Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is 'African-American' Offensive?

Is the expression ‘African-American’ offensive? Yes, it is.

That is because the term is ethnocentric. It assumes that the United States is in the center of the world. Here’s why.

The expression comes to replace the word ‘black’. But it denotes not only skin color or ethnic origin, it also assumes citizenship. An African-American is, by definition, American. But not all black people are American. In fact, most of them are not.

What would Americans call French blacks? What would Americans call blacks from Nigeria or South Africa or the U.K.? Even in the U.S. itself, if a black man walks down the street in New Jersey, that hardly means he’s a U.S. citizen, does it? Why call him American?

Why would a new term for ‘black’ include the word ‘American’? Why would a new term for ‘Asian’ include the word ‘American’? People would only suggest the expression (and, later, adopt it) if they automatically assumed that the U.S. is in the center of the world, that most people come from America, are in America, and that not much outside of America exists. That seems to be the only way such an expression could get acceptance. The fact that it got to be so popular means that a large part of the American people believe this deep down.

This isn’t new. The term ‘American’ itself has hinted at this for years. Ask a Canadian if he’s American, and he’ll say “No, I’m Canadian.” But a Canadian citizen is an American in the same way that a citizen of the U.S. is American. And let’s not even mention South America.

The terms ‘American’, ‘African-American’, ‘Asian-American’ and their like tell us something about the people who invented them, about the people who adopted them, and about the people who use them.

Monday, December 17, 2007

When People Think For Themselves

We’ve talked about how a large part of David E. Kelly’s humor forces the viewers to think, whether they want to or not. Now we’re going to talk about how his drama forces the viewers to think, whether they want to or not.

The Courtroom

One of the things that sets Kelley apart as a writer of TV court dramas is his ability to present both sides equally, without prejudice. This is how he usually does it in like L.A. Law, Picket Fences, Boston Legal, The Practice, and even, occasionally, Chicago Hope: When it’s time for the jury to decide, one side stands up, and gives his case. The case is so convincing and clear and simple that we, the viewers, think that that’s it, it’s a done deal, he’s going to win, the jury’s going to go this way, and there is nothing the other side can say that can save the day.

Then the lawyer for the other side stands up and presents his case. And by the time he’s done, the viewer thinks: That’s it, he’s right, it’s a done deal, he’s going to win, the jury’s going to vote his way.

Very few writers can pull that off. And, of course, the viewers remember that they said they same thing a couple of minutes ago about the other side. This forces them to think for themselves, to weigh both sides, to make up their own minds which way the jury will go and which way they would go. When both sides are given the best representation, it’s up to us to do the thinking. Usually, writers chew the conclusion for us and give us conclusions they hope we'll share. Less thinking is involved.

The ability to think for yourself to Kelley, perhaps, is more important than the fact that you reach the conclusion he agrees with.

Kelley doesn’t always do this, but more often than not, he does. Here are two examples from the third episode of this season’s Boston Legal:

Cockfighting

The firm’s client, Miguel Obisbo, has been charged with cockfighting, and he admits to it. The time has come to put it to the jury.

The prosecution gets up and says: “It’s not just that it’s against the law. It’s indecent, barbaric, inhumane. Two chickens – roosters, I should say – are thrown in a pit and forced to do battle until one loses consciousness due to blood loss, at which point the other pecks its head off. It’s sick. And this man openly, notoriously, broke the law to commit a sick, sick crime, one he admits committing. Just having a nun translate for you,” he refers to one of the defense lawyers’ tricks, “doesn’t put you on the side of the angels.”

And with that, he sits down.

Now it’s the defense’s turn: “Ever realize chickens are smarter than dogs? Much, much smarter than horses. And we call them ‘fowl’. How sad that the chicken by far is the most abused animal on the planet, raised in crates less than a square foot, the ends of their beaks snapped off after hatching, pumped up with antibiotics to keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise kill them, genetically altered so that they grow twice as fast, sent off to the slaughterhouse after only 6 weeks of living – typically in open crates where millions of them either freeze to death or get baked alive. The ones who do arrive undead are scalded to defeather them. Then they’re hung upside down and electrocuted just enough so that they don’t flap around when they’re getting their throats slit. It’s not good to be a chicken.

“Now, the cockfighters, they get real food. They get real room to move. They’re often loved as pets. They get at least two good years before they’re even asked to do combat. And if he’s a really good fighter, he gets to retire, to stud service, where he can live the life of... Denny Crane,” he points to Denny. Then he returns to the jury, “The simple truth is that if the chickens in this country hope to be afforded a modicum of dignity, he has to fight. Studies show they might actually enjoy it.

“Now, I suppose you could find my client guilty, because technically he broke the law, which screams out with hypocrisy. Or you could say, ‘Wait a second; Miguel Obisbo offers chickens a better life.’ Miguel Obisbo now trusts you to be... humane. Not just for his sake, but for the chickens’.”

So... Who do you think won?

Abstinence Only

Notice, by the way, that in the last example and the next, Kelley never talks down to us. The sentences and the arguments are intelligent and thoughtful and... long. The reason we follow them, the reason they’re not boring, as conventional TV wisdom would have us believe, is that each statement advances our heroes’ success or causes one step closer to their plight. So as long as he sticks to the merits of the case and as long as the points are convincing, he keeps our attention.

Moving on: 15-year-old Abby Holt has had unprotected sex and gotten the HIV virus. She is now suing her school, for having taught ‘abstinence only’ rather than teaching her to use condoms.

The school’s lawyer stands up to give his closing argument:

“Your honor, I think we all agree that fifteen is too young to be having sex. Is there anyone here who takes issue with that? Sometimes, when the right answer is ‘no’, you say ‘no’. You don’t start tinkering with morality to coincide with logistics. Kids need to hear ‘no’, not ‘here’s how, just in case’, but ‘no’.

