Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Reply to a former student

A former student recently wrote me asking about the future of blogging and email technologies. My not-so-concise off-the-cuff thoroughly-researched reply is as follows:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why I Don't Want the Government to Have My Data

Many people on the internet these days are terrified that the Government will go all Big Brother on us and start adding words to the language, stereotyping us based on our phone records, or forcing us to join patriotic Facebook games. And for some reason, the Government's repeated assurances that it only wants information so that it can infiltrate anti-Government brotherhoods has done little to calm these 1984-inspired fears.

But I would like to say today: I am not really afraid of what the Government will do with my data.

I am worried about what someone else will do with my data once some random government employee leaks it out.

Consider the following nightmare scenarios:

1) A secret court authorizes the Government to monitor our credit cards so that they can see who's buying ingredients for explosives. A week later, all your money has been spent on porn ordered to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, dwelling place of one Mr. Julian Assange.

2) The government starts collecting data from grocery store loyalty cards. Communist gorillas track you down to reclaim all your bananas for the primate-ariat.  

3) A recent hire for a government contractor leaks your phone metadata to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and suddenly your mother is armed to the teeth with proof that you really never do call her anymore.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

From the Vaults: Vintage 2007 Goldberg

A recent redesign of Facebook made old Notes more prominent--reminding me that I had written some, including a short-lived column called "Just Ask Jimmy" with advice on everything from caring for your pet badger to avoiding spiked lemonade at innocent-looking street-corner stands. I have decided to re-post Volume 3, Issue 12 (in which I respond to a query from one neighbor to the north about another) to preserve the general flavor of my juvenalia. Please note that I can take credit only for the answer, not for the initial query from one of my countless (or so) readers:  

Hey Jimmy,

Just one question. Global warming: truth or conspiracy?

-Not So Hot in Idaho

Dear Not So,

I’m so glad you asked, but I’m afraid you phrased the question wrong. People as wise and wiser than I am recognize that not everything can be seen as either/or. So before answering your question, I’ll have to break it down into two parts.

Question: Is global warming real? Answer: Yes.

Question: Is it a conspiracy? Answer: Also yes.

You see, global warming is not a conspiracy of alarmists, designed to slow the economy or generate more work for journalists by adding yet another layer to the daily news. It’s a conspiracy of a much more sinister nature. The goal? World domination. The evil mastermind? Canada.

That’s right: my shocking recent research shows that our “friendly” neighbor to the north is perhaps not so “friendly” as many United States of Americans might think. A careful analysis of the revisionist history taught in Canadian schools shows a definite aggressiveness embedded in their culture: they count both our Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 as ending in clear Canadian victories, even though every student in the U.S. knows that the only war in which Canada clearly beat us was Vietnam. Obviously, Canada has long resented the way that the United States has upstaged them in world affairs.

An alert reader, who also happens to be a free-lance secret agent, recently sent me evidence supporting my long-held belief that Canada has been doing more than passively resenting us over the past 20 years. In a file labeled “Bacon” (the Canadian word for “ham”), my F-L.S.A. friend found documentation of the secret initiative Canada launched at the end of the Cold War to make sure they, and not the U.S., would be the lone superpower by 2050.

Out of several proposed plans, one was ultimately chosen: Canadian scientists confirmed that increased greenhouse gas emissions would cause an irreversible but contained process of global warming. Global warming would, obviously, damage or devastate many of the world’s countries, especially those in already-warm areas and those with long coasts and large river systems. At the same time, Canada would see a 143% increase in arable land, a 96% increase in income from tourism, and an end to its long-standing, crippling dependence on banana imports.

Canada, of course, was not about to rest content with this subtle shift in the balance of world power. They planned to open their borders to immigrants fleeing China, India, and other river-infested countries: highly educated ones to make them world leaders in science and technology, but also uneducated ones to give them the largest standing army on earth, with which, as the Bacon files attest, they plan to seize Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, and other post-global-warming powerhouses of American agriculture, thus leveraging the crises to put themselves in a position as the world's only superpower.

“I can see,” you are probably saying to yourself, “that Canada could use global warming to become the most powerful nation in the world. But does that mean they are causing it? Isn’t Canada one of the leaders in the fight against global warming?”

