Category: Society

"Something Dark and Undeniable Shifing in Our Cultural Mood…"

Today ran an article by Dr. Charles Barber entitled “Are We Really That Miserable?” which cites that a staggering ten percent of Americans now take antidepressants. It meanders around the ideas that people are afraid to feel real feelings and that drug advertising is involved and that “there is something dark and undeniable shifting in our cultural mood,” without being particularly specific, I thought — though I found it to be a step in the right direction. The article has the tag line: “Antidepressant use has doubled, and anxiety is at a troubling high. Blame TV, Big Pharma — and possibly yourself,” which prompted the following response from me:

Wait, blame who?

I think the American way of life itself, in its broad strokes, is unsustainable. Not the “golden era” way of life that is touted and defended by reactionaries and conservatives (and no longer really exists), but the one that actually exists today.

I agree with those who say that Americans lead lonely lives, and that the social network is breaking down. I see it in my own life, and just as dramatically when I am with my fellow citizens in public places. I see people that are agitated, unnecessarily defensive, or pushy, or oblivious. Normal behavior of average people seems to fall on several diagnostic spectra these days: paranoid, oppositional, autistic, narcissistic, catatonic.

The quality of our food, and the equity of our labor are both in trouble. Corn-fed beef (which, in America, just means “beef”) is sixty percent fat, and is a staple in the diet of many. Seventy percent of the antibiotics in the US are consumed BY THE LIVESTOCK WE EAT.

The average CEO now makes 344 times as much as the average worker when, between 1960 and 1990 that ratio was more like 30 or 40 to one. Between 1955 and the 2000s, the corporate income tax rate has dropped from 33% to less than 8%. (These and other statistics are well-presented in the article “Wealth Inequality Destroys US Ideals,” by Don Monkerud, available online through The Baltimore Chronicle & Sentinel.) The rich, the powerful, and the COMPANIES AS ENTITIES THEMSELVES all win out more than ever over the average individual.

We are lonely; the food we eat is unhealthy; the income we earn goes disproportionately to the chosen few, and increasingly so.

And more: It was myopic AMERICAN financiers crashed the global financial system. William Black, who was among the appointees to investigate the S&L scandal, spoke of this with Bill Moyers NOT as a failure of regulation, but as a failure of MORALS, pointing out that it has been, up until now, a combination of regulation and personal ethical limits which had prevented crashes such as the current crisis, not regulation alone. To repeat: one of the key failures (in addition to deregulation, and in addition to a failure to support the FBI’s attempts at oversight), was that of personal moral codes of the greedy few. The world entire paid the price, and the culprits go unconsequenced. Some reaped tremendous rewards within a year of the disaster.

In this jacked-up, unjust, amoral, wealth-chasing, shallow-thinking environment, America has become, at best, a place that elevates those who are SOMEWHAT smart, SOMEWHAT globally and politically aware, SOMEWHAT ethical, somewhat INsensitive, and VERY driven. At worst, of course, it also rewards the greedy, the ruthlessly ambitious and the corrupt. But even in the best case, these quasi-virtues, plus an increasingly aggressive drive, cannot alone uphold civil society; yet these are what is rewarded, and we see the result. Bill O’Reilly rises to the top and Bill Moyers is marginalized. Sarah Palin becomes a serious contender for the Republican Presidential nomination and Nobel-Prize winning Al Gore goes practically unheard in the mainstream. In fact, when we need clear, practical leadership the most, cadres of elected officials are developing a tradition of relying on the most egregious demagoguery to accomplish their goals.

Americans seem to aspire to be little more than what they already are — except sexier — when, held against the moral, social and intellectual templates of past eras, what they are really isn’t particularly marvelous. But still, they seem to carry themselves with a radiant ostensible pride that is either accompanied by a host of hidden shames, or an utter tone-deafness to their own shortcomings. Consequently, we are awash in one another’s strident, arrogant shabbiness with less compulsion to be upright, decent human beings than perhaps ever before in our history.

Meanwhile, ten percent of the country goes on anti-depressants. Which is perhaps the most serious part, insofar as it is emblematic of the poor half-measures we apply to address our problems.

Our ways of life are, from all corners, plainly unsustainable; the consequence of their pursuit is our slow creep toward a new barbarism, but we are not yet galvanized to preventive action truly commensurate with the scale of the difficulties. I think Dr. Barber is right that people are not feeling the natural pain that is appropriate to the circumstances, but I also think the depressed people are the canaries in our coal mine; we’re all suffocating.

