Thursday, June 28, 2012

Miniature American Flags For Others

Is this becoming a political blog?  I really don't mean for it to.  My purpose has always been self expression rather than straight-up advocacy.  I don't make any effort to hide my political opinions, of course.  I'm a liberal, and I am so because I believe that the economy and the government and all of our various societal constructs exist for the benefit of the people at large, rather than the minority with the most money.  So I favor strong, viable institutions, available for use by the entire public and supported by the entire public.  Public schools, public transportation, and yes, public healthcare.

So obviously, I'm pretty pleased with today's decision from the Supreme Court that preserves the Affordable Care Act in almost exactly the form it was passed.  There's a lot that is wrong with that law, but "overreach" is certainly not the issue.  Our current health care crisis was created by the private insurance market, and the ACA functions primarily by trying to enroll more people in that market.  Having coverage with a company that makes money by taking as much and paying as little as possible is better than no coverage at all, it still represents a situation that no fair-minded person should regard as ideal.  And yet I am pleased nonetheless.

The ACA provides us, the American people, with many tangible benefits that we would be worse off without.  The Republicans have proposed no comprehensive alternative, so their demands for "repeal and replace" are really just demands for repeal, and then allowing insurance companies to operate however they please.  I prefer some rules to no rules, especially when the rules prohibit discrimination against women, the elderly, and the sick.

Pleased as I am, though, I find the Supreme Court's decision to be fascinating in a lot of ways.  Liberals will note that Anthony Kennedy showed his true colors by writing in his dissent that he and the other three justices in the minority regarded the entirety of the law (not just the controversial "individual mandate") as "invalid."  Anthony Kennedy may agree with the liberals on some points, but he is not a liberal.  He is not a moderate, either.  He is merely an idiosyncratic conservative.  Better than a dogmatist like Scalia or Thomas, but far too easily led by them.

Chief Justice John Roberts, on the other hand, is a tougher one to analyze in this case.  He had, before this vote, a more conservative reputation than Kennedy.  He probably still deserves it.  But his vote gave the liberal justices their majority and allowed this law, which conservatives despise, to survive.  As a result, Americans will keep what benefits the law gives them, even as they await the real long term solution that will help lift us out of our real crisis.  Because conservative media and politicians will publicly flay him for this, he should be commended for a courageous vote.

On the other hand, the decision he wrote seems calculated to preserve the law while simultaneously undermining the power of Congress to pass progressive laws.  It feels odd to be so thankful to John Roberts when he seems determined to put social security, medicare, and countless other programs on increasingly thin ice.  In the best case scenario, the language of Roberts' decision is a face-saving measure for the conservative crowd, while allowing him to vote his conscience.  In the worst case, he's up to something sinister, and this is merely laying the groundwork for the annihilation of every progressive law since the New Deal.  It may be something in between these extremes, but Roberts' real motivation is certainly something more than he's let on.

Regardless, it should be clear to all liberals that the Supreme Court, while occasionally capable of doing the right thing, cannot be counted on to back the interests of the public above all else.  At least five of the Justices are prone to the influences of reductionist ideology, and will side with injustice if it suits their "originalist" fantasies.  Nominating Justices to the Supreme Court is an extremely important power, and ought to be a major factor in our consideration of who to support for the Presidency.  The Court is powerful, and it should be powerful, but our only means of influencing that power directly is through the President.  With the oldest members of the Court currently in the conservative faction, we have an opportunity to buy ourselves some measure of judicial security; provided the President in office is inclined to appoint liberals, or at the very least true moderates.

All of this may sound cynical and nakedly political.  If you are a conservative, it will sound horrifying.  But we're stuck playing this game now, and I'd like to see the side that favors justice and equality playing it well.

Friday, June 22, 2012

WFJ Book Club #9: Dreams from My Father

Some time in the future, probably not very long from now, Barack Obama will be remembered in much the same way as all of his predecessors, one more link in a chronology of American Presidents.  It will be assumed without much critical thought that he was destined for that list, that every stage in his life was a step in that direction.  Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer, Lyndon Johnson was a public school teacher, and Ronald Reagan was an actor, but none of these things seem to define their identities except as stops along the way, as if they were just biding their time and waiting their turn.