“Abstinence was the right answer here. If she hadn’t had sex, she wouldn’t be HIV positive. And even if you are so determined to opt for pragmatism, abstinence is still the right answer. Since the implementation of this policy, the teen pregnancy rate has gone down 30%. More and more kids are choosing not to have sex, and that’s good. Whether they get sick or pregnant or not.

“And if parents disagree, by the way, they can choose to teach their kids about condoms and birth-control pills and diaphragms. But once the schools start doing so... Come on, you’re explicitly telling the kids it’s expected of them to be sexually active. And many start doing so because they feel all their friends are. Sure, you can pass out condoms. But it is simply more responsible, more moral, and, yes, more safe to practice abstinence. That’s what we should be telling them. And this school is.”

The school is not responsible for the girl getting HIV, is it?

Alan Shore gets up to give his closing:

“This case isn’t about teenage pregnancy. She didn’t get pregnant, she got HIV. I can see why you’d want to make it about teenage pregnancy, since... Well, actually, I can’t. The United States has the worst teenage pregnancy rate of any industrialized nation. And contrary to what Mr. Jovanka would like us to believe, there’s no evidence whatsoever that suggests using condoms or teaching students about condoms makes them any more inclined to have sex. None. They’re already inclined to have sex, since early puberty. They’re simply going to do it. We all do it. Birds do it, bees do it, educated fleas do it. One day, your honor, even you...” At which point the judge angrily uses his gavel.

Shore recovers, “Yes.” Then he continues: “The fact is, this case has nothing to do with the efficacy of abstinence-only programs. This case is about religion, politics, and federal funding. Our present administration, in blind service to the religious right, has transcended the separation of church and state, and consistently implemented a faith-based political and moral mandate. And now that same policy has been passed on to our educational system. If schools teach ‘abstinence only’, they get federal funding. If they teach any other type of sex education, they don’t. And as a result, the students in these ‘abstinence only’ programs aren’t being taught the truth about that magnificent technological marvel, the condom.

“It’s not a dirty word, your honor: condoms. They first came on the scene some 3,000 years ago in Egypt. For centuries they went merrily along, in modified forms, warding off syphilis, gonorrhea, preventing unplanned pregnancies, until science and medicine eventually caught on, and the pill became a much more effective, less intrusive contraceptive. Penicillin and other antibiotics were miracle cures for gonorrhea and syphilis. The poor, humble condom languished.

“And then came AIDS. This terrifying new disease that panicked the world. For many years it has been fatal, gruesomely so in every case. There was no vaccine, no cure, no treatment. But there were condoms, and they worked. They were safe, time-tested, easy to use, and they protected both partners. The condom is arguably the single, most important invention of the past 2,000 years. In fact, it has been said, without exaggeration, that the health of the world depends on them.

“Now, one would think that the obvious choice would be for schools to tell their students as much. But Abby’s school, indeed all schools that have chosen ‘abstinence only’ have chosen to lie. They teach that condoms are ineffective at preventing pregnancies, which is a lie; they teach that condoms are ineffective at preventing diseases, which is a lie; some of the literature actually compares using a condom to playing Russian roulette, which is frightening, despicable, unforgivable lie.”

“Abby Holt has HIV which, in all likelihood, will develop into AIDS. We’ve sort of forgotten about AIDS in this country. Treatments have improved dramatically. Drugs are keeping people alive for many years after they’ve become infected. But the grim butcher’s bill for this pandemic still keeps growing and growing. Sixty-five million people worldwide have become infected. One time, unprotected sex can kill you. A condom can save you. It is inconceivable that every child in the world isn’t taught that. We should be in criminal court this very moment trying this obscenely duplicitous school for conspiracy to commit murder!

“But frankly, I have no stomach for that. I think of the horror that has been inflicted on this 15-year-old girl, and I’m just so profoundly sad. I can point out the evils of this corrupt system, I can tell you how effective condoms are, the lives they save, on and on and on and on, but words seem to be these hollow, useless things rattling around in this courtroom, because ultimately the lies this school told Abby Holt may... will probably kill her. They have certainly altered her life forever. And in the face of that, all I can think of is... Why?”

And, with that, he sits down.

So... who do you think won?

Planting an Idea

In the last example, Kelley did one more thing. He used the argument to create an idea in our heads that probably wasn’t there before: that 'abstinence only' is akin to murder. It doesn’t really matter who wins, now, because there’s an idea in our head now that wasn’t there before. And it’s an idea we probably won’t easily forget.

And that’s how writers try to change the world.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

This Is America, When Ordering Please Speak English

The Cheesesteak Sticker

It's been making the news rounds recently that Joey Vento who has a cheesesteak joint in Philadelphia put up a sign saying "This is America. When Ordering Please Speak English". Sure, you can look at the political issues of this, but we're here to look at words and what they mean about people.

The phrasing has been getting people's dander up, and the question is not only why but what's behind it.

The sticker has two parts, and the first one isn't really necessary. Mr. Vento could have easily phrased his sticker without it: "When Ordering Please Speak English".

Or he could have put a totally different first part to the sticker, like "Be Kind, When Ordering Please Speak English", or "Be Civil, When Ordering Please Speak English". He probably would have gotten better results, and certainly not have gotten on anyone's bad side.

Which means that the phrasing is not there to get people to speak English when ordering. The phrasing is not there to get people to comply with the idea it seems to suggest. Which means that the sticker was not put there to get people to cooperate. It was put there for a different reason.

"What Is It?"

In Storytellers we try to do what actors and directors and playwrights in the theater usually do. They look at human behavior that seems obvious and ask: "What is it? What is it really?"

A while ago, we talked about "what is it really" when people in an argument say things like: "I believe in the United States of America". We came to the conclusion that people who invoke this kind of argument care more about being right than anything else. You can't say that and be wrong. No one can tell you you're wrong when you say "I believe in the United States of America!" or "I support the troops!". And of course it has the added advantage of automatically putting the person you're speaking to on the wrong side of the argument.

