multinational stupidity

It’s not news that this country has gotten dumber. What’s frightening to me is how we’ve become a country that embraces dumb. I think most people would agree that a country is best judged by its tv game shows, and today, the three most popular are “Wheel of Fortune,” “Deal or No Deal,” and “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?”.

“Wheel,” of course, rewards people for figuring out phrases with certain letters missing. I actually saw someone buy a vowel when they were looking at a board that said ‘M__nt R_shm_r_.’ You can figure that one out pronouncing it without the vowels! “Deal” requires even less cognitive skill than “Wheel,” since the entire show consists of GUESSING. But the worst is “Fifth Grader,” which gives out huge sums of cash to adults who have to prove they know more than eleven-year olds. Here’s where they’ve got it wrong—the show should in fact punish the grownups who don’t win–if you’re not smarter than a fifth grader, you should be put in some sort of internment camp so we can isolate the dullards and prevent them from breeding.

Sadly, we seem celebrate mediocrity in America. Who is mentioned in any election as the bellweather for any issue?—the ‘average’ American. Not the best or brightest American, but the ‘average’ American. Pardon me for not jumping on some Capra-esque bandwagon here, but should policy really be dictated by the law of averages?

It’s too bad a candidate for elected office can’t say things like “My opponent is a good person with a beautiful family, but the fact is I AM MUCH SMARTER THAN HE IS.” Or, “I’m not worried about attacks from my opponent, because THEY’RE STUPID.” Read the speeches of great leaders from the past–they didn’t speak like the average Americans of their time. They used nuanced concepts, polished turns of phrase, and really big words. Lincoln never felt the need to sprinkle in some ‘you betcha’s and ‘darn right’s just to connect with people who are ‘average.’

Not to offend any dactylonomists reading this, but this country needs to start celebrating smart people. Why do we think it’s good to be average? In game show terms, that’s the $64,000 Question. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, elitism in the defense of intelligence is no vice, and stupidity in the defense of mediocrity is no virtue. We should be aiming for the top, and by definition, ‘average’ means somewhere in the flabby middle.

The average American is that guy working at Target who is baffled by any question that doesn’t involve the particular section of the store for which he’s been trained. The average American is the woman on the bus who doesn’t understand that by standing in the front of the bus, she’s actually preventing other people from getting on the bus. The average American is that person who sees a ‘push’ sign on a door–because it’s at freaking eye level–and proceeds to pull the door…not once, but twice.

This naive notion that our country would be better off if the average American were running things, or that our elected officials should explain things in terms the average American can understand, is why we will someday be ranked somewhere between Sri Lanka and Chad on the list of world powers. Not that the average American would know where Sri Lanka or Chad are. I sorta think the people in charge of the dumb people should be smarter than the dumb people, but maybe that’s just my elitism talking.

Thankfully, we will always have the North Koreans when we want to feel superior. By this I mean the government of North Korea, not the ‘average’ North Korean. Now I would be worried about offending North Korea, but since their Great Leader doesn’t allow them access to the internet (or, for that matter, food), I’m probably on safe ground.

In their latest saber-rattling, rather like an eight-year old stomping his feet, Pyongyang wanted attention. So they launched a rocket. At this point, I think the world is more afraid of a North Korean lunch than a North Korean launch. This time, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly,

“The…rocket fired …and apparently did not boost a satellite into space…because no satellite has been detected by numerous space tracking systems. As for the rocket itself, only the first stage appears to have worked. The other two stages fell into the ocean, taking the payload with them.”

At this point, North Korea would be more intimidating if it rattled actual sabres at people.

Since the DPRK says it wants dialogue with the West, and since President Obama is busy at the moment dealing with countries which are…important, I am offering my services for the purpose of this dialogue. One of the most entertaining websites I visit is the official news agency of the ‘Democratic’ ‘Peoples’ Republic of Korea (click here for the English version). The following is an actual ‘news’ item from the website—the parenthetical comments would be my ‘dialogue’ with the North Koreans.