So reading his first book, the memoir Dreams from My Father, seems a little surreal.  The book was first published in 1995, before he'd been elected to a single public office.  The edition I own, republished in 2004, identifies its author on the back as "the U.S. senator-elect from Illinois."  A title like that is so immediate and time-bound I can't help but laugh at the prospect of a future political scholar pulling it from a library shelf, and wondering briefly if they've got the right author.  I don't know when Obama began planning in earnest to run for President, but there was a time when "senator-elect" was the highest office he could claim.  And years before that, he was just a regular guy; if he was a future President all along, there was no way of knowing.

Obama certainly has one of the most unconventional life stories of any U.S. President.  He was born in Hawaii and lived for four years in Indonesia, moving to the American mainland only when it was time to go to college.  From there he adopted the lifestyle of a socially conscious African-American in the early 80's, though he pursued it in a variety of ways: business, community organizing, and eventually the study of law.  There was no special destiny about any of this, and Obama's primary theme throughout the book is doubt: uncertainty of who he was, what he was doing, and what he was going to become.

History will remember Obama as America's first African-American President.  Examining that claim, however, brings us to the great contradiction of his identity, nestled in the contradictions of our racial politics.  As an American of African ancestry, he certainly meets the definition of an African-American.  In common parlance, however, "African-American" is a synonym for "black," and black is implicitly regarded as the opposite of "white."  But Obama is biracial, with a white mother and a black father.  If you were to try explaining our racial system to a Martian, it would be difficult to explain in purely rational or mathematical terms why someone who is precisely half black and half white should be regarded primarily as black.  Obama accepted the label, but not every biracial person he meets with on his journey accepts it in quite the same way.

The path toward coming to terms with his blackness, the part of himself that makes him "African," leads Obama to reevaluate over and over his social status, his mission in life, and most of all his family.  His extended family is large, particularly on his father's side.  But Obama never really knew his father, apart from a brief reunion in his early adolescence.  He did not come to know most of his half-siblings, cousins, and other African relatives until years after Obama Senior had suddenly died.  Dreams from My Father reaches a climax with his first visit to Kenya, where the reunion with his long-lost family introduces new stories and facts into the mythology Obama constructed for himself.  He recounts these discoveries with high emotion and no small amount of pain, but by the book's end it is implied that he has drawn some measure of peace from them.

Race is everywhere in Dreams, and it is discussed primarily from a black perspective.  This means occasionally stepping on the toes of whites, describing them in terms of oppression and colonialism that the less enlightened may find threatening or offensive.  But Obama is always in a state of doubt: partly as a result of his white heritage, and partly from experience working in impoverished, inner-city Chicago, he tries to look beyond the orthodoxies of the black community.  Where the line between idealism and reality should be drawn is never resolved, but it helps in some way to explain Obama's pragmatic political style.

As someone who, like most people, came to know Obama first as a rising political star and then a sudden contender for the Presidency, it is impossible not to analyze this book for clues to understanding his political choices.  But apart from the oft-observed truisms that he is both a liberal and a pragmatist, there's not much to learn about Obama the politician.  Politicians are cautious with their words, careful to offend as few people as possible.  I chuckled somewhat at the younger Obama's fond recollections of Jeremiah Wright, knowing that he'd probably prefer to publicly discuss the Reverend as little as possible after what happened four years ago.  Dreams is not a collection of boring freedom-flavored platitudes, the like of which major candidates like to foist upon the public to boost their electoral potential.  It is measured and not at all sensational, but it is also frank, honest, and emotionally powerful.  Even knowing the job that Barack Obama would one day hold, it still comes across as a book about a man's past, not a strategic support-piece of a career politician's ambition.

The man who wrote Dreams from My Father is the man I voted for in 2008, or at least the version of that man who I most identify with and support.  After meeting him anew in this way, I wonder what a time traveling, mid-90's Obama would make of his future self's administration.  Would he be disappointed by what pragmatism and political reality had made of his ideals?  How willing would he be to accept those compromises?  Could the Obama of the past properly appreciate the burdens of the office which the present Obama has carried for almost four years?

I'm not sure that any of us could, any more than one book can ever take us directly into the heart and mind of another human being.  But Dreams will be as important to Obama's legacy as just about anything else he has or will produce: a first-hand record of a man who would be President, long before he could have thought it possible.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Price of my Piracy

I'm not one, in a lot of ways, to "speak for my generation."  It's said that nowadays, nobody pays for music anymore, yet I sit on a pile of CDs I bought with my own cash.  I sift around for aged music I can forge a connection to, rather than chasing the latest sensation.  But I do display one of my generation's vices: I own a lot of music I didn't pay for.