To which I respond: that’s part of what makes this plan so diabolical. Canada intentionally set itself up as a world “leader” against global warming, knowing that this would automatically make the cause seem nerdy, marginal and unattractive. At the same time, they set their most secret, most talented mole to work in the United States, to stymie any effective international co-operation against global warming and to accelerate the process of increased greenhouse-gas emissions. The mole’s birth name was Alexander Winkel Hamilton, Jr.; he was a child prodigy and the son of one of Saskatchewan’s top Mounties. As a very young child, however, he was secretly swapped with the son of an affluent and powerful American family, putting him in an ideal position to amass power and use it for the benefit of his native Canada.
Watch this column for further information on the meteoric rise and manipulation of power by this Canadian mole, known to most as George W. Bush, President of the United States of America.


Friday, April 12, 2013

A Limerick for Thomas Acquinas

On Saturday, May 18th, we will be holding a "Never Trust Anyone Over Thirty" Party/Carnival in my yard. Among other amusement for guests and passing strangers, we will have a balloon artist, caricature artist, fortune teller, henna artist, pin-the-tail-on-the-pinata game, and custom limerick booth.

Nicole and I will be in charge of the limerick booth. The idea is simple: people will come up to us and tell us their names, and we will improvise a limerick about them. To get ready for the big day, I've been practicing on historical figures.

Here, for example, is one about the famous 13th century priest and theologian Thomas Acquinas: 

Tom was a scholar indeed:
he could read 'til his eyeballs would bleed.
He knew quite a lot,
though tragically not
the first thing about how to breed.

Friday, March 29, 2013

James Goldberg's eBook: Worth the Paper It's Not Printed On Four the Next Four Days

Now through Monday, you can download a copy of James Goldberg's novel The Five Books of Jesus absolutely free for your Kindle. Or your favorite Kindle-impersonating electronic device. Or your mom's favorite Kindle-impersonating device.

But don't just google it. I'll give you the link if you promise to follow two other links and consider them carefully first.

First: I want you to read my review of this book. Review spoiler alert: I mostly pan it. Novel spoiler warning: if you don't want to know about the crucial plot twist late in this book, you should probably not go to church on Sunday. And try to avoid facebook this weekend. Also the news anytime Pope Francis appears.

Second: I want you to consider the caliber of writer James Goldberg is likely to be based on his past awards. All I can say is: sixth place. Search google images for James Goldbergs and you'll see what a low standard sixth place can set.

OK. Did you follow the links? Do you still think this eBook will be worth the money you're not paying and the paper it's not printed on?

Hm. Well, then I suppose I can't stop you. Here's the link for James Goldberg's novel, free through the end of the day on Monday.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Toward Marriage Clarity

On Wednesday I logged into Facebook and found that many of my friends' faces had been replaced by an image which reminded me of Mark Rothko paintings like this one:

At first I was confused--why the sudden surge of interest in Rothko? As I looked at people's posts, however, it quickly became clear that the changing faces weren't about the iconic artist at all; they were political statements about the Prop 8 and DOMA Supreme Court cases. And what initially appeared to me to be two abstract lines were, in fact, equals signs. People had found a way to simply, symbolically show their support for the cause of Marriage Equality. It wasn't a sudden rash of Rothko at all--it was an elegant, clever mass communication technique.

But it was one I could not take part in. Because I would prefer to see the Supreme Court uphold Proposition 8.

By the logic of my friends' profile pictures, I guess that makes me an advocate of Marriage Inequality. And probably an advocate of inequality, backwardness, and hate more generally.

Framed that way, mine sounds like a pretty terrible position to hold.

I don't want to hate anyone. I can't afford to: hate is a corrosive, self-destructive process that eats away at a person's strength on a physical, chemical level. I may be tempted by anger from time to time, but I hope I know better by now than to let anger canker into hate. There's too much to be done to waste my life that way.

But for me, concern about the definition of marriage is not about hate or discrimination. And so I want to try one more time to explain how I feel about the issue now while feelings are running strong. I don't know who I'm writing to--maybe to friends who feel betrayed by my position but still want to understand where I'm coming from, maybe to people who share my position and are feeling a bit isolated because of it.

Or maybe I'm just writing to leave a record of where I stand. A piece of evidence to incriminate myself by if this week's court cases become the landmark of progress so many people hope for. Because it's important to me to be thorough and honest. If I am going to be judged (and as a writer, I probably will be), let me be judged by my own account of what I believe.

