Saturday, October 09, 2010

Why We Can't Give Up the Government

Stuart Symington, a presidential candidate in the legendary election of 1960, said this to Theodore H. White, who reported on the campaign in his classic work of political science The Making of the President 1960. I think it is still relevant today.
This Republican talk of pulling the federal government out of business is not only's dangerous. Look, you get up in a plane, you want to make sure it lands safely-- we can't give up the FAA. You buy stock in a mine, you want to be sure that the mine is really there-- we can't give up the SEC. You buy a bottle of medicine in a store, you want to be sure that what the label says is really in that bottle-- we can't give up the Food and Drug Administration. You tune in your radio, you don't want to find five stations on the same channel-- we can't give up the FCC... This silly Republican prattle of pulling government out of business! This country's become strong because government is a partner of everybody, and we have to recognize that kind of strength is our only hope... a new road is strength, a new bridge is strength, a good school is strength, above all, a good teacher is strength, she's playing with the greatest national resource we have.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Summer Reading 2010: Books #1-10

It is perhaps indicative of my bibliophilic nature that I consider it a travesty that I have only finished reading ten books so far this summer. After all, last summer I completed 32 books! But this is a different year and I have been working a standard 9-to-5 job every day, plus a handful of other things, and instead of lying on my back recovering from knee surgery I have been out and about in the great city of Washington, DC. With that being said, I am now done with my internship/job and will have some more time to spend on my beloved books. By way of a literary update, here's what I've managed to read through so far this summer.
  1. United Methodism in America (McEllenney)- The first book of many I will be perusing in the name of my senior history thesis, which will likely be about Methodism in the early United States. This was a well-done overview of the history of the United Methodist Church. Not particularly in-depth, but I got my feet wet and picked up a few ideas that I will be pursuing.
  2. Notes from a Small Island (Bryson)- Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors. This is the book he wrote about traveling around England, Scotland, and Wales. He has a very funny tone and style, and is clearly enamored with his subject. An all-around great read that made me want to buy a ticket on the next plane to London or Edinburgh.
  3. The Unlikely Disciple (Roose)- An agnostic college student from Brown University decides, after realizing how little he knows about this particular subculture of American life, to go 'undercover' for a semester at Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell. I appreciated Kevin Roose's ability to critique his subject without unfairly bashing the people he encountered there. A funny yet profound book, along the lines of AJ Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically. Note that this is not a coincidence; as Roose spells out early on, his project grew out of his time spent as Jacobs' assistant while Jacobs was living his year.
  4. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (Miller)- Donald Miller is another author of whom I am a huge fan. He first gained (some degree of) fame with Blue Like Jazz, and has gone on to write other wonderful spiritual (but not overly religious) books. This is his latest, a quest for understanding and finding one's personal Story-- and learning how to tell a good one. Brilliant-- my copy is well underlined.
  5. The Guinea Pig Diaries (Jacobs)- AJ Jacobs, of The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically, takes on a year of doing different 'experiments' every month. Each chapter of the book focuses on a different one. From living George Washington's Rules of Civility to trying to eradicate all his cognitive biases to becoming 'the perfect husband,' Jacobs' always laugh-out-loud (yet thoughtful) style makes him one of my consistent favorite authors.
  6. Rediscovering Values (Wallis)- I really liked Jim Wallis' first book, God's Politics, and have also been interested by his subsequent books. This is the latest. From his (mainly) progressive Christian point of view, Wallis discusses the Great Recession and critiques the mindset that got us into it...but also offers hopeful ideas as to how we can change in the future.
  7. American Lion (Meacham)- A well-written book about a deeply flawed man. This Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson, authored by Jon Meacham (the editor of Newsweek) reexamines the presidency of the seventh man to hold the highest office in this country. Most fascinating to think of how relevant the events of Jackon's presidency are in this world today. He dealt with sex scandals, war, racial discord, banking issues, and economic challenges...and for better or worse, consolidated more power in the hands of the Chief Executive than had ever been presumed possible before.
  8. Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace (Nerburn)- A thought-provoking little meditation on the Prayer of St. Francis. Very well written, and I am still mulling over some of the ideas in it (which I think is the sign of a good book).
  9. Eat Pray Love (Gilbert)- A bestselling memoir of a woman who went through a nasty divorce before pursuing a year of traveling and finding herself. Perhaps only appeals to a certain demographic (I was told that I was too young to appreciate it) but I still enjoyed it.
  10. Up in the Air (Kirn)- The recent movie with George Clooney was based on this book, but they are quite different. This one is darker and, admittedly, somewhat stranger. Jason Reitman, the writer/director of the movie, pulled a number of direct quotes from the book, but the plot is a VERY loose adaptation. Still, it is a well-written and interesting book, a portrait of the road warrior. My favorite part of the book was the narrative style-- the main character, Ryan Bingham, just talks to the reader, and you feel like you are really in a conversation and he's just telling you a story. (However, I have to admit that I actually prefer the movie in this particular case. Minus ten book-lovers' points, I know.)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoughtful Reads

I like thoughtful writing-- the kind where a true intellectual looks at current events through the lens of more than just politically or policy-motivated mumbo-jumbo. This is the main reason why David Brooks of the New York Times has become one of my favorite columnists, whether or not I agree with his opinions. His columns are reliably rational, moderate arguments-- despite the fact that his opinions do on occasion draw some fire for their unique brand of idealism. But really, what is a column for but to express the writer's opinion on the way they see the world and the way they think it ought to be?

