Thursday, October 21, 2010

All the News That’s Fit to Print, Broadcast, Televise, Stream!

I remember vividly the day President Kennedy got shot.  In addition to farming, my dad was a sawyer.  I was riding with him in the big dump truck to deliver a load of wood slabs to a farmer down the road and across the river.  We heard the news on the radio, and a charge of electricity went through me.  Even though Canadian, we were very familiar with American politics and had a lot of love and respect for Kennedy.  It was a sad day.
I remember in January 1986 watching on cable television the Challenger liftoff with a civilian teacher on board.  The flight controllers narrated the ascent with monotone professionalism.  Flights to outer space had become almost routine—and then the explosion, followed by a classic understatement:  There has been obviously a major malfunction.  I watched the explosion as it was replayed over and over and over again, glued to my TV, weeping with much of the country.
In the early 90s, shortly after we had begun homeschooling, we decided to cancel cable so as to be more intentional about our television viewing.  I primarily got my news from the newspaper and NPR radio.  At times, the programming was so far left on NPR as to be clinging to the left edge with bloody fingernails; and when I got mad enough, I would forsake them for KNX 1070 news radio.  But when terrorists struck the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and attempted to strike the White House, once again I was glued to NPR for updated coverage and analysis.  By then we also had computer, so the images and live footage of bodies jumping hand in hand and ghostly faces, covered with ash, images of massive destruction and a smoke-filled New York skyline were imprinted on my brain as I sat hour after hour before the screen, searching for updates.  
Today, I scan the newspaper for stories or opinions I want to read.  I pick and choose what interests me, both national and local.  The only time I touch the sports section is if my kids are there or if they’ve buried the comics inside.  When in the car, I listen to KNX news radio or KRLA talk radio.  In order to not be unduly indoctrinated one way or the other, I also listen to KCRW / NPR radio in the car and on my kitchen radio.  I especially like debate format shows, like Left, Right, and Center that pit the left against the right. Though the moderator is more left than center, overall both sides can present their views and pick apart the weaknesses in the others’ position.  The show actually should be titled Left, Really Left, Right, and Way Out There! 
And again, the Internet has become a wealth of sources to mine, some good, some bad.  I typically pick well-known sources, like Fox, CBS, and Yahoo, and shy away from the personal websites where everyone has an opinion.  In doing a search to remind myself of the date of the Challenger disaster, I found a home video that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt an alien spaceship right beside the contrail and debris.  I think I missed that first time round. 
In all venues, there is bound to be some hype.  And as long as there are “people” reading and analyzing the news stories, there will be bias and misinformation.  The trick then is to not shut off your brain.  When I research a product I want to buy, I don’t believe everything I’m told.  Mmm:   Amway, Jafra, Mary Kay, Macys, Penneys, Avon, store brand.  Every product developer and seller is in the business of getting me to buy their product, and they will say and present in such a way that a sale is the bottom line.  It’s not bad—I just know that; so I use discernment in finding the right product for me at the price I want to pay.  Similarly, when shopping for news sources, I seek to discern whether what I am hearing and / or seeing is reliable and what bias, worldview, or ulterior motive might be mixed in with the bare facts.  Getting information and insight from various sources is a better way to ensure that I am not being propagandized. 
I prefer the news be boring, giving me the option as to whether I want to tune in or not.  But knowing that our world is complex—sometimes violent and sometimes inspiring, sometimes horrid and sometimes fabulous—those life-changing moments will come when I will want to know more.  As it stands now, I have a plethora of venues to choose from. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mahoney Baloney and Other Hate Crimes

I never saw an African American person in the flesh until I was a teenager.  I was a camp counselor and one of my charges was a little black girl.  I found myself torn between trying not to be prejudicial one way or the other.  But I didn’t know how to feel, how to be.  Up to that point, I had only seen African Americans on television or saw them in pictures in a more patronizing way as poor and distant objects of missionary efforts.
