Wednesday, April 30, 2008

America in Decline





I wasn't planning to write on this topic today, but after the interesting responses to my critique of Miley "Hannah Montana" Cyrus, I feel a need to further examine why I believe she represents an America in serious decline. I'd even go so far as to use the word "decay." Now, some might say that it's unfair to put on her tiny shoulders all that is wrong with America, but she is just the latest example of a point I want to make about our capitalistic / materialistic society that pretends to be "the most religious country on earth" because we have more church goers than in any other country. But who cares if you are good one day a week and attend church if in your worklife, you exhibit the psychopathological traits of a greedy, numbers-obsessed, materialistic jerk who will step on anyone in the way of your climb to the top?


First, I admit that I would not have posted a critique of Hannah Montana yesterday if the news did not mention her. Had the story remained on "Entertainment Tonight" (which I rarely watch anymore), that's one thing. But to put her on the national news show...both ABC and CBS (I did not watch NBC's to see if they followed the same script) meant that they found her "controversy" to be newsworthy.

Growing up, I've always preferred the national network news over local news. I didn't know why until I was a young man. It was because local news contained stories of murders, robberies and the like. National news focused on national issues and sometimes international news. But what truly spoiled me was when I lived in Europe and got to see foreign news, in Germany, France, Britain, and Italy. Even if I didn't know the language, I was impressed by how much of their newscasts focused on global issues that were happening outside of their borders. French news had long segments on what was happening in Africa. You never saw "fluff" pop culture stuff on those news reports. Though Britain did have a segment devoted to Princess Diana in the 1980s.

Anyhow, when I was in college, I took a course called "Media in Politics." I learned a lot about how the media portrayed politics, often as a game, rarely with the kind of seriousness that our counterparts in Europe do. In America, the newsmedia's mantra are: "dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is news" and "if it bleeds, it leads." How about a new way of determining what is "newsworthy"? By that I mean, just because someone is famous doesn't make them newsworthy. In fact, fame should be reserved only for those who truly deserve it by doing something worthy and good for humanity. Let's face it, Miley Cyrus is only famous because of who her daddy is, and she follows the line of teenage girls that the Disney Channel has perfected to create a merchandising following: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen and their ilk. Add Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to the mix and you have a group of girls who represent all that is wrong with American society: a focus on wealth, plastic looks, and a severe lack of intellect. These ladies are held up as role models for impressionable young girls and to break out of their core following, it seems like our capitalistic society pushes them into becoming sex idols for older men, which is sick. That's exactly what Vanity Fair's photo spread was meant to be: Miley Cyrus' evolution from pre-teen sensation into a male sex fantasy (which is disgusting, considering that she is just 15). That this comes at the same time that over 400 teenage girls were taken from the FLDS compound in Eldorado, Texas only shows how hypocritical our country is, or how big the disconnect exists.

There is a reason why I don't write much on popular culture in my blog. When I started the blog, I wasn't sure how I envisioned it, but it didn't take long for a pattern to emerge. Basically, I'm an advocate for a new culture to form in our society. Pop culture is junk culture. There's a reason why Mozart's music is timeless, while Miley Cyrus will be forgotten in history. The classic culture of Europe gave us Rembrandt and Shakespeare, while America has Rihanna and Tupac Shakur. One culture brings out the intellect and inspires people while the other degrades the mind and only makes people desire the quick and easy wealth for themselves. Our chosen path is not sustainable.

We are Marie Antoinette on the eve of Revolution. She ate pastries and lived lavishly in a gigantic palace while the poor were rioting over bread. And here we are, over-bloated and subjected to fluff news while people are RIOTING in Haiti, Africa, and Southeast Asia over food prices! We're on the cusp of a worldwide epidemic of violence. Even the Pentagon has done a study in which they found that wars of the future will be over dwindling supplies of water, which will make our current oil wars seem like civilized U.N. disputes by comparison. Water is a necessity to life, thus if people are going to fight for it, these fights will be vicious. All our claims of being civilized will be tossed out the window as people revert to pure animalistic survival of the fittest. It will get ugly.

Thus it's imperative that we Americans trash our junk culture and find some depth. It's embarrassing to continue to have a country that finds celebrity "controversy" newsworthy while the vast majority of Americans remain woefully ignorant about our world and the 95% of the planet's population who inhabit it. If I were the head news honcho, I would require all newscasts to start with several numbers: How many days we've been in Iraq; how much the war has cost the American people (both as a total and then broken down per family's share of the cost); how many Americans have died, and how many Iraqis have died. These numbers need to be thrown in American faces every single day until people wake up and realize that we really are in Iraq and the reason why they're paying more at the pump for gasoline, or why their food bill has gone up, why their paychecks afford less and less...is because too much of our economy is tied into debts owed to Chinese, Japanese, and Saudi banks. Paying for the war on credit card is the smartest idea since Napoleon decided to attack at Waterloo.

It is my hope to see a deeper America emerge at some point. An America that only awards fame to people who've earned it by their contribution to humanity (such as the Oregon middle school science teacher who was named "Teacher of the Year" this week: Michael Geisen), not because they look a certain way, have a famous parent, or have made a fortune in the entertainment industry. An America that continually challenges its citizens to push their intellect by learning about difficult or complex topics. An America that does not dumb down education to the lowest common denominator so idiots don't feel so stupid. An America that doesn't pretend to be religious to placate the evangelists and fundamentalists while continually promoting the false values of capitalism. An America where a political debate is more like the Parliamentary debates that exist in the U.K. rather than the shallow, high school student council elections it currently resembles. An America where telling the truth is valued and rewarded while liars and those who made wrong projections about the economy, war, and other facts are marginalized.

Until we have an America that inspires its citizens to continue to challenge themselves to be better people, to develop a deeper mindset about issues, and to value the difference between the essential eternal values over the fleeting false values, our country will continue to decline while Europe and China surpass us with their focus on better and better education standards.

Let's face it, pop culture is the equivalent of porn. It degrades your mind until all you're left with is mush. Learning about new ideas and challenging ideas electrifies your brain cells and if you think of your mind as a muscle, you have to use it to increase it's power. Pop culture doesn't have that effect. All it does is make people shallow and incapable of independent thought. Lord knows, we have way too many citizens who fall in this category. In my America, the likes of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, Miley Cyrus, the Olsen twins, the Bush twins, and even Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham would all be sent to Iraq for a year to find their souls. They won't find it by continuing to live in a society that encourages their shallow exploits with salivating adoration.

Here's an example Americans should learn and learn well: in Plato's Republic, he wrote about the "allegory of the cave" in which people are chained in a cave, growing up by seeing reflections/shadows on the wall. They believe that is reality. When one of them breaks free and escapes from the cave to see the real world, he returns to tell those still chained in the cave. What happens? Those chained to the cave think he's crazy and kill him, because he's obviously deluded. Is that prophetic or what?

The reality we see in our country is not REALITY. America doesn't have to be this way. Another way is possible. We can continue our path as represented by Miley Cyrus and her ilk (pretending to Christian values while materialistic greed leads her to make sexually provocative photos to gain a new "respectability" in our capitalistic society that has no spiritual values) or we can pursue the path represented by Angelina Jolie, who uses her wealth and fame to shine a spotlight on the plight of the people around the world. But the best example for me is the path represented by Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi...a truly authentic spiritual woman who gave up an easy life of comfort in the U.K. to suffer among the poorest and oppressed people of her native land.

So, that's why I'm not in favour of posting more on our popular culture. I want to encourage Americans to trash the junk and go deep to where the core of your soul resides. People around the world want us to become better people, to help transform our world from the greed and ignorance of capitalism towards a new ethical, spiritual, and moral value system not found in any "-ism" ideology.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Random Rants


There are a few news items I wanted to comment on, so this one will be lacking a consistent theme.

First, regarding the post I made last week about John Branam who is running for Sam Adams' City Commissioner seat. Rather than go back and edit some mistakes in facts that I made in my post, I will make the corrections here.

According to the alternative weekly, "The Portland Mercury" from April 24th edition, Branam had paid his campaign manager $25,000 for THREE months work (not TWO that I had mentioned) and a city auditor had determined that he had to return $5,000 of the money. Apparently, $20,000 for three months work is deemed acceptable, though still well above average ($3,500 a month is the typical salary for a campaign manager). Still, it's this controversy that has cost Branam my support and my vote. It's unethical and a sign of the kind of corruption that might be in store if he becomes a City Commissioner. I'd rather support the guy who has made sure that utility companies didn't price gouge customers. That would be Jeff Bissonnette.
Government stimulus checks went out yesterday. I'm not sure when I'll get mine. But according to a poll I saw online, the top three things Americans plan to use the money for are: (1) pay off bills/rent/mortgage; (2) save it; and (3) pay down credit card debt. The news media reports that many will probably use it to pay for groceries and gasoline.

What does this mean? It's exactly what Bush doesn't want us to do! If we use it to buy gas, that's money that'll go to Saudi Arabia, so how does that help the American economy?

