We Are All Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner was an outstanding professional baseball player in the 1970s and 1980s, and many believe him to be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  However, all his accomplishments on the field and in his life were eclipsed by a single incredibly horrible moment in his career, the ground ball that trickled between his legs at the end of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series.  His error allowed the Mets to complete an amazing comeback victory when the Red Sox were right on the cusp of winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, and the Red Sox lost the deciding Game 7 to the New York Mets, crushing their fans.

Mr. Buckner just recently passed away, and he tried valiantly to live down what might be the most infamous gaffe in baseball history for the remaining 33 years of his life.  To his credit, he bore the constant reminders of the shocking mistake with as much stoicism and grace as any human being likely could ever muster.  Thanks to the advent of the Internet and services such as YouTube since 1986, later generations have been able at their leisure to relive the most painful and humiliating moment of his sporting lifeagain and again and again.  How wonderful that must have been for him, his family, and his friends.

Given that so much of all of our lives is now available online for the edification and entertainment of the nosey and the nasty, questions about our personal privacy, the security of our data, and our increasingly shaky right to live away from the unblinking eye of pervasive surveillance become more pressing with each passing year.  Privacy and discretion are rapidly becoming artifacts as quaint as 19th century high-button shoes, and we now often know far more about strangers and near strangers than is perhaps either reasonable or healthful.  

Moreover, our predatory attitude toward anyone foolish enough to be a “public figure” is astoundingly cruel at times. I cannot even imagine what President Franklin Roosevelt, forced to use a wheelchair and leg braces due to polio from the 1920’s until his death, might have had to endure at the hands of his enemies in today’s mean meme world.  The media once understood human decency and consideration and so avoided photographing him in his wheelchair; this type of kindness now seems beyond all imagining.

A society that has raised both voyeurism and public humiliation to a high art is likely neither the healthiest nor most functional.  Although it could be reasonably argued that some of the obsessive self-revelation of early 21st century life has exposed injustices and abuses long hidden from viewthe #MeToomovement and instances of police misconduct spring immediately to mindthe degradation of personal boundaries and our addiction to gawking at misery and mischief is much less laudable.  

Being able to Google a celebrity sex tape or view a cell phone video of someone passed out from a drug overdose is unlikely to promote either individual dignity or social justice.  Both the ready availability of this sort of this material and our evident interest in it and other scandalous and salacious fare speaks to our lack of respect and empathy for others.  

The fortunes made on trafficking in the unhappiness and mistakes of others is both sad and shameful.  In the old days, blackmailers used to extort money from their victims by threatening to reveal an indiscreet letter or photograph; today’s modern blackmailer simply starts a website and sells subscriptions to the scandal-hungry masses.  Although making a quick buck by hawking stolen selfies and videos of some embarrassing moment might be good old-fashioned capitalist initiative at its best, the wonder is that we both allow and actively support this ugliness.

Our deeply embedded schadenfreudeour dark desire to savor the unhappiness of othersis likely to blame for much of our willingness to click on a hateful comment or watch a pratfall from respectability, but we also must recognize that the modern monetization of misery has served to extinguish boundaries of propriety and restraint that we are worse off for having lost.  A society that ruthlessly extinguishes its heroes for profit also discards any possibility for higher purpose or self-sacrifice because every human thought and action is reduced to sad farce or laughable self-delusion.  Even worse, a single misjudgment or misstep now has to power, thanks to the endlessly amplified echo chamber of infotainment and social media, to erase all memory of an otherwise respectable life and transform one into either a devil or a buffoon.

It is terrible that Bill Buckners life and professional career will be remembered for a twisting little grounder that danced past his ankles, but this is the reality that we all now face every day.  Any person, anywhere, and at any time canin but a single unguarded or unthoughtful momenthave ones life become an object of derision or delight for the multitudes who are anxious to revel in the misfortunes of others.  Is it somehow hilarious to post videos of the overstressed, overexcited, or overwhelmed?  Are accidents humorous?  Should we be shocked that humans sometimes make thoroughly human mistakes that seem oddly sinister when removed from their proper context?

