Notes on how things seem to me from out here in Hollywood... As seen from Just Above Sunset
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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Saturday, 7 February 2004

And you thought the earnest young folks from the Jehovah's Witnesses appearing at your door were irksome...

See Pilot suggested passengers discuss Christianity during LA-to-New York flight
Saturday, February 7, 2004 - Associated Press (02-07) 18:18 PST
An American Airlines pilot flying passengers from Los Angeles to New York asked Christians on board to identify themselves and then suggested that non-Christian passengers discuss the faith with them, the airline confirmed Saturday.

The pilot, whose identity was not released, had been making flight announcements before he asked that the Christians on board raise their hands, said American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner.

Wagner said the pilot told airline officials he then suggested the other passengers use the flight time to talk to the Christians about their faith.

The pilot later told passengers he himself would be available at the end of the flight to talk about his first announcement.

Wagner said the airline was investigating the incident.

"It falls along the lines of a personal level of sharing that may not be appropriate for one of our employees to do while on the job," he said.

The pilot had just returned to work from a weeklong mission trip to Costa Rica, Wagner said.
I'm afraid if I comment on this I'll get in big trouble.

I have yet to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior and to be born again. And this "rapture" business seems silly to me. But what's wrong for those of the lesser faiths to be asked, in a confined space - talk about a captive audience! - to explain themselves to the loving Christians? Who knows which of them might be converted? "The Conversion of The Jews" at thirty-seven thousand feet somewhere over Kansas! Muslim women from Los Angeles in burkas accepting Jesus just before the plane glides into JFK! Hey, it could happen!

Well, the pilot has the right to his beliefs, and the right of free speech. More importantly, this pilot had control of the aircraft. You wouldn't want to get him upset and have him start thinking apocalyptic thoughts, or even pleasant thoughts about how wonderful heaven is for the saved. He might also recall some passages from the Old Testament about smiting the sinners and that sort of thing. I'd accept Jesus under the circumstances. As a matter of prudence.

He has his rights. And I have the right to choose never to fly American Airlines again.

As this sort of thing becomes more and more common, and lauded, it may be time to consider relocating to a land more heathen.

Posted by Alan at 20:13 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 8 February 2004 07:45 PST home

Topic: The Law

Be careful out there...

And they say Saturday is a slow news day. Here's an item that will make you be more careful about what you let other people know about your opinions.

Feds win right to war protesters' records
Ryan J. Foley, Associated Press, Last updated: 2:15 p.m., Saturday, February 7, 2004
DES MOINES, Iowa -- In what may be the first subpoena of its kind in decades, a federal judge has ordered a university to turn over records about a gathering of anti-war activists.

In addition to the subpoena of Drake University, subpoenas were served this past week on four of the activists who attended a Nov. 15 forum at the school, ordering them to appear before a grand jury Tuesday, the protesters said.

Federal prosecutors refuse to comment on the subpoenas.

In addition to records about who attended the forum, the subpoena orders the university to divulge all records relating to the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a New York-based legal activist organization that sponsored the forum.

... The forum, titled "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!" came the day before 12 protesters were arrested at an anti-war rally at Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnston. Organizers say the forum included nonviolence training for people planning to demonstrate.

The targets of the subpoenas believe investigators are trying to link them to an incident that occurred during the rally. A Grinnell College librarian was charged with misdemeanor assault on a peace officer; she has pleaded innocent, saying she simply went limp and resisted arrest.

"The best approach is not to speculate and see what we learn on Tuesday" when the four testify, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, which is representing one of the protesters.
Okay, could be nothing.
... According to a copy obtained by The Associated Press, the Drake subpoena asks for records of the request for a meeting room, "all documents indicating the purpose and intended participants in the meeting, and all documents or recordings which would identify persons that actually attended the meeting."

It also asks for campus security records "reflecting any observations made of the Nov. 15, 2003, meeting, including any records of persons in charge or control of the meeting, and any records of attendees of the meeting."

