Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ category

Privacy vs. Freedom of Expression

April 6, 2010

There is an on-going battle happening in America that is as quiet as a cat but as vicious as a pit bull.

This battle is a relatively new one, exacerbated by the popularity of the World Wide Web.

This is a battle that is being fought on all possible fronts: the White House, the Pentagon, the offices of the Central Intelligence Agency, the chambers of Congress, schools, street corners, public libraries, and even private homes.

This is a battle between personal privacy and freedom of expression.

But first, here are a few thoughts to help set the stage for this discussion:

We live in an unprecedented age of information. The social observers of the 1990s famously referred to the Internet as the “Information Superhighway” because of the vast amount of information that is available at the mere click of a mouse.

Today that highway has grown to stretch across the globe; surpassing all national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. This information comes in all forms: news, politics, opinions, history, art, pop culture, personal stories, etc. The popularity of blogs created in itself a fairly new phenomenon where more people are willing to put their personal lives out for everyone to read.

And this is where things get very interesting. More and more people, some as young as middle school students, are willing to put their private lives on the Internet for all to see. Through written blogs or video blogs posted on Youtube, people share private information about their lives, including their love life, sex life, opinions on politics, office/schoolyard gossip, opinions on pop culture, and anything else that will attract a loyal following.

Internet pseudo-celebrities will post daily (or weekly) videos of them chatting to their “fan base” about whatever comes to their mind. Certain people will tune in because of the voyeuristic pleasure they get from peeking into the seedy lives of “ordinary” people.

I say “ordinary” people because one never knows how real these “confessions” are. Then again, is that really the point?

The rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace has given people more channels to advertise themselves. Our world is becoming more interconnected. All this leads to one conclusion: our “private” lives are entering into the public domain like never before.

At the same time, consider the controversy that sprung up in the wake of the domestic surveillance scandal of 2005. It was revealed to the American people that the infamous Patriot Act of 2001 had given the FBI the right to spy on foreigners and U.S. civilians without a judge’s permission. Eliminating the need for a federal subpoena, as argued by dissidents, destroys our constitutional right to “due process.”

Many Democrats and civil liberties advocates argued such a practice violated American’s rights to privacy. President Bush argued such measures were necessary to protect Americans from future terrorist attacks. Terrorists do not respect individual rights, Bush and his supporters said.

The outrage from “Spygate” proves that Americans are not completely willing to sacrifice their personal privacy for the sake of protecting themselves from potential harm. Other similar controversies include the installation of video cameras on street corners, photo-enforced red light traffic cameras, and unwarranted phone tapping.

Yet, there exists a completely different trend in American society. As mentioned earlier, Americans are becoming more comfortable with spilling their deepest, darkest secrets on the Internet. Even if they maintain a certain degree of anonymity, there always exists the possibility that someone will find out who they are.

Voyeurism is the sexual interest of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors that is normally relegated to the private sphere. Alfred Hitchcock’s breakthrough 1954 film “Rear Window” famously depicted Jimmy Stewart as a crippled man who spends his free time spying on his next door neighbors. When his character witnesses a potential murder, he becomes involved in a dangerous conspiracy that never would have happened had he kept his peering eyes away from other people’s business.

“Rear Window” argues how dangerous it is to step into the lives of private people without their permission. There is nothing inherently illegal about spying on people (other than the creepiness factor), but when watching leads to taking action, a line has been crossed that leads to very unholy territory.

This unholy territory is “stalking,” the practice of giving unwanted attention to individuals by either physically following them, researching intimate details of their lives, or trying to contact them without their permission.

There is a joke among Facebook users that when somebody finds out intimate details about someone by reading information posted on their profile, they are referred to as a “Facebook stalker.” The irony is, of course, that all this information is willingly posted on the profile by the person. This information is available for all eyes to see, especially the eyes of your “friends.”

But sometimes this is no laughing matter. Recently, a Tacoma teacher named Jennifer Paulson was murdered by a stalker who casually knew her in college. Her death signifies how serious stalking can be; that intruding on someone’s privacy can possibly lead to violence.

Naturally, there is no way to monitor this except though self-control and utilizing common sense. The government cannot control what information people are willing to put out there. And likewise, people are limited in what they can do to stop government intrusion on their personal lives.

This is an issue that should be “discussed” more than “debated.” Why are we willing as a society to spill more secrets about our personal lives while at the same time getting outraged whenever we see the federal government intrude on our personal space? Are we becoming more open about our privacy, or are we really becoming more protective of it?

Discuss!

