Monday, April 24, 2017

"It's Not Just Religion (Where This Happens)"

A recent New York Times commentator reminded me recently of the “cafeteria” approach as applied to religion, a not uncommon  behavior by which sincere “True Believers” select which parts of their religious precepts they will adhere to and which parts they will deliberately overlook. 

The Times commentator was sadly distressed specifically by the number of her co-religionists who supported a certain presidential candidate, abandoning in the process their faith’s bedrock beliefs concerning “welcoming the stranger” and the charitable caring for the least of us.

As with all institutional erosions, it appears that religions inevitably develop a “cafeteria” component so as to remain sufficiently meaningful to the lives of their constituents.  My earliest personal example was encountering Jews of my acquaintance proclaiming,

“We only eat pork out.”

Thus parsing, although I am unaware it is written anywhere that doing so is permissible, strict Jewish dietary proscriptions on the basis of whether you eat “the other white meat” as it was once promoted at home – strictly forbidden – or whether it is brought to your restaurant table by a waiter – which is apparently okay.  Though they might prefer, if at all possible, a Jewish waiter.

“Cafeteria” religious people:  “All” was not working for them; “nothing” was spiritually unacceptable, as the “cafeteria” contingent remained substantially true to of their religious beliefs, setting aside the beliefs they had decided to ignore. 

I totally get it.  (Although, theoretically, I favor the crystal clarity of consistency.  But, as many Great Thinkers before me have said, “Who cares?”)

I myself, who in my later years, chose to eschew eating bread during the Eight Days of Passover found myself recently partaking of gluten-free matza (the bread substitute) here it says right on the box “Not Appropriate for Passover” but I ate it anyway, valuing medical prescription over liturgical rigorosity.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first cracker crumb.”

… is what I say.

Bringing me seamlessly to the next rung in my logical ladder:

When science (arguably) surpassed religion. 

In recent times – by which I mean the last five hundred or so years – science has replaced religion the way football in America has replaced baseball.  People still follow baseball, but football has supplanted it as the defining ethos of the day. 

If that’s not too confusing an analogy.

This preferential determination is hardly an either/or situation – you can accommodate both – football/baseball, religion/science, and many folks do.  But undeniably, advancing into modernity it became increasingly popular to ground your faith in observable reality rather than grounding your faith in… just faith.  Although I will quickly include a current resonating quotation,

“The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”

Still, today is not about that.

Today is, finally, about this.  

Contemporary society has developed an unwavering belief that “The Scientific Method” is the path to unshakable certainty – not right way away, maybe, but through assiduous self-correction until the ultimate answer is verifiably achieved – the triumphant cure for polio, for example.  However, even some of the most ardent adherents to the scientific philosophy…

“Cafeteria-style”…

as with the distinguishing restaurant pork-eaters, there are certain scientifically certain beliefs that otherwise overwhelming supporters of the scientific slide vociferously dismiss.

Such as?

Childhood immunization, for example. 

“Sorry, not for us.”

The New Yorker’s Jerome Groopman reviewing a book entitled, “The Case Against Sugar”, concluding, after serious investigation involving expert consultation,

Eat and exercise in moderation; maintain a diet consisting of balanced amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates; make sure you get plenty of fruits and vegetables.  And enjoy an occasional slice of chocolate cake.”

“‘No, thanks.  We’re sticking with our diets.”

The scientific determination that, due to the effect of testosterone during the prenatal period, men’s and women’s brains develop detectably differently.

“Yeah, our money’s on everything’s the same; the differences are all cultural.”

And perhaps the most disturbing example, wherein, I was recently informed,  highly reputable medical journal recently announced that

Getting cancer is random.

“NO!”

Cancer is random?  That means anyone can get it.  And by the way, there is no way of avoiding “Random.”

“We are definitely passing on that one.”

But it’s verifiable science.

“We don’t care!”

Okay, getting cancer’s not random.

“Thank you.  I mean, what the hell were they thinking!

We all like freedom, don’t we?  Well that’s all that this is.  We don’t like what we don’t like, be it in the religious arena or the scientific, so we independently picks and chooses and that’s just the way it’s going to be!

Fine. 

Until we peer curiously behind the curtain to discover that “The All Knowing Wizard of Certainty”…

… is us.


And perhaps quietly wonder if that will ultimately suffice.

Friday, April 21, 2017

"Contingent Considerations"

I have to keep this one short because I have an appointment today and my time here is limited.

I recently finished reading The Daily Show – The Book, which I enjoyed and learned a lot from, concerning particularly its continuing evolution.

At the beginning, The Daily Show hosted by replacement Jon Stewart included segments similar to those on its predecessor Craig Kilborn’s version of the Daily Show, showcasing on unusual characters, like the former Soviet scientist now working as a busboy. 

I made that one up; the actual ones are funnier, highlighting life’s comedic absurdity, possibly at the expense of the singled-out subject of the rib-tickling documentary.

In time, the Jon Stewart-headed Daily Show advanced to a more satirical perspective, using archival footage to trip up careless (or possibly cynical) politicians, proclaiming one ideological position on camera one time and its diametrical opposite position another.

Examples abound.  Pick you own laughable favorite.

The common denominator of these two approaches, however, remained unalterably the same:

To wit,

“Where’s the 'funny'?”

Reading the book, it occurred to me that this unwavering criterion promoted a likely unconscious but prevailing process of unrecognized censorship.

The Daily Show focused on meaningful stories.  But only meaningful stories they were able to make funny.

What happened to the meaningful stories they were unable to make funny?

They do not get into the show.

Becoming orphans to the spotlight.  