... A source with knowledge of the investigation said a judge had issued a gag order forbidding school officials from discussing the subpoena.
Well, this could have nothing to do with dissent at all. Maybe there was a child-molesting Catholic priest in the crowd and they want find out where he is and arrest him. Or maybe one of the protesters was someone who illegally downloaded some tunes and the RIAA asked for federal help to cull him out from this crowd.

One could speculate. One shouldn't.

But one now really should stay away from public protests. And should avoid making public statements. Watch what you do. Watch what you say. Be careful what you write.

We did elect these guys to protect America, and they will.

Posted by Alan at 13:46 PST | Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink

Friday, 6 February 2004

Someone With Too Much Time On His Hands - The Bumper-Sticker Version Of Existentialism

Okay, consider these three books, simultaneously:

- Charles M. Schulz: Conversations edited by M. Thomas Inge, University Press of Mississippi 2000.
- Existentialism and Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre, Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1957.
- Peanuts Treasury by Charles Schulz, MetroBooks 2000.

Well someone at the magazine Philosophy Now has already done the work for you. I'm not sure why, but someone has.

What do you get? Charlie Brown as an existentialist.

See Sartre & Peanuts
Nathan Radke, Philosophy Now, Issue 44 - January/February 2004

Nathan Radke teaches workshops and tutorials in philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. And he seems to be a man with too much time on his hands.

Of course one must agree with Radke on the breadth of influence of these cartoons - newspaper readers have been exposed to Charles Schulz's comic strip `Peanuts' for over half a century. Even now, a few years after Schulz died, many newspapers continue to carry reruns of his strips, and bookstores offer Peanuts collections. His characters are featured in countless advertisements, and every December networks dutifully show the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

And Radke asks - is there any philosophical insight that can be gleamed from such a mainstream and common source?

Maybe there is. But one might ask as well, why bother? The question of why one should bother is no doubt anti-intellectual, or at least scornful of the discipline of formal philosophy.

But Radke has some interesting points.

First he draws us in with the unbearable sadness of Charlie Brown:
Our anti-hero sits, despondent. He is alone, both physically and emotionally. He is alienated from his peers. He is fearfully awaiting a punishment for his actions. In desperation, he looks to God for comfort and hope. Instead, his angst overwhelms him, and manifests itself as physical pain. There is no comfort to be found.
Oh my, that does sound familiar! Charlie Brown as everyman. That is my life from when I was fifteen to this day - no comfort, really.

Of course when I was fifteen I foolishly read Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (1867) and the end of that stuck with me:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Yep. Life is tough, even if Schulz probably wasn't channeling Matthew Arnold when he thought up Charlie Brown.

And by the way, people don't generally stay "true to one another" these days, but perhaps I'm cynical from unique personal experience. I'm sure most marriages last and are quite happy, and for most good friends don't ever drift away. Ah well.

But is Radke serious about Charlie Brown as a cultural benchmark?

Radke paints him sitting nervously outside of the principal's office, waiting to hear what will become to him. He offers up a little prayer, but all he gets is a stomachache. Hardly the desperate philosopher-poet on the cliffs of Dover staring across the water at the last light of European tradition twinkling out on the coast of France into utter darkness - left only with his "true love," who may or may not be true - in a world of pain and meaningless war with no certainty of anything and no reason to hope for better.

I don't see the Charlie Brown cartoons as quite that dark. But maybe it's me. Radke claims then when we are exposed to something every day we can eventually lose sight of its brilliance.

I'm not sure. But I'm willing to entertain the premise.

Radke claims it is foolish to disregard "literature" simply because it appears in the funnies section of the daily paper. Schulz's simple line drawings and blocky letters contain "as much information about the human condition as entire shelves full of dry books. If any character has shown us the difficulties in existence, it is Charlie Brown"

Yes, Radke is right - there has been much discussion concerning Peanuts as a voice of conservative Christianity, including several books such as the 1965 work The Gospel According to Peanuts. But Radke sees more.
This is not without reason; even a cursory glance at a Peanuts anthology will reveal enough scripture references to fuel a month's worth of Sunday school classes. However, to suggest that Schulz's philosophical insights didn't make it past the church door would be a mistake. While Schulz had a great interest in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ, he was also highly suspicious of dogmatic pious beliefs. In a 1981 interview, he refused to describe himself as religious, arguing that "I don't know what religious means". Charlie Brown was no comic strip missionary, blandly spreading the word of organized religion. Upon reflection, the trials and tribulations of the little round-headed kid provide deep and moving illustrations of existentialism.
Perhaps so, but "deep and moving" may be a stretch.