But the sticker says something slightly different. "This is America. When Ordering Please Speak English". What is it? What is it really?

It seems, at least to me, that only a person who needs a lot of positive feedback from anyone, even strangers, a person who needs a lot of pats on the back, a person who needs to constantly be told how right and okay he is, would put up a sticker with that phrasing. If you don't see why, think about it about it backwards. Start off imagining a person who constantly needs positive feedback, who needs to be patted on the back by strangers. Then ask yourself, would that person not put out a sticker that says this? Would the sticker not then invoke exactly that kind of response?

The reason we do things? It's rarely the principle; it's almost always personal.

Patriotism

Speaking of patriotism, check out our old post about the patriotic and pro-military Donald P. Bellisario. We explored the idea that patriotism, as it is usually practiced now, has both limits and borders. Honor and truth have no limits and no borders.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Comedy-Off: Colbert

The Comedy-Off

After posting the last entry about humorous writing and timing, one Nir Yaniv asked me why I didn’t use excerpts from more popular sources, like Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. I said that I wanted to quote from things that the readers are less likely to have read, something that will feel new. But, I added, why don’t you do it on your blog? As the conversation continued, we decided to have a comedy-off. Here’s his first salvo.

So far there are only three rules:

1. Entries must be in English, so that both our readers can enjoy them.

2. There must be at least 4-5 excerpts. Anything less is cheating.

3. The loser’s name starts with ‘N’.

More rules may crop up as the game continues.

Timing

What Jerome K. Jerome did in the excerpts Nir brought is build a comic situation, which certainly requires great timing. The point in the last entry in Storytellers, though, was about a different sort of timing.


We’re going to get to it in a roundabout way.

Laughter, like humor, is a sure-fire way to weed the more intelligent from the less intelligent. This is how laughter does it: Laughter almost always starts off with a powerful ‘ha’, in which our diaphragm (read: stomach) hits the bottom of our lungs. Laughter clearly marks the milli-second you got the joke. There is never a doubt about who laughed first, who laughed second, and who laughed last if at all. Laughter shows us how fast someone understood something.

In the Jack Vance and Dorothy Parker excerpts I’ve quoted in the last post, everyone who does laugh (not everyone will laugh) laughs at the same time at the same word. To do that, the author needs to set up one set of expectations in a very clear way and then offset it in a surgically-precise manner to produce the same result in everyone’s brain with one word. Try reading those excerpts again, and see how you’re always surprised at the same spot and want to laugh at the same spot. Check out if you can see how we were set up one way then taken another.

In the Jerome K. Jerome excerpts, meanwhile, it’s the situation that’s comical. The comic situation builds and builds and becomes more and more absurd, and therefore more and more funny. People who listen to or read it will start laughing at different spots and their laughter will keep on rolling as the situation grows more comical.

“We’re at war, sir. How can you ask us to make sacrifices?”

Speaking of having one set of expectations, then being taken another way, there’s a subset of that category, in which the writer already knows what we think, so he doesn’t bother building up the premise, he just knocks it down. That is one neat trick, and one man and his writers do it time and time again on television.

Stephen Colbert

Colbert, in his program, The Colbert Report, makes it a point to again and again appear to say one thing but actually say another. He never tells you he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. He never tells you that what he’s saying is absurd. He is relying on the audience’s set of presumptions to already realize that he couldn’t possibly mean what he’s saying.

Here are a few examples:

“Folks, everywhere you look these days, there are signs our great American traditions are disappearing. Look at this,” he shows a newspaper headline, “ ‘The great American swing set is teetering’. The wear-a-helmet-first Gestapo would have you believing that playgrounds are dangerous. And they are. That’s exactly why we need them. To thin the herd.”

As before, explaining why something funny works really takes the punch of it. See if you can tell how he assumes you’re thinking one thing and preys upon it.

Here he continues his rant:

“Sadly enough, even the weather page is in a state of moral decay.” Colbert pulls out a colorful weather map from USA Today, filled with red zones, orange zones and red zones. “What’s wrong with red, white, and blue, USA Today? This rainbow weather map is just another example of the homo-meteorological agenda. Folks, I don’t care what their forecast is, I will not turn partly gay with a chance of a reach-around.”

Another time, he took on the policy of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, by suggesting the Pentagon adopt an even stricter policy: “ ‘Don’t know, don’t think’. Under the new policy, it will be against regulations for a soldier to know what homosexuality is. If a fellow soldier tells you he’s gay, it’s your duty to assume he’s filled with joy. If you see two naked guys oiled up and rolling around, just assume they’re wrestling. And if someone starts soaping you up in the shower, say thank you and salute. Because the only way we can have a cohesive fighting force is if there is never a question about a comrade’s sexual orientation. And we can no longer count on gay soldiers refusing to answer the question we’re too afraid to ask.”

Colbert on competition:

“Competition improves everything. After Home Depot opened down the block, service at my local hardware store got a lot better!” He pauses a second, then feels a need to add, “Until it closed.”

Colbert takes on education:

“Oprah Winfrey recently spent over 40 million dollars to start a school in South Africa. She said Third World kids were more desperate to learn than our kids. Yes, Oprah, that’s exactly why we have to hold the Third World kids back!”

Later on, he adds:

“And, hey, don’t the liberals always say, ‘who are we to judge these people’? Maybe dysentery and guinea worms are part of their culture? I don’t know.”

Here Colbert takes a stand on capital punishment:

“Most disappointingly, my own Catholic Church is against capital punishment. Well, that’s pretty hypocritical considering they wouldn’t even have a religion if it weren’t for capital punishment.”

The danger, of course, in phrasing things like this is that some people will take you at your word. President Bush's people, for example, who invited Colbert to the Press Corps Dinner. Then again, maybe they were fooled by the red, white, and blue colors that pervade the show.

