth hurts

The problem with this country is, we can’t handle the truth. Unless it’s our own truth.

I was dwelling on the fragility of truth about a week ago, while watching the debate on creationism vs. evolution between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham, the intellectually shuttered fellow who runs a Kentucky museum dedicated to the notion that The Bible is literally true. A poll conducted a couple of days after the debate indicated that 92 percent of people who watched the event on the Internet believed Nye had won. That poll, by the way, was conducted by Christian Today.

So the debate was a bit more one-sided than even the last Super Bowl. Nevertheless, it was fascinating viewing, with Ham the Biblical coelacanth, living evidence that there are people out there who think the fossil record is a prank by God. And by the way, when Pat Robertson – who believes that hurricanes are caused by gay people – tells you to quit saying crazy stuff, you know you’re off the charts.

Score a big win for the truth. Otherwise, it’s a world of people who think the truth hurts.

Let’s start in that most-obvious portal to fantasy, politics. Politicians are rarely held  accountable for distributing misinformation. The Affordable Care Act and its death panels, immigration and anchor babies, rich money-hoarders as job creators, Obama is a Muslim Socialist emperor from Kenya. The leaders who manufactured these long-refuted talking points still have many followers. As does New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a man who’s willing to punish his constituents if a mayor didn’t endorse him, or back a real-estate project that Christie favored. Nor does the truth fare well in Kentucky, where Senator Mitch McConnell is either a liar or has horrible reading comprehension skills. Last week he said the Congressional Budget Office estimates Obamacare will cost the country two million jobs, when it says no such thing.

Here’s one of my recent favorites. Kentucky senator and proven plagiarizer Rand Paul often refers to “studies” to back up his claims, yet rarely names those studies. But last month, while insisting that employers are less likely to hire people who have been unemployed for long periods of time, he did cite one example: A paper written by Rand Ghayad, not yet a high-level economist, just one who’s finishing up his Ph.D. in economics from Northeastern University. Unfortunately for Paul, Ghayad was less than appreciative of the attention. Just because companies discriminate against the long-term unemployed doesn’t mean long-term benefits are to blame,” Ghayad wrote in rebuttal in The Atlantic magazine. “Paul might know that if he read beyond the first line of my paper’s abstract.”

We know government officials in West Virginia have a problem with the truth because 300,000 people there whose water has been rendered unusable for a month after a massive chemical spill are being told it is now safe to drink. Except those officials are falling far short of making definitive assurances, because the water still has an odd odor to it. “Just because you smell something doesn’t mean it’s not safe,” said Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water. Would you take his word on that?

You can’t. Apparently moonshine stills tucked away in the mountain hollers of West Virginia get more government regulation than the chemical storage tanks rusting on the banks of the state’s beautiful rivers. We know the people who spilled those chemicals downplayed the size of the spill at first, and later admitted it was actually a much larger event. BP did the same thing with the Gulf oil spill. That’s the strategy every time an industry is confronted by an ecological disaster. Lie about how minor the damage is, then work your way up to: Run!

NBC’s Olympics coverage is a lie. Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko was forced to withdraw from the men’s figure-skating competition because of an injury before the start of Thursday’s event. Unwilling to admit that it had lost one of that evening’s marquee figures – NBC’s broadcast of the event is delayed because of the nine-hour difference between Sochi and the U.S. Eastern time zone – the network continued to promote Plushenko’s appearance throughout the day. It even used a quote from the skater, saying he would compete, words taken from an interview recorded days earlier. Using lies to hype a drama that never happened.

Holocaust-level exaggerations can be useful when the evidence is weighing in heavily against you. We heard some rich guys this week dismiss the dangers of income equality by comparing their critics to Nazis. Those critics, incidentally, include the majority of the world’s economists and the Pope.

We heard arguments supported this week by absolutely ludicrous dishonesty. Colorado Republican Sen. Bernie Herpin challenged a gun control measure in his state by suggesting that high-capacity magazines shouldn’t be banned because the guy who shot up a Colorado movie theater in 2012 had one that malfunctioned, preventing more carnage. Speaking of the accused shooter, James Homes, Herpin said it “was maybe a good thing he had a 100-round magazine because it jammed. If he had instead had four, five, six 15-round magazines, no telling how much damage he could have done until a good guy showed up.” Twelve people dead and more than 70 wounded puts the lie to the twisted theory that a reliance on defective weapons will keep us safe.

Enraged that Woody Allen was being honored at the Academy Awards, Dylan Farrow, daughter of Allen’s former longtime companion Mia Farrow, wrote a damning essay reviving old accusations that Allen had molested her when she was 7 years old. Disinterested in weighing both sides on Farrow’s serious accusations of child abuse, Allen’s Hollywood supporters trampled the alleged victim in the rush to defend the comedian and director.