At the Clinton rally on Saturday, Bill spoke briefly about the stimulus checks. He basically told the audience not to go out and spend it. He said that we should save it or use it to pay off debt. Sly dog! But he's right. $600 is not enough to do much with. I certainly would like to have that money in my bank account so I can start saving. It'll be nice to not live paycheck to paycheck and have some money in the bank. The only thing I'll buy with the money is a passport, which is expensive enough. And perhaps the "John Adams" HBO series when it comes out on DVD in June. I wish I was getting the $1,200 check so I can go back to Atlanta to move my things to Portland finally before gasoline gets any more expensive.

What do you plan to do with your stimulus?
Friday night, I watched the Bill Moyers interview with the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I knew the media was misrepresenting his views, taking the most inflammatory statements in his lengthy sermons and playing it on a loop (kind of like how they killed Howard Dean's presidential chances by replaying his overly enthusiastic speech in Iowa four years ago). Bill Moyers showed lengthy clips of Wright's sermons and I must say that I was impressed. If I lived in Chicago, I might attend his church. I didn't find anything that he said to be outrageous or offensive. What I saw was a smart man who speaks the truth about our government's foreign policy over the years and putting it into a historical and spiritual perspective. Why he is selected for a false controversy and not some of the outrageous claims made by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or James Dobson indicates a bias. While white America might fear an "angry black preacher", I saw nothing to fear. Obama should not distance himself from Wright. It's shameful that the media wants to destroy a several-decades friendship over some false, media-fabricated outrage.

Even yesterday, when Wright spoke at the National Press Club and once again had his patriotism questioned, he said it best: "I served six years in the Marine Corps. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?" Ouch! That's gotta hurt. Hasn't the media heard that quote: "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." Just because you criticize your government doesn't make you an unpatriotic traitor. Last time I checked, we were better than the commies who enforced patriotism on people. We're more mature than that.

If anyone needs proof that our media is hopelessly shallow and prone to fluff reporting, it was no where more apparent than on Monday's "ABC World News Tonight" and the "CBS Evening News." I watched in complete horror that both George Stephanopoulos and Katie Couric spent considerable time in their reporting of the news over the "controversy" regarding teen sensation Hannah Montana.

Apparently, her "wholesome image" is under fire over provocative photos in the latest issue of "Vanity Fair" magazine. One photo in particular, her bare back is seen as she has a bedsheet wrapped around her body. Oooo, scandalous! Preteen girls are shocked. A billion dollar industry built around her likeness and wholesome persona might be imperil. How are we going to live without Hannah Montana?!?

My thinking is...if the whole Hannah Montana merchandising empire falters, its not because of some stupid photographs. It's because our economy is tanking and Americans are spending more on gasoline and food, which are essential to live, whereas a Hannah Montana lunchbox and makeup kit and clothing line and whatever else her face is printed on is the kind of crap girls will be embarrassed to admit owning a few years from now.

I'm sick of hearing about Hannah Montana. It was a stupid name to begin with and this talentless hack needs to crawl back into whatever hole she crawled out of. I'm sick of our media's shallow focus on fluff issues and false controversies. I mean, there are food riots in Haiti and other parts of the globe. We are facing a crisis of epidemic proportions that is the culmination of over-population, dwindling oil, climate change, and food shortages...and all our superficial media wants to focus on is Hannah-fucking-Montana and Reverend Wright?!?

And they wonder why more Americans get their news online these days. It's so we can pick the stories we want to learn about. In my world, Hannah Montana would be a town on a map, not some faux-celebrity in a magazine or on a television show. And certainly not on the evening news!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Audrey Tautou is "Priceless"

Friday night, I went to see the French film "Priceless", which I had wanted to see at the Portland International Film Festival but was turned away when it was completely sold out. It finally arrives in theaters and is well worth the wait. It couldn't come out at a better time (with the lack of interesting films in theaters right now and well before "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" hits theaters). Since Audrey Tautou is my favourite actress, I had to see it and as expected, I can barely watch the film without falling for her charming sweetness and very French "je ne sais quoi" quality. For years, I've dreamed of having a French wife because the way they speak and express themselves are too irresistably sexy to me. Audrey is a prime example of what I mean.

However, in this film, she plays a coquettish gold digger on the French Riviera. Her preference is for way older men (old enough to be her grandfather, and in her hopes, close to death) who spend lavishly on her, especially on high priced designer clothes. When her geriatric lover falls asleep, she slips down to the hotel bar in hopes of meeting a dashing gentleman closer to her age for a little birthday affair. That's when she meets an unsophisticated bar tender and assumes that he's a wealthy patron of the hotel, which he only happily obliges.

It's painful to watch as she takes advantage of him for all he's worth. Hilarious, but painful. Had the movie continued on that track, I would've been bored with it, but there comes a vital twist that completely saved the movie for me and put it on a different track which kept me interested all the way through the end.

At first, I didn't like seeing my beloved Audrey playing such a shallow materialistic woman who pushes away true love in favor of the lavish lifestyle her older suitors provide. But this being Audrey, she does soften into the sweet lady I suspect of her (is she an actress or is she playing herself? My favourite role of hers remains "God is Great...and I'm Not" in which she plays a spiritual seeker who has a tendency to get more into her boyfriend's religion than he's interested in).

The part of the film that truly floored me was when her old suitor desires to get to know more about her and asks personal questions, like where she's from originally. When she said, "Saint Brieuc" I about fell out of my chair! I had never heard of that town in the region of Bretagne (Brittany) until a French submarine chief I became friends with in 1992 invited me to spend a weekend at his home to meet his wife and infant daughter. Brittany had never been on my list of places to visit in France, but that's what friendships do. My visit means I see a part of the country I never expected to and I loved it. Partly because there were few Americans who traveled to that town in France. He actually lives in a small town (Plerin) outside of Saint Brieuc, where the TGV Atlantique stops.

It also reminded me of when I read Jack Kerouac's "Satori in Paris" in 2001 and was shocked to read that Kerouac had an argument with a French person about the proper pronunciation of "Saint Brieuc" (do you pronounce the "c" at the end or not? French grammar is like that). I had the same argument with my French friend!

Man, of all the towns in France for Audrey's character to be from, I'm in awe that the screenwriters made it Saint Brieuc. It's not a town you'd ever visit if you had only a week or two weeks or even a month to spend in France. I'm glad to know people who live in places I'd never go to on my own initiative, because you get to make cool discoveries by venturing off the unbeaten path. It's a nice town, made even more pleasant to visit by the lack of "ugly American tourists." I've been there in 1992, 1994, and 1997. I'm due for another visit.

When I walked away from the theaters after being charmed by this sweet French film, I also felt a pang in my heart. I've been wanting to visit France again since 1998 during the World Cup games. I don't know when I'll make it back, but I keep hoping someday soon. And even more than that...I wish I could meet Audrey Tautou or even someone like her. She is my ideal of what I find most attractive in a woman. She's someone I would feel comfortable around (not everyone finds her beautiful, she's quirky, she's not interested in a big Hollywood career and won't relocate from Paris, and she values intelligent conversations--just a few tidbits I've learned about her). If I can't meet her, I know that there are women out there who have similar qualities as her.

La femme de mes reves...la belle Audrey Tautou.

If you want to see a film that reflects the tension between a materialistic life without true love versus a life with someone you love who lacks money or a prestigious career, this is the one to see. You'll leave the theater feeling good about life. I know I did. Now, when can I get a ticket for a flight to France to search for my future wife?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Full Clinton Press

When I arrived home from the Clinton rally and checked my email, I had received a notice from the Clinton campaign that Ambassador Joseph Wilson would be speaking today at PSU from noon until 1:30. To entice turnout, they promised pizza, but I was late and missed out, which was just as well since MAYAs had a group get-together tonight with pizza. I love pizza, but I'm at the age where I'm wanting to eat less of it.

Anyhow, I was shocked by another Clinton campaign event. This one happened in the same room where Chelsea Clinton spoke two weeks ago. And I even saw three familiar faces from the rally last night. I guess I know who's serious about the Clinton campaign.

I had my own reasons to want to see this one. Again, I have a personal connection (I'm telling you, it's the whole "Six Degrees of Me" thing--forget Kevin Bacon!). In 1997, when I served a year in the Naval Reserves, I had to do my two week duty at a joint military base in Vaihingen, Germany (near Stuttgart). In fact, I only did a year in the reserves for a free trip to Germany (shameless, I know). They put us up in a nice hotel (four stars, I think; with restaurant and pool). Besides working every day doing whatever lame work they passed on to reservists, I happened to be there during Ambassador Wilson's last week. I had talked to him then because he had once served as a staff member for Congressman Gore and he had a career as a diplomat, which was something I was very interested in at the time. The way I saw it, Joseph Wilson had THE CAREER I had hoped to have for myself...including serving in various African nations. So, I sought his advice in what direction I needed to take, as well as to learn his opinions of what Gore was like to work for since that was my goal.

I had forgotten about him in the years since until 2004 when he came out with his book, "The Politics of Truth." I bought it and skimmed through it, shocked to come across a paragraph where he mentioned serving as the ambassador at CINC in Germany, which jogged my memory that this was indeed the guy I had met then. When I met him in 1997, I didn't realize then that he was the same guy who was famous for being the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein prior to the first Gulf War. Because of him, I'm "two degrees separated from Saddam Hussein" (see how small and connected our world is?).

