Wednesday, April 22, 2020

“It’s About Saving Lives”…Or Is It?

one of us have ever experienced anything like how the Coronavirus pandemic has altered our daily lives.

Some are working from home for the first time. Some – far too many - are not working at all.

Concerts and plays are gone. Sports are gone – even on television. Movie theaters are closed. Most stores are closed. Going to church? As long as you stay in your car – and even then you risk legal trouble in some cities.

No more going out to a nice dinner in a restaurant. No getting together with friends in your home.

Doesn’t leave much, does it?

But we have been told repeatedly that these Draconian measures are absolutely the right thing to do, and we’ve been shown death rate numbers based on models that would scare a staunch libertarian into sheltering in place.

So we went along. And since we’ve never been in this situation before we all complied without asking a lot of questions.

As this is being written the U.S. is either at the peak or near the peak, and now the numbers are expected to start dropping – fewer deaths, fewer hospitalizations, fewer cases of any kind, even the 97% or so that are asymptomatic. The original estimates of loss were highly exaggerated.

And yet…the response to all this seems to be not a loosening of restrictions, but further constriction. Masks that were optional in some cities are now mandatory. Grocery stores that were open to everyone are now limiting the number of shoppers at any one time. And the governor of Michigan apparently won’t be happy until the streets of Detroit are completely deserted.

And now a lot of those questions that should have been asked a few weeks ago are becoming more pervasive.

But when they are asked, the response is usually the same: “It’s about public health.” “It’s about saving lives.” And then the discussion stops. Because if you disagree, you are against saving lives. What kind of monster are you, anyway?

I fear that going forward, “It’s about saving lives” may become the new “It’s racist” – a way to shut down a legitimate debate and brand one’s opponent as a terrible person by claiming a moral high ground. But few issues are so clear-cut, and few decisions are so binary.

We’re approaching a tipping point, when federal and state officials will contemplate stretching a “temporary” curb on civil liberties and the Bill of Rights, which apparently no longer apply when there is a virus.

One more month? Two more? The rest of this year? One Harvard study now claims social distancing should be maintained until 2022.

It does seem ghoulish to talk about acceptable risk and acceptable loss. But there are other types of risks and losses as well, that will multiply at a frightening rate the longer we remain under these restrictions. Companies lost. Livelihoods lost. Hope lost.

Keep this in mind as well - if it was this easy to shutter businesses and throw millions of people out of work, lock up houses of worship and institute near martial law over much of the country, it's only going to be easier next time when a politician deems it necessary. That could be a Democrat shutting down gun stores for 'public health reasons,' or a Republican forcing abortion clinics to close.

We are still a nation of laws. And we need to start remembering that. Especially now.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Millennials Make it Official: Today’s Music is Lousy

Like most people of my generation, I am convinced that the music I grew up with, from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, is better and more authentic than the over-produced, auto-tuned, computerized rubbish that now dominates sales and downloads.

To some extent I think every generation feels that same loyalty to the songs and the bands that were playing when they first discovered music, so it’s not something I tend to debate with anyone who prefers the oeuvre of Cardi B. If they’re happy, I’m happy.

But there are signs that those growing up with what’s currently topping the charts (do they still use charts?) have also started to realize they’re settling for less. That message is being sent via a YouTube phenomenon that I’ve known about for a while but never experienced – the reaction video.

If you’re not familiar, these are videos posted by people, most of them in their 20s, who play an “old” song and then react to hearing it for the first time. I thought it was a fairly ridiculous concept that sounded no more interesting than watching someone eat a Milky Way bar for the first time. What do I care if they like it or not?

But since I hooked up my Amazon Fire TV and can view YouTube on my big screen, I’ve found myself watching a lot of stuff I’d normally pass by. And one night, I noticed a video in which someone billed as “JB Lethal” was going to introduce himself to “We’ve Only Just Begun,” by The Carpenters.

What I learned about JB Lethal is that he’s an African-American man in his 20s, who grew up listening to r&b and rap. So I was curious how this guy who was born about ten years after Karen Carpenter died would react to hearing a type of song that could not be further removed from the music on which he was raised.

As the track played, Mr. Lethal bowed his head, and then shook his head as if he could not believe what he was hearing. “Wow, man. That was beautiful,” he said when it was over. “That was so beautiful it’s ridiculous. It brightens my mood. It moves my soul.”

