Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pro Free Speech

The issue of free speech is a prickly one.
I recall last year, I wrote several blogs about Pastor Fred Phelps, who trolls military funerals shouting obscenities at the deceased and their mourners.
Now, it's the YouTube video that supposedly sparked violence across the Middle East for its blasphemous portrayal of the prophet Mohammed as a thief, rapist, and murderer.
Shortly after the first wave of attacks, including that of the Libyan consulate where Ambassador Stevens was killed, Obama condemned the attacks, as did Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. However, they both expressed disgust at the video and its contents, making it clear that they do not support the film, or its message.

The whirlwind, however, continues. From there, media outlets from Pakistan to Jordan to UAE have called for the death of the film maker, Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal have called Obama's apology a slap in the face of free speech, citing it as weakness and even as an indirect way of condoning the terrorists' activities.

In my mind, what Obama and his cabinet did in that first wave is called diplomacy. You state your stance, firmly and without hesitation, making it very clear that violence against your diplomats is wholly unacceptable.
In that same vein, you affirm that attacking US embassies will do the terrorists little good. The US government has to distance itself from the video and its creator in order to make clear to the budding new Middle Eastern regimes that it's not just a heap of anti-Islamists.
We can't afford more enemies in that region and condemning a video for being heinously bigoted costs less in lives and in dollars than sending in a fleet of troops to prove a point.
Where Obama's cabinet tripped up is when it sent out an “implicit censorship request” to Google, asking that the video be taken down.
Let people watch it. The ones who watch it and like it are the ones who were bigots in the first place. A movie that poorly made won't win many converts.
And if you're going to award Pastor Fred Phelps free speech allowances to slander the names of fallen soldiers, Nakoula has the right to make crappy, racist movies in the LA county boonies.
But again, just because both Nakoula and Pastor Phelps have that right doesn't mean that we have to support them.
I think this is where some people themselves trip up.

Free speech is a right but that doesn't mean you have to love what everyone says. I too think that the video is a ridiculously radical and extremist stab at the Muslim religion. I would openly admit that to any number of people – such is my right as well.
Free speech means what it says. There is no sub-clause on having the full support of the government in all your ludicrous affirmations.
Our relationship with the entire Middle East has been strained long before the camera started rolling on the Innocence of Muslims set.
As per our constitution (or the parts that are still recognized as law), the government can't stop loonies like Nakoula from getting in the way of diplomatic proceedings, but that doesn't mean that they can let loonies like him completely strike diplomacy from the table.
What was Obama supposed to say? I strongly condemn the attacks and oh, by the way, love the video! Woo hoo free speech! That's absurd.
Every American that feels the same way about this video, that it's bigoted and extremist, should voice that opinion just as loud. It’s not a knock against our national pride – it's a powerful stance against extremism, on both sides.
By condemning the attacks and the video's contents, you place yourself in the center, i.e. the only place diplomacy works.
They are obviously not on the same scale and that should not go unsaid. The death of a great diplomat like Ambassador Stevens is a loss, not just for us, but for those Libyans who wanted progress and a way forward.
But by silently accepting this video as a representation of the American/Islam paradigm, you put diplomatic work through a salad shooter.

Standing strong against terrorist activities and condemning extremist bigotry are not mutually exclusive. We can do both and still be American.
So, practice your free speech knowing that with it comes the ability to disagree with someone else's. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Retrogress Congress

What's wrong with this sentence (taken from
"Before leaving Washington to concentrate efforts on their re-election campaigns, U.S. senators voted Saturday to fund the federal government into 2013 and passed a measure asserting a tough stance towards Iran over its nuclear program."

It reminds me of that last week of finals before Christmas vacation. I would look out my dorm window, away from Econ charts and Math equations, to salivate over my mothers cooking and think up new and exciting ways to ambush my brother.
But you still have work to do!!
And the fact that I can liken my laissez-faire finals attitude to that of the men and women "running" this country, is a more than uncomfortable situation.