Now, he's famous for being the victim of a petty administration with a vendetta against anyone who exposed their lies leading up to the war in Iraq. He was the one who went to Niger to investigate the claims that Saddam had sought yellow-cake uranium to use in nuclear weapons. When he wrote an essay "What I Didn't Find in Africa", the Administration made him an example to strike fear into any government employee what will happen if they speak the truth. Wilson's wife was exposed as a CIA operative, which is illegal. Even George H.W. Bush is on record for saying that people who expose CIA agents are traitors, the lowest of the low, not fit to be Americans. Hmmm...I wonder if he still thinks that after his son has allowed it to happen, and all for petty reasons.

Ambassador Wilson spoke in a Q & A type session, in which he started with pre-written questions about the whole scandal involving his wife. Even though I don't agree with the CIA, I still think that exposing an agent who was working to keep our nation secure from terrorism was a criminal act that deserves no less than the death penalty. And that it was done for purely political reasons of petty revenge because her husband exposed a lie is beyond treason. There's truly nothing lower than what the Bush regime did to Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame.

This being a political event sponsored by the Clinton campaign, Wilson spoke about Clinton and why she's better than Obama in terms of experience. When we came in, we were given note cards in which to write questions. They didn't ask my question, unfortunately, but when I heard the questions asked, they all related to his views on Hillary regarding how she'd act as president in foreign policy issues. Of course, I should've known that. My question was: "What are the chances that President Bush and Vice President Cheney will be brought up on criminal charges after they leave the White House?" It wasn't asked by the questioner, but Wilson said something in a long-winded answer to another question that basically answered mine. The answer to his question pretty much hit the jackpot with me in why I will most likely switch my vote to Hillary Clinton in the Oregon primary on May 20th.
Joseph Wilson with his wife, Valerie Plame

Basically, what Wilson said is that when Hillary is president, she will send a group of envoys to the capitals of the world to deliver a personal message along the lines of: "the era of cowboy diplomacy is over. The America you loved is back. And if you have any cause to investigate acts of war crimes committed by the previous administration, we will not stand in your way."

When he said that, I got chills up and down my spine. That's the answer I wanted to hear. I can understand why Hillary might not want to be so public with it, but something needs to be done. We simply cannot let the Bush Administration get away with their crimes, especially since President Clinton was impeached for lying about a sexual affair while other presidents (always Republican ones) have walked into history with their reputations in tact. This cannot stand, especially when Bush has been the worst of all the presidents we've had so far.

I could see Ambassador Wilson being Hillary's Secretary of State (Bill Richardson has pretty much kissed off his chances of becoming Secretary of State or Vice President if Hillary is the Democratic nominee). And I'm willing to bet that Wesley Clark will be Hillary's Secretary of Defense.

After the official questions (read from cards) were over, a couple people got to ask questions outright, and one guy pressed Wilson on Hillary's claim to be under sniper fire in Bosnia when videos showed otherwise. Wilson proved himself to be ever the diplomat, claiming not to have seen the video footage and saying that all briefings for anyone going into Bosnia had expressed the possibility of sniper fire, which could've confused her. I don't buy it and neither did the guy who asked the question, but Ambassador Wilson was the wrong person to press on that issue.

When the session was over, I got his autograph on my copy of his book. I've been wanting to read it these past few years, but I knew that his wife would have hers, so I wanted to read them one after the other. I still haven't bought hers, but it looks to be a lot funnier (because it has many words blacked out on purpose). I also told him that we had met during his last week at Vaihingen, Germany. I can't believe that was eleven years ago.

And man, I'm on a roll. Thursday began a chain of amazing personal connections coming to the fore. I'll try to get to what I did on Thursday evening (a booksigning by an aunt-in-law of my friend Matt Baker) and Friday evening (an awesome movie featuring my favourite actress whom I'd love to meet). I hope this continues on a frequent basis over the upcoming week. I love being connected in this small world of ours. And I'm really impressed by how active the Clintons are in winning my vote. This is why I love a competitive primary. The Clintons want my vote and are earning it through their easy connectivity, while Obama doesn't need my vote. Honestly, I don't mind being subjected to the "full Clinton press."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Finally, After All These Years...

Photo taken by a photographer for the Oregonian. Clinton speaking at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon



Finally...after all these years, I got to meet the man, the superstar, the legend, BILL CLINTON. The former president went on a six-stop swing through Oregon today, with Portland being his final stop. What made the whole thing even more personal is that Lincoln High School was selected as the venue, which is not only within walking distance of my apartment, but also where my brother works as a custodian. It seems like fate played a hand, for as soon as I heard that he was scheduled to appear there, I registered on the Hillary Clinton website.
The two photos here were taken on my cell phone camera. I didn't bring my regular camera because I had expected a thorough secret service screening (like when I went to Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia in 2004 to attend Sunday School taught by former president Jimmy Carter). There wasn't any secret service screening, however...but they were present all around. That's okay, though, since I have ten rolls of film to develop and don't know when I'll get around to them, and I'll only add more rolls with my upcoming Memorial Day retreat in scenic Coeur d'Alene and Spokane. The photos below were taken from a Google search.

I arrived at 3:30 pm and there was already a line, but it only grew longer and longer. I caught my brother just as he was getting off his shift to clean the building especially nice for the president. As we waited in line, there were assorted people with signs that weren't friendly towards Hillary, and one old guy showed up with his "Impeach Bush/Cheney" sign and he just started yelling at people, accusing the women in line that the only reason they're voting for Hillary is because "she has ovaries" like them. He was a vocal Obama supporter, but he was so angry. And crazy. He kept accidentally kicking his bottle (Arizona Tea, but everyone suspected it contained booze), then getting even more angry. That's what mental illness looks like.

When 5:30 came with no sign of them letting us in the building, some people started grumbling. But I knew better. As an intern, Clinton was over an hour late for the official photograph with the interns. I almost want to say that we waited for two hours, but I can't remember how late he was. I didn't expect any different. When I heard people complain after an hour had passed, I simply said that the reason why he's late is because he likes to shake as many hands and meet as many people as he can. It's a good thing, and with us being his last stop, there was a chance that he'd stay even longer.

When we finally got into the gymnasium, my brother wanted to sit on the bleachers, but I wanted to stand on the floor as close to the podium as possible. As I moved around for a better view, I saw a group of chairs with reserved seating signs on them. Two of them had my name on them. I was SHOCKED! It couldn't be? I had registered online because I thought we all had to, but maybe I ended up reserving seats? It was the VIP section, made up of teachers and school administrators, who my brother knew. They were shocked to see him sitting there and questioned us as to why we were there, but my name was on the sign and I was claiming my seat. It was great luck, for I was in the second row and I knew from personal experience that Clinton nearly always stays afterwards to meet the folks. I was in a prime spot to meet him.

To pep up the audience, a perky young Clinton campaign staff member threw some t-shirts (like at a sporting event). She was fantastic and knew how to play with the audience. She also wanted everyone to text a message to the campaign (a trick to acquire cell phone numbers). What enticed everyone to do it was that the Clinton campaign staff member said that she'd call someone at random for a private meeting with Clinton before he came to the podium. It was fun to watch who the lucky person was (some guy in the bleachers). Then she did it again for those who didn't do it the first time and wanted another chance. A lucky lady in the bleachers got the call. Darn! I so wanted that.

When Clinton finally came to the podium, he was two hours late, but that was okay. He spoke for an hour, with a few jokes (such as the trouble his daughter caused when she had said to a reporter that she believes her mom would be a better president than her father). He spoke without notes, and in depth on the economy, energy, health care, no child left behind, and college. He said that he likes to read blogs (so I hope he finds this one). He also said that Hillary would be like JFK in making alternative energy solution her "first man on the moon by decade's end challenge." As much as I like Obama, I'm still waiting for specifics, and he's in danger of losing my vote to Hillary...because economic issues and jobs are my prime focus. Clintonomics works. Obama is unknown and untested in that area, so as much as I like his ideas, passion, and hope for change, I'm interested in specifics. And, of course, I'm still nostalgic for the Clinton years. This event only helped remind me of that. Plus, they've been very good to me, so why not? But I'll discuss my thoughts on the campaign in a later post.

Back to the rally. During the speech, Clinton looked in my direction several times and I thought we made eye contact. I had worn my Gore 2000 sweatshirt to stand out in the crowd, with a Hillary campaign button over the "O" in "Gore." After the speech, he worked the line around the podium (we were blocked off by a barrier on three sides). I was on one side in the second row and moved in closer to wait for the moment when he made his way around to our side. It took long enough, but he was shaking hands with several people, while people were all trying to get his attention to say something, while still others handed him slips of paper or books for him to sign. I was greedy...for I wanted all three: handshake, to say something to him, and to get his autograph on a colour photocopy of my picture with Vice President Gore (see the post on April 22nd...it was that photo).

When he did come around to my side, I did manage to shake his hand twice, and then he accepted my photocopy (to sign later and return)...then I got his attention. I told him, "I interned in your administration in 2000." He seemed intrigued so he asked where I worked, and I told him for Vice President Gore and that it was the greatest experience of my life. He then asked where I worked now. I told him, but by then, other people were clamouring for his attention. It was just as well. Sure, I'd love to talk longer (I had wanted to ask if he had any jobs available in his Foundation for an International Politics major), but a lot of people didn't get any moment with him and here I was, getting the three things I wanted. How did I get so lucky?