What can we do?


Fraud. Plain and Simple.

So says Bill Black, author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. The current financial crisis is not just the result of rampant greed, but fraud — a fundamental “moral crisis” within the most elite American financial institutions.

In the video linked below, Black, formerly a federal regulator whose investigations helped bring successful convictions during the S & L scandal tells Bill Moyers:

a) The collapse of the market, brought about by bad loans, was a deliberate result of criminal fraud by banks’ CEOs and the rating system.

b) The FBI has known for years. In 2004, the FBI publicly announced an epidemic of mortgage fraud and vowed to respond but was unable, largely because the Bush administration had allocated 500 FBI investigators to national terrorism efforts and not replaced them.

c) Taxpayer money has already gone to banks fined for fraudulent activity.

d) Tim Geithner is denying the insolvency of many large banks, in violation of the law, which requires that these banks be closed. The cover-up is motivated by fear of a total collapse beyond the scope of the current crisis, but it is also helping those guilty of fraud to find protection from the rule of law.

e) Conflicts of interest abound. Larry Sommers, who advises Obama, is near the center of the trouble. And under Bush, Henry Paulson appointed Goldman Sachs to the panel recommending the fate of AIG, while AIG was in charge of bailing out Goldman Sachs (which Paulson himself had recently served as CEO). Black notes, “in most stages in American history, that would be a scandal of such proportions that he wouldn’t be allowed in civilized society.”

I think the twenty-seven minutes of this presentation, and the article Bill Moyers and Michael Winship ran in Salon today are both worth understanding clearly by all Americans. This is at least as big as the spin that got us into Iraq. Bigger, in important ways.

Bill Black speaking on Bill Moyers (with transcript)

“Obama: Stop protecting Wall Street bankers from Main Street” by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Stanley Fish on free markets and social responsibility, and me on what I saw on the metro.

Stanley Fish discusses “neoliberalism” and its effect on higher education with a nod to some effects on society as a whole. In short, in the neoliberal model, profit alone is esteemed as the one measure of good, and any other concern such as ethics, social responsibility, or even happiness are extraneous measures — sometimes labeled, in the austere purity of the model, as “market distortions.”

He notes that this philosophy is potently at work now, and traces its effects. It’s been observed that:

“Short-term transactions-for-profit replace long-term planning designed to produce a more just and equitable society. Everyone is always running around doing and acquiring things, but the things done and acquired provide only momentary and empty pleasures (shopping, trophy houses, designer clothing and jewelry), which in the end amount to nothing. Neoliberalism, David Harvey explains, delivers a ‘world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core.’ ”

I spent part of the weekend people-watching, and one of the things I noticed was that I felt as though I observed, in virtually everyone I encountered, a great paucity of concern for the well-being of others. This was punctuated, of course, by occasional demonstrations of out-and-out offensive rudeness, as one is conditioned to expect in cities, but what struck me more was the pervasive indifference and preoccupation with self and small social unit.

I could comfortably summarize what I saw as a whole lot of people who I would not say were “bad,” but who I would not say were actually, pro-actively, “good,” either — nor did they seem to care to be.

And if people seek success and fulfillment through the mores of our society alone, what else should be expected? I think few, if any, of the strongest forces at work in the mainstream suggest a way of life that accords to any great degree with true satisfaction and happiness, let alone any true indicator of what may be good and right human behavior, either universally or at this particular (and I think crucial) time in our history.

Instead, it seems to me that what’s extolled is, really, in fact, the pursuit of hollow pleasures. Furthermore, most people still seem to remain hypnotized by this pursuit even as what seems to me a cacophonous call to change thunders out from, basically, every observable circumstance. Most people seem to still be seeking either the pleasures themselves, or seeking to assert an ego identity that fits one of the archetypes in various tiers of the pleasure-seeking system. Again, I feel I so often see, for example, the middle-class royal who, having punched out of work, is utterly sovereign in his or her world, striding around thinking only of personal satisfaction and nothing, once off the clock, about contribution to any sort of greater social welfare whatsoever. This, across age-ranges and cultures. And those who don’t have it want it.

The reformist sub-cultures are not immune. There are plenty of radicals who can’t actually think, or whose heart would be in the right place except for the fact that they themselves are lost in an ego identity, who seek the quick pleasure in their efforts, resist contemplation, and who remain products of the very society to which they react: shallow, bawdy and callous.

