Saturday, August 30, 2008

Personality cults versus serious issues

I watched all the big speeches at the Democratic convention, and I wept. I'm sentimental, for sure, a bred-in-the-bone trait I often abhor not only because it makes my mascara run, but also because it clashes so violently with my righteous indignation and cynicism, making for stormy inner weather. But, tears are also a sign of deep feelings, of connection to others, of love of life. And so I wept in front of the television last week with joy and pride and relief. My heart lifted to see Senatator Ted Kennedy continuing to fight the good fight. I think the world of Michelle Obama, who exemplifies the best of womanhood, the best of Chicago (my home), and the best of America. I am thrilled by Barack Obama's dedication to helping others, his intelligent perceptions of what ails our country and of our country's role in the world; his willingness to listen to others, his strong sense of story, which makes for coherent and empathic thinking. His poise and eloquence. Obama is the finest presidential candidate I have ever seen and voted for. But one day after his historic speech, we were drowning in a muddy sea of mass trivia.

John McCain and his people mock Obama as a celebrity, and then turn around and set up their own instant cult of personality. Obama is a beautiful man, they found a beautiful woman. Obama is a family man with two daughter and a remarkably accomplished wife. Palin has five children; one a soldier on his way to Iraq, the youngest a Down's syndrome child. To many, Obama represents urban American. Sarah Palin is a country gal. She shoots guns, hunts, kills, and slaughters animals. She lives in a state with a small population and a vast and precious wilderness she apparently isn't concerned about preserving. Her husband is a commercial fisherman, an industry in great peril given our emptying of the oceans. Palin is anti-reproductive rights and an evangelical Christian. The calculations in choosing her are obvious and maddening, and distracting. Which is the point.

We are on the brink of environmental catastrophe as global temperatures rise, thanks to our burning of fossils fuels, and the human population increases. Thanks to rapidly accelerated globalization, our resource-consuming, waste-generating habits are spreading to China, India, and beyond. This is not sustainable. Back to our economic woes, they are directly connected to our dependence on foreign oil, which, in turn, is directly responsible for grave geopolitical conflicts. All is intertwined, and all is churning and whirling in a virtual hurricane for which we are utterly unprepared. We have fallen into a narcotized state of indifference and ineptness over the past eight years, years in which we have been at war for no legitimate reasons. This is doing us profound harm, not to mention the suffering we're causing in other lands. Our schools are failing as is our infrastructure. Science is censored; work is no longer respected or rewarded; health care is a Kafkaesque nightmare; the corporate imperative is gutting everything essential to our well-being, from agriculture to newspapers. All that has made our country great is threatened. The lifeblood is being sucked out; we are becoming a hollowed-out, weakened land. We need the four candidates to talk seriously, clearly, and productively about what they are going to do about the crises we face. And we have to put a stop to the crimes and destructive shenanigans of the Republicans.

The world is full of brilliant and caring people. Genuine information and valuable analysis is everywhere available. Take a break from political gossip and read The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank. We're in dire straits for fully comprehensible and carefully documented reasons. Here's my Booklist review:

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. By Thomas Frank.
2008. 368p. Holt/Metropolitan, hardcover, $25 (9780805079883). 973.92.

REVIEW. First published July, 2008 (Booklist).

Frank brings invaluable insider perceptions, ardor, and precision to his lancing inquiry into the erosion of democracy and the enshrinement of the mighty dollar. His One Market under God (2000) was followed by the best-selling What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), and now Lannan Award–winning Frank reaches a crescendo in this electrifying, well-researched analysis of “conservatism-as-profiteering.” With looks back at Ronald Reagan and Oliver North, and sharp scrutiny of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, Frank documents the hard-to-believe conservative strategy of deliberate misrule and the consequences of the conservative mantra, “Less government in business and more business in government.” Citing numerous, hair-raising examples, Frank explains how conservatism itself became a mega-big business and chronicles the grievous repercussions of the gutting of the federal government and the rise of high-rolling industry lobbyists and contractors, who are now feeding off the “ultralucrative homeland security industry.” In this “age of political vandalism,” Frank observes, we have jettisoned oversight and accountability, accrued “massive public debt,” committed crimes against humanity at home and in Iraq, and endangered the environment, the economy, the food supply, health care, and education. In short, Frank argues, the conservative agenda has defiled the American dream. This staggering history of systematic greed will inject new energy into public discourse as a historic election looms. — Donna Seaman

Saturday, August 23, 2008

New Interviews!

