Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

The Crux of the Issue

I was watching last night’s episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and while he was interviewing Sheryl Crow and “An Inconvenient Truth” producer Laurie David about their ‘Stop Global Warming’ college tour, he made a comment that absolutely, perfectly illustrated what the real problem with the planet is. And it went like this:

If people tomorrow were told, Americans were told, that you can solve global warming if you just don’t use the remote to your television, what do you think they would say if they had to go back to getting their ass off the couch? Do you think they would solve global warming by throwing the remote in the garbage or do you think they would go, Aw, fuck it?

Like everything else nowadays, the important issues only seem to remain important to the general public as long as it isn’t too, well, inconvenient. The crux of the issue is, as Maher stated, that ultimately we aren’t willing to give up our creature comforts.

And really, how more right could he have been? If we could end world hunger by not ever having another latté from Starbucks, how many people would be willing to do that? Hell, if it were something like that, even I would give pause.

When it really boils down to it, saving the world is going to rely on us sacrificing certain things. But how can we do any of it when we can’t even do the trivial stuff—let alone the monumental stuff?

Deep down, we all want to be House.

Something occurred to me while watching an episode of House M.D. I think that the reason that this show is so popular is because deep down, everybody longs to be able to do what House does: we all would love to be able to speak our minds without thought as to what the reaction would be. Or perhaps with that in mind and yet not caring.

This isn’t much of a stretch to figure out, really. It’s quite obvious that this is why the character of House is so appealing. It’s not his looks or his limp that does it (well, maybe, for a select few), and it’s not his caustic personality. It’s simply that he knows he doesn’t have to worry about whether people are going to be offended by what he says, and while I personally think that the character acts the way he does to intentionally get those reactions out of people, the end result is the same: always to the point and intensely direct.

Part of me thinks that the world would be better off if we were all a little more like House. We would always speak our minds and be direct, and nobody would have to read into subtext anymore. But the other part of me knows that this is Real Life and that people in Real Life are wimps and have skins that are far too thin. I think that the funny thing about it is the fact that even if people were being truly direct, other people would still try to read between the lines to see what they really meant.

But is diplomacy really any better? What benefit is there in delicately tailoring every word so as to remain PC at all times? I’m reminded of George Carlin’s bit called “Euphemisms,” in which he makes a comment about how the direct and up-front title “shell shock” turned into the pansy-ass PC illness called “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” All of the emotion gets taken out of it:

There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to it’s absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either *click* snapped or is about to snap. In the first world war, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was seventy years ago.

Then a whole generation went by and the second world war came along and very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, were up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course, came the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll bet you if we’d have still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.

Probably not a huge surprise here, but I think he’s right. At what point do we stop being direct in order to sound, well, nicer? And isn’t it not okay that we do this?

Maybe we don’t all need to be like House, but maybe a step or two in that direction wouldn’t be so bad, either.

The virtue of independent thinking

In the last week, two related dates caught my attention (thanks to the Wired RSS feed) that made me think a bit. The first was that on February 13, 1633, Galileo arrived in Rome to face his trial for heresy, for his statements that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around.

The second happened today, via the same feed: It’s Copernicus’ birthday today. The very man whom Galileo was defending in that trial, and his birthday falls in the same week. I found that to be fairly interesting, for some reason.

That, coupled with a link that a friend posted today about a book on Harry Potter for Christians, started getting me thinking about self-reliant thinking.

As in, there seems to be absolutely none of it going on nowadays.

We’re a race of beings with the capacity for the most incredible feats of intelligence, yet we still cling to the age-old instincts that informed our decisions back before we could even be called humans. We routinely fall back to herd mentality, especially when the comfortable things in our lives become threatened. Independence is a virtue best left to the animals that fall behind during the chase. It’s definitely a defense mechanism, but it runs completely counter to the ideals of being human.

Thinking about that Harry Potter book, I can’t help but want to scream at the top of my lungs: If you aren’t sure about whether your children should read the Harry Potter novels, don’t buy a book that tells you whether you should or not. READ THE HARRY POTTER NOVELS YOURSELF AND MAKE YOUR DECISION THAT WAY.

