Who Should You Vote For – and Why?

It’s high time to address two of our biggest distractions as voters.

When Obama remarked that Sarah Palin “is a great story,” he accomplished two, somewhat contradictory things. On one hand, he dismissed the legitimacy of McCain’s running mate by recasting Palin’s allure as totally insubstantial (i.e., Sarah Palin is nothing more than a “great story”) and, on the other hand, he surreptitiously recognized that the only ingredient which seems to matter in public elections (or in any public deliberation) is the narrative embodied by the person (or subject).

In the September 13 issue of Newsweek, Sharon Begley brings attention to this exchange and the role narratives play in powering the political machine of each presidential candidate.

Continue reading “Who Should You Vote For – and Why?”

Stained-Glass Window with a View: One Ohio Church Takes on the World

During my morning commute, I heard a news story about an Ohio Church which inspired a mixed feeling of amusement, pride, and dismay.

A Blacklick, Ohio church has updated the sign on their property to read: “I kissed a girl and I liked it. Then I went to hell.” (Read about it here). An interesting adaptation to Katy Perry’s song, which ruled the charts this summer (personally, I’m not a big fan).

A breakdown of my feelings:

Amusement: I think this is hilarious.

Pride: I’m proud that a church is making an effort to “get with the times” by integrating music into its message.

Dismay: I’m appalled by the harsh viewpoint this espouses and by the fact that the pastor responsible for the sign, Rev. Dave Allison, says “the sign is intended as a loving warning to teens.” Call me the odd-ball out, but I fail to see how threats of hell can in any fashion be categorized as “loving.”

The ants go marching on…

Emptying Pews Cry For Leadership

Religion is losing its hold on our lives. This realization is inescapable, given the marked decline in the number of people attending church services. In 1996 the Barna Research Group released a report which illustrated church attendance was declining steadily and that churches were losing “entire segments of the population: men, singles, empty nesters…” In 2006, Keith Barltrop wagged a cautionary finger towards a 2004 ecumenical survey which showed that 73% of those surveyed believed that the “clergy failed to prepare congregations for the challenges to their faith that the culture of our times throws up.” In that same year AgapePress covered a study which concluded that only about 20% of Americans go to a church on Sunday, which is a much lower figure than previously anticipated. More recently, Rebecca Ryan of the Carolina Reporter quoted a poll which “suggests that 30% of Americans are either changing their religion or abandoning it [sic] all together.”

Based on these striking figures, the obvious question is: why are pews emptying? Are people losing faith in their god(s)? In their priests? In their fellow humans? Or could it be that congregations’ demands are becoming more sophisticated, and that churches simply are not measuring up to these advancing standards. As I explain below, my perspective leads me to believe that there is a direct correlation between the leadership provided through the church and the level of interest congregations display in attending services.

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The Great (Fire)wall of China

There are two groups of people: those who affirm the Internet’s efficacy in the lives of individuals interacting in a Web 2.0 society, and those who refute it. I have found myself on either side of this coin throughout the years. Today, though, even the most stubborn skeptic will find it difficult to put the latest from Ellen Lee, staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, in a less alarming (and revealing) light.

In her August 5, 2008 “Web Chips Away at China’s Grip on Information,” she describes the recent trials of David Wang. An innocent bystander, David Wang created a “mock newscast criticizing Taiwanese officials” and subsequently uploaded the clip to Tudou, a social-networking site (SNS) in China which is centered around the dissemination of videos (a la YouTube). Days later Wang’s video disappeared.

Lee is fascinated not by the fact that the video disappeared – that seemed a foregone conclusion for such an inflammatory artifact – but by the fact that it remained online for several days. Lee cites this as evidence that China’s status quo may not be so static after all. In fact, in the picture she paints, Lee suggests that all the components of Web 2.0 – blogs and the many flavors of SNS – seem to be challenging normal hierarchies as well as traditional value systems. The result in China, she notes, “is the chipping away of what’s referred to as the Great Firewall of China, by which the government tries to control online content.”

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Name-brands and Narratives, of a Personal Kind

Top o’ the morning from Jason Fry, who in his regular “Real Time” column this week considers the evolving emphasis placed on personal webpages (“A Web Page of One’s Own”).

Although he affirms that having a personal webpage remains more of a leisure activity — something unessential to wading through society — he also issues a warning: the status quo will not be static much longer. He foresees a near future in which creating a personal webpage is as crucial to our professional and personal lives as other technological commodities: TVs, mobile phones, email, et cetera. It isn’t hard to imagine this future, as individuals we interact with increasingly will refer you to their home on the web for pictures, contact information, or as a place where they conduct business.

Two themes in Fry’s article interested me more than the rest: name-brands and narratives. He quotes a Slashdot conversation, in which one poster exclaims, “Your name is essentially your very own brand; might as well try to paint it in a decent light.” This mentality congeals nicely with the best practices academia is instilling in recent graduates: business educations everywhere are reminding pupils that they ought to treat their name as a brand and consider their past achievements as their best reference. My leadership professors at the McDonough Center echoed this, instructing us to construct a professional portfolio which would communicate my brand, “the brand of I.”