I don't want my congressmen/women coming home to blow smoke up my ass while the world's on fire. I don't want them avoiding dire decisions because they have to put a few sticks with their faces on it in suburban front yards.
I mean, come on!
As one comic strip artist put it, if kicking the can down the road were an Olympic sport, the US would win gold, silver and bronze.
Unfortunately, we won't get more gold out of this fiasco.
The only thing gained is a deeper hole to dig ourselves out of on the assumption that once the elections pass, Congress and whatever puppet we elect will have the balls, intelligence and ability to compromise to balance the budget.
Pipe dreams.
Spinning wheels may give the illusion of forward motion but unless there's traction, you're just stuck in the mud. And we are deep.

Just the mere fact that we can continually allow our Congress to avoid any kind of responsibility says something. Why so complacent?
Is it because Endeavour flew by last night?
Or it was Friday night and by the time the news came in, you were too drunk to read your iPhone updates.
Why am I reading about this as if it's just another piece of news to air with the weather updates?

It's grossly unacceptable!
Let's avoid doing anything so we can all go home and tell our constituents how much we care. WHAT?!
I couldn't even get away with that in college. Oh yeah professor. I know I didn't turn in my paper or take the test, but you see, I'm planning for it, and working on my own approach, trying to gain support for my thesis - and I really do care, I just can't deliver anything right now.
Ummmm...OK, you fail. Grab an application to Starbucks on your way out.
(The fact that many college grads have to work at Starbucks is another conversation entirely).

And then this vague suggestion at pre-emptive war with Iran - tremendous.
With the striking name of Senate Joint Resolution 41, this Iran stance claims that time is running out on diplomacy. Although the Resolution also states that: "Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war," I'm not buying that should push come to shove, that sentence would stand firm against tanks and drones.
I hesitate to become morbid for a moment, but how much have we forgotten?
Are flag draped coffins and thousands of childless, parentless, widowed families not enough to jog the memory?
The Middle East is a quagmire. It always has been and always will be. Our foreign policy can not rest on the goal of "fixing" it. It's not our job, it's not our business.
As a foreign country, our job is to diplomatically set up parameters for relations. If those relations become strained or hostile, bombing the shit out of them won't convince them you're right.
I wonder if the new ranks of terrorist cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan think we're right. After shell shocking them non-stop with drone attacks, I wonder if they see our point as a freedom loving nation. I'm gonna err on the side of no.
Iran is no freedom loving nation either, but it's not our job to police them. It's not Israel's either.
I know it's unlikely to change, but our tight ties to Israel get us into more trouble than not.
Netanyahu is a war hawk and would love to get in the ring with Iran, knowing full well that our "diplomatic" ties would force us into the fray as well.
It's like a sick game of Twister where one foot wrong could set off a nuclear bomb.

I predict that some sort of ramped up power play is on the horizon with Iran, if for no other reason, our greed. I can recall reading a book many years ago called "Confessions of an Economic Hitman." In it, the author recounts a conversation he had with someone in the South Pacific, who warned that at some point in the future, the US would instigate war in the Middle East. This was at least 20 years before our pre-emptive strike on Iraq. The author thought the prediction silly but the man continued, saying that our greed based economy demanded control over these oil rich nations and the only way to secure it was through war. But he warned that these conflicts would not end the way the Cold War had. It would not end with a change in government. Because these Middle Eastern countries have such a strong faith base that once we are marked as "evil," they will never stop fighting us.

It is a frightening prediction but one that, as we have seen, is completely true.
As we kick our own financial problems down the road, we ready ourselves to take on the financial burdens of yet another war.
Meanwhile, your congressman/woman wants your vote.
What a sadly broken and twisted system this is.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dodging Digital Dunces

The way I see it, in a debate, there are two scenarios in which you can't formulate a "come-back:" you lost fair and square or your opponent devolves into personal attacks.
The second one isn't too common on a debate stage or even in person. However, it is the accepted norm on the Internet.

