Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

To Hell in a Leaky Handbasket

Oh joy. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has announced that it's raising its fares next year. Hooray. When it's already one of the most expensive public transportation agencies in the country. I ponder this. I pondered this last night, when my bus was 20 minutes late. I pondered this when it finally arrived, and I saw that the the digital marquee was out of order, requiring the driver to TAPE A SIGN IN THE FRONT WINDOW to tell people what bus it was. I pondered this when I discovered that the bell didn't work, and that commutered actually had to push the back door open to get out.

The MBTA is one of the priciest ways to get around a city in the country, and it's only getting pricier. So...what am I paying for, exactly? It was only a few months ago that they replaced the antiquated swipe-style turnstyles for the card-based gates. And they're still not done installing them. It was only a few WEEKS ago that they installed modern fare-collecting equipment on buses...and they don't work half the time. So...where has my money been going all this time? And why do they want more of it? To buy equipment that actually WORKS? To hire contractors who deliver ON TIME? I had no idea that you had to pay extra for that kind of thing. Foolish, naive me, to expect to get what I pay for.

It's a symptom of a larger problem, as any Boston-area resident can attest. Public transportation agencies in this city are all either corrupt or ineffecient (and I'm not sure which is worse). Boston is, after all, home to the greatest public works debacle in the history of public works. They built the Pyramids faster than they finished the Central Artery Tunnel Project. And considering the Pyramids have been around for over three thousand years, and the Big Dig is springing leaks and collapsing in on itself before they've even finalized construction, I can't help but be depressed. It always makes me sad to see engineering projects fail. What greater measure is there of a civilization than what it builds? The things they create, that service their society, that outlast them when their civilization has long turned to dust? There's a reason that the influence the Romans had on Western Civilization has endured long after their Empire crumbled: they built things. If there ever was a civilization of engineers, Rome was it. Granted, it was also a civilization of conquerors, but people forget: once you were conquered, you got a road, access to legal recourse beyond your local village elder, and free entertainment if you felt like watching two armored muscleheads beat the crap out of each other (and let's be honest; the fact that you could watch such a thing for free back then and nowadays you have to go to Pay-Per-View says something about where human civilization has gone). Sure, if you stepped out of line you'd be crushed mercilessly, but why would you? It's a basic truth of government: if the government's doing its job, the people will be content. And content people don't revolt. As governors, the Romans did what they knew how to do best: they built. Roads. Aqueducts. Sewers. We take things like this for granted some two thousands years on, but back then something as simple as easy access to clean water could mean the difference between prosperity and death. Never underestimate the power of public works. Even in this day and age. ESPECIALLY in this day and age, when the disaster of Hurricane Katrina recently gave us a sobering reminder of just how little it would take to turn a First World country into a Third World one if we're not careful.

If we can judge a civilization by how it treats its public works, then modern American civilization is in big trouble. I'm not sure how we got where we are now. Perhaps there's not one single cause - lack of accountability, greed, impatience - and perhaps there's not an easy solution. But I know that if something isn't done, and soon, civilization will crumble. The lessons the Romans learned are still true today: without roads or sewers, people are just barbarians.

As I sat waiting for the bus, I thought to myself, maybe we should take a cue from the Romans. Maybe if we just started executing incompetent engineers, things would improve.

...just a thought...

Friday, November 24, 2006

Growing Maudlin

This Thanksgiving went off with nary a hitch. 14 people at my Mom's house, way too much food, football, and politics. And once again, Mom could not get through saying grace without crying.

Early Thanksgiving morning, my mother calls me, and asks if I wouldn't mind picking up some ice on my way over. Of course I'd do it; I told her I'd get anything she needed (last night, after she said she was all set). But it got me thinking. I'm one of the few people she can count on. We have such a huge extended family, and so few of them are actually reliable. Many of them mean well, of course, but just can't get their acts together in time. But I'm one of the dependable ones. I'm always willing and able to get some ice, to drive my grandmother to the hospital, to be a pallbearer when a cousin OD's...

In short, I've become my father.

As I get older, I understand my Dad more and more. He's quiet, he's smarter than you'd think at first glance, and he's rock solid dependable. If you need a hand with anything, he's ready and willing. If you need advice, he's got it. He's pushing 60 and he's got the vigorous mind and body of a man half his age. He's amazing, my father. And it's to my overwhelming regret that I didn't realize it sooner. I was always closer to my mother growing up, for whatever reason, so I never saw what a great man he is. My mother was always the one in charge, the one out in front, while my father labored in the background to make things work, unnoticed and uncomplaining. I never noticed. And I regret that now. I wish I could take all those years back, get closer to him, try and be a worthy son to him. As energetic as he is, he's slowing down now, though he'll never admit it. He's still climbing ladders and hanging out of windows all by himself, and my greatest fear is that one of these days he'll just slip. He could die, or worse, get some kind of debilitating injury. To not be able to get around would be a fate worse than death for a man like my father. And without him, the family would just fall apart; without him what would we do?