What's Kierkegaard Got to Do With It?

Radke reviews S?ren Kierkegaard as one of the first existentialists, and argues Kierkegaard's religious beliefs impelled his philosophy, rather than limiting it. You see, Kierkegaard was forced to confront his deeply held belief in the existence of God with the tremendous empty silence that returns from the prayers of humans, and the results were his vital and compelling theories of faith and freedom.

Just like Charlie Brown? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Radke notes Schulz did not consider himself religious, neither did he refer to himself as an existentialist. In fact, he was unfamiliar with the term until the mid 1950s, when he stumbled across a few newspaper articles about Jean-Paul Sartre. "He was certainly not formally schooled in philosophical works. And yet, his simple line drawings provide illumination into the questions and problems raised by existentialism."

Ah, we see Radke is using the comic strip as a teaching aid in his course "Existentialism for Dummies."

Here's his game.
In order to identify examples of Schulz's philosophy, a bumper-sticker version of existentialism should prove helpful. In his seminal 1946 work L'Existentialisme est un Humanisme, Sartre outlines some of the core aspects of his theories. A key aspect is the idea of abandonment. Kierkegaard felt that there was an unbridgeable gap between God and Man. Sartre goes even further, and argues that even if there is an unknowable and unreachable God, it wouldn't make any difference to the human condition. Ultimately, we exist in an abandoned and free state. We are responsible for our actions, and since Sartre argues that there is no God to conceive of a human nature, we are responsible for our own creation.

How does this apply to Peanuts? Like the existential human in a world of silent or absent deities, Schulz's characters exist in a world of silent or absent adult authority. In fact, the way the strip is drawn (with the child characters taking up most of each frame) actually prevents the presence of any adults. Schulz argued that, were adults added to the strip, the narratives would become untenable. While references are sometimes made to full-grown humans (normally school teachers) these characters are always out of frame, and silent. The children of Peanuts are left to their own devices, to try and understand the world they have found themselves thrust into. They have to turn to each other for support - hence, Lucy's blossoming psychiatric booth (at five cents a session, a very good deal).
Linus and The Great Pumpkin? An ideal example of abandonment. That gets a long paragraph. Followed by this:
Sartre did not deny the existence of God triumphantly. Instead, he considered it "... extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven.". Without God, everything we do as humans is absurd, and without meaning. Certainly, spending all night in a pumpkin patch would qualify as embarrassing as well.
Waiting for Godot? Waiting for The Great Pumpkin? Same sort of thing. I suppose.

And this business about the cartoon showing no adults? Radke argues thiat in the absence of any parental edicts, the characters in Peanuts have had to become very philosophically minded in order to establish for themselves what is right and wrong.
When Linus gets a sliver in his finger, a conflict erupts between Lucy's theological determinism (he is being punished for something he did wrong) and Charlie Brown's philosophical uncertainty (when the sliver falls out, Lucy's position crumbles). At Christmas time, Linus dictates a letter to Santa, questioning the validity of Santa's ethical judgments regarding the goodness or badness of the individual child. "What is good? What is bad?" asks Linus.
Yep - bumper-sticker of existentialism.


Sartre would say we are created by our actions. We are responsible for our actions. Therefore, we are responsible for our creation. What we are is the sum total of what we have done, nothing more and nothing less. But why should this cause despair? Good question.

Radke reviews Sartre's comments on the characteristics of cowardice and bravery. If you are born cowards, you can be quite content, you can do nothing about it and you will be cowards all your life whatever you do; and if you are born heroes you can again be quite content; you will be heroes all your life, eating and drinking heroically. Whereas the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always the possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. And it is this very possibility that causes despair.