A few days ago, I posted on my band's Facebook page and was almost immediately confronted with an angry comment suggesting that I move to Afghanistan if I hated the US so much.
This is a far right slogan I've heard too many times, and always have the same response for. Dissension is the greatest form of patriotism. It's because I love my country that I work to make it better. I then thanked him for commenting (hey, it's more hits on my band page), and went about my day.
Apparently, he didn't like my response.
After just those two comments, the rest of the 20 or so comments focused on personal, violent attacks: I hope you die, you deserve to be raped, suck this, eat that, go to hell, you're a piece of shit, etc. etc. Another one chimed in to bolster the behemoth display of dumb-assery, liking each others posts and re-iterating previous comments.
I watched this all unfold - after all, what would I say?
It was clear that any form of intellectual discourse was lost on these buffoons so why bother? I wasn't about to stoop to their level so after a while, I simply banned them from the page, reported it to Facebook and went on debating and discussing with those who had posted logical and valid points.

But it got me thinking, also because this wasn't the first time this has happened. Just a month or so ago, I commented on someone else's post only to be barraged by violent personal attacks. I've also had psycho stalkers on YouTube who began with death wishes and wrapped up with date requests.
Having grown a thick skin, I mostly just shake it off and continue on.
It's certainly not enough to shut me up, but should it be enough to make me pause?

And that's what I'm doing now.
It seems far too frequent and abundant, these digital dunces who troll the Internet armed with a full arsenal of expletives and an empty head.
And while we can't weed out all of them, or even always stop them from posting - could we trade the desensitization for awareness and not allow our entire interactive paradigm to retard to this shit-slinging level?

Because - imagine, if we begin to accept this as the norm - where does that end?
Can you picture it: once eloquent speakers meeting to debate but instead engaging in an epically grotesque and juvenile cut-down contest? Complete with foundation-less, factually inaccurate, juvenile, threatening verbal vomit?
....Scary to think that might already be happening...

If we continue to accept this as our 21st century digital discourse, we will continue to see more of these cretinous commentators and less intellectual dialog. People will cling to ideologies without the ability or even the need to back them up in any social setting. It will be black and white, good and evil. Compromise will be considered weak and any opposition to a viewpoint will be met with a slew of personal attacks instead of knowledgeable debate.
Sitting in the comfy confines, safe behind your computer, is apparently not just to avoid physical interaction, but also intellectual.

We don't need to agree on everything - what a boring and mono-faceted world it would be if we did. But if someone puts forth a point in a respectful, valid way, we have to learn and/or continue to debate it in the same fashion.
And we can't learn to accept those who don't.
Free speech is one thing, but threats and violent verbal attacks are another. 
Deleting comments, reporting abuse - these are options - but is there anything else we can do? Not just to curb this behaviour but to bolster the behaviour of intellectual debate?

(*Please note, if you have a comment on this post that has anything to do with me dying, getting raped, or getting the shit kicked out of me - stop. Go away. Come back when you have something useful to say.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Different from all other days...

There will be no shortage of 9/11 posts today. There will be no shortage of moments of silence, bowed heads, looks back and grieving remembrances.

This is one more, yet as I am wont to do - I ask a question - what's new?
I remember during Passover, one of the questions my father used to read was "What makes this night different from all other nights?"
I'm not sure why but that question always stuck out in my mind. It wasn't a happy special or an exciting Christmas morning-like paradigm shift from the ordinary.
It was somber. It was proud. Eloquent in its poetry of historical context, moving in its personal parallel, it fell like grey silk on those present - dark yet uplifting, melancholy but hopeful.

It is this same type of mood 9/11 brings me. It is of course different in that I was alive when it happened, I remember distinctly, as does everyone else, where I was, what I was doing. I obviously don't recall the Exodus from Egypt.
Yet it stirs within me, and I would think within many others, that same sense of a personal narrative, a deep seated connection to the events and the people involved - something that we, as a nation and a people, all have in common. This is our tragedy, our story.
We look back upon it, with sorrow and reflection, but also with pride, with hope, with strength.