On a similar note, Fry observes that “A personal Web page is an opportunity to tell your story and balance out other narratives that you can’t control.” While Walter Fisher is probably tickled that his narrative paradigm is living the high life online, what I interpret from this is that the web is evolving into a place of conflict, where narratives are being wielded for some sort of victory; maybe one for power, or influence, or control – or maybe it just plain ol’ authenticity. I’m wondering now if this trend towards conflict should concern us and how transitioning narrative conflict to the web will impact us interpersonally at home or in the office?


I was sent a link to a speech by Newt Gingrich on Education. Not expecting much, I was surprised by the saliency of his speech. His “world that works” and “world that fails” model begs critical thinking.

View his speech here.

Alternately, if you’re just interested in hearing a briefer introduction to his argument, view this clip, entitled “FedEx vs Federal Bureaucracy.”

Bravissimo, Alex. (Cinderella Story, by Alex Abramovich)

A few weeks ago I was thumbing through a GQ and somehow or other got sucked into a narrative piece about a writer’s attempt to reconnect with a one-time primary school bully (“Running with the Bully.” GQ June 2007: 122-127, 164, 166-167). The piece was fairly well done, though at the time I wasn’t necessarily excited to be reading it (I think that after I read more than a quarter of something, I’m compelled to finish it so that I can convince myself it wasn’t a waste of time – probably not a good system). In any case, one thing that did push me to keep reading the essay was the surprisingly lyrical quality of the writer’s prose. Alex Abramovich managed to keep my attention throughout the entire essay, largely by virtue of perfectly crafted sentences, innovative syntax, and energetic insight dispersed throughout.

I like to visualize the people whose work I’m reading, so I hopped online and googled “Alex Abramovich.” I don’t recall ever having found a picture of him (if you find one, send me the link!), though I did find a book with his name on it: a compilation of his “best” essays, curiously titled Cinderella Story: Notes on Contemporary Culture. I was attracted to the name – somewhat prescient, I couldn’t help feeling – and started reading up on it. Eventually I had read so many reviews and summaries I figured I could have read the damn book already, so I ordered it on Amazon for the convenient, low, low price of $9.95.

As always, my hope was to be astounded by the brilliance of the author and enriched by his writing, while my expectation was to finish the book weeks after receiving it, grumbling darkly about having felt the need to read the entire book just in case the last few strides redeemed the load of shit that had preceded them.

As it turns out, my expectation was far exceeded and my hope very nearly realized. The collection starts off with Abramovich’s strongest, most poignant piece by far (after which the collection is titled), though it readily, and startlingly, displays his well-practiced fluency with the critical analysis of cultural texts. Readers are not confronted with a neophyte, here, but a full-fledged initiate; someone skilled in the tools of his trade. Very quickly he lives up to the praise that Sam Lipsyte, his one-time editor, lays at his feet in the Preface: “Abramovich is that rare kind of critic who can set himself aside enough to see what he is seeing. Rare too is the grace and energy of his prose and the startling power of his imagery” (Abramovich 9).

This first piece, “Cinderella Story,” runs just 10 pages, but in that incredibly short stretch of paper Abramovich accomplishes so much. He begins simply, holistically reviewing the convention of the romantic comedy as it has emerged and progressed in American cinema. Through his recap he notes that the quality of romantic comedy scripts has steadily declined, that they once “were pure in a way that nothing seems pure anymore.” He wisely judges that the major accomplishment of good romantic comedies was that they allowed audience members to lose themselves in the film, and that current products issued under this genre have largely failed to achieve this distinction with any consistency. Abramovich focuses on intimacy as the major culprit of the romantic comedy’s fall-from-grace, stating that it is “no longer viable as either a cultural or commercial commodity.”

Underlining that sentence, I wondered, and proceeded, becoming more and more convinced that Abramovich’s perspective is clear and well-honed. Intimacy has somehow become less possible in our own culture: “intimacy – the space two people create to ward off the trespasses of the world at large – now runs counter to the interests of the people who shape the tone and tenor of our lives” — media moguls, as I understood it (Abramovich 12). While his vision of the retreat of intimacy is valid and suggestive of some of the greatest issues society faces today and young generations will face with greater urgency in the near future, Abramovich would benefit from considering the many shades of intimacy on a spectrum ranging from “casual,” perhaps, to “authentic.” I wonder if it isn’t that intimacy has lost its importance, but that we have gradually abandoned the best ways of achieving it, and have steadily become less aware of what really satisfies that innate, human need of ours to be intimate with others.