Why do we constantly have to rely on others’ opinions when we can form our own perfectly well?

Are we headed for another Tower of Babel?

I fear that the human species is headed for its untimely end.

We, as a species, have some serious delusions of grandeur. I mean, for a long time we have believed that we have some kind of entitlement to the planet, that we can do whatever we want. We poison our air, destroy our forests, kill off entire species, and all this without any regard to what it might do in the long run. I think that ultimately, the real source is that we have just lost all humility.

I’m not usually so philosophical, but lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the things that have happened to the human race due to this lack of humility. The movie Titanic has been on HBO a lot lately, and that’s what primarily got me thinking about all of this. Here is a perfect example of hubris run amok: We just had to build the largest and most luxurious ship on the planet. We just had to load it with every amenity available to the wealthy that would be strolling its decks—except for the one that it really needed, in the end: lifeboats. We just had to get it into New York harbor ahead of schedule by pushing its engines to unsafe speeds, and on a night when there was no wind and therefore no waves, and therefore no way to see icebergs by the water crashing up against them.

It’s prophetic, in a way. On the evening of April 14, 1912, the whole of the human race suffered a gigantic blow to its ego. Not only did we overreach, we did so with such callous disregard for what might go wrong. And as a result, we were smacked down hard.

Are you familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel? It comes from the Bible, and it goes something like this: (Genesis 11:1-9) After the Great Flood (you know, Noah and the ark, all that good stuff), the descendants of those on the ark were all from the same tribe. Because of this, they all spoke the same language and were easily able to communicate and cooperate with each other. They decided that it would be best if they built a great city for all of them to live in; and they would build a great tower to the heavens. This way, they could all be together in one place and not scattered around the world.

But God saw them building this great tower and said to Himself, “Man, if they can accomplish this, I don’t think there’s anything that they can’t do,” and He didn’t like that one bit. (Remember, kids, this is the Old Testament God. Old Testament God was a real prick.) After all, if they could do anything, they might be able to rival His power someday. So what did God do to combat this? He made them all speak different languages and He scattered them all over the earth so they couldn’t build their city. The city was named Babel because of the differing speech. (“Babel” is similar in sound to the Hebrew verb balal, which means “to confuse or confound” and is one of the roots of the word babble as in “to babble on” or speak gibberish.) And in this way was God able to win out.

So yeah, that whole story is really just a metaphor for how our pride and hubris can be our own downfall. And yet I don’t think people pay much attention to it or its message. Not that I think that everybody needs to be a Biblical scholar or believe what it says, but I don’t think that anybody can argue with me that the message is a pretty apt one.

I’ve been thinking about this story quite a lot in the last couple years as I read of the various scientific achievements we’ve made or as I see the movies that have been released. The Day After Tomorrow addressed this, in a more direct sense of “we’re ruining the environment” and not so much in the generic “we need to pay attention to what our actions do” sense, but it was there nonetheless. But for the most part, we don’t even think about it. I’ve read stories over the past few years about how scientists want to be able to recreate the way the universe looked in the moments just after the Big Bang. You know, I’m no astrophysicist or anything, but I’m really not comfortable with making it happen again. I like the Earth right where it is and I’d rather not start recreating an entire universe just so we can know what it looked like. But that’s just me.

So where am I going with all of this? I guess what I’m trying to say is, does it feel to anybody else like we’re about due for another one of these things? Is the human race headed for another cosmic smackdown from the Almighty? It’s been a while since we’ve had one. Some might argue that 9/11 was one, but I can’t really agree with that theory, given that it was based more on the views of a bunch of crazies and less directly related to our own conceit as a species.

I suppose it’s going to be a race against time to see whether we can get our own act together before we destroy ourselves. I do have a small degree of faith that we can do it, but in truth I’m more worried that we’ll end up deploying our nuclear arsenals and destroying ourselves that way before God can ever get the chance to do it. I guess in some way that counts, right?

Customer Service is going to hell.

What is it about customer service nowadays?

