Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Olympics are done and dusted, and Team America comes home with a perfectly respectable 25 medals. Problem is, America doesn’t want to be respectable. We’d rather be feared for our shock and awe than respected for our poise and decency. So it seems. It certainly wasn’t the respectable Olympians the media used as promotional fodder. Bad boys like the almost inconceivably self-centered Bode Miller, and the equally self-promoting and over-exposed Jeremy Bloom, to name a couple, were ubiquitous in commercials advertising network coverage of The Games, accompanied by the loutish shout-down “USA! USA! USA!” which made the Olympics seem more like a World Wrestling Entertainment event than a world-class showcase for winter sports.

It’s difficult not to draw some parallels between our poor choices in sports heroes and our poor choices in politicians. For The Games the media chose to hype self-indulgent pretty-boy rebels who failed to produce results. Brash, bullying big-mouths who shout down the opposition, but whose shock and awe turns out to be mostly smoke and mirrors. The Bad Boys of the 2006 Games might have left Torino with their tales between their legs, but they may yet have a shot in American politics.

Bode Miller, packaged as an “American maverick” was the biggest flop of ‘em all. I look forward to possibly seeing him excoriated by Oprah ala James Frey. And he’s been asking for it. His take on Torino: “I'm not a martyr, and I'm not a do-gooder. I just want to go out and rock. And man, I rocked here." As clueless as he seems, if Beastie Boy Bode’d brought home a medal or two, wouldn’t we still be stroking him for the ‘tude that garnered him millions in endorsements in the first place? But is the only thing wrong with Bode Miller that he didn’t win? Hmm. If Bode doesn’t end up on “Oprah” he should go out for American Idol, which stomped the Olympics in the ratings. Or why not add “Idol” to the list of Olympic events and be done with it? From skiing, skating and luging to trash-talk, smackdown and “Idol”. The networks would make a killing, that’s for sure.

Of course, I’m as guilty as the next guy of dwelling on Team America’s bad apples, when we have every reason to be proud of those who exemplified the spirit of the games. The inspiring Speedskater Joey Cheek chief among them. He donated the $40,000 from his gold and silver medal bonuses to Right To Play, and is heading off to Zambia to work for the charity group. After his win, Joey told reporters, “I wanted to make it meaningful. It's empowering to think of someone else." Now, that’s the Olympic spirit. So it’s fitting and just that Joey was chosen to bear the US flag at the closing ceremonies. Joey Cheek behaved like a true Olympian, demonstrating that the Olympics is not just about pursuing your dream, it’s about the honor of sharing it with your country and the world.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Are there fates worse than sex? I’m beginning to wonder, what with increased Federal funding for abstinence-only sex ed in public schools and increasing hysteria over tweenie websites like myspace.com. As for the latter, it’s important to keep in perspective that while online predators are a real problem that parents and kids should face together, the disconcerting fact is that still upwards of ninety per cent of child sex abuse victims actually know their perpetrators, at least a third of whom are underage, too. What may be scarier for parents than online predators is the “secret life” of teens themselves, which they’re pursuing by and large with the tacit consent of adults but without much adult guidance. In a culture that worships youth and is obsessed with sex, teenage sexuality is the elephant in the room.

There seem to be two options: dumb ‘em down or smarten ‘em up. Throw out the cell phones and TVs and dismantle the internet, or (gasp) communicate with teens. Daily. Prepare them for the adult world by treating them like adults. Oh, and there’s a third option, of course: Chastity belts. Which is what abstinence-only advocates like The Family Research Council would be handing out in sex ed classes across the nation if they could get the government to spring for it. So far they’ve had to settle for the use of ignorance and ostracism to spread fear of social and sexual contamination instead. Their agenda has more to do with opposition to the women’s movement and gay rights than in empowering young adults with the practical tools to make informed choices about intimate matters anyway.

The Abstinence Clearing House’s idea of useful advice? “If you want to practice abstinence, try avoiding high-pressure situations like empty dorm rooms and the back seat of automobiles.” And, hey kids, if your dare to leave the house, don’t forget your chastity belts! They come in punky peach and passion pink, and have a way kewl pocket for your ipod on the side! Well, you can’t blame them for trying. And in what’s become a Valentine’s Day tradition, hundreds of youths across the nation took a vow to preserve their sexual “purity”. I’m not knocking it. But according to a comprehensive study conducted by Peter Bearman of Columbia University published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last year: of 2,500,000 youths who took the vow in ‘95, only 12 per cent managed to keep it.

But here’s the real problem with abstinence-only sex ed: although many pledgers refrained from vaginal sex, they were six times more likely than their non-pledging peers to engage in oral sex, four times more likely to have anal sex, and significantly less likely to use condoms, except as water balloons at after-school events. Of course, it’s no surprise this administration has so aggressively promoted abstinence-only programs, which rely more on fear than facts to get results. Nor that these results seem to perpetuate the problem. After all, these days that’s just politics as usual.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Last week was a reminder that black history is American history. Lithonia joins Montgomery, Little Rock, Greensboro, Birmingham, and Selma, on the list of stops along our nation’s freedom trail where we witnessed the imperative to speak truth to power in action. And just as you can’t separate the African from the American in our history, you can’t separate The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., or his wife Coretta Scott King, from their legacy of social and political activism. They were pacifists, it’s true, but never passive.