U.S. hard-line policy flailed

Pyongyang–It is foolish of the United States (great–the opening sentence sounds like something from a fifties sci-fi flick–“Your feeble Earth weapons are useless against us!”) to try to stifle the DPRK with its hard-line policy, says Rodong Sinmun (wait–didn’t Rodong lose to Mothra?) today in a signed article. It says:
The U.S. is working hard to isolate the DPRK under the pretext of “military threat” and “missile threat” from the DPRK and “threat” from its conventional forces after terming it “no. 1 enemy” but this is a folly (maybe so, but at least it’s not annoying like your use of “quotation marks” ), in utter ignorance of the stand, strength and will of the DPRK (although the people’s strength and will is a bit less than it used to be, what with rampant starvation, no jobs and and not a whole lot of foreign aid, you isolationist bozos).
In the 1990s, too, the U.S. was defeated in confrontation with the DPRK (known to historians as The War That North Korea Imagines).
The DPRK reacted to the U.S. frantic nuclear blackmail and war moves with a super hard-line stand (OMG it was like super hard-line!). It dealt a heavy blow to the U.S. and its followers by taking such countermeasures for self-defence as withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and declaring a semi-war state (very cagey–if we only declare “semi-war,” they might not bomb us out of existence).
The DPRK has become a powerful country which the U.S. dare not provoke and the U.S. lost its face before the international community (ok–beyond the grammar problem,you guys are kidding now, right?).
The U.S. failed in its policy to stifle the DPRK (damn–now I guess we’ll have to go back to ignoring them).

So as to not paint an unfair picture of the North Korean people, I’ll end this with a picture from the same official website (I’ve translated the caption from the original Korean):


Here is an example of the beneficence of The Great Leader Kim Jong-il, as he has given every child in the Republic a new accordion. Those smiles say “Thank You Great Leader, We Are Very Hungry But Are Grateful For Our Accordions!”

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god’s press conference

I had a vision recently. I had been meditating, focus my energies on spiritual things, purging all thoughts of self and embracing the cosmos, and…smoking a little weed. Anyway, what came to me in this vision was the transcript of a sort of ‘press conference’ held by God. As God’s vessel, I was asked in this vision to relay the comments therein to all major media outlets (yes, God actually used the phrase ‘major media outlets’). What follows is what I remembered from this mystical communication…

“Before I take your questions, I have an opening statement and some new policies to announce, and I’d like to clear up some misconceptions. First let’s talk about what you call the ‘ten commandments’. Just so ya know, I drafted 613 of these, but most of you thought that was too many, so fine, I thought to myself, let’s focus on ten of them (but give it up to the Orthodox Jews for committing to all of them).

Now I thought you could handle ten, but clearly that was too much to ask, so if you’ll get out My book, we’ll cut the list down to some basics you might be able to handle. Hmmm…adultery—I can’t seem to stop that one; graven images—well, frankly there’s not as much of that going on as I thought there’d be—guess it was just the one time; My name in vain—hmmm…I suppose I’m over that one—even I swear—you should have heard Me after I created Limbaugh…look—how ‘bout we just say don’t kill, steal or lie and move on. And try not to lie about killing or stealing—that’s just pushing it.

Next—how did the universe start. Now Me, I figured you had more important things to worry about, but if you must know, here’s the deal. Your Earth rests on the back of a giant tortoise—kidding! If you must know, I was, metaphorically, sitting around one day, and I thought, sure I’m all-powerful and all-knowing, but what does that mean exactly? So, I created a life form that would question my existence, hoping that you would come up with some creative answers—I get kinda bored sometimes, and thought I’d see what you guys came up with. Oh sure I can keep creating things, destroying things, creating, destroying, blah blah blah…but you’re the only creation of mine that seems to like talking to me. I think it’s cute, and I feel a little less…alone.

Again—don’t push it. You don’t have to talk to Me about everything. And specifically—professional athletes—stop thanking Me for winning games—that’s all on you. if I’m the reason you won, doesn’t that mean that when you lose, you’ve let Me down? You really want to deal with that? And come on, if I were a sports fan, the Cubs would have won what you call the ‘World Series’ at least once in the last hundred years.

And I do NOT single people out and tell them to do things. And I certainly don’t tell people to kill people (duh—see above)! If one of you decides to, for instance, shoot a doctor at a clinic because you don’t believe in abortion, I had nothing to do with it–it’s all on you. Don’t tell people it’s My will. Please. If anything is gonna make Me come back and bring down some celestial whup-ass, it’s that. I’m just sayin’.

Now I’ve selected some questions from the many you have submitted—

  • Can You create something so large that You can’t move it?

Yes, but that would be stupid.

  • On Bewitched, who was the better Darren?

Obviously, Dick York.

  • When I do laundry, I always seem to lose one sock. Where does it go?

Unfortunately, you’re not really advanced enough beings to understand, but I will say that those missing socks all return to the laundry room–in some form.

  • Was there a Big Bang?

Not really. When I made everything, I did notice a sound, but it was more of a “whoosh” than a bang. I have no idea what caused it.

  • Is there anything You wish You hadn’t created?