Even in intimate couples you might see shallow, socially prescribed self-interests predominate. (And accompanied by confusion as to why relationships are empty, and lacking the passion you see in the movies.)

I have no doubt: Directly or indirectly, it affects EVERYONE.

In rushing off these observations, I have in no way protected myself from the embarrassment of having to retract from overstatement. But the funny thing is, I think most people would agree with me to some degree, and yet that remains the world we co-create. But really what I mainly wanted to do was point to Fish’s article, which I think is well worth the read (once your reading stamina is recharged from this lengthy and introduction). And also, I wanted to toss out an idea which has been on my mind for the past month or so:

If we *don’t* make it past the current crises, if the economic downturn becomes some kind of real collapse, if it destabilizes countries to the point of violence and that spirals, or if it prohibits enough responsible action on climate change to prevent a runaway disaster of some sort — in short, if civilization were to completely come apart for one reason or another, I think that whatever organized societies arose after us might look back and say, with the benefit of hindsight, “that civilization which came before us, and fell [ours], was corrupt and morally bankrupt.”

It actually has, I believe, something of Biblical proportions to it.

I have no doubt that it can be changed to something better. But not without effort, nor without intelligence, nor heart — and not through abiding the social status quo, in any of its current iterations, I suspect.

Think Again: Neoliberalism and Higher Education

Out of the Past

I received an e-mail today quoting Jon Stewart on Larry King Live:

In Larry King’s interview with Jon Stewart, Larry brought up the subject of the primaries and asked him if America was ready for a woman or a black president.

Jon looked at him quizzically and said “This is such a non-question. Did anyone ask us in 2000 if Americans were ready for a moron?”

It reminded me of another Jon Stewart moment, which I went and looked up, and was so affected watching it again that I thought I’d post it below. Then I got all itchy about fair use — since it’s a fourteen minute clip — that I decided to post a link to the transcript instead. If you want more, you know where to find it. You’ve perhaps already seen it, but I think it’s worth a second look. Especially now, in with the New York Times breaking a new scandal about cable pseudo-news.

If you’ve never seen the Jon Stewart clip, or never seen the whole thing, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s one thing to have heard about it, it’s quite another to see the way it played out.

Four months after the broadcast, the CNN show Crossfire was canceled, and the network ended its professional relationship with the bowtie-wearing Tucker Carlson. The new CNN President, Jonathan Klein, said the night before the announcement, “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall ‘premise.'”

The premise was, of course. “I’m here to confront you, because we need help from the media, and they’re hurting us.”

I find this no less astonishing four years after its event, and perhaps more. The Quakers have an injunction, “speak truth to power.” It’s a rousing thought, and the need for it has not gone away.

Transcript of Jon Stewart’s Crossfire Interview

“And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero.”

— Walt Whitman

Heterosexual Intercourse Beats Severed Heads…

…As the most offensive content (out of four choices) that children might encounter in a video game, according to a recent poll. Parents were asked to choose which they found most offensive: a graphically severed human head, a man and a woman having sex, multiple use of the “F-word,” or two men kissing.

The greatest number of votes for most offensive went to a man and a woman having sex, at 37%, followed by the graphically severed human head and the two men kissing in a dead heat 26% and 27% respectively, and multiple uses of the “F-word” last at 10%.

Act of love more offensive than severed human heads, reports poll

Note that the graphically severed human head was slightly more acceptable than two men kissing.

You know what might have been an interesting companion survey? To’ve asked,”Okay, then. Which of the four is most upsetting to you as an occurrence in real life?” It just might merit some checking in with our fellow Americans about that one.

I wonder how many people would ask, “Well, whose head are you talking about?”

Which is, you know, funny and all.

But then take a deep breath and think about it…

Might the Catholic Church One Day Be Transformed?

This is a letter sent out by James Burch, Coordinating Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit of Northern Virginia, a reformist and highly innovative Catholic group.

I’m passing along at my own initiative, not his behest, because I think it’s exciting to think about voices such as these traveling up the ranks in this vast religious organization. I stir at the message in this letter, that the revolutionary voices exist in the ranks of the Church, seeking leverage. I think the whole thing is exciting, and merits support!

