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Archive for April, 2009

By now, half the world has heard of Susan Boyle.  If you have not, stop now and watch the video of her auditioning for the show Britain’s Got Talent:

When I watched this video, it brought me to tears, which doesn’t normally happen on the rare occasion that i watch Britain’s Got Talent.  But this woman was so homely, so unassuming, so quaint,  and so unlike anyone auditioning for a world-wide broadcasted show that I immediately began to criticize her, like everyone in the audience and all 3 of the judges.  

Our culture is a sick one because it is made up of sick people.  We love to criticize.  We love to find fault, and exploit weakness.  The shows on which Simon Cowell adjudicates are just visual symbols of that part of our culture’s heart.  I think that’s why they’re so popular–we get to hear someone say what so many are thinking about a terrible performer.  We get to see the cruelty enacted, and we get to see someone utterly destroyed in front of millions of people.  The popularity of the shows is dependent on this kind of unbridled reckless speech, and the very thing that proves it is that Simon Cowell, the most reckless speaker of the bunch, is who makes ratings go up.  He’s on the judges panel of all the shows, and the producers know that if he weren’t, the show would not make nearly as much money.  He and his barbed tongue are the draw.  The people performing are just window-dressing.  

As I sat there expecting (and hoping) for this dear woman to get up and embarrass herself on television, what actually happened was that her stunning performance highlighted what was going on inside me.  I wanted her to fail, even though I had just finished reading some scripture last week that read, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”  (Proverbs 24:17).  This moment was a revealing one for so many people because it showed the ugliness in our hearts.  It showed that mine was enthusiastically wanting someone, not even my enemy, to fall utterly, and for no other reason than to amuse me.  

What?

Simply to amuse me?  Is my heart really that hardened?  This hard heart of mine has been shown to me before, but the problem with being shown a hard heart is that usually nobody else knows.  We don’t have to deal with it because nobody’s watching.  But God sees our hearts.  He not only sees what is, but what could be there.

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I want to make a disclaimer from the beginning–I was born in Austin, Texas.  While I realize that living the first six weeks of my life in Texas doesn’t really mean much more than I left a bunch of smelly diapers and infantile tantrums in the Lone Star State to mark my birthplace, I also have to admit that whenever Texas is mentioned I have a little soft spot.  Weird, I know.  “Soft spot” and “Texas” don’t really go together.  Maybe other words go with Texas–“ego”, “hospitality” (depending on what people group you belong to), “nifty drawl”, and “spunk.”  

The current leader of the Lone Star State, Governor Rick Perry, hinted on Wednesday that Texas might someday try to actually go it alone.  Permanently.  As in secession.  Speaking to a group of…ahem…extremely excited far-right-leaning children of the plains, Perry said, in response to the crowds chanting “secession,” that if the government in Washington wasn’t going to listen to the people, why then, the people of Texas just might cut the ties and ride off into the glorious sunset of…some kind of separatory action.  

Now, I would like to point out that a whole bunch of ordinary Texans think their governor is a couple horses short of a herd, and in the face of extreme criticism from almost every segment of society, Perry has essentially said that the idiots who misconstrued the Constitution and are causing the problems today also were stupid enough to misconstrue my speech.  Then he exercised a little Newspeak and told everybody what he ACTUALLY said.  It’s very different from what every news agency has on tape, but who cares?  He’s a Texan, darn it, and he stands for things.  

What I find interesting is the scenario in which he actually had the stones to seriously insinuate that secession could be on Texas’ agenda, since the last war of secession was the bloodiest American conflict EVER.  Perry was speaking at a Tea Party rally, where people co-opted the meaning linked to the Boston Tea Party and tried to apply it in the same way to their anger at bailing out banks with taxpayer money.  They’re angry that taxes are going up.  Funny, since taxes are actually lower for the middle class under Obama, and tax increases for the richest 5% of the folks in the nation haven’t even started yet–those start in 2011.  But what could be more American than getting riled up by a demagogue and protesting things out in the street that aren’t happening?  The only thing that really tops the Tea Party is Perry’s acquiescence to the small crowds screaming for Texas to secede from the Union.  They screamed, he lapped it up, and now he’s doing a really weak backpedal.  I liked one of the many many quotes from Texans on Perry’s chosen actions: 

“Governor Perry, what you speak of is sedition. Texas may not opt out of the Union. I believe we already settled that issue in our past. I’ll be the first to take up arms when that day comes. I’m an American first and Texan second.”  -bigboxes in the comment section of a CNN article.

But of course, what’s a little sedition among friends?

Texas, get rid of that irresponsible and foolish lunatic you’ve voted into your governor’s mansion.