Recently, a pair of articles made me think about this in a way I've usually avoided.  The first was a short post by Emily White, an intern at NPR, describing her history of collecting music without paying for it: essentially, the recording industry's worst nightmare. White doesn't flaunt her piracy, but she doesn't exactly apologize for it either.  What she does do, however, is lament the system that asks her to choose between paying into an antiquated model, or simply breathing in what seems to float freely through the digital air.

The second was a response post by David Lowery, a musician and member of the rock bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker (don't worry if you've never heard of them, I hadn't either).  Lowery's open letter in particular is a fascinating and extremely well-informed read, and brought home some truths that many people in these modern times, myself included, have preferred to ignore.  It's essential reading and I won't try to duplicate or summarize it here, but I do feel like I have something to say about it.

Despite his stated intention not to shame or guilt Ms. White or others like her, after reading Lowery's essay I was seized by a moral concern over the contents of my hard drive.  Most days I can't be bothered to think about the issues surrounding illicit digital distribution, accepting that it's just something that exists among my peer group.  I've participated in it, both directly and indirectly.  Most of the time, it's not a part of my daily life, but sometimes it is.  If taking music for free is wrong, I want to know just how wrong I am.

I have a lot of music in my iTunes library; not as much as White (who keeps 11,000 tracks), but a substantial amount that keeps me listening to a wide variety of sounds all year: altogether, 5,831 tracks of music and other recordings.  Some of it I love, and some of it I like a lot.  Some of it, I keep around largely for novelty value.  Since I can still remember where just about every album came from, I decided to do a quick count of how much of it I could rightfully lay claim to, and how much I could be blamed for stealing, and how much I might reasonably be held accountable for should the RIAA ever succeed in tracking me down.

I decided to divide the music into two categories.  The first included albums that I had bought myself (either as a CD or download), plus albums that I had received as a gift (i.e., from someone who had paid for it, or from the artists themselves).  Category One is, therefore, all the music I obtained ethically.

The second category included all the music I had personally clutched from the internet (whether it was offered freely or not) and music I might term as "illicit gifts:" either received digitally from a friend's hard drive, or copied from a CD owned by a friend or family member.  Category Two is, therefore, music which I should have paid for, but did not.

After running a quick tally (as quickly as I could, anyway), I came to these totals: Of my 5,831 tracks of music, comedy, and various other sounds, I judged that 3,297 of them (Category One) were properly paid for, while the other 2,534 (Category Two) were not.  Applying the standard iTunes rate of ninety nine cents a track, I deemed the value of my ill-gotten goods at roughly $2,508.86. For all the rhetoric about the freedom to share culture on the internet, you have to admit that's kind of a lot.

It's not really a definitive number, however.  A small handful of items in Category Two were albums that had been made available by the artists as free downloads (at least at the time that I downloaded them).  I also had a certain degree of difficulty in distinguishing, in some cases, between albums I could consider "gifts" and albums I had simply copied from friends or family.  After all, I built much of my initial iTunes library, back when I was a teenager, on CDs that belonged to my parents.  I counted the vast majority of these in category two, but it certainly didn't feel like stealing at the time.

Hedging aside, there's a lot of audio on this hard drive that I simply did not pay for.  And honestly, I feel kind of bad about it.  Not in the sense of depriving starving musicians of income: because my tastes tend to run in the direction of classic rock, most of what I didn't pay for was produced by older artists (or even dead ones) who made their money long ago.  Not all of it; I have plenty of tracks by contemporary artists who ought to have been compensated.  Most of them, as far as I know, are doing alright in the financial sense.  That isn't really the point.  The point is, I took something off the market that should have been paid for.  I enjoy most of this music far too much to delete it on principle, but I would very much like to stop stealing it.

Nowadays, I listen to a lot of Spotify.  It's a fantastic concept, putting just about all the world's recorded music in one instantly accessible archive, paid for by ads and subscriptions.  It's also not perfect: Spotify "compensates" artists and labels at cutthroat rates, while sitting on massive profits that it hasn't fully earned.  But it has effectively killed any real motivation for me to use file-sharing to hear free music.  I hate Spotify's ads like I hate most ads, but I'm willing to sit through them if they represent even a trickle of money flowing in the right direction.  Spotify and other "internet radio" sites represent the best possible future for music: everything paid for, and everything instantly available.