To ask these questions is, of course, to question the business model of much of our modern media environment.  To answer these questions we need to, of necessity, look within ourselves, study our own hearts, and examine our consumption of our often coarse and cruel culture today.  To presume that our current reality is either permanent or desirable is wrongheaded.  We have the power to choose the type of world we want to inhabit, and we can certainly find the will to wean ourselves off the drugs of choice today: scandal, sleaze, and stupidity.

 

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The Perils Of Perfectionism

The history of humanity has been the history of the elusive quest for perfection.

This has been a great benefit to us in many ways.  Our tinkering with technology has vastly improved our lives by driving the development of machinery and devices that have taken us from standing agog at the sight of a fire to a blasé use of computing technology that is very close to magical.  Our desire to perfect business systems and industrial processes has led to greater productivity and cost savings.  Our wish to make a perfect meal, plan a perfect birthday party, or find the perfect gift provides a great deal of happiness to many and is a natural outgrowth of our love and friendship with one another.

However, the search for perfection has its dark side as well.  It can lead to obsession or cause unbearable and avoidable tensions in the home or workplace.  A dangerous rigidity of thought or purpose can result if the desire for perfection is not balanced by alternative viewpoints or common sense perspectives, and the search for perfection can cause some to fanatically embrace imperfect methods that cause great harm others in the process.  Perfection is a laudable goal, but we should recognize that humans are inherently imperfect and must sometimes be forgiven for words or deeds resulting from a lack of foresight, expertise, or experience rather than neglect, stupidity, or malice.

There is an old adage that perhaps also illustrates a problem that occurs with those who believe wholeheartedly in their own interpretation of what would constitute perfection: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  The belief in our own infallibility causes us to sometimes hammer away at those who disagree when we should instead be listening carefully to why their ideas differ from our own.  

This maladaptive tendency to insist that we are right when we should instead be learning why we might be wrong causes an unsurprising amount of conflict, and this explains at least part of the reason why so many necessary discussions descend into a nonproductive exchange of insults.  If we and our beliefs are perfect, those who believe differently are imperfectwithout a doubt.  The end result is arguments between parties that can never end in a resolution because for each only their own perfectoutcome is acceptable.  This my way or the highwaymindset, which by definition excludes any possibility of compromise, creates a great deal of the nightmarish gridlock that infects our governmental processes today.

This mindset is also, unfortunately, leading to a revisiting of history that focuses on flaws in human character and behaviorwhich are always easy to find with the least little effort. Every one of the heroes of history had their heaping share of human foibles, and rapidly changing social, cultural, and legal norms leave individuals and accomplishments from our past exposed to revisionist interpretations that strip them of their former glory.  

Is it appropriate to judge a 18th century historical figure such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson by 21st century standards?  Are the pyramids not as wondrous because they were built by a conquering empire?  Was the fire that recently consumed Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris any less tragic because Christians have in the past forcibly converted or murdered those who did not share their faith?  Should we tear down all monuments to Martin Luther King Jr. because his less-than-welcoming views on homosexuality would now be considered hateful?

Human history is flawed because the humans who made it are flawed.  The desire of some to censure our celebrations of any historical figure or event that exhibits imperfectionsall of which we can easily spot with the benefit of 20/20 hindsightwill eventually leave us adrift in a world where we have no heroes or heroic acts.  Only miserable gradations of villains and villainy will remain as the heritage upon we must build our future.  

As bad as the past was on occasion, the actions, beliefs, and values of our ancestors bequeathed us the world in which we live today, and we should continue to recognize their mistakes and build upon their successes.  The many imperfections of the past can inform our judgments today, but we still need to recognizeand honorthe aspirations and achievements of those imperfect people.  The men and women who built our world were sometimes brutal, duplicitous, and unfairbut the best among them tried to rise above their own imperfections.  

It is both petty and shortsighted to castigate those who tried their best by focusing exclusively upon the worst that they did, and we need to remember that the most perfect of all human abilities is our capacity to forgive the flaws of others.  Tearing down the past is not the path we need to take as we too strive to rise above our human imperfections and create a better future for ourselves and the many generations to come.

