Who’s Fooling Who?

A student came to my office yesterday to practice her English, so we talked about all kinds of things. How curling her tongue may or may not help her pronounce heavy ls, whether talking to herself may improve her English and why she really didn’t know the history of Tomb-sweeping Day (清明节: Qing Ming Jie). My Bible knowledge came in handy as she pondered aloud the fairness of God in hardening Pharaoh’s heart (apparently, the culturally-focused introduction to Christianity she gets as an English major runs pretty deep—or at least to the controversial).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the conversation was her view of God. It started as “I believe in Jesus Christ.” From there, during the next hour of various conversations, “Jesus Christ” turned into “God”, then “someone that gives justice”, then “the moon god in Rome”, then the god who lives on the moon in a cartoon she saw where “everything is silver and everyone is happy”.

At one point, she asked if I believed God was with me. Given her range of religious knowledge, I didn’t expect my affirmation to shock her like it did. She couldn’t accept that I actually believed it in any way that influenced my life. It took five minutes and multiple dictionary queries to convince her that I actually thought God was real.

I was eventually to find out why: her teacher had explained that Karl Marx had proved scientifically there was no God.

When I asked her why she believed in her various expressions of deity she managed a circumlocution of the “opium of the people” theory.

I wish it had been an April Fool’s Day joke.

Here’s what Marx said:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

I agree—in part. I know intimately those oppressed creatures; I inhabit a heartless world; I endlessly experience spiritless situations. I left a society where religion is often illusory to live in one where it is officially abolished. Somehow, the peoples’ real happiness hasn’t been effected in either.

Maybe religious forms aren’t efficacious. I’ve followed plenty of religious forms that proved worthless.

Maybe religion’s removal wasn’t the solution. My student is still looking for an opiate of some form.

Maybe knowing a God that’s really with you is what we’re all looking for.

Maybe that’s really what my student’s halting English and broken ontotheology were communicating.

On Celebrity

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but managed to forget to post it in those rare moments when I had internet access. I now offer it for your nostalgic consideration.

The most recent distribution of Academy Awards finally found its way to my computer. There was some good, lots of bad, whatever.

I did use the occasion, though, to prepare the speech I’ll give when I win mine. And since I’ll never need it, I’m offering it on a first come, first served basis to anyone who actually gets nominated.

I’m assuming it’s for acting. Writing, directing, or editing might require minor adjustments. It goes something like this:

Uh, wow. [Insert various other sputter-mutterings to demonstrate the impact of the moment.]

Let me give you the backstory on this [hold up little golden man]:

Thanks to you—you being everyone in the room or at home or not even listening at the moment—I had the chance to have the most fun of my life. I mean, you gave me everything I could possibly need to take this hobby I had (and found really, really fun) and see where it could go.

And just to make sure it went well, you dunked me in a pool of the greatest talent in the world [motion to the rest of the cast and crew]. I absolutely loved the whole process, and I thought it went pretty well. Then you checked it out and, apparently, agreed.

Now you’re giving me a gold statue to remember it all.

So, um, thank you.

That seems a little more gracious than my original: “Seriously? You just gave me millions of dollars to play around all day and now you’re adding a gold statue? Um, OK. Suckers.”

If I win Best Actor, I apparently get more time to talk and am allowed (though obviously not expected) to be more than a sycophant, so I might add this little riff about how it’s funny that I’m getting an award for pretending to be someone with a life worth watching and how much more gratifying it is to have a life worth watching than to just hear other people talk about having one and how I plan to take the little man home to occasionally remember that fake life while actually trying to have a worthwhile life and how awesome it would be to give gold statues to everyone we know who has a real life worth watching. I might even cave to the name-dropping peer pressure and mention some people who would deserve those statues. No one in the room would be on the list, but some of you might.

Health Care Theology

Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
-Jesus talking to his followers

The tragedy isn’t that American health care provision is going to be reformed by government mandate, it’s that we needed another mandate.

My bad.

Mad Men or Why Americans Hate Themselves

You know those moments when you’re too tired to be productive, but too awake to sleep? I’ve developed a few systems to utilize those eras (also known as afternoons). One of my favorites is to put some Chinese websites’ lack of concern for copyright law to good use by catching up on TV shows that seem noteworthy. That was how I got addicted to Lost and figured out enough Prison Break to appease my students. So, when I was sick a few weeks ago, it started a concentration binge that let me blow through almost three seasons of TV in as many weeks. This time, I took recommendations from blogger friends—primarily Heather—to focus on Mad Men.


