March 2012

The Odds Are Stacked.

There’s a maxim when studying history that goes: You have to judge a people by the context of their times. This means that to apply modern sensibilities when judging how folks long ago dealt with “an issue” is unfair. Accordingly, we (today) have the cumulative advantage of years in which human beings have “advanced” (scientifically, culturally, ethically).

This has always been an interesting question to me. How do we judge our ancestors? Our Founding Fathers, white boys all, found it just fine to count a slave as three-fifths a human being for reasons of representation. I find this perversely funny. Slaves could not vote, were deemed to have no rights, yet Southerners insisted “they” be counted nonetheless. “The Three-Fifths Compromise” codified into our Constitution the complete marginalization of African-Americans.

America’s democracy, imperfect as it is, was compromised from the beginning. Without this compromise, it is argued, America may not have become the “United” States. The take-away: it was necessary for the existence of the United States to unequivocally marginalize black Americans (slaves) in our original founding document, the U.S. Constitution. That for all intents and purposes, a black man counted as three-fifths a white man. Auspicious beginnings.

How should we judge our Founding Fathers today in this regard? By contemporary standards, this is clearly racism. But what was it in 1787?

In 1783, the first anti-slavery group was formed (by Quakers) in England. I mention this because it is important to understand that voices opposing slavery were actually raising objections (internationally and in America). It is one thing to operate in a vacuum (slavery is an historical fact, normal and sanctioned by society) and another to become aware that “some” found slavery an abomination and should be outlawed.

Interestingly, most abolitionists while opposing slavery did not consider Africans as “equal” to white men, let alone have them live next door. But the conversation for “justice” had begun. Its clarion message had not yet reached a crescendo; that would take another 180 years. America’s Civil War was more about the Union, less about slavery.

After the Civil War Jim Crow was put in place in the South (and to varying degrees throughout the North). It wasn’t until the post WWII period that civil rights for America’s black citizens actually began to seriously trouble (agitate) white America.

The Civil Rights fight that took place in the 1960s was just the beginning of the quest for black freedom and justice. Slavery/Jim Crow had been a continuous part of the American fabric since the establishment of the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in 1565. That is 400 years of unmitigated terror and oppression of African-Americans. It is less than 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1965. 400 years of slavery and oppression. 50 years at making amends/corrections.

The question on the table is what will Americans generations from now make of us? How will we be judged regarding race? What will be the context of our times?

The line most quoted in the just released hit movie, “The Hunger Games” is “May the odds be ever in your favor.” It’s ludicrous. Twenty-four children are selected to participate in a killing field where only one survives. Some odds, huh? Speaking of which.

When I heard that “line” I immediately thought of America’s young black men. The odds sadly never seem in their favor. Why is that?

What does Trayvon Martin’s death say about you? And America in 2012?

Life. Fun With A Capital PH!

I’ve been told all my life that I don’t look my age. Or, that I look young for my age. Or, that I look good for my age. And, yes, more than a time or two, that I don’t act my age. I am writing this column on my 63rd birthday wondering how a man my age might comport himself?

I do not subscribe at all to the current hype that 60 is the new 40 or any other such age-related nonsense. 60 is 60. I’ve a lot of photographs of my father and I imagine a lot of readers have the same experience I do when looking at pictures of their once young parents, “Wow! They sure were pretty.” But I also look at photos of my father and invariably think, “He looks so mature.” He did. He was a serious man with a serious streak of whimsy. I’m more a whimsical man with a curious streak of serious.

Interestingly (to me only), I became cognizant at a relatively young age that we – none of us – get out alive. Any notion that I was immortal, well, I never had such illusions. Death became, not a bosom companion through my days but more of an accompanying shadow. A presence, a reality, the quiet guest, so to speak, always in the other room. I became aware, it became crystal clear that life is about moments and you damned well better be of the moment. I willingly describe myself as a short-term hedonist yet I place a premium on long-term relationships. Ah, the best of all possible worlds.

I first began calculating my remaining years when I was around the age of 20 or 21. My grandfather died at age 83, my father at age 81. I split the difference determining that give or take “months” I would die around 82. And I am so okay with that. I came to “grips” years ago with my mortality, eventually got over the unfairness of it all (death of my all-to-brief consciousness) and in doing so was liberated.

I do not welcome death (I am much too alive!) but neither do I dread it. It is. I’ve concluded that five minutes too soon is preferable to five minutes too late. That when one dies is important. I’ve got the how covered (barbiturates and whiskey); it becomes merely a matter of timing. My goal is to exit on my terms, date (time) certain. I readily acknowledge the hubris associated with my “plan.” What is the adage? “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” But I want to die as I lived. With intent.

The question on the table is how does a man of my advancing years live? At this point in my life I do not have much choice in this regard. As the twig is bent so grows the tree. I will live as I have always lived. (We all do.) I will continue to reflect on the important, shed the nonessential and parteeeee likes it’s 1999!

I’ve passed-on my genetic “essence” to successive generations thus participating in the “purpose” of my species. Meaning of life? It is strictly an individual human construct. I find it in beauty and grace. In relationships, love and affection. In passion. Language. Art. In whimsy. In “a” raison d’être.

My father often spoke of fun. Big fun he spelled with a capital PH. Indeed.

Why Art? Exactly Because It Is Gnarly Out There.