It wasn’t that our farming community was racially segregated.  It was just the way of things.  There were Dutch, German, and smatterings of a few other European nationalities, but mostly Irish and English.  I had things in my life that held absolutely no racial meaning for me, but now I wince to think of them, and my children tell all their friends (loving to make me squirm) that their mom called filbert nuts nigger toes and played a dodge ball kind of game, yelling, “Hit the nigger, get a cigar!”  I didn’t even know what “nigger” referred to.  It was only a child’s game, like hopscotch or French and English.  In my last year of high school, a husband and wife teacher team were hired at my school.  I never had either of them for a class, but I would see them in the halls.  I wanted to feel neutral and accepting, but I didn’t know how to feel.
When I went to college in the States, there were many more black students, and I started acclimating more to racially mixed environments; but when a black student asked me out, I was thrown into conflict again.  What did I really think and feel.  I struggled with being patronizing in an attempt to prove I wasn’t prejudiced.  Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to say, “No, I don’t want to go out with you because I don’t like your personality, and you act like a jerk!”  With my history and exposure, I did not have a chip in my brain that made sense of the racial tension and prejudice in the world.
As Lakoff says, pertaining to the intensity some groups feel toward hate speech, they “just don’t get it.”  I didn’t get it for a long time because of ignorance and lack of exposure; the idea of hate speech was not even on my radar.  My closest idea of hate speech was probably when a classmate in elementary school stole my paper hat that named the local Conservative running for office.  His name was Mahoney.  My mate, running through the school yard with my hat, yelling, “Mahoney Baloney, Mahoney Baloney!” put me in tears.  I think the tendency today is similar to that experience.  It was a long time ago.  The country was young.  Let’s just all get over it and move on.  Why be so sensitive?
The legacy of slavery in the formation of this country and in her successful economy, the betrayal and decimation of the Amerindian population, the theft of much of the Southwest from Mexico in the name of Manifest Destiny is not something to get over as easily as a child’s name-calling and teasing.  Some call the founding of this nation Christian, but when exactly did all the founders think and act explicitly as Christ-followers?  Was this before or after slavery?  Though the descendents of the perpetrators cannot be held responsible for crimes and injustices they did not commit, we can all seek to have a better understanding of the violation of personhood these crimes have inflicted.   Public national apologies become more political rhetoric than anything, but if individuals seek to walk in humility, casting aside the arrogance that the past is now meaningless, and if we truly seek to speak of others in the same respectful way that we would like to be spoken of, we will have moved a long way toward racial reconciliation. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran in Palmdale

The American flag burned outside the gates of the embassy as irate Iranians screamed, “Death to America!”  Announcing to the world their hatred of all things Western, crowds broiled around the media cameras.  The Ayatollah was now in charge, the Shah deposed, and American hostages were held in the embassy, what was now a symbol of the Great Satan.  These are the images I remember from those days.  This was the Iran of news bits and the powerful movie Not Without My Daughter.  Until I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, my concept of the Iranian people was uniform, brushed with broad strokes.  Even though in one part of my brain I assumed it was probably not fair, because of the media exposure they appeared to be all legalistic radicals bent on the destruction of America. 
I was not looking forward to reading the book.  I would do so because it was assigned for a class, but I anticipated that it would be some kind of diversity propaganda to merely tolerate.  What was so interesting to me in reading Nafisi’s account was the fact that I immediately identified with a person I would have assumed I had nothing in common with.  I identified with her passion for literature and writing.  I identified with her struggles for significance—her feelings of irrelevance when she no longer could teach.  Opening Reading Lolita was like opening a window in a close room and finding a lush garden that you never knew was there, right outside, within reach. 
The tension, the growing violence, the hypocrisy which served as a context for the developing relationships of the girls in the literature class and Nafisi’s own intellectual and personal growth helped me to understand that what happened in Iran was not political uniformity and not equally welcomed by its citizenry.  It was a radical birthing process—a violent process initiated and controlled by a minority—which alienated many of its citizens and destroyed through death and oppression much of the intellectual vibrancy of its culture.  The description of life for those who had known freedom under the Shah, contrasted with those who had grown up under the Islamic Republic helped me to humanize the people of Iran and their struggle to be real persons and not just tools of the state.  Especially for the women, behind the veil I saw individuality struggling to be free, but rules, fear, and conflicting values held them in a kind of bondage.  For some, the veil I’m sure was a true testimony to their deeply held faith, but for so many others it was binding shackles, a symbol of unworthiness, oppression, and fear.  The history that I thought I knew has been displaced by a multifaceted view.  It is like looking through a clear lens and then looking through a kaleidoscope.  The view now is much more complex.
