Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Third Eye Blinder

I feel like I'm being overly obvious. Surely I'm not the only one who has thought of this:

"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

"But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

Yet here we are again, on Ash Wednesday, with a bunch of pious folk wandering about with smudged foreheads.

Oh, I've got mine, too. Don't worry. I haven't been going to church much lately, and it seems that my fanatical side has taken a long sabbatical (see what I did there?), so I mostly did it because I like going to church with my wife. There's something very comforting in engaging in rituals like that with her.

The symbolism of the ritual particularly struck me today, though. The ashes are applied right over the third-eye chakra (or Ajna), between the eyes, with the ritual words, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return." The usual explanation is that we remember our sinfulness and our need for the salvation of Christ, but it struck me that there might be a different explanation.

The third eye (not an actual "eye," btw, in case anybody's feeling particularly bloody literal minded) symbolizes our ability to see things as they are, leaning toward the interconnectedness of all things. Through the application of the ashes, we remind ourselves of our inability to see things as they really are, because of the various ways in which we obscure our true vision, which leads to incorrect action. We then pledge, through fasting and austerities over the next forty days, to clean it, and return to our original state of clarity and love.

I mentioned this to Katie with my usual pedantry, saying how the church probably doesn't even know the symbolism of their own rituals, and she, with characteristic ease, took me down a peg. "Sure they know," she said. "They might have forgotten, but you know that somebody thought of this stuff at some point." Which is most likely true.

I'm probably talking like this more lately because I recently started back up on my meditation practice, which mostly involves continuing to do yoga everyday and adding in some visualization exercises from The Golden Dawn handbook. It's been really helpful in continuing the upward swing I've been experiencing in the last year or so. I'm learning to manage my moods, and my brain seems to be working better. Cleaner.

With the advanced techniques out there (chaos magick and the like) I'm basically hacking my brain with the ritual equivalent of a Commodore 64. Frankly, I don't want anything higher octane right now, as I might end up with a head full of shoggoths. There are rituals and techniques that, supposedly, can send you right up the lightning path to godhead, but I'm content to keep working the slow and steady route. I just keep plugging everyday, little by little chipping away at the barnacle of self.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"What I meant to say was..." - Why I got into a twitter war with a fictional character.

So I got into this fight with Will McAvoy on Twitter. No, not Jeff Daniels. That would be too easy.

For those of you not in the know, a writer I'm quite fond of, Mr. Aaron Sorkin, wrote this show called The Newsroom. It's pretty good. There are the usual liberal tropes, which I mostly agree with, and a bunch of romantic entanglements with unnecessary misunderstandings and complications. Think Downton but in the modern day, not everybody is related, and it's set in a New York television newsroom instead of an Edwardian mansion in the English countryside. Got it?

Okay, so, as people do for TV shows they're fond of, somebody set up a Twitter feed for the main character, a man named Will McAvoy. He's portrayed on the show by Jeff Daniels. The character is neurotic, curmudgeonly, profane, morally courageous, short-tempered, and smarter than you. Typical Sorkin leading man, sort of a revenge of the ubernerd. All well and good.

And the person behind this fake Twitter feed is pretty good. He's got the curmudgeon thing down, for sure, and the moralizing high-handedness.  He's smart enough for mass consumption, and he says things that sound pretty close to what the character would say. It's good stuff. Twitter as fan fiction. I'm quite fond of the feed.

(Side note: "Fond of the Feed" should be the name of a podcast about Twitter. That one's free: use as you will)

Until one day, and it's really kind of stupid, but the other day, there was all this fuss in the papers and whatnot about the folks who make Monopoly changing out one of their playing pieces. They took the iron (one of those old-fashioned ones that's basically a heavy slab of metal with a handle) and replaced it with a cat (because it was voted on by the internet and the internet is ALL about cats).

So this person, whoever they are, behind this fictional newsman's twitter feed says, "Eh, it's not news, and the people reporting it aren't journalists."

This got up my nose for some reason. So I picked a fight.