I went to McDonald’s for dinner tonight, because I just couldn’t bring myself to put the chicken I’d thawed out into the oven. This was, without a doubt, the worst trip to McDonald’s I’ve ever made.

For starters, the line was ridiculously long at the Drive-Thru. It was nine at night; there was no earthly reason they should be backed up at that time. Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence at this particular McDonald’s. It says to me that the management can’t seem to run a tight enough ship that they have enough of what they need for whatever people do show up at that time. This is the first sign that things aren’t as they should be.

The second is when I actually place my order. I pull up to the order-placing-thingie (speaker?) and despite my already-long wait, the guy running the register said something along the lines of “Welcome to McDonald’s, you’re going to have to wait a minute.” I am not kidding. Let’s ignore the fact that it was busy for a second and look at what it was that he said. First, while I’m not entirely sure that was exactly what he said, that was the gist of what he said; what’s more, it was said in a way that made it sound like I was inconveniencing him. I mean, the gall of me to want to order food.

Now, let’s address the “we’re busy” issue: When I worked at McDonald’s (all of six months, but this actually demonstrates how easy this is), I could easily take a customer’s money and place another order at the same time. What’s so hard about it? This guy was making it plainly obvious that he couldn’t do both separately, let alone simultaneously.

When he finally got to me, I began to place my order, and he interrupted me. If he had let me finish speaking, he would have known what else I wanted, but no; he decided it was more important to get the question out.

Fast forward a few minutes, when I finally pull up to the window. Yes, it really took that long. The guy wasn’t at the window any longer, and I’m starting to wonder if that ended up being a good thing or a bad thing. In his place was a girl who made it blatantly apparent that I was severely annoying her by being there. There was no greeting, no smile (I’ll get to the smiles in a little bit), and what’s more, she had no idea which order I had made. I had to tell her what my order was—again. This was apparently because she had to double-check to make sure that nobody had screwed up and charged somebody for the wrong order.

She didn’t give me a total or anything; she just held out her hand, as if to say, “Well, it’s not going to pay for itself.” I handed her my money, not even certain whether I’d get appropriate change back. Luckily, I did, and she handed me my order. I asked for some barbecue sauce for my chicken nuggets, and she replied simply with “We don’t have any of that,” as if I’d asked the stupidest question in the world.

Well, last time I checked, barbecue sauce is something that’s offered with nuggets. Let’s ignore the fact that she’s supposed to ask if I want any sauce to go with my nuggets. But “We don’t have any of that”? What the hell? To clarify, I asked if they were out of barbecue sauce, and with another semi-exasperated look, she said yes, that they were out. Boy, wouldn’t it have been easier if she’d merely said that they were out?

Then, to pour salt in the wound, she merely turned away from me. Not satisfied with that, I extended a “Have a nice night” to her and drove off.

Let’s examine this step by step.

First: The mismanagement in terms of keeping proper amounts of product for people to be served in a decent amount of time. From the moment I drove up to the joint until I left, about fifteen minutes passed. Fast food? I think not. If this was an isolated incident, I could understand that maybe they just weren’t ready for a rush of customers, but this is a regular occurrence with this particular store.

Second: Being so curtly told that I was going to have to wait. Being busy is no excuse to act this way to a customer.

Third: The dismissive attitude with which I was treated by the girl at the window.

What has happened to customer service in this society? In every situation where I worked to serve other people, I’ve always made sure that the customer felt as if they were the only person in the world and that I was there just to help them. I smiled. Smiling can go a long way toward disarming a potentially annoyed customer. In all honesty, I can’t think of a single instance of buying fast food in the last, oh, year or so where the person actually smiled for me. If we couldn’t help a customer (as in, for example, being out of a particular product), I would politely explain how sorry I was that we weren’t able to fulfill their request, and I almost always offered a suggestion for what we could do in its place. Again, something I haven’t seen much, if at all, in recent memory.

When did working in service positions become an entitlement issue? It’s almost as if these people seem to think that I owe them something because they’re there to help me. No. I don’t owe them anything, because I am the one who is paying for the service.