If I weren’t already sick, I think Mad Men would have done it.

You weren’t expecting that, I’d assume. Let’s talk about what most people say:

  • The acting is great. Check.
  • The photography is stunning. Agreed.
  • The writing is extraordinary. I happily concur. The dialogue (with a few notable exceptions) is a living, breathing example of why I wish I had a team of screenwriters with a great sense of both the next scene and the historical impact of the moment cueing my every utterance.
  • The story is fabulous. This is where I get off. Since when do flat characters proving just how well you know them equal plot arcs? I do give props for avoiding the ‘everything you thought you knew was a lie’ cop-out certain seasons of Lost and every five minutes of Smallville fall back on. And they don’t undercut characters’ fundamental personas to give them dynamism (The Office). So, I’ll give it a ‘solid’, but refrain from handing out awards (Yes, I see the irony, but if President Obama’s Nobel taught us anything, it’s that even the big awards tell us far more about the givers’ biases than the receivers’ merits).
  • It’s historically enlightening. Oh please.

We could discuss finer points of the show for a good long while, but others have been quite effective in this approach. So allow me to revert to my tried and true method of discussion: broad generalizations.

Mad Men is about one thing: escapism.

We’re working on two levels here. First, escapism is the driving force behind every character and most plot advances. Don is scary good at it; Pete is painfully ineffective. Peggy runs from obvious goblins; Betty’s have yet to be unmasked (and dumping the psychiatrist was terribly unfair). Whether living behind a mask (everyone except Roger) or flaunting your disregard for propriety (um, Roger), everyone scurries about trying to hide their tragic flaw only to collapse comfortably back into its clutches at the first sign of trouble.

Of course, the primary escape is sex. Who in the show doesn’t have some sort of sexual struggle? I mean, even Glenn has some weird surrogate Oedipus complex. I’m tempted to say this is just to keep people watching, but not having lived through the ‘50s or ‘60’s, I can’t really speak with authority. Still, it’s like watching a kung-fu movie: there is nothing even remotely realistic in the frequency and extremity of the action, but it just keeps scaling up.

So, why the fascination with the show? Because we’re all there.


Personally, I’m Don. Yes, I’m sure everyone says that. Hear me out. I’ve never assumed a false identity, cheated on my wife or ignored my brother into suicide, but I’m always controlling others’ perceptions. I can’t stop. Ever. I’m totally able to be separate people—and switch between them convincingly and almost instantly. Of course, some distance and locked doors help. And then the occasional three-week binge that terrifies everyone too much to ask what it was. I understand people—I have to. My mistakes are almost never open, and those who know about them usually respect the façade enough to keep from blurting it out. People brought face to face with my ugliness tend to downplay it out of respect, genuine love or fear of the mystery.

Maybe you’re more the ‘quiet desperation’ Betty. Possibly, with the Henry Francis release valve or, more realistically, without it (or the tastelessly gratuitous bar fling). Correctly or not, you think the world hates you, so you hate it back. And watch it pass you by. Smile when you have to.

Need recognition, anyone? Pete’s there with you. Try to fit the socially-prescribed mold? You and Joan connect. Desperate to be progressive and in-touch? Better start growing a beard (probably a soul patch), because you’re Paul. Wanting to break out but disappointed whenever you do? I think Peggy has your line.

Give me one truly satisfied (semi-meaningful) character in the show. Even Sally only gets enough attention to allow her vices to manifest themselves. Have you seen the opening? A dude falling helplessly, but finally presented as sprawling confidently in his chair. Nihilism, cynicism and pragmatism stew under surfaces thin enough to allow everyone to recognize a problem but present enough to keep them from discussing it.

Which brings us to the second way the show is about escape. We watch it to escape. No one (in the show or in reality) is really happy to be hiding. While confession is rare, admission upon confrontation is somehow freeing. So we admit our faults by identifying them as we watch. This is true personally and corporately. The corporate evils (sexism, racism) and the personal ones (greed, lust) the show highlights are ours. Viewing such evil allows us to identify and vilify it. Yet that third-party identification doesn’t actually condemn us directly. We admit it, but escape any consequences. In fact, we cheer for Don when he pulls off his trysts and secretly love the hedonistic office parties while shaking our heads in disgust. And if you think your disgust is genuine, explain why you’re still watching. 1

So allow me to add my voice once again to a growing chorus calling for true confession and transparency. I’ve advocated this to friends for some time. Admitting wrong and accepting the consequences or forgiveness that follows is absolutely necessary.