This lead to a discussion of Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. The very possibility that he could go over and talk to her is far more distressing than its impossibility would be; he must take ownership of his failure? When she is the victim of a bully in the schoolyard, Charlie Brown's despair deepens. He isn't suffering because he can't help her, but because he could help her, but won't: "Why can't I rush over there and save her? Because I'd get slaughtered, that's why..."

Ah, existential despair! And when Linus helps her out instead, "thereby illustrating his freedom of action," Charlie Brown only becomes more melancholic.

What a life!

And then Radke discusses how in order to combat despair, Charlie Brown succumbs to bad faith, which is to say, he denies his freedom: "I wonder what would happen if I went over and tried to talk to her! Everybody would probably laugh ... she'd probably be insulted too ..."

Yes, existence is problematic and disturbing.

And you don't even want to know about the link between Linus and Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea. Radke illustrates that.

But all is not dark:
Existentialism has been accused of being defeatist and depressing (and Sartre didn't help his cause with terms like `abandonment', `despair', and `nausea'). But Peanuts also demonstrates the optimism of the philosophy. Why does Charlie Brown continue to go out to the pitcher's mound, despite his 50 year losing streak? Why try to kick the football, when Lucy has always pulled it away at the last second? Because there is an infinite gap between the past and the present. Regardless of what has come before, there is always the possibility of change. Monstrous freedom is a double-edged sword. We exist, and are responsible. This is both liberating and terrifying.
Yep, and Matthew Arnold's narrator asks his love to be true to him - even if he knows better.

So there you have it - existential despair, and foolish hope, daily in your newspaper. Or not.

Posted by Alan at 20:26 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 6 February 2004 20:37 PST home

Thursday, 5 February 2004

Topic: Bush

Things we really don't want to think about...

Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation has always been direct. When I see her on talk shows she seems for the most part exasperated and inpatient, and usually for good reason, being paired up with Ann Coulter or some other less-than-accurate talking head from the right. Of course, balanced panels do give each side heartburn.

Left to herself she can be pretty devastating.

And I didn't know that last summer launched a website petition to declare Bush insane under the 25th amendment. Cool.

Here is the woman at full throttle.

See Liar, Incompetent or Space Cadet?
The Nation 02/04/2004 @ 8:29pm

The set-up ...
Is he incompetent, clueless, lying? Why has President Bush - once again - asserted that he went to war because Iraq refused to allow weapons inspectors into the country? Last Wednesday, Bush went on about how "it was [Saddam's] choice to make, and he did not let us in."

Bush made the same false statement, last July, with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at his side. "We gave [Saddam] a chance to allow the inspectors in," Bush declared, "and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power."

These statements defy rational explanation. As observed last summer--after launching a website petition to declare Bush insane under the 25th amendment--"everyone in the world knows that Hussein allowed a fully-equipped team of UN inspectors to comb every inch of his country... The only conclusion we can draw is that Bush has lost touch with reality. In other words, he has gone mad."
Many of us have suggested this. But many of us were joking.

Katrina vanden Heuvel goes on to speculate these statements that do not at all correspond to any actual events in the real world as we know it are perhaps not indicators of madness - as it is possible Bush just doesn't know what happened.

She reminds everyone that last September on Fox News Bush did say he had his own source for news. Not newspapers or television or anything else: "The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

Yeah, that might explain it.

Then she raises another alternative - the question of whether Bush was just lying.

That is a good question. She says her personal view is that "Bush doesn't have the fullblown Nixonian character to blatantly lie on issues of war...".

Maybe so.

But people will believe most anything if it's said firmly and often by an authority figure. Hey, it works for entrepreneurial doctors selling diet plans.

And one could, if inclined to think of these things in terms of evil Orwellian conspiracies, argue that yes, Bush knows what he is saying is flat out wrong. Of course he does. What he said happened did not happen at all, and anyone who glanced at the news in the last year knows that. But if he says it often enough, and others pick up on it, then people will forget what the saw and heard with their own eyes and ears and feel just fine with Bush's version of events.