The Clintons on Inauguration Day, 20 January 1997 for the second term.

How did I get so lucky? I think it was destined. Why? Because when I woke up this morning, I just felt that everything would go as planned. I trusted "the universe" to make it happen. Why? Because of good karma. The Clintons and me go way back. To 1992. I walked through fire for them. No, not literal fire...but fire of a flack sort.

You see, back in 1992, I was in the Navy. I had supported Senator Bob Kerrey in the primary because he was governor when I lived in Nebraska and was one of the politicians who got me interested in politics at an early age. When Kerrey dropped out, I moved my support to Jerry ("Governor Moonbeam") Brown. When Jerry Brown dropped out, I moved my support to Ross Perot. Clinton didn't win my support until he chose Senator Al Gore as his running mate. When he made that decision, I was so impressed because it showed what a smart decision maker and an unconventional one Clinton was. Usually, candidates pick running mates that contrast differently, for geographic, age demographic, and other balance. That he chose a politician younger than him and from a neighboring Southern state signalled that he was a new kind of politician. And who could forget all the comparisons to JFK and that famous photograph of the teenage Clinton shaking hands with President Kennedy. It was a symbolic and powerful photo. But the photo I most liked was taken in my hometown of Stone Mountain, Georgia for the primary. He was talking with an expressive heavy-set black woman and looked very comfortable with her, which impressed me. Plus it was my hometown!

So I became an enthusiastic supporter. And I was in the Navy at the time. If there were any other Clinton supporters on my ship, I never met them. Some might have been more discrete about who they voted for, but I was definitely outspoken and caught a lot of flack for it. What made it worse is that guys in the Navy thought if you supported Clinton, it could only be for one reason and one reason only: you agreed with his plan to allow gays to serve openly in the Navy...which in Navy thinking means that you could only be gay. Thus, the "logic" of "Clinton voter = gay." But I didn't care. That issue didn't matter to me. Like Carville and Stephanopoulos said, "it's the economy, stupid." Even more than that, it was the unfair character attacks on Clinton, his wife, daughter, and mother. The election of 1992 showed the ugly side of Republicans...that they had nothing inspiring to offer the American people in a second term for Bush, so they had to tear down Clinton in any way possible...including his family in the attacks. The nastiness turned me off from Republicans (not that I ever was tempted to vote that way).

When Clinton won, since I was living overseas, I woke up early to watch the results on CNN. I had gotten only a few hours sleep, but I was so ecstatic that he won. I walked around the ship with an extra bounce in my step. And I noticed that no one shared my exuberant joy. The mood was so gloomy, that it felt like someone had died. People thought it was the end of the Navy, that sailors would start coming out of the closet and homosexuality would run rampant in the berthing. I thought the fear bordered on mass paranoia. Unfortunately, my outspoken support for Clinton did cause a couple sailors to reveal to me their true nature, which made me very uncomfortable. I didn't want to be the priest they confessed to, nor the guy they thought they had a chance with.

While I lived in Sardinia, Clinton visited Nettuno, Italy for the 50th anniversary of America's involvement in World War II. And he spent time on the USS George Washington in June 1994 for the D-Day anniversary. I reported on board that ship just five months later. Our timing was off, but it was interesting that we have that ship in common and that he visited Italy while I lived there. In 1996, I got out of the Navy and my first job was in AmeriCorps (a program he started), which lasted only a couple months (I decided to quit because the group I was in was more interested in smoking marijuana than working and there were some race-related issues that I hated). Later on that year, Clinton came to Atlanta for several Olympic events (again, our paths didn't quite cross, even though I attended several Olympic events).

In 1997, when I started BYU, one of the political cartoons in the school's newspaper, the Daily Universe, featured a guy in a panicked call to his mother over his roommate, who was hanging a banner that said, "Clinton's not all bad." It told me exactly the kind of loneliness I would have to expect at BYU. Not only was I not Mormon, but also a Democrat. Two major strikes against me! In January 1998, I first heard about the Monica scandal when an article in BYU's newspaper reported it. But because I didn't believe them, I dismissed it until I got home and watched CNN. The whole scandal consumed most of the year. I was distracted from my studies as I became obsessed with the scandal and every new detail. His August, non-apology confession was "must-see" TV moment for me, but I was angered by his lack of contrition. However, the Ken Starr Report angered me even more (I confess to reading it, but it only had the effect of making me more supportive of Clinton as I saw it as an invasion of privacy and a miscarriage of justice). And as I waited in the airport for my flight home for Christmas vacation in 1998, I was saddened when I saw that the Republican Congress had decided to impeach him. His lying over a personal affair hardly constituted "high crimes and misdemeanors." Censure was more than enough punishment, although his predecessors Bush, Reagan, and Nixon told far worse lies to the American people and to Congress, but weren't impeached for it.

When I interned in his administration in 2000, I finally saw him in person when he gave a speech at the Library of Congress. But I was on the balcony looking down. He didn't forget the folks up in the balcony area, as he looked up at us to acknowledge our presence and wave to us, which I thought was a class act. In that moment, I understood why people felt a deep connection to him. He's a pro at that. It's an ability I wish that I had, but he's way beyond what even other politicians have (Obama is the only one who comes closest, I think). Then next time I saw him was at the end of the semester for the intern photograph. I was just out of reach from shaking his hand after the event.

Now, eight years later, I've been blessed in spades. A handshake, an autograph, and a short conversation. What more could I ask for? He's truly a remarkable president and human being. My loyalty has paid off. As Jenet's friend Nesh often called me...I guess I'm a true "Clintonista." But I'm more like Forrest Gump. I have these moments. However, why is it easier for me to meet famous people, including two former presidents of the United States, but I still can't seem to manifest a better paying job in my chosen field of international politics? I'm hoping Clinton's magic charm rubbed off on me when he shook my hand and this will be the start of something amazing. But today was a great day. Any day in politics is a great day for a wonk-wannabe like me.

Friday, April 25, 2008

My Version of Edvard Munch's "the Scream"

So, this is me at work, being overwhelmed with stress and about to take off my glasses to fling at the manager who was walking around shooting candids with a digital camera and got me before I could duck.

Behind me is the wall of files, which if an earthquake were to hit, I'm sure I'd be buried beneath piles of paper, slowly bleeding to death from a thousand paper cuts.

Just a little humour to brighten your Friday. Remember...no stress today. Also, no in depth post. I'm taking a much needed break.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

How John Branam Lost My Support

John Branam and the city he hopes to help lead as one of the four City Commissioners
After a few weeks of pondering my thoughts on a local campaign, I've decided to drop my support for John Branam in his pursuit of one of the Portland City Council seats. As much as I like his resume, life experience, and views, I'm a big campaign finance reform person (having researched the issue to write my final paper on it for the Washinton Seminar program in 2000) and for weeks have been disturbed by John Branam's spending of the public financing he had received for the City Council race.

Portland passed a campaign financing plan which allows anyone to run for local elections (Mayor or City Council) if they can get 1,000 signatures with each person donating $5 each. Once qualified, as verified by a city auditor, they receive approximately $150,000 for a city council race or $200,000 for the mayor's race. In the mayor's race, Commissioner Sam Adams opted out of it, viewing it as a conflict of interest since he was one of the main advocates for passing such a plan. That means he has to raise money from supporters to fund his campaign. That takes a lot of time away from campaigning, plus the pain of having to ask for money all the time. But it's better than his opponent, Sho Dozono, who qualified for campaign financing but recently lost it due to his not reporting that he had been the recipient of a $27,000 poll, which counts as an "in-kind contribution." Now Dozono has to fundraise from his supporters.

But the city council races include several candidates who qualify for financing. John Branam is one of them. However, one of the first things he did when he received the money is to pay his campaign manager $25,000 for TWO MONTHS WORK! Can you say "boondoggle"? I was deeply offended by that. The way I see it, no one should get rich working on a campaign. Campaign staff should get a reasonable wage, but $25,000 for two months work, especially on a low-level campaign in a large field of candidates is beyond reasonable. Not even the campaign manager of the Sam Adams campaign gets paid that much! The whole thing smacks of political back-scratching. I expected better of John Branam, but honestly, I based my support on what he wrote on his website (http://www.john4pdx.org/about_john/interview).

What else has he done with his money once the check cleared the bank? Well, he bought specially-made fortune cookies with a slip inside that says something like "you'll have a great city commissioner in your future" with his website address. Besides being cheesy, can you say "wasteful spending"? Spending public finance money on gimmicks is offensive to anyone who cares about the way we finance elections. He's also paid for print ads in the alternative weekly newspaper "Willamette Weekly" (the only candidate to have such ads) and bought campaign buttons (much larger than the ones for Sam Adams, which I had helped press together). Nothing wrong with print ads and campaign buttons, for that's traditional campaign fare. But I like what "Willamette Weekly" said about John Branam's spending habits: he's "spending like a teenage clotheshorse with daddy's credit card." In fact, he has already spent $80,000, more than twice the amount each of his four opponents have.

Do we want that in a City Commissioner? I sure as hell don't.