Shortly thereafter he reacted to a live version of The Carpenters performing the same song, because the concept of someone actually being able to sing as well as they sound on a recording is no longer taken for granted. Once again the reaction was one of admiration and astonishment.

‘Her voice is so pure. “Where is the talent at in this generation?”

It wasn’t long before he moved on to “Close to You,” “Superstar” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.”

And now I was hooked. I wanted to see what other songs and bands he’d never heard, and what he would think of them. I watched JB Lethal discover Queen and Abba and Pink Floyd and Journey. I watched him get almost tearful at Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” head bang to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and be blown away by the working class lyricism of Billy Joel.

“How did y’all decide on a favorite band, when all of them were this good?” he asked after listening to “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers. “What happened to music?” Why don’t we have songs like this now?”

Of course much of my pleasure in watching these reactions was rooted in confirmation bias. But there was also some relief that quality still mattered and was not entirely lost on a generation being raised on inferior product.

There was a touch of envy as well, at all of the joy that is in this young man’s future. Led Zeppelin has been part of the soundtrack of my life for four decades, so I can’t even imagine what it must be like to for him to hear “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time. That was fun to watch.

Zeppelin seems to be one of the leading go-to groups for discovery among millennial reactors. “This band sure knows how to play its instruments” extolled reactor “Jayvee” - as if that wasn’t at one time a pre-requisite for a professional career in music.

One of the unexpected pleasures I’ve found in these videos is how they inspire me to listen to old chestnuts with more focus and more appreciation than I have for many years. Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” typically just begat a mild grin of recognition when they pop up on an oldies station. Now I really try to listen to them again – and be amazed once more by how great they sound.

“This was some really good music you guys had.”

--JB Lethal

Yeah, we know.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Emmys proved it

he Emmy Awards proved what is truly wrong with television today.  The three biggest winners are premium pay services HBO (34 wins), Netflix (27 wins), and Amazon Prime (15 wins).  Without a Kyle Busch Rule in effect, premium pay is pushing the envelope in X-rated material.  Netflix spends more money on television programming than the broadcast networks, even when the three major networks (as established by the NFL— Fox, CBS, and NBC) spend mostly on acquiring NFL rights, college sports, and golf.

As we've noted on television many times, "TV-MA" is a code meaning X-rated programming spoken here.  Without a Kyle Busch rule, studios are deliberately pushing the envelope and airing X-rated programming that the studios push to critics.  Then, the critics push the recommendations to get people into buying these services and watching the X-rated material.  When the nation's most watched regular television series (NCIS) is not even nominated for Emmys while X-rated material is allowed, have we reached a boiling point?  Is quality on television now regulated based on how banal they are where the X rating is best?

What good will it be when television focuses on adults-only programming?x

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Hong Kong . . . and an NBC announcement

 release from NBC regarding their top-rated show on television that starts in a week with a special Thursday episode had me reminding myself of what has been happening in Hong Kong.

If, in the words of the late Jim Lange (from the 1980's version) or if you're even older, James Narz (aka Tom Kennedy) from the 1970's version that the lady we now know as the Mrs. Frank Gifford was part of that version, you "listen and name that tune," you will catch the reference to this tune with the recent NBC announcement.

Can you identify the reference?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

#DennyDelivers number of channels, anyone?

I have to roll out a FedEx Toyota with a boatload of cash delivered by NASCAR superstar Denny Hamlin to the winner of the PGA Tour championship in East Lake -- but really it's an annuity the winner doesn't take home now, it is kept for the player in the future.

But that reminds me of his Toyota's number -- #11 -- and this disturbing statistic I caught while scanning channels today. This year's MTV Video Music Awards  air on eleven different channels under MTV's control. That's as bad as ESPN's College Football Playoff and, in alternating years, the NCAA Men's Final Four and Championship when AT&T carries them.  How have we spun numbers where 11 different limited access channels air major events instead of one broadcast network channel, which is what college football and basketball once were?

Just sad how far we've fallen when you use 11 different channels to air one show for one night.

In 2007, we were stunned by a "relevant Bible study" for youth in church featuring MTV stars.

And of course, in 2003, after the Spears-Madonna-Aguilera incident, we called all three of them to the Big Red Truck.  This time, who gets called to the Big Red Truck?

Friday, August 16, 2019

Retro TV Friday: Television does imitate life!