Life is short, art is long. – Hippocrates

It’s an all too brief slog. Life is. Read any amount of history and two overarching themes that “jump” out are how transitory life is as well as how human beings have attempted to understand (convey) our condition. We’re conceived. We achieve consciousness. We die. In between we live. Concomitant is the fact that life is often brutal, violent and sorrowful.

Art is the attempt to make sense of it all. To give meaning. To express what is (reality), what could be (inspirational). And at times, what was. Art informs every aspect of our lives, from how we live, to how we see, hear and learn. We are talking art pieces, human canvases (mobiles) in which we display who we are and why we exist. Art is an individual or collaborative endeavor but it is a collective, societal value requiring an awareness of, reverence for and support to . . . flourish. Art is such an integral part of the human experience yet many take it for granted, much like the air we breathe.

How do you justify art in a world of sorrow? There are the many homeless with their hands forever out, begging at the ramps to our interstates. What of the wretched Kony kids of Uganda? The all-too-regular violence (shootings) in our cities and suburbs. Pervasive poverty. Our forever wars. Mindless acts of brutality. School massacres. Diseases. Our cancerous environment. Ad nauseum.

How do you justify art in a world of shrinking government budgets? Schools in disrepair. Cuts in school funding. Teachers/cops furloughed. Crowded roadways. Disintegrating infrastructure. Unfunded federal and state mandates (education/healthcare). Why art?

Why support culture (art and its creators)? Why give money or yourself to the art museum, the philharmonic, local theater or dance troupe? Why standup and insist that our government (local/county/state/federal) fund the arts and culture at levels of support reflecting their inherent importance. Why art?

Why art? Winston Churchill’s finance minister recommended in Parliament during WWII that Britain cut arts funding to support the war effort. Allegedly, Churchill’s response was, “Then what are we fighting for?” Indeed. The veracity of Churchill’s retort is questioned but the sentiment is timeless.

Why art? The former Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien observed that, “An important measure of a great civilization, of a great society, is its contribution to humanity through the sciences and the arts, through its discoveries, its innovations, its cathedrals and canvasses, its stories and its music.”

Reflect for just a moment on the history of our species. Ours is a history you can easily wrap your mind around. We’re a young species, writing for maybe 10,000 years, creating art for 40,000 years (see: the Hohle Fels Venus). Many things surface (violence, war, famine, struggle) as one mentally chronicles our “journey.” But what stands-out are our achievements in art. Whether it was the Greeks and their playwrights, Renaissance art, Elizabethan theater or French Impressionism, we measure ourselves and our culture by the art we create (foster).

Why art? Because all the pain and suffering will still be with us tomorrow. The degradation and humiliation, the sorrow associated with being human is our condition and our constant challenge.

Why art? Art is our best hope. It is the profound realization that “true” transcendence (beauty & grace) is possible.

How Did We Arrive Here?

Sometimes I experience “down-on-my-knees awe” of our species. How so very far we have come in such a relatively short period of time. Out-of-Africa some 70,000 years ago, we have been capable of language, music and art for approximately 50,000 years. We left the planet 50 years ago (Apollo Space Program) and the upper end of our potential is, I think, limited only by our imaginations. Yet . . .

Yet, what numbchucks we are. My sister characterizes our species as “nasty little monkeys.” We’re violent, aggressive, territorial, fearful and superstitious. We breed much as a malignant cancer, largely indifferent to our collective impact on Earth’s environment. On one hand we’re artistic, creative, loving and generous. On the other we’re myopic, fearful and self-serving. We’re a Manichean, Janus-masked collection of competing emotions. The very qualities that make us “Master of the Universe” can just as easily launch an Inquisition, justify a pogrom or require women in burkas.

What genuinely has me down is the condition of America. How did we arrive here? Up to our neck in problems (of our own making) and operating under a political system conceived to be deliberately contentious. A three-branch democracy created to provide a check and balance against tyranny as well as revolutionary change. We are wholly dependent on an intelligent and informed electorate who in turn elect competent leaders.

When the obit is written on the United States, historians will conclude America succumbed because its population failed its test of good citizenship. We did not smartly consider our intelligent options. We did not select appropriate solutions to the challenges confronting our republic (whether it be war, energy or education) nor did we elect the “best” leaders with the best ideas. This appears to be America’s condition, depressing as that may be.

The popular idea that the average citizen will select the best candidate or best policy when they see it is being increasingly challenged as false. According to research results conducted by Cornell professor, David Dunning, one conclusion suggests that democratic elections “produce mediocre leadership and policies.” Why, you might legitimately ask?

Because most of our fellow citizens cannot adequately judge the competency of a public policy or a candidate, “Very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is,” said Dunning.

To a degree, this applies to all of us. Most of us are not experts, say, in foreign policy. To be able to then discern who is an expert and whose ideas make sense becomes the challenge. We lack the mental acumen to make those determinations. And most of us lack the discipline to be an “informed” voter. Informed with accurate, intelligent information.

We seemingly are incapable of making the right decisions when the evidence stares us in the face. Why? Because “If you have gaps in your knowledge in a given area, then you’re not in a position to assess your own gaps or the gaps of others,” observed Dunning.

I am reminded of the 1994 comedy, Dumb and Dumber. Is America little more than the dumb dumbly electing the dumber?

H.L. Mencken observed, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve it good and hard.”

Do we? Deserve it “good and hard?”

Shall we put it to a vote?

What’s that? We have.

One election, one vote at a time.