I remember trying to be a different man than my father, trying to be brash rather than quietly dependable. Somehow or other, despite my best efforts, I became him anyway. Now, ten years down the line, with a girl of my own, I see myself growing into his role: a strong foundation for a romantic partner, a reliable base to ground her while she's off conquering the world. Funny how genetics works. And funny how I found it doesn't bother me all that much to play this role. In some way, my father did give me something, and it's my duty to honor him by doing my best with it.

Even if it's just buying ice...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

O'Brien's Corollary

Some of my favorite modern adages:

"Anything that can go wrong, will." - Murphy's Law

"Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence." - Hanlon's Razor

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Clarke's Third Law

"The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place they can cause the least damage: management." Dilbert's Principle

"90% of everything is crap." Sturgeon's Revelation

and my personal favorite:

"The longer an online discussion goes on, the greater the probability of someone comparing someone else to Hitler or the Nazis." - Godwin's Law

I've been in many an online debate, and have been privy to many proofs of Godwin's Law. As anyone who's been in that situation can attest, it's quite annoying. It's the sign of someone who's run out of ideas, but refuses to admit defeat. When you bring up the closest thing to pure evil that ever walked this earth as proof of your argument, you've stooped to dealing in absolutes, which means you've forfeited the discussion. It makes perfect sense.

But there is another situation, similar to Godwin's Law, which I've found myself in many times before, and since, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet laid claim to it, I hereby define it and name it after myself: O'Brien's Corollary to Godwin's Law. And it runs thus:

"1. Any political discussion, wherein a decision of an American official or an American law is being criticized, will eventually lead to one party declaring that all parties involved are lucky that they can live in a country where they are free to criticize their own government.

2. The more heated the discussion becomes, the more likely this declaration will be made.

3. The party who makes this declaration is most likely defending the criticized decision and/or law, and will make this declaration upon imminent defeat or impatience with the debate's progression.

4. This declaration effectively ends the debate without a decisive winner."

I've had this happen to me on many a heated discussion, and I've not only found it frustrating, but somewhat disturbing. It's not the declaration itself that bothers me - Hell, I'd be criticizing my government even if I wasn't allowed - but rather the implication of the person uttering it. Normally it's said out of anger or frustration on the other person's part. Anger that they're losing ground in defending their position. And there's a real hostile undercurrent in the statement: "Be grateful I can't kill you for what you just said, boy." It's similar to the people who invoke the First Amendment: 90% of the time they're saying something controversial, infuriating, or just plain tasteless. The other 10% of us who have reasonable opinions don't need to.

So there you have it, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, lords and ladies, and everyone in between. A new law. A new weapon in your intellectual armory you can level at those who tell you to shut up and count your blessings...or else. Just make sure you tell them, you heard it here first.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ruminations Upon a Failed Revolution

...or, Why I Hate Hippies.

Last night I had the honor and the privilege of attending a concert given by the Ragged King Himself, Mister Bob Dylan. 65 years old and he still rocks. Rocks harder than his opening act, The Raconteurs, who probably weren't even twinkles in their fathers' eyes when Dylan had his first hit. Standing behind a keyboard, thin and weather-beaten, looking fragile but still commanding attention, Bob Dylan still evokes the image of a troubadour. He still sings songs of the human condition, of love and war and pain and power. Now, with four decades of making music behind him, his is the avatar of the immortal poet, a grizzled modern-day Homer, who has seen it all and will couch his stories in rhyme that you will better remember them. To listen to a Dylan lyric is to get an inkling of a divinity's thought process; to hear him sing them himself is to sit before the feet of Apollo.

And yet...I can't help but wonder. Dylan is very much a child of the 1960's. His songs were a reflection of that culture, a time and place where morality was fluid. There was revolution in the air, after all. Traditions were challenged. Beliefs were questioned. Social taboos were loosened. It must have been an exciting time, a time when a generation rose up against the Establishment, and sought to change the world.