In addition to the clever way she intertwines the fictional works with her reality, another aspect of the book that served to draw me is the language itself.  Nafisi’s descriptive language is not something to labor through, but rather to enjoy and savor.  The following are some of the phrases and sentences that I underlined, in just the first few pages: 
“She [Manna] made poetry out of things most people cast aside” (4).
“Mashid is very sensitive.  She’s like porcelain.”
“This is Tehran for me:  its absences were more real than its presences” (5).
“The truth is I can’t describe her [Nassrin]:  she was her own definition.”
“I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color” (5-6).
“[T]he living room was symbolic of my nomadic and borrowed life.  Vagrant pieces of furniture from different times and places were thrown together” (7).
“This class was the color of my dreams.  It entailed an active withdrawal from a reality that had turned hostile” (11).
I bought Reading Lolita in Tehran for a dollar plus shipping, used from—a rather ragged copy with someone else’s illegible annotations scrawled in the margins.  I obviously did not want to make a huge investment in a book that probably would not find a home on my library shelves.  After finishing the final pages, however, I am on the lookout for an affordable hard copy.  I loved this book and knew somewhere in the middle of Henry James that I would be reading it again. 
(Oh, and by the way, on the way home from exercising this morning, I stopped by Barnes and Noble to get my latté and picked up two books by James.  They were out of the Gatsby!)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tis the Season--Just for Fun!

A History of Thanksgiving—Almost
I grew up on a small farm in Ontario, Canada, where we may not have been more thankful than our American neighbors, but we certainly were thankful first.  We were thankful in October.  Americans weren’t thankful till November.  Having lived in the States for so many years, however, I have adopted a multicultural approach to Thanksgiving.  I’m thankful in both October and November.  I even thank God for Americans.
Way back in 1578, Martin Frobisher made his way across the stormy green Atlantic.  He was looking to explore the New World as the British were wont to do, and he didn’t particularly get good directions as men are wont to do.  So when he landed on the cold stony shores of Newfoundland, he held a formal Thanksgiving service to thank God he hadn’t gotten more severely lost in the Arctic wastes.  Historically, that was the first Thanksgiving celebration in the New World.
Forty-three years later and further south, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with the Indian Chief Massasoit and his Wampanoag tribe.  In the Old World, times of prayer and thanksgiving were mostly accompanied by “fasting” not “feasting.”  In the New World, however, they decided that feasting was a lot more fun than deprivation.   The Pilgrims and their guests celebrated for three days, eating wild turkey, deer, cornbread, squash, cranberries, and even a bit of duck and swan.  Canadians were still celebrating with fish, moose, and duty-free hardtack.
In the 1750s, some American settlers immigrated to Nova Scotia. They came for the great game and fish, to help the British irritate the French, and to buy Joni Mitchell CDs.  They brought their unique Thanksgiving celebration rituals with them and showed the Canadians how to cook swan and tell Newfie jokes. 
During the Revolutionary War, many more Americans immigrated to all parts of Canada.  Some were escaping persecution because of their British loyalties.  But most settlers were just zealously spreading their Thanksgiving traditions with hungry Canadians who were still trying to dig themselves out of that snow that mysteriously appears as soon as you cross the Canadian border.
Most settlers from the old country were used to having a service to thank God for the harvest each autumn; but in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.  Not to be outdone, Parliament passed a law in 1879, declaring a day of thanksgiving and a national holiday for Canada.  No more of this thankfulness from an overflowing heart.  Now through the wisdom of government intervention, it was a legal requirement.
Eventually in 1941, Congress set the holiday for the fourth Thursday of November.  In 1957, Canada proclaimed that her Thanksgiving would be on the second Monday in October.  That would allow enough time to lose the added pounds before indulging in another big feast at Christmas.  It also ensured that if they got snowed in before November, they would have had at least one decent meal.
Canadians and Americans, aside from a few minor skirmishes early on, have been pretty good neighbors.  Of course, it helps for good neighbors to have good fences.  That’s why the 49th parallel was invented. 