That is simply the way it works.  The Daily Show was, bottom line, a comedy, broadcast, conspicuously, on Comedy Central.  The show was produced by inordinately funny individuals, whose creative mandate, personal preference and artistic proclivity was to relentlessly “go for the funny”, carrying, to its everlasting acclaim, a serious message along with it.

Still, if they were unable to “find the funny”… well, there were other equally show-worthy stories where they could.

In its later incarnations, The Daily Show, likely at Jon Stewart’s insistence, did include meaningful stories with no comedic formulation, most heroically, when Stewart ventured to Washington, attempting to shame hypocritical Congress people into extending health coverage for injured “First Responders” from September 11th. 

And he got what he wanted.  Albeit without the normally necessary accompanying chuckle.

Even so, however, that was the exception rather than the norm.

Writing Just Thinking, I understand that ongoing conundrum.  There have been stories I have wanted to tell – and still do.  But I cannot find a satisfactory – Read:  at least minimally amusing – mode of communicating them.

For example:

I am attending a memorial service this morning.


And I am unable to fnd the funny part in that.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"Why Isn't Liberalism Funny? (And I Am Not A Hundred Percent Certain It Isn't)"



Years ago – a familiar opening because so little happens to me now, which is good because the lull in meaningful activity provides the opportunity to think about things then – through the auspices of our spouses, both trodding the psychological terrain – I encountered a writer named John Altschuler. *  (* Who has given me no permission to talk about him and whose recollection of subsequent events may differ substantially from my own.)  (A disclaimer to avoid lawsuits, or at the least ruffled feathers, should we meet on the impending Writers Guild picket line.)

John Altschuler has worked regularly over the decades with Mike Judge, going back to successful animated offerings such as Beavis and Butt-Head, followed even more successfully by King of the Hill and, arguably, more successfully still by the current HBO sitcom, (the not animated) Silicon Valley.  (Which I originally watched and then stopped, deciding they were talking to other people and I did not wish to intrude.  Translation:  I got bored with it.)

Dining with Altschuler, I learned about a new project he and Mike Judge were assembling – this was before Silicon Valley – called The Goode Family – a play on words, as “The Goode Family” went to extraordinary lengths to behave respectfully and responsibly towards bipedal humanity, the creatures of the earth and the planet that sustains our very existence itself.

In other words, the show would take on the excesses of liberalism.

When I heard this idea, I was immediately torn.  At the time, not working and staring redundancy uncomfortably in the face, I was trolling, not all that subtly, for gainful employment.  The idea of a show about “taking on liberals” however, seemed to me instinctively to be a “dry well” for comedic examination. 

Why?

Because, as opposed to conservatism,

Liberalism is not funny.

(First Example That Immediately Comes To MindAll in the Family’s conservative Archie Bunker versus the liberal “Meathead”, the first character, indisputably hilarious, the other character – equally indisputably – not.)

Making me wonder why exactly liberals weren’t funny.

So okay, the first obstacle in this investigation, the newly popularized – and almost immediately overused diagnosis:

“Confirmation Bias.”

A predisposition to believe stuff that confirms what you already believe.  And to be less than receptive when those beliefs are made fun of.

To wit,

I lean demonstrably leftward; ergo, mocking my sacred cattle and personal behavior are unlikely terrain for mining my comedic enthusiasm.

I’m kind of sensitive, okay?

On the other hand, the other guys’ sacred cattle and personal behavior – “Can you believe those people?  Ha ha ha ha and ha!

So there’s that.  Still, there are at least two things that are funny no matter what your political proclivity – ideological inconsistency and disproportionate attention.

For the committedly fair-minded amongst us, liberals are fair game when their core beliefs incongruously intersect.?

“We respect all cultural behavior equally.”

Mandated gender inequity?

“But not that.”

Disproportionate attention?

There are a lot of problems in this world.  Why target your wrath and righteous indignation on grocery bags?

I shall now – less than courageously – sidestep the litany of conservative excesses.  Mentioning only that “All You Can Eat” restaurants are an unlikely liberal birthday party destination.  (My personal exception referencing the concept: asking that my still half-filled plate be taken away, explaining, “That’s all I can eat.”)

The thing is – admitting this may be more personal bias than objective analysis –

Conservative excesses are funnier than liberal excesses.

Here’s a test. 

“Funny” or “simply annoying”?

Excessive sensitivity towards the needs and feelings of others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves.

Excessive attention to “healthy” habitual behavior.

Excessive preoccupation with the imminent future of the planet.

Inordinate attention to the consideration of fairness.

Unqualified tolerance towards people and creatures of all kinds including the ugly ones.

How did we do there? 

Five “simply annoyings”, right?

So you see what I’m gettin’ at.  The problem I think here is “inordinate compassion” is hardly “hilarious.”  “Irrational insistence” may trigger, a possible skeptical raised eyebrow – like the woman who got our local “Petting Zoo” shut down because “the baby goats looked depressed” – but the reflexive reaction of “having your heart in the right place”?  How do you successfully lampoon that?    

Ergo, the conservative-leaning King of the Hill – thirteen seasons on television; the liberal-bashing The Goode Family, when it was finally produced – thirteen episodes, and then cancelled.  

Okay, but here’s the bigger consideration. 

King of the Hill was grounded in well-rounded (albeit computer animated) human characterization.  The Goode Family was, by contrast, a two-dimensional satirical concept. 

The Goode Family characters were not people; they were symbolic representations, which, evidenced by its disappointing reception, proved demonstrably less appealing to the television viewing public.

If you inhabited your show with three-dimensional characters who happen to lean in a certain ideological direction, then perhaps a sitcom about liberals could comedically make the grade.  But till I see one successfully executed, despite my desire, even today, to get into the action,

I would not sign aboard to beat an unfunny horse.