Perhaps my distaste is due to personal reasons. He's younger than me, and while he admitted at a candidates forum to having over $100,000 in Law School loan debt, he still managed to buy a home and get a nice job with the Portland Public Schools as an executive. Here I am in a city full of nothing but low wage jobs, trying to find a living wage career in my field of interest (anything international, city/state/metro government, or university). There seems to be some backscratching going on. I'm curious to know how much of the campaign finance money pays for salaries of his staff. Had he paid a modest amount to his campaign manager, I suppose I'd still be a supporter, but in the interest of public integrity, this pay-off strikes as a major ethical lapse. And if a candidate commits an ethical lapse in a campaign, will he have the strong sense of integrity to refuse money from lobbyists and special interests when he's a commissioner? Or will he ensure that his friends get plum salaried jobs, while this city continues to slug along in low wages?

In a crowded field of plenty of good candidates, I've decided that in spite of John Branam's impressive life history and views (I especially like his Peace Corps service in South Africa and his admiration of Nelson Mandela), I cannot in good conscience support his campaign to be Sam Adams' replacement as City Commissioner, no matter how good of a buddy he is to the candidate I wholeheartedly endorse, support, and volunteer for: Sam Adams. Ethical campaign spending is just too important an issue for me to ignore in this race.

So, in his stead, I am looking into supporting Jeff Bissonnette for City Commissioner. From what little I know of him, he claims to have fought with Enron over power issues, so that's a huge inticement for me to support his candidacy. Anyone who saw through Enron's energy manipulation scheme is exactly the kind of person I want on city council. But, I'm not ready to endorse any candidate for city council until I further investigate their views, plans, and meet them in person (I did meet John Branam once and then saw him at the Retrofits concert flirting with all kinds of women, and got the impression that he's a bit too slick and shallow for my tastes).

Branam is a sharp guy, though, and I still believe that he has a future in politics. I might even vote for him at a future date and could even see him running for Congress (I'd prefer him over my current congressman, David Wu, who had supposedly date-raped a lady when he was in college), but for election to Portland City Council, I cannot overlook the way he has spent the public money allocated to his campaign. If he financed his campaign through fundraising, he can pay his campaign manager however much he wants...but when it comes to public finance, accountability matters...especially to a person who has desired a living wage job for awhile now. It gives me the impression that the only way to a better paying job in this city is through your buddies who can hook you up, regardless of your resume, experience, and knowledge.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Disturbing Data

No, not you, my readers...but the Democrats who might defect to McCain if their preferred Democrat doesn't win the nomination. Read on for this disturbing data...



Hillary once again manages to pull a miraculous win to keep her in the game while Obama loses yet another of the "big states" which casts doubts on his ability to "close the deal."

I admit that he seemed off his game during the debate. He looked tired and hesitated on a lot of questions as he sought words to say. Granted, he was barraged by trivial fluff, which Hillary was only happy to pile on. The interesting thing about her bringing up the Reverent Wright issue (and even raising the spectre of Louis Farrakhan) is what Obama does not say. When Hillary and Bill were having marital problems in the wake of President Clinton's August confession that he did indeed "have an inappropriate relationship" with THAT woman (Ms. Lewinsky), one of the religious leaders who came to counsel them was Reverent Jeremiah Wright!

But moving on...the data that disturbs me most is hearing pollsters say that there is a substantial number of Hillary supporters who will vote for the Republican nominee John McCain if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee! Likewise, there is also a significant number of Obama supporters who will defect towards the Republicans if Hillary is the nominee. When I heard that, I wanted to say, "whoa, there! Are you out of your flippin' mind?" You have to know that the blowhard Rush is laughing pounds off of his fat ass over the Democratic will towards self-destruction. He's loving every minute of this when he's not on his OxyContin high.

What's wrong with Democrats? The thing about Republicans is that they are so obedient and desirous of winning that they'd vote for Satan if he was their party's nominee for president. They've proven time again that when the choice comes down between their values and a winning candidate with major flaws, they choose the flawed candidate over their "pure morals" every time.

Not so with the Democrats. If the Democratic nominee combs his hair wrong, they'll sanctimoniously vote for the likes of Nader than vote for the Democratic candidate, knowing full well that the Republican candidate is FAR WORSE than the Democratic candidate. That's why the Democrats lose election after election. We don't have the loyalty that the Republicans have in their obedient followers.

To further illustrate the craziness of these fickle Democratic voters...we've had 42 WHITE MALE presidents. This year, the Republican party has about 12 WHITE MALE candidates to be the nomination, many of them pretty near retirement age. On the other hand, the Democrats had viable hispanic, female, and African American candidates. The Democrats offer a chance to really break with the tradition. And sore losers of either candidate would rather vote for the opposition candidate rather than their Democratic rival? Do they understand what that means?

It means we end up with a President who will continue Bush's disasterous agenda in foreign policy and domestic policy. It means we'll never get a chance to see justice served with federal investigations of all the crimes committed in the past eight years. No IRS audits of Halliburton, KBR, Bechtel, and Blackwater executives. We'll get more of the same. Granted, John McCain is an honorable man and certainly would be more competent than Bush could ever dream of being. But he's still a Republican and Republicans have no interest investigating one of their own, and Bush's legacy depends entirely on the outcome of his war in Iraq, which McCain has promised to continue for the next century. Also, we'd end up having WHITE MALE PRESIDENT #43 after an election of major historic proportions.

So Democrats need to get over themselves and vote for the Democratic nominee in the fall. While I'm still intending to vote for Obama next month, I'm happy to vote for either of them in the fall...and this is coming from a guy who remains (now and forever) a Gore loyalist. Either candidate would be worlds better than another Republican president. And besides, who can resist a vote for the history books? I'm excited about having our next president break the mold in terms of race or gender.

Other "disturbing data" I've heard about this week include the price of gasoline on the day Bush was sworn into office: $1.47 a gallon; and that the Veteran's Administration claimed that only 800 war veterans have attempted suicide last year (when the actual number was 12,000). First, the gasoline price...it represents a 200% increase in seven years. Very few salaries have jumped that much (I'm making the wage level I made in 1996, which was liveable back then when I had zero debt and owned my car). One of the things I liked that Hillary said in the debate was that she intends to launch an investigation into the price manipulation of gasoline and go after those who have profited over the windfall.

As for the number of attempted suicides...does 12,000 seem like a lot? We now know that 300,000 veterans are suffering from PTSD. That the Veteran's Administration would decrease the number of suicide attempts from 12,000 to 800 seems like they are afraid of data, whatever that data indicates. It's a disturbing number, for sure, but we already know that we have an administration full of chicken hawks who love to claim patriotism and send people's children off to war even though none of them served in war themselves (Cheney being the prime example with his record FIVE deferments). They can wear all the American flag lapel pins they want, but it doesn't change the truth of their lies and cowardice. For all their tough talk, they don't have to face the still, small voice of their conscience that speaks out against the atrocities our soldiers have to live with. No, they can't be bothered with the facts that 12,000 war veterans wanted to end their lives last year. For me, I want to know why. It should be our national leaders committing suicide for the shame they should feel over their ruinous policies and incompetent failures, not our soldiers--many of whom joined to see the world, get money for college, because they couldn't find other jobs in our lousy economy, or to escape their hometowns for whatever reason. Why should they pay the high price for a war that has only enriched the likes of Cheney and company?

It is my sincere hope that as Americans make choices on who to vote for the next president, that they will think very seriously about the past seven years and the disturbing trends we've seen. We can't afford to continue with the same old policies whether its in regards to war, economics, health care, jobs, trade, or energy. And Democrats who vote Republican in November just because their choice for the nominee might not be on the ballot should just go ahead and join that disaster of a party. They deserve one another.

A few years ago, a well meaning church member was baffled why I'm a Democrat. She couldn't fathom why any Christian could be anything other than a Republican. Without going into detail about all the reasons why I'm a Democrat (as my friends know, I'd rather be dead than be a Republican), I simply told her: "I never vote against my own economic interests." A party of crusty, rich, old materialistic people simply does not have my economic interest at heart. They couldn't care less if people like me floundered as they preached the false propaganda of "our meritocratic system" in which you too can be rich if you work hard enough! And that's the biggest problem with Americans. Too many have been duped into voting against their own economic interests and that's why we're in the economic crisis we're just beginning to enter.

And folks, it's only going to get worse. Look at the data. There are no positive numbers to be found. We owe the impending economic crisis to the borrow and spend policies of Republican presidents and it simply takes a Democrat to turn that around because Democrats can't afford to have unsound economic policy. The spectre of the malaise of the Carter years haunts all Democrats from acting like Hoover-Bush Republicans.

For me, Hillary or Obama...it's all good! I'm thinking that they have no choice but to form one ticket for the sake of the party (with Hillary at the top of the ticket). At least when all is said and done, we can say it was the most interesting election of our lifetime. Especially if our next president does break the mold of "white and male" that's been with us since our nation's founding. We're living in the Twenty-first century, so it's about time we behave like the enlightened people our ancestors imagined of us. Whaddaya say, eh?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Best Day of My Life

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the saddest day of my life. It's interesting to me that just 11 days after that day, I would be blessed with the single greatest day of my life. That happened on April 22, 2000, which is better known as the thirtieth anniversary of Earth Day. It was also the day that Vice President Gore met with his 15 interns for that semester (two of them had already left, which they probably regretted. It pays to stick around!).