Our Celebrity Culture Does Great Harm

Two recent incidentsthe Jussie Smollett street attackand the D.C. confrontation involving high school students from Covington, KYwere disturbing in and of themselves.  In the case of Mr. Smollett, it now appears that he contrived an elaborate racist/homophobic attack on himself and filed a fake police report, but we will have to wait for the final adjudication of his case.  In the case of the Kentucky high school students, a racist narrative regarding the incident that was later proved to be false was spread by news organizations and millions of social media posts, and this resulted in these adolescents, their school, and their families being targeted for frightening abuse by total strangers. The New York Minute from first notice to outrage (prior to a thorough investigation in each of these cases)certainly points to the necessity for restraint and reflection before going nuclear regarding what you read or hear.  It typically takes only a few days to sort out the facts, and reasonable people can be expected to wait before reactingor at least control their reflex to viciously attack at first sight.

However, each of these situations also highlights the role that celebrities and our celebrity-driven culture now play in creating a rush to judgment and inflaming public discourse.  To wait is to left behind by the howling pack, and celebritiessome of who are nominally journalists or politicianscan ill afford to fall behind in the mad dash to amass more clicks and views.

Never in human history have so many pursued fame with such unmitigated lustand never have our standards been so crushingly low.  Notorietynot actual accomplishmentis what matters in America today.  If this fame can somehow be amplified by the suggestion of the grotesque, the hint of the salacious, or a soupçon of victimization, you have hit the Trifecta of 21st century click bait.  As a result, it is likely that more Americans know the name of Lorena Bobbittwho sliced off the penis of her abusive husbandthan Dr. Jonas Salk, who created one of the first vaccines against polio.  So many of usparticularly the young, the impressionable, and the troublednow feed an unhealthful hunger for the bizarre through social media and newsthat titillates the senses rather than informs the mind.  Like a cat frantically chasing the elusive light from a laser pointer, we race to fill some void in our own psyches by trafficking in raw and disturbing emotion rather than careful analysis.

I suspect the secret fantasy of many who are addicted to social media is to be famous themselves because their daily lives lack the drama they desperately crave.  Perhaps the rewards of honesty, sobriety, and responsibility seem meager compared to the bright, shiny lives of celebrities who apparently race from party to party while dressed in the most fashionable clothes and surrounded by the most beautiful people.  If our souls are empty, it could be the case that that which has a shiny surface can be mistaken for that which sustains us spiritually.  A society that lacks faith in itself or its future is especially susceptible to the lure of living for only the moment without regard for the long term consequences for either ourselves or others.

Celebrity culture is, after all, about nothing other than the here and now.  Planning and introspection are both unnecessary and, quite frankly, a huge and unwanted annoyance when the focus is entirely upon yourself at this very moment.  The sheer wonderfulness of being you is all that matters, and in order to keep the spotlight focused and bright, celebrities of all stripes must continue to engage in increasingly wild and potentially self-destructive behavior.  Because so many other celebrities (and potential celebrities) are now vying for the publics limited attention span, sheer shock value is sometimes needed to cut through the clutterwhich only further degrades our already dismal standards of speech and behavior.

Therefore, moderation in both words and actions are quickly discarded by those seeking fame.  Because celebrities by definition need publicity and attention in order to remain celebrities, they are many times the worst offenders when it comes to posting nasty and snarky comments and rushing to pass judgment before all the facts are available.  Sadly, we also see many political leaders moving in this direction in order to keep their names in front of voters.  It often seems to be the case that political commentary in America today follows a drearily predictable formula: Insults + Innuendo = Eyeballs.

Mean-spirited comments from actors, singers, and wannabes are obviously unhelpful; however, when those who hold or aspire to elective office go on the attack to garner attention, they call the basic fairness of our governmental processes into question and further corrode our already shaky faith in our political leaders, which is currently bumping along at historic lows if polling data is to be believed.  We should be able to expect more from a Senator or President than we do from someone who once acted in a sitcom or had a hit song.  Although it may be true that, as the saying goes, there is no bad publicityon an individual level, our nation suffers terrible harm when a politician decides to be a clever little quote machine.  Those who want to lead our nation should be able to demonstrate more restraint than an eleven year old.