We need to start realizing that a lack of customer service contributes directly to a lack of interest in the product. When people feel good after working with us, they’re more likely to return. A little more pleasantry and a little less expectation from those we serve might just make us all feel a little better. It’s a thought worth having.

What’s the real importance?

Sometimes, you find your eyes opened up by the strangest things.

A couple days ago, I found out that my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The news hit me like a freight train; I immediately began to think about all of the time I had spent with this wonderful woman and how that would probably never be the same again. Because Alzheimer’s is an incurable disease, I can be pretty sure that the next several years will be difficult, full of having to watch someone I love slowly retreat into a world of which I can only imagine.

All of this got me to thinking. Though I am aware that there isn’t much cause for hope right now, it’s not completely a lost cause. My grandmother is joining a clinical trial of a new drug, and while it’s likely that this isn’t going to be anything revolutionary, the truth can never really be known; there may be a cure right around the corner. If it weren’t for the miracle of medical breakthroughs through research, there would be no cure for polio, smallpox, measles, or influenza.

Which brings me to the greater topic at hand. The public at large claims that things like medical research and education are two of the most important things to its well being. I’m sure you’ve heard every politician talk about how important our youth is, and about how vital the educational system is to the future of our country and our world. And let’s face it: the public just eats that up. Everybody is concerned with education—during an election year. But when it actually comes time to vote for your district’s school budgets, all of a sudden that well of interest dries up. It never fails: nobody minds being political when it’s not their pocket that has to be dug into.

I find, not so surprisingly, that the same holds true for medical research. I have no doubts that if the same enthusiasm was put into researching diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and HIV/AIDS, we would have seen far more impressive results by now. AIDS has been around for more than twenty years now, and we seem to be no closer to finding a cure than when we started. Let’s remember, folks, that this is a disease that has affected us more than any disease in history.

Because drug companies are private organizations whose main drive is, like any other private corporation, to drive up their profits, I have to ask myself how hard they’re really working for the cure of diseases like this. The amount of money spent on drugs like AZT and the other HIV cocktails is astronomical. The reason these drugs cost so much is that the research and development costs are so high, so the companies say. So I have to ask the question: how much more can a company make on the cost of a drug if their research and development phase lasts twice as long as it should? How long can they hold the prices up before they can no longer use “research and development” as a crutch for the high prices?

But above all, I have to ask if it’s really in a company’s best interest to find a cure for these diseases. After all, if they can make a ton of money by treating the so-called “incurable” diseases, why would they want to prevent that revenue from flowing in by releasing a drug that could cure the disease right out?

I’m obviously not saying that the drug manufacturers are deliberately trying to make more money by prolonging the suffering of their customers; such practices are so far below the decency of any human being that I couldn’t even imagine a company doing this. But as much as I approve of the idea of capitalism, I find myself questioning the true motivations behind companies like these. Wouldn’t we be far better off by subsidizing the costs of research and development by investing that which is of interest to all of us—the taxpayers’ monies—and would facilitate more rapid and driven motivation? The American government certainly could afford to earmark a not-so-small amount by taking some money away from other sources, like, I don’t know, the $87 billion reserved for rebuilding Iraq?

Or how about our over-inflated military spending budget? I once read in a teacher’s office a bumper sticker that said, “It will be a great day when our schools have all the teachers they need and the government will have to hold a bake sale to raise money for a fighter jet.” While I agree with the notion that it’s obviously absurd to think that way, it does raise an important point. After all, what’s the point of defending a country when the country has no valuable assets to defend? What are we if we can’t produce artists and philosophers, musicians and mathematicians? Or physicists? Doctors?

Maybe if we all start to think about what’s really important in our lives, we can start to focus on improving our way of life by doing what’s really possible, instead of by reinforcing a status quo. It’s a thought worth having.

Pride and Prejudice, Rights and Responsibilities

Please forgive the fact that I’m once again using television as my venue for this week’s topic, but until I can come up with some ideas to work with, I have to go on inspiration.