The recent "sequel" of Beverley Hills, 90210 as a six-episode summer mini-series on Fox, once I read details on the preview listed by our television, I thought was based on the real-life actions of classic television fans. The Aaron Spelling series was a coming of age for both the stars and the Fox network, which by 1994 had become a major network while CBS (which now owns the franchise after acquiring Mr. Spelling's library) had been relegated to minor status (and as I've learned over the years, our market came precariously close to losing the network as a whole).

The setting of the show's first episode was naturally, a classic television convention which our esteemed editor knows very well from having been to a few, and fans know from seeing classic television shows featured in these events. So it came to my attention that art had to imitate life when the show's setting was a classic television convention, and the fans had arrived to see the stars of the show. Someone writing this sequel must have seen what actually happens in those classic show meetings to get a script for this episode. Though I may have wanted Bob Jenkins to be a guest star on this, since for a few years on ABC, Jason Priestley was the INDYCAR analyst, a move similar to Dennis Miller on NFL coverage. What?

So those who attend these classic television meetings, such as the one in Maryland, are able to see it referenced on a present-day television programme. Go figure.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Throwback Thursday: Is Francis the sorrow and the pity of the Catholic Church?

Back in the day, when I was going through my instruction prior to converting to Catholicism, a priest asked this question: "If you stood accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"  It's an excellent question, thought-provoking but also chilling, when one is forced to admit (as I do, freely) that most of the time I'd get off scot-free.

Pertinent to this, here's a corollary to that question, which I don't mind posing today: "If you weren't already Catholic today, would you be convinced to convert?"

I'm not entirely sure what my answer would be—it's always hard to answer a hypothetical, especially in a situation that depends on ignorance of what you already know. Given that, my temptation is to answer that question: No.

(If this were a radio program, you'd now hear me say, "The reason why, in a moment," followed by a commercial. But since I don't have commercials, you'll just have to imagine it, as a way of building a dramatic cliffhanger.  OK, we're back.)

Catholicism had held a great deal of interest for me over the years prior to my conversion. At the beginning, there was an aesthetic component to it, what with the ritual and the symbolism and the ceremonial nature of the Mass.*  I'd been drawn to the news coverage of the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul, I in 1978 and the conclaves that had ensued, and I'd been impressed by the dignity and bearing of the new pope, John Paul II. I'd begun reading more about the Church some time after that, and found not only an intellectual component that had been missing from my spiritual life, but a core set of beliefs that convinced me the Catholic Church stood for something.  There wasn't anything particularly political or ideological about it—it was more of the idea that the Church, in her teachings, was something worth living—and dying—for.

*Much of which had, in the post-Vatican II world, disappeared by that time.  Nonetheless, there were memories of earlier days, seen on television; in addition, mass media has always had a hard time shaking the myth of the old days in the Church; whenever you want to suggest religion on television or in the movies, the shorthand is always an ornamental Catholic church.

I've not made many comments about the current pope; it's a fray that for the most part is not worth getting into, since the voices that speak the loudest often have the least influence. Wading into the Catholic blogosphere is also an invitation to act in an uncharitable manner, and God knows I don't need any provocation in that area; I do well enough on my own.

However, based on the few things I've written, it probably would come as no surprise to you that I'm not a big fan of this Bishop of Rome. One must be careful here in parsing words; to say that I do not like him does not mean that I dislike him. It's more of a studied indifference, I suppose; nonetheless, I say in honesty that I do not like him. I worry about the fast and loose way in which he appears to use words, his apparent indifference to liturgical beauty, his identification with social justice to the (perhaps) detriment of theology. I don't like the way the MSM fawns over him. I don't like the way liberal Catholics use his words to justify their own reactionary beliefs (assuming, that is, that those beliefs are different from his own—with him, who can tell?), and I don't like the way "conservative" Catholics ridicule those who express such concerns.

This last group can be the most infuriating. When I was in politics, I used to say (coming from a conservative Republican perspective) that at least when the Democrats stabbed you, they did in in the chest, which meant you could see the blade coming. If you were stabbed by a Republican, on the other hand, you wouldn't know about it until you saw the tip of the blade protruding through your chest—in other words, after they had stuck it in your back. I feel much the same way about these supporters of the pope. They seem to go out of their way to antagonize people like me, using phrases like "those of us who get him" (meaning the rest of us are just too damn stupid to understand), and "I love this guy" (and the rest of us, apparently, don't). I'm not sure if these words are meant to infuriate, like poking a stick in the tiger's cage, or if they're just thoughtless. However, as is the case when a hammer falls on your foot, it doesn't matter whether it was accidentally dropped or if someone hit you with it: it still hurts.