Today Mr. Brooks had an especially thoughtful column about the real ramifications of the oil spill-- namely, how it reflects the way we think about technology. We put a great deal of trust in very risky devices, and create overly complex governance systems to manage them, he argues. Mr. Brooks also cited an excellent 1996 piece by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell (of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers), written around the tenth anniversary of the Challenger explosion. Whether or not you agree, the pieces are well-written and bear some contemplation as we consider how to move forward with recovery from this massive environmental disaster.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Faith and the Democrats, 2010 Edition

The 2008 Democrats realized something that they hadn't seemed to grasp in previous election cycles: faith matters to a whole lot of people. It matters so much, in fact, that it often influences their voting patterns. One could argue quite effectively that then-candidate Obama's ability to define his political views in light of his religious beliefs played a major role in making him the most successful Democratic candidate in years in terms of winning the votes of the faith-based community. And for a while, when the Democrats came to power, they maintained their faith-based outreach programs-- President Obama even expanded former President Bush's faith-based initiative offices in the White House.

Since then, though, little other than disappointment has ensued from the progressive faith community. The Democrats have been woefully unresponsive to many religious concerns, and even the president's religious advisers feel that they are not being heard. Moral language is really nowhere to be found in speeches by most Democratic politicians, and the "Faith in Action" page on the DNC's website is almost painfully out of date and unused. All of these issues-- and more-- were addressed in an excellent article by Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post, asking, "Are Democrats pulling back on faith outreach?"

The answer, from my perspective, is a resounding "yes," and that upsets me more than I can say. I have long felt that the Democrats were woefully incompetent when it came to connecting to faith groups, and that the Republican lock on religion can only be unhealthy for the faith community. The problem is not the lack of opportunity for Democrats to phrase their ideas in a way that speaks to moral and faith-based perspectives, it is simply their lack of action. The problem is not that there is no value in framing political issues as a moral imperative (health care is a great example), it is that that value is seldom recognized and even more infrequently utilized to benefit the Democratic agenda.

The Democrats seemed to be getting back on the faith-based track a little more during the 2008 election. Obama spoke about his faith openly and framed his issues as a question of values, and many people-- including and especially people of faith-- responded to that. However, the recent backpedaling hasn't done them any favors, and if they fail to get back to that moral language, especially during the upcoming Congressional campaigns, the Democrats will once again risk losing control of the moral ground in the conversations to Republicans-- and that monopoly would be a huge loss to the country and to constructive dialogue.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beck's Call: The Conversation About Social Justice Christianity

I am admittedly long overdue in writing about the controversy that Glenn Beck launched when he called on Christians to leave churches that preached social justice. It seems, however, that I am not as belated as I thought, because the conversation is still going on. More on that later.

A little context: In his show on March 3, 2010, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck made the following proclamation to his religiously inclined viewers:
"I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them...are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"
And it continued. Understandably, many churches were incensed and the progressive evangelical Christian magazine Sojourners launched a campaign telling their readers to "turn themselves in" to Beck, proclaiming, "I am a social justice Christian." They got several thousand signatures the first night...and the next day on his show, Beck went even further:
Where I go to church, there are members that preach social justice as members–my faith doesn’t–but the members preach social justice all the time. It is a perversion of the gospel. … You want to help out? You help out. It changes you. That’s what the gospel is all about: You.
"A perversion of the gospel." Right. That phrase, combined with Beck's equating social justice Christianity to communism, Marxism, Nazism, and totalitarian government sparked articles and conversations across the faith spectrum. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis invited Beck to a conversation about the relationship between social justice and Christian faith-- an invitation to which Beck has still not replied. After early April, the topic largely disappeared-- but now it is back with the FOX host's latest claim that the government was forcing churches to preach a "religion of environmental and social justice."

I don't pretend to understand Beck's motivation for launching on this particular tirade any more than I understand why people bother putting vegetables on pizza (I'm just saying, you lose a lot of health value when you load veggies up with grease. You want vegetables, eat a salad). For all I know, he could be sincere in this criticism or he could be just trying to stir things up. But as long as there are those who take people like Beck seriously, I take him seriously. Most of the time I can shrug it off when Beck goes off on a tirade, but this time he is criticizing something that forms the essence of what I believe.

Let me be very clear: I believe the passage in Ephesians that says salvation is by grace, through faith. However, I do not believe that this is an excuse to shrug off the problems of the world around us. My chaplain pointed out in a sermon a few weeks ago that God does not promise to raise us to a new creation in another dimension or something, but to "make all things new" in this world-- which means that we have to care about the world we live in now (side note: I highly recommend reading that sermon, not only for the spiritual and intellectual content but for the excellent references to Star Trek, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones). I believe in the profession made in the Epistle of James: "Faith without works is dead."

Perhaps this is where my own more liberal inclinations come into play. I suspect even someone like Beck might agree with me on the need to pair faith with good works. However, I believe that Christians are responsible to work on a larger scale to make a difference in the problems of poverty, environmental degradation, and more. It's not enough to change your lightbulbs to be more energy efficient, or put a $5 bill in a homeless man's cup. I believe that the government has the responsibility to "ensure domestic tranquility" and "promote the general welfare," as the Preamble to the constitution says. Poverty reduction, environmental justice, health care-- these are all concepts that directly relate to "the general welfare."

Jim Wallis articulated the problem with Beck's claim about social justice Christianity very well in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post.
Private charity, which Beck and I are both for, wasn't enough to end the slave trade in Great Britain, end legal racial segregation in America, or end apartheid in South Africa. That took vital movements of faith which understood the connection between personal compassion and social justice. Those are the movements that have inspired me and shaped my life -- not BIG GOVERNMENT. And my allies in faith-based social justice movements have wonderfully different views on the role of government -- some bigger than mine and some smaller than mine -- but we all believe social justice requires changing both personal choices and unjust structures. Apparently Beck thinks social justice ends with private charity, but very few churches in the nation would agree with him.
Now, I personally admittedly go a bit farther than Wallis in my views (if you read through his whole article, you'll see), but I agree with his notion that it is important to work from the bottom up-- changing yourself first and moving to a smaller local level, and then beyond. Personal first, policies later. But the unjust structures of government have to be changed if a real difference is going to be made in this country and especially around the world. I worked for a small Catholic social justice lobby last spring, and part of the appeal of their organization for me is that they took both a top-down and bottom-up approach to helping the global poor. They had missionaries in the field helping with day to day needs of the people, and also people like myself in Washington, advocating for change in the structures that contributed to that level of poverty. It was a remarkable experience because of the power of that context (I expect I will write more on my experiences with that organization soon).