Again, I was watching “Boston Public” tonight and I was struck by the show’s theme. It was a theme that I have taken very seriously over the last two years, and it provided me with some new insight into the topic. One thing that this show is very good at is addressing current affairs and real-life situations, and this week’s topic was anti-Americanism. It turns out that one of the school’s Social Studies classes was holding a mock U.N. summit and discussing current events—namely, the United States’ war with Iraq.

One of the students, who was at the time representing the country of Canada, expressed his distate with the U.S.’s policies regarding the war, and of its suspicious beginnings. The student claimed that the war on terror was inspired by the events of September 11th, which Iraq had nothing to do with, which is true, as far as any of us knows. He exclaimed that the real reason for the war had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and instead had more to do with the fact that the U.S. couldn’t find Osama bin Laden and instead focused on the leader that it could go after—Saddam.

A couple of the other students—ironically, those representing the United States and Germany—felt that the student agreed with his own argument a little too much, and a fight broke out. After the teacher insisted that she would have order in her classroom and the two students accepted this, they cornered the student in a bathroom and beat him until he lay in a pool of blood on the floor.

What came next was a barrage of rhetoric and argument the likes of which I have never personally seen in a classroom or a school, although I can only wish that I had seen something of its like while I was in high school. The school district insisted that the “inflammatory” debate be toned down or removed from the classroom, and the parents of the district agreed with its decision. The teacher involved felt that there was no way she could teach if she was forced to censor herself and her students’ right to political free speech—which, by the way, is one of the few rights that is absolutely granted to a student in a high school—and I must say that I completely agree with her.

Too many people in this country have a problem with those who practice their own brand of Free Speech. I suppose that it’s the nature of a group mentality: if you disagree with the majority’s opinion, you are ostracized for it. I saw it when I was in school—those who dressed differently or expressed alternative points of view were deemed as nerds or freaks—and I see it today in the general public’s opinion of those who go against the grain. As was mentioned in the show, people lose their jobs over the fact that they express so-called anti-American opinions. Commentator and talk-show host Bill Maher immediately springs to mind, when he was forced out of his ABC show, ironically called “Politically Incorrect,” for saying that no matter how you sliced it, staying in the plane while it goes into the side of a building is courageous, and that lobbing bombs from afar has no courage in it whatsoever.

What has this country come to? Where do we get the idea that some ideas are better than others? At what point does it become okay to force a majority opinion on others simply for the reason that it is the majority opinion? This country was founded specifically on the grounds that we should be—and are—free to express ourselves despite the fact that others may disagree with that opinion. We feel that rights are some kind of thing granted to us because of who and what we are, but we fail to see the fact that with those rights come responsibilities. In the matter of Free Speech, the responsibility that comes with the right is that we all have to ensure that others have the right to express themselves as well.

After all, where do we draw the line? When I was in college, I was a member of the student newspaper, and we came under heavy fire from the school community, as well as the administration of the paper, for running a paid advertisement in which the advertiser wrote a rather incendiary political statement claiming that the Holocaust had never happened. Is he right? Probably not; we all know that in the 1940’s, millions of Jews disappeared from the face of the planet, so it’s safe to say that the man is incorrect in his belief. But does that give him any less a right to express that opinion? No, it doesn’t, and that is why we decided to print his ad. Because he had a right to make his voice heard in a public forum.

People are so interested in preserving their rights, but it seems to me that more and more they are unwilling to make any effort whatsoever to ensure that those rights are preserved for us and for posterity. We are a society of convenience, and as a result of this, we prefer that we give up some of those rights in the interest of that convenience. We allow our rights to be slowly chipped away in the hopes that we’ll be safe a little bit longer. With efforts on the part of our government to help curtail terrorist activity, we are reaching ever closer to the insidious “Thought Crime” which was outlined in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” We live in a world of the Patriot Act and of a herd mentality, and together those are far more dangerous than one could ever imagine. People are far more intent to be sheep and follow the crowd—something that has been instilled in them since they were young—and in a world like this I applaud those who strive to stand up and say that they won’t tolerate it anymore.

