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.


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.


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 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


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."