Two Views of Marriage

I don't think the current debate over same-sex marriage is just about same-sex marriage. I think it's a political extension of a roughly fifty-year-old cultural debate over what marriage should mean in the modern world. That debate is complicated and I can't do justice to all its ins and outs, all the positions different groups have taken and reversed. But I think it's fair to say that there have been two broad camps in debates over everything from the sexual revolution to no-fault divorce to the question of whether gender roles should exist in any form to the charged debate over same-sex marriage today. On one side of these debates are traditionalists whose primary concerns are social stability and accountability. On the other side are experimenters whose primary concerns are freedom and acceptance. (Clarification on 3/29/13: this is not to say that traditionalists don't value freedom and acceptance or that experimenters have no concern for stability and accountability. The difference is in emphasis--do you raise questions of freedom/acceptance or accountability/stability first?)

Both camps have influenced society, and so many Americans hold a mixture of beliefs about marriage, drawing some on the experimenters and some on the traditionalists. Many Americans, though, do fall quite clearly into one camp or the other when it comes to choosing between the camps' competing views in five key areas:

Origin: when, how, and why should a marriage begin?
Exclusivity: what expectations about sexual exclusivity are part of marriage?
Family: what is the relationship between marriage and family life?
Gender: what role(s) does gender play in marriage?
Accountability: who is involved in the promise of marriage and when should a marriage end?

To understand any marriage-related debate in America today, I think it's important to first non-judgmentally describe the "emerging marriage" and "traditionalist marriage" visions on these five points. After all, if marriage is (so to speak) an apple to some people and an orange to others, we're bound to talk past each other a bit.

Here's how I see the two models operating:

Emerging Marriage

Origin: As adolescents and young adults, individuals go through a period of sexual exploration and self-discovery. It is considered unwise to commit to a long-term relationship before this process is complete or before a couple feels confident about their compatibility. But when two mature, compatible people fall deeply in love and want a deeper commitment, they may choose to use the word "marriage" to formalize their relationship in the eyes of society.  The word carries a certain legal and social weight which reflects the value of their commitment.

Exclusivity: Though pre-marital sex is acceptable for exploration or to test compatibility, a marriage is expected to be sexually exclusive. Some couples may choose to practice "open marriage," but such non-exclusivity carries a significant stigma even when both spouses freely consent to the arrangement.

Family: A marriage may be a good place to raise children. Single parents can also do a good job, though, and shouldn't be slighted in any way. And married couples shouldn't be expected to have children just because they're married.

Gender: Because gender difference is not essential to love, it is not an important component of marriage. Any two people who love each other can marry and can define for themselves what their roles within the relationship are.

Accountability: The promise of marriage is primarily a promise between two people. When those people agree that their love has changed or when one partner fails the other partner's expectations, it's OK to move on. Divorce isn't necessarily anyone's fault; it just happens sometimes.

Traditionalist Marriage

Origin: Marriage is a fundamental unit of society, and at a certain age young people should look for a person they can form a stable marriage with. Not everyone will get married, and that is too bad--though it's better to stay single than to have an unstable marriage. 

Exclusivity: Sexual exclusivity applies not only during marriage, but also before. Sex is exclusive to the institution of marriage; consensual premarital sex, while not as bad as adultery, is harmful and should be avoided.

Family: Procreation is a central purpose of marriage. When people get married and are unable to have children, it is viewed as a great tragedy. Getting married without wanting children is virtually unthinkable. What spouses do for each other is important, but the most important work married couples do is provide stability for their children and grandchildren.

Gender: Gender difference is an essential component of marriage. This is partly because of the procreative nature of marriage, but also because fathers and mothers have unique strengths and obligations within a family. How gender roles play out may vary from community to community and family to family, but distinct obligations for each gender do strengthen marriage as an institution.

Accountability: The promise of marriage is a promise to God, society, oneself, one's family, and one's partner. Effort should be invested in a marriage even in moments when love is hard to feel or when a spouse does not seem worthy or appreciative of the efforts. Divorce is a tragedy and a final resort, and should be used in cases where the marriage is so bad that one spouse is unable to live with dignity.


Where do I stand in all this? And what does my view have to do with how society defines marriage?

First question first:  where do I stand?

I realize that every position on this earth comes with certain costs and benefits. And I prefer the costs and benefits of traditionalist marriage on each of the five questions.