What Facebook Quizzes Say About Our Society

July 4, 2009

Facebook quizzes make no sense. How can you possibly try to describe a human being in terms of what Harry Potter character they are? Or what neighborhood in Seattle they are most like, or which of the “Rocky” movies they would be.

I realize that these quizzes are nonsensical and are not meant to be any serious measure of who you are as a person. But it is intriguing to think about whether people can be described through abstract comparisons instead of traditional character traits like age, race, gender, weight, height, nationality, and personal interests.

Take, for example, a recent quiz a friend of mine took that told her which Hogwarts teacher she is most like. For those of you who don’t know, apparently “Hogwarts” is the school that Harry Potter and his compatriots go to where they learn their wizardly craft. I have never read any of the books nor seen any of the movies (and things shall stay that way forever, mind you), but I know this at least.

Given the fact that I have never read any of the Harry Potter books, I can assume that each teacher has their own special quirks and individual characteristics. And they all must be different from each other, I suppose. And if the Facebook quiz matches you up with a strict and hard-nosed Hogwarts teacher, that must mean you yourself are a stern and authoritarian person. It must be that simple.

This annoying trend is simple in its approach. We are slaves to pop culture, therefore we are dying to find out how we measure up to the people/characters/movies/television shows/cultural time periods that we love. It might be unfair to call us “slaves” to popular culture, but in reality, what we read, watch, and listen to does in fact occupy a significant amount of our time that we spend on earth.

Besides, all of this is very trendy, after all. The plethora of Facebook quizzes are so numerous that there has even been a backlash against it. I have seen several people update their Facebook status to read that they are sick and tired of seeing their friends take these pointless quizzes. How annoying it must be to have your homepage inundated with the latest news of which Shakespearean character your girlfriend is most like (note to the reader: if your girlfriend is most like Lady Macbeth, get out of the relationship now!).

Trends are common in our society. We jump on any bandwagon that seems exciting at the time. We jump on it especially if our friends are too. Look at the almost record-breaking five day opening of Michael Bay’s loud and disastrous “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” With a $201 million box office gross, it was $2.6 million shy of the record set last year by the vastly superior film “The Dark Knight.” (I will confess that I have not seen the second Transformers movie, but judging from the negative reviews it has received, I think it is a safe assumption that Christopher Nolan’s film is a lot better)

So if taking these myriad of Facebook quizzes are trendy, when will it all stop? Maybe when people discover that comparing your life to superficial pop culture creations are not a very good idea nor a good use of your time. People can be so immersed in popular culture that they feel like they are part of it, not just passive consumers. It might be ridiculous to actually think people will believe that they are comparable to “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” but one can never know.

Consider this: with the recent death of pop singer Michael Jackson (I mentioned his name this time), tributes have poured out all over the world. Everyone from celebrities to politicians to common everyday people are publicly telling the world how much the King of Pop meant to them. Baby Boomers who grew up with Michael Jackson might consider him to be the distant cousin they never had. African Americans of that generation might think of him as a hero for breaking racial barriers in the music industry.

There are folks who are mourning him like they knew him. The same goes for Farrah Fawcett, who died of cancer the same day. This goes for any famous person who has spent years in the public spotlight. Us common people may not have ever met them, but we sure as hell feel like we have.

In a more interesting case, during this past Fathers Day President Obama invited several boys and young men from troubled urban areas to visit the White House. He spoke of his absent father and how his story relates to those of the young boys and men, many of whom never met their own fathers. One 16-year-old boy named Danilo Downing, who never knew his father, said the President’s story resonated with him.

“I think of him as my father now. He’s really special to me. He’s an amazing man,” Downing said.

Downing only shook Obama’s hand and received a pat on the back from him. That’s it. Yet despite their limited meeting, this young man considers, at least in that moment, the President to be his father figure. Not a small deal. This illustrates how powerful a public figure’s persona can be. They can change people’s lives without ever having to meet them.

The same goes for pop culture figures. Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and Captain James T. Kirk have impacted more people’s lives than some actual people. They may not be real flesh and blood human beings, but their appearances on television screens, movie theatres, and pages on a book do just the job.

I’ve had friends who said they cried when a major character in the Harry Potter series died. A character, let me remind you, who exists only on paper. There are those who shed tears for Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Karl Malden, I’m sure. And they never even met them. Is there something wrong with this?

Maybe, maybe not. The media are so pervasive in our society that media figures exist almost like a real person. But this is dangerous. We need to realize that those who are really important in our lives are our family, friends, and close associates. Victims in Darfur might be an exception. But, nevertheless, it is weird to mourn someone who doesn’t even know you exist, let along your name.