After walking around the room shaking each of our hands, he sat down at the table and I happened to be in the prime location directly across the table from him. He said a few words before opening it up for questions. Again, by pure happenstance, he picked me to ask the last question, so I did.

My question was: "I read in the Washington Post this year that as a young man, you had dreams of becoming a novelist someday and I was wondering if you still have an interest in that?"

He looked at me and the first thing he said to me was a question of his own: "You ask that question because you're interested in being a writer yourself, right?"

I was shocked. It was like he looked into my eyes and saw my soul's deepest desire. Of course, you could also say that he's a super smart guy who can easily figure out a person's interests by the type of questions they ask. He went on to talk about his book "Earth in the Balance" making some joke that it wasn't fiction, and while he did enjoy writing, his main priority was to become our next president.

Why did I ask that question? Because when I read a feature article on Gore in the Washington Post earlier in the semester, I was thrilled to see that as a young man he had the same conflicting desires that I was facing at the time (and still do): a political career or a writing career. My goal at the time was to work in his administration for the full term (whether it was four or eight years) before launching into a writing career. Of course, we all know what happened that November.

In my depression over the election results, I started work on the novel that was conceived in November 1989. I finished it four years later and have been seeking an agent for it ever since. I can't believe that a full eight year presidential term will come to an end before I get a literary agent, a publishing contract, and the novel in bookstores. Maybe we are in this strange place where Bush was never supposed to be president, so that's why I've been floundering in nightmare jobs for so long. I'm hoping that when Bush is gone, the spell will be broken and my dream life will manifest.

With that question he asked of me replaying in my mind that day, I left the Old Executive Office Building for the last time. Gore had to run off to the Earth Day gathering on the National Mall which was hosted by Leonardo DiCaprio. I met with Jenet...and unfortunately her friend Nesh, a Bosnian Serb that I ended up staying with for the month of May. We walked around the Mall area as Third Eye Blind played on stage. The whole day took on a magical air, mostly because of the meeting with Gore for the last time. Just him and his interns. Had I not planned to make a career in D.C., I might've left like the other BYU interns when our seminar ended and I would've missed out on the whole thing. But I was still working on the final paper (on campaign finance reform--which I'll write on soon) to turn in to Professor Fry. And I was looking for jobs. But mostly, I knew I would remain in D.C. through June 24th because I'd have to go to Williamsport to fulfill my best man duties. Had that not happened, I most likely would've left D.C. after Memorial Day weekend.

In retrospect, that Earth Day on April 22, 2000 represented the highpoint of my year. It has been a steady and long descent ever since. I've had a few peaks in the years between, but nothing near as close to what I felt that day. As Leonardo would shout...I felt like I was "King of the World!" on that day. God had answered a prayer of mine for direction (writing career or political career?) by using as His mouthpiece a national public figure who didn't know me from the next intern.

So those of you who never liked Gore or didn't like him at the time...do you know understand why I'm such a huge disciple? He has been the politician I have admired the most since the early 1990s, a truly visionary person, and one who recognized my true ambition in a room of interns. He made a different choice when he was younger and it got him to the second highest position in our land. Perhaps his writing career would've went no where. But at least his daughter Kristin has published two hilarious novels of her own. Now it's time to focus exclusively on my goals. After all, my working life is going nowhere. I'm working in a place where career goals commit suicide. Life is more than that.

I hope you have a Happy Earth Day! If you haven't seen "An Inconvenient Truth" yet, make today the special day to watch it. I certainly will be watching it again (my annual tradition), to renew my inspiration and dedication for environmentally responsible living. Mother Earth depends on our commitment to leave no footprints behind!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Why I Love Pennsylvania

On Tuesday, after three weeks of no primaries (who scheduled that?!?), Pennsylvania voters finally get to make their choice known for the Democratic nominee. We'll see if the controversial statements of the Reverent Jeremiah Wright or the "bitter" speech has doomed the Obama campaign from the working class folks of Pennsylvania. Or will hope for a better future endure as voters ignore the questions about flag lapel pins and distant associations with former radical groups to vote for the economy and jobs?

As this comes to a head, I wanted to post on why I love the state of Pennsylvania. I lived there for my second grade year (the best year in elementary school) and I contemplating moving there in 2000. It's probably in my top five favourite states because it has so much history, great scenery, and in one of the best geographical spots in our country. It is known as "the Keystone State", because without it, our country couldn't have survived the early days of independence. If you've never been there, it is one state every American should visit.

Here's why I love this state:

My dad attended Penn State University for a year (1979-1980) as part of his ROTC program before becoming an officer in the U.S. Air Force. We lived in an apartment in State College, with a swimming pool and a basketball court, which I took full advantage of. The apartment was like a model U.N., as I remember talking with a Japanese lady and I resented the dirty children from Sudan who loved to steal shopping carts to push around a dusty field nearby.

What I remember most about this year is how beautiful the leaves were in the month of October, and our trips to Washington, D.C., New York City, Bar Harbor ME, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec City. I especially loved Bar Harbor and Quebec City. When I think back to how much we traveled in that one year in Pennsylvania, I think that's where my love of traveling first formed. It was the most travel I remember doing by that point of my life (though I had seen Thailand earlier).

In school, our class had a pretend trip to California, in which we arranged the classroom to resemble a train. Half the students were passengers and the other half played the roles of conductor, ticket taker, engineer, and baggage handler. We learned about states in our "journey" across the United States. When we "arrived" in California, we learned about cowboy songs and frontier life (okay, that's not how we picture California, but the whole point of the "pretend trip" was to learn about states and the old west). It was the best year in elementary school because of the imagination it inspired in me (of travelling across country) as well as the significant friends I made: Sharon Dunn (who became my first penpal when my family moved to Hill AFB, Utah in May 1980) and an exchange student from Pakistan: Khoram. I think I was his only friend in that class, for other ethnicities didn't faze me much. Probably because no one could figure out mine. We were two outsiders in a predominately white area.

In June 2000, I went to Williamsport to fulfill my best man duties at Nathan Hagman's wedding to Lisa Hudecek, who was from Williamsport (though they met in Bremerton, Washington when both worked at the Naval hospital there). This gave me opportunity to see the town when I went up early to make arrangements for the bachelor's party and floral arrangement that would go on the hood of their car. The population of the town was 30,000, which I've long considered to be the ideal size (Coeur d'Alene also had that population in the 1990s) for a town that I'd live in. I also liked the way the town looked. I did consider moving up here after not finding a job in D.C., but I didn't know what kind of jobs existed. It's a town famous for the Little League World Series and even has a museum devoted to the Little League.

That's me, giving advice to Nathan Hagman at the wedding rehearsal (June 23, 2000). The other guys are his brothers (from left) David, Joel and Andrew.

You might be wondering why we're all dressed like used car salesmen...well, that was part of the gag. I didn't know about it in advance, for I just happened to have brought along a few clothing choices that so do not belong together. When we went to a restaurant for the rehearsal lunch, people stared at us so I said, "don't mind us, we're Mormons!"

A few years later, the gazebo they married under had burned to the ground (along with the whole bed and breakfast place). It was a nice place and I experienced deja vu when my other best friend Nicholas Smith married his sweetheart last year in a bed and breakfast with gazebo in Illinois.

So, I can't live in Williamsport anyway. The site is too sacred for me to ever go back.

My favourite Billy Joel song is "Allentown"...which is a town in Pennsylvania. I've never been there but it's one of the places on my list. Not that I expect to see anything interesting, but I love seeing as much of America as I can. I'm always able to find something interesting in every place that I visit. Plus, it would be nice to have a visual for whenever I hear this excellent song.

In 2000, on my drive between Washington, D.C. and Williamsport PA, I stopped in Harrisburg for the specific purpose of touring the state capitol. My goal is to visit all 50 of them (I think I've been to 12 so far). This is one of the nicer ones (I love the green tiled dome). I'd certainly trade it for the lame one Oregon has.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Sacred in U.S. history where the Declaration of Independence was discussed, argued, and voted on. I've been here twice, once as a kid, and the second time during my internship in D.C. as one of our two field trips. What was different the second time was the addition of a museum with a video presentation (though the video was very cheesy and should be updated). Philadelphia is one of those cities where you can spend just one day in, as the most interesting part is in a small area. It serves as an excellent place to launch out to other locations like Valley Forge, Pennsylvania Dutch Country in Lancaster County, and Gettysburg.

After lunch in Philadelphia, our BYU Washington Seminar group went to Lancaster County to learn about the Amish, the Mennonites, and (drum-roll, please) Amish-Mennonites. We toured an actual Amish farm and were advised not to take pictures of the Amish (though my roommate Jantzen snuck a few shots in like the secret rebel he truly is!) and we visited a touristy market where you can buy goods made by the Amish (and I spotted a very attractive young Amish lady who was probably underage, but two other guys on the program were talking about her too when we got back to the bus, so at least I wasn't the only one who noticed). Best of all was the restaurant we ate at, in which everyone was fed at the same time in a large room. It made me think of being part of a Waltons family reunion.