Origin: I understand the expectation of marriage becomes a burden for many, but I appreciated being raised with marriage as a challenge to live up to. I was raised with the idea that I had to work a great deal to be the sort of person who can sustain a stable marriage, and I am a better person for having tried to refine myself rather than find myself.

Exclusivity: I know that it's difficult to live in a culture as sexualized as ours with a belief that sex should be exclusive to marriage. But the struggle of staying abstinent before marriage is worth the payoff in trust. My teens and early twenties could have been far more wrenching and volatile if sex-related chemicals had been part of my less stable dating relationships. And it seems much easier for intimacy to nurture strong bonds of trust within my marriage without the obstacles of past disappointments or alternatives to distract me.

Family: I grew up in several strong extended families with deep senses of connection and community, and they've meant the world to me. I'm not entirely convinced it's possible to build big family networks like that when family is an afterthought in relationships and parenthood is an improvised accessory to marriage rather than the central purpose.
At one point during my testicular cancer treatment, some misread data made it seem doubtful that I would be able to father biological children. So I've dealt a little with the weight of disappointed expectations biologically-family-centered norms can create. But I've also experienced firsthand how even the best adoptions don't erase children's hunger for connection with their biological parents. I love my oldest daughter more than I can describe and she loves having me as her adopted father--but she does still wonder about the biological father she hasn't seen since her third birthday. The miracle of adoption is still built on the tragedy of failed or interrupted parent-child relationships. And so I think it's best to think of adoption as an important supplement to biological parenting rather than a replacement ideal.

Gender: Some see gender roles as inherently oppressive, but I've seen how they can offer a sense of place and permission instead of only negative pressure. My wife is a smart, talented woman who could be in a PhD program right now. But our faith's teachings on gender give her permission to focus mostly on children while teaching only one class as an adjunct instead. It's a career sacrifice she can make both because she's allowed and encouraged to value her work in the home and because my obligation as the primary provider relieves her of the full obligation for the family's finances.
While an absence of gender roles can lead to greater flexibility, it can be quite limiting when negotiations over flexibility fail. There's no shortage of families today where one parent (often the father) doesn't carry a fair share of the weight in either the financial or domestic spheres. At their best, gender roles can give the community a language to call such individuals to action and to help them take a more active role in family.

Accountability: This may be the issue I feel most strongly about. As more people have come to view marriage as an interpersonal contract, divorce rates have risen significantly. There's an argument to be made that that's a good thing--one writer I know called a fifty-year marriage a "terrible failure of the imagination" because of the limits it implies on two people's exercise of their freedom. But to me, most divorces are just sad. Too many couples are unable to make it through difficult periods in their relationships because one (or both) lacks a motivation and obligation beyond the love and satisfaction hard times make difficult to feel. And families and societies lose a lot of stability when so many marriages fall apart. As a society, I think we need to find ways to increase individuals' sense of accountability and commitment in marriage and countless other contexts if we are going to effectively face the social, environmental, and economic ills of our time.

Now to the second question: what does all this have to do with how society defines marriage?

My sense is that most of the main groups and individuals that promoted California's Proposition 8 did so not out of specific concern about homosexuality, but out of a broader concern that a handful of state Supreme Court Justices were beginning to enshrine an emerging view of marriage into the law at the expense of a traditionalist view. The definition of marriage Prop 8 proponents wanted to protect was not simply heterosexual marriage: they wanted to give traditionalist marriage a fighting chance in the ongoing cultural battle over the institution.

And as traditionalists, they couldn't accept the State Supreme Court's discovery of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. On issues of family and gender, the court's position that marriage was between any two partners clearly came from an emerging marriage view where procreation and gender difference are not core components of marriage norms. On issues of origin and accountability, the court's findings also leaned (albeit more subtly) toward emerging marriage by prioritizing the desires of individuals over the established norms of the institution.

It's important to note that Proposition 8 didn't challenge any of California's domestic partnership rights, which were both available to same-sex couples and equivalent under state law to the rights of marriage. It focused on the word marriage specifically to maintain a potential rhetorical distinction between emergent marriage "partnerships" and traditionalist "marriages."