So now it makes sense why we love to take these seemingly innocuous Facebook quizzes. We need to find out which “Friends” or “Lost” character we are because they are, after all, our actual friends. They might not be real, but that doesn’t matter. We spend time with them. They make us laugh, cry, and think. What’s so fake about that?

There is a media theory out there that hypothesizes that people treat the media like they treat real people. We expect the media to do things that people do: entertain us, educate us, inform us, titillate us. We want the media to be our escape from reality. We even watch “reality television” because their lives are so much more exciting then ours. Our realities are boring. The Real Housewives of New Jersey are exciting.

But, if we consume media to escape reality, but our reality is becoming more saturated with the media, what’s the difference? What are we really escaping? If we spend all our time sitting on our sofas watching reality TV shows, that becomes our reality. There is nothing else. Nothing else to fill our “free” time. The media aren’t our escape. It’s where we have to escape from.

And that should make your mind boggle. But if you don’t want to think about it, turn on the tube and see what Oprah is up to.

You Know His Name. You Know His Music. But Please, For God’s Sake, Let Him Rest in Peace.

June 29, 2009

I refuse to mention his name. You know who he is. He passed away on Thursday, June 25, 2009 of a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles. You’ve heard his music. You’ve seen his videos on MTV. You’re read all the gossip about him, talked about his bizarre behavior with your friends, laughed at all the jokes about him on late night television. You know exactly who I’m talking about.

But I still refuse to mention his name.

“The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” was an undisputed giant in American pop culture. He was a gifted performer, peerless dancer, sensational singer, and an inspiration to musicians everywhere. His contributions to our collective popular culture cannot be underestimated. His records have sold more than 750 million copies worldwide. His fame as an entertainer has drawn comparisons to legendary icons such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley. That is quite an accomplishment for just one man.

That said, people (in the sense of both media creators and media consumers) need to stop dwelling on his death and let him rest in peace. For the sake of his family and close friends, all this media attention is doing nothing to help them cope with his sudden death. Sure, tributes by famous celebrities are nice, but enough is enough. Some people want to mourn a loved one’s death without paparazzi cameras flashing in their face 24/7. I know I would.

But none of his should be surprising. After all, he is a music icon loved by the world. In the 1980s, he was the face of the music scene. He electrified audience members all over the world with his dazzling concerts and indisputably catchy songs. He started as a child star, growing up in the national spotlight as the “front man” of a singing group comprised of his brothers, also gifted singers. He became famous before most of us start middle school.

As his musical fame waned, he started to act strangely in public and became involved in pedophilia allegations. His celebrity status became tainted with off-the-wall personal antics, odd physical deformities, and once again, charges of pedophilia. His death precluded a scheduled 50-performane “come back” concert series that was promised to bring him back to the national spotlight and international stardom. Instead, he died just like anyone else. Just like those courageous Iranian protestors. Just like our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just like people everywhere in every country in the world.

This is not to say that his death is insignificant. Every death of a human being is significant. His music did in fact impact people from all corners of the planet. But does his particular death deserve constant front page news coverage of every newspaper and news website? Definitely not. Should the public be informed of more important news issues like Iran, federal bailouts, tobacco regulation, gay rights, and state budget woes? Definitely yes.

“The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” does deserve some recognition for being one of the first prominent African American media musical stars in mainstream society. He rose to fame by breaking out of the Motown establishment and into the homes of everyday white America. He did all this before hip hop became a mainstream genre of pop music. That deserves attention and remembrance. But please, don’t overdo it.

It would not benefit any of us to whine about the media and their celebrity-centered fetishistic reporting. We all know that entertainment news gets way too much press. We all know Americans need to know more about domestic and foreign affairs than what Us Weekly reports on a regular basis. We all know this. So there’s no point in arguing about that.

What does need discussion is who to blame for all this. Do we blame the media creators (also known as “gatekeepers”) for feeding us nothing but celebrity “journalism” or we the people for wanting more and more of it? I always believe that consumers play just as important of a role in these things than those who put it out. Should we blame Big Oil for creating a quasi-imperialistic presence in the Middle East or the everyday consumer who buys oil products on a daily basis? Do we blame tobacco companies for making carcinogenic “death sticks” (Star Wars fans should catch that reference) or smokers who foolishly light up and get hooked?

It is no fact that Big Media are losing money fast. Newspapers are closing everywhere around the country. Television news is depending more on screaming talking heads than civil discussion, all to keep ratings up. Talk radio is becoming more politically polarized everyday, just to pander to a particular demographic. News has become a free commodity because of the Internet. The list goes on.