In a recent ‘meet the author’ that can be found somewhere in podcast-land, Colbert says that some of the people he grew up with tell him, Now we agree with what you’re saying.

On the other hand, of course, if you add ‘... Not’ at the end of every sentence, you won’t be as funny.

Over to you, Nir.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Some Dry Humor

Timing

Sometimes dissecting things that are funny takes the fun out of them. I wanted to talk about timing and how timing is not just something musicians or dancers or actors have. Timing is something writers have as well.

Here are a few examples of some very dry humor. We’re not going to talk about them, because that will take the fun out of everything. But, if you can, after you read each excerpt, think about the author’s timing.

Jack Vance

Here’s what you need to know about Jack Vance for the purposes of this article: He used to write about the far, far future, in which mankind populated galaxies, and each planet was a social framework with its own characteristics and its own subcultures, each also with its own unique social framework.

The first excerpt is from the novella Freitzke’s Return, which I found reprinted in the book called Galactic Effectuator. ‘Effectuator’ is to the denizens of the galaxy what ‘private investigator’ is to us. Here, our hero is hired to investigate a case in which, a-hem, well, it’s like this: The bad guy is a jealous man who can’t accept the smallest failure. When the client ends up marrying the woman the bad guy was interested in, the bad guy kidnaps the client, knocks him out, and operates on him. The client slowly begins to suspect that his sperm-making ‘apparatus’ has been replaced by the bad guy’s sperm-making ‘apparatus’. Thus, if the wife gets pregnant, she gets pregnant by the bad guy. The client hires our hero to find the bad guy and have his original ‘equipment’ re-placed.

That is neither here nor there, because the quote from the novella is Vance’s explanation, in a footnote, how the Arsh race, which is now slightly different from the human race, came into existence:

The legendary starmenter Yane Cargus contracted with the all-male fugitives. He agreed to deliver one hundred young females for a fee of five hundred red sarcenels, the sarcenel being a jewellike object taken from a Flamboyard’s sensorium. Cargus raided the Convent of the Divine Prisom at Blenny, on Lutus, capturing two hundred and thirty novitiates. Upon delivering his cargo, he required a thousand sarcenels or nothing, emphasizing the volume discount. The fugitives in their turn pointed out that sarcenels were rare, that the Flamboyards ferociously resisted attack, that, for eighty-six men, two hundred and thirty females were redundant by more than a factor of two, and, more importantly, that the females were members of that ill-favored and swarthy race known as Gettucks: not at all what the fugitives had in mind. In the ensuing fight, Yane Cargus took thirty-four wounds from the sneezewood lances, but miraculously survived. The fugitives acquired two hundred and thirty females free of charge, and the Arsh race came into existence.

Notice that part of what makes it funny is the fact that Vance borrows a set of phrases from one world and uses it in the context of another that has nothing to do with the first (“emphasizing the volume discount”, for example, has nothing to do with slavery or rape).

He does it again in the following two examples, from Night Lamp. Here a schoolboy and a schoolgirl are talking.

It was Tatninka, rather than Skirlet, who bore the news to Jaro. “Did you hear what Hanafer called you?”

“No.”

“He said you were a moop!”

“Oh? What’s that? Nothing good, I suspect.”

Tatninka giggled. “I forgot; you’re really off in the clouds, aren’t you? Well, then!” She recited a definition she had heard Hanafer use only the week before: “If you come upon a very timid nimp who wets the bed and wouldn’t say ‘peep’ to a pussycat—you have found a moop.”

Jaro sighed. “Very well; now I know.”

“Hmf. You’re not even angry,” said Taninka in disgust.

Jaro reflected. “Hanafer can be carried off by a big bird, for all I care. Otherwise, there is no return message.”

Later, his mother sees Jaro moping and gets to the bottom of things.

“That is not acceptable conduct, and I shall have a word with his mother.”

“No!” cried Jaro in panic. “I don’t care what Hanafer thinks! If you complain to his mother, everyone will laugh at me!”

Althea knew that he was right. “Then you’ll just have to take Hanafer aside and explain in a nice way that you mean him no harm and that he has no reason to call you names.”

Jaro nodded. “I may do just that—after punching his head to attract attention.”

Of course, on different matters, the mother and the father, have their own disagreements.

From the first Hilyer had felt deeply suspicious of Maihac. When Althea scoffed, Hilyer claimed darkly that his instincts were never wrong. He felt that Maihac, if not a blackguard had much to hide, to which Althea said: “Oh piffle. Everyone has something to hide.”

Hilyer started to declare, “Not I!” in a decisive voice, then thought of one or two shrouded episodes in his past and merely gave a noncommittal grunt.

Dorothy Parker

In a collection of her book reviews which I found in The Penguin Dorothy Parker, she reviews a book by one Margot Asquith. It’s called Re-enter Margot Asquith – A Masterpiece from the French, dated October 22, 1927.

I think it must be pleasanter to be Margot Asquith than to be any other living human being; and this is no matter of snap judgment on my part, for I have given long and envious thought to the desirability of being Charles A. Levine. But the lady seems to have even more self-assurance than has the argumentative birdman. Her perfect confidence in herself is a thing to which monuments should be erected; hers is a poise that ought to be on display in the British Museum. The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.

In another review, The Professor Goes In for Sweetness and Light, dated November 5, 1927, she reviews a book by Professor Phelps in which he gives us his wisdom on the key to happiness. She is now in the middle of quoting from the beginning of the book regarding the definition of happiness.

We might just as well get on along to the next statement, which goes like this: “One of the best” (we are still on definitions of happiness) “was given in my Senior year at college by Professor Timothy Dwight: ‘The happiest person is the person who thinks the most interesting thoughts.’” Promptly one starts recalling such Happiness Boys as Nietzsche, Socrates, de Maupassant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake, and Poe. One wonders, with hungry curiosity, what were some of the other definitions that Professor Phelps chucked aside in order to give preference to this one.