I've resolved over the past months to watch this fight from the sidelines. When I was hospitalized a few years ago, I made a vow that I would try to avoid any discussions which tended to inflame the situation*. (I've been pretty good about that, but not perfect.) So I've had some time to think and observe what's going on, and try to keep from getting sucked into a whirlpool of depression.

*I also knew, instinctively, that were he at my bedside the pope would be as gentle and gracious as anyone could ask for. Which, again, is why I caution that I do not dislike him, something that would require active participation. Plus, just because someone is kind and loving, that doesn't necessarily mean they're competent.

And to get back to the question from the beginning of this piece (before the commercial break), my feeling is that there's very little coming out of the Church right now that can be considered a flag to which the wise can repair. There's precious little intellectual stimulation emanating from Rome; people who try to assure us of the orthodoxy of papal pronouncements often seem to be required to twist themselves into shapes that even the best chiropractor would be challenged to untie. For the first time since before my conversion, I didn't watch any of the papal ceremonies at Christmastime; I just didn't have the interest in it. There's no heft, no gravitas.

Frankly, were I approaching this as an outsider, I'm not at all sure I'd see anything that would convince me of what the Catholic Church stood for, if anything. That whole, "Who am I to judge?" fiasco was, I think, incredibly damaging to the Church, because it not only implied (rightly or wrongly) a lack of importance in taking the measure of a situation, it also encouraged people to parse all of the pope's other words on that basis. When words can be twisted as easily as this, then everything becomes relative. I'm only glad that the workers who build airplanes work from more specific instructions than those that come to us from Rome.

At worst, this pope is a dangerous man, prepared to set the Church back to the dark ages following Vatican II, a time of confusion, disappointment and alienation, a time when "everything goes" seemed to apply to everyone except those who thought they were following what the Church had always taught.  This would be an invitation to the second pontificate of Paul VI, and we all know how successful that one was. At best, this pope is a man who means well, has a good heart, and lives by orthodox beliefs, but has an amazing lack of awareness, an almost naive misunderstanding of the media, and a stunning inability to express himself with clarity and authority, leaving demoralized and dispirited believers in his wake. At any rate, a man who lacks the ability to be "as cunning as a serpent." Either of these alternatives, it seems to me, suggest an uncertain future - uncertain, and just as disastrous as the one above.

Much has been written about the "cult of personality" surrounding the modern papacy. I think there's more than a little merit to this, although in an era of 24/7 news that seeks to turn all leaders into media "newsmakers," it's probably impossible to completely avoid such a situation. But there's an old saying that I think applies in this case—you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And anyone who's part of an organization, large or small, knows that they may be the ones responsible for the first impression someone else gets. In other words, we're all role models.

Perhaps, with the oversized papacies of John Paul II and (to a lesser extent) Benedict XVI, we became used to seeing the pope as synonymous with the Church, and that's obviously false; over two centuries, the Church has survived many a bad pope. Still, for an outsider, someone who looks at the Catholic Church with an eye to conversion, that first impression may well come from the world's most visible Catholic.  What impression is he giving?  That of a man ready to lead a Church during uncertain times in a hostile world? A man of strong beliefs, representing solid ground upon which the faithful can stand? A man who understands the problems the Church faces? Or is it a man reassuring us that we're all OK, someone who places earthly needs above spiritual ones, someone who in his celebrity is all style, no substance? A man content to be all things to all people, with nobody quite sure of what he really believes in? A man hostile to the traditions of the Church, and indifferent to those who have fought hard to preserve them?

So here's the answer to my question: if I were looking at the Church from outside, I would see few of the things which drew me to Catholicism in the first place. I'd see people campaigning for social justice rather than trying to bring salvation to men's souls. I'd see that Church being led by a man who is soft, who doesn't have the stomach for the fight that lies ahead. I'd see dissension and discouragement in the ranks. I'd see very little that would convince me it was worth dying for.

I might still convert. I'd like to think that, thanks to the Grace of God, I would do so in spite of any doubts I might have, because I would then be joining the One True Church. But in doing so, I'd keep in mind the words of Whittaker Chambers, who remarked that in leaving Communism, "I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism."