This being said, it must be pointed out that sane and fact-basedcommentary posted on social media platforms often provides a forum for discussions that avoid the politicized myopia that has become so prevalent in the mainstream media today.  Given that we cannot expect MSNBC or Fox News to soon escape from the ideological straitjackets that stifle open and honest discussions of the many pressing issues facing our nation, thoughtful debate and discussion often falls to citizen bloggers who do not need to worry overly much about the disapproval of their peers or the annoyance of advertisers.  This unique opportunity for those who live outside the hyper-partisan media bubble to inject some sanity into our national debates, which is possible only because of the internet and social media, offers the clearest possible proof that the problem is not the existence of social media itselfwe simply need to learn how to use it to inform rather than inflame.

Will the downward spiral of celebrity slams ever end?  Although I would like to believe that maturity inevitably triumphs over immaturity, too many have now learned to define themselves by the insults they automatically heap upon others.  It could just be that lawsuitsand the massive financial awards that can followwill be the awful chemotherapy that finally cures the vile cancer of hate that infects our online discourse and daily media commentary.  Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky high school student most prominently featured in the recent online and media persecution concerning completely fake charges of racist behavior earlier this year, has filed a $250 million libel lawsuit against The Washington Post over their unsupported and insulting coverageand other lawsuits are soon to follow.  

Will Mr. Sandmann prevail in court?  This is obviously yet to be determined, but it might be the case that fear of grievous financial harmrather than a return of basic human decencywill be what finally tempers our outraged and outrageous urges to shock, snark, and smear rather than simply converse when the next topic of national debate presents itself for our evaluation and reaction.  I am certain this will be a terrible disappointment for the many who now heighten their celebritystatus by denigrating others, but it could be the best possible outcome for both our nation and our people.

When it comes to any of the issues and problems facing our nation today, creating a meme must not be more important that discussing a sensible solution.

Is Technology The New Creativity?

I am of two minds about living in America today.  Setting aside any discussion of politicswhich I am glad to do for the momentI find that I cannot escape my belief that our popular and fine arts and entertainment are, by and large, horrifically bad and stupendously boring.  However, this shortcoming is more than made up for by the near-magical world of technological innovation we live in today.  Although we clearly have our problemsevery age doesI can firmly assert that I do not wish to live at any time other than now.  Our daily cultural life may be a wasteland, but our work and play are made immeasurably better by the incredible creativity in technology that has relegated most fine arts and popular entertainment to a purely secondary role in early 21st century American life.

A while back I was appalled to discover that a total of sixSharknadomovies have been made.  I cannot believe we actually needed even the first, but this odd phenomenon brings a stark fact of the universe of popular entertainment into sharp focus: New ideas are typically few and far between.

There are, of course, many reasons that endless iterations of so many idiotic ideas plague our modernity.  One is that investors and entertainment companies are desperate for a sure thing, so they reason that if Sharknado 3 made money, there is some likelihood that Sharknado 4 will as welland, for reasons that surpass understanding, they often do.  By the same token, the business executives who green light this kind of falderal presume that a flop will be more easily excused by their bosses if it can be presented as a wise decisionone derived from a sensible expectation based upon prior successesthat for reasons beyond their control simply failed this one time.  Money in the arts and entertainment tends to chase conservative investments, and gambling with the cash provided by your corporate overlords is not a prescription for a long career in this business.

Consequently, artists and entertainers who long ago lost their edge are recycled beyond the point when they have any work truly worthy of our consideration.  Even if the caviar of their early career has now degenerated into stale corn flakes, it has some intrinsic worth as a known brandthat can still make a buck off name recognition and former notoriety.  This explains why the late work of Pablo Picasso, which basically was terrible and derivative, continued to sell well and the tours of aging rockers still command premium prices despite the suspicion that their current artistry owes much to the wonders of lip syncing and hip replacement surgeries.  We know what to expect and fill in the blank spots from our own memoriesand so the illusion survives.