One thing I learned about the Amish is that you can arrange to do homestays with them, where you live and work among the Amish for a week or so. That's something I'd be very interested in doing, just for the experience of it. There's a lot we can learn from the Amish (such as alternative energy use or living without) but overall, I'm glad that I wasn't born into their community. It's a hard life to live separate from a changing and evolving world.
Finally, Gettysburg. I stole the photo above from Nicholas Smith's website (sorry, Nick!). He's a big Civil War aficionado and has been to many sites connected to that great war between the states. The photo was taken with his then-girlfriend (now wife) Jennifer a few years ago.

I haven't been to Gettysburg since I was a teenager (1985) so I'm due to revisit, because back then, I was only mildly interested in it. I wish I would've appreciated more the historical sites my dad planned as family vacations. But I suppose most people don't appreciate things as teenagers like they should (since we're always worried about what's socially acceptable and cool, which history is mostly not).

My view of Gettysburg is that it's sacred ground. Plans by ignorant developers to open a casino or amusement park near Civil War sites should always be rejected. These parks get enough tourists already, people interested in history. The last thing they need to do is create some amusement to draw even more people in. They won't get interested in history just because they want to gamble at a casino adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefields or visit a specially-themed Civil War-era Disneyland amusement park. Americans need to keep sacred sites sacred. Many men died in battle at Gettysburg (and there are many rumours of ghosts sightings in that area) and the best thing we can do for them is to limit development of anything (casinos, amusement parks, golf courses, mega-mansions, shopping centers, and the like). It should as close to the 1860s as possible.

So, those are just a few of the reasons why I LOVE the great state of Pennsylvania. There is also a big Quaker influence (a cool religion that I'd most likely be a member of if I wasn't Community of Christ) and Benjamin Franklin is a favored "adopted son." And no, that famous statue in Philadelphia is NOT Benjamin Franklin as most people think. It's of the state's founder: William Penn. The state's name means: Penn's Forest. As I've said above, if you've never visited this state before, you must. Between history, scenery, and religious diversity, it truly is one of our country's best states. I wouldn't mind settling there someday if a future job transferred me there. It occupies one of the best locations in the country, as befitting it's nickname as the Keystone State.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pope Benedict Arnold Schwarzenegger

Today's post title might seem a little odd, but I couldn't help myself. I love joining words and names together in creative ways. It was simply too irresistable to pass up, especially on a day like today. What happened today in history, you ask? Why, the world's most evil tyrant was born: Adolf Hitler. It's hard to imagine how different our world would be today if he hadn't been born. The map of Europe would probably look different. Six million Jews wouldn't have perished. Israel might not have been created. Even the Middle East might've looked different.

And speaking of Hitler, since Pope John Paul II died a few years ago, Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany was selected as the successor (over a Brazilian bishop, whom the Catholic Church should have chosen just for history's sake). He chose Gregory XVI for his official papal name. Though I'm not Catholic, Pope John Paul II was pope for so long, even today, it's hard for me to realize that he's gone. I can't get used to the new guy as pope. No matter what he does, he'll never fill the shoes of the last pope. In fact, what would the 1980s be without Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev?

One thing disturbing about the current pope was his participation as a Hitler Youth. While it's easy to claim that he had no choice in the matter, conformity and compliance to something that goes against what you believe is hardly the mark of a true leader. And who knows how much of what he was taught was ingrained in him, even if he didn't agree with everything he was taught? He could still retain some of what he was indoctrinated with. And his history as one of the more conservative cardinals seems to hint at his easy comfort with fascist tendencies.

The American media seems to be on a lovefest with the Pope's visit to the U.S. To me, he's just an archaic reminder of a corrupt church that is so far removed from the Christ they claim to be the uninterrupted organization he started on earth. Did Jesus wear silly outfits or ride around in an armored Mercedes "Popemobile" (or "Christmobile")? Of course, these are different times...what with crazy terrorists and easy access to semi-automatic weapons. But, it galls me that people claim that the pope is in the equivalent spot that Jesus would occupy if he were alive on earth today. Somehow, I think Jesus would shun the wealth and power of the Catholic Church in favour of wandering the streets among the downtrodden, humble and simple. He is the opposite of the materialistic Catholic Church (which took wealth from poor countries and built many cathedrals through slave labour).

Moving on from Pope Benedict, I come next to Benedict Arnold, infamous in American history for betraying the Revolution. In fact, not much was taught about him other than that he was a traitor. In history books, that's all he was known for. Which is a shame, because I finally watched the film "Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor" starring Aidan Quinn as the notorious patriot-turned-loyalist and Kelsey Grammar as George Washington. This movie came out in 2002 and has been in my netflix queue for years. Since I won't be able to see HBO's "John Adams" mini-series until it's on DVD, I decided to watch other films about our Revolutionary War figures. The movie was made for the Arts and Entertainment cable network, so the quality is less than what HBO or a major film production would be. However, it was still pretty good.

What struck me most is that Benedict Arnold was a hero who helped the patriots win key early battles at Saratoga and on Lake Champlain. He even tried to overtake Canada (which only consisted of Montreal and Quebec at the time), as the Americans had hoped it would become the 14th colony to join the rebellion against the British Empire. These days, Canadians joke about Quebec's constant desire for independence would render Canada as the 51st state (not that that's a bad thing!). What caused Benedict Arnold to switch sides were several factors...such as Congress not willing to back pay what he's due, the loss of his shipping business, the promotion of Horatio Gates over him, and his second wife's loyalist tendencies. She apparently told him that the patriots had no chance of winning and if he backed the wrong side, he'd be hung as a traitor. If he switched to the loyalist (royalist), the King would most likely name him as "Viceroy of America." Ego got the better of him and he made arrangements to keep weapons under lock and key at the fortress of West Point (now known as the military academy for the U.S. Army) on the Hudson River. He planned to have General Washington caught unaware at his home when the British moved in for the surprise attack. If the British gained control of the entire Hudson River, it would've most likely ended the Revolution because New England was east of the Hudson and considered the most rebellious. It would've chopped off the head of the American colonies, separating New England from the other colonies.

By divine providence, the patriots captured a British officer (John Andre) who had in his possession a safe passage letter signed by Benedict Arnold. When the message was delivered to General Washington, the treasonous plot was discovered, but Arnold had escaped to the British ship waiting on the Hudson River. The most interesting thing about the whole deal is that Benedict Arnold lived the rest of his days in England, where he was never fully trusted by the British. I guess that's the moral of the history: nobody trusts a traitor, even those on the side you end up joining. He apparently died an unhappy man and was dressed in the bluecoat of the American patriots shortly before he died. Had he not betrayed the patriots, he most likely would've been one of the heroes of our Revolution.

Lastly, we move from Benedict Arnold to Arnold Schwarzenegger, undoubtedly the Republicans wet dream of a presidential candidate. All I can say is thank God for the foresight of the Founding Fathers to not allow foreign born citizens the chance to run for president. Though that might change someday, it requires an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is one of the most difficult things to change (requiring 2/3rds of the state legislatures to approve--or is it 3/4ths?).

I'm no fan of him because I think the way he came into the governor's office is disturbing. He has personal ties to Enron and it was Enron's manipulation of energy in California that caused the crisis of rolling black outs, high rates, and ultimately a huge dissatisfaction of Governor Gray Davis, who had won reelection by a comfortable margin in 2002. The Republican Party in California has the poor strategy of nominating only the most religiously conservative Republican nominee for Governor, guranteeing a loss each time. Arnold Schwarzenegger could never hope to win the nomination of the Republican party through a primary process in which mostly evangelical and cultural conservatives have a heavy impact. His best way of acquiring office was through a ballot initiative created by progressives called a recall. Ironically, Schwarzenegger was in a 1990 movie called "Total Recall." Coincidence?

It's grossly unfair to blame Governor Gray Davis for the energy crisis that was manipulated by Enron. It wasn't known then, but Enron was in deep financial crisis and shuffled money around to hide their losses from auditors. They saw that the best way to bring in money was to manipulate energy in California to raise rates. Governor Davis might not have been the best governor, but he won a clear majority in his reelection and he wasn't caught doing anything illegal nor was he incompetent. Why he paid the price when more incompetent leaders remain in office (cough, cough, Bush, Cheney, cough, cough) is baffling. But the recall election became such a farce with well over a hundred candidates, including Gary Coleman and Arianna Huffington, a porn star, a college student, and anyone else with money for the filing fee and the ego's need for attention.

So, that's how Schwarzenegger was able to accomplish his dream of becoming governor of Cah-LEE-forn-yah. His fellow Austrians cheered his accomplishment as local boy who made good in America (though a few years later, they removed his name from a sports arena when he wouldn't do away with the death penalty). What's overlooked was that a young Schwarzenegger praised Adolf Hitler as a person he admired. His own father was a member of the Nazi Party and became a member of the SS (Secret Police). Considering the Nazi ideal of superhuman strength, it's no wonder that the steroid-enhanced musclehead like Schwarzenegger is a fan. And despite his liberal cultural views and Democratic wife (Maria Shriver, daughter of JFK's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver), he is the most popular Republican politician today. If he was born in America, he most likely would've run for president this year. Perhaps if they can get the Constitution changed in time for 2012 or 2016, he might run. But I hope not. The last thing we need is a Nazi-admiring, sexually-harassing, B-actor with a horrible accent as leader of the free world.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Stop-Loss, the Movie and the Concept


Thursday evening, I went to see the film "Stop-Loss" because it was disappearing from theaters due to lack of interested viewers. It's a sad commentary on Americans, but not surprising. EVERY single film regarding the Iraq War has bombed. Even excellent documentaries like "No End in Sight" have failed to find the kind of broad audiences that "Fahrenheit 9/11" enjoyed in 2004. In fact, that film remains the only successful one that touches on the Iraq War, but a lot of its success probably had to do with the lingering anger many felt over the stolen election of 2000.

