Saturday, November 25, 2006

Assassination in the Postmodern Age

In 1984, my late grandfather predicted that if Walter Mondale were elected, somebody would assassinate him in order to make sure that Geraldine Ferraro would be elevated to the presidency. Without context, somebody analyzing such a statement today would perhaps make the assumption that my grandpa was paranoid about radical feminism. In actuality, that had nothing to do with it--he was simply a cynical pessimist (I believe he likely voted for Mondale, as he refused to vote for any Republican after Watergate).

I remember as a six-year-old thinking that such a sentiment was very reasonable. (Growing up during the Cold War, going to Sunday School, and obsessively watching "The Superfriends," I was not naive about the presence of evil in the world). However, if the Democrats had an Obama/Rodham-Clinton ticket in '08, and someone suggested the same scenario, I would find such a sentiment unreasonable.

What changed? Me or the world? On the surface, it would seem likely that a six-year-old's view of reasonableness is more subject to change than an entire paradigm--that I simply outgrew a blind acceptance of my grandpa's unreasonable pessimism. But I'm not sure my grandpa's pessimism was unreasonable.

Consider that up to that point, 10% of U.S. presidents had been assassinated. When you further consider that Lincoln was the first, that means 17% from 1860 to 1980 had been assassinated. Consider further that the assassin need not be acting on behalf of an ideological groundswell--William McKinley was shot by a freaking anarchist. Consider further that six other presidents had been the targets of serious assassination attempts (defined by gunshots in close proximity) as of 1984. That means that a full quarter of U.S. Presidents were or nearly were assassinated. Starting with FDR, five of eight presidents were or nearly were assassinated (63%). (You could even make a case for Nixon to be added to the list, too). Factor in the slayings of Bobby Kennedy, MLK, Malcolm X, and John Lennon, and you could see why anyone in 1984 would at the very list refrain from dismissing my grandpa's prediction as blind pessimism (if there is such a thing).

However, things have changed today. Despite the polarized political culture we have, and the increased security in the wake of 9/11, assassination is just not something that is at the forefront of our consciousness. Why? I have a theory, but first consider the following statistics. Plug the following phrases into google and check out the results:

"I hate Bill Clinton": 1,460 hits "I love Bill Clinton": 13,400 hits
"I hate George Bush": 35,300 hits "I love George Bush": 20,900 hits
"I hate Paris Hilton": 12,000 hits "I love Paris Hilton": 14,900 hits
"I hate Britney Spears": 10,400 hits "I love Britney Spears" 15,500 hits
"I hate Osama bin Laden": 198 hits "I love Osama bin Laden" 3,820 hits

I think its significant that pop stars and heiresses are in the same ballpark as presidents and ex-presidents. How is it that Britney Spears engenders 5,280% more hatred than the architect of 9/11?

I think part of the answer is that in the last 20 years he have embraced postmodernism, and we've embraced it in multiple forms. We've elevated irony, detachment, the burlesque, and the carnivalesque. We've embraced the postmodern notion of diffusion of power and to some extent no longer regard people in power as true agents of power. In a culture in which entertainment is pondered as much or more so than ideology, where passionate defense of any ideology is mocked, and where leaders are thought of as subservient to zeitgeist, why go through the trouble of assassinating someone?

(Of course, one need not go far in the "global village" to find cultures that are not postmodern. The "I love Osama bin Laden" hits mostly come from the Middle East, where assassinations occur regularly, where ideology is pondered more than entertainment, where passionate defense of ideology is celebrated, and where leaders are thought of as agents of power).

So does that mean that our postmodern culture is immune from assassination? Not necessarily. I'm going to follow my grandfather's precedent and make my own prediction. The next big American assassination, whenever it may occur, will not be made by a political dissenter. It will be made by someone who wants fame and recognition--a new currency for a new breed of assassin, one that even my pessimistic grandfather wouldn't have been able to foresee.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Retardation: A Linguistic Case Study

I possess a very good (actually the correct word would be "freakish") memory, I have an interest in linguistics, and I've been in several different environments in my life. Therefore, I've noticed and paid attention to trends and variations in language usage. I'm particularly interested in linguistic borders: words that straddle the line between offensiveness and acceptance, and how that determination is negotiated.

Language has always made such an impression on me that I could actually tell you the first time I have heard many words, or heard certain words used in certain contexts. I remember the first time I was conscious of the word "suck" being used as an adjective. I was in third grade, probably 1986, and somebody said that the 49ers "sucked." (Clearly not true, though with an ailing Joe Montana they were inferior to the New York Giants that year). I was able to pick up from the context what that word meant, though it struck me as rather strange. I pictured Randy Cross sucking on a lemon and having a sour look on his face. (If you are curious why I would picture Randy Cross and not Montana or Rice, the answer is that I had a Randy Cross football card. When I thought of the 49ers I pictured my Randy Cross football card. The Seahawks were represented by Joe Nash and the Patriots by Steve Grogan).

It seems rather likely that the usage of "suck" as an adjective has a vulgar etymology, and I can remember that at one time newspapers used to substitute the word "stink" in parenthesis whenever it was part of a quote. Now it is so accepted that I can't imagine anyone censors it anymore.