Or so they would have us believe. Here I sit, on a cold rainy November night in the year 2006, pondering how far American society has come since 1967 or so. The answer comes back to me: not as far as we all like to think. The Establishment is not gone, is it? The Hippies didn't defeat the Establishment. The Establishment retreated, regrouped, rebuilt its power, and rebounded. For all the great political change that may have happened back then - civil rights legislation, women's lib, etc - real genuine social change was slower to come. It hasn't happened yet, in fact; in some places it's even going backwards. Activists like to call this the "Hearts and Minds" phase: all the civil rights legislation in the world won't make racists stop being racist. They have to change their minds on their own. And the Hearts and Minds phase isn't going all that well. In South Dakota, a draconian anti-abortion bill was just narrowly defeated. In several states, including Virginia and Colorado, measures to ban same-sex marriages were approved. In Kansas, proponents of "Intelligent Design" still press to give their pseudo-scientific notions equal standing with respectable scientific theory. The Hearts and Minds of Middle America don't belong to the Hippies. I don't think they ever did, frankly. For the ugly truth is that most people who called themselves "Hippies" were not political activists by trade or inclination; they were children of privilege rebelling against their parents. Baby Boomers, born at what was possibly the height of American civilization, with greater wealth and stability than perhaps any generation before or since. For these Hippies, the revolution was little more than the tantrums of spoiled children, disaffected with their home life. This is nothing new; we've seen it throughout history. It's often at the point when a society reaches a state of equilibrium it turns inward and starts to devour itself out of sheer boredom. Oh, there may have been people within the counterculture that may have genuinely believed in it, but they far outnumbered the people who were just along for the ride.

One of the worst side-effects of this cultural revolution was an emphasis on emotional and spiritual well-being. It's important to be happy, the Hippies would have us believe. And one must follow one's own path to happiness, no matter what the Establishment tells you to think. That's the essence of the revolution: to follow your heart to truth. Whether that means converting to Buddhism, partaking in hallucinogenic drugs, or going to live on a commune - whatever you need to do, man. It's all good. That was the idea, of course. We were all going to be part of one big free-love drug-addled shindig, where everyone did what they wanted to do free of persecution and everyone was happy. Groovy.

Of course, this idea backfired, as many well-intentioned ideas often did. Between 1967 and 1970, many progressive leaders - Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy - were struck down, and their movements died with them. King's passing in particular was hard; race relations turned ugly and radical without his tempering wisdom and charismatic leadership. Had he lived, perhaps things might be better today. And since most Hippies were just trying to rebel and have fun, and things stopped being fun once the leaders started being killed, the revolution was abandoned. What started as a valid cultural force devolved into sex and drug parties. By the 1970s, peace and love were shelved in favor of getting high and screwing whoever was handy. But they left the door open. By introducing the idea that no one's ideas were "improper," and by placing emphasis on emotion rather than reason, they left the way clear for a conservative counter-revolution. Seizing upon the perceived immorality of the Hippies, and bouyed up by their tacit support of the importance of spiritual well-being, a new Establishment, the Religious Right, took power. Casting the Hippie generation as "elitists" with no regard for tradition, and themselves as the salt of the earth, they set out to "reclaim" America. Due to the weak foundations and short life of the revolution, they largely succeeded. That was the problem with the Hippies: they were so busy tearing down the walls, they never bothered to put up new ones. So when they abandoned their revolution, the walls went back up. New boss, same as the old boss, blah blah blah.

So here we are, four decades later. I can go to a Bob Dylan concert, hear him sing "Masters of War," and still find it as relevant today as it was when it was first written. The same Masters who were in charge in Dylan's time are in charge today. Only the names have changed. The Establishment is still in charge, and perhaps stronger than ever now, because it learned to play the game by the new rules. The revolution may have won legally, but it didn't win ideologically - and ideas are what truly matter, because an idea can change a law. So, what remains? What hope is there? SOME hope, at least; the recent midterm elections proved that the Establishment's grip is not absolute. But there is still much work to be done. And we can't keep looking to the Hippies for advice as to how to do it. We need new troubadours, new activists, new ideas. And it will not be groovy. Not by a long sight.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Purplebelly Speaks

Caution: Blasphemy Ahead!

At times I feel like the only Sci-Fi nerd who wasn't orgasmic over Firefly. I mean, I thought it was a clever show, original and well written, but it wasn't such a huge deal for me. Admittedly, I'm not the most impartial of voices; Joss Whedon is responsible for several lingering scars upon my psyche - and Alien: Resurrection is only the most obvious one - so I'm still a bit resentful. Mind you, there was a lot to like in Firefly. The low-tech dusty ugly universe was realistically rendered and quite a departure from what we normally see in TV Sci-Fi. The stylistic fusion of American and Chinese culture - a highly plausible future world - was believably done. And it being a Whedon show, it was nothing if not cleverly written. And like any Whedon-penned project, it was often too clever for its own good. Because in the writing, we saw Whedon's strengths - his gift for dialogue and invented slang, his ability to play with audience expectations - and his weaknesses - his lack of subtlety, his tendency to go for the easy joke at the expense of character development. To me it was a curiosity. Sometimes quite entertaining, and sometimes annoying (that damned pseudo-19th-century jargon got on my nerves), but it was never all that compelling for me.