The Point

The point? The point is that writers have timing. That includes authors of prose, whose work is not meant to be read aloud, not meant to be heard, and when read in one’s head is not read to a rhythm. There are still authors with perfect timing.

If you disagree, please read the excerpts again.

I reserve the right to bring more examples, and I hope you may feel like adding a few excerpts yourself in the comment, if you feel like sharing.



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For more posts on humor, check out the one analyzing David E. Kelley's humor as well as the one that takes on racism. Then we've got some nice funny excerpts from Rescue Me and from the Gilmore Girls.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

There's No Place Like Home

A small, small thought about the last line in the first part of Tin Man, where the land of Oz is now called 'The O.Z.' (pronounced 'Oh-zee').

The last line is delivered by the evil sorceress to this story's 'Dorothy' (called D.G.), after D.G. and her friends have been defeated: "Welcome back, little sister. There's no place like the O.Z."

Now, couldn't the last line have been: "Welcome to the O.Z., bitch. There's no place like home."

I mean, you get a two-for-one.

I'm just saying.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Problem with Pundits

Comedy, satire and punditry all require a common denominator that is usually overlooked: the willingness to look stupid.

Comedy

When Tim Allen was at the Actors’ Studio, he was asked by a student the basic secret to being funny. That, of course, is a loaded question that can take years to answer by experts. Allen said (and I’m paraphrasing): ‘You have to commit. You have to be willing to commit and go all the way. Even if your joke tanks, even if you don’t get a laugh, even if you look stupid, you have to go all the way with it.’

That’s great advice. And if you take the time to imagine the comedians you like best and the moments of comedy you like best, you’ll see that in almost all those moments the comedian went with his joke/bit all the way. You’ll see that the joke didn’t have to succeed and that if it didn’t, the comedian would probably have looked very stupid. In fact, most comedy that does succeed comes first of all at the expense of the comedian. Comedy, by its nature, punctures bloated egos. It punctures stupidity, it punctures the unwillingness to bend (in behavior or logic or opinion). And if you have a bloated ego or an inability to look stupid or an unwillingness to bend, you can’t make comedy.

In puncturing other people’s egos you have to first of all be able to puncture your own. If you want to get people to laugh at their own stupidity, you have to be able to laugh at your own first.

Which brings us to satire.

Satire

In a talk a show a couple of weeks ago there was an interview with a playwright who’s famous where I live (which means you’ve probably never heard of him). He has a new satire out and he came to talk about it.

When he was asked about his last satire and about the fact that what he had said there had turned out to be not true, rather than admit it, he began to shift around in his seat and talk his way out of it, explaining, in a very roundabout way, why he wasn’t wrong even though the facts no longer back him up.

Now, satire asks of the audience something that’s very hard to do. Satire asks us to change our minds, to admit we’re wrong, to open our minds to new thoughts and new ideas. If you can’t change your mind, admit you’re wrong, and open your mind to new thoughts and new, how can you have the gall to ask that of your audience? How good can your satire be if you have an inability to open your mind?

Which brings us to punditry.

Punditry

Punditry is like satire in this respect: the pundits are asking people to change their minds, to consider a new idea or a new concept or a new opinion.

Too many pundits in all forms of the media are unable to admit mistakes. Not only are they not asked about their previous erroneous statements by their interviewers, they do not usually admit to such things on their own. Not all pundits are like this – and the best certainly aren’t – but certainly too many. (One good example jumps immediately to mind: Jeff Greenfield is a very smart ‘analyst’ who has no problem saying he was wrong or that he’d changed his mind. That’s one of the reasons he’s become hot property.)

When it’s your job to be right, it’s hard to say “I was wrong”. When it’s your job to be right, it all becomes about your ego and you feel you must maintain your status and the opinion of others. But it isn’t your job to be right, it’s your job to be intelligent.

Changing your mind isn’t evidence of flip-flopping (an accusation politicians are victims of); changing your mind is, at times, an ability to adapt to new information and new circumstances, an ability we usually refer to as ‘intelligence’.

But let’s change “I was wrong” to “Oh, that’s right”. The two statements mean the same thing, after all. If it’s your job to get the audience to say “Oh, that’s right”, you should be able to go through that process yourself. Lead by example. It’s not about your opinion, it’s about having the ability to think. And “Oh, that’s right” symbolizes that pretty well.

So here’s a proposition to pundits out there: Start saying, “Oh, that’s right.” People’s opinions of you will go up.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The World Must Be Peopled

Women

So: Women. What’s that all about?

In the movie Switch, written and directed by Edward Blake, Ellen Barkin plays a sexist, chauvinist man who treats women as if they came in a PEZ dispenser. Three of his ex-girlfriends band together and kill him. Rather than send him immediately to Hell, God gives our hero a second chance: I’ll send you back, God says, and if you find one woman who loves you, you’ll get to Heaven. But the twist is that God sends him back as a woman, a really hot woman.

Edward Blake was a great writer and Switch is great both as a movie and as a comedy (and Ellen Barkin is great as a man in a woman’s body ,but we’re not here to talk about acting). Obviously, Blake tried to get men to understand what it’s like to be a woman, even for a day. Blake fails in two places and succeeds in a third in a really big way.

Here’s where he doesn’t succeed:

One: Men treat our hero like a piece of meat and constantly try to get him into bed, no matter the context of the situation or conversation. We see the situations are true and we know that men really behave like this and we hear Barkin complain about it with the same words women really use, but the men’s behavior only comes off as annoying. Men in the audience who would love to be hounded endlessly by women wouldn’t, on the basis of the movie, feel like complaining if they were a woman hounded endlessly by men. After all, it’s their fantasy to be attractive.