For now, though, let me just say this: by what he said about social justice Christianity, Glenn Beck challenged me to defend why I believe that this kind of activism is an integral part of my faith, and for that I am of course grateful. But he is wrong in encouraging Christians to leave churches that preach social justice-- and if people listened, he would be forcing a mass exodus from a majority of mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic churches around the United States. Social justice Christians have made a real difference in creating a better world. Don't believe me? Take a look at William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade in England, or Martin Luther King in America's civil rights movement.

Read More:
-Glenn Beck Declares War on United Methodists
-Jim Wallis: What Glenn Beck Doesn't Understand About Biblical Social Justice
-Take Action: Tell Glenn Beck: I'm a Social Justice Christian
-Glenn Beck Responds: Social Justice is a 'Perversion of the Gospel'
-Glenn Beck Attacks Churches on Climate Change
-Mark Schaefer: Wiping Away Every Tear

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Relay for Life Experience

Note: This post was originally written on 18 April 2010 at 3:11am.

Bender Arena, American University, Washington, DC

It has been a long, long time since I have done anything remotely like this-- Midnight Madness with Youth-to-Youth in middle school and Word of Life in early high school are the closest equivalents that come to mind. Why? Put briefly, all-nighters do not agree with me. I surprised even myself when I seriously entertained the thought of coming to this event. However, it seemed appropriate to do something after losing three friends to cancer in the course of a year, so here I am. I relay in memory of Gail Parady, Fred Holliday, Jean Moore, and Paulette Hilchie, and I relay in honor of the ongoing fights against cancer by Jinny Scott [update: and Ann Kippley].

This is a truly unique event: part memorial, part fundraiser, part celebration. Each participant donated at least $10 as an entrance fee; many donated or fundraised more than that from family or friends. Most of us are walking with a friend or family member in mind-- a victim, a survivor, a caregiver. There are even survivors among our number here...they are some of the leaders of the event, and they walked the first lap as we all cheered them on.

The luminaria ceremony was probably the most touching part of Relay. People purchased these bags and dedicated them in memory of those who have died; we all walked around the track in silence for about 10 minutes after they were illuminated. One of my friends was a major organizer of Relay; he celebrated his birthday today and lost his dad to cancer about five years ago. It was heart-wrenching to watch him and the others during the luminaria ceremony-- it was a poignant reminder of why we are all really here.

Despite all this, the core theme of the event is "Celebrations." Accordingly, my team chose a "Happy Retirement" theme for ourselves and we dressed up as various ages and stages of retirees. We also made a sign for our "campsite" that says, "Our team is RE-TIRED of cancer."

It has been a mostly high-energy evening full of entertainment. As I write, there is a "Miss American" drag contest going on. Five guys got dressed up in fancy gowns and did a little catwalk. There has been a lot of music, ranging from an ongoing DJ dance party, to two a cappella groups, to to two rather bad bands, to a bagpiper. The music is keeping us all going at this late hour-- it is now 03:40. There has also been a lot of donated food and drink-- Chipotle, crepes, sodas, and more. The stuff that really keeps most people going is the Red Bull, I suppose, which makes a good deal of sense.

Other activities that have been going on include board games at different campsites, volleyball, frisbee, soccer, and the eternally popular bounce house.

I don't know that I am going to have the energy to make it all the way through the event. I have certainly done my best, and my knee has held up remarkably well, in spite of all the stress I've put it through. Regardless, this has already been a remarkable experience. We collectively raised over $40,000 for cancer research, heard some remarkable stories, and partied like it was 1995. I guess all I can say is-- Relay on!


Update: I made it through until about 5:30 in the morning before returning to my dorm and crashing. The final fundraising count was nearly $45k. I firmly believe that Relay for Life is an important way for a community to rally around cancer survivors and caretakers, and to remember those who died, while fighting back against the worst six-letter word in the dictionary. I plan to participate again next year, and urge others to do the same.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Tea Party Challenge

One of my Facebook friends posted a variation of this challenge to members of the Tea Party movement on her wall, and I thought it made a good point.

The Tea Party Challenge
Hey, members of the Tea Party! You think it's so bad that the government is involved in your life? Try this out for a week: Don't use ANYTHING funded by the government. This includes but is not limited to:
  • public transportation, including Amtrak
  • public radio
  • public schools
  • libraries
  • Medicare or Medicaid
  • Social Security or unemployment benefits
  • police or fire departments
  • all roads, bridges, etc.
Good luck!

Oh, don't think this would be hard? Consider the following:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock, powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly, regulated by the US Department of Energy.

I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility.

After that, I turned the TV to one of the FCC-regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

I watched this while eating my breakfast, inspected by the US Department of Agriculture and approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the appropriate time-- as kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved car and set out to work on the roads built by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve.

On the way out the door, I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US Postal Service and drop the kids off at their public school.

After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I drive back to my house, which has not been burned down thanks to the state and local building codes and the fire marshal's inspection, and it has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the local police department.

I then log onto the Internet, which was developed by the US Department of Defense, and post on Free Republic about how socialism in medicine is bad because the government can't do anything right.


Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Worst Remake Ever

So one of my friends thought it would be REALLY funny to play an April Fool's Day prank on me and try to convince me that they're going to do a remake of Casablanca, my favorite movie of all time. Yeah, I know, not funny at all. But once I got over the joke-- haha to you, Bryan-- we had some fun coming up with the cast and crew of the worst possible modern remake of that most beloved classic film. Results below:

Rick Blaine- Bradley Cooper
Ilsa Lund- Megan Fox
Victor Laszlo- Keanu Reeves
Captain Renault- Nicholas Cage
Major Strasser- Mel Gibson
Sam- Tracy Morgan
Ugarte- Shia LaBeouf

Directed by Michael Bay and Uwe Boll
Screenplay by Jeph Loeb
Soundtrack by Kanye West


Let the nightmares commence.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Wrestling with Free Speech

I confess it: sometimes I wrestle with the issue of free speech. More specifically, I wrestle with the idea of free speech when I read about things that are so blatantly offensive and arguably hateful that I almost can't justify them being said or written. Two events recently have gotten me thinking about it-- one piece in the international news, and one from my own college campus.

The news piece that first got me thinking was an article published in the Ottawa Citizen about how Ann Coulter's speech at the University of Ottawa was cancelled. The conservative commentator has been on a speaking tour around Canada, and has encountered considerable resistance from liberally-minded Canadians who opposed her message and the manner in which she delivered it. Although there were protests at a majority of her speaking locations, the protests at the University of Ottawa were so vehement that security urged Coulter to cancel the event, sparking criticism and debates from Coulter and others about how friendly Canada is to freedom of expression.

The other instance happened just today. Our student newspaper, the Eagle, published a piece by one of its more incendiary columnists, Alex Knepper, entitled, "Dealing with AU's anti-sex brigade." Read the column, then look at the comments. Words really can't adequately describe the controversial nature of the contents, but suffice it to say that Knepper managed to get virtually every female on campus up in arms when he stated that there is no such thing as date rape, and criticized the feminist movement for its views on sex. Just an excerpt:
“Date rape” is an incoherent concept. There’s rape and there’s not-rape, and we need a line of demarcation. It’s not clear enough to merely speak of consent, because the lines of consent in sex — especially anonymous sex — can become very blurry. If that bothers you, then stick with Pat Robertson and his brigade of anti-sex cavemen! Don’t jump into the sexual arena if you can’t handle the volatility of its practice!
To put it mildly, the AU campus community freaked out. I would be willing to bet that the Eagle hasn't gotten this many comments on a single article in years. There has been a range of (in my opinion, fairly low-key) vandalism and threats, and attacks on Knepper in general. There have also been an outpouring of comments and letters to the editor flowing into the newspaper, many of them criticizing the editors for having the nerve to put the piece into print.

So here's where my personal dilemma comes in. I hate just about everything Ann Coulter stands for, and I disagree with virtually everything Alex Knepper wrote in that column. I don't believe that hate speech of any variety has a place in a civilized society, and I am offended by the notion that someone would put such a stark line between "rape and not-rape," which vastly oversimplifies relational and sexual dilemmas AND devalues the pain felt by women who HAVE been raped, date or otherwise.

But here's the thing. I also hate censorship. I recognize the fact that if I am to be able to hold and express my opinions in this society, others should be able to hold and express theirs. I don't envy the Supreme Court their duty to identify where First Amendment rights to free speech end and where public safety or whatever is at stake. As much as I hate to admit it, Fox News has the same right to air Glenn Beck that MSNBC has to air Keith Olbermann.

If you ask me, there are more questions in this arena than answers. Yes, I think Knepper went WAY over any line of civility. Yes, I think that Ann Coulter's anti-Muslim comments in her speeches were distinctly inappropriate and downright hateful. I really don't think that "shock jocks" belong in real journalism. But those are my opinions. What about you?

Who gets to decide what is appropriate for publication and what is not?
What are liberals going to do if the tables get turned and people start getting really offended by what they say?
How do we reconcile the need for free speech that has been valued for so long, and the need to respect people and carry on CIVIL conversation?

I don't know. But it's food for thought.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Grouching About the Oscars

Anyone who follows my blog knows that I love movies. I write about them regularly, and view and talk about them even more regularly. So naturally I was excited for the Academy Awards this year, with a wider Best Picture field than usual, and a pending face-off between director James Cameron (Avatar) and his ex-wife, director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). So last night I settled down in front of ABC for their Oscar broadcast.

Part 1: The Red Carpet

Hands down, this is my least favorite part of the Academy Awards. I think the whole "red carpet" rigamarole is overrated and puts a focus on the star persona (and even more on what they wear) that is totally unnecessary. Why do we deify these actors to the point where a walk up a red carpet into a theater is one of the defining hallmarks of entertainment? Gabourey Sidibe (of Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire) was right when she described it as "Prom Night for Hollywood."

OK, that rant aside, naturally I watched the red carpet broadcast. Obnoxious interviewers and philosophical issues aside, some of the information was interesting. For example, did you know that the last time there were ten movies in the running for the Best Picture award was in 1943, the year Casablanca won? No pressure or anything, though.

Shallow moment:
Favorite male heartthrob sightings: George Clooney and Matt Damon
Favorite dresses: Kate Winslet (nobody classes up an event like her) and Sandra Bullock (a girl after my own heart-- when asked by an interviewer what she wanted to eat after the ceremony, she said a burger, fries, and a milkshake.)

Part 2: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards Ceremony

OK, on to the part that actually matters in my opinion: the ceremony itself. Neil Patrick Harris's over-the-top musical number intro was hilarious and awesome-- "No One Wants to Do It Alone." I really enjoyed Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as hosts. They had a great (if sometimes awkward) back-and-forth insulting each other and the audience, both at the beginning during their roast of the nominees and during the rest of the show.