But apparently it was compelling for a lot of people. I had heard of the Browncoats, the self-declared brotherhood of devoted fans of the series, who in large part helped get the Serenity movie made. But I had no idea how large and dedicated a group they were until recently. When I first discovered Podcasts, I was introduced to Marc Gunn, Texas musician and the hardest-working man in Podcasting. Not only is he a talented folk musican with FIVE regular Podcasts to his name, but he's also a Browncoat. And through his Podcasts I came to realize that the Browncoats were as numerous and far-reaching as Trekkies - only less pathetic. Among their ranks are some quite talented musicians, who latched onto the folksy charm of the show and the romantic ideal of the Browncoat: veterans of the losing side - "but not the wrong side," in the words of our main character Malcolm Reynolds - in the Unification War. Just as the Browncoats were mercilessly defeated by the Alliance but still carried on, so did Firefly fans carried the torch for the show after it was mercilessly cancelled by Fox. Fox became the symbol of corporate greed and lack of imagination, and Joss Whedon became the poster boy for the rebellious - and ultimately successful - artist.

I don't share this romantic view, however. Maybe I just am biased against Whedon, but there is an undertone to Firefly that I find discomfiting. Thematically, the story is a twist on the "space western": low-tech as it is, we actually have frontier communities and farmstead planets and actual cowboys in space. So the Unification War - between the powerful federalist Alliance and the scrappy frontier-dwelling Independents - can be seen as an analogue to the American Civil War. Only in this war, the Union are the bad guys.

This is what makes me uncomfortable, and it's not just because I'm a born and bred Yankee. Romanticization of the Confederacy is nothing new in American culture. As Americans we tend to identify with the rebel, the underdog, the hopeless cause, and nothing says "rebel" more than Johnny Reb himself. The simple Good Old Boy who picked up a gun and fought for his home is a very American idea. We're a country forged in the fires of populist rebellion; such things will always strike a chord with us. In Firefly, that romanticization came to a head. The Alliance, who sought to unify all the scattered human colonies under one government, is a faceless bureaucratic space empire with little regard for civil liberties or due process. The Independents, the rebels who reisisted and were defeated, are represented by our main character Malcolm Reynolds. Former soldier, now embittered antihero who makes his living on the edges of civilization, running cargo both legal and otherwise, and confounding the Establishment in little ways whenever he has the opportunity. Sci-Fi nerds have compared Malcolm Reynolds to Han Solo, but I think a more apt comparison is to Jesse James. Soldier turned outlaw, only a heroic figure because he's less powerful than the people he victimizes. That's what a Browncoat is: the little guy struggling against the Machine, who keeps flying against all odds.

Unfortunately, that's not what a Confederate was. A Browncoat is a Confederate with all the thorny moral issues of the nature of the Confederacy removed - and YES, dammit, there WERE moral issues behind the American Civil War. Yes, slavery was not the only issue that led to the war, but it was one of the main issues. The fact that the Confederacy made a point of slave ownership in their short-lived constitution says something about the part it played in the Confederate social identity - the identity of the gentleman farmer who didn't like the way society was going, and decided to form his own instead. It was that very attitude that led to Secession: the Confederates were not being oppressed. American society was simply changing, in a way that they didn't like. They felt that gave them the right to leave the Union, and Abraham Lincoln disagreed. According to that great President, no single state, no group of states, had the right to dissolve the Union. The United States was a great thing, not to be lightly cast aside by an alliance of malcontents with a distorted vision of the American Dream. That was why the Civil War was fought. To stop a mistake. To preserve a great thing.

In the Firefly universe, the Alliance is not the great thing Lincoln's Union was, and the Browncoats are fighting a heroic and noble war for independence. The romanticization of the the Civil War is here taken to an extreme: the Union as villians. If we see Science Fiction as allegory of modern culture, the implication is alarming. The belief that the government of the United States no longer serves the interests of the people to the point where the Confederates look like heroes...that's a disturbing notion. Made even more disturbing when you consider the current political climate in America. The infamous "Red State/Confederacy Map" comparison made its rounds during the 2004 election, and despite its inaccuracies the principle remains sound: the South DID rise again...and they're in charge now. It's hard to see former Confederates as heroes opposed to an oppressive government when former Confederates ARE the oppressive government.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into a clever little TV show. But once again, if Sci-Fi is a barometer of modern culture, the message behind Firefly is a provoking one. I believe in the Union. Lincoln's Union, a grand united republic capable of great things. I would fight to preserve it, not divide it, and I reject the rebels who would tear it apart because they just don't like the way things are going. So I guess that makes me a Purplebelly. And I'm proud of it.

But you keep flying, Browncoats. I hope my beloved Union never becomes your hated Alliance, but if it does...well, just keep flying.