Two: Our hero’s best friend in life (before he died) is played by Jimmy Smits, who later learns the truth about his old friend’s new body, but because he’s now a hot babe, tries to sleep with him anyway. One day, the two of them get drunk and then fall asleep together in a bed. Smits, apparently, took advantage of Barkin while Barkin was asleep. Barkin says Smits raped him. Smits says Barkin cooperated. This part doesn’t work, either. Although Barkin’s words are all true, and though her character’s point of view is clear, we don’t feel bad for Barkin for what happened. The feeling of violation isn’t there. So if you didn’t care before you watched the movie, you wouldn’t care while watching it. That’s the writer’s fault.

Here’s where Blake succeeds in a big way. It turns out that from that one night with Smits, Barkin gets pregnant. He decides to keep the baby, and eventually he gives birth. And the second Barkin gives birth, something happens in the mind of the men watching the movie: a switch of the imagination, a real one. Men may entertain what it’s like to be raped or to be leered at or to be constantly hit on or to walk in heels, etc., but they never entertain what it would really be like to give birth. That’s a woman’s job. That is therefore the one big moment in the movie where the men actually entertain the thought of what it must be like to be a woman. By this I mean that it is the one instant in the movie in which the men watching actually imagine what it would be like to be different or other. That kind of imagination is not required for any other part of the movie.

Every time I watch Switch, the same realization hits me at exactly that time: Deep, deep down in their subconscious, most men – and it doesn’t matter if they’re liberal or conservative – still see women not only as sexual objects but also as baby-making machines; that deep, deep down we perceive this as women’s most important role. This societal imperative that has been ingrained into our society for thousands of years has not vanished, has not even been addressed since the pill was introduced and women started actively and effectively choosing not to get pregnant.

Abortion and God

It seems to me that the anti-abortionists (a position which, in the U.S., is called ‘pro-life’), has less to do with a baby’s right to life or even religion and more to do with the societal imperative that is revealed in Switch.

Here’s why it isn’t only about life for most anti-abortionists: People who would be actively against abortion because they care so much for life and for the sacredness of it would be out there helping the poor and the hungry in all countries, they would be against the death penalty, and they would be just as active against the many genocides and slaughters currently taking place all over the world. This is usually pointed out by liberals when they try to claim that conservative anti-abortionists are hypocritical, but calling the other side names takes nothing from the other side’s claim. The point is that because of this inconsistency, it can’t possibly be only about this. It must be about something else.

Here’s why it isn’t about what God says: There’s true belief in God and there’s belief in God. Here’s an example of the former: If God tells you to take your first-born child and kill him (as the Bible tells of Abraham), you take your first-born child and you kill him. That is true belief in God. Most people are not willing to go that far. Most people at the end of the day believe in things that are comfortable for them to believe in. Most people choose their god in little ways, what their god would accept and what He wouldn’t. Most people find the god that most agrees with what they want to believe God is. That is especially true when it comes to the big things. You may keep the Sabbath holy even if it’s uncomfortable for you, because it’s not that big a bother, but at the same time you will probably choose not to kill your first-born child even if your minister/priest/rabbi/etc. told you to.

Now, the Bible talks about many, many things which today people would not fight for (slavery, for example). People choose which parts of what God said in the Bible to care about and which not to. Not everything that’s in the Bible is reason to go out to the streets and picket. It is the person, not God, who picks and chooses.

At the end of the day, people need to care about something they become active about before they find that God agrees with them (and the more active they are, the more they need to care). But if God agrees with them, they feel morally justified and their fervor grows.

Objectifying Women

Why is it, then, that it is so easy to get people out to the streets to fight against abortion? Because we have an ingrained social imperative that is thousands of years old: Women are here to make babies. You thought women were being objectified as sex symbols? That’s nothing. Women should be mothers. Women should make babies. That’s why they’re here.

The thing is that although the abortion debate is not really about being ‘pro-life’, it also isn’t about being ‘pro-choice’. According to this instinctive belief ingrained into men, women shouldn’t get a choice. Some things are too important, too sacred. And it is men who write the abortion laws and men who decided Roe v. Wade, and it is men who will vote on the next piece of legislation that has to do with a woman’s right to choose anything.

Women are here to make babies. It is more important than their right to express themselves. It is more important than their right to vote. It is more important than any other right or freedom that they may get or deserve. Not only that, but their making babies is more important than whatever it is they want out of their own lives. It is the reason they’re here. The world, after all, must be peopled.

That is how most men, even liberals, perceive women deep down. And, truth to tell, that is how many women perceive themselves, too, deep down. And if on top of this your god happens to say that fetuses mustn’t be killed because they have souls, why that’s great, let’s use that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I'm Back

Well, I'm back, as you can see from the earlier post. I'm back, but there will be a few changes.

This will no longer be a weekly column. It will all depend on how much time I have and on whatever idea may strike that's worthy of a column.

Storytellers will still be a column, but will also become more of a blog, in which I'll post news and other things I think might be interesting.

Speaking of which, here's an update on the movie Cold, Cold Heart, which was the reason I stopped posting here a few months ago. In the meantime, we finished shooting and finished the rough cut. The rest of the post production process, however, will take a few more months than originally planned, but everything's proceeding apace. Such is the life of the independent filmmaker. I hope to have a website about Cold, Cold Heart in the upcoming weeks. I'll link to it over here when it's up.

By the way, I mentioned Erica Jong in the earlier post. She is one of our truth-tellers, and for you newcomers out there, a few months ago we had an entire column about truth-telling.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Meaning of Words

Back to the Beginning

Here’s a nifty fact which I found reading historian Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World (a mind-blowing read, by the way). It’s right in the introduction:

“In terms of our DNA we are, without a shadow of a doubt, one species, whose origins can be traced back to Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, and who began to spread into new continents only as recently as 60,000 years ago – in evolutionary terms, the proverbial blink of an eye.”

This is, of course, not new, but from a writer’s point of view, these numbers are fascinating.

