Saturday, October 30, 2010

Seeing Things

It’s a truism that what we see in the media is not so much “the news” or “the events of the day” as it is somebody’s idea of information that might entertain us or give us a reason to go tsk tsk. Especially now, when we can pre-select our news sources and confirm, for example, that people are no damn good and the world is going to hell, if that’s what we expect the news to be. And we see in the news not so much what’s there, anymore, objectivity not being what it once was, as what we assume some “producer” of the news has determined will make them a profit. After all, since we are committed to the notion of a free press, we can’t very well have a committee of wise men and women deciding what information we should be fed. Barring rule by wise and wonderful philosopher kings, we’re pretty much at the mercy of producers of news stories making calculated guesses on what will sell.

This means it’s a fair question, when you open your newspaper or turn on a TV news program, to ask, "Who benefits from the choice of this particular news item over another? And what, if anything, in this story is worth my time?" Often, as when the media tell us so much about how Americans say they are going to vote, for example, and so little about the truth value of candidates' assertions, I am tempted to think there is no reason to follow the news at all. In fact, I’ve stopped completely watching the local evening news with all their warehouse fires and 'if it bleeds, it leads' stories. But sometimes a look at what’s wrong with the world may actually serve a purpose. The question is always what purpose.

Take the story that came out of Arkansas this week about a school board member who posted a rant against gay people on Facebook. And not just a rant. An illiterate rant, and that meant that to the large audience of people who would fault him for his homophobia was added a second large audience of people who wondered how such a dunce ever got elected vice president of a school board.

Clint McCance is his name, and his school district is in rural Arkansas. He’s from Pleasant Plains, a town of 138 male and 133 female residents. There is little doubt the notoriety he has received since his homophobic rant was “outed” last Wednesday in the pages of the Advocate, the gay publication of record, has shaken him up pretty bad. It wasn’t long before the story went viral, and before Anderson Cooper was making hay of it, and religious and civil organizations all over Arkansas, including the school board itself, were gathering to distance themselves from this yokel’s point of view.

A simpleton has been revealed to be a simpleton. It’s hard to see why that should be a news story. But Clint McCance happened to shoot his mouth off at just the wrong moment in American social history. Because the story of gay student suicides has become the topic du jour of late, it’s national news when a school board member says he would wear a purple shirt in solidarity with the victims of gay suicide and their families only “if they all commit suicide.”

I have to admit I was glued to the computer screen the two days Anderson Cooper gave to this story. On the first, he lambasted this crude fellow. On the second day McCance actually agreed to come on his program and use that occasion to resign from the school board. It was at this point when I began thinking this could well seen as a story about Anderson Cooper, particularly if you read the gay press and the constant commentary from gays that this guy ought to come out as gay once and for all. Normally, I ignore such talk as irrelevant. This time, I began to wonder.

But let me stick with this as a story about a homophobe from Arkansas, for the moment. And start with a brief excursion. Too much is being made, I think, about the fact this guy is on his local school board. First off, it's a school board in a small town. Of the 271 citizens of Pleasant Plains, how many are eligible voters? And how many actually vote for school board candidates? I'm pretty sure Clint McCance, or practically any local boy like him, could pretty much elect himself, if he got his family and friends into the act. One news story I followed made mention of the fact that the religious right has a national plan to take over the country one school board at a time, and this could well be part of that plot. But conspiracy speculations aside, it could also be explained away as just one of those things that happen in small towns. Idiots get elected to public office, just as they do in any size town when nobody else wants the job and the electorate turns a blind eye.

Unless you live in a bubble of enlightened men and women, sheltered from the kinds of people now coming out of the woodwork to vote for Tea Party candidates, you already know lots of Clint McCances. Men in their 20s and 30s with the bravado of a post-pubescent bully sounding off about how them gays ought to kill thereselves. It’s only if you’ve never watched an anti-gay rally that the line “they should get AIDS and die” comes as a surprise.

Watch the first and particularly the second Anderson Cooper day interview with McCance, and watch the guy squirm. He understands on some level that he did something wrong and owes people an apology. But in his apology is a wealth of information about where his head is. He used the wrong words, he says. His words were "over the top."

Really? The wrong words? Then why, when asked if he would really throw his own kids out of his house if they turned out to be gay did he actually say he could not predict what he would do in the future? And why, when asked if he would use words like queer and faggot again did he have trouble with the word no?

