Saturday, May 19, 2012

National Award Winning Writer James Goldberg Writes Blog Post

That's right: as of today, I am a National Award Winning writer!

The national award is not, sadly, for any of my writing: but I am a writer, and I do have an award from a national competition now, so I'm going to start going by "national award winning writer James Goldberg."

I mean yes, "Best-looking James Goldberg in America" is a rather small competition, but it is a national one. And yes, I placed sixth. But they give me a certificate. Which is a kind of award.

Besides, sixth is actually quite good if you remember that the runner-up, James Franco, should technically have been disqualified. Also: I'm pretty sure the guy who placed fifth was sleeping with the judge (she was, after all, his wife).

So if you adjust for fraud and conflicts of interest, I'm actually the fourth best-looking James Goldberg in America. Which means that, in addition to a certificate, I should have won that $10 gift card to Applebee's.

Just sayin'.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Marriage: Primal Magic or Facebook Relationship Status?

Since Pres. Obama's announcement yesterday of his position on gay marriage, it's occurred to me that the issue is so politically charged--somewhat ironically--precisely because neither side really believes it's an issue the people should have a right to decide in the first place. Consider the following hypothetical debate:

Proponent: "I'm not asking for a favor: this is a right. You can't tell me who to love."
Opponent: "You can love whoever you want to, but you can't just change the definition of marriage."
Bill Clinton: "That depends on what the definition of 'definition' is. But you're missing the point: let's talk about how it will affect the economy, and then decide based on that." 
Proponent and Opponent: "What?!? Who are you?"

I provide this illustration less to suggest that Bill Clinton should probably not be weighing in on any debate involving marriage than to demonstrate that gay marriage debates are driven by "you can't" arguments rather than "we ought to" arguments. They're not arguing about policy, they're arguing about the nature of inalienable truths.  Which is a sure sign that some people are going to feel seriously alienated by any outcome.

Since I teach rhetoric, though, any sense of impending doom I may feel about the deep divisions in our country is delayed by curiosity about how people ended up with mutually exclusive "you can't" attitudes in the first place. It seems obvious that the people with the strongest feelings on each side of the issue have different views of marriage--but what exactly are those views?

The Facebook View of Marriage
There are some legal advantages--such as recognition in the state of Israel--which distinguish the word "marriage" from "civil union" or "domestic partnership." But those don't seem to be the things that keep activists up at night.

If you think of marriage as a Facebook relationship status rather than a legal term, though, it may be easier to see why the word matters so much to gay marriage advocates. If the purpose of marriage is to communicate a personal commitment to the community, how is it possibly fair to have a glass ceiling for some couples? I mean, if someone as incapable of lasting personal commitment as Newt Gingrich can climb the marriage-ladder three times (and counting?), why would we make anyone wait in a separate status off to the side?

In a view of marriage as public expression of private commitment, withholding the word marriage means denying a personal liberty and devaluing two people's care and concern for each other. I mean, how would you feel if Facebook left everyone else the option to put "married" on their relationship status, but took it off the menu for you?

Whether gay marriage becomes the legal standard across the country or not, it is discriminatory, in this view, not to have it. And discrimination is bad, bad stuff.

In a traditional American understanding, laws can make policy, but they don't create rights:  they recognize and protect rights which already exist (in some deep, moral sense Jefferson described as self-evident, God-given, and more significant than mere physical reality). When a state votes against gay marriage, then, they are not just snubbing gay couples--they are putting themselves at odds with the natural law this nation was founded on.

The Primal Magic View of Marriage

Not everyone, though, sees marriage primarily as a public expression of a private commitment between two people. To many people, marriage is less social contract than a primal magic which inherently and necessarily involves both genders.

In many cultures, there's a belief in male and female energies or forces. And in many cultures, marriage is a mystical way of fusing these forces together, making them one. If you look at the Abrahamic religions, for instance, the culmination of the creation myth comes when God creates human masculinity, sees that it's empty and incomplete--can't be completed, in fact, by anything in the rest of creation--and then creates human femininity and fuses the first man and woman together in marriage. The marriage is described as a radically important relationship that supersedes even bonds and debts to one's parents. In later narratives, other uses of sexuality are described as dangerous and destructive.

To most people who have this view of marriage, it makes no sense to talk about gay marriage as a right, because gay marriage simply isn't marriage: the primal magic recipe only works when both genders are involved. And the main reason, in this view, why governments acknowledge marriage in the first place is not to celebrate or affirm couples for their love, but because deep down they know that the primal magic does work and is the best foundation for society.