We’ve exchanged many cultural traditions over the years.  Americans gave us sitcoms; we taught them how to rub noses.  Americans taught us how to make their tourist industry flourish by wintering in Florida; we taught them how to rub noses.  Americans taught us how to buy goods made in the USA; we taught them how to rub noses. 
But of all the wonderful traditions our two nations have exchanged over the years, perhaps the most precious are the ones we continue to share every autumn as we gather together with family and friends and thank God that we’re not still Europeans.
Happy Canada Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mania and Mixed Metaphors

Margaret Wheatley, an authority on organizational development, writes that an “important element of conversation is a willingness to be disturbed, to allow our beliefs and ideas to be challenged by what others think [. . .] We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and be confused for a time." 
Okay, minor digression:  When I first started collecting friends on Facebook, it was like walking through the diary of my life.  I had friends from all these various times and places, and no group was connected with the other.  It was fun, but really a little weird.  One of these ghosts from the past is a man who was as a child considered a musical prodigy.  He was very talented, but one of the few active memories I have when our lives intersected was his criticism that the notes I was playing in one of my songs didn’t go together.  Since it was what I heard in my head and felt in my soul, I ignored his advice; and besides, if the dissonance bothers you, just call it jazz.  I got the recording contract!    He was the kind of person who saw things a certain way, and those who disagreed were just wrong.  There was no middle ground, no compromise, no acquiescence.
Fast forward to Facebook mania:  A YouTube wedding video was circulating for a time.  It showed the wedding party and the bride and groom bee-bopping down the aisle of the church, cleavage bouncing, all somersaulting and gyrating to the altar.  I thought it would have been acceptable at the reception or even kind of fun done as a parody, but as an actual entrance to what in my world is a sacred ceremony seemed inappropriate and only a way to get fifteen minutes of fame.  I commented to that effect—not blasting, but rather a “Does anybody but me think this might be a bit inappropriate for a sacred ceremony?” kind of comment.  My “friend” flamed with vitriol.  He very much disagreed and went on to pontificate about all the weddings he had played in and the shallowness and the boredom, etc.  We had a few exchanges, and I tried off-page to reach a point of agreeing to disagree.  “Can’t we all just get along?”  The magma descended reluctantly into the crater.
Next exchange of fire (to mix metaphors):  Later on, I made a comment on a mutual friend’s post concerning the intelligent design / evolution debate.  Since this person is now a professor of science and an adamant evolutionist, I once again was blessed with a volley of blasts across my bow!  He could not just discuss issues, but felt the need to make personal attacks about my intelligence, as well as my belief system, and my right to inhabit this evolving planet.  After a few exchanges that were heated on his side and wincing on mine, I decided this was not near as much fun as Scrabble; so with a sigh of relief, I clicked the powerful X and unfriended him.  He melted into the delete file of my life.
Back to Wheatley to connect the dots:  I do not think most people enter a conversation with a “willingness to be disturbed.”  Is it a great open-minded thing to do?  Yes.  But I think that even when an individual is willing to be taught, the ship moves a bit slowly, especially in areas of strongly held and deeply ingrained belief.  Most people don’t invite challenge that can be unsettling and so gravitate toward people that share, at least to some extent, their core beliefs.  Being challenged is uncomfortable.  Even those with a more pleasant personality can become prickly when ideas collide.  There are, of course, more appropriate ways to converse than those of my old molten friend, but I think we have so many factions in communities, politics, churches, and even families because the tendency is to congregate with those who share our belief system.  There is power in numbers, and rather than feel alienated and adrift, people attach themselves to individuals and groups that will indeed not challenge them. 
Postscript:  I have a strong desire to learn and grow:  I consider myself a lifelong learner.  I love a conversation where two people are sharing equally, and  I like to think that I am open and available to new ideas.  But I still see the same tendency in me to lean in toward those that will not challenge my thinking to the point of discomfort.  I like the old comfortable slippers and the worn pathways that my brainy thoughts walk in (more metaphors).  I want to stretch and grow, but I also want to live a life free of stress and the tension that comes with confrontation. 
Would I have done something different in the Facebook conversations with my friend?  I did not flame in return, and I did think about the real points he was making, the points poking through the fire and smoke.  But be it weakness or no, I want to learn and stretch on my own terms and not be hurled into new ideas by force.