There may be no clear answer for who is to blame for making the death of “The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” more important news than a June 30th deadline for all U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities. In a war that is more than six years old, this is a major step toward scaling back the American presence in post-invasion Iraq. President Obama’s plan to end the war completely by 2011 depends on how well the Iraqi military handles its own security. If they seem independent enough and don’t need U.S. support to fight against the insurgency and al Qaeda, our men and women in uniform can begin to come home. So, this is really important news. But who’s reporting on this?

But, cynicism about the integrity of the mainstream media should not last forever. The popular press has been in worse positions. Think back to the era of “yellow journalism” in the late 19th century when media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst employed a war over media sensationalism that almost destroyed the American newspaper (that might be an overstatement, but “yellow journalism” certainly did not help make the modern media business model a healthy one). Those days may not be completely over, but it could be worse. Today is not worse.

Young Iranians are hoping for “change” in that country. A change away from despotism. A change away from theocratic rule. A change toward a more free and open society. American whippersnappers claimed last year to hope for the same thing, but they seem complacent to actually bring that about. Paying more attention to celebrity deaths than meaningful political/national/world news is not a good way to change our world. But that is a whole other debate.

For now, briefly mourn the death of “The Man Who Shall Remain Nameless” and move on with your life. Feed your dog. Take your kids out to the beach. Go work out at the gym. Read a newspaper, for God’s sake. And not just the funnies (although, you can do that later). Make sure your life does not revolve around the death of another. Yes, he was famous, but he was only one man. Your life is much more important to you than his is.

But in the meantime, I still refuse to mention his name.

Since When has Theatre Become Uncool for Generation-Y?

June 1, 2009
A very popular Broadway musical that seems to attract the young crowd.

A very popular Broadway musical that seems to attract the young crowd.

There was once a time when the only entertainment available for people was to attend the theatre. Live theatre, with all its singing, acting, and dancing, thrived in an environment without video cameras, high speed Internet, and state-of-the-art special effects.

Then, the radio came around. Live theatre and radio even became strange bedfellows, when radio shows like “The Shadow” and “Detective Story Hour” becoming popular in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. I’m sure there were theatre artists who feared the radio would be the death of their business. Such anxieties are understandable.

At around this time movies roared into the scene as a formidable form of mass entertainment. Why bother going all the way to New York to see your favorite Broadway actors and actresses when you can see your favorite stars at your local cinemaplex? Well, movie theatres as we know it today didn’t quite exist in those days, but you get the idea.

Film allowed theatre to go to new heights. Instead of pretending to act on a boat, you can actually act on a boat! You can create new and exciting characters like King Kong or see amazing special effects in “Frankenstein” because in film, you only have to do those things once instead of night after night. Live theatre makes it so that you have to recreate spectacle over and over again, which can get costly after a while.

After the end of World War II, a unique and groundbreaking invention called “television” entered into the mainstream of American culture. Now we can both watch and hear our performers, all from the comfort of our living rooms. No need to leave your house to go to the cinema or playhouse. Everything you could possibly hope for in home entertainment was available, conveniently, at home.

Today all those things are available online. Internet television, YouTube, Hulu, and everything else has made it that you don’t even have to retreat into the living room to get your entertainment. Depending on where you have Internet access, you can watch everything from the comfort of your bedroom; even in bed if you want. Imagine that.

All this background information is to say that to many people of my generation, going to the theatre to watch plays is something that seems so outdated. Live entertainment is so untrendy because we have to pay admission and see a particular show at a certain time. And that means no shoot outs, car chases, “Star Trek”-style CGI, or big menacing robots like you can see in “Transformers.” You actually have to sit around and watch people talk to each other. That is so 20th century!

Come to think of it, that is so 19th century. Boy, have the times changed.

When I was going to school, I was highly active in my university’s theatre program. When I asked dorm mates or casual friends what they thought of the shows I were in, they would always tell me it was “good for a play.” It may not be as entertaining as an episode of “House” or “The Office,” but it passed the time well regardless. I even talked to someone just a month ago who commented that a show I was in was “pretty good,” and that was saying something because he usually hates theatre. He needs to get out more.

But that seems to be the problem. People my age, as in folks ages 18-30, don’t go to the theatre. With the exception of “High School Musical” or any of those big Broadway musicals that travel from city to city, the theatre isn’t as “hip” or “cool” as other mediums of entertainment. This is probably due to the physical limitations of a stage. As mentioned before, there are effects you can achieve on the screen in post-production that you cannot achieve on a simple proscenium stage.

Musicals like “Wicked” and “The Phantom of the Opera” are popular because they’re big, epic on scope, and sure-fire crowd pleasers. “Spamalot” and “The Producers” have the luxury of being based on iconic cult films with a previously established following. And of course, all the musicals based on Disney films like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.” They’re aimed at the whole family and boast characters and songs known to most of the world.