From this perspective, a government can really only pretend it is offering marriage to gay couples, something which it is not only unwise, but also impossible to truly do. To demand gay marriage on fairness grounds, then, is sort of like demanding on fairness grounds that gasoline be a renewable resource. That is, you could change the legal language to include gasoline under the category of "renewable" for purposes of taxation or grant money, but that wouldn't change the underlying reality the language described before the change.


Many people see gay marriage as a potential cause of future cultural upheaval, but the debate over gay marriage is also a symptom of the substantial cultural upheaval our society is already undergoing. For those who see marriage primarily as a public expression of a private commitment, the case for gay marriage is clear and compelling and opposition to it is backward and discriminatory. For those who see marriage as an inherently dual-gender sacred system, gay marriage is simply not marriage and efforts to have it recognized as an inalienable right are an alarming collective self-deception.

Currently, half of American voters are in favor of gay marriage and half of American voters are opposed to it. That may change in the near future (especially if the amount of time people spend on Facebook vs. the time they spend with traditional religions is a factor in how attitudes develop). But even if one side "wins" in the courts or through legislation, neither view of marriage is likely to go away any time in the next century or two or ten, and we will have to find some way to live with each other in the meantime. 

Maybe it will help us to remember that both positions are based on assumptions which are beyond the realm of the rational. It is not possible to experimentally confirm the existence of a cosmic right to have one's relationship affirmed by society: one must simply hold a truth of that kind to be self-evident. It is not possible to prove that marriage is based on a merging of male and female energies that goes deeper than any social contract: this is, clearly, a matter of faith and religious experience. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

How to Make Republicans Competitive Again

I try not to read about politics too much, but when I feel overwhelmed or frustrated, I sometimes resort to reading headlines, wikipedia entries, or old abandoned textbooks until I reach a self-induced information coma. Like most forms of self-medication, however, the information coma has some damaging side-effects: the most troubling of which is that even after the numbness is gone, some dregs of insight remain.

For example: based on their levels of support among the young and Hispanics, the two demographic groups most likely to own the future, the Republican Party appears to be dying.

There was a time in my life when this would not have bothered me. I've voted almost exclusively for Democrats and still lean left on Election Day. But a functioning democracy can't afford to be all about winning on Election Day; it needs to be about the constant exchange of ideas in search of solutions that will help unite people will diverse value sets.

If one party loses its competitive edge, democracy suffers twice. First, whatever good proposals or critiques that party brought to the table are likely to go unheard. Second (and this, for me, is critical), the stronger party loses interest in understanding the positive values the weaker one built itself on. And that, my friends, would be a great shame. Because I genuinely believe the wisest leaders have always understood that liberal and conservative impulses ought to be treated as yin and yang.

I hardly ever vote for Republicans, but that doesn't mean I want my kids growing up in an elephant graveyard. 

So in the interests of making our democracy stronger, I offer two simple proposals that would help the Republicans become competitive again in key demographics:

1) Instead of opposing all income tax increases on the wealthy, Republicans should demand that for every new $1 of tax, the deductible charitable giving cap be raised by $1.50.

Big government vs. little government is an important debate to have. Community vs. greed is not.

So let's start with the obvious: among political moderates, taking a hard line against taxes for the rich has made Republicans look like total schmucks. Because even in a country founded on tax protests, it's hard to feel righteous indignation when people who earn six figures every six months are asked to pay the extra 4.6% they did before Bush II came along. And the idea that we all win if Mark Cuban trickles that 4.6% down by paying people to re-buff his fourth yacht doesn't fly well when it comes from the same mouths that are fighting the Children's Health Insurance Program. Just sounds too Scroogey.

For many libertarian economists, of course, Scroogey arguments will always fly. But for most independent voters--especially young voters--yachts vs. CHIP is an automatic forfeit for whoever's on the yachts' side. And so sinks an increasingly taxphobic Republican economic policy.

But here's the thing: deep down, I don't think most conservative idea-makers care deeply about Mark Cuban's fourth yacht. If I'm right, the whole tax fight last year wasn't really about keeping money in the hands of the wealthy--it was about keeping money out of the (admittedly rather slippery) hands of the federal government. In conservative circles, I have heard, this is sometimes called "starving the beast"-- because conservatives seem more aware than their liberal counterparts that even the most well-intentioned government programs can go all Jekyll & Hyde, tearing apart the very communities they were supposed to help.

Given that danger, who is really best equipped to solve our social problems--the government, or private groups? I honestly don't know--in my experience, private groups are rarely as efficient as conservatives expect them to be. But I'm pretty sure that if Republicans focused on raising the charitable deduction limit rather than resisting taxes on the top bracket, voters would be able to focus more on the core public vs. private issue. After all, Gates Foundation vs. CHIP is a much fairer fight than yachts vs. CHIP is. 

2) Add a plank to the Party Platform pledging to increase opportunities for legal immigration. 