The Catholic Diocese of One Spirit

April 20, 2005

(This is one in a series of pastoral letters put out by the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit. There is no obligation on the part of ordained members or others who feel themselves a part of this diocese to believe all that is written here, or in the way that it is written. This is offered by the current Coordinating Bishop of this diocese as a validly alternative Catholic Christian viewpoint, which readers may use to philosophically engage this topic.)

The election of Joseph Ratzinger as the Roman Catholic Church’s new Pope Benedict XVI is a conclusive sign that the leadership engine of the church’s train is only remotely connected to the people in that train. Catholic theology, brought to a higher level of fruition in the Second Vatican Council, teaches that the people of God are themselves the Church. The Church is not the hierarchy … though you would never know that truth based on the distance between the hierarchy and the people today and on the hierarchy’s totally un-Christian chokehold on power.

Pope John Paul II, a man of many talents and a singular and most conservative experience of spirituality (rather than an admirer of God’s many beautiful expressions in peoples, cultures and perspectives), singularly appointed all but two of those who chose his successor. He stacked the deck with those of his own limited vision. He also appointed approximately 90% of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops over his 26 year “reign”. The dioceses over which these appointed bishops “ruled” had virtually no say whatsoever regarding who would be their “leader”. The “laity” (the word “lay” literally means “uninformed”, as in “a lay opinion”) had no say at all, zilch, nada, zero. The priests in each diocese – themselves products of a dictatorial, paternalistic, authoritarian leadership structure – had input that was so cursory as to be virtually non-existent.

This was not always the case. The word “pontiff” comes from two Latin words meaning “bridge” and “builder”. In early centuries of the church – after the concept of a “pope” had evolved into being more than just another bishop – the pope was considered the “bridge-builder”, the one who kept the peace and who brought different factions together. It was considered inappropriate for him to take a position that would fracture Christian unity. Today, thanks to the last couple of hundred years, he is considered by his appointed leadership to be virtually a spiritual dictator. In the early 19th century, only a handful of bishops were appointed by Rome; the great majority were either elected by their dioceses or appointed by the civil authorities in their countries. To counter some abuses that were occurring with civil appointments, Rome did not reform the democratic process for the selection of bishops but rather usurped to itself the practice (it is not a “right”) of appointing whomever it chose. The result has been a complete disenfranchisement between the “leadership” and the Roman Catholic people. These appointed bishops might as well be from Mars. It is as if the United States of America somewhere along the line had initiated the rule that only residents of Key West are allowed to be President, and that that President appointed only Key West residents as senators for all states, congressmen from all districts across the US, and governors of the various states. Sound ridiculous? Well, that is how the Roman Catholic Church propagates its leadership today.

All during the many days of commentary on the Catholic Church by the news media (during which, by the way, almost exclusively conservative commentators were interviewed, and virtually all men to the exclusion of women), there was much bemoaning of the virtual abandonment of the Roman Catholic Church by Europeans (who go to church only in the single digits) and Americans (only 27% of American Catholics go regularly to church services). This was seen not as a failure of the Church to provide any kind of intellectual and pastoral stimulation, but rather as a form of spiritual depravity of the people.

Anyone who really knows these non-church-going Americans and Europeans knows that they are, by and large, extraordinarily decent people. They care about becoming more loving people; they care about others; especially those who have less; and they have a finely-tuned sense to seek personal happiness. Yet they are condemned and tsskd-tsskd by men in red dresses as being morally untethered.

On the other hand, much was made of the spread of Roman Catholicism in the developing nations of South America and Africa. These are the “good” people, close to God, not caught up in the nasty consumerism and selfishness of the Western mentality. This is the future of the Church, the model for humanity, the hope for salvation of the immoral Western culture.

The reality is that this is just more rationalization from Church leaders who do not want their privileged status to change. They are, in fact, incapable of seeing anything other than through their own tinted glasses. They have created their own plush surroundings, and they like it a lot. Don’t expect voluntary surrender (note the election of Pope Benedict XVI).

The Roman Catholic Church has always been a lover of the poor, and the greatest aid to the poor for all of recorded history. Because of this, people who have little or nothing – who are totally unconcerned with dogmas, doctrines and moral commands – flock to the Church, seeing its genuine love for them. But what happens inevitably is that the poor over time become affluent and educated, as most have done in Europe and America. They are then no longer a recipient of the Church’s love for the poor, but have moved into the category of the New Sheep needing to be morally directed and intellectually constrained. And they go out the back door as fast as the new poor are coming in the Church’s front door.