And that is useful. It becomes the virtual history of the war, not the real history - a kind of shorthand. Yes, it seemed evil in 1984 - but in the real world, not Orwell's, it does provide a kind of comfort. No one wants to think his or her president tricked us into this war, or that we elected someone who is jerking us around for his own ends. What would we then think of ourselves? That we're suckers and rubes? That's not acceptable.

Katrina vanden Heuvel raises the issue of the responsibility of the press. Is it not the duty of the press to call those in power on their foolishness and lies? Well, that is somewhat idealistic. Tim Russert's show "Meet the Press" this Sunday will feature an interview with George Bush. Russert's reportedly going to ask Bush about his somewhat vague military service record - was Bush AWOL or whatever? I doubt it will be very probing. Russert has a reputation for hard, persistent embarrassing questions. But he'll take a dive. Or to change the sports metaphor, he'll toss only softballs to George. The network has advertisers. And the FCC can be unfriendly in the future. And you don't mess with the most powerful man in the world.

Katrina vanden Heuvel quotes the former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee appropriately- "Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face." Yep.

But she does also quote Paul Waldman of the Post saying that, "when politicians or government officials lie, reporters have an obligation not only to include the truth somewhere in the story or let opponents make a counter-charge, but to say forthrightly that the official has lied. When a politician gets away with a lie, he or she becomes more likely to lie again. If the lie is exposed by vigilant reporters, the official will think twice before repeating it."

Yeah? I doubt that. Not when the lies, even if exposed, make people comfortable.

We don't want to think we freely and willing elected a manipulative liar who is jerking us around and sneering about it when we're not looking. And we certainly don't want to think of the alternative, that we elected a madman who is detached from reality. Either would mean we are real fools.

Tell us that and it more likely we'll turn on the media and say they are trying to cause trouble.

Thus Fox News.

Posted by Alan at 21:01 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: The Culture

From Sopchoppy in northern Florida to Baghdad by way of the Super Bowl

In an earlier post I made some comments about the Super Bowl and how it might be seen by the al-Qaeda and the man in the street in Baghdad. Not terribly original. Many have suggested the same.
It wasn't just the briefly bouncing boob and the awful music. Add in the commercials - the farting horse and the dog that bites a fellow's testicular apparatus to get his master a beer. And all this framed by a few hours of costumed steroid-enhanced mutants on speed clobbering each other for glory.

This was showing the people who wonder about what we're doing in their neighborhood just what folks in the Middle East could have if they give in to us - what they could be.

Some future.
But I did get a reaction from Phillip Raines in Georgia:
There are some people who think football is a metaphor for life. Is the super bowl their great pilgrimage? The Hajj is it? Then we are, in fact, a culture in swift decay.

Alan's take at the end cracked me up in that "theater of the absurd" kind of way. But yeah, I think that's the way it is. Jaws dropping in the Middle East at the sight of such a ridiculous extravaganza. Their version of religious fanatics shocked and awed - "should we cut off her breast or gauge out our own eyes. Whip me with a chain, or I'll do it myself!" The Super Bowl use to make me feel kind of sick - like I'd eaten an entire can of cake frosting. I just couldn't care less about football.

I've missed the bowl the past three years. I made a point to go read my poetry at a coffee shop, so glad to be of an audience who doesn't give a shit about the super bowl, or its commercials. This year I was riding back from Sopchoppy, musing on the sunset behind the silos and flat fields with tractor tracks. Most bucolic. My passenger, a retired chimney sweep and former basketball scholarship at Georgia Tech kind of guy searched the AM waveband in vain for the game, or just the score. The static wasn't much worse than the game, I figured. The sound of switching AM stations at night was like a Theremin in a black and white sci-fi movie from the 50's. I'll sort of miss it when I get XM.
Yes, there is life other than that surrounding the Super Bowl.

Phillip's photo essays on the treehouse he built for his boys near Sopchoppy are here, here and here.

Posted by Alan at 18:57 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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