So- the awards themselves. Here are the winners in each category, for those who missed it:

BEST PICTURE: "The Hurt Locker"
BEST DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)

BEST LEADING ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"
BEST LEADING ACTRESS: Sandra Bullock, "The Blind Side"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds"

BEST FILM EDITING: "The Hurt Locker"
BEST SOUND MIXING: "The Hurt Locker"

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Michael Giacchino, "Up"
BEST ORIGINAL SONG: "The Weary Kind" from "Crazy Heart"
BEST MAKE-UP: "Star Trek"
BEST COSTUMES: "The Young Victoria"

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Sapphire' by Push"

Full disclosure: I was rooting for Up in the Air to win in every category it was nominated for (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture). I can't say that I actually believed that it would win all of those categories, but I wanted it to. I thought it deserved the awards most for its timely and unique portrayal of the human impact of the economic recession in the US, for its superb acting (by George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga) and directing (by Jason Reitman), and for its clever script. Needless to say, I am quite upset that it didn't walk away with any of the above awards.

I was also rooting for Sherlock Holmes to win the Best Original Score award. I thought Hans Zimmer did a superb job creating a musical atmosphere for that movie, and the soundtrack is one of my new favorite albums to listen to-- atonal and unusual, but still somehow hauntingly beautiful. Still, the eventual winner (Michael Giacchino for Up!) was also an excellent choice-- although I actually preferred his music for Star Trek.

Despite my choices not winning, I am happy with most of the results. Avatar walked away with a handful of much-deserved technical awards but NOT any acting or overall "best" awards. Say what you will about the visual splendor of the movie, and I'll even give you the fact that the music was wonderful (James Horner composed the soundtrack, how do you go wrong?), but it did not have an original plot or good enough script to warrant anything else.

I was very impressed by The Hurt Locker, and am certainly inclined to support its Best Picture win, if Up in the Air couldn't win it. It was a unique brand of film with almost an indie film feel to it, and a relevance for its military content, even as the US pulls out of Iraq and starts to forget about what's happening over there in light of domestic concerns.

What I had not realized about the movie was that the screenwriter had been a journalist in Iraq, and had written the story based on his experiences with the troops there-- although I can't say I'm surprised, given how close the movie strikes to the reality on the ground (as I understand it). I was touched by the very sincere tribute and dedication that the writer, Mark Boal, gave to the troops when he accepted his award for Best Original Screenplay.

The film had a superb cast (especially Jeremy Renner), and a solid director in Kathryn Bigelow, who broke the proverbial glass ceiling last night by becoming the first woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director.

The Hurt Locker cleaned up in many awards categories, so the ceremony perhaps wasn't as well distributed as it could have been in that regard. And Up in the Air didn't win anything, which I have an issue with. But I guess I still have to "thank the Academy," as they say, because they fulfilled my hopes and did not give Avatar awards that it simply (in my opinion) did not deserve, just because it is the highest-grossing and possibly most visually stunning movie ever made. Being a Best Picture winner is about more than great visuals. It has to be about the quality and relevance of the story, the articulateness of the script, and the incredible acting-- not the money it rakes in or how pretty the film is.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Climate Change 2.0

Communication matters. Politicians have known this for years, but it often seems as though scientists and activists missed that memo. These groups know why a topic matters to them, but they cannot convey the significance to the public in a way that gets through the daily onslaught of information. Scientists are especially guilty when they limit their distribution of information to academic journals and conferences. These venues are hardly perused by the general public, and so useful information gets lost in the labyrinth of academia. Activists similarly struggle to communicate, although not for lack of effort. In a world where new causes seem to materialize every day, how can a climate activist stay relevant? In the past the strategy has involved some groups lobbying for environmental legislation, and others trying to get people interested in preserving nature, from polar bears to wetlands.

Without minimizing the importance of conservation and legislation, it seems as though the message of the climate change movement often gets muddled. It often fails to use communication strategies that are clear and reach large numbers of people. In particular, the climate movement should be making a special effort to reach out to the millennial generation, who will be most affected by the effects of climate change during their lifetimes. The distinguishing communication venue for millennials is the Internet-- specifically, social networks. As the millennial generation becomes more and more politically active, the climate movement will benefit greatly from finding ways to engage them with their most-utilized communication methods.

Climate Change 2.0: Recent Uses of New Media

Activists have long attempted to determine effective ways to reach a broader public with their message about global warming. Indeed, an organization called Resource Innovations “initiated a project designed to identify the most effective means to communicate with local populations about climate change.” This study yielded a number of recommendations about how best to communicate climate change, including the types of messengers that should be used to convey the information-- those with a range of expertise on a variety of subject areas from religious to environmental to business. Focus groups indicated that a broader range of experts educating the public on climate change would improve the credibility of the movement. In light of this study, it is reasonable to assume that among younger audiences, the credibility of the climate change movement would also be improved by increased activity on social media outlets.

Some organizations and individuals have already begun to increase their use of social media regarding climate change issues. The Copenhagen conference in particular drove groups to take up an active place on social networks, although some Web 2.0 aficionados found the website of the conference itself to be deficient in its use of new media. One of the most prominent to do so was not an environmental group, but the Associated Press and its affiliates covering the conference. Due to the conference's significance, the AP created a Facebook page and Twitter account to “provide a unique outlet for Internet users to discuss climate change with some of the world's most experienced journalists covering the conference,” according to a press release put out by the company. Other prominent individuals also started using social media in advance of the conference, such as John Prescott, the former British Transport Secretary and current Rapporteur on Climate Change to the Council of Europe who used Twitter and his blog to gauge and try to sway public opinion in England about climate change in advance of the summit.