The Catholic Church cannot be the losing side. Christ Himself promised that "the gates of Hell" would not prevail against His Church. And that is the reassurance that keeps us from slipping into despair. If the pope can't infuse us with that confidence in Christ's words—if he cannot share with us that hope amidst a world of despair—then, quite frankly, what can he do?

Originally published January 8, 2014

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Opera Wednesday

Xrom one of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons of all time - here's how Bugs handles an opera prima donna. I wonder how many children, through the years, had their introduction to opera and classical music from Looney Tunes cartoons? (And not only children!)

Monday, August 12, 2019

Keep Your Faith To Yourself – Unless I Say Otherwise

In 2015, a county clerk for the state of Kentucky named Kim Davis decided to deny marriage licenses to gay couples, in open defiance of federal law. She did this, she said, because she believed the teachings of her church were more eminent than those of her country.

For doing so, she was roundly condemned and eventually relieved from this responsibility. The loudest voices of opposition came from the political left who howled about “separation of church and state!” She’s free to believe what she wants on her own time, they generously consented, but as long as she lives in this country she better abide by its laws, by jingo.

They probably didn’t say “by jingo,” but it seemed to fit.

These crusaders against Christianity having any say in politics probably don’t know where the concept of “separation of church and state” originated, and why it was created in the first place (it’s certainly not for the reason they think). But that is not relevant here.

What is relevant is that last week, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) just became the country's first 'sanctuary church body.’ They have proclaimed their intention to shelter and protect those who are in this country illegally, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that are attempting to enforce a law that has existed for decades under both Democrat and Republican administrations.

And the same people who mocked and condemned Kim Davis are now at risk of spraining their wrists from applauding so hard, in celebration of Christians openly defying federal law.

Has something changed? Did we become a theocracy when I wasn’t paying attention? Come on, you guys, someone should have told me.

This announcement was particularly troubling to me because I was baptized and confirmed in a church that now identifies as evangelical Lutheran. It was just plain old Lutheran back then, but I guess someone decided 32 Christian denominations weren’t enough, so it was time to add a few more.

I went to the ELCA’s Facebook page to get a sense of what the rank and file were saying about what I assumed would be a controversial decision. I expected opposing views, intelligently expressed; what I did not expect was insults, arrogance, and a level of discussion as puerile as what you’d find in the comments section of a fringe political blog. With few exceptions there was no attempt at respectful dialogue and debate. It was like a Trinity Broadcast Network version of Crossfire.

But if the question were to be decided by popular vote, the consensus on that Facebook page suggests this decision has majority support.

I think it’s terribly misguided, and the fact that I would even have to explain why is a sad reflection on how the world has changed. Right and wrong, legal and illegal, have all become amorphous terms in a society that is now allergic to emphatically expressed truths.

A legitimate government is enforcing a just law. Every country can and should regulate immigration as a right related to its national sovereignty. Period.

What message is the ELCA sending to the million or so immigrants who come to America legally every year? That they’re like fools who circle a parking lot for ten minutes waiting for someone to leave, when all they had to do was pull into that handicapped spot without a placard? Who cares about doing things the right way?

What message does it send to other churches who may wish to defy a law it believes is unfair? If the ELCA can shield an illegal immigrant from lawful deportation, why can’t a Catholic church detain a woman who wishes to terminate her pregnancy, to protect the innocent life of her child, because that too would be in accordance with a higher law?

This is a big door swinging open, and my guess is that all the Trump-haters who love seeing him get a middle finger from a house of worship have not considered all of the ramifications. This time it’s great because they agree with it. But they reserve the right to tell the church to hit the road on issues where they don’t. I’ll take “Cafeteria Christians” for 600, Alex.

Yes, there is a Gospel imperative to “welcome the stranger.” But any legitimate church’s doctrine also supports the right of sovereign countries to have borders, and the reality that immigration must be subject to some regulation.

The ELCA has elected to separate from that doctrine. That will get them some good press from a left-leaning media for a while. But I wonder if anyone will ask its members (or those cheering from the secular sidelines cause Jesus finally got one right) if they ever gave a thought to the strangers laying all over the sidewalks of San Francisco and Seattle and Portland.

I’m guessing they haven’t – thankfully the Catholics and the Protestants are doing their best to provide food and shelter and counseling. Maybe if some of those pitiful souls decided to have a gay wedding, they’d get a little more attention.
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