Whenever I go see plays in Tacoma, Seattle, or elsewhere, the audience is almost always dominated by people older than 60. Folks in my demographic are almost never present, except to cheer on a friend of theirs who is in the cast.

My generation was raised watching Michael Bay style movies with heavy loads of CGI, hot young women in scantily clad clothing, and liberal doses of action violence. There is a reason why movies like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “Terminator Salvation” made a ton of money at the box office even though both films lacked much of a plot or deep characters. The only reason why “Star Trek” has been so successful is because J.J. Abrams toned down the geekiness and revved up the hot young actors/eye popping special effects/mind-blowing action factor. You basically need to do that in order to make the nerdy world of Star Trek mainstream.

Another factor that might explain why young people don’t attend the theatre is because of the price of admission. In Seattle, a single ticket to go see a show can go upwards of $40. Younger folks can get in for $10 to $15 only because theatres lower the prices to attract younger audiences. But in this economy, who has $40 to spend on a night of entertainment when you can rent a movie at your local movie rental store for $3.50?

When I visited New York City this past January, tickets to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows cost as low as $50 per ticket all the way to $80 for big time musicals. That is a very significant chunk of change. That explains why many New Yorkers don’t bother to go see the theatre there. A lot of the audience members were people like me: tourists.

The future of live theatre: To be, or not to be?

The future of live theatre: To be, or not to be?

But there is good news. I’ve heard through the grapevine that in cities like Chicago, there is an emerging young and hip theatre scene. I’m glad to hear that. But in most parts of the country, there isn’t a theatre scene that appeals to younger crowds. Young kids my age and younger don’t want to see Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Those are people you read at school, not spend your Friday nights with. Let’s face it, kids who text message and surf Facebook in their free time most likely have never heard of playwrights like Eugene O’Neill or Anton Chekhov, let alone seen their work.

For hardcore theatre folk, this is heartbreaking news. As generations pass, who will attend the theatre? The generation of people who remember when live theatre was trendy are passing along as we speak. When folks my age eventually become working adults, will they hop to their local playhouse and be willing to spend an evening with Shakespeare or Neil Simon, or Noel Coward? It is doubtful, but it is possible.

There will never be a shortage of actors. Actors are a dime a dozen. The desire to sing, dance, and act and be seen in the spotlight will never fade away. I’m more concerned about the audience. There can be no theatre without an audience. Theatre for theatre’s sake makes no sense. If the theatre loses its audience, what will it do next?

This is why I believe more theatres need to address these concerns and consider the future. That doesn’t mean they should disregard the classics and perform only cutting edge stuff, but experimenting at attracting younger patrons can never hurt. What needs to happen is for young people in my generation to realize that the stage can be just as powerful a medium as a movie screen, television screen, or computer screen. Even a large IMAX screen. They need to be exposed to the beauties of live art instead of being dragged kicking and screaming because their girlfriend plays the third chorus girl from the left.

This can be done by putting on new, edgy material that challenges and speaks to our generation. If Barack Obama can get my generation to get excited about politics (at least during the months leading up the election), then they can also get pumped up for the performing arts. Another remedy is for theatres to advertise in places other than newspapers. Facebook, YouTube, to a lesser degree MySpace, and Twitter are great ways for theatres to get the word out to people my age. Many theatres are already doing this. Good for them.

It also wouldn’t hurt to feature younger playwrights who write and feature characters in my age range. A play about characters living the American Gen-Y experience is much more topical than exploring the theological/political arguments between King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More. If you need to know what I’m talking about, Google it.

Young playwrights about characters they can relate to are great ways to attract folks my age to the theatre. I don’t look at this as selling out, I look at it as preserving a potentially dying art form. There will always be room for the classics. But if we want to make sure people will care about the classics 20 or 30 years from now, these are measures we need to implement without hesitation.

Who will take the charge and do this? I might play a role in this. So can my theatre friends who recently graduated from college. It should be our duty to help out the business of theatre (remember boys and girls, it is a business after all) in addition to using it to hone our craft. This is why I love teaching little kids about drama. If anything else, even if they have no desire to be an actor later in life, at least I can leave them with the impression that going to the theatre can be fun. Playing pretend and watching that magic unfold before your very eyes is something that you can experience if you take the time to look for it.

So I suppose this is also a rallying cry for actors and performing artists my age: seize the day and don’t let our beloved craft die. Encourage your friends to see shows, not just the ones you’re in. Support cutting edge theatre groups that are trying to get a foothold. Join one or even start one, if necessary. The future is in your hands.