We Are Not Genetically Built For Language

Think about it like this: The first human did not speak any language. S/he had the same genetic ability for language that we do today, but obviously s/he only learned to communicate the way the tribe s/he was born into communicated. And the way tribes communicated back then must have been no different from the way monkeys communicate today: grunting, pointing, screaming, and so on.

Obviously, the first human did not immediately invent a language. It is unreasonable to assume that the first human suddenly came up with something like English or ancient Aramaic, for example. Even if s/he had, s/he would have no one to talk to. And, of course, no one can invent a language out of thin air without first knowing a language.

It is more reasonable to assume that the first human communicated with the tribe in the way the tribe communicated before the human had been born, and that the new human did nothing more complicated than that. Then the first human bred, and the offsprings bred, and so on. And eventually, after a few generations, maybe one word formed that the humans – and even the ones with the more monkey-like brain – could learn to understand and use to communicate better. (Monkeys, research has shown, can learn a few hundred words.)

Over the generations, a few more words must have formed. A few generations later and maybe there were a few dozen words. Take a few more generations, maybe even hundreds or thousands of years, to form something remotely akin to syntax. And take a few thousand more years to form a basis for a language that had some kind of logic or reason behind it, as all human languages today do.

According to the numbers above, mankind had anything from 40,000 to 140,000 years to form out of nothing a basis, a common denominator, for what would later become all human languages.

We are so used to seeing babies and children learn the language, and babies and children are so good at it and the human brain is so clearly geared to absorb language in a faster and more thorough way than adults can, that it seems the most natural thing for the human brain to do. And yet if we think about it, it becomes clear that the DNA that gave this ability to kids, was not created when language, even rudimentary language, existed.

We ourselves need language so much, are reliant on it for everything, and our brains are clearly quite equipped and adept at using and learning a language, that it is almost impossible to conceive that we are not genetically built for language.

The mechanism through which babies and kids learn language, the mechanism we use to communicate, must necessarily have served a completely different purpose than the one we are using it for now. When mankind formed – with the same DNA as we have today – it must have taken thousands of years for a rudimentary semblance of a language to form.

We are not genetically built for language. And yet we are.

Symbolic Logic

It’s all about symbolic logic. That’s an ability to put something into a concept, which can be a word or a number or even a picture in our imagination. Once we can think about things without seeing them, we can put two of them together, imagine consequences of things we have not seen by creating a third avatar/picture/concept/word/number in our heads, and so on.

We can plan ahead, we can think about things that haven’t happened or did happen but are not happening now. We can think about people or animals that are not in front of us. We can see our own death. We can imagine entire scenarios in our heads, an ability that also allows us to imagine and understand and invent stories.

The more concepts for which we develop names or shapes for in our heads, the better we are at thinking ahead, relying on previous knowledge. Today it’s given us languages, mathematics, stories, and more. But the mechanism for all this is the same: the ability to separate one thing from all we see or imagine or feel and see it as one thing.

That one ability separates our intelligence from the monkeys to such an extent that it let us take over the world and even get to the moon and send probes to the far reaches of the solar system.

Back to Words

So what does that mean about words?

Words are either concepts or connections between concepts. I’ve put in bold the words in the last sentence that are concepts: Words are either concepts or connections between concepts. Here is the same sentence with the connections between concepts in bold: Words are either concepts or connections between concepts.

But words resonate. Poetry resonates. Stories resonate. Certain sentences by certain authors can lay you down and pierce you right through the heart.

The Meaning of Words

Erica Jong, in her book Seducing the Demon (also mind-blowing), writes about a choice she made before giving a speech:

“There was only one way to tell the truth. And that was to tell the kids and their parents and professors why I was there. I was there because I was a writer and a writer is someone who takes the universal whore of a language and turns her into a virgin again. I wasn’t going to coast on clich├ęs. I was going to talk about the power of words—something I had been thinking a great deal about since the so-called war on terror dragged on and on, kidnapping the language and proliferating terrorists.”

When Jong writes about “the universal whore of a language”, she means two things: One, that language has been recently overtaken by Orwellian Newspeak and forced to tell lies and hide the truth; and two, that even without that, it is the writer’s job to create something new and true every time she puts old words on a page.

But as great as that line is, language is never a whore.

A writer uses two kinds of words: the words that are concepts and the words that connect concepts. The words that connect concepts are perceived in the same way in everyone’s minds (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘is’, ‘that’, ‘the’, etc.). But the words that are concepts are perceived differently in each and every person that hears them. ‘Chair’ isn’t the same for me as it is for you. Neither is ‘leader’ or ‘strong’. You know what I mean when I say these words, but the words resonate differently in every one of us.

Even our own understanding of words isn’t that clear. Do we know what we fully mean when we say ‘chair’? Can we define it properly? ‘Chair’, after all, covers all chairs possible, and that’s a hard concept to define. And yet when we see a new chair, we immediately know that it is a chair even though we’ve never seen another one exactly like it before. The word ‘chair’ also includes many memories of chairs, as well as, perhaps, certain experiences with chairs. The word ‘chair’ must necessarily carry with it the process by which we, as babies or kids, learned to tell chairs apart from things that looked like chairs but weren’t. The process of learning the word ‘chair’ is also included in our experience of it when we hear the word. The process of having been taught the word ‘chair’ (different from learning the word) must also be hidden there somewhere. The possibilities of what other chairs could be as well as the possibilities that were close but did not make it into the definition (back when we were kids) must also be subconsciously included in our experience of the word. I could go on and on and yet not cover everything.

That means that when we say the old word ‘chair’, things resonate in every one of us slightly differently. Different pictures, memories, associations are summoned within each of us, and usually we are not aware of this process. Even when we are aware of it, like now, we can’t be aware of everything that single word means to us.