Critics like conservative talk radio queen Blanquita Cullum, watching Coretta Scott King’s funeral from a safe distance, complained of “tasteless” and “inappropriate” comments—neither personal nor defamatory, merely true—by Joe Lowery and Jimmy Carter, that made her and her Commander-in-Chief “feel uncomfortable.” Well, heaven forbid. But the real problem was not principally Lowery, Carter, & Co., it was the thousands at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church who wholeheartedly agreed with them, if the thunderous applause and standing ovations accompanying their remarks were any indication. Turns out manipulated intelligence, wars without end, domestic spying, eviscerated social programs and inept emergency responses make the rest of us a little uncomfortable.

Unfortunately for the President, his handlers were unable to screen this audience. There were no loyalty oaths at the entrance, no bouncers to bodily remove anyone showing signs of ideological impurity. This was a rare trip outside the bubble for Mr. Bush. Even his beautifully stage-managed forays to a mythical New Orleans, complete with symbolic set-pieces worthy of La Scala, bore no resemblance to reality. In Lithonia he finally got a taste of the bitter harvest his administration has sown. He was finally forced to feel a little of what the other half feels. Uncomfortable? It’s a start. Lesson? Uncomfortable realities don’t disappear just because it makes you uncomfortable to acknowledge them.

What is the lesson for the rest of us? Those of us who have gone about our business these last several years, as the gap between rich and poor has grown obscene? Those of us who’ve sat by, helpless, hopeless, as ill-conceived and badly executed wars based on lies have driven our nation to shame in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and in secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Those of us angered but impotent in the face of an eviscerated FEMA’s tardy, lackluster response to tragedy on the gulf coast? Those of us driven to silent cynicism by bald lies and widespread corruption in the capital? We should remember that these abuses by those in power have a direct correlate in the lack of courage of those who put them there, who pay lip service to equality and human rights, but sit silent as they’re subverted. This is plain passivity, not pacifism. Those of us comfortable with business as usual have expected others to speak truth to power for themselves, as if “the least of these” were no concern of ours. But the enemies of our democracy are not only the corrupt. We, the complacent, are their co-conspirators.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Two facts that sum up the State of the Union: (1) just before the President’s SOTU Address Exxon Mobil posted record profits for any U.S. company — we’re talking the highest quarter earnings to cap the largest annual net income in U.S. history. (2) At the same time, Americans’ personal savings rate fell below zero for the first time since the Great Depression. In political terms this may be indicative of willful arrogance on the one hand, but it is also a sign of willed ignorance on the other.

A President’s SOTU addresses are always enlightening. Last year’s speech was a monumental paean to war. This year, with a nation wearier from natural disasters and warier of war, the speech was more intimate. The theme: self-help. Take America’s oil addiction. Did anyone detect a playful irony in the Pusher-in-chief giving his citizen-addicts what-for? Was it a bit of wink wink nudge nudge? The day after the unveiling of his grand new “Advanced Energy Initiative” news broke of a fifteen per cent cut in the Department of Energy’s R&D budget, and significant lay-offs in its wind and ethanol research labs. Oh, don’t act all surprised! Outrage is outré. I mean, check out Cindy Sheehan, with her withery, droopy-dog looks and deadpan inflection. This is the face of American outrage today.

So was the President lying? This President? Never. Just as our Protector-in-chief is above the law when it comes to spying on Americans, he is clearly light-years beyond good and evil. We can no more know his grand purpose than we can know the Almighty’s he has sworn to represent on earth. What may seem like deception to faithless citizens is really just disregard for truth. Rest easy. Just as what seems like “a timetable for Iraq” is really “isolationism,” kidnapping by our secret police is really “rendition,” and what looks a lot like hostage-taking in Iraq by our own armed forces is really “leveraging.” In Mr. Bush’s own exalted phrase, oft-repeated in his speech, we live in “a hopeful society,” not a truthful one. Didn’t you get the memo?

“A hopeful society” trusts in its Protector-in-chief’s plan. We may doubt on occasion, but it’s because we’re deceiving ourselves, as is so often the case with addicts. More specifically, although the President didn’t want to mention it on account of it might discourage us from seeking treatment, America has been diagnosed with Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD). According to the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC) and the DSM-IV, “Clients with DPD feel helpless and incompetent.... They will subordinate their desires and refrain from making demands; they may tolerate abuse to maintain a relationship,…deny or minimize trouble,…avoid tension and limit their awareness of both themselves and others. They appear friendly, naive, and self-effacing.”

It’s OK. DPD is as American as apple pie. And we have a perfect Protector-in-chief who’s looking out for us, and knows what’s what. He’s said it himself: “Fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me...you can't get fooled again.”