Today, while listening to the news in my car on the way home from work, I heard that California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger may or may not have said more than two decades ago that he admired Adolf Hitler’s ability to speak well in public, and for his rise to power despite his beginnings as a “little man with almost no formal education.” The news story then went on to detail opinions of certain people who responded to the news tidbit by saying things like “I wouldn’t want a person like that as my governor.” Say what you will, but those are things about Hitler that were admirable qualities. Nobody will deny that Hitler had many things wrong with him, but his leadership qualities were hardly part of that horrendous side. He was a very charismatic man who believed in what he was doing and got others to believe in that as well. That, no matter how you put it, is an admirable quality, whether it’s in a saint or a dictator. I almost feel bad for Schwarzenegger because he was politically forced to retract the statement, regardless of whether he said it or not.

Perhaps if we all respect the opinions of others and help each other to face the responsibilities that come with the rights we all accept as gospel, we’ll be able to move on into a country that once again stands for true freedom and respect for all. It’s a thought worth having.

A Crisis of Faith

In true geek style, I spent my Friday evening where all geeks do—at home—and watched the new season premieres of a couple shows I thought would be good. The first was a new show, called “Joan of Arcadia.” The other was a show that I try not to miss, although with its move to Friday evenings at nine, it’s going to be tough not to miss it at least a couple times this season: “Boston Public.”

Though I was hardly expecting it because the shows are on two different networks and generally cover different topics, the shows were related tonight. Both were season premieres, and interestingly enough, both covered the topic of God.

This is hardly surprising for “Joan of Arcadia,” given the fact that the entire series is based on the premise that a teenaged girl is visited by God, who somehow manages to convince her that He really is the Almighty and that He wants her to “do some errands” for Him. Even the show’s title is punning on the idea. I suppose that the topic of God is rather, well, unavoidable in a story like that.

But what surprised me was “Boston Public” tonight. Part of its story was that it involved a young man who got electrocuted by a malfunctioning slide projector—believable, I know—and came out afterward thinking he was Jesus.

Both are interesting premises. But what really got me thinking was the reaction that both shows took to the “news,” so to speak. Obviously, if you were a teenaged girl and some guy walked up to you one day and told you he was God, you might be a little skeptical. And if some kid came out the other end of an accident thinking he was the Messiah, you might wonder whether the electrical current fried his cerebellum a little bit.

But in the first instance, it really is God. At least, that’s the way the show handles it. There’s no doubting on our end, no wondering if he’s really lying. It really is God, and He really does want to get something out of Joan. With the other, there’s obviously the fact that we know that this student is really a person who, up until the time he was shocked, did not believe he was divine. But afterward, his actions were, well, Christlike. He didn’t appear to have any ulterior motives in behaving the way he did; he just acted like it was in his nature to help people.

What got me thinking, and ultimately made me want to write this, was how the people involved dealt with the situations. And it made me realize that if something like that happened in real life, I didn’t know how we as a world would react.

After all, a vast majority of the planet’s population believes in God. And a vast majority of those people believe in Jesus. So why is it so hard to believe that God would set foot on the planet in the guise of an ordinary person, or that a person believed he was the Son of God?

I mean, what if the person really was God? You obviously have no way of knowing that it’s not, so how can you be so sure? We, as a world, are so dead-set on believing that God is some third party who doesn’t interfere that we tend to think that it’s impossible that God would actually deign to talk to one of us directly. As I once read: “When we talk to God, it’s called prayer. So why is it that when God talks to us, it’s called schizophrenia?” We’re so quick to judge anybody who says something as audacious as “God spoke to me today” that we won’t even allow ourselves to think about the larger message involved. But many of us continue to go about our supposedly religious lives assuming that God is out there, watching over us.

So where do we draw the line? I am what I would consider to be a spiritual person. I believe in God. I have some problems with organized religion, so I don’t go to church very often, but I still think I have a pretty close relationship to God. So I have to ask myself: How would I react if somebody walked up to me, knowing everything about my life, and claimed to be God? Would I be skeptical and brush them off, or would I try to open my eyes a bit?

Maybe we all need to take a step back and think about the implications of a situation like this. Or maybe, if we all treated the person next to us as if he was God, we’d all be a little more decent to each other. It’s a thought worth having.