Does anyone really doubt that as South America and Africa become more affluent and educated, their populations will also follow the historic paths of America and Europe?

This enormous gap between a Roman Catholic leadership run self-servingly wild and a populace being pabulum-fed is destroying the Church. Not until parishes are controlled by the people themselves, until bishops are chosen by their own dioceses, until the heavy hand of dictatorial edict is lifted, until spirituality is seen by the Church as not just filling pews but of enlightening minds – will the Roman Catholic Church really flourish. There is a long, long, long way to go. Sheer numbers do not commitments make.

Women priests, married priests, rational acceptance of contraception/divorce/gay people/etc., less infatuation with sexual practices of the populace, practical respect for the primacy of conscience (taught as fundamental Catholic theology for centuries, but now relegated to textbooks instead of practical life) – all these are secondary matters. The most fundamental teaching of Jesus – the recognition of the presence of God in every thing and in every person, and the deep respect and honor that goes with that recognition – is missing. And it is essential to Jesus, if not to “Christianity” as it is lived today.

There are now, within the Catholic Church (the “Catholic Church” being more than the “Roman” Catholic Church), thousands upon thousands of baptized individuals – ordained and not – who have been blessed to conclude correctly that they do not need the permission or the validation of this leadership class, so self-aggrandizingly aloof, to be what they are, the people of God. There are many non-geographic Catholic, but NOT Roman, dioceses, headed by Catholic bishops with apostolic succession just like their Roman counterparts, which have dispensed with the non-essentials, in favor of living a practical, Jesus-led, truly “Catholic” life (Catholic fundamental theology is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that we are sanctified) in this magnificent universe given to us by God to experience the deepest reality of Who We Are. You will see more and more of this in the years to come..

There are now, within the Roman Catholic Church, thousands upon thousands of deeply spiritual reformers, who are crushed by the usurpation of their church by the ultra conservatives. This reality is now clearly evident in the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. The church is now – thanks to the 26 years of appointments by John Paul II – completely dominated by a mind set that demands conformity and certainty, rather than that which honors experience, wisdom and understanding. These reformers have stuck with the Roman Catholic Church through thick and thin, because it is extremely difficult to abandon one’s cultural and familial socialization, especially when it is drilled into one’s head that such orientation is more than cultural choices; it is “God’s Will!”

However, the election of Benedict XVI will be a tipping point. It will cause the damn to break and an unprecedented number of thinking Roman Catholics will expand their concept of Catholicism to include their following their consciences, staying “Catholic” but abandoning the Roman extremism that is not life-enriching and Jesus-experiencing.

Perhaps the election of Pope Benedict XVI is just what the Church needed … just not in the way most think. They might yet clean this place up, without ever picking up a broom.

James H. Burch
Coordinating Bishop
The Catholic Diocese of One Spirit

"Shockwave!!" Auto traffic, and article.

I drive too much.

In the second-worst traffic in the US. As a matter of fact, I think that if this is the second-worst traffic in the nation logistically speaking, then it is quite likely the worst traffic overall, experientially speaking, because it is the second-worst logistical situation being executed by Washingtonians.

The nice thing is, the realization that I drive too much has led me underground, where a developing romance with the pretty great metro system unfolds.

Meanwhile, the Texas Transportation Institute publishes an annual report of US Traffic Congestion. A nice blog post about the report can be found here. Or, for the eagle-hearted, or the time-privileged, the report itself can be found here.

Current research on traffic congestion orients around issues of urban planning, public transportation use, the problems of urban sprawl, etc. But when I’m sitting in traffic, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the situation could be alleviated by basic codes of driver behavior while they’re in their cars and on the road. For example, if there’s a bottleneck up ahead, does it help the overall flow of traffic to get into the lane that goes through, right away, or is it in fact more helpful to follow the closing lane all the way down to where it tapers, and to merge? Seems to me, the latter is better for traffic, especially if all drivers accept a one-to-one entrance policy, and are smooth about this.

Or how about yielding when merging onto a freeway. Does it still make sense to lay the burden of yielding on the arriving driver alone? With traffic so fast, and entry ramps so short, shouldn’t it be a shared, cooperative responsibility? This is the lean of things on the road, but it’s not what the signs say. Nor is everybody on the same page about it.