We are, in addition, now besieged by recycled drivel simply because there are so many more media outlets in need of contentany contentto fill in the spaces between infomercials.  Cheap and disposable entertainmentcontrived and packaged to present the best possible platform for advertisements or to encourage streaming subscriptionsrules a great deal of the entertainment world today simply because there are twenty-four hours and seven days in a week that must be programmed.  No one plays the National Anthem and turns off their transmitter at midnight anymore because dead air is anathema in a culture where constant stimulation is the norm—and necessity.

However, as much as the traditional forms of creativity—music, sculpture, poetry, theater, dance, etc.—seem to have landed in a ditch today, we do live in an age of mind boggling technological inventiveness that has transformed every facet of our livesand which provides sufficient compensation for the dreary state of our arts and entertainment.  

I sometimes shake my head when I think about growing up in a world of land line telephones, rabbit ear antennae on boxy cathode ray tube televisions, clacking typewriters, and rooms filled with library card catalogues.  Medical care was often diagnosis by stethoscope and exploratorysurgeries because there were no wondrous medical imaging technologies available beyond a simple x-ray.  Cars, which were attractive but unreliable, could not instantly tell a mechanic via a computer link what was wrong with them.  Our connection to news and events in the outside world was a daily newspaper tossed on the doorstep in the morning or the six oclock newson a black and white television.  K-12 education was all pencil and paper, and the height of workplace computing technology was punch cards and slide rules.  Carbon paper was still a common office tool, and eager young women strove to master shorthand (how many even know what this is today?) prior to entering a heavily hair sprayed career as a secretary.

It is, of course, quite natural that technology will outpace the arts when it comes to the application of creative power.  Customers demand cutting edge innovation to justify the investment of their hard-earned cash.  However, those tired souls seeking mere distraction from their daily toil are content with that which is as comfortably familiar as a pair of worn house slippers  Therefore, the artists of each age tend to move as a herd so as to not stray too far afield from the tastes of their audiences, but the technological innovators become rich precisely by bringing new and wholly unfamiliar products to market.  

There is, of course, always an audience of elite tastemakers who seek out edgy art and culture, but there is an obvious reason why The Monkees sold many, many more records than John Cage ever didthe art that is the most popular is always that which soothes rather than assaults.  Middlebrow is always where the money is to be made, so this is what will always dominate as long as artists need food and shelter to survive.

Although the pace of creativity in engineering, science, and medicine may move faster or slower at any given time, it is always moving in one directionforwardand this is precisely what humanity demands.  There is little market for nostalgia except as it pertains to the collection of key technological artifacts of the pastclassic cars being one obvious examplein order to preserve and enjoy the genius of a particular age.  

However much we may still watch the plays of Shakespeare or read the poetry of John Milton, no one wants to again live in an age when travel from city to city meant days of bouncing along rutted roads, fire was the only source of heat and light, and surgeries were performed without the benefit anesthesia or antibiotics. The worlds that people inhabited in the past may have been more elegant in some very limited ways, but the vast majority of human lives were stalked by hunger, disease, vermin, and pain.  Our knowledge and understanding of the actual daily misery of those days have their limitations, but we are willing to look past all that for a few hours of engagement with the music, paintings, or plays of centuries gone by.

Therefore, before we get too carried away complaining about the world we live in today while romanticizing some time period long ago, perhaps it is worth taking just one small moment to celebrate the many wonders of the world we have right now.  We may have to occasionally endure the existence of the Kardashians, but we can also microwave some popcorn, stream some Miles Davis music through our ear buds, and read a classic novel on our iPads.  I have to admit, it works for me.

 

 

Disorder In The Courts

Setting aside for the moment the unbelievably dispiriting saga of the Supreme Court nominationof Brett Kavanaugh, which is clearly a political and cultural inflection point that will keep commentators scribbling for decades to come, it seems apparent that our entire federal system of jurisprudence is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy that is perhaps unprecedented in recent memory.  

Some of the problems are self-inflicted wounds that are the result of obvious miscarriages of justice that have wronged the innocent and released the guilty.  Some issues have arisen from moving far away from simply applying or interpreting laws and becoming super-legislators whose individual judgments supersede those of duly-elected representatives.  Other difficulties facing our federal courts are the inevitable outcome of our nation’s ever widening cultural and moral divisions—every ruling now produces an army of the disgruntled.