Had he considered the difference between authentic intimacy and other types, he may have been better prepared to slice through the rest of his essay. Still, though, his does admirable work. Using Julia Roberts as his main cultural text and her various romantic comedies as examples (especially Erin Brockovich), Abramovich confidently traipses through the process of building an impressive argument. Essentially, while romantic comedies may no longer offer us the chance to escape within them as a way to sate our need for intimacy, a nascent form of film, the deposition movie, is taking the reigns in that regard. We haven’t stopped looking to film to satisfy our needs: we have just altered what cross-section of celluloid we turn to. Through the deposition film, Abramovich sees us relating to people who suffer (such as those affected by pollution in Erin Brockovich) and coming to depend on their defenders (e.g. Erin Brockovich/Julia Roberts) to deliver us to a catharsis when the wounds we have adopted are addressed (I can’t wait to see if he ever attacks Law and Order). Appropriately, Abramovich proceeds to remark on the place of celebrity in all of this mess: the ways in which people grow to depend on celebrity figures like Julia Roberts to act as our personal saviors. Abramovich warns us away from this approach, and wisely so, finishing his essay with one of the most powerful observations I have ever read:

“How do any of us [sleep at night]? More and more, it seems, we sleep alone, or not at all. As the common ground of geography, community, and family disappears, we’re forced more and more to connect through contexts that are pre-established for us, and find ourselves with less and less to talk about. We spin in a cultural centrifuge, the earth drops from beneath our feet, and all that’s left to look at is the blur of faces spinning next to our own. Ultimately, we all begin to look the same, and to check the same boxes on movie-screening questionnaires. Meanwhile, art – the most direct, intense means we have of connecting to what’s inside another individual’s head, and a last refuge from cultural vertigo – no longer seems to be made by individuals, or for them. Certainly, it isn’t being made about them” (Abramovich 10).

When I came across this passage, a chill ran through my body. I stopped reading, set the book down in my lap, and thought long and hard on the state of the world, as well as on my own place and practices in it. Anyone interested in popular culture, critical theory, film, the ways in which we connect with each other, or just a damn good read will benefit from reading – no, not reading: absorbing – this book. Readers beware, however: Abramovich will likely challenge you to reevaluate assumptions about the world and your place in it. Although powerful, his observations can also be unsettling.

Bravissimo, Alex. I, at the least, am grateful for your work and will be thinking on your words for a long, long time.
Abramovich, Alex. Cinderella Story: Notes on Contemporary Culture. Cybereditions, 2002.

Buy on Amazon.
Buy as eBook.

Bombasting, bomblasting

My level of satisfaction with Daily Kos fluctuates with frequency. On many days I find the postings a little distasteful simply because of an unmitigated puerile rage that lines the very characters on screen. Occasionally though, they post a gem. This was one of those days.

Meteor Blades supplied a quick post as commentary on the Fourth of July. He started by declaiming the word hero, noting its egregious and “promiscuous” usage. I’ll admit that it is a word we are often quick to reach for, but promiscuous? I was about to wander on when I saw Frederick Douglass mentioned on the next line. Curious, I read on, and became even more skeptical. Meteor Blades lauds Frederick Douglass as his one archetype of heroism. I’m not sure that I buy that completely; I’ve never really cared for him or his work (his narrative was boring, I’m sorry). However, the piece Meteor Blades selected as evidence was convincing. Apparently Frederick Douglass had once delivered a speech on a Fourth of July (you can almost hear the deep ‘U’ that your imagination demands Douglass must have spoken with, despite being born in Maryland). The speech is good. Very good. I won’t reproduce it here, though those curious should certainly click on the link above to view the speech as Meteor Blades provided it. I will simply offer one observation, a quotation that caught my attention, and be on my merry way.

My observation: I don’t celebrate the Fourth of July. I never have, really. I don’t care for fire works. I never have, really. (You’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them all, y’know? Unless you find someone who can work Gandalf’s particular brand…) I stopped going as soon as I could manage to excuse myself from family affairs, and since that time have spent every Fourth of July contemplating why I detest the way we celebrate this holiday.

I think, just maybe, I’m a little angry that we’re celebrating. I am grateful for this nation, yes, yes, yes. But most days I see too much deviation from the vision we’re supposed to be sharing in, accomplishing, spreading, to feel comfortable sitting back and celebrating what our forbearers had achieved. Celebrating such a holiday seems to suggest that those bacchanalians carousing beneath scintillating, fulsome light displays are complicit in the assertion that all is well; that the Mission has been accomplished.

Maybe I’m a little too harsh here, but when I see that the wrong words in the Declaration of Independence are still adhered to literally in some situations — that every man is created equal — while in others they are casually ignored to permit the discrimination of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, I get angry. (Have you ever noticed how the Declaration begins, “When in the course of human events” and then flutters into “man” this and “man” that? That’s substantial enough for me to believe those myths that Jefferson drafted one version with just the word human and then was pressured into changing it. But hey, call me Mr. CSI).

I spend my Fourth of Julys remembering what we fought and died for. I spend them in mild solemnity, not just remembering the path we have taken and missteps we have made, but also reminding myself of the journey we have yet to complete and the long road ahead.

Perhaps I have underestimated Frederick Douglass. His words certainly have a timeless quality about them:

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms- of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.” — Frederick Douglass, 1852.