In other words, Proposition 8 was an attempt to keep separate names for apples and oranges. It wasn't perfect: in the interest of simplicity, it failed to articulate the full social difference between the two views of marriage and drew attention to the bright line of gender difference at the expense of the complicated and multifaceted marriage values proponents wished to defend. But imperfect though it may have been, I have a hard time seeing it as evil: what is so wrong about wanting some sort of distinction in the language to represent a larger net of diverging assumptions?

Well--one important worry about preserving some sort of name difference is that we'd be falling into the old Plessy vs. Ferguson "separate but equal" trap. Having even a difference in a name between unions or partnerships and marriage might inevitably result in gross injustice to the minority group.

But while I respect that concern, I see a vital difference between separate physical facilities and separate words. I don't think we need to feel threatened by meaningful distinctions in our vocabulary. In universities, we divide degrees into Bachelor's of Arts and Bachelor's of Science Degrees. Those names strike me as representing important differences in a net of underlying assumptions. Has the division of degrees into BS and BA created gross inequality? I don't think so. People certainly make distinctions between (and sometimes sweeping assumptions about) each type of degree, but because enough people believe in each underlying set of assumptions, the degrees are able to coexist relatively peacefully. I would go as far as to argue that scientific disciplines and artistic disciplines coexist far more peacefully because of the naming differentiation which helps keep one side from dictating how the other should operate. While there's not a single bright line between arts and sciences, theater classes really are better off without having their norms set directly by science syllabi, and biology classes are better off without being accountable to the educational assumptions of the arts.

On a personal level, I worry about living in a society that implicitly defines emerging marriage as true marriage and traditionalist marriage as a backward, hateful counterfeit. Which is what will probably happen if a historic Supreme Court ruling takes the word "marriage" out of the realm of rational debate and enshrines emerging marriage as a constitutional right. And which may happen anyway as people rally around concepts like "Marriage Equality" and slogans like "Hate is a choice; love isn't." As values of freedom and acceptance become the only acceptable criteria for evaluating relationships, people who speak for traditionalist values--whether by discouraging single-parent adoption (and artificial insemination by single women) or by connecting the value of marriage with premarital abstinence--will be increasingly pushed out of mainstream marriage conversations. We will have an additional burden in communicating our values to our children when they are treated not only as divergent, but also as actively hateful and backward in school curricula.

Isn't there a way to recognize same-sex couples without making pariahs of the 40% or so of Americans who are still quite attached to a more traditionalist view of marriage?

I will be far more comfortable if future schools teach my children and grandchildren that our country has two different but coexisting views of marriage than if they teach that prejudice was the only reason people used to think (and their family and community still think) of marriage as requiring a husband and a wife. I want marriage clarity.

But I don't think a two-word system would only benefit traditionalists. In the worldwide conversation over same-sex relationships, a clear linguistic division between traditionalist views of marriage and an emergent-Western view of marriage would be a far easier path to legal recognition than simply asserting that gender doesn't matter in marriage.

Take India as an example. For the majority of Indians, religion is still the dominant guiding influence in marriage and family life and most religions in the region have wedding ceremonies with very clear gender roles and divisions--in the case of Sikhism, not only for husband and wife but also for a wide range of maternal and paternal relatives. Simply asserting that marriage is between two people without regard to gender makes no sense in most Indian contexts. There would almost certainly be widespread, intense resistance to any attempt by a high court or foreign lobby to impose a gender-neutral definition of marriage on India or many other countries.

That said, most Indians are familiar enough with American media to know that many American relationships are built on radically different assumptions than Indian marriages. A proposal to create a separate category for the Western-style relationships of many urban youth, including same-sex relationships, would likely lead to spirited debate but would at least have some chance of success without tearing the society apart.

A "marriage equality" argument for recognizing same-sex relationships wins significant support in Western Europe, the United States, and other areas where emerging marriage assumptions have filtered deep into the culture. But on a worldwide scale, "marriage equality" is probably a dead end as long as the assumptions of emerging marriage are positioned as a replacement for, rather than an alternative to, traditionalist marriage.

Where would I like to go from here? And where do I think we actually will go?

My ideal solution would be to use a term like "union" as an umbrella for both traditionalist marriages and emerging marriages, to keep "marriage" associated with a more traditionalist view and to come up with a word with more everyday appeal than "domestic partnership" or "civil union" for emerging marriages. After all, who wants to kneel down and ask for a lifetime commitment by saying "will you civil me?" The utter lack of romance in the unwieldy, clinical names California lawyers came up with may have been a significant factor in convincing Prop 8 opponents to hold out for the word "marriage."