In the words of the late great Augusto Boal, “Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”

The Supreme Court “American Idol” style

May 24, 2009

Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the soon-to-be vacant seat on the Supreme Court should be chosen “American Idol” style. Disregard political views, academic law dissertations, job qualifications, or “liberal” or “conservative” biases. Don’t even consider gender, race, religion, or creed. Consider what Simon Cowell might think.

If democracy is a popularity contest, then let the most popular judge win. Or lawyer, or law professor, or politician. The Supreme Court is a really big deal, after all. Those nine robe-wearing justices decide what’s legal or illegal in this country. That is no small task.

Americans are divided about how they view issues like abortion, assisted suicide, presidential war powers, and free speech. Should a woman have the right to terminate the life of her unborn child? Should non-heterosexual people have the same rights to marry as their straight counterparts? How should the federal government handle gun rights? Did the Founding Fathers intend every American to own an M16 assault rifle that they can bring with them to school and public parks? People want answers to these questions.

If the law is supposed to protect the rights of the people, then it is logical that the people should be able to choose who writes these laws. And besides, who wouldn’t want to watch Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O’Connor sing a duet from “Les Misérables?” Forget Kris Allen or even that underdog Brit Susan Boyle. The real surprise talent all come from the Judicial branch of the government.

People in the western world value their freedom. It is a hallmark of Americana. Our Constitution is imbedded with the assumption that all men (and women, as we have later discovered) are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights that have been given to them by their Creator (or any other theistic or non-theistic deity of your choosing). When we value freedom, we value our lives. And this is why the next member of the Supreme Court should not be chosen by the president. It should be chosen by any Joe Six Pack in the good old U.S.A.

And already the names are pouring in. Advocacy groups want Obama to choose either a racial minority or a woman to replace the soon-to-retire David Souter. He can be fancy and choose a minority woman. That’s right. A “Two-fer” because that’s two for the price of one. We are living in more progressive, hope-filled times, are we not?

Former President George W. Bush was so lame to choose two middle aged white guys to the Court when he was in office. Chief Justice John Roberts looks like the guy next door whose hosting a barbeque that he’s invited your family to attend. Justice Samuel Alito looks like a guy you’d see teaching your daughter’s cello lessons or coaching your son’s soccer team. In other words, these guys so are boring! Obama, the hip young dude that he is, should know better.

Names being thrown around as possible replacements for Souter are U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, federal appeals judges Diane Wood and Sonia Sotomayor, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Choosing either a woman or a Hispanic American seems to be the trend right now.

After all, this is America, right? If people want either a woman or a racial minority on the Court, they should get it. We should have a system where people can call in to choose who they want and have Ryan Seacrest announce it on television. That is reality TV that I’d be willing to watch.

But instead Obama is saying that he will not pay attention to demographics when making his choice. Oh great! The 44th President even had the nerve to say on a C-SPAN interview:

“I think in any given pick, my job is to just find somebody who I think is going to make a difference on the courts and look after the interest of the American people. And so, I don’t feel weighed down by having to choose a Supreme Court justice based on demographics. I certainly think that ultimately we want a Supreme Court that is reflective of the incredible variety of the American people.”

Wait a minute! Picking a Supreme Court justice who reflects the interests of the American people? You mean someone who’s actually qualified to look after the law? Someone who knows how legal decisions affect the lives of everyday people? Someone who isn’t tied down to a certain political ideology? What a concept. A justice whose views, values, and integrity are more important than their gender or skin color? How un-American. How weird. How unpatriotic.

Okay, now I’ll try to be serious for a moment.

I am all for having women and minorities in positions of political power in our country. I am a minority myself, in case you didn’t know that. But all the talk from advocacy groups commanding Obama who to pick harkens back to the days when Washington lobbyists owned U.S. senators in their pockets. Wait a minute, that’s still going on.

I think it is important that the Supreme Court have more gender and racial diversity. Justices Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg seem awfully lonely up there. We need more diverse voices in order to make our laws truly reflect our country’s values. But more important than that is a judge who will uphold our constitutional laws and make sure our nations doesn’t condone horrendous actions like torture, waterboarding, and unwarranted domestic spying. Integrity is more important than the demographic one belongs to.

Advocacy groups pressuring Obama to be “progressive” and choose a woman or a minority disrespects the institution that is the U.S. Supreme Court. Our laws are more important than fulfilling white guilt (though Obama is black) obligations. Feminist or minority lobbyists making decisions of who should go on the Supreme Court is like “American Idol” viewers deciding who is talented enough to win a recording contract. These decisions should be made by people who are smart, deliberate, and wise, not those who are blind warriors for “equality.”