In the eleven years since that morning, much has changed in this world, and greatly due to our actions.
9/11 catapulted us into two wars that we are still waging, that have claimed the lives of thousands of US soldiers. Here at home, our economy has bent and nearly broken under the burden of bad decisions and corrupt leadership. Our government is horribly splintered and inefficient, stalling and suffocating progress.
In many ways, we are worse off now than we were then.
Yet we look back with that somber pride of overcoming, of finding strength and unity.

Have we? Are we more united, more strong? Or do you we just reserve these feelings of togetherness and progress for this day - this day different than all other days?

What has changed?
What have we gained from the experience as opposed to lost?
Osama Bin Laden is dead. Our relationship with Pakistan is more strained than ever as we continue to pummel them with drone strikes, arguably growing terrorist ranks by default.
We are still occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, one of which had nothing to do with these attacks.
We have spent ungodly amounts of money on these endeavors while our people struggle to get by. Ironically enough, several articles today discuss the plight of surviving 9/11 families and the work of non-profit organizations to raise money, countering the lack of federal support.
We live under the most inefficient Congress in history - an ever deepening abyss of left/right hate fueling an all but stalled engine, kicking back smoke on progress and political engagement.

So, really - what is new? What makes this different than a lip service tradition? Have we, as a nation gotten better because of this - as is suggested?

This morning at Ground Zero, the family members of those who died read the names of the deceased aloud to the din of New York and the rapid clicks of cameras.
Politicians were present but none spoke - marking the first anniversary where no politicians took to the podium.
Obama gave a speech remarking on the resilience of our nation and expressing his grief for the attacks.
I listened for a few minutes and then turned off my radio.

I just sat in silence, remembering the urgent knocking on our classroom door, the distressed teacher on the other side asking that everyone come to the auditorium for an announcement.
I remember looking at my father, a historian and a New Yorker, as he watched the news, quiet and solemn. I've never seen him cry - his generation has endured many national tragedies. This was my first. As a writer and a man of words, he had little to say. His eyes could fill a book as they reflected the repeating images on the screen.
That wasn't like Passover. That wasn't a look back - that was a first look, a first impression of terror and tragedy.

For months, it was a keystone of conversation, and then, as events do, it faded from the news, and gradually from our day-to-day.
It would not do otherwise - we have to move on, as people and as a nation.
But, as we move on - wasn't the point to take those heavy words from countless speeches with us? To implement the change, the strength, the unity?
As I sat in silence this morning, I let myself cry. Not just for the victims and their families.
But for the soldiers, the innocent civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. The homeless, poor and disenfranchised who suffer under this broken system of dis-unified corruption. The Americans who wanted strength and unity and got weakness and division instead. And in anger, in sorrow...

We are fully capable of progress. We are capable of being those people in the speeches, but we can't just be them for a day.

We can't just come together and remember, we have to come together and look forwards.

That would be a true honor to those victims, and to ourselves, as people, as Americans.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Go Metro

About four years ago, I sold my car. Since then, it's been all public transit, all the time. Well, except for those instances when you mooch a ride or treat yourself to a cab.
Unlike most other big cities in the world, LA is built on the assumption that you have a car, no, you need a car.
You don't see a lot of businessmen on the subway. You don't run into a lot of women in designer clothes on the bus.
For the most part, it's lower income or no income patrons.
Now, I don't care whether I share a bus ride with a trust fund philosopher or a blue collar high school drop out. I keep to myself regardless.
However, when push comes to shove, the state of our public transportation rests on who uses it and more importantly, who doesn't.