That said, the weight of the word "marriage" doesn't come from its syllables. Marriage feels more committed to individuals and society largely because of the sacrifices generations of traditionalists have made for the institution's sake. We pour meaning into words slowly through the collective pattern of our actions, and it strikes me as a significant mistake for people who hold an emerging view of partnership and marriage to seek the old weight of the word at they same time as they strip it of its old assumptions.

I would like to see both forms of union recognized by the law, but in a way that allowed new-paradigm couples to build up a new word with the connotations that gradually collect around their way of approaching partnerships.

But--things are highly unlikely to unfold according to my ideal. So here's what I think will happen:

Probably not right now, but probably before too long, the position of the United States Government and the majority of Americans will be that considering gender difference an essential component of marriage is discriminatory and wrong. Freedom and acceptance will become the core values of our society in regards to marriage.

But a significant minority of Americans, perhaps a third or so, will remain attached to traditionalist views of marriage because our family values are shaped less by government and media than by an alternate conversation, such as the teachings of our faiths or the traditions of our ethnic subgroup. Having lost any claim to the word marriage in public discussions will be a difficult burden for us, and so we will eventually coin a new term or adopt a new symbol of our own to describe the different assumptions we bring to marriage. Maybe traditionalists will take a foreign loan word, maybe we will adopt a certain type of ring, maybe we'll shift to a compound concept like "covenant marriage" to differentiate, but sooner or later we will create a language that gives our position its own place and purpose again.

And then slowly, perhaps over generations, we may achieve some degree of Marriage Clarity. People will have an easier time seeing the differences between the two main views of marriage in our society, and they will have an easier time choosing for themselves whether they prefer a model primarily focused on freedom and acceptance or a model primarily focused on stability and accountability.

And maybe, just maybe, our grandchildren will be able to get along reasonably well in their differences. Maybe they'll stop framing their debates as equality vs. hate or natural vs. deviant and have both the understanding and underlying appreciation of difference we can see today between thoughtful people over the differences in assumption between science and art. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dear Government: I Have a Good Idea

Dear U.S. Government,

I have a good idea. But I want to tell you a story first. 

My writing students are currently working on papers involving some aspect of federal spending. This morning, I them each to find a passage in their rough drafts where they use a number to make a point. After all, it's easier to talk about spending if you know how much is being spent.

One of my students quoted the Congressional Budget Office as saying that Healthcare Reform will likely have a net cost of $230 billion over the next six years. Because I'd already pointed out that billions are hard for people to process, he also expained that this is so much money that even if we paid a dollar every second, it would take 31 years (and some months, days, and seconds which I have since forgotten) to pay off.

"Wow," I said. "That does sound expensive. But the government doesn't actually pay its bills with a dollar-per-second machine. And I personally have never spent money that fast. How much would that be per year if  we split the bill evenly among all Americans? Can anyone take a guess?"

 After a moment, one student raised her hand. "I think it would be somewhere around $50,000," she said. 

"Ai ai ai," said I. "Since $50,000 is about what the average American makes in a year, I would definitely be against a program that costs so much."

So we did the calculations. $230 billion divided by 300 million is about $770. That's the cost per person over the next six years. Which is actually about $130 per person per year. Or $520 per year for a family of four, if you prefer to think that way.

Now, obviously $130 is not what the average person actually will pay. That figure will vary a great deal based on income and write-offs and a host of other factors. But as an estimate, it's certainly a far cry from $50,000 per person per year. And a lot more easy to imagine than $230 billion by 2019.

What's worth $230 billion over the remainder of the decade? I feel completely unqualified to answer that question. What's worth $130 a year? I feel far more comfortable weighing in on that.

So here's my idea: why not send everyone a tax receipt each year with a nice little chart explaining where all their money went? I would love to know exactly how much of my own money went to the military. To NASA. To food stamps. To college loans. You could even set up a website where I can enter the amount of federal tax I paid and then click around to find out how much of my money went to the museum assessment program or to bridges in Alaska. 

I just think we'd have more informed political discussions if we talked in pennies to thousands of dollars per person, not in millions to trillions for the country as a whole.