And hard.

At least, that’s what I’m saying now.

  1. My explanation is admittedly brief. That’s because the alternative is extremely involved. The above-referenced article takes on some of the ramifications in a national, corporate sense.

Extra Cranky with a side of Self-righteous

I know I’ve not been writing all that much, but if you’ve noticed the reading list on the sidebar,1 you know I’ve been reading.

My news source of choice is BBC. It’s great to hear about what’s happening in the world with minimal opinionizing, and I find they do a great job of focusing on worthwhile information while ignoring junk stories. And they have a configurable website. What’s not to love?

No, the real problem comes with people who give their opinion. You know—everyone.

Granted, my primary reading of late (Slate, Mother Jones, GOOD, AtlanticWire) is often going to clash with my conservative-leaning values. I knew that going in.2 Still, I love me some SCREED and Political Gabfest. And they’ve figured out things like RSS. Mostly.3

What I don’t love is the false sense of truth. And it keeps popping up in obvious ways. (These examples come from my last few days’ reading. And in every case, I agree with the basic idea the author is unsuccessfully attempting to promulgate.)

  • Promoting a pet idea at the expense of common sense. Worried about the lack of sex ed in China, Michelle Tsai points out in her article “government concern over ‘unhealthy’ entertainment means that at the movies, you rarely see actors do anything more than kiss” and mandatory screening software blocks porn. So, porn is good sex education?
  • Employing false logic. Here, Kate Sheppard says a coloring book “explains that coal is a major source of electricity (without, however, noting that it’s not the only form of electricity).” Um, “a major source” means there are other sources.
    Noting they wash their coal, the author self-assuredly asks, “Actually, it kind of undermines the idea that coal is clean if it has to be washed, no?” And you are dirty since you shower occassionally, no?
    (The best part? These fallacies are an attempt to attack a coloring book published by the West Virginia Coal Association that favorably casts the industry. Clearly, they should be telling children they—and the kids’ whose parents work for them—are vile and repulsive. After all, Sheppard thinks they are (while using their coal to power her computer). See previous point.)
  • Engaging in the word-twisting you’re attacking. Check out how David Corn loses all grasp of reality while responding to a naysayer.4

Don’t worry, I won’t go on—because these crude attempts at “smart, fearless journalism” aren’t actually the point.

See, the title isn’t about them. It’s about me.

I’m actually concerned because I can’t let these things go. When I read flagrant stupidity, I get all enraged and lambast them for hours in very realistically-imagined emails. Sometimes, I even write less-inflamed comments. And, of course, I don’t leave the offending articles sitting open on my computer, lest Binbin be poisoned by them.

I’ve always wanted to be a change-maker. The potential for change is what attracts me toward law, management and public policy. I’m a tweaker. Necessary improvement is an obsession-inducing elixir. I’m getting jaded. Futility shuts me down like a direct lightning strike on a fusebox. Seeing exactly how broken our change-inducing systems are, therefore, presents a nasty conundrum: it first feeds the urge to dig in, then leaves an aftertaste so nasty I swear off the possibility of allowing my name to be in any way associated with it.

Maybe it’s a good thing I’m teaching English in China without regular internet access, not hobnobbing with power-players in my final year of law school.

  1. You haven’t. I track this stuff. But it sounded good, anyway. Should you wish to follow along, check my shared items page or subscribe to my recommended reading via RSS.
  2. If you’re wondering why I read sources more liberal than I… 1) I like to think I can honestly consider ideas I don’t agree with. 2) Most conservative sources a) ignore or mindlessly deny environmental and social-justice issues I’m interested in and b) can’t write or reason their way out of the simplest of syllogisms. Give me honest, if disagreeable. If I’m missing something good, let me know. I’ll check it.
  3. I’m looking at you, Atlantic.
  4. Sure, the citation is exaggerated. But the point is that those who don’t do something don’t effect change. And that non-participation can be taking a wrong side. And perhaps that an argument from silence is—what’s it called? Oh yeah, fallacious.