Monday, May 23, 2005

I was in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago with my buddy D., who’d dragged me along to a birthday party in a cozy little gazillion dollar penthouse with a fabulous view of the backs of buildings with views of Central Park. A gazillion ain’t what it used to be. A view of the actual park will cost you at least a quadruple bijillion gazillion (roughly a googolplex). Even for the filthy rich, there are degrees of filth.

Penthouse reality (even the mere gazillion dollar variety) bears little resemblance to the life at street-level I’ve always known and rather loathed, truth be known, full of lopsided, self-consciously quirky, often unintentionally grotesque people who can't afford their own cigarettes, and who think of their lives as, at best would-be no-budget indie films, at worst some unwatchable pomo alt-funk version of Fear Factor. Here on the umpteenth floor amongst the glitterati it was more brutal, less amusing. But the drinks were on the house.

After kindly fetching me my third, D. smiled and said, “not so bad after all, eh?” Keep ‘em coming, I told him. After three drinks I didn’t hate everyone in the room anymore, but I still disliked the vast majority intensely. D. looked at me with a mixture of mild surprise and pity. “Mike,” he said, “you’re having rich rage.”

Suddenly I felt a flush of shame come over me. I had to admit I was on the verge. And it’s not the first time I’ve noticed this shameful creeping wealthism in me. Sometimes while I'm sitting on the Orange Line T on my way home from my slave-wage day job, my eye rests dreamily on one of those Mohegan Sun ads plastered all over the trains. You know the ones: the Duchess of Oysterland and her all-white entourage. I mean, where am I? South Africa circa 1979? Is this the express to Sun City? Miss Locked-and-loaded Buying Machine, Mr. A-Game, and the lady with the vibrating phone who only answers to “the noble touch of heated stones.” Do these people ride the T? Or is the point just to rub the rest of our noses in it?

I tried in vain to defend myself against charges of rich rage. After all, some of my best friends are rich, or at least upper middle class. D. wasn’t having it. “It’s not their fault,” he said. “They were born that way.” I tried political rhetoric, telling D.: “History calls those who fight for the poor heroes. Those who fight for the rich are mercenaries.” But it sounds so 1848. I mean, you can only stay angry at the rich for so long. Paris Hilton’s not really hurting anyone, is she?

Yes, the rich do suffer unduly from the burden of their status. And I’ve been guilty on occasion of prejudice against them. And though it pains me to admit it, while greed is often considered the worst of the seven sins, envy comes in a close second.

Monday, May 16, 2005

It has been a year now since the Goodridge decision legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts, and the sky has yet to fall. The aftermath of the SJC ruling has not been particularly newsworthy, if you want to know the truth. What’s followed in its wake is the very boring business of gay couples going about their married lives much as straight couples do. In fact, legalization has benefited the zealots on the right who’ve used it to reenergize their unholy jihad much more than it has the relatively modest number of gays and lesbians who have taken advantage of the opportunity to marry.

Lest we forget, the latest round of hysterical cries of “judicial activism!” began with the SJC’s decision, growing steadily more shrill through the Terri Shialvo fiasco, and culminating in the scorched-earth move on the part of Republicans to ban filibusters, which comes to a vote this week. Make no mistake, these issues are all connected, part of an agenda infinitely more insidious and damaging to democracy than anything gays could dream up. After all, the so-called gay agenda amounts to a bid to claim modest rights, and an obvious desire to take on the middle class responsibilities that come with them. It is not remotely radical. It is, in fact, downright old-fashioned and conservative. The religious radicals may be right that we live in an increasingly decadent society, but they, and not gays, are living proof of it.

For the Republicans going along with the radical wing of their party, the “nuclear option” is power politics at its boldest. You may not be gay, but it would be a mistake to assume that your personal freedoms are guaranteed because you’re not. Sure, the right believes in individual freedom: its own. Furthermore, this freedom seems to be the kind that necessitates the repeal of everyone else’s. Rest assured, you’re next.

That Democrats can’t seem to find their focus fighting such a truly un-American foe is just plain pathetic, but our cultural moment is one of rabid radicals versus milquetoast moderates. Since their 2004 defeat, the Democrats have whined, cringed, and cowered, many arguing that pandering to the right is the only way to prevail in the next election. Do this, and the terrorists win. Another brilliant strategy: wait for the right to implode. It will, but how many lives will be ruined by then?