James Goldberg

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The joy of reading aloud

When I was young, we lived in a log cabin with no DVR and only a single landline the whole family had to share. Sometimes, I would wait for what seemed like hours for my sister to get off the phone so I could have a turn. Then I'd give up and wait for what felt like years for my brother to get out of the outhouse so I could have my turn there instead.   

I don't miss much about my childhood.

One thing I do miss, though, was when we'd gather in the evenings to listen to my parents read out loud, which is what parents used to do with all the time they now spend on Facebook. In addition to the L.L. Bean catalog, our family subscribed to the Roddenberry Weekly, from which my father used to present long solo renditions of Star Trek scripts. Having never seen the performance of a Leonard Nemoy or DeForest Kelley, we thought his renditions were pure genius and they provided us with many long hours of entertainment on the long, dark nights of the 1980s.

It's been years, though, since I last saw a copy of Roddenberry Weekly. And up until this week, my own family has been far more likely to crowd around the computer for YouTube videos of bleating goats or Sesame Street clip compilations than to gather around a shared magazine or book. 

Recently, however, due to a fatal encounter between a weasel and our home internet connection, my family has rediscovered the joys of reading aloud. When the sun has set and the children have finished their suppers of cracked wheat and milk, I turn to a treasured childhood classic and enchant the little ones with my rapid readings of passages such as this: 
I got a grim gash at the grey gas station. I got a grim gash at the grey gas station. I got a grim gash at the grey gas station. I got a grim gash at the grey gas station. I got a grim gash at the grey gas station. I got a grim gash at the grey gas station.
And when my tongue has tripped itself bruised, I pass the book to my wife for a paragraph she adores:
Barbara Bing bought bright blue bling. Barbara Bing bought bright blue bling. Barbara Bing bought bright blue bling. Barbara Bing bought bright blue bling. Barbara Bing bought bright blue bling. Barbara Bling blought blight brue bring.
The mirth that fills our humble home on such priceless evenings is difficult to describe. Our attic may stink of rotting weasel corpse, but our children will always remember "On Friday night, Fritz fled four fights."

The joy of reading aloud is part of my life once again.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

How do you know he's a witch?


I recently read a blog post by Andrew Hall about the recent controversy surrounding DC Comics' hiring of Orson Scott Card as a writer for a chapter in their new Superman anthology.

Apparently, Card's political history is sufficiently deviant to have drawn the ire of activist group All Out, which has launched an online petition with roughly the following phrasing:

To: DC Comics

By hiring Orson Scott Card despite his anti-American efforts you are giving him a new platform and supporting his hate.

Make sure your brand stands for love and drop Orson Scott Card now.
As a writer, I am either a) 100% committed to keeping degenerate writers out of work or b) prepared to take the Fifth Amendment. But before I join the other 15,000 signatories to the petition, I need to know: is Orson Scott Card really a witch?

Intro to Witchology 

Before we turn to the question of what Mr. Card is, we need to determine what a witch is. Let's consider four characteristics of American communists and communist-sympathizers in the 1950s as a window into the behavior of witches in any era.

1) In the 1950s, communists were teaching that America's bourgeois government had violated the social contract and needed fundamental change.
In any age, a witch stands against the basic assumptions of the virtuous group's social vision.

2) Many individual American communists may not have actually believed in violent revolution, but the rhetoric of communism was certainly confrontational. And in many other countries, it had led to significant levels of violence and oppression against capitalists. Probably including people American leaders had personally known and associated with.
In any age, a witch evokes very real memories of persecution and fear.

3) McCarthyists were not known for seeking out nuance in degrees of communist affiliation and participation or to detail an individual's specific ideological vision. Their project was to assemble a small critical mass of evidence/testimony to show communist infection, not to weigh a person's whole life and work.
 In an age, even a drop of Satan's blood is enough to make someone a witch.

4) In McCarthyism, the fight against evil was external rather than internal. The greatest moral act was not searching for the evil in one's self, but rather identifying and opposing the creeping evil in one's society.
In any age, it is seen as an act of virtue to expose and isolate a witch.

The Trial

With these four principles in mind, let's return to the case of Mr. Card.

Rule #1: A witch stands against the basic assumptions of the virtuous group's social vision.

Card is definitely guilty here. He's on record as saying that traditional marriage is fundamental to his understanding of the social contract, which puts him at odds with American values of progress, liberty, and equality.

Rule #2: A witch evokes very real memories of persecution and fear.