Now, don't get me wrong. I knew, and know, that I was not picking a fight with the character "Will McAvoy". He is a fiction. He is not real. I get that. I was not arguing with him. I was arguing with a point of view, which, regardless of who holds it, is very real. This point of view says that certain things are news, that certain people have the education, right and obligation to discern and report upon those news-y things, and that anything else is "not news" and that these things are not worthy of report by serious journalists.

There's a whole series of assumptions we need to unpack from that point of view. The idea is that there is a group, let's call them "journalists," who know what the news is, and what it isn't. They report the news, you watch/read/listen to their reportage, and you go away, edified and able to make informed decisions about the world, and you vote and change the world. It's a lovely concept, and it has a lot to recommend it.

It is, however, bullshit. It's bullshit because it presumes to tell you/me/everybody what the news is, and that they know it, and that we, the unwashed masses, do not. It suggests that we, said masses, would, if given the option, gorge ourselves on nothing but Lucky Charms and Pixie Stix, and that it is up to the adults to make sure we eat our vegetables. There is some evidence that this is the case (cf. all the Entertainment Journalism shows like TMZ and whatnot).

The problem with this point of view is that it promotes a gatekeeper mentality, and that it works both ways. These people, whomever they are, tell us the news. Not only do they report, they define what news IS. They say, "Kim Kardashian is not news." Okay, fine. We're tired of hearing about her anyway.

But these same people can say, "Brown people dying half-a-world away is not news." And we say, "Oh sure, you're right. What brown people?" And that's the end of it. Out of sight, out of mind. We have defined an entire narrative out of existence.

Please note, I am not advocating that all stories are equally important to everyone. That would be stupid. Kim Kardashian is not on the same level as drone strikes in Pakistan. To me.

What I am saying is that no one gets to say what stories are important to me. I get to decide that. If I choose Kim Kardashian over drone strikes, that's on me. Or vice versa: if I choose to ignore the latest celebrity news, I am free to do so. The point is that the information must be available. No one gets to say, "This is not news. This doesn't bear reporting by anyone."

Now - and this is important - this doesn't mean that everyone must report everything. People are free to report what stories they believe to be important. If a news program has decided that they want to report only on "important" stories, that's fine. They are allowed their point of view. I am free to choose their point of view. This doesn't make other points of view less valid. A point of view could only be said to be invalid if it is factually incorrect.

Saying something is "not news" also presumes a sort of Malthusian model of attention and information delivery, i.e. that there are a finite number of broadcast hours, a finite amount of information delivery channels, and that a person watching this cannot watch that. If "this" is some thing that Journalist X has deemed to be unimportant ("Kardashian ass") it necessarily preempts "that" ("drone strikes") and leaves "that" by the wayside, ignored.

This ignores the internet entirely. On the internet, there are a functionally infinite number of ways of getting information, and as many points of view as there are people. All of them are available 24 hours a day and archived for as long as there are servers and electricity and the will to keep them in existence.

To sum up: I got irritated and said that I thought somebody saying something was "not news" was high-handed and presumptuous. Ultimately, I also think it's dangerous. The world is too big, and there's too much information for anyone to think that they have the line on what everybody else gets to talk about. It seems like a small point, but like many of the things in my life, I develop a certainty about minutiae over which I will fight a principled (read: stupid) battle to the death.

I didn't change anybody's mind, I don't think, and a couple of people called me an asshole on the Internet. That's the way it goes.

That's how I spent my Wednesday night. I did learn something, though. Nobody EVER wins a Twitter war.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Karen Carpenter: RIP February 4, 1983

Karen Carpenter, one of the great voices of pop music, died on February 4, thirty years ago. She was lovely, and strange, and too beautiful for this world.

In honor of her memory, I'm making the entirety of the very presumptuous series of essays I wrote last year about her and The Carpenters' album A Song for You available in one place for download and viewing. I wrote these with both sincere respect and a knowing wink. No one, least of all me, could possibly know everything about what she was dealing with in her life, and I wanted to tell the story that I heard (correctly or not) in those heartbreak lyrics and soaring melodies. You can read the whole thing here.

I hope you enjoy it. Please drop me a line and let me know if you have any thoughts. Thanks.