And perhaps most notably this week, there was an announcement by Michael Sam, the star defensive lineman on a very good University of Missouri football team, that he is gay. Reactions were wide ranging, and it’s no surprise that there are a lot of homophobic bigots lurking in the Internet weeds. But most interesting was the reaction of NFL people who insisted that the league “is not ready for a gay player,” and warned that allowing a gay man into a locker room would endanger its “delicate chemistry.”

I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms. Delicate chemistry isn’t quite the right description.

Other NFL authorities questioned why Sam would come out now, right before the NFL draft, and likely ruin his chances of being picked higher. Their suggestion was clear: Lie to your future employer.

Sam made the tough decision. The decision that felt right to him. He wanted to be honest with himself, and those around him. “I want to own my truth,” he said.

The truth, instead of a lie that others are more comfortable with.

The Critical Mass

Evolution vs. creationism: A Ham on Nye sandwich

A handful of science Grumpycats warned Bill Nye to not do it. Don’t get onstage and debate that creationist guy. It’ll lend credibility to the anti-science crowd.

Nye went ahead with it anyway. Tuesday night he crawled into the den of ignorance, defending evolution against Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, right there on Ham’s home turf. A so-called learning center in Petersburg, Ky., that suggests dinosaurs and humans once lived side by side. For me, this was must-see Internet.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is one of my heroes.  He speaks truth to lunacy.

For more than two hours, in what was generally a civil debate, Nye and Ham went at the question of whether Ham’s claim that creationism is a realistic explanation for the existence of mankind. The combatants each got a five-minute opening statement, followed by a half-hour slot to plead their case. I’ve included the entire video here, including the 13 minutes of pre-show New Age music to calm you down.

Ham started, and presenting a slide show of murky logic, the most obvious point being his contention that there are two kinds of science: Observational science and historical science.If I understood Ham correctly, observational science is what scientists can see today. Historical science is stuff that happened in the past. Since we’re not there, he argued, we don’t really know, do we?

The yawning hole in Ham’s logic here is enough to sail an arc through: If “not being there” refutes scientific data – such as counting tree rings to see how old the tree is – doesn’t that also refute using The Bible as a historical record? It isn’t an extemporaneous document. It’s authors didn’t know Adam and Eve.

Nye countered with fossils, geology, the stars. Science facts that add up to the Earth being 4.6 billion years old, not the 4,000 to 6,000 that Ham believes it is, as a literal interpretation of The Bible suggests. Nye went after the physical impossibility of a worldwide flood, and the logistical improbability of a Noah’s Ark. He pointed out that the sharp teeth of lions shows they weren’t vegetarians during Noah’s time, as Ham claims. The further Ham got from his opening half hour, the more ragged his argument grew.

The final portion of the debate was questions from the audience. They were a tough audience. They wanted to know, how do life forms develop a conscious state? Nye admitted he didn’t know some of these answers. He didn’t know what was there before the Big Bang, and the creation  of the universe. No one does, he said.

“There’s a book that has the answer,” was Ham’s reply to those big questions.

Bill Nye the Education Hero said several times during the debate that we can’t allow a generation or two of American kids to go though school with an improper science foundation. We’ll fall behind, he said. We must invest in research. America must continue to innovate. Faith and religion can be a wonderful thing, but they doesn’t create life-saving medical procedures. They don’t create the Internet, they don’t create the advances in farming that allow the Earth to feed seven billion people. The Bible may be inspirational literature, but it doesn’t have all of the answers. Moses wasn’t splitting atoms.

The scientists who pissed and moaned about Nye going onstage with a creationist don’t understand that he’s standing up to forces that want to spend our increasingly limited resources on religious dogma. And it has to be their religious dogma, not that of any of the thousands of gods who have walked the planet for centuries.

Nye is standing up to the people who would cut NASA funding in favor of vouchers for charter schools whose curriculum are irradiated with dubious academics. The anti-science Neanderthals are dangerous. Today, one out of every three Americans do not believe in evolution.

What was perhaps Nye’s most-brilliant comment of the night seemed to pass unnoticed, after he admitted we don’t have answers to many of the world’s mysteries. Some day, he insisted, perhaps we will, if we keep working at it. Nye came off as a man delighted by the wonder and mysteries of the universe. Ham, as he pointed out, is simply satisfied with the answers that he reads in The Bible.

The Critical Mass

Hey, are you calling Carl Sagan stupid?

Marijuana_jointWith the onrushing Super Bowl featuring combatants from the two states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, this seems as good a time as any to recall a conversation during a dinner party at our house over the holidays.