The movement rallied the blogosphere and Web 2.0 aficionados around the climate summit in Copenhagen, publicizing the use of their own videos and other sources on individual Twitter feeds and blogs, effectively spreading the word about their organization. and its partners joined together in a Blog Action Day before Copenhagen, calling for the preservation of the Earth's atmosphere at no higher than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Before the Blog Action Day, also featured six of the “hottest” videos on climate change, highlighting the roles that social media can play in raising awareness and calling for action.

Beyond the climate conference, some businesses have also been actively commenting on climate change issues. One of the most noteworthy is Shell Oil, which allowed its climate change adviser, David Hone, to start and maintain a blog, on which he records his thoughts and experiences looking into climate change-related issues. The idea behind the blog was to provide a “serious venue for conversation about an issue that is very important to all of us” and to do so in a way that is accessible to people beyond environmentalists and policy makers.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits that social media has already provided is in areas that are indirectly related to climate change-- namely, in providing information after natural disasters. The earthquake in Haiti is perhaps the best current example of how Twitter can be useful, although in this particular instance the quake is not related to climate change. After the earthquake, news outlets such as CNN reported people going to Twitter for information in record numbers, as disaster agencies posted updates and celebrities used their feeds to call for donations to charities. Similar situations have occurred in the past and will likely occur again in the future in instances where climate change is more directly tied to a disaster. A prime example is the cyclone that occurred in Bangladesh in December 2007. BBC World Service had spent several years building up a site showcasing the effects that climate change had already had on that area, and when the cyclone arrived, Twitter and blog updates provided personal accounts from the ground, even when the mainstream media switched its focus.

Reaching the Millennials: Why Social Media Matters

The millennials are the generation that is most likely to be heavily impacted by climate change. Right now, social media venues are the main outlet for young people looking to share their opinions with a broader audience, and with or without the support of the mainstream climate movement, they are speaking out on the issue. Jesse Strauss, a student and blogger on, wrote about the urgency with which we need to address climate change:
Every once in a while, a generation gets a necessary call to act and sacrifice. The last time this happened, a nation mobilized to defeat the armies of fascism. The most powerful force on Earth is a mobilized democracy calling for action, and that is what we need to be. Right now, we have been granted a very small and rare window to change our ways to save this planet for our children. A new decade means a clean slate. [...] When 2020 rolls around, let’s be able to say truthfully we left the decade with the Earth better than we found it.
The Pew Research Center announced in its New Media Index just before the Copenhagen conference that global warming had been the primary hot topic discussed on blogs and other social media networks, with more than half of the news links in blogs relating to the issue. Often the blogs have been posted by those who doubt the reality of global warming, but during the weeks before Copenhagen, the debate was not one-sided. Rather, “much of the added fuel [to the debate] came from climate change believers who engaged in the debate that had been dominated by skeptics.”

Bloggers like Jesse Strauss and the data from the New Media Index are together reflections of the evolving reality: that connecting teens to movements like the fight against climate change will increasingly require engagement with online social media as much as (or more than) traditional media. The Pew Research Institute has been active in recent years studying the interaction between the millennial generation and the Internet, and the results have been striking. A study published in December 2007 learned that about 93% of teens use the Internet, and that 64% of these online teens have either contributed to or written a blog, maintained a personal website, shared their own artistic creations online, and included content that they found online in their own work-- and this did not even include those who were active on Facebook or another social networking site.

Beyond the teenagers, however, are the older members of the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000). These are mostly no longer teenagers, but they are equally “plugged in” to the technology that many consider to be a hallmark of the generation. According to a Pew Research Center study published in February 2010, approximately 75% of millennials have at least one social networking profile (compared with 50% of Gen-Xers and 30% of baby boomers). These are numbers that have jumped significantly within the last ten years for all adults, but most strikingly for the millennials. Between 2005 and 2006, the percentage of young people using social networking sites jumped from 7% to 51%, a number that subsequently increased and stabilized at 75% in 2008.

In addition to the data about the technological engagement of millennials, the Pew data indicated a trend toward more liberal political opinions. More than half of the millennials surveyed said that they thought the government should do more to help people, compared to 42% who thought that the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. However, the study notes that like other generations when they were younger, millennials do not typically have high levels of political engagement. They did make a substantial difference in the election of Barack Obama (a campaign that stood out for its use of social media) in 2008, but the number of millennials voting sank significantly in the gubernatorial elections of 2009 in New Jersey and Virginia.

The Pew Center report says, “Even though Millennials made extensive use of social media in the 2008 campaign, it is too early to judge the long-term impact of these technologies on their level of engagement.” This is undoubtedly true. However, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that the ability of the Obama campaign to connect with younger voters using familiar technology (social networking) might be correlated to their ability to get out the youth vote. Not only did the Obama campaign convey a message that millennials could relate to, they used a relevant medium to millennials.

Climate change movements that seek to stay relevant with today's technology-savvy generation can learn from the lessons of the Obama campaign in 2008, as well as from organizations that mobilized around the Copenhagen conference. Social media-- from blogs to videos to Twitter-- can be an effective tool for spreading information and especially engaging with younger potential activists. Many millennials know that global climate change will be manifesting its consequences during their lifetimes, and they are eager to step up and take action to reduce the impact. They are simply waiting for leadership that meets them on familiar ground and connects with them.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Mario Cuomo's Convention Speech

I was just introduced to this great and overlooked speech by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Although sadly the Democrats did not heed the call to unite and could not defeat President Reagan, the speech stands by itself as a call for a nation of "two cities" to become one.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lenten Devotional: Life As a Sacrament

My university's Methodist student group partnered with a church nearby to produce a Lenten devotional for our members. Students and adults both contributed pieces about memories and experiences with the different sacraments. The devotional is also online here, but I really liked today's selection, written by my chaplain, and thought I would pass it along.