Or this: It has long seemed to me that tailgating probably creates traffic jams, because it often forces a driver to react more dramatically to the car in front of him. If driver A slows down and driver B, behind him, is right on his bumper, then driver B is gonna have to really put on his brakes to be safe, where if he weren’t so close behind, he could be more mellow in his response because his window for figuring out what driver A’s slowing is all about would be larger.

At the same time, if everybody increased their following distance, that expands the volume occupied by the same number of cars. What’s the effect? I don’t know.

The thing is, I’d guess most people have had thoughts like this, and everybody has suffered the ardors of the simple necessity of getting yourself from one place to another. We all experience it, as millions of solitary events in these steel boxes. There’s no consensus about it. There’s no public forum!

Do I sound crochety about this? A little bit?

How about this: Have you ever been tooling along the beltway and found it turned into a parking lot for a few slogging miles, gotten to the end of it twenty or thirty minutes later expecting a spray of glass and twisted metal and body parts and huge smudges of blood and found, instead absolutely nothing? You probably assumed, as I have sometimes, that the accident was cleaned up awhile ago, and the traffic flow still hagn’t recovered — and I still don’t see why that couldn’t be the case.

But it also seems possible to me that that entire traffic jam may have arisen for almost no good reason at all, but rather as a “chaos” effect spiralling up out of a confluence events which all cause slowing. Sometimes, it seems vividly clear to me, in fact, that the only reason some traffic jams occur is because everybody believes there is one up ahead, and responds — thereby providing the primary impetus for jam itself. It’s like The Secret gone horribly awry, right there on our nation’s beltways!

Well, it turns out, this has been known by some mathematicians for awhile. At least the chaos theory part of it. Traffic jams do spiral up out of nowhere. It’s called the shockwave effect, and now it’s been reproduced experimentally in Japan.

Anyway, here’s the article, FYI:

Shockwave traffic jam recreated for first time

Parenthetically, someday, I think it’s possible that we will travel to Japan and find that the “Japanese” are all, in fact, robot dopplegangers, and that the real Japanese have been living in Utopic comfort in a cozy, terraformed corner of the surface of Mars, hidden under a hologram’s camouflage. Not unlike the Chinese in the Kurt Vonnegut novel.

But regardless of the fate of the Japanese — I’d like to conclude by saying this: these days, although we set the bar pretty low in this country as to what is considered acceptable in public places, we do still have some standards. Right? We, uh, don’t chew food so recklessly that it starts to dribble back out of our mouths, half-mashed. Right? Right?

Well, I think it would be great to re-visit our habits on the road and cultivate, in mainstream dialogue, a new sense of driver etiquette — one based on some basic sense of, you know, the Golden Rule, but also rooted in reason, and research.

On "Fanboys" and "Jericho"

Two related items:

…is, or at least is supposed to be, about a group of friends who are prompted by a comrade’s terminal cancer to carpe diem by sneaking onto George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch for the premiere of The Phantom Menace.

The script was highly acclaimed when it floated around Hollywood a few years ago, and the film stars likes of Seth Rogen and Balls of Fury‘s Dan Fogler. It’s apparently in the can over at The Weinstein Company, and has been for awhile — except that Harvey Weinstein hasn’t want to release it because he thinks the “cancer subplot” is too controversial to be a commercial success. So instead, he has redacted the film, re-shot scenes, and produced a non-cancer version.

Apparently, Star Wars fans have reacted, sending 300,000 e-mails. As a result of the backlash, both versions will be released.

Fans press Weinstein on ‘Fanboys’


The last episode Jericho aired tonight on CBS. I’ll spend more time here, because while I haven’t seen Fanboys I have seen all twenty-nine episodes of Jericho, and I happen to think it’s had some of the more gripping, original and poignant serial drama I’ve seen on network TV. (Though admittedly, I have neither seen The Wire, nor Lost.)

We meet citizens of Jericho, Kansas as they putter along in the troubles endemic to modernity: a dissolving marriage, a ne’er-do-well son edging past thirty with no sign of responsible manhood, a struggling farm facing government foreclosure — until the spectre of nuclear attack blazes suddenly and soundlessly over the horizon, and everything falls into stunned silence. Thereafter, Jericho’s residents face confusion, in-fighting, lawless roads, Blackwater-esque mercenaries, food shortages, fires, spies. You name it.

It was spooky and suspenseful and it had compelling well-developed arcs of all shapes and sizes. Gradually, over the weeks, the disaster purified the characters, shunting them through one challenge after another — and, one by one, made them heroes.