Order vs. hospitality is an important debate to have. White Americans vs. Latinos is not.

By definition, Latino voters are here legally. So if they believed the immigration debate was really about rule of law and not even a little bit about mean...about a totally non-racist desire to keep foreign language speakers away from our neighborhoods....then I think they'd be a lot less antagonized by the debate. But if they grew up (like I did) in areas where kids with fervently anti-immigrant parents were liable to pick on any black-haired kids they could, then it makes some sense that they'd steer clear of anti-immigrant politicians.

But what if the Republican Party got serious about expanding legal immigration?

After all, this is something Democrats (many of whom rely on labor unions) don't seem to have done a very good job at. They talk a much better talk on understanding, compassion, and even tangible benefits for people who have made it here without the blessing of some bureaucrat's stamp in triplicate, but they don't seem eager to open the borders wide enough to let in the workers our economy actually demands.

Republicans could be all over that. They could be using their tried-and-true talk of free trade to let people trade their labor where it's needed without borders getting in the way. They could be driving out illegal immigrants the easy way--by replacing them in the marketplace with legal ones.

As it stands, assimilation into America for many young Latinos, South Asian immigrants, and others typically means initiation into liberal political circles, where sharing a language with seasonal workers or men who wear turbans isn't looked down upon. But if Republicans could make one key change on immigration in a conscious effort to open up the party's small-government, family-values message to hard-working, family-driven immigrants, then I think you'd see growing numbers of young, brown people feeling comfortable with the word "conservative."

And for the yin-yang future of our democracy, that's got to be a good thing.

So there you have it. Two simple changes that could help revitalize an aging Republican Party and bring balance to the Force without actually requiring anyone to pay another cent in taxes (so long as they're willing to step up on that private solutions bit) and without requiring any rules fanatic to treat undocumented immigration as a crime-in-name-only.

And now it's time for you, dear reader, to write your state's Republican Party leaders with this invaluable advice, which you will offer free of charge.

You probably should not mention that it comes from a registered Democrat...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

I am the 49th percent!

So, read yesterday that some people are driving around New York City projecting the Occupy Wall Street slogan "99%" onto public spaces (the "we are" part has been omitted, as no one wants to be a giant building. Well, except Donald Trump, who is definitely not the 99%).

Now, you may think this looks like an awesome discount sale on the Brooklyn Bridge--but it's not. It's a real-world Bat Signal. Here's professor and activist Mark Read, who drives the car that projects the signal, on this daring coop day tat of post-neo-modern art:
The bat signal is really simple. It's big and it reads as a bat signal - it's culturally legible [...] It's a call to arms and a call for aid, but instead of a super-hero millionaire psychopath, like Bruce Wayne, it's ourselves - it's the 99% coming to save itself. We are our own superhero.
You got that? When we see this signal, we--or at least those few of my readers who earn less than $386,000 per year--are supposed to hop in our common-man-mobiles and go tie up a bank or round up the predatory credit card offers that roam our nation's streets or maybe even lie down as human barricades across the entrance to the Bellagio.

In this way we will:

1) Stick it to the Man (who has, admittedly, been sticking it to us for some time now).

2) Assuage any guilt we might otherwise have about our own unbelievable excesses.

Now, don't get me wrong: I agree with the protesters that there's something wrong when one-fifth of income in a country goes to less than a fiftieth of the population.

BUT: c'mon, folks...really? I'm somewhere around the 49th percentile of America in income, and I am totally loaded! I have a house(/basement apartment) that has a bathroom bigger than the historical landmark pioneer cabin down the road. I eat imported fruits FOR BREAKFAST. Like, from the southern hemisphere. Also: I can fly. Not every day, of course, but it sure beats pulling a handcart across the muddy plains. If my house gets hot, I change the temperature of the air! Two hundred years ago, if you did that you'd have been stoned for witchcraft.

I am so rich I don't even have to hire a servant to:
-fetch my water from the nearby mountain streams
-pre-soak the beans I cook with
-scrub the stains out of my twenty or so different sets of clothes
-carry my letters around town
-take care of my horses (which I don't need in the first place) or drive my carriage from place to place

Not that my life is perfect.

Actually, no. I take that back. My life is pretty much perfect. My kids can go to doctors when they're sick...or even when they're well, just to make sure everything is hunky-dory. We do really eat really, really well. And when we're done having shelter and food and adequate healthcare, we still have money left over.

Let me back up a moment. The one percent are very powerful now, but I believe in One God who they'll ultimately be held accountable to, and I don't think He's going to be impressed if they found excuses not to share their wealth.

But I don't think He's going to give me a free pass, either. From a historical standpoint, I am also the 1%.

How am I handling it?

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