A sacrament is, as St. Augustine said, “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” It communicates love and grace to us in very real concrete terms.

Through the very physical water of baptism, we encounter forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, and cleansing. The water surrounds us, and we are surrounded not merely by bonded hydrogen and oxygen, but are immersed in God’s love. The water cascades over us, and we feel the rush of God’s grace. The water soaks us, and we are infused with God’s acceptance and mercy.

In the very physical elements of bread and wine, we encounter mercy, love, healing, and grace. We taste not only the substance of the harvest—grains become flour, flour become bread—sating our hunger, but gain a foretaste of a banquet in which all the things for which we hunger are satisfied: justice, righteousness, peace. In the sweetness of the grape juice we taste the sweetness of redemption, the sweetness of the vindication of hope.

These ordinary physical things convey a deep spiritual grace. But why should it stop there? Can’t more things be sacraments?

The Eucharistic meal is a sacrament, but what about the potluck supper? Anyone who has ever done a potluck right, and made it an occasion of fellowship, sharing, and hospitality, has certainly conveyed and experienced something of God in those moments. Two friends sharing a plate of Buffalo wings and a couple of glasses of beer can experience the love of God known in relationship. Can the wings and beer not be sacramental elements, no less than bread and wine?

We can open ourselves up to the possibilities of a sacramental life: everything we do can be a way that God’s love and grace are communicated. A ballgame, a hike through the woods, time at the artist’s canvas, giving a helping hand, writing a letter to an old friend, a hug. If vested with a sense of love and of grace, anything can be sacramental. If we seek to embody love and grace in our lives, then everything we do becomes “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” All life becomes a sacrament.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Morning Reading: Tea and Justice

A couple of days ago I wrote a bit about the relevance of the tea parties in the Republican Party, partially based off of David Brooks' column on the topic. NYT columnist Charles M. Blow has also joined this trend of analysis on the tea partiers, saying that "the attack on the Republican establishment by the tea party folks" represents "the desperate thrashings of a dying movement." I'm not sure that I would agree with him, although I would certainly like to. He points out that the demographics of the country are changing and that younger folks are getting more liberal, but I just wonder as compared to what, or when? Traditionally the younger generation is often the more liberal element of society, although I guess not always. Anyway, Blow's piece analyzes the goings-on in the Republican party in the view of the five stages of grief, which is interesting.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns violate the First Amendment. An interesting question-- does money = speech? Their decision could have huge ramifications in future elections, and speaking for myself I hope that the court will either tailor their decision very narrowly, or rule that the restrictions are constitutional. There is already too much money poured into campaigns, the last thing we need are less restrictive fundraising rules.

Sarah Palin is back in the press, unfortunately enough-- this time for declining an invitation to speak at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, widely perceived as the biggest must-attend event of the year for the conservative element. More to the point, though, even as she declined CPAC, she accepted an invitation to speak at the first-ever National Tea Party Convention. This of course has set off speculation that she is positioning herself as the movement's leading potential candidate for 2012-- speculation that I would not say is unfair. Not knowing anything about the governor's plans, it sure looks like she's trying to legitimize them and possibly take leadership. Or maybe she's just in it for the speaking fee, rumored to be in the low six figures. Incidentally, it's also worth noting that the tickets to this allegedly grassroots movement's convention are going for about $560.

Finally, thoughts and prayers to the family of Vice President Joe Biden, whose mother (Catherine Eugenia "Jean" Finnegan Biden) passed away yesterday at age 92.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Other Thoughts on Avatar

David Brooks of the New York Times did not seem to like James Cameron's Avatar quite as much as I did in my review a week ago. Or rather, he had a few more problems with the plot line. I can't say I disagree-- it's both cliched and kind of offensive-- but plot has, in my opinion, never really been James Cameron's strongest suit as a filmmaker. As I noted before (and as Brooks pointed out), it's really a rip-off of the plots of movies like Pocahontas. The plot is really just an excuse for Cameron to use a whole round-up of awesome effects and filming techniques.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Tea, Anyone?

Anyone who has been paying even a little bit of attention to what's been happening on the political scene in the past year is probably aware of the rise of the so-called "Tea Party" movement, a group of conservative, semi-libertarian opponents of President Obama and the current governing elite in the United States. They first started making noise after the introduction of the economic stimulus bills, gained more notice during the health care debates of the summer, and backed a third-party Conservative candidate during the tumultuous race in the New York 23rd Congressional district.

David Brooks, one of my favorite columnists at the New York Times, has written a piece about the rise of the tea partiers, what they represent in American society, and how they could become a force to be reckoned with during the next decade (see: The Tea Party Teens). I think he will probably prove to be right, unfortunately. The tea party folks represent a loud and dissatisfied element of American society who fear that the country they love is shifting in a different (read: more centrist/leftist) direction. And they are afraid, and letting us all know.

I have a number of problems with the tea party movement. One of these is historical. They are invoking the memory of the Boston Tea Party...but the colonists weren't complaining about taxation. They were protesting taxation without representation. By those standards, only the residents of the city of Washington, DC have any ground to stand on.

My other major problem is that, as Brooks pointed out, the tea partiers are defined by what they are against. And they are against just about anything that the current administration comes up with. Rather than presenting meaningful alternatives of any variety, the movement seems to be all about complaining (often, in my opinion, on the basis of a flawed knowledge of the facts).