When New York's crime rate began to sink in the 1990's, a major catalyst was securing and cleaning up the subways. Locked turnstiles were put in, cops patrolled stations, new cars sans-graffiti and human excrement went into rotation.
If you've ever been to New York, you know everyone rides the subway. Armani suits on their way to Wall Street, Chanel bags on their way to SoHo, teachers, nannies, blue collar, white collar. If you have a car, you save it for the Hamptons. If you're moving around the city, you use public transit.
Here, if you have a car, you use it. If you can avoid public transit, you do.
It follows in a cyclical sense, that because there's not a staggering demand for it, public transit expands at a snail like pace, plodding along with superfluous time tables, short and inaccessible lines and little to no accountability for scheduling failures or security pitfalls.
And because of those shortcomings, the greater population clings to their cars like leaches on a bruise.
There was recently an article in LA-ist about a young woman's terrifying Metro experience. A man began yelling at her, threatening to kill her.
The article prompted a request for more stories like hers. I wrote in with a few but as is customary, I also added my personal spin to the issue at hand.
Fact one: Harassment on LA transit happens, verbally, physically and it is absolutely unacceptable.
Fact two: Due to the current state of LA transit, major changes are unlikely in the foreseeable future.

So, it follows from these two facts: be proactive and don't wait for change to happen.
This may sound like some kind of self help program, but really it's an honest approach to real life situations.
We should absolutely complain and make noise about the lack of safety on the Metro system.
However, we can not just point fingers and shout at scapegoats. We ourselves have to work at making ourselves and others safer.
I'm no caped crusader but if someone is getting harassed, I try to help.
If someone is harassing me, I try to deal with it in the most logical way possible. If that means getting off a couple of stops early and walking home, so be it.
If that means starting to sing to myself and talking to thin air so as to appear absolutely insane, I'm happy to try.
The woman in the article noted that she was reading a book and wearing a wedding ring, although she isn't married.
With all due respect, I've seen married women get hit on at fancy country clubs and upstanding networking events. No one gives a shit whether you're married or not.
In my experience, I have found that the best tools are the ones used in a balance.
Don't get on the train looking like a victim. Don't shy and shiver in a corner - it's too easy.
Don't fluff your feathers too much either. If you like like an arrogant little shit, someone is going to try to knock you down a few notches.
Be alert and confident but controlled and calm. Be reserved but strong. These aren't Confucian sayings - they're helpful suggestions.
Judge each situation by its surroundings and the elements at hand.
A crazy man once walked onto the train car and pushed me. I pushed back and stared him down, looking as crazy as I could.
Another time, a man came onto the train and told me to get the fuck off or he'd piss on me. You know what - I got off.

It's no person's fault if they are physically or verbally harassed on public transit. But that doesn't mean that you can't try to prepare and work against victimization.
Is it fucked up that this is how it is?
Will it change before you ride Metro again?
OK then, looks like we're just gonna have to work with what we've got right now while we work on legislatively pushing forwards.
The more we raise our voices on this issue, men and women, and the more proactive we are day-to-day, the greater chance we have of cutting these stories down.
Awareness up, harassment down. That, my friends, is a corny slogan. But, it works for me.

See you LA cats on the Metro.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sugar, spice and everything nice

Well, I'm no Democrat but I must say, they have had two Broadway smash nights.

Like "The Producers," they were all set up to fail - the Republicans laying out a red carpet of doom, soaked in rumors, banter and attacks. As CNN put it, "The GOP succeeded in lowering the bar so much that the only thing Democrats had to do Tuesday was look into the camera without drooling."

They didn't just look into the camera - they blue steeled it, and everyone watching.
Let's start with Tuesday...
It might be hard to argue with an empty chair, but it is impossible to argue with the ghost of Ted Kennedy.
Ted's nephew Joe introduced the Ted Kennedy video as an almost noble knight-like saga of passing the torch from one Democratic behemoth to a budding young senator "who embodied the change our country sorely needed."
The video went on to show footage from a Kennedy/Romney debate in 1994 where Romney claims to uphold a woman's right to abortion based on Roe v. Wade. Kennedy retorts with a well known present day complaint: that Romney's just "pandering for votes." He went on to say that he was pro-choice, his candidate, "multiple choice."
Granted, a debate from 1994 isn't exactly current events but as anyone holding or running for political office will tell you, a debate you had in 4th grade is just as 'up-for-grabs' as what you said yesterday.
And tying a memorial into the Republican debasing task at hand was a brilliant draw.
It put Romney's shortcomings in the harshest of light without dirtying any current players. It wrapped the whole accusatory game in a nostalgic haze that placed Democrats on a gentlemanly pedestal while further amplifying Romney's weak points - like a sugar coated dagger...