The law and our federal courts have, of course, always been imperfect tools in our eternal quest for justice on earth because the humans who write and apply our laws are themselves imperfect creatures who are subject to the same stupidity and shortsightedness as us all.  However, the hope was that rigorous training of both lawyers and judges in evidentiary proceedings conducted under rules established by both precedents and common sense would be sufficient to reduce the opportunities for either fear or favor to influence the rulings of our federal courts.  This has not always worked, but additional procedures for appeals are available, and a trip up the marble steps of the Supreme Court has always been the final leg of the journey for those seeking justice.  

It is important to remember that, even when the wheels of justice turned slowly, the general perception was that the federal courts were a reliable bulwark against destructive partisan passions.  Although we understood that justice was sometimes elusive, judges and the courts were still held in high regard.  Despite the sometimes reasonable perception that true justice often seemed reserved for rich, white males, Americans had a sense that the federal courts were capable of hearing the pleas of those who felt historically disenfranchised and responding—if belatedly—to their needs, and this served to burnish the reputation of our federal courts in spite of all their missteps on the path to modernity.  Consequently, generations of idealists worked to make improvements to both the operations and outcomes of our federal court system, which enabled a broader spectrum of American society to enjoy the benefits of living in a nation of laws.  If small town local justice sometimes seemed small-minded, the federal courts many times provided the necessary broad corrections that could later be applied nationally through the precedents set by their rulings.

How far away this all seems today….

Perhaps the most pressing problem now facing the federal judiciary is one for which they have only themselves to blame: Abandoning the role of arbiter and assuming the mantle of advocacy has turned judges into yet another subset of political hacks within a system rife with political hacks.  Outsized egos and a lack of respect for the dire consequences of judicial activism have pushed the federal courts further and further beyond their constitutional mandate, which is sadly understandable if you consider the foibles of human nature.  

As much fun as it might be to be a “rock star judge” who finds new and inventive ways to circumvent judicial limitations and seize the powers delegated to the legislative and executive branches of government under the Constitution, the price to pay is the destructive surrender of all-important perceptions of restraint and impartiality.  The unsurprising result has been that federal judges are now subjected to the same rough and tumble scrutiny as those who must regularly win re-election to their offices by presenting their partisan credentials to voters—welcome to the jungle, Your Honor.

As the federal courts have come more and more to both reflect and reinforce the partisan splits in our nation by seeking to circumscribe—or outright negate—the laws and regulations approved by the President and Congress, they have waded deeper and deeper into stormy political and moral waters they cannot possibly navigate without eventually drowning.  Moreover, by making their own partisan agendas ever more apparent through their frequent speeches and voluminous writings, judges serving at the federal level are discarding all remaining pretense of objectivity in favor of social engineering on a scale that would both astonish and alarm their more circumspect predecessors on the bench.  

The sadly predictable outcome is never ending sniping and frighteningly vicious confirmation hearings that are erasing whatever tattered prestige our highest level of courts still retain.

We may not at this late date be able to turn back the clock because our nation’s elite law schools have themselves become the training grounds for a radical judicial philosophy that—terrifyingly enough—believes judges are wiser stewards of our nation than those whom we elect to represent us.  The outright disrespect for our democratic processes that we today so often see manifested in the rulings of our federal courts is an insult to the genius of our nation’s political system, which is still the wonder of the world despite its human flaws.

Therefore, having founded a nation by rejecting the divine rights of kings, it might just be the case that we will renew our nation’s commitment to democracy—however maddening and messy as the will of the people might sometimes be—by opposing the “divine rights” that have been assumed by judges who believe it is their prerogative to strike down legislation, oppose the President, and impose whatever mandates they see fit upon a captive America with a single court order.  

The battle has been joined, and those on both sides of this issue clearly understand what is at stake.  Whatever the outcome might be, we can be certain that our perceptions of the federal court system and its role in relation to the other two branches of our national government are about to undergo a profound shift—and the outcome will either begin to heal or further divide our already troubled nation.