This movement is fascinating from an academic perspective, and it will probably wind up being quite important. It could-- and probably will-- cause the Republican Party to splinter, with parts moving to the extreme right and parts clinging to the center. But at the same time, I cannot see it becoming a viable alternative politically until someone starts coming up with ideas beyond the word "No." When that happens-- depending on how it happens-- the tea party could indeed be a force to be reckoned with, and possibly a dangerous one at that.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Morning Reading: Not Much Here

Have I mentioned how much I love the Garfield comic strips by Jim Davis?

It seems to be a bit of a slow news week, aside from the continued hullabaloo about the Christmas bombing attempt in Detroit. Janet Napolitano's been really getting slammed...which I suppose is the cost of being the head of the Department of Homeland Security. Additionally, the word of the day from yesterday was that the US Embassy in Yemen closed down due to increased threats of attack by Al Qaeda. A situation that of course bears further monitoring.

Paul Krugman has a good column out in the NY Times today, reminding us of the lessons of 1937-- that signs of short-term improvement in the economy are just that. We shouldn't take them as a surefire indication that things have turned around-- there is still work to be done. Optimistic, eh?

Much to the chagrin of my friends at myImpact, a recent study indicates that those who join up with Teach for America after graduating college don't necessarily do so out of a higher sense of civic duty. Although they often do wind up in an education-related profession, the love of teaching does not appear to translate automatically into more service-related engagement.

Yeah, not too much grabbed my attention in the news cycle so far today-- but I'm continuing to work on blogging over at Simply Millennial if you're looking for reading material. :)

Saturday, January 02, 2010

New Year, New Blog

I decided that the start of 2010 would be an appropriate moment to start a new blog. Inspired by my perusals of Zen Habits and other simple living blogs, Simply Millennial will be my new home for thoughts on "searching for simplicity, productivity, and happiness in a Web 2.0 world." Not too much there yet, but I'll be working on it, and blogging there (and continuing to write here) regularly is one of my resolutions for the upcoming year. Check it out!

Friday, January 01, 2010

Sure, maybe for YOU, Mr. Limbaugh...

On Wednesday, conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh was rushed to the hospital near his hotel in Hawaii (where he has been staying for the holidays) with chest pains and a suspected heart attack. Today he was released, and announced that the US health care system works "just fine" and that he as a celebrity had received the same treatment as any other American who called 911 and got rushed into the emergency room.

I am sure that I will not be the only pundit-wannabe to point out the flaws in Mr. Limbaugh's arguments. Where to begin... First of all, perhaps he has a point in saying that he received the same treatment that anyone else would have gotten. I can't poke TOO many holes in that, because I don't know. It's very dependent on the hospital, the doctors, the nurses, and the state of the person who was calling for medical care. It's not unrealistic to think that a doctor might pay a bit more attention to Rush Limbaugh than to another Joe Schmoe...but it's not necessarily the case.

The main problem (in my estimation) is not in the treatment provided, but in how to pay for it. Admittedly, when the US system does work, it often works well. The US has some of the best trained doctors and nurses, superb medical technology and research facilities, access to the latest drugs. This does not necessarily yield results across the board, but it often makes for better outcomes. But at what cost?

Clearly Mr. Limbaugh is out of touch with the segment of the American population that lies outside the companies where employers provide health insurance; outside the bounds of Medicare or Medicaid or the military/veterans medical system; into the places where a parent has to choose between paying for family insurance at exorbitant prices and putting food on the table. For those interested in the numbers, that segment of the population hovers somewhere around 45 million Americans, a not unsubstantial amount.

Mr. Limbaugh's statement also roundly ignores those in the United States who go into debt or bankruptcy just paying their medical costs. These costs-- from the ambulance to the hospital, to ER fees, to administrative fees, to medicines-- must be paid out-of-pocket, which often forces horrible choices and can ruin a family.

In every other developed industrial democratic country in the world, this is not only considered simply unacceptable, it's considered unthinkable. People should not be forced to choose between their health and food, their health and education, their health and their job. And they should not be forced into bankruptcy to pay for their health care.

I wish Rush Limbaugh no particular harm, and I am glad he has had a positive experience with the US health care system. I too have had good experiences with the system, two of them major surgeries in 2009. But to take your individual experience with one particular hospital in the system-- especially when you ARE a celebrity and presumably either have or can pay for health insurance-- and apply it to a blanket statement declaring that the whole system works "just fine" for everybody, is foolish and appallingly small-minded. Look around. The whole US health care system cannot be (and in the minds of most sensible people, is not) accurately represented by the treatment given to one celebrity radio host in a luxurious area of Hawaii. Especially because he probably doesn't have to worry about paying for his care.

The First Post

It's a new year, and a new decade. Ten years ago, we all thought the world (or at least the technological side of it) were going to end with the Y2K issues...of which there were pretty much none. Last year, I had two surgeries, witnessed a presidential inauguration, read over fifty books for pleasure (not school), and wrote my record number of 188 blog posts. Now we're here in 2010, looking ahead. For me, the decade upcoming is one in which I will (next year) graduate from college and join the work world for sure...and in which many more things are possibilities.

Well, opening up my Google Reader this morning, as per usual I've picked out a few good articles. President Obama celebrated his New Year's Eve by hanging out with his family, going to see Avatar, and getting a lot of security reviews about the Christmas Day bombing attempt. Always fun to be the prez...especially when politicos start critiquing his governing style versus his campaign style, as they did in the "Top 10 Obama White House Surprises."

I have been increasingly impressed by David Brooks over the last year. As I've read his columns, I've grown more and more impressed by his articulate centrist positions, and his ability to analyze issues in a rational manner. Today's column is no exception, as he looks at how badly people have reacted to the Christmas Day bombing attempt by blaming the system. All systems created and maintained by human beings will at some point fail, which is a fact we need to deal with in a mature manner, rather than by playing a ridiculous blame game. Do make sure you read David Brooks's column for today, "The God That Fails."