I read an article a few weeks back in which the writer had said that the failure of films dealing with any aspect of the Iraq War, War on Terror, or Guantanamo Bay is a sad indication that Americans are so disgusted with what has happened, that they've pretty much checked out on the war. We don't want to be reminded of it. We simply want to continue our shopping madness and be entertained by trivial fluff. Its sad when Americans won't get outraged over Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay or the fact that Dick Cheney has put the VICE in "Vice Presidency" by his sadistic pleasure that our government uses torture as a means to an end (the end being "the complete eradication of evil", as Bush loves to put it)...but the "Saw" films keep spitting out sequels every autumn, a sure-fire moneymaker. It's a sick and a disturbing sign of our country's sickness.

You know what this denial reminds me of? When I saw the excellent HBO series "Band of Brothers" a few years ago, I was struck by the scene in which American soldiers first happen upon a Concentration Camp. They had no idea what it was, because they had never seen anything like it before (can you imagine being so naive? Its sweet that our country was so earnest in another era...before our foreign policy betrayed our founding principles). What aggravated them even more was that the Germans who lived nearby acted as if they didn't know it was going on. Many of them probably didn't. So what did our soldiers do? They FORCED German citizens to clean up the camp. It had the effect of forcing willfully blind people to see what happened when they pretended that all was well. Germans were resentful of having to clean up the mess, deal with the stench of death, but so what? They needed to have their faces rubbed in the evil they allowed to happen.

Now, we are the Germans. We don't want to deal with Iraq. That films about Iraq continue to bomb means that Americans simply don't want to face the biggest foreign policy disaster our country ever embarked upon. But what good is it to live blind, avoiding the biggest elephant in the room? Iraq continues to rage on and Americans can't be bothered. So long as we continue to send our military back to the meat-grinder (I've heard talk of soldiers now serving a SEVENTH tour of duty over there!!! By comparison, it was considered a big deal that some soldiers served TWO tours of duty in Vietnam), Americans seem okay with that. Talk of a draft has died down since the spectre of it during the 2004 election. In one promise kept, Bush has not called for a draft. However, that probably has a lot to do with military resistance to it (due to the headaches of having low-quality recruits to train who don't want to be in the military) but also because having a draft would increase the anti-war movement as people's personal stake in war will be increased. We can't have raised awareness. Our government wants people distracted by fluff (Britney Spears being the perfect Bush-girl for the task at hand) so we can't see how incompetent and greedy our leaders are. So, crappy films like "Saw" become hits, while "Stop-Loss" becomes the latest casualty of our disasterous war.


Now about the film, "Stop-Loss." It was written and directed by the director who made "Boys Don't Cry." This is her first film since that one (which I had never seen and only heard about it because Hilary Swank won Best Actress for that film over my choice of Annette Bening in the more deserving "American Beauty" role). Continuing with the theme, in this film, boys DO cry.

It begins in Iraq, where we meet the main characters as they run a routine traffic stop that becomes a flashpoint (reminding me of "Black Hawk Down"). We get some heavy action scenes in the opening of the film before it transitions to the homecoming, complete with parades and speeches and readjusting to civilian life. Two members of the unit (played by Ryan Phillippe and some new actor I don't know the name of) are set to get out of the Army. The unit's commander even offers one guy sniper school if he stays in, but he's got a girl to marry and wants none of that.

Life at home isn't easy, however, as the veterans deal with flashbacks, nightmares, and hair-trigger reactions to various sounds that remind them of the war zone. One soldier even digs a foxhole in his girlfriends front yard to sleep in at night. Fights happen over rude comments, alcoholism makes another soldier unstable, and domestic abuse occurs when there's no prior history of it. These are just a few examples of what war veterans have to deal with. I'm certain that it's not easy for veterans of war to deal with the insipid questions clueless folks back home have. I know from personal experience, which I'll share two for an example.

When I came back home from Navy Basic Training in May 1991, I had to wear my uniform since I had no civilian clothes. I was often approached by people thanking ME for my service in the Gulf War! It was over before I even got a chance to go over there, but I just let them have their fantasies. I thought at the time that it was a silly thing to thank me for, especially since I only joined for selfish reasons (money for college and to see the world). It wasn't about serving my country. The military offered an easy escape from college and home life, and it offered adventure. Just the prescription a young guy needs.

The second experience of dealing with clueless people after a transforming experience was when I went to South Africa and was robbed at knifepoint by a group of street thugs. The experience in South Africa (it was the greatest vacation of my life, despite that single scary moment) was sacred to me yet hearing other people's comments about "why South Africa?" and other statements that revealed their complete ignorance, it was hard for me to deal with. So, I can totally relate to Iraq War veterans who hate being accosted with questions about their experiences in Iraq (especially the most asinine question of all: "did you kill anyone?" NEVER ask a veteran that! At least not as a first question, but only after letting the veteran share his experiences and being really interested in hearing about the good and the bad without passing judgment). When one has an experience like war or travel to an exotic country, it is hard to process what you've experienced because you feel different from the person you once were and you don't know where it will lead. Yet people want to treat you like you're the same person they always knew. They don't want to hear that you've changed or how you've changed. They want you to be the same person they remembered, and that's often not the best way to deal with veterans of war. The truth is, war changes you in ways that you can't fully prepare for.

But our society that's quick to send young men (and increasingly, women) off to a foreign war is the same one that doesn't want to deal with the reprecussions when they come home. News this past week have reported that over 300,000 veterans are suffering from PTSD. 300,000!!! That's a lot of people. What's the big deal about PTSD? I believe it's symptomatic of the conflict within, as our conscience is pure and wants us to live up to our highest values and aspirations. We're taught that violence and fighting is wrong. Growing up in school, we get into trouble if we fight, regardless of who started it. So, after being taught these values, survival in war depends upon our ability to do anything to stay alive (including killing others before they kill you). War is an adrenaline rush situation, so it's easier to act/react without processing your experience. It's when you have plenty of time, when you're alone that your conscience comes back into the fore to remind you of your highest aspirations. Guilt plays into it. Subconscious reacts without your thinking, thus any ignorant comment by someone could set you off. I know from my own experience, after I came home for two weeks after Basic Training, I finally had time to process my experience that I wasn't able to during the actual experience. It was hard to deal with my feelings of the experience when people were asking dumb questions. You basically want them to experience it for themselves so they can KNOW exactly what you're feeling, because nothing you say can truly help them to understand what it's like.

Anyhow, the film "Stop-Loss" was pretty good. It gets the point across, that "Stop-Loss" is the backdoor draft. Granted, people who join the military are made to know that even if they enlist for two or four years, an enlistment is considered eight years, so after the active duty you sign up for, you serve the remainder in the inactive reserve (which is different from being in the reserves where you serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year). If a war happens and they need you, you'll be called back to active duty if you're in the inactive reserve. So, that's where "Stop-Loss" happens. Your four year enlistment might be up, but your inactive reserve time is not. You're still Uncle Sam's to do our country's bidding.

The film covers most of the bases regarding war, PTSD, dealing with the hometown folks, stop-loss, male camaraderie (I miss that the most of my Navy experience--civilian life simply doesn't have it), decisions regarding AWOL and running away to Canada or Mexico, and honoring your commitments to others. The ending was exactly the one I was hoping for and Ryan Phillippe's character makes the decision I would have made. When the credits rolled, I was in awe of this film. While it's not perfect, it is a good film about the issues facing our military. I know that most people see movies for escapist entertainment, but I've always been one who needs to be fed intellectually. I love movies that educate as well as "entertain" (though I hate the word "entertain" because it trivializes things, since I like movies that make me feel a multitude of emotions as I watch, and I like walking away inspired or educated on something I wasn't aware of before I started watching). This movie does make the audience feel emotions and when I walked home, I thought maybe that's it. That's the reason why Americans avoid movies about the Iraq War or the war on terror. They don't want to "feel" the emotions these films bring to the surface. They want to remain in denial that they supported the war at the start (even accusing anti-war people like me as being unpatriotic) and don't want to feel the emotions. They prefer to medicate their depressions, to live life numb. But having experienced being numb and dumb, it's so much more liberating to feel the emotion (even ones like sadness, anger, horror). It means that you're alive and able to do something. Feelings are what they are, guiding you towards an action.

So, if you're hesitant to see a film about the war in Iraq, I must recommend that you see this one, at least. It's not as good as "Jarhead", but it does raise important issues. The question I keep asking is, if people support this war in Iraq, is it right to keep sending veterans back to Iraq for tour of duty after tour of duty? It's time for more Americans to step up to the plate. If you supported the war when it was launched (80% of Americans did in 2003), what are you doing about it now?