It was late in the evening, post meal, and 10 of us were sitting at the dining-room table, surrounding a mountain of empty wine bottles. There would be hell to pay in the morning. It was getting pretty loud in the room. And someone asked, “What’s the hardest drug we’ve all taken?”

When the question came around to me, I kind of ignored it. That’s how I deal with any problem Maybe it’ll go away. It’s how I handled the broken latch on the front door. I put off taking it apart, put it off, put it off… and then, one day, it was magically working again. It still is. Pretty cool.

But someone kept pushing me on the drug question. I guess they figured the local rock music critic would have quite a story here.

“I think you’re going to be disappointed,” I said.

They were. Just about everyone had larger experiences in narcotics than I have. Mostly hallucinogens. No one volunteered any encounters with exotic excretions from amphibians, but they hit all of the benchmarks. Acid. Mushrooms.

And every one of these reprobates is a solid citizen. With a job. A loving, long-term personal relationship. With well-balanced kids, or content pets. A creative force in music or art.

Their drug days are now over, or at least so sporadic as to hardly count.

Now, not for a minute am I suggesting that there isn’t a drug problem in this world. There is, and it’s significant. I have friends who have fallen prey to it. I raise this issue not simply because of Sunday’s Stoner Bowl, but because there has been a lot of odd talk about dope over the last month.

David Brooks is the frequently wrong conservative columnist of The New York Times. I say frequently wrong because Brooks likes to write about the economy, then his co-worker Paul Krugman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in economics,  follows up with a column that has to clean up the mess. So Brooks has a habit of writing about things in which he has no expertise.

But not marijuana. Brooks has expertise there. He used to smoke dope as a teenager. Then he got bored and moved on to bigger things, like telling the rest of us how to lead our lives. He started off the New Year by creating quite an Internet giggle with a column called “Weed: Been There. Done That.” His point, which you can read here, was Colorado and Washington were wrong to legalize it. He wrote:

What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.

I’m not going waste any time beyond this one sentence to point out the hypocrisy of the anti-government conservative folks suggesting our government should encourage specific individuals and behavior.

Brooks offers a half-hearted argument that smoking marijuana is a health hazard. Then, citing his personal experience as a young man, Brooks gets to his main point. That pot is bad because it makes you stupid.

I wonder if Brooks has ever written a column that called for the criminalization of alcohol. Because – besides studies that show it is more of a health hazard than pot – in most people’s experiences, getting drunk makes you act stupid. Other things Brooks might want to criminalize, because they make you act stupid: television, gambling, your college friends, Fox News, NASCAR, love.

Has Brooks ever eaten too much at Thanksgiving dinner, loosened his belt, flopped onto the couch and fallen asleep during the second half of the Cowboys game, rather than being productive and writing that next brilliant piece for the Times? Perhaps turkey should be criminalized.

Brooks isn’t the only buzzkill conservative. In a TV interview this week, Ann Coulter said American commerce is under threat because she suspects her pool cleaner was a pot head. On the very same day that Brooks gave us the straight dope on dope, the Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus also attacked the country’s move toward legalization. After confessing that, yes, she has also done the deed. In her young, carefree, presumably immature days. “On balance, society will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance,” is her argument. (Interestingly, that’s also how a lot of us feel about guns, which kill 30,000 Americans a year, way more people than marijuana.) Like Brooks, Marcus ignores evidence that marijuana offers some health benefits and cites studies that suggest smoking a lot of dope – lab rat and Tommy Chong levels, I suspect – lowers your IQ. I noticed that she makes this argument just a few sentences after she writes “an occasional joint strikes me as no worse than an occasional drink.”

Ruth! Which is it?

I don’t know. Once again I hate to disappoint, but it’s very possible Brooks, Marcus and Coulter have smoked more dope than I have. My main concern with the criminalization of marijuana is that it’s a weapon in the drug war on poor people. Another thing we learned this week is the only person in the country who doesn’t agree that pot is less a hazard than heroin and crack is the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele M. Leonhart.

Does smoking pot make you stupid? Brooks and Marcus survived the experience and have been rewarded with coveted positions as high-profile commentators on the rest of us and our foibles. Does experimenting with drugs more powerful than pot make you stupid?  Somehow our smart and witty holiday dinner guests escaped the brain trauma.

But Brooks and Marcus don’t have to take our word on it. The astronomer and teacher who opened the limitless possibilities of the cosmos to us, Carl Sagan, was an enthusiastic consumer and pot advocate. He credited smoking dope with helping him focus on the big questions of the universe. Surely they’re not calling him stupid.

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