Wednesday, February 6, 2008

What Is So Great About Being Super?

Ironically, “super” is the worst adjective in the dictionary. Its various definitions are simply too diverse to be sloppily thrown into one word. For instance, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “super” can mean that something is (1) “of high grade or quality”, (2) “very large or powerful”, or (3) “exhibiting the characteristics of its type to an extreme or excessive degree.”

Anyone who has ever stayed at a Super 8 motel can attest that not everything advertised as “super” is “of high quality.” In fact, most things that appear powerful or excessive are not top grade. Just ask the Titanic’s captain, the Hindenburg’s pilot, or anyone who has ever listened to Paris Hilton sing. Often “super” really isn’t that hot.

Even though “super” has vastly different meanings, Americans cast the word around without hesitation. For example, America ’s two most “super” events will occur during the next week: the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday (my apologies to the Super Giant Slalom). The question is though: will either Sunday or Tuesday be “super” for America ?

The Super Bowl should be “of high grade or quality” as both teams feature superstars with seemingly superhuman abilities. The game should also be “large and powerful” both economically and culturally. Finally, is there any event in America that better “exhibits the characteristics of its type to an extreme degree”?

Super Tuesday also will be “powerful” as more than twenty states will select almost 50% of the parties’ delegates. It also will “exhibit the characteristics of its type to an extreme degree” as the Media will gossip about the candidates, who in turn will blather about why they represent change, hope or whatever buzzword they are incessantly parroting. But it will not be “high quality” because it will be, as it always is, more circus act than civic debate. We will likely learn nothing new and our apathy will continue to envelop us.

Eugene McCarthy, an expert on failed presidential campaigns, once said, “Being in politics is like being a football coach, you have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.” His comparison between politics and football was apt and can be furthered. They both involve complex strategies aimed at brutalizing opponents. They both are played almost exclusively by men. Both have heroes, parties and cheerleaders, though at least politics spares us the sight of pundits with pom-poms. Both are misunderstood by the international community. Watching either one for an extended period of time requires the consumption of large quantities of alcohol. Finally, whoever prevails, in politics or football, immediately retreats to a fantasy land. For Sunday’s champs, Disneyland , and for Tuesday’s, Washington D.C.

But I refuse to accept McCarthy’s idea that politics, like football, lacks inherent importance. Politics may also be a game, but there is a lot more riding on the outcome. Although we are a “superpower”, we will never be an America “of high quality” again until we stop shirking our civic duty to stay informed and vote.

As the true superintendents of this nation, we are responsible for its maintenance and we must repair the damage it has suffered. But instead of supervising, we opt for supersizing. We frivolously fill up with super unleaded gas, take the superhighway to the supermarket, get a trim at Supercuts while listening to Supertramp, and still make it back home in time to watch movies with the kids about superheroes. We are blinded by the “super” stuff all around us, as well as our own feelings of superiority.

It’s time to abandon our excesses and embrace our civic duties. I am not saying we need to give up the pigskin, but maybe we should care as much about politics as we do about football. 144 million Americans tuned in to the 2004 Super Bowl while only 122 million voted in that year’s presidential election. Super? No. Superficial? You bet.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It's Time to Get in the Game

I recently had this op-ed article published in the Sunday Edition of the Birmingham News:
I was disappointed to read in the Birmingham News that Yasmin Elhady, a law student from Huntsville, was subjected to hate mail because of her decision to question Republican presidential candidates about what they would do to repair U.S. relations with the Muslim world. If Ms. Elhady’s question had a flaw worth criticizing, which I doubt, it was that she should have broadened her inquiry and asked how the candidates would repair our image in the entire world, including here at home.

According to a BBC World Service Poll of over 26,000 people from over 25 different countries, 52% of the world believes the U.S. is playing a “mainly negative” role in world affairs, up from 46% just two years ago. If that statistic is not disheartening, consider that the same poll found that only 29% of the world believes the U.S. is a “mainly positive” force in the world, down from 40% two years ago. While international opinion regarding the U.S.’s role in the world was relatively balanced only two years ago, the gap has rapidly widened to reveal a pervasive contempt for American policies world-wide.

Some Americans rightfully question why we even care about international opinion? I am sure many Americans responded to Ms. Elhady’s question with an apathetic shrug and remarked “what can we do to change their minds?”, “it’s not our fault they hate America, it’s their problem!”, or “if the rest of the world cannot see we are a positive force for peace, who needs them anyways?”

