Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ground Hog Blog

Groundhog Blog

Groundhog Day brings to mind various associations, including the fervent hope of this snow-buried Bostonian that Punxsutawney Phil will not see his shadow this year and spring will come early. This may be the one good thing about global warming.

My primary association, however, is with Bill Murray as the lead in the most philosophical yet commercial comedy-romance movie ever made. For those who have been living in caves or remote mountain cabins, the plot assigns a cynical and egotistical reporter, played by Murray, to cover the Groundhog Day doings in Punxsutawney PA. He finds himself trapped in time, waking up on the same day over and over and over and over . . . which at first he experiences as a kind of hellish torment. As each identical 24 hours repeats itself in all its banality (though he alone is free to do within it whatever he wishes), it slowly dawns on him that his condition is not a torment, but an opportunity to practice getting life, and love, right. By the end he is forced into an empathy beyond ego that he is grateful to have learned, and in the process—it is after all a mainstream Hollywood production in spite of its art-house profundity—wins the heart of Andie MacDowell.

The film is such an obvious metaphor for ordinary life as we live it in day after day of trial and error, that little interpretation is required. At the same time it does illumine the opportunity that each new day presents to think or act or be a little bit more creatively. It has been said that life is not a dress rehearsal, but that is not altogether true. While there are many moments in every life when something happens that is irreversible, there are also even more moments when we are given the opportunity to try again—to be kinder, to listen more intently, to be more present to the wonder of what is passing by us and through us. Life is at the same time a one-directional arrow and a repetition of cycles, days and nights and weeks and seasons and years. As a teacher for three decades, I was particularly grateful for such repetition. I needed the privilege of trying again with each new crop of students to be more rigorous and compelling, friendly and fair.

On the international scene, the cycle of violent conflict can seem banally inevitable. Vietnam becomes a rehearsal for Afghanistan becomes a rehearsal for . . .? But time is not only cyclical, it is an arrow that contains the potential for two possible directions—descending toward the ultimate irreversible threat of nuclear holocaust, or rising toward some new possibility that we humans can make irreversible as well. We can learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis. India and Pakistan do not have to repeat the cold war cycle of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. with all its hideous risk and red ink. We can decide to abolish all nuclear weapons. The Middle East, like Middle Europe, can have its own non-violent Velvet Revolution.

Both whirled in cycles and carried forward on the stream of time toward the unknown, we do not have the luxury of Bill Murray’s reporter to practice our creativity within a narrow frame over and over, in a cycle of repeating time without its directional arrow. But like him we are caught in the imperative to evolve and change, not toward some perfect romantic outcome of boy gets girl, but simply toward survival. As Jonas Salk put it, “If we look at evolution as an error-making and an error-correcting process, if we are ever so much slightly better at error-correction than at error-making, we’ll make it.”

“How seldom,” said Emerson, “the present hour is seized upon as a new moment.” But sometimes a Gorbachev or a Mandela comes along, dynamically seizing the new moment and turning the miraculously improbable into the obviously possible. Within our own small compass of repeated days, we can each do the same. “All history,” Emerson also said, “is but the lengthened shadow of a great man.” What shadow might we ourselves cast, a sign of some new spring that, sooner or later, must come?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Limbaugh's Limbo

Limbaugh’s Limbo

Winslow Myers

I tuned in Rush Limbaugh’s radio show because I was interested in his response to the question of whether he shared some responsibility for leading the deluded young assassin in Arizona over the edge—on the face of it an unanswerable question, though many on the left have been very quick to answer yes, in thunder.

Limbaugh’s first line of defense was to aggressively deflect blame onto others, including the sheriff in charge of the investigation into the killings, Clarence Dupnik. Sheriff Dupnik came across, to me anyway, as the absolute best of America, an official who spoke authoritatively about how he sees the present sorry state of civility in this country. Dupnik reminded me a little of the lawman in Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men,” almost overwhelmed by new forms of evil but still willing to stand and deliver.

The day I listened, Limbaugh immediately went on the attack against the sheriff and others he perceives as adversaries with hardly a nod to the victims of the Arizona tragedy. It was an oddly self-centered display. The parents of the little girl who was killed provided an instructive contrast. Holding themselves together with heroic composure, they made sure the story was not their own pain and loss, but what a remarkable person their daughter had been.

It is difficult, maybe impossible, to write about Limbaugh without being sucked into the battle dynamic which Limbaugh is paid multi-millions to sustain. No doubt Rush Limbaugh has some good ideas about how to improve our political, economic and cultural institutions. But they are drowned out by one meta-idea that thoroughly undermines his effectiveness as a conservative change-agent—his desire to preserve at all costs an oppositional modality, “us against them.” That’s what keeps his loyal supporters coming back for more and his advertising sponsors underwriting his mega-riches.

While there is no causal line to be drawn between Limbaugh and the tragic schizoid alienation of Jared Loughner, it is not unfair to assert that Limbaugh contributes to the general degradation of civic discourse in our nation.

What is clear is that this very talented broadcaster is paid to be a panderer. The Encarta dictionary defines the verb “to pander” as “to indulge someone’s weakness or questionable wishes and tastes.” In this case the weakness is the jumble of helplessness, fear, and anger that many citizens feel in the face of huge powers that they perceive to be stealing their autonomy. The questionable wish is the desire to fix blame on an “other” and lash out. This is a further paradox of Limbaugh’s oppositional spirit, what is sometimes called a performative contradiction: it cries at the same time for taking responsibility and for the irresponsible helplessness of blaming someone else.

Limbaugh’s universe is very similar in its narrowness to another seductive universe of pandering, pornography, where the complex and deep encounter of sexuality is reduced to the simple dimension of scratching a fantasy itch.

Limbaugh remains stuck in a frozen limbo of self-defined authority and radio-booth isolation, where the price of admission is toadying agreement—from which authentic relationship can never come. Real relationship includes respectful listening, acknowledgement of the validity of other points of view, openness to multiple perspectives. There is a poignant irony in the fact that Limbaugh has become totally deaf in both ears.