I like CDs, because I honestly love the album experience.  I still listen to the ones I own (and as you can tell from my stats, I own many).  But I've always believed they cost more than they should.  I'm not likely to buy many more that aren't discounted or very, very special to me.  I shouldn't have to pay more than about ten dollars for an album.  And in this brave new world, I really shouldn't have to pay a premium for a physical medium unless I choose to.  Ad-supported streaming looks like the best option for me: I want to call on services like Spotify to do right by musicians and make sure they get the money they deserve.

One of these days, when I'm able to be freer with my money, I'll try to make up for that $2,508.86 that I owe.  For now, I'll focus on making sure my tab doesn't grow.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Borders and boundaries

Greetings again, readers and passers-by.  It has once again been some time since I wrote in first person on this blog, so I thought I'd do a little reflection on the state of things around here.  Some people don't like to analyze or talk about their own work; in fact, many great artists who I admire have recoiled at the idea.  The oft-quoted, oft-paraphrased maxim is that art, literature and so on should "speak for itself."  But to a certain extent I can't help myself.  I like to peel the curtain back, and get a better look at the process that led to the results.  This is me thinking out loud.  With text.

The latest news for the blog is of course the addition of a new short story, Snow Globe Slowdown, to the archive.  I imagine that it's fairly typical in style and tone to things I've written before, to the extent that I have a signature style.  The title is not particularly great: there isn't exactly a snow globe in it, although there is a lot of slowness.  The real merit of the title is that I like saying it out loud.  In fact, I often come up with titles on the basis of euphony alone, and allow the mental images they evoke to influence the plot or scenario I'd thought up previously.  That was definitely something that happened here, and it was definitely an improvement over what I originally had in mind.

You see, sometimes I get it in my head to write something funny.  This particular story began its conceptual life as an absurdist, whimsical, and ultimately pointless farce.  I was doing laundry one day and, after all the shuffling from machine to machine was done, I had an extra pair of unidentified socks.  I briefly considered the possibility that the dryer was in fact generating extra socks, and that eventually the world would be overrun by socks.  If you think the idea of people fleeing from an avalanche of socks is funny, you're clearly as hopeless as me, but it did lead to a mental image that I liked: looking down from a modest hilltop at a ridiculous end-of-the-world scenario (a trope I seem to be disturbingly fond of).  And once I latched onto that image, the story stopped being funny (if it ever was) and started being bittersweet.

My artistic tastes can basically be taken as a veneration of the bittersweet, so obviously I had to do something with this.  But at first, I couldn't really think of anything except excuses to get a couple of people onto a hilltop.  After dumping the endless sock apocalypse, I realized the scenario wasn't really unique, and I had to focus on something besides the view: I had to develop the characters.  I had to give them personal reasons for being alone, together, and at a high elevation.  If they had good enough reasons, then the disaster could be something as plain as a flood and it wouldn't matter.

I'm not sure exactly when in the process I decided to make them a gay couple; the initial thought occurred early on, but I treated them as straight or ambiguous throughout a lot of the idea phase.  I think I know why I committed to their relationship, though.  Mostly, I was challenging myself to write characters who were very different from myself.  All of my characters, Caleb and Julian included, are drawn from myself, and none of them thus far have been intentionally depicted as anything but straight (though interesting and entertaining cases could probably be made for a few of them).  Making them gay got me thinking not only about how they were different from myself, but how they might be different from each other.  Defining them in opposition to one another was probably the most satisfying aspect of writing this story.

Part of my "style," which is possibly a weakness, is to imply or take for granted some elements that others would feel the need to state explicitly.  I had hoped that I could carry across the fact of their relationship through a few kisses and casual touches, and let the dialogue and scenario communicate its depth and intricacies.  I do try to be subtle, and I preferred this approach to an introduction like "Julian was working intently on a sketch one afternoon, about himself and his gay lover Caleb."  If a story begins with two people of opposite sexes living together, it's not out of line to assume a romantic connection between them without directly stating it: I wanted to turn that assumption on its head.  However, one loyal reader (my girlfriend) has already suggested to me that I may have obfuscated too much.  If that's the consensus, then maybe this experiment is something of a failure.  But I'm glad I tried.

Anyway, Snow Globe Slowdown is about more than the noble effort to increase diversity in fictional protagonists.  But after a certain point, it probably is better to let the work speak for itself.  I really need to learn how to do that better.