Oh sure…Want the short list? Those little gnats that fly around all summer… Kansas…Charlie Sheen…and I have no idea what I was thinking with Ann Coulter.

  • Why do You allow innocent people to suffer?

That is an excellent question. I’m glad to have the chance to address it. You see, no one is more aware than I am of how many innocent people suffer. But what you don’t realize is the meaning behind all the needless suffering, the whole point, for example, of good people being killed and whatnot is that to really understand the background to this issue you have to look at the underlying issues, and–I’m sorry, but that’s all the time I’ve got—I hope I’ve answered some of your questions, and I’ll talk to you all again very soon. Thank you. Peace out.”

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even ignorance is bigger in texas

First, a disclaimer. I do not believe that all Texans are idiots. It would be unfair of me to suggest that all Texans are stupid. I do feel safe in saying that the Texas State Legislature has lost its collective mind.

Now it’s not like I subscribe to ‘Texas Legislation Monthly,’ so my information may not be current. But in 2009, they unanimously passed a law allowing Texans to carry guns and ammunition in their cars to work, as long as they leave them locked in the car, and only narrowly defeated . Now before you rip the second amendment out of the Constitution and shove it in my weak-kneed, lily-livered, pacifist face, let me just suggest that the Founding Fathers probably didn’t think that a “well-regulated militia” would necessarily include Bob in accounting, and it seems unlikely that the guy in the doing data-entry in his cubicle was meant to be our first line of defense against the forces of sedition.

Seriously, people. If anything defines ‘slippery slope,’ I think it’s this. Basically, if you have a job, you can put your gun in your car and drive to work. In an society where workplace shootings make the news every few weeks, where will this lead? Back in the day, the only people who shot their co-workers worked at the post office (which I never understood–what kind of pressure was making those guys snap? There are jobs where I can picture someone cracking under stress, but whenever I go to the Post Office, the employees move WAY too slow to be under stress) .

Now, let’s say that jerk of a boss is on your ass again to finish some project–he needs the March numbers now! I mean how many of us have thought “I am gonna kill that fucker!”. Well, now in Texas, you just go to the parking lot on your lunch break  and all of a sudden that Excel spreadsheet can wait.

And I love the reasoning espoused by State Senator Glenn Hegar. Apparently, people “like their firearms,” but are kinda ambivalent about their LAWS.

“People like their firearms in Texas, and if they want to bring them to their workplace, they are going to do it whether there is a policy or not,” Hegar said.

Now here’s what’s really cool. The whole “Take Your Gun To Work Day”  idea wasn’t the scariest thing to come out of the 2009 legislative session in Austin. This same august body also only narrowly defeated a proposition that would have required schools to teach that the theory of evolution has “strengths and weaknesses,” thus opening the door ever so slightly to creationism.

Now before you internet villagers get your torches out, let me say that I am actually that seemingly rare liberal intellectual who believes in God. And I believe it’s possible that God may have thought up the whole evolution thing, and sorta kick-started it. But please understand, my creationist friends–evolution is a fact.

Here’s how it breaks down, kids:

Strengths: it really happened, and there is an Earth-sized mountain of tangible evidence to prove it happened.

Weaknesses: Well, scientists agree that evolution cannot yet explain the lack of development in the brains of Texas state legislators.

What’s really amazing is that the Luddites were only defeated by a margin of 8-7. Vegas wouldn’t have taken those odds. I can just imagine that debate…one by one, seven people made impassioned, Bible-centered arguments showing the ‘weaknesses’ of 150 years of evolutionary research, at which point the other eight senators looked at each other and said “are you people kidding me?”

School board president Don McLeroy led the effort, threatening to not approve textbooks which don’t allow some compromise on the issue.  I worry that the Texas Board of ‘Education’ (quotation marks entirely mine) will start ‘re-examining’ other scientific theories–kids in high school will be introduced to ‘alternate theories’ about gravity (maybe it’s the actual Hand of God that’s pushing down on us–students should consider this) or the solar system (Earth might not be the center of the universe–telescopes are known for their ‘weaknesses’).  Please, Texas. You’re bringing down the curve for the rest of us.

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a nice jewish goy

I was not raised in a religious family. My mother was nominally an Episcopalian, but she hadn’t been to church for years, and my father was a Catholic who stopped attending Mass when the Church stopped speaking Latin. Since I had been intellectually precocious from an early age, they never pushed a particular faith on me, and beginning in high school, I began a life-long fascination with religion.