The scenario deftly brought morality play to the stage without preaching. (Well, without incongruously preaching, anyhow — but one of the cool things about post-apocalyptic fiction is that it is, almost of necessity, a study of civilization itself.) There was political commentary, and it undercut the pre-fab partisan angles that have obfuscated things in our own political mainstream. Jericho met the worst fears of the post 9/11 world by holding them in the nuanced light of essential American values. “Defend yourself, and defend what is you love,” it said, “Fight the just fights. But stay in your heart. Because as soon as you give in to cruelty, or fear, or selfishness, you make your world that much less worth defending. And what you lose, you might not ever get back.”

More than anything, Jericho seemed to say that everything that we call “the world” can collapse, but if people remain decent, and brave, and reasonable and kind, then the end of the world, frankly, isn’t the end of the world!

Like any network TV show, obliged to deliver a compelling drama a week over the duration of the season, was occasionally dorky, but endearingly so, and I for one didn’t mind a lick. I grew to love the characters so much that when their actors sometimes cheesed through a scene, I forgave them the way you might forgive a bunch of your buddies awkwardly rendering play in a local theatre production.

Also, I didn’t care because it was all not only extremely charming, but exciting as hell.

It really had everything but the kitchen sink, and it really did all of it compellingly. By the time they rolled into the story arc that culminated at the end of the first season, I was rapt, voracious. Frankly, if you’re skeptical, I’d recommend you rent the first DVD and see for yourself. Watch the first four episodes or so, and see if it hasn’t hooked you by then!

As the canon goes, Jericho was canceled, the fans rallied, mailed twenty tons of nuts to the CBS offices, and eventually after a dogged grassroots campaign, the show shot seven new episodes which began airing right after the writer’s strike.

These new episodes fell heart-breakingly short of the first season. They were shallow, rushed, much more conformed to “safe” sensibilities. They had abruptly leapt into a new scenario, a logical succession to the earlier story, but radically different in tone. And they’d left much behind. These episodes were a second audition for America, and they felt like it. They felt like a frantic seven-week Hail Mary, a frenetic, showy juggle. The poise and and the pace, the mood and the depth had gone. And it got canceled again.

Why? After all that work? Well, according to media blogger Geoff Berkshire, after weighing all the evidence, it’s because too few people wanted to watch it.

But who cares? It was GOOD!

In mellower decades, promising shows were allowed to marinate over a few seasons, to find their legs, or their niche, to unfold and, thereafter, to shine. It’s often said that some now classic shows would not have survived in the current ratings climate. Today, a show either sinks or swims — right away. And Hollywood isn’t much different. Last year, Sly Stallone ventured that Rocky might have been passed over today. Rocky!

Even in the awkward second season Jericho seemed to be finding its stride in its new scenario. As a town under military occupation in the midst of a re-construction, Jericho, Kansas had become a theatre to observe Americans wrestling with circumstances that harkened to the daily trials of 24 million Iraqis. That’s fertile soil, no? Surely the haste in these seven episodes was the result of shell-shock from the first cancellation? Right? Surely these episoders were a lesser, telegraphed, version of the first season because of the pressure to “make it,” to fit an acceptable mold, to survive?

There are those who still believe that Jericho can and should live again. A new grassroots effort, “Save Jericho — The Sequel” is afoot, seeking a new home for the series. Buzz is that both SciFi and the CW may be interested. (My vote is for SciFi; I have so little interest in the CW shows that I didn’t even know that it was no longer the WB.)

But if you wanted to get involved, here is a link outlining some helpful actions.

Meanwhile, note a common theme in the two cases here:

I don’t think one has to scratch too hard to find examples where territory that might best be the domain of the artist has instead been appropriated by the ethos of the market — and while art must dare, capital is a coward. So we end up with things like a Hollywood system that is now re-making every popular horror movie from my childhood, and otherwise highly interested in brands, franchises, and adapting commercially successful stories from other media. But in the cases of Fanboys and Jericho, two original artistic visions, stymied because of marketing concerns, have been defended by popular movements that found muscle in their numbers and — constructively — flexed it.

I happen to think there is more to be said about effective grassroots organizing. And, potentially, a lot more.

In the case of Jericho, I hope the momentum persists. May this unique and now vagabond show find a new home at SciFi (and there… uh, live long, and prosper?)