If Obama picks a woman, great. If he picks a Hispanic, African, or Asian American, great. But I hopes he picks someone who is intelligent, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and not ideologically driven. That is the direction our country needs to go in right now.

But seeing John Paul Stevens singing and dancing would be pretty funny.

Hollywood vs. The Vatican

May 15, 2009

Angels & Demons” opens in theaters everywhere today. Remember: it’s just a movie. Movies are released every week. Movies have been released every week for decades. This is nothing new. Yet, some people are freaking out. So what’s the big deal? The Vatican seems there’s something horrible going on.

The Catholic Church and its Protestant brethren have many differences, but they share one thing in common: their perpetual paranoia about being under attack. Three years ago the film version of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” opened to controversy over accusations of attacking the Catholic Church and fabricating facts about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The book garnered controversy of its own, but Ron Howard’s 2006 film made such criticism more centralized.

It’s true that the factual accuracy of Dan Brown’s novels should come into question. Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings do not reveal secrets about Jesus’ past. Even if they do, there is little reason to believe the truthfulness behind any such thing. Brown is a novelist. He writes to entertain. He actually does not believe the things he writes about. He himself is a Christian who writes these books to stir public debate about religion. Guess what? It worked.

Yet the Vatican and Christians of all denominations everywhere are not so calm. Catholic leaders asked for Christians to boycott “The Da Vinci Code” and raise awareness about the truth of Jesus’ life. How many Christians actually took their advice is unknown to me. I would guess most believers brushed it off or even went as far as to see the movie.

I was one of them. I saw it and thought it was okay. The film opened to lukewarm reviews. Critics said it was entertaining but not great. I would agree. If a movie were to make people turn away from the church, it should be at least be a great film. Average movies don’t create large scale social change.

There were pastors who believed the release of the movie would turn Christians away from church. They feared people will start to doubt the truthfulness of the Gospels and become atheists over night. The pastor at the church I attend in Spokane was one of those pastors. He preached an entire sermon about how we need to brace ourselves for a massive exodus of the American church. That was three years ago. The church is still alive. Guess he was wrong.

But this is not a new phenomenon. Christians are always paranoid that their faith is being attacked. It must have all started with the rise of the “Christian Right” during the 1980s. Becoming a large political force makes you paranoid. Just ask Richard Nixon, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove. Then talk to Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter. They will all tell you their good old fashioned way of life is currently under attack from godless socialist atheistic pornographic heroin addicts. What about liberals? Same thing.

Face it: the church is not being under attack here. “Angels & Demons” will do no further damage to the Catholic Church than the pedophile priest scandals that have surfaced over the years. If anything makes the church look bad, it’s their protests and whining. Face reality and admit that movies are not going to destroy Christianity as we know it. If anything, just like what Dan Brown wants, these films will make people talk about religion instead of shunning it.

The Western church has not been openly persecuted since the European religious wars of the 17th century. Even then, it was the church persecuting the church. Remember the days of Emperor Nero and the Roman Empire? Oh wait, none of us were born yet. Regardless, that was true persecution. Apostle Paul might have been killed under Nero. Even Mary Tudor, the English monarch known in Protestant circles as “Bloody Mary,” killed an estimated 300 people. Relatively speaking, that’s not that much.

So what Christians need to realize is that a faith that is a little less than 2,000 years old should not worry about anything Hollywood will throw at them. They are small beans compared to other threats like Christian fundamentalism and religious-political ideology. Even radical Islam poses a greater threat to the global church than Tom Hanks.

Maybe Christians are working on the assumption that the world is against them. After all, the world was against Christ, weren’t they? They executed him and oppressed the early Christians, so that must spill over into the 21st century, right? To a certain degree it might, but let’s not jump to conclusions and say the church is on its deathbed right now. And if it is, just ask Congress for a bailout. They might get it.

Paranoia makes you forget about the things that we should really be afraid of. What about the increasingly militant political stance conservative American Christians are taking? Saying Jesus would support legalizing assault weapons and banning same-sex marriage should worry us more than anything else. Perhaps we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Speaking of which, if I have read my Bible correctly, aren’t there always angels telling people to “not be afraid?” Do not be afraid. That’s a good piece of advice. Jesus was not afraid when he faced the Sanhedrin. Nor was he afraid when he faced the Roman soldiers who were about to flog him. He was a bit scared when he confronted God about his pending crucifixion, but being afraid of God is quite another thing. Fearing the things on earth is a choice.

So please, don’t go protesting “Angels & Demons.” There are better things to do with your time. Adopt a puppy. Stop and smell the roses. Sit outside and soak up the sun. Doodle. Play “Halo 3” with your drunk college friends. There are a million better things to do other than protesting a movie premier.