Every word that is a concept is not a fully-formed concept. It carries with it memories, depths, associations to other concepts, possibilities, and who knows what else. Words that are concepts are like pillars on which you stand but that reach endlessly down, so that their bottom cannot be seen. A good writer uses that fact when putting together a sentence. A good writer would know that every one of us understands concepts differently. A good writer would subconsciously know that careful use of words-that-are-concepts resonates deep into unseen places.

In Conclusion

Language isn’t a whore. Language is made of bottomless pillars that go deep into the murky depths of our selves and reach into places we don’t fully know or understand. The words in language that are concepts rather than connections have, as far as we are concerned, endless depth, and if used properly, they will resonate in ways that reach into those depths.

____
Corrections: A certain evolutionary biologist corrected me on the following things (I'm paraphrasing).
1. "Every time you said 'monkey', you meant 'ape'."
2. "It is most likely that the brain evolved together with the language and symbolic thinking. Language advanced a bit, the cortex got more complex, language advanced a bit more, the cortex got more complex, etc."



Thursday, August 2, 2007

It's Time to Say Adieu

Hi, everyone. As you may have noticed, I’ve disappeared for the last couple of weeks and I am going to disappear for a much longer time. I’ve just finished shooting a 50-minute drama, which I wrote, directed, produced, and shot. The drama’s in editing and I’m starting to shoot a movie which I’m writing, directing, producing, and shooting. I thought I could do that, and, at the same time, keep writing the Storytellers articles. And I can’t. The water’s over my head. So it’s time to go.

These are the things we would have talked about during the next few weeks and won’t: We won’t talk about David Lynch and where emotions that have nothing to do with reality come from; we won’t talk about the Coen brothers and the way they describe human processes from the outside and never look from the inside to see what it feels like; we won’t talk about whether it’s good that Spielberg’s best movies are for kids or whether making scenes with The Hero and The Kids and The Dame rather than people with names comes from a dehumanized place; we won’t talk about Battlestar Galactica and the way everything in it fits the article I already wrote about Weeds; and we won’t talk about how David Mamet uses truth to hide the truth, even in the ending of his movies and plays.

Thank you, everyone. I hope you liked your stay. I hope you’ll like my movie. In the meantime, here’s a story I’m really proud of. Enjoy.

Guy

Oh, by the way, the movie’s name (for now) is Cold, Cold Heart. It’s science fiction. My executive producer says there’s going to be an IMDB entry in a few weeks. So if it pops up there, I’ll post a link to it as my last post (for you RSS-ers out there) so people can follow our progress.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Religion and the Origin of Science Fiction

Where does science fiction come from? Since it is a form of art, and since it does touch many people, then it must necessarily touch something that was created long ago, when mankind came to be.

The origin of science fiction must necessarily start at the origin of mankind and not at the origin of modern technology (like electricity) or even ancient technology (like agriculture).

So where was science fiction when we came down from the trees?

Religion as Science

Some evolutionists have argued that religion is science without the scientific method. Religion, faith, beliefs, and superstition are all based on explanations of the world we live in. If you’re a caveman whose father is deathly sick, and after you happen to hit the wall three times or close your eyes and pray or tear your hair out, he gets better, you might assume that the events are connected. You would not test this theory as you would a scientific theory because you would not risk your father’s life.

If two months later your mother gets sick, you perform the same ritual, and it works, then your theory was right. If she dies, then perhaps you knocked on the wrong place on the wall or maybe you didn’t pray hard enough or maybe you didn’t tear out enough of your hair. You will find a malleable explanation that fits both instances rather than discard the original proposition as false.

If you’re a caveman who steals from his friend then almost gets hit by lightning, you might decide that the two events are connected. You would not test that theory, scientifically, to see if it would happen again or if the events were unrelated, because you would be afraid to be hit by lightning.

In trying to explain why there is rain or thunder, why there is a famine, a draught, a hurricane, a tsunami, or why people get sick or die, theories explaining these events are formed in our heads. When enough theories are formed, a belief system is created, what physicists call a ‘Theory of Everything’. Sooner or later a person believing strongly enough in this theory and persuasive enough to draw other people in creates followers and believers in this theory of how the universe works. From there on, rules are created that apply to the believers, and the road from there to organized religion is clear.

As a side note, this means that any life-form on earth or in space whose intelligence would be advanced enough to create science and overcome nature would also develop religion. In fact, it would develop religion first.

The Emotions of Religion

But religion also carries with it a few extras that science does not. It carries with it a few emotions that are easily classifiable.

It allays fears – Religion allays fear of death, as much as possible, by telling us that death isn’t the end and that there is something good afterwards. It also allays fears during hard time, telling us that things will be better or that god has a plan, etc.

A feeling of unity – Many religions provide its community a feeling of togetherness that can’t usually be found in other communities. Everyone knows everyone else is likeminded. Everyone gathers in the same place at certain times to celebrate the same things. A feeling of unity is a powerful thing, and both democracy and science stay away from them.

A feeling of the divine – When you believe in certain gods, you feel like you can touch something that is beyond you and above you. For a few short instances, you feel what true grandness must feel like. It’s a feeling of majesty, of a grand plan, and of your place in the universe.

Science Fiction and Divinity

A large part of science fiction and its allure is the feeling it gives, that grander things are possible, that majesty bigger than what we know exists. Technology we haven’t dreamt of, races the likes of which we’ve never seen, mysteries we haven’t conceived of, societies more advanced than our own that are now dead - all these things hint at things that are bigger than us, at a majesty to a universe of which we are but a cog. Many stories are based on a grand plan to the universe. It could be that laws of physics are introduced or supposed that make us see a more logical Theory of Everything. An alien race or advanced technology may give us a hint of things grander than ourselves.

A good chunk of science fiction tunes into that basic human feeling that existed when we came down from the trees, the feeling of majesty, of awe, of things greater than what we know, of a big plan that might exist - things that are found through science... and religion.

Science fiction comes from religion. And religion comes from science.