It's not just "them" though. The BBC study also found that only 57% of Americans believe the U.S. is a “mainly positive force” in the world, while 71% had taken that stance as recently as 2005. Thus, Americans’ positive views of the U.S. are diminishing even more abruptly than those of our international brethren. The question isn’t why we suddenly think less of ourselves though. Anyone who follows U.S. foreign affairs can give you innumerable answers to that question. Rather, the pertinent question in need of asking is, why does this negative self-image seem to not concern us? Why do we react to the image of America as world villain with indifference instead of aspiring to make the U.S. better?

The answer to this question is simple: we are indifferent about our current image because we do not take individual responsibility for the chaos our country creates. Like most Americans, I have long viewed this country through “red, white and blue” glasses that reveal only “our” victories, while obscuring “the Bush Administration’s” failures, which we would like to forget. By adopting this filter, we simultaneously embrace and take credit for “our” nation’s successes, while distancing ourselves from “the Government’s” missteps. Anyone who obsessively supports a college football team is familiar with this subconscious psychological ruse because it is the same one that compels us to chant “We’re #1” after a victory, as if we had been on the field, while lamenting “the idiot coach blew the game” after a disheartening loss.

The difference, of course, between nations and football teams is nations get to pick their coaches. In the political arena, there is no owner or athletic director to blame, only ourselves. No amount of taunting from the stands can ultimately change the plays the coach will call, so it is crucial that the right coach is selected. America can be a proud nation once again, but in order to do so, we must take responsibility for our failures, and not simply lament (or applaud) the failure of our leaders. It’s time to actually get on the field.

Why Blog?

Why am I blogging?

I don't get paid and no one probably will ever read anything I post anyways. The entire idea of my running this blog reeks of futility and will likely result in failure. So, if I am so resigned that this will end poorly, why bother? Well, I reckon (if one can truly "reckon" anything) that is the question that has, in the past, kept me from writing anything. Recently though, events in my life led me to realize that I not only wanted to write, but I needed to. After being subjected to a slew of anti-American vitriol while traveling abroad, I came to the conclusion that it was my duty, both as a person who promotes individual liberty and as a citizen of the U.S., to start a dialogue with others about the state of affairs in our country. Hopefully, through this dialogue, we can identify the principles and ideals America has, and should, stand for and we can collectively work towards making our nation one we can all be truly proud of once again.

So, why did I name my blog "The Parlance of Our Times"?

In the Coen Brothers' classic film "The Big Lebowski", the Dude has a knack for repeating other characters' dialogue from earlier in the film. My favorite example is when he nervously smothers a remark he made about Bunny to the Big Lebowski, in which he called her a "trophy wife", by echoing Maude's statement about simply speaking in "the parlance of our times." Basically, the Dude tells the Big Lebowski to take no offense to his slur because he does not actually believe it, he is just speaking as people do in that place at that time.

I always found the "parlance of our times" quip to be one of the most delightful in the movie, though certainly the film is a veritable vault of quote-worthy material. However, I always liked the way the Dude used the term. He employed it as a sword to unabashedly inform the Big Lebowski about his theory regarding Bunny's kidnapping while simultaneously using it as a shield to protect his insult from being attributed to him. In short, he made his point about Bunny's motives clearly and concisely, but he then also avoided the consequences of his speech by tacking on that he was only speaking "in the parlance of our times."

I, like the Dude, desire to speak in the parlance of our times. By that, I mean that I want to communicate my ideas and beliefs to others in a clear and concise fashion, just like the Dude and his "whole brevity thing". Like the Dude as well, I too would like to be able to wriggle out of the consequences of my speech though if necessary. Thus, I will only say that the opinions appearing on this blog will be the product of our times and in the language of our times. What I espouse one day may alter by the next. Often, events have a way of changing the way we look at issues, and I cannot promise that the events of my life won't change my own viewpoints. This blog, if it accomplishes anything, will at least let me look back from time to time on my own philosophical development.

Regardless of its merits or lack thereof, this blog will feature authentic content about whatever it is I feel like writing. Maybe at some point I will actually write something worth reading. Maybe not though.

So, to answer the title of this blog: why not? It is time to write in the parlance of our times.