While the word "suck" has carved itself a niche in the vernacular, the word "gay" as a synonym for dumb has receded. When I was in middle school in the early 90s, the word "gay" was not used to feminize, and was rarely directed at individuals. It was used to almost as a substitute for the word "retrogressive," as in "This project is better suited for third graders. It is so gay." (There was always a need for a modifier like "so". Nothing was simply "gay.") The last I heard the word used in this way was in college in 1998 (I told you I had a freakish memory). Then a funny thing happened. The word was re-born as a casual pejorative. When I student taught high school in spring 2002, it was a common insult, usually hurled from one friend to another. Of course, the word was used a pejorative for decades before that, but what struck me at the time was that the pejorative didn't require any context. There was no gravitas behind the accusation. It was almost like in Shakespeare's plays when characters accuse each other of being cuckolds for no real reason other than to insult them.

Obviously, even the casual use of this word is highly politicized and the 2002 usage in a rural Wisconsin high school could be seen as a reaction to the increased prevalence of gay culture in the mainstream media. In retrospect, the shift in the word usage from synonym for "retrogressive" to casual pejorative roughly coincides with Ellen DeGeneres portraying the first homosexual main character on a TV show. However, the culture has policed the use of the word, and use in either of the above contexts in the mainstream today is clearly taboo.

I wish it were so easy to locate the stimulus for another word that has dwelled on the border of common usage and offensiveness. When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, one didn't think twice about calling someone a "retard." I didn't realize until recently, though, that as I matured into adolescence, the word receded. I don't know how much cultural sensitivity played in its decline, but can't imagine it had that much of an effect (could Corky really have had that much impact?) A more likely explanation is that the word stopped being used as an official designation of mentally disabled people. As official use of the word was curtailed, unofficial abuse of the word followed suit.

As I find myself once again in a high school environment, I still don't hear people using the word as a pejorative, but I do hear the word "retarded" being uttered quite often as an adjective. And its not always being used flippantly or casually; sometimes its being used earnestly to describe thought processes that are unsound (i.e. "I'm sorry. That was really retarded of me"). Apparently, the Black Eyed Peas smash hit "Let's Get it Started" was originally called "Let's Get Retarded." How is it that this word was once common, faded from usage, and is now re-born, albeit in a slightly different form?

Here is one theory: At one time the terms "moronic," "idiotic," and "imbecilic" were used to categorize mentally disabled people. Now they are used solely to describe the mental functions of the non-disabled. Could it be that the word "retarded" is headed down that same path? Were the last fifteen years or so enough of a "buffer zone" to cause a cultural lag that enables people to no longer associate the word with people who have actual mental disabilities?

Will the word "retarded" go the way of "suck" and permeate the boundary of acceptability, or will it be loaded down with political connotations, such as in the case of the word "gay"? It looks like it could go either way.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ten Years of Day Shift Then They Put You on the Schooling?

I've always felt compelled to interpret my mundane day-to-day decisions and activities in macro, global terms. It's the type of compulsion which enabled me as a college undergrad to come up with Kant's idea of the categorical imperative prior to having ever heard of Kant. (Okay, I was a few centuries late, but I could have changed the world if I were born a little earlier). It is also the type of compulsion that has always led me to question the implications of whatever vocation I've pursued (and I've had relatively many over the last few years).

In the past, I've come to some rather negative conclusions about my line of work. For instance, I eschewed a position as a news reporter, as I came to generally to agree Thoreau's designation of news as gossip. "Once you are acquainted with a phenomena," I paraphrase, "you don't really need to be notified of any specific instance." Realizing that people are well aware that it is possible for a barn to catch fire and burn down, I felt I wasn't contributing a whole lot by giving them specific examples of this occurring. (Also, the Columbus, Wisconsin fire chief circa 2002 was pretty uncooperative. Would it have really hurt you to tell me how many pigs died?).

More recently, I've been in a position where I get to dictate to teen-agers how they will be spending some of their time. Given how much the concept of time is valued in the adult world, where most demands of time come with promises of fiduciary compensation, it is somewhat ironic the ease with which teachers can put demands on the time of their students, both in and out of the classroom. In other words, I want to be sure that what I am asking my students to do is of value to them. In a specific instance, I am asking 50 sophomores this week to compose a short fictional story. I have to ask myself if this is a worthwhile endeavor. It has no tangible practical benefit to them. However, I can honestly say that I think this is a good demand to place on their time. In the interest of avoidance of digression, I won't go into the specific reasons here, but suffice it to say I am a strong believer in liberal arts education, and believe in the intangible benefits of abstract thinking.

However, I can't shake the concurrent conviction that however good writing short stories, analyzing literature, or conducting essays is for 15-year-olds, such tasks could be equally beneficial for 25-year-olds, 35-year-olds, and 75-year-olds. In fact, a case could be made that given more world experience, abstract ideas normally acquired in adolescence could be better grasped and applied. Currently, high schools and colleges give their students a liberal arts education to help them prepare for the rigors of a practical vocation. However, I'm thinking that a rigorous practical vocation would be tremendous preparation for a liberal arts education.