As the interview goes on, your sense of pity and revulsion increase, because it becomes increasingly clear he is apologizing for getting caught, not for being wrong-headed. This alleged apology is like watching a house burn down.

If you listen carefully, you will hear him defend himself, thus negating even his attempt at an apology, by saying he still holds to his religious beliefs – which beliefs are clearly that “people like that” ought to pay for their sins.

That’s the real story, as far as I’m concerned. Not that a not-ready-for-prime-time not-very-well-educated yokel has made an ass of himself and been forced to apologize. Not even that the apology isn’t an apology. But that here, in the middle of America, a deeply held American social value is being revealed, a belief founded on an understanding of Christian scripture that gays are flawed and that revulsion against gays is a completely natural response.

That's not new. What is new is that Anderson Cooper and others are demonstrating the revulsion I feel in listening to this guy, and that even on CNN somebody with that slant on the story is capturing a good half hour of prime time air time. Also new are suggestions coming from the likes of Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times that Bible belt Christianity is not an innocent bystander in this drama.

What we're watching here is not the shedding of homophobia. That's a ways off yet. At best, if McCance's humiliation serves as a deterrent to others, what we're getting is the message, "it's OK to be homophobic, but be sure you don't hurt anybody with it." Here in this neck of the woods, the message of tolerance is arriving, brought by the culture in which the national media live. In other words, Anderson Cooper isn't just giving us the news. He's turning the lights on intolerance, and in so doing, he is acting as agent of a subset of American society in which tolerance has already been replaced by acceptance. The McCances of America can come along, if they wish. Or they can find the middle ground between acceptance and intolerance, which is tolerance.

Also working simultaneously with media culture's acceptance is Christian tolerance, a spectrum of attitudes from "love the sinner, hate the sin" - only barely across the line from where McCance sits at the moment, to begrudging acceptance, barely across the line from full acceptance. McCance can go a little way into tolerance - into the "bring the gays to Jesus" camp, for example. Or he can travel a great deal further.

He can also slide back, once the lights are off, and join those, like the first six people to respond to McCance’s facebook trash, who find his revulsion perfectly natural. The story is not really about him. It's really more about the media itself and how it serves as an agent of change.

Or so it seems to me.

We all see in these news stories what we are prepared to see. Some will see a bad boy becoming good through an apology. Some will see what a backward place Arkansas can be. Professional linguists will argue that thereselves is merely a dialectal variant of themselves and some in the hoi polloi will insist that it’s perfectly normal to write can’t as cant on a facebook page, since editing is not expected any more. But I see in this story how far we still have to go before gays and lesbians are freed from the fearful ignorant authoritarian literalist Christianity that no longer disparages Jews, or women, or blacks, as it once did, but is still the main source of American homophobia. That form of Christianity (thank God there are others) is still an integral part of American culture, and the reason why we are engaged in a cultural civil war.

So after beginning this reflection with a bit of media bashing, I feel obliged to speak for the other side. Nice job, national media. Even when your story appears at first sight to be just another tsk-tsk-aren’t-people-awful story. Even when the story is a topic of the hour story and not a treatment of historical moment. When the media hold a mirror up to society, as Anderson Cooper did in this instance, sometimes there is more going on than simple profit making. Sometimes it’s like airing out a stuffy room.

If you see it that way.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Departures - A Film Review

Departures is the story of a man forced by financial hard times to become a noukanshi, a person whose job it is to prepare the body of the deceased, in the presence of the deceased’s family, for placement in a coffin before cremation.

The film is a total immersion experience in Japanese sensibility, a crash course in the whole range of culture, from the sublime to the ridiculous. To most Westerners (and possibly most other Easterners as well) Japan is a place of unexpected juxtapositions, and what director Takita Yojiro, writer Koyama Kundo, producer and lead actor Motoki Masahiro and others have come up with is consistent with that image. It is the rankest sentimentality up next to the wisdom of the ages, snowflakes and wild geese flying across the sky and Ave Maria on the cello up against exaggerated facial expressions and slapstick humor and one of the most profound life-affirming messages ever portrayed. A comedy about death. More specifically, a comedy about the dignity of death.

It doesn’t matter that most Japanese today are unfamiliar with the practice. Japanese and others familiar with Japan will recognize in the tradition a distinctly Japanese way of channeling pain and grief into dignity. The Japanese skill at turning a mundane object into an art object through wrapping (even books are wrapped in their own paper cover) is merely extended to the human body.