In many societies, including our own, gay people have been persecuted both for their feelings and their practices. In many societies, various forms of persecution are still a matter of policy today. So there are very real and terrifying memories to be evoked.

And Card has evoked them. In describing why Card shouldn't write for Superman, Noah Berlatsky drops the f-word (the one that ends with -ascism). Odds are that if a writer is being compared to the Nazis, that writer is a witch.

Rule #3: Even a drop of Satan's blood is enough to make someone a witch.

People who defend Orson Scott Card may point out that his work has important moral concerns or that he's a nice guy who gives to charity. They may try to ask for detailed definitions of  charged terms like "homophobe" and try to show nuance to Card's positions.

But critics aren't interested in those things. The vital points for critics are that Card has been an outspoken advocate of traditional marriage, is affiliated with a traditional marriage political organization, and has made comments that are dismissive of homosexual relationships relative to male-female marriages.

 They don't feel an obligation to figure out exactly where Card stands or what else he represents because his position on an issue like California's Proposition 8 shows clearly that he's tainted by an unashamed opposition to equality, tolerance, love, goodness, and the new American way. We've got at least a drop of Satan's blood here, possibly several pints. No matter what else he's done, the man is still a witch.

Rule #4: It is an act of virtue to expose and isolate a witch.

Thirteen years ago, my favorite magazine ran an article in which Donna Minkowitz reflected on her interview with Orson Scott Card. Though she longed to connect with the author despite their differences, Minkowitz frequently found any common ground they shared undermined by the drops of Satan-blood that make Card a witch under rule number #3.

But the most intriguing aspect of Minkowitz's article to me was her guilt over not blowing up at Card. She recalls ending the interview "with a sweetness that later makes me cringe" and rationalizes that  "it’s hard to speak in a sufficiently hostile way to the man who wrote [Ender's Game], even if he is a pig. (Although, if this ever happens again, I’ll try to find a way.)"

The Minkowitz article makes entirely clear that it would have been more righteous to shout curses at Card than to be nice. Why? Being nice to a witch shows weakness in the face of evil. You have to take a stand against witches by exposing and isolating them, or you become complicit in their witchcraft.

It is possible the 15,000 signatures on the petition to DC are all from die-hard Superman fans who are genuinely concerned about the next book. But I suspect they are from people who want to assert their commitment to a certain kind goodness by naming names and calling for punishment on the bad.

And if so many people are able to feel such virtue in condemning Card and such weakness when they give him a pass, the man is definitely a witch.

The Verdict

Orson Scott Card is a witch. But it's illegal to burn him.

With apologies to the activists at All Out, I'd like to suggest it's also passe to try to get him blacklisted or to call for boycotts on an unwritten book where he'll co-write a single chapter which will likely have nothing to do with the politics around sexual orientation anyway.  

I could give boring alternative recommendations. Engage him in debate. Pointedly ignore him. Support writers who give voice to the things you do care about. But if someone is a witch, none of those armchair alternatives are going to be satisfying.

After all, if it's illegal to kill a witch and tacky to try to get a witch fired by gathering an internet mob, what makes witch-hunting worthwhile? 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

My failed Laffy Taffy Application

I recently learned that Laffy Taffy was hiring a new assistant editor and immediately applied for the job. Unfortunately, they weren't impressed enough with my writing sample to make an offer (though they apparently were impressed enough to apply for a restraining order).

Since my Laffy Taffy jokes aren't likely to make it onto a wrapper anytime soon, I present them to the world via this blog. Questions first, answer below a picture of my consultants. No peeking!

1) Where did the Guernsey and her boyfriend make out?

2) What did Al Capone say to his mechanical pencil?

3) Which kind of furniture is always made of leather?

4) What did the alchemist say to his new gold-making machine?

5) What did the alchemist say the first time his heifer kicked him?

6) What did the alchemist say when his heifer kicked him again?

1) On the cowch!

2) "I'm gonna pump you full of lead!"

3) The cowch.

4) "I'm gonna pump you full of lead!"

5) "Cowch!"

6) "I'm gonna pump you full of lead!"

Monday, February 4, 2013

Belated Groundhog Day Greetings's been a long, long winter for the Goldberg family. And we just plain weren't prepared to send out a card by Christmas. Fortunately, my sister runs her own photo business and was happy to come up with a custom design that suited our needs.

Which I am now posting two days late...
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