In my teenage years, I explored, in no particular order, Taoism, Buddhism, numerology,  atheism, Baha’iism,  and Zoroastrianism (okay, the last one for only a few minutes, but I did look it up). I particularly admired Hinduism, with its multiplicity of gods. I always thought it would be great, if you felt REALLY happy, to have more than one god you could thank. Or, if something really annoying, but not really important, happened, it would be nice to have a really specific god to curse–“Why do you smite me, God of Staplers?”–instead of generic venting to the Creator of everything.

Then when I got to college, I fell in with a group of Epicopalians. There’s a rough crowd. I went to Mass and I liked  it. Great tunes. Also liked the incense thing. I’m a sucker for smells and bells. I did notice there were no people of color. Thought that was kinda weird. But, I kept going, mostly because I had joined the choir, so it was like having a steady gig.

At some point I discovered the Unitarian Universalist Church. LOVED these guys on paper. No pesky creeds or doctrines, and an underlying belief that there is truth in all faiths. Although, to be honest, it sorta felt like I was attending a Sunday humanities lecture–not much emphasis on anything that felt transcendant. See, I still believed in God, even if I didn’t believe God could be found in a particular building, or box. I went regularly, though…after all, I was in the choir.

So, for several years, I just said I was an ‘unorthodox’ christian–powerful myth…symbolism that still resonates…great music. But at a certain point I felt I was so ‘unorthodox’ in my ‘christianity’ that I wasn’t doing myself, or Christendom, any favors by wearing that label. I agree with one of my comedy heroes, the lateBill Hicks, who said “I feel about Jesus the same way I do about Elvis. Love the man, love his work…but I can live without his crazy fans.”

So what was I? I went to the library to find out. I had always been inexplicably drawn to Judaism–it seemed to be the western religion that required the least amount of mental gymnastics, and…I had dated some Jewish girls. For some strange reason, almost all of my friends were Jewish (though almost none of them practiced).

So I’m reading this list of theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, and it was like, “yeah–that’s me”…”uh huh, that’s how I view the world”…”yeah–that’s what I believe.” And at that moment, I had an epiphany (how I wish there were a word for that that isn’t so associated with Christianity). I realized that I had always believed as a Jew–I just had never applied for a membership card.

So, always being the type to jump right in,  it was time to convert. I called a few synagogues, and found out that the Conservative one was starting a class, and I signed up. See, here’s big difference here between your Jews and your Christians. If I want to say I’m Christian, what I have to do is…just believe it. Not so with Judaism. This wasn’t even an Orthodox conversion, and  I had to take SIXTEEN WEEKS of classes.’People of the Book’ is right–and people of the syllabus, the handouts, the synopsis…oh, and on top of that let’s try to learn an entirely new language written in entirely different characters–written backwards in entirely different characters.

When I finished the class there were a couple of rituals to go through before things would be, for lack of a better word, kosher. First, I would need to affirm my bond with the people of Israel in front of witnesses, and then take a bath. Not your rub-a-dub kind–this would be a get naked and get into a pool of water in front of other people while you say a memorized Hebrew prayer kind of bath. You really do feel bonded with a spiritual leader when you’re bobbing around in a bathtub looking up at a man in full rabinnical garb.

Now in the Conservative movement, a male convert needs to be circumcized. Having been born in the U.S. in the sixties, my thought was ‘been there, done that.’ Much to my surprise, there is a ritual for guys who’ve already been ‘clipped.’ ‘Hatafat dam brit.’ Sounds mystical. Sounds like a beautiful ceremony to link me with centuries of Jewish men before me. Except it’s not really a ‘ceremony.’

What it is, is me with my pants at my ankles allowing someone (who, in theory, has had SOME training at this) to take a needle and draw a drop of blood from the end of my most special and typically not punctured body part. Now me, I’m not even comfortable with a zipper being too close to my penis. This is a part of conversion they don’t mention in the handouts.

The point is, when I pulled my pants up, I was officially Jewish (I’m almost sure that sentence sounds better in Hebrew).  The problem is, as it turned out, none of my Jewish friends were very…Jewish. I would call and share with them some fascinating experience I’d had on my faith journey and they would roll their collective eyes, as if to say ‘ Man, why would you go through all of that?” I would call to wish them a good Tu B’Shvat and it was like asking someone who hated basketball who they thought would win the Final Four.

I’ve been to Shabbat services at many synagogues since converting, and though I love the prayers and the readings (and the music–although something in a major key might be a selling point), I never like I fit in. I know it takes time, but I wonder sometimes whether I’ll always feel like this. The problem, seems to me, is that while one can convert to a religion, I’m not entirely sure how to convert to a culture. I didn’t spend my formative years trying to get out of Hebrew School–I didn’t dread having to do my Torah reading at my bar mitzvah–I didn’t spend time making latkes standing next to my Bubbe. I didn’t have a Bubbe.