How many people other than the makers of Departures could take on not only death as a theme directly, but the taboo of the dead body? One false move, and this could have been a disaster. But there isn’t one false move. What in less capable hands would be maudlin, even grotesque, becomes a work of art. Westerners are left to wonder why their dead are either turned over to strangers to be manipulated like silly putty, or whisked away and forgotten, while there are people on the planet who seem to be able to transform their loved ones like ikebana flowers into objects of unexpected beauty. How often does one come away from a peek into alien cultural practices with the conviction that they do it better?

The film works because the tone is exquisite, the eccentricities of the characters come across as universals, and the predictability of the story line is compensated for by the power of the emotions so brilliantly portrayed. A five-star movie.

released September 2008 in Japan
original title Okuribito (the “Send Off Person”)

starring: Motoki Masahiro as Kobayashi Daigo, Yamazaki Tsutomu as Sasaki Ikuei, Hirosue Ryoko as Kobayashi Mika, Yo Kimiko as Kamimura Yuriko, Yoshiyuki Kazuko as Yamashita Tsuyako, and Sasano Takashi as Hirata Shokichi.


Saturday, October 2, 2010


Here's the Finnish national anthem, sung by the Vocaloids.

And here’s the Estonian national anthem, sung by the Estonian president, Thomas Hendrik on a visit to Canada. Notice the subtlety. How they first sing it loud and then they sing it soft and then they sing it loud again.

You may notice a similarity in the two melodies. But that's only because the two countries have the same melody for their national anthems.

Which was written Fredrik Pacius, who set to music a poem, entitled Maamme, in Finnish. Except that he wrote it in Swedish, of course, and in Swedish it’s Vårt land. Not the best choice of words, when you consider that Pacius was German and in German v is pronounced like an f.

Which makes you wonder if this guy maybe had a chip on his shoulder, possibly because he allowed Alla Pugacheva to talk him into using her hairdresser.

Here's a picture of the guy, showing both his hair and his Napoleon complex, as well as a picture of Alla Pugacheva of "A Million Roses" fame (see previous blog entry.)

Why the hell the Finns used a song composed by a German when they could have used Finlandia, that magnificent piece by Sibelius, their national folk hero and, I would venture, much better composer.

Could it be because, when he got older, his hair went where Pugacheva and Pacius’s probably should have gone? Here’s Sibelius before and after.

And here’s a particularly lovely rendition of the Finnish/Estonian national anthem, played by Jimi Hendrix.

Sorry. Just kidding. It’s not by Jimi Hendrix, but by Jämmi Hendrik, no apparent relation, although I can't guarantee he's not related to Estonia's president.

Another question driving research is why the Estonians had to go and name their version after the world’s leading terrorist. It’s called, “My Fatherland,” or, in Estonian, “Mu Isaama.” I’m sure that’s pure coincidence (but what do I know) but it does suggest that there may be a curse on this little ditty, if it inspires both fear and fart jokes.

And the unfortunate fact that in Chinese Runeberg is pronounced "Looneybird."

Listen for yourself to this Chinese man giving some background on the author. It probably explains why, when the Chinese introduction is translated into English, the nice lady tells us his name is Johan Ludvig and leaves out his last name altogether. They then play the anthem and leave out the words. The ones written by Runeberg. They don’t make any mention of the fact that Runeberg (with a Swedish name, please note) apparently wrote it first in Swedish.

The Finnish and Estonian languages are quite similar, but since I know neither language, I can’t tell you how and to what degree. I do know that, in Estonian, kuulilennuteetunneliluuk means "the hatch a bullet flies out of when exiting a tunnel” and that the longest word in the Finnish language is epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän, but since neither of these words has anything to do with their national anthems, this is probably not very helpful.

You can tell that Finns and Estonians are very close by the number of comments on the YouTube site by Finns saying that the Estonians stole their anthem and, by the way, are all whores. But one doesn’t judge a country by its YouTube commenters.

Much better to judge the world by the lovely young people who sing their national anthems cacaphonically, each in their own tongue (Estonian – keel; Finnish – kieli).

Which makes me wonder if we couldn’t get the Israelis, who appear to have stolen their national anthem from the Czechs (and hidden it in a minor key) to share it with the Palestinians. Pretty much all else has failed. A Hebrew/Arabic version sung simultaneously is certainly worth a try, wouldn't you say? With somebody of Toscanini's calibre directing, of course.