The Democrats could learn a thing or two from the gay agenda: stick to your guns, and have faith in the strength of an open society. Sure, you’ll win some and lose some, but if the future is a free and open one, history will vindicate you. This is the real dilemma of the left: the goal of greater freedom for all is actually very moderate, requiring patience, tolerance, and trust, not vitriol, suspicion and scapegoating. It’s radical to the right precisely because the right is radical.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Kids these days! At 35, I find myself saying this more often than I would like. I don’t feel particularly old, but when I talk to your average twenty-something, and try to explain life before the internet and ipod, I suddenly feel very old indeed. Even my 5 year old nephew refuses to play X-Box with me, because he’s so far advanced and I just don’t have the skills. He’s nice about it, but firm. I challenge him to a game of Pong. We’ll see who’s got the skills then, little man! He scoffs at me without taking his eyes of “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.” “Leave me alone,” he says, “can’t you see I’m busy beating this crack whore over the head with a crowbar ?”

It sometimes seems to me that mine may be the last American generation to be ambivalent about new technologies. We at least have early memories of the late sixties and seventies, that quaint and innocent era before 24 hour cable news, personal computers, X-box, and the internet. When the world was wider. Before it shrank to the size of a village. Kids today were born and raised global villagers.

I have always been a bit of a Luddite, often hostile toward and always late to embrace new technologies. I remember the moment I realized we were entering a brave new world of frightening abstractions. I was a college sophomore when the card catalogues at my university were dismantled, removed, and replaced by computers. A room the size of a city block was emptied out entirely over a summer. It seemed significant, and sinister to me at the time. It seemed to forebode a day when libraries themselves would disappear, and the whole of human knowledge, like the famed Royal Library of Alexandria, would go up in smoke.

Kids today have no such fear. They’ve grown up in a pumped-up, maxed-out media-saturated environment, with the whole of human knowledge at their fingertips. According to a fascinating new study by The Henry Kaiser Family Foundation called “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 year olds” they are master multi-taskers, spending an average of almost six and a half hours a day with media. That’s over forty hours a week, a full-time job. And given that much of the time youth are using media, they are multi-tasking, they’re actually cramming 8.5 hours of media into those daily 6.5 hours. A valuable skill, to be sure, but the ability to focus on a single, simple task is waning.

The study assures us that kids are still perfectly happy, which is frankly hard for those of us nostalgic for the days of Pong to believe. I’m probably not too old to change my ways, improve my skills, but I don’t know if I’m ready to give up the pure and simple geometric pleasures of Pong for the still elusive high of chasing down and beating up on virtual crack whores with a bloody crowbar.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In an editorial in the New York Times last week Bob Dole asked rhetorically if what he called the Democratic abuse of the filibuster was “what the framers intended,” as if the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were handed down to us like the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But these are not mystical (or mythical) documents, and the founders were not a cabal of high priests laying down a set of dogmas and dietary codes to follow to get into the kingdom of heaven. The Constitution is not a set of religious dogmas; it’s a set of guidelines to guard against them.

Politicians and judges of a certain stripe, usually on the right, seem to think of the Constitution as a sacred fetish to be worshipped in fear and awe. But it has always been, and was always meant to be a supremely practical, living document. It has been amended 27 times, after all. The reason it’s been replicated all over the world is that it carries one mind-blowing and ever more liberally applied assumption: that we, the people—not some monarch, not a Pope—control our collective destiny.

“What the founders intended” has the ring of incantation, not surprising as it is mostly heard from representatives of the party of monarchists and theocrats. It makes sense coming from self-professed “originalist” Antonin Scalia, who may be the next American pope, or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whichever slot opens up first. Originalists and Strict Constructionists are cut from the same cloth as Biblical fundamentalists, whose interpretation of their text is equally specious, and brimming with hubris. Neither seek the truth, but by pretending special insight into the minds of the makers, hope to gain or maintain power, pure and simple.

The founders’ world was one without electricity, TVs or automobiles, not to mention internet porn, gene therapy, or feeding tubes. In 1776 the population of the colonies was about 2.5 million. The colonists could not have anticipated much of what we take for granted today. The beauty of the Constitution is that they didn’t need to. The assumptions undergirding the law, the truths we hold to be self-evident, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, are there to point us in the direction of liberty. But it’s up to each generation to define liberty for itself. Should what the founders intended when they spoke of “all men” be strictly adhered to today? How would they have looked upon the suffragettes? Or the civil rights movement? They may very well have been appalled. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter. We are not living in their world, but they wrote a document that can live in ours.

We don’t owe fealty to the past, we owe allegiance to the future. Our forefathers clearly recognized this. But you wouldn’t expect the current batch of end-timers running the show in Washington to get that that’s really what the founders intended.