As medical advancements are made and life expectancy continues to grow, one of the exigent reasons for rushing people out of the educational pipeline is rendered void. People are delaying marriage, families, and serious careers into well into their 20s, as transitional life stages are being drawn out. I assert that the time is coming that we can soon recognize a paradigm shift and make some radical changes in our educational system.

Here is a proposal: Have compulsory education end after eighth grade. At this point, everyone is required to enter the workforce for ten years. People can pursue the occupation they want, but as a fallback some type of civil service job is guaranteed. Part of their salary is put into a system that will allow them to, if they choose, drop out of the workforce at age 24 and attend high school. Those who go this route receive a full stipend and are not forced to work at all for sustenance. The only requirement is that they keep their grades up. At any time they wish to, they can drop out and return to the workforce. At age 28, if they choose, they can attend college, though the free ride is over and they would have to borrow. Even if they pursue a profession requiring a lot of education, they would still have a solid 25 years or more to devote to that profession.

This proposal should no way be interpreted as a lament against the idea of giving a liberal arts education to adolescents. I'm rather fond of the teen-agers I am privileged to educate (or attempt to educate) on a daily basis, and I was fond of the young adults I taught last year. Rather, my proposal is a radical response to a prevailing anti-intellectual culture among adults. By making education something to be aspired to rather than something to quickly attain and leave behind, I think we'd have a better world. I'd also like to see what manner of short stories a class of worldly 25-year-olds could produce.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Formative Transformation of a Certain Groom

Sorry for the recent infrequency of updates. Two out-of-state weddings on consecutive weekends takes a toll on free time, particularly when you have an already crushing workload. After my brother's Wisconsin wedding, I was off to the Twin Cities last weekend for the nuptials of a high school classmate.

Matt, the groom of the latter affair, asked me to blog about his wedding. "You don't understand," I tried to inform him, "I only write boring essayes on my blog. I'm not one of the types to actually speak about personal experiences, and certainly not about the raw emotions generally associated with sacred events such as this."

However, Matt is a salesman and is generally not given to concede anything once he has his mind set. "Just try to write something," he rejoined, inflecting just the right tone of voice to imply that if I didn't, I would succeed in forever tarnishing the pristine memories of his blessed weekend.

I suppose I could write a very entertaining blog about my travel adventures of the weekend, but I'd rather not re-live that. All I can say is that I don't know why anyone would ever book a flight when driving is even remotely an option, particularly since the advent of XM Radio.

So I guess I'll be forced to relate my impressions on how my old friend has changed over the years, and the significance of his coming to the altar. I have always enjoyed Matt's ability to adopt an ethos of nonconformity while at the same time pursuing an agenda of notoriety. Some of my favorite memories include his unsuccessful attempt to talk his way into a limo after we went to a Stones concert in 1999, followed by his successful attempt a few minutes later to talk a motorist into rolling down his window and offering him a bite of his doughnut. These examples of unabashed temerity were par for the course with him, and they were indicative of a roguish charm that he affected that allowed him to get away with pretty much anything.

I suppose I had a my share of temerity back in those days, as well, as evidenced by the stunts that we would sometimes pull in tandem. After a Brewer game in May of 1998, we staged a beautiful incident in the County Stadium parking lot in which he pretended to trip me and I sent a gigantic collection of scavenged stadium food in multiple directions. I vividly recall a motorist yelling "stupid drunks!" out the window of his Coke-splashed vehicle. The irony was that we were far from inebriated; neither one of us needed to be to exceed the boundary of rational behavior. For many people, this incident would have been a fitting denouement to the evening, but we weren't content. We next concocted a game in which I would block traffic and he would approach motorists and make them answer questions from a trivia book in order to pass. (We were quite surprised when a guy, without any hesitation, rattled off several states that begin and end with the same letter, e.g. Alaska).

Through these and many other adventures, the constant in Matt's personality was an element of control. He loved his friends, but he was always one to set the tone and manipulate the environment to maximize his experiences. Since he also had the uncanny knack to make other's feel comfortable, they wouldn't feel like they were sacrificing anything by ceding to him (I suppose these are the factors which enable him to be a successful salesman today).

I don't think it takes a psychologist to look at this profile and say that such a person may not be best suited to matrimony, to the type of compromises and concessions that a successful relationship requires. In other words, the guy who once bragged to me that he "doesn't back down" would need to find the ability to occasionally back down.

After observing his informal interactions with his new bride, I am convinced that they will have a wonderful life together. How can I be so sure? Let me cite one example: Matt had no idea where he was going on his honeymoon. She knew the arrangements, but he was told that it would be a surprise. The Matt I used to know wouldn't have accepted such a scenario.

Of course, there times when Matt's previous mantra of "not backing down" will come in handy. He related to me that the day of the wedding he told his bride, "Honey, this is just like a tattoo. It's forever." In a culture where many people say "I do" to a lifetime comment and then renege on it, you can be sure that when this guy says "I do," that he won't back down from the commitment that such a statement entails.