The Rise and Fall of Good Television™

Image from Sports Night
An image from the now lost-forever Sports Night, created by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote such gems as A Few Good Men and is the creator of The West Wing.

Is it just me? Or is it actually that Good Television™ is falling by the wayside?

I was lucky enough to find the entire Sports Night series on DVD at Best Buy a few weeks ago, and since then, I’ve been watching a few episodes here and there. I watched almost the entire first disc of the six-disc collection (eight episodes—four hours of material minus eight minutes per half-hour show for the commercials that aren’t there anymore) in the first sitting. This show was that good. And after having to rip myself away from the television tonight after watching another three excellent episodes that I will probably watch many more times before I get sick of them, I came to the realization that there are very few shows that are on television anymore that do that for me.

I mean, yes, you have your West Wings and your 24s (interestingly enough, neither of which have I ever seen, which makes me feel a little sheepish), and your E.R.s and the like, but other than those powerhouse dramas, what’s really out there?

I’ve seen several shows that I thought had tremendous promise get thrown to the dogs because, I would assume, the public doesn’t seem to have the attention span—or the intelligence—to deal with them. Take, for example, the new Fox series Girls Club, which only lasted TWO episodes. It was an extremely well written show that I thought had a great deal of promise; it was witty, charming, and had an interesting premise (three young women in a law firm learning how to deal with life in the real world). It was a real show with real issues and it showed us a side of life in today’s world that you just plain don’t see in other television shows. It was funny and dramatic at the same time.

Did I mention that this show only lasted for two episodes?

Apparently it didn’t perform well enough in its first two runs, so in the tradition of the truly corporate world, it was tossed by Fox for not having an immediate draw. What was put in its time slot, you may be asking? Well, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was replaced by some very intelligent programming: a slew of America’s Funniest… programs.

I’m not sure which I can stand less: the fact that Fox believed that these ridiculously idiotic comedy shows would work better in such a wonderful timeslot (Mondays at 9:00), or that the fact of the matter is that they probably do score better.

What is this world coming to? Is the truly original and deep programming just doomed to lead a short-lived experience where it lasts for one, maybe two seasons and is then replaced for the next thing to come along? Are we really going to continue to get our Friends and Will & Graces with no replacements for our Boston Publics and Buffys? Will we be stuck with a never-ending stream of Bachelor ripoffs and the newest craze in reality programming? It continually worries me that in today’s attention-deficit-disorder world with our declining interest in quality at the expense of convenience and instant gratification, we will be stuck with nothing but drivel.

Something tells me that in the future, there will be nothing but sitcoms and Survivor spinoffs on television. And that, friends, is the day that I cancel my cable subscription.

But maybe by then, all the good shows will be out on DVD, and I can watch them at my own leisure, and all with those eight little minutes of commercials conveniently missing.

Words may just be words… But sometimes not.

In the English language, there are very few words that people universally believe are controversial. Yes, there are curse words, but even today those words are used in a much more relaxed context than they used to be. There are various insults and slanderous comments, but those really don’t have much to do with the words themselves; it’s more about how they’re used, and what sentiment there is behind the words themselves. But racial slurs are almost universally accepted as horrible words because of the meaning they hold behind them, the history that they have had, and the fact that there is almost no way to treat them as normal words.

There is one word, however, that rises above the rest. One word, above all, can be seen as the worst word that can be said. And the worst thing about it is that it’s almost universally believed to be wrong only on one side of the racial line: the white side.

Say it with me, folks: “nigger.”

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Collegiate Dictionary, “nigger” has a long and famous history, and has been used in its most classic form in works of literature by the great Mark Twain and incomparable Charles Dickens, and while it is a word that has long been associated with bigotry and racism, it no longer remains so, or at least not in Black America.

But why has this bastardization of the word “Negro” become such a powerfully-used word? Why has it managed to take the hearts of so many people in the world? Why is it that a word that is so viewed as being wrong considered acceptable—even a proud word—in certain racial circles?