Looking back, though I might wish I could ‘invent’ a Jewish past for myself, I’m happy where I am. I consider myself a questioning Jew, wrestling with faith. Like Isaac. Isaac is actually my Hebrew name, and one of the meanings associated with it is laughter, and if you can’t laugh, all of this ‘search for meaning’ stuff is pretty pointless anyway.

Actually, I think I’d like to coin a new word for my belief system. You can call me–a Smorgasbordian. I’m just sampling what’s on the religious buffet table until I’m spiritually full. Maybe in a while, I’ll go back for another helping.

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i’m running out of ellipses…

As a former card-carrying English major, and the kind of person who gets irritated by misplaced apostrophes (“Ladie’s Shoe’s on Sale!”), I have to make an embarrassing confession–I am addicted to ellipses…

I think I first saw the power of the magical three dots when I would read Larry King’s newspaper column. Larry would simply string together a handful of not-very-risky opinions (usually, but not exclusively, about celebrities), introduced by some regular guy phrase like “for my money” or “if you ask me”–add some ellipses, and you’ve got a column.

For my money, you couldn’t ask for a nicer guy than Will Smith…if you ask me, that Cristina Aguilera can really move…if you put a gun to my head, I’d have to to call cappellini my favorite noodle–not for nothing, but I love how it’s thicker than angel hair and not as thick as spaghetti…

Once I decided to share my unhinged ramblings with the world outside my apartment, it wasn’t long before I began using ellipses to excess…At first, I really believed I could use them responsibly—as something to compliment an otherwise well-reasoned essay. All my friends were using them anyway…besides, I knew I could always stop using them if it got out of control.

When I first started using them, it felt great! I could start a thought, and then just…trail off. Or I could set up some marvelous joke, and then simply…move on to another joke. No need for sticky segues or troublesome transitions…I would just start another thought after typing three periods.

I’d been using ellipses recreationally for years, but then things got crazy… They were just too easy to find—the period’s right there on the keyboard, and if you’re already using one, why not three?…I tried not to use them when I was alone—that would mean I had a problem…But then I started using them at home…on to-do-lists (“grocery store…library…Punctuation Anonymous meeting”)…on my resume (“clerk…cashier”)…my god, even on the memo line of a check (“cable bill…July”)…

I know I need to quit, but I don’t know how…I worry my writing won’t be as fun—maybe other writers won’t want to hang out with me if I’m not ellipsing…I want it to look like I’m just about to add something else…something even more important…

But I’m gonna try…one period at a time. Because if I can beat this, maybe I can stop beginning sentences with conjunctions…but at least prepositions are parts of speech I would never end a sentence with…OH MY GOD I CAN’T CONTROL MYSELF! The worst part is the fear…If I don’t end an idea with three dots, I’ll have to actually…make a point…and be done with it…it seems so final…as if I’ve got nothing else to say.

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Although some of the mystical ‘leading economic indicators’ seem to be recovering, don’t think this country is done with the nightmare. For the most part, I have been insulated from the economic crisis. A key reason for this: I had no money when the crisis began; I am exactly as broke as I was when all of this started.

But a some recent news items point out how dire things still are. In March, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike, and now it seems the Syracuse Symphony may have to cancel the rest of its season. What? We’re talking he cornerstone of the entire upstate New York classical music industry–how could we let this happen? I mean, GM is one thing–but the Syracuse Symphony?!  Where are the congressional hearings? Where’s the outrage?

I don’t think any of us can imagine where this will lead.  Fewer musicians working could mean that,  I think for the first time in our nation’s history, we could see musicians in the unemployment line. Less rehearsal time may mean that audiences will be forced to endure unevenly performed string quartets. And who knows–maybe they won’t even be played by quartets! Everyone knows that our nation’s cellists are the first to be cast aside in a crisis.

Of course, economic analysts often point to small regional orchestras as the true bellweathers of the economy–the proverbial ‘canaries in the coal mine.’ Just think what might happen next. Ballet companies having to dance in street shoes…operas mounted with NO incidental music… a production of  Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cut down to only three and a half hours!

If the SSO and other crucial groups are not bailed out by the federal government, the repercussions will shatter the very foundations of our society. We cannot leave our children a country in which community theaters, in the interest of ‘financial responsibility,’ have to mount productions of  “One Gentleman of Verona” or “Seven Angry Men.” Or a version of “The Music Man’ where the townsfolk can only sing about “55 Trombones.” Please, people. Demand that Congress save the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. Or this great experiment, this America, will surely collapse.

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