Thanks to Hillary Carlip, our web wizard, and, imagine!, Open Books guest, you will see lots of new interviews listed in both Fiction and Nonfiction. Chicago writers are present in an impressive array, from natural history writer Joel Greenberg to Sara Paretsky, crime writer, novelist, and essayist, to fiction writer Billy Lombardo to creatively investigative and scholarly journalist Miles Harvey to novelist Gioia Diliberto. And more. Each has a distinctive approach to writing, each is a uniquely compelling conversationalist. I hope that you'll listen to these discussions about reading and writing and seeking truth and understanding. I hope you'll read the books written by these articulate, caring, and immensely talented writers.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

China on my mind

By the time I arrived home Friday night, take-out Thai food in hand, we had already missed the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics. But we did tune in during the Parade of Nations, and I was instantly captivated. I love people-watching, and this was a rare array. I felt chagrined and amazed: how could I be unaware of the existence of so many countries? I felt wonder and love: how grand and glorious is the human palette. I felt catty as I sized up the costumes or outfits or uniforms. What a fashion show, and how full of energy and feeling everyone was, waving, holding up cameras, flags, looking up and up. What a stage. It looked like a space station, far, far from Earth. Nature reduced to icons. The utter triumph of the human will.

And what a species we are. It was stunning to see group after group, from the smallest delegations, a proud 2, a determined 4, a stern 7, to surging bands of rudely confident hundreds. People carrying so very many stories of families and lands battered, bruised, bloodied and bashed. That very day a new war had broken out in Georgia, and once again, we turned away from the old terrible news in Afghanistan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Tibet, right here in River City. During the commercials, a channel surfer could monitor the nasty, idiotic frenzy over John Edwards' affair. Back to the Olympics and the opening night's face-by-face survey of the state of the human family, which embraces the basketball giant Yao Ming and a tiny hero, the young boy who rescued classmates after the immense Sichuan earthquake, walking hand in hand.

Certain that I needed to see the full presentation, I stayed up and finally after 2:00 am Chicago time, it unfolded before me, a display so spectacular, overwhelming, martial, and imposing, I felt that I was witnessing a seismic shift in world power. The combination of the sheer wonder of thousands of synchronized performers and high-tech wizardry redefines our understanding of the place of the individual in the collective, the ability of technology to liberate and harness us, to realize ideas on an immense scale, to create propaganda of staggering dimensions and complexity and intimidating beauty. Such discipline, such grace, such power. Ancient arts writ large with new media. The director Zhang Yimou drew on centuries of art and philosophy and repression to project a utopian vision. An electric fairy tale. A high-definition dream in which hundreds of men and women became a vast machine among vast machines.

Chicago hopes to host the Olympics in eight years. What might our opening ceremony involve? All I could picture last night, in the blaze and burst and shimmer and military perfection of Beijing's resplendent and humbling and disturbing electronic vision of all for one and one for all was an old style old guys blues band hunkered down on a creaky stage in a small shabby club, playing their hearts out on simple instruments of wood and metal, feet keeping time, voices lifting and falling, notes bending and sliding, songs unfurling about loneliness and love, about yearning for home and needing to get away, of the joys and sorrows of the human predicament on the old whirling Earth. Of all that is lost and denied. Of beauty and hope and the certain knowledge that much as we try to do right, we so often do wrong. That as much damage as we do, we are but small creatures in a vast cosmos we can barely discern.

Let us all be athletes of compassion, peace, and truth.