The answers to such questions, unfortunately, may never truly be answered. One thing is for sure, and that is that if the word was never uttered again, by any tongue—black or white—it would not be missed, not one bit. Many people argue that, regardless of its history, it needs to be removed from our mouths and our thoughts—forever.

How should nigger be defined? Is it a part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate such powerful reactions? Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook? Am I wrongfully offending the sensibilities of readers right now by spelling out nigger instead of using a euphemism such as N-word? Should blacks be able to use nigger in ways forbidden to others? Should the law view nigger as a provocation that reduces the culpability of a person who responds to it violently? Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be ousted from his or her job for saying “nigger”? What methods are useful for depriving nigger of destructiveness? . . . To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life.

– Randall Kennedy, in an excerpt of the opening paragraph of his book Nigger, Chapter One

Should it be? The answer to that question is much more difficult to obtain, and even harder to rationalize.

The word “nigger” has long been a word used to belittle and oppress people of color. It has a nasty history—though its original use was not, as many people, a derogatory term—and many people would prefer to see it remaining as history and nothing more. I might be inclined to agree with them, if it weren’t for the alternate meanings the word has picked up in the last few decades.

While it is true that “nigger” is now and will always be a term associated with a long history of bigotry and racism, it is being taken back. Blacks today use the word with affection, even power, and feel that the word is something that belongs to them and will forever remain theirs. It has been used by activists in the Negro movement to help foster brotherhood and to help remove some of the sting of hatred that has accompanied the word throughout its history. It has been and is now used as a term of endearment for other black people (mainly by men, though not entirely), but in today’s context is often spelled differently—by using “nigga” instead of “nigger.” Many black people are fine with the usage of this word, and indeed use it frequently. But one thing about even this usage remains constant: it is a racially-stratified word.

It used to be that whites used it to refer to blacks. Now it seems that blacks use it to refer to blacks, and that is okay to them. But for a white person to use the term, even in affection or endearment, is wrong, at least in the eyes of most black people.

A recent episode of the Fox television drama “Boston Public” addressed this very topic-in fact, it was what spurred me to write this piece-and asked many of the same questions that I bring up here. But one of the main underlying themes of the show is that it was inappropriate for a high school teacher—a white high school teacher at that—to be educating his students about the usage of such a word. Faculty felt that the teacher was overstepping his bounds in talking to his students about it, and the principal—a black man—threatened to fire this teacher over his unwillingness to give the topic up because it was something with which his students were all interested.

The overwhelming sentiment regarding the word in the classroom was that it was okay for blacks to use it but not whites, but little was cited as a reason for this opinion. The best the students could come up with is that regardless of how a white person acted toward blacks, it was always going to be viewed as a negative word and as a slur-despite the fact that they felt that Chris Rock’s usage of the word was actually quite funny, they felt that had he been white and using it, it would have been inappropriate.

One of the strongest moments in the episode was brought in by the teacher, who had found a book written by Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, appropriately titled Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. This man, a black man, has worked hard to dispel misunderstandings over the word and its history, and addresses many different facets of it. I have not been able to obtain a copy of this book as of this writing, but you can be assured that when I do get to read it I will be writing a follow-up.

It gave the students a means to combat their teacher’s questions with ideas they could work with, such as how the word came into being, and how the word was used in modern times to take away the hurt it had caused from use out of white mouths. It made me see that—despite the fact that it is still a dirty word to me—it can be used with affection and understood.

However, being a person of mixed black/white heritage myself, I can’t allow myself to believe that such a word will ever come into positive light. It is a word that I have seen cause much hatred, and for that I will never reconcile myself to it. It is a word that continually reminds me of the history of my ancestors, and is a word reminding me that despite the minimal amount of Negro blood running through my veins, if I had been born two hundred years ago, I would be a slave because of such a word and the people who used it. It is a word that was used against my mother when she started dating my father, a white man. It is a word that will never be right with me, and I feel it is a slur regardless of whom it is used by or how it is meant.

Why can’t we find a new word to enshrine brotherhood in it? Isn’t there something that can be created that has nothing but positivity to it? We as humans have the potential for so much, and yet we find ways to create differences in ourselves that aren’t really there. What a shame.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963
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