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I’m a student at Claremont Graduate University, and in a course I’m taking this term there was a lecture and discussion on a social reformer and activist named John Commons, who did some really great things in America.  While reading some of the blog posts, I became interested in some tension that developed when it was discovered that some of John Commons’ writings and beliefs later had an influence on inspiring the eugenics movement.  The eugenics movement was a patently racist movement that believed in the possibility of improving humanity by keeping people with undesirable qualities from reproducing and encouraging reproduction among people with desirable qualities.  In this way, the evolution of humanity could be guided and self-directed.

 

What I find most interesting is not, to be totally honest, John Commons. I’m not even really all that shocked that he held racist ideas.  Many learned people did then, and many learned people today hold views that are patently racist while at the same time holding ideas that are significantly progressive toward social justice.  What interests me most is how people (readers) like us take and assimilate, through texts and images, ideas of a person to construct an image of that person and his ideas in our imaginations.  I’m guessing that we struggle through a common process when we hear of John Commons being related to the eugenics movement and believing “white races” are better suited to democracy than “tropical races.”  I, for one, immediately feel that there are two images of John Commons that somehow cannot both be true, and I notice that I have a feeling that the respect that I felt for him before I knew of his racism ought to be diminished and replaced with only criticism for his folly of racist ideology. 

 

This is the process that goes on inside my own head, but I’m pretty sure that it happens with most of us, with a lot of things, all the time, every day, in big and small ways.  I’m particularly interested in the pull that happens inside us toward division into a simple bifurcation—to fully lean to one side or the other—admiration or scorn, good or bad, truth or lies, tolerance or racism.  Since with Commons, all the information we have is from traditional texts—books, papers, etc. (and I suppose from oral texts or lectures about those traditional texts), we must undertake a complex negotiation of these texts we read with the text that has been constructed in our heads—our idea of John Commons and what his ideas mean.

 

In my own personal life, I’ve had many people who I have known as very good people, but at some point I discover that they have done something very evil—I’ve had a friend who committed murder and one who committed child molestation.  Both of those acts were horrific, but as my understanding of them was processed throughout their trials and sentencing, my conception of them did indeed change, but it did not affect everything I knew of them.  My friend who committed murder, for example (I’ll call her Becca), many times showed kindness to people and once brought me a plate of brownies just because I had never had that kind and she wanted to do something kind for me.  I had to reconcile in my head that this kind of decent act (decent in the strictest sense) could somehow co-exist in her in some way with motivations that would lead Becca to commit murder. 

 

I’m still learning this lesson and, no doubt, will be learning it deeper and deeper for the rest of my life, and I find them helpful as I wrestle with a challenge that is far less personal and emotional: trying to reconcile two different texts (John Commons A and John Commons B) into a third hybrid: John Commons C.  How does this happen? 

 

Here are two possible models: 

1) we take the old and new conceptions, which are very different from each other, and put them together, and one colors the other through completely, causing us to lose our trust in Commons’ progressive actions and view him as a fraud of social activism or at least as an ethically stunted person whose judgment cannot be trusted at all.  This is just like mixing food coloring and water: the water changes all through and one cannot then ever really “uncolor” the water. 

2) we take these two conceptions and simply let them both sit and occupy the same space—that is, the same label of John Commons in our head, and admit to the possibility that there may be contradictions—that there may be logical or ethical tensions in the different ideas, but we allow them to mix nonetheless.  This is much more like mixing two colors of pebbles into a big jar.  They are not the same, but nonetheless there they sit in the jar, and we must be willing to allow that there are two different colors in the jar at the same time, even if it offends our sense of aesthetics.  Knowing that there are these two disparate and quite contrary texts at work in my own conception of Commons is a burr in my mind; it would be much easier to understand him and compartmentalize him if I could simply say he was this or that all the way through—but it is not quite that easy.  People usually do not make it so.  But when I’m tired and want everything to be right with the world, and just want to have a hero to admire, I sure wish it were easier!

 

The whole thing pivots around being willing to allow unresolved tension to exist in the spaces in our minds—tension between one idea of someone and another.  We always have tension in our conceptions of people, and usually we simply resolve this tension by forming a new conception by somehow negotiating the two conflicting ideas in our head.  They struggle and bits of each are cut away, and bits of each are left standing.  As a result, some new conception emerges that is different. We do this all the time with all kinds of things, big as well as small, profound and superficial.  We may not know how to resolve the tensions we find, and it can be the hardest thing in the world to choose to not undergo the process of resolving those tensions, because sometimes there is no way for us to accurately resolve them.  We must sometimes choose to see both conflicting things and simply let them be—to trust that the process of resolving a good act with a murder may be beyond our capacity.  Most importantly, we are told by the Savior, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”  I think he was talking about this exact thing.

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