Besides, for all you know, the reviews might be lukewarm again. You might be protesting another stinker. How embarrassing would that be?

To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before…

May 6, 2009
"Star Trek" in theaters May 8, 2009.
“Star Trek” in theaters May 8, 2009.

 

Nerds everywhere cannot wait. Geeks are struggling to contain their excitement. Lonely sci-fi aficionados are about to burst a blood vessel in their brains from the basement of their parent’s house. Ready or not, “Star Trek” is coming.

Not your grandfather’s Star Trek, however. A new and improved Star Trek loaded with sexy young stars, state-of-the-art special effects, and mainstream media hype. The days of William Shatner’s awkward acting style and fake-looking cardboard set pieces are over. Star Trek has finally entered into the “hip” arena of American pop culture.

And it’s about bloody time.

I am not a real huge Star Trek fan. I’ve seen a few episodes from the original television series and anywhere from 10 to 15 episodes from “The Next Generation” series. I did not grow up watching Captain Kirk or Captain Picard in action. My hugest Star Trek memories are watching the movies, which are relatively lame when compared to the Star Wars franchise. Compared to some people, the role Star Trek played in my youth is minimal.

Nevertheless, I consider myself a casual Star Trek fan. I appreciate the series, empathize with the die-hard Trekkers (not Trekkies, apparently. That’s a politically incorrect moniker), and understand its significance to our culture. I think William Shatner is a pretty cool guy, despite his tendency…to…talk like…this…by taking a…lot …of…pauses…in between words…in a…sentence.

Mr. Spock, Sulu, Scotty, Chekov, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Uhura are all characters that are forever ingrained in Americana. The Starship Enterprise is either a thing that makes you cringe in geekiness or smile in sentimentality. And don’t even me get started on the theme song. You know you know it. You know you’re humming it right now. Don’t worry. I am too.

But what significance does the release of “Star Trek” this Friday, May 8th have? J.J. Abrams, the creator of the television series “Lost” and the director of the outrageously corny “Mission: Impossible III” in 2006, is a hip new Hollywood director who seems to have taken an old and dying franchise and put some new life into it. I have not seen it yet, but I am guessing this new Star Trek outing will have all the exciting and expected elements that most summer blockbuster films can boast. Who needs “Transformers” when we have Klingons?

This new “Star Trek” films might prove that it’s okay to be a nerd. Being a fan of spaceships, funny looking aliens, and exploring “new life and new civilizations” should be something we embrace, not hide. We should love our geekdom, not shy away from it. Who cares what the rest of society thinks? If we think space is truly the final frontier, who is to say that we’re wrong?

Outer space is a very interesting concept, though. President John F. Kennedy, a man whom Barack Obama is often compared to, made space travel and mankind landing on the moon an exciting goal for America to strive toward. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 21, 1969 and said those famous words, that moment brought about a sense of accomplishment and pride to all who watched.

Since then, never in world history have people become that excited over a scientific accomplishment. Never has any scientific or medical breakthroughs since 1969 captured the hearts and imaginations of people quite like the moon landing. But now things are different. There is talk about NASA sending a man to Mars. However, with the economy being in the shape that it is now, that project has been put on hold. What a shame.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has suggested the need to go green as the new major scientific endeavor of the 21st century. If President Obama can promise that America will lead the charge on developing alternative and clean energy sources like Kennedy did with the space race, actual progress toward decreasing the world’s dependence on oil may happen.

In other words, in a small way, “Star Trek” could help spark our interest back into science. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. government panicked that America was losing the scientific front of the Cold War to those backwards godless Communists. In an effort to catch up, in the 1950s and 60s America saw a huge investment by the federal government in public education thanks to the National Defense Education Act of 1958. That act allocated $887 billion to aid both public and private education in the United States.

Statistics show American school children are falling behind students in Asia and Europe in test scores and academic achievement. Shortly after the Sputnik launch, America was number one in children enrollment and performance. Today that is not the case. American kids, while still successful, are falling behind many kids in countries like China and India; where the future of the global economy seems to be heading.

“Star Trek” may not help revive the American school system, but it does send a message that being smart and interested in science can be cool. If progress is to be made in the 21st century, Americans need to embrace their inner nerd and boldly go where no one has gone before. Forget football games. Hang out in classrooms instead. That’s where all the cool kids are at.

If not, we might descend into death and decay like the Klingon empire. What we need is Americans everywhere to stop their ridiculous anti-intellectual machismo attitude and embrace a more scientific and progressive way of life that is much more logical. Those Vulcans were right about something.

Are you ready to do this? Good. Now make it so.