Tuesday wasn't all sequestered to sweet looks back. In fact, Strickland showed that the old can out-rock the new on this political stage.
Slightly reminiscent of a wily grandfather who says what he wants, Strickland accused Romney of just outright "lying" about Obama and turned the mirror on the out-of-touch high roller.
Centering much of his pointed poison on the economy, Strickland boomed, "Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport. It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands, and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps."
And as any grandfather, he threw one in for the kiddies: "if he [Romney] was Santa Claus, he'd fire the elves and liquidate the inventory."
And there you have it. The arena in Charlotte went nuts - it was just the kind of spice the Dems needed to avoid yawn-worthy, spineless rhetoric.

But the appearance of the night that everyone is talking about came from First Lady, Michelle Obama. Quotes from her speech last night cascaded over Facebook and Twitter, earning her more than just female brownie points. In fact, unlike Ann Romney, much of her speech was focused on the humble beginnings of her husband and how he won't give up on the American dream, "because he lived it."
She put Obama's life in sharp perspective, allowing people to relate to him as a person, something most Americans eat up. Even though I don't, I have to say, it was a great speech, and it seemed to come from the heart - something Romney's camp has a really hard time with.
Saying that Barack stays up late to read letters from struggling Americans, she painted a picture of Obama that people wanted to see, and she did so with grace and eloquence.
She did of course, have to mention the "women's vote" and did so with more personal anecdotes about Barack's relationship with his two daughters and his avid belief in protecting their rights, as well as all women's.

As for Wednesday, well, it was all about Bill. The two have a speckled history at best but last night it was all in for Bill and he rocked the house. I'm actually bummed that he can't ever run again. He has the air of confidence, almost arrogance, knowing how much power he still wields, but at the same time, a leader-like calm that draws people in, even with the thick Arkansas drawl.
He was entertaining but a fact-filled powerhouse, including stirring numbers on job growth since the 60s (that check out with fact checkers). As the BBC put it, "he excites Democrats, informs and attracts independents and undecideds, and infuriates Republicans."
Bill did what you'd think most campaigning politicians need to do: avoided the choir. He spoke over the heads of the already staunchly Democratic delegates and into the living rooms of America, explaining without patronizing, what the issues were and why Obama needed to take them on.

Today, media is saying, with this foundation, Obama needs to close out the night tonight with a strong, spirited speech and he will be "on the road to re-election."
It seems that game of golf really smoothed out the rough edges around Clinton and Obama's relationship history.
Some memorable quotes from Bill's speech:
"We focus on solving problems and seizing opportunities and not fighting all the time."
"Poverty, discrimination, and ignorance, restrict growth."
"Unfortunately the faction that dominates the Republican party ... they think the government is the enemy ... and compromise is weakness."
"We simply can't afford to give the reigns of government to someone who will double-down on trickle-down."

After these past two nights, viewers and delegates alike left with a sweet and savory helping of politics - a balance between the bitter left/right banter and the sweet glaze of entertainment coupled with looks back and nostalgic musings.

Again, I'm no Democrat, but if today goes the same way, Romney will need more than that one point jump to counter the swell from the DNC.
For Dems, it would be well worth a fist bump or two...


For people like me, well, I enjoy the show, but know, once the curtains close, it's more of the same, a tired two-faced game.
But don't let me rain on the parade - the confetti and sparkle will fade, in time